Sand dunes are often found on the beach and in the desert, and are generally formed over time by wind or water driven sand. Here in California, we have them along the coast, sometimes small scale versions in our wetlands. But sometimes massive dune complexes stretch for miles, like those along the central coast. We also have some of the largest sand dunes in the country right here in our deserts. Whether you’re looking to get out and explore on foot, or fire up your sand buggy for some off-roading, here are some of the best California Sand Dunes.
Known as the hottest, driest, and lowest National Park, Death Valley is home to record breaking temperatures, diverse ecosystems, geologic formations, salt flats, and sand dunes. Death Valley sand dune areas are protected wilderness and off-roading is not allowed. It is strictly designated for nature study and recreation. Here are the sand dunes in Death Valley.
- Eureka Sand Dunes: Access via South Eureka Road is a narrow route with no water or services. Eureka Dunes are the tallest dunes in California. Foot traffic only! No sand sledding or boarding, no off-roading. Listen for the singing sand!
- Ibex Dunes: Near Saratoga Springs, Access via a one mile hike from Saratoga Springs Road. Foot traffic only. No vehicles or sand boarding.
- Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: Near Stovepipe Wells. Access from Hwy 190 or and Dunes Road. This is the only area in Death Valley where Sand Boarding is allowed. You can spot three types of dunes here: crescent, linear, and star-shaped.
- Panamint Dunes: Access is from an unmarked dirt road near Lake Hill, then a 3-mile hike in. Star-shaped sand dunes on a slope near Panamint Valley. Foot traffic only. No vehicles or sand boarding.
- Saline Valley Dunes: These are remote dunes that require a rough drive to access near the Inyo Mountains. No vehicles are allowed on the dunes. Open to foot traffic and sand boarding, if you’re willing to brave the trip to get there.
Imperial Sand Dunes is the largest off-highway vehicle recreational area for sand dunes in the US. Commonly known as Glamis, there is sand as far as the eye can see, and it’s all open to OHVs. If you’re looking for a quiet getaway in nature, these are not the sand dunes for you. This is all bikes and buggies where riders race at the Sand Drags, hangout at Oldsmobile Hill, eat at the Dunes Diner, climb the legendary “China Wall” and watch the sunset at “The Ledge.” For a more peaceful experience nearby, you can visit the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness Area. Here you can see some of the tallest dunes via foot or horseback only.
San Bernardino, CA, 3 Miles North of Ludlow
Another spot where you can hear singing sand, Kelso Dunes in Mojave National Preserve is one of the most popular destinations in the park. Getting there requires a strenuous 3-mile hike, but you are rewarded with majestic sand dunes and stunning vistas from the summits. Kelso is one of only 7 known dune fields in North America to produce what is called “booming”, a phenomenon that occurs when large amounts of sand are pushed off the crest of the dune, much like a small avalanche. Vehicles are not allowed on the dunes. Foot traffic only.
Pismo Beach/Oceano Dunes
100 Pier Ave, Oceano, CA
This area goes by multiple variations of Pismo or Oceano Dunes. Whatever you call it, it’s one of the most popular central coast destinations for camping and off-roading. These dunes are part of the larger Guadalupe Nipomo Dunes Complex, an 18 mile long strand of coastal dunes stretching from northern Santa Barbara County to southern San Luis Obispo County. Much of the Guadalupe Nipomo Dunes Complex is restricted to foot traffic only and protects many wildlife species. If you are looking for the Off Highway Vehicle access, you’ll want to visit Oceano Dunes State VRA.
- Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area:
North Entrance: End of Grand Avenue in Grover Beach
South Entrance: End of Pier Ave in Oceano
Other Sand Dunes
Fort Ord Dunes State Park Beach: Lightfighter Drive and Hwy 1, entrance at 8th Street. Marina, CA 93933. Once part of a military training facility, this new State Park offers over 900 acres of coastal sand dunes and beachfront.
Lassen Volcanic National Park: Painted Dunes – Instead of sand, these are colorful fields of pumice formed by the oxidation of volcanic ash from past eruptions. See these when you do this 4.7 mile hike to Conder Cone.
Marina Dunes State Beach: Reservation Road at Hwy 1. Marina, CA 93933. Tall sand dunes offering panoramic views of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Beach access area known for hang gliding, kites, and rc gliders. Water is dangerous here and surfing/swimming not recommended.
Point Sierra Nevada Dunes Beach: Cabrillo Highway, San Simeon, CA – Pristine beach with small sand dunes and coastal bluffs with tide pools and limited beach access. Pull out parking on Hwy 1.
Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Park: 6999 W Main St, Guadalupe, CA – Several miles of pristine coastal sand dunes, preserved to protect habitats and wildlife. Open to foot traffic only, with other recreational activities including beach access, fishing, and hiking.
Samoa Dunes Recreation Area: Samoa, CA. Coastal sand dunes with off-highway vehicle access area, plus other recreational activities including hiking, surfing, fishing, and sightseeing.
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Heidi Deal is the author of the Newcomers Handbook to Living In Los Angeles & Orange County, and a children’s book author specializing in history and human rights.