Spotlight: Southern California's Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area
Windswept dunes offering solitude and thrills
Head due north from the Mexican border, west from Phoenix and east from Los Angeles, and you’ll find the impressive Imperial Sand Dunes—the largest mass of sand dunes in California. These dunes extend more than 40 miles in a band that averages five miles in width at any given location. For those living in metropolitan areas like LA or Phoenix, in about four hours you can be experiencing the vast solitude or off-highway vehicle thrills that these dunes have to offer. Locals and out-of-towners can find detailed directions here.
What You’ll Find
Think of solitude and peace when you think sand dunes? Known as a haven for off-highway vehicle (OHV) enthusiasts, the dunes also offer dramatic scenery, rare plants and animals, and a wilderness area – North Algodones Dunes Wilderness, encompassing more than 25,000 acres. The Wilderness area is open only to foot and horse traffic – vehicles and mechanized transportation are prohibited.
Divided into three sections with the middle as Wilderness, those recreationists wanting to experience the dunes on four-wheels will find the northernmost and southernmost dunes are the place to be! With the smaller northern section of the dunes offering a more isolated experience and southern section more heavily used with several campgrounds on offer – OHV fans are sure to find trails and dunes appealing to all ability levels surrounded by remarkable beauty.
Make Sure You
Explore the rich geology of the area. Millions of years ago, tremendous earth upheavals elevated the area above the ocean and the constant action of erosional forces over the eons have all had a part in sculpting this vast region. Where Lake Cahuilla was once thought to have been, the dunes are now what may remain of its sandy beaches. Now blown by prevailing westerly and northwesterly winds to their present location, this process of erosion continues today, causing the dunes to migrate at a rate of approximately one foot per year.
Visit the Plank Road – where the dunes won! Part of the varied history of Imperial Sand Dunes includes the construction of the Plank Road, built in 1915 as an attempt to cross the imposing dunes which provided a formidable natural barrier for those migrating west. Today, only fragments of the Plank Road still exist and are deemed a California Historic Landmark and included in the National Register of Historic Places. Remnants of the Plank Road are protected and the fenced section may be viewed up close at the west end of Well Road by exiting Interstate 8 at the Grays Well road exit.
These lands were once within or near the traditional lands of the Cahuilla, Chemehuevi, Cocopah, Kamia, Kumeyaay, Mohave and Quechan peoples. The sand dunes are part of the sacred world for these contemporary tribes and contain burial and cremation areas and trail crossings. Be aware that these dunes are culturally significant and respect closed and sensitive areas.
Your Fees at Work
The Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area does charge a permit fee. Purchase permits prior to arriving at the dunes or once you arrive. By purchasing your permits prior to arrival, you’ll save a few extra dollars. Learn more about permits for a week or an entire season.
Your fees help provide services like emergency medical and rescue services, restrooms and trash collection, road maintenance and education for the over one million visitors to the dunes each year.
Start your engines! But remember, safety first. All-terrain vehicle certification is available at both the north and south dunes. Check the website for a schedule of classes.