The Long Road to the Eureka Dunes
Have you ever wondered where to find the tallest pile of sand in North America? Well we did. Like, all the time. We are pretty much sand dune addicts. To be perfectly honest, our interest in them is usually selfish. As paraglider pilots, sand makes a super fun and forgiving medium to play with the wind close to the ground, with low consequences. Sand dunes are soft, and usually moved around by wind, so anywhere you find a big dune, you can bet will make a fun place to fly. We have journeyed down all sorts of ridiculously remote roads in search of beautiful sand dunes, so much so that we have an ever-growing list of dunes and their respective wind directions to return to when the weather forecast looks juuuuust right.
Now our obsession with sand dunes isn't just limited to paragliding. They also make for fascinating spots to explore on foot, and really amazing van camping areas. The unique ecosystems can often be home to species that only survive in a tiny range, and the stark contrast of white or tan can make spectacular photographs, especially early and late in the day when the shadows grow long. As paragliding isn't generally allowed in National Parks, there are certain dunes on our to-visit list just for the beauty and experience of wandering around these unusual formations.
This fall our adventures took us to the Eastern Sierras. As we cruised up the Owen's Valley, camping, hot springing, and exploring along the way, we had a realization: it was the perfect time to visit to the Eureka Dunes. We had heard about this remote corner of Death Valley for years, and had dreamed of making the journey someday. Due to the geography and geology of Death Valley, there are unique sets of sand dunes scattered all over the massive expanse of the National Park. But the Eureka Dunes are the mac daddy of them all. Rising close to 700 feet from the valley floor--what this dune field lacks in area, it makes up for in height.
Now, before we get any further telling you about how epic, amazing, deserted, beautiful, and remote the Eureka dunes are, we should mention the road. If you're coming from anywhere else in Death Valley National Park, you'll have over 40 miles of washboard dirt roads to traverse to get there. If you're coming from Big Pine, CA there are 28 miles of paved road and (only!) 21 miles of dirt road to travel. I'm just going to say right now, if you're driving any sort of van, camper or RV, we would highly recommend coming from Big Pine, and heading out the way you came. We drove both sections, and would probably never opt for the 44 miles of teeth chattering fun from the Ubehebe Crater Road again. When we drove it, the road was totally dry and passable, just jarring straight to the core. We have driven on a lot of dirt roads in our time, and this one takes the cake. But don't let us talk you out of a unique experience. By all means, if you've got a vehicle with great suspension or you're just a fan of your entire body and all the contents of your vehicle madly vibrating for 3 hours straight and not listening to music while you drive because the sound of your entire kitchen chattering is so loud it drowns out the radio, then go for it. Regardless of where you are venturing in Death Valley, you should always check with the Park Service for current road conditions before you set out; one big rain storm can change everything.
But let's get back to the dunes... If you can tolerate the road in, you will be rewarded with one of the most rugged (and free!) National Park 'campgrounds' we've ever encountered. There was zero running water in sight. There were picnic tables and fire rings (which only help if you brought something flammable--all you'll find around here is sand). There was also a single outhouse near the entrance to the row of campsites. It looked like it might topple over in the wind at any moment and was about half full of sand, but it did the trick for taking care of business. And speaking of wind--oh the wind! We spent the first 7 hours of our visit to the Eureka Dunes trapped inside the van with the windows and doors locked up tight to try to avoid being sandblasted by one of the most impressive windstorms either one of us has ever experienced. It was a nice warm fall day too--lovely! Despite cooking ourselves inside our own personal Sprinter Van oven, we felt lucky compared to the only other group there-a few tent campers that were staked out a couple hundred yards from us. They must have had sand in every nook, cranny and crack of everything they owned by the end of the day. Even with our best efforts to batten down the hatches, we ended up with quite the coating of fine dust over the entire interior surface of the van as well. But we had plenty of food and water and we managed to entertain ourselves until the storm backed off with some good books, cards, and crossword puzzles that we had luckily stashed in the van in case of emergency.
Finally, as the sun grew long and night was closing in, the wind backed off enough for us to venture into the dunes. We worked our way up, marveling at the softness of the sand, the fascinating patterns created by wind vortices, plants, and animals, and felt our legs burn as we neared the top. By the time we arrived at the apex of the highest dune, the sun had nearly set and our van home was just a tiny dot in the bottom of the valley. We looked out over the Last Chance Mountains, breathed the dry air deeply, and took a flying leap back down the hill. What had taken us nearly an hour to ascend turned into a quick, squishy barefoot 10 minute run back to the campsite. One tip: if you've got ski googles (or anything else that seals against your face, bring them! The sand grains are very light around here, and even after the wind died down in the evening, we were super glad to have something to protect our eyes. A bandana for your face and a light layer to keep the sun and sand off of your arms could be really nice too--even if it's super hot out. Plus you always want to look as fashionable as possible when you're the only people around.
As we arrived back at our dreamy van home, the night was perfectly still. Two more groups of campers had arrived in the afternoon, but the sites were spread so far apart that we barely noticed. It was as if we had the whole stark valley to ourselves, our own private sand dune castle in the sky.
Keep in mind that there is no cell service, no running water (ie no drinking water), no gas stations, and pretty much zero amenities and very few other visitors in this area of Death Valley. You have to come prepared, but you will be rewarded with a totally surreal landscape if you make the effort!