Imperial Sand Dunes National Recreation Area
I suspect that most people who hear about the Sonoran Desert, but who’ve never visited, assume that it resembles the Sahara and imagine that it is covered with sand dunes. I know that I did, years ago, before I visited here for the first time. That image is largely incorrect. The Sonoran Desert has diverse habitats and ecosystems: it has mountains, flat plains, canyons, grasslands, even a few areas where water flows, at least seasonally. But, dunes are just not a feature of the place. Our soil is too stony and clay-impregnated and, in many places, too moist, for there to be dunes.
However, there is at least one place in the Sonoran Desert where dunes — gigantic dunes, in fact — exist. That’s at the extreme western limits of the Sonoran Desert, in eastern California, about an hour’s drive west of Yuma, Arizona. There, one can find the Imperial Sand Dunes, a stretch of dunes that lie in a large flat basin among mountain ranges. Last Friday, Louisa and I drove there to take a look.
The basin that contains the dunes has been at least partly filled with water at times. The nearby Colorado River follows a meandering course and at times in the basin’s history it has drained into the area, forming a large lake (Lake Cahulla). That lake periodically dries up as the river alters its course. Apparently, the lake last existed during the 15th Century and the basin has been dry since then. Geologists think that the dunes are formed from sediments in the bed of the ancient lake. They are shaped and pushed by the wind and they move inexorably eastward at a more or less steady rate of about a foot per year. The dunes cover an area that is about 40 miles long by five or six miles wide.
Most of the dunes are inaccessible by road. There is one area, in the southern portion, that is easily accessible. The road that we took led us to the southern part of the dunes at the hamlet of Glamis, California. The dunes there are massive and spectacular. Some of these dunes attain heights of well over 100 feet. They have been sculpted into fantastic shapes by the wind and their appearance changes constantly with the seasons.
I’ve rendered these images in black and white because they create a stronger and, frankly, somewhat more impressive rendering of the dunes than do the color originals. In fact, the black and white images are closer to my memory of the place than are the color versions.
We encountered one disappointment. The Bureau of Land Management, which manages the dunes, has turned over the highway-accessible portion to the use of off-road recreational vehicles. We saw hundreds of them, including motorcycles and dune buggies and, unfortunately, the surfaces of most of the easily accessible dunes are scarred by the tracks of these vehicles. In my opinion, that’s relatively minor drawback. The dunes are worth visiting despite the annoying presence of the off-roaders.
If you want to see the dunes in their pristine setting you must travel considerably to the north from where we were. The northern dunes are not open to motor vehicles but may be hiked or entered on horseback.
Images made with a Canon 5DS-R, 70-200 mm f4 L IS lens with polarizing filter, aperture priority setting, ISO 160, hand held. The first image shot at 70 mm, f8 @ 1/250. The second image shot at 106 mm, f8 @ 1/320.