Kelso Dunes

Mojave National Preserve, California

Kelso Dunes

Kelso Dunes Professional Guide

Detailed Trail Description from our Guidebook

"This unique half-day desert hike leads to the second tallest, but most extensive field of sand dunes in the California desert. To many persons, sand dunes represent the essential desert landscape, but dune systems are few and widely scattered in California’s deserts.

Most of these are administered by the National Park Service in Death Valley National Park and Mojave National Preserve. Surprisingly, the vast, sandy expanse of the Kelso Dunes hosts vegetation, including many species growing solely in sandy environments. Colorful spring wildflowers and far-ranging vistas are major attractions of a hike in the Kelso Dunes, but the dunes’ most interesting attribute is the booming or rumbling sound the sand makes as hikers create miniature sand avalanches while walking along the narrow crest of the dunes."

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Kelso Dunes Trail Trip Reports

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Fort Irwin, CA
Explorer | 30 pts
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Absolutely beautiful place. It had rained in the morning before we got there, so the sand was more compacted and easier to walk on. Views are magnificent. Great day hike. Didn't get to hear the 'booming' of the sand, but maybe next time! Dog friendly and good exercise for them too!
Phoenix, AZ
Adventurer | 270 pts
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Amazing, never experienced anything like it. We went in Mid march and in the mid morning and it was tad bit too warm to hike all the way up. I would suggest getting there early. Very intense walking in the sand.
Garden City, VA
Adventurer | 230 pts
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This is an awesome winter day hike. I spent about two hours here hiking and taking some great pictures and video. Especially when the winds are calm there's nothing like the complete silence of the dessert. Look around for critter tracks in the sand. I found a huge area of rat tracks that looked like a tie-dye pattern in the sand. My only warnings: don't go barefoot, your shoes make it easier to climb in the sand and don't try to climb straight up the dune face. It gets really steep and soft at the top.
Clearwater, FL
Pathfinder | 81 pts
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The climb up Kelso is easy, although walking on sand can be interesting at first. I didn't make it all the way to the top, as I wanted to visit the Mitchell Caverns at 1pm. The hike is about 2 miles long, each way (I'm estimating), and the elevation gain is between 800 and a thousand feet. I stopped about 200 feet short of the peak, perhaps a quarter mile short of the top.

Morning is the time to make this hike, as there are few people out then and the temperature is not yet boiling. December was the perfect time for this hike. The morning was cool and breezy, and the air was clear due to a recent storm a few days before.

The graded road is about 3 miles long to the trailhead. It's well marked just off Kelbaker Road. At the end of the road is a nice parking area with restrooms. The trail is obvious and easy to follow.

I found the experience exhilarating and interesting. When I started the hike at 8am there was no one around for miles. At first there were signs of previous explorers - footprints and a few candy wrappers. As I proceeded up the trail, the human footprints faded and were replaced by animal prints - hundreds of them. It was plainly obvious there was an active nightlife in this place.

All in all, it was a calm hike, relatively simple and close to civilization. A good place to see what a sand dune really is and to see the desert up close.
Deerfield Beach, FL
Trailblazer | 775 pts
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I visited the Kelso Dune area four times in 98 and 99. The stark beauty of this part of the Mojave desert never failed to delight me. The Dunes, the mines of the New York Mtns, and the puzzling rocks of the Cima Dome are great examples of the lonely and rugged west.

More Kelso Dunes Professional Guides

Detailed Trail Descriptions from Our Guidebooks

Bill & Polly Cunningham
"The Kelso Dunes, “A Golden Desert Treasure Chest,” were created by 10,000 to 20,000 years of unrelenting winds, sending the sand of the Mojave River delta into these ever-changing formations. This landform (created by wind) is actively moving, but only back and forth due to the contrary wind pattern. The mountain ranges nearby represent violent volcanic activity. The dunes contrast sharply with the surrounding topography with their softly rounded shapes and their rosy glow. The fine sand consists of rose quartz, feldspar, and magnetite. The quartz gives it the rosy color. The magnetite produces a black stripe effect on the windswept ridges of the dunes. Not an arid wasteland, the dunes are home to more than 100 species of plants, and many animals. The tracks of the latter—kangaroo rats, kit foxes, scorpions, among others—are visible along your hike. The dunes are also home to the Kelso Dune Jerusalem cricket, which exists nowhere else."
"The Kelso Dunes—the second-largest and third-highest sand dunes in North America—are the highlight of many visits to Mojave National Preserve. Winds pick up the fine sands from the Mojave River Sink and carry them across the Devils Playground. Eddies formed by the Granite and Providence Mountains cause the winds to drop their loads, creating the Kelso Dunes. Although this trip to the top of the highest dune is relatively short, the climb up loose sand can be exhausting. It’s easy for groups to split up before the final climb because the route is in view all the way and because there are plenty of smaller hills to enjoy along the way. Primitive camping is also available another 1 mile west by a lonely windswept tree; there is no camping at the trailhead."
Brian Beffort
"Kelso Dunes are a testament to how wet this area was 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age. Silver and Soda lakes filled the valley bottoms to the west, and the climate was cooler and wetter. Now those lakes have dried (except for right after big storms), and their sediments have blown and settled here over thousands of years to create these dunes. Tiny rose quartz grains contribute to the dunes, giving them a soft, rosy glow. When the sand is dry and the humidity low, climb to the top and take a nice leap onto a steep face, then listen. The millions of grains of sand rubbing together produce a low hum, making Kelso Dunes one of the many singing sand dunes in the world. Vehicle: Passenger car."
Allen Riedel
"The views from the crest and summit of the dunes are both noteworthy and spectacular. The Providence and Granite mountains stretch off into the distance, as does the Devils Playground, where sand seems to spin off into the edges of eternity. Evening to sunset and sunrise to early morning are the best times for photography. Chances of animal sightings are greater during those hours as well."

Trail Information

Mojave National Preserve
Nearby City
Dog-friendly, Kid-friendly
524 feet
Elevation Gain
Trail Type
Skill Level
1.5 hours
Best October through April
2,590 feet
Trailhead Elevation
3,114 feet
Top Elevation
Mojave National Preserve
Local Contacts
USGS Kelso
Local Maps

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