Kelso Dunes—The Singing Dunes of California

When in the Mojave Desert, one must play in the sand—and what better place to do so than on the Kelso Dunes? Kelso Dunes, also known as the Kelso Dune Field, is the largest field of aeolian sand deposits in the Mojave Desert. Protected by the Mojave National Preserve, the dunes are located near the town of Baker, San Bernardino County, California.

Before the sand shaped into waving dunes, many years ago, there was a river flowing through the land, carrying feldspar and quartz sediments from the San Bernadino mountains down to a 93 square mile lake called Lake Manix. When the lake dried up some 25,000 years back, the crosswinds directed by the nearby Granite and Providence Mountains caused the sand to fall in the same area and accumulate, shaping them into the Kelso Dunes we see today.

The Kelso Dunes offer a good hiking opportunity which they reward with a panoramic view of the area. The extra magic of these dunes is their “singing” ability: the dunes produce a “boom” sound, a deep rumble. Only seven known sand dune fields in North America produce booming. The sound is only achieved if the sand grains are very fine, round, and dry. The best way to hear the booming is to have a big group on the crest at the same time shove off as much sand as possible (the hot sand moves over the cooler sand)—just be mindful of the hikers below….

We visited the Kelso Dunes on a hot day in March 2020. We started walking toward the base of the dunes, but as we continued, my feet grew heavier and heavier. I looked down and figured out why: the fine sand seeped through the mesh top of my hiking shoes and got stuck inside, giving me a case of laden feet. Burdened by the heat of the sun and the extra weight in my shoes, I decided to forgo the hike to the top of the dunes and retreated to the car. I proceeded to beat the sand out of my shoes while David pressed onward and upward until he looked the size of an ant. His hike up took a while, but the descent was considerably faster, as he slid straight downhill rather than follow a path. I watched another hiker actually sand surf her way down, which looked cooler than it felt, she said.

The dunes were an interesting stop on our journey through the arid West. Our next stop was another special part of the Mojave Desert ecosystem and an iconic location: Joshua Tree National Park, in California.

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