The Mountains of California
Kelso Sand Dunes • Mojave Desert National Preserve
• San Bernardino County

Kelso Dunes 6 a.m.

Here's me

Neat shot from the top

Eerie shadow


Date: March 14, 2005 • Elevation: 3,113 feet • Prominence: 535 feet • Distance: 3 miles • Time: 2 hours • Gain: 525 feet • Conditions: Clear, a little hazy on the horizons


The Kelso Dunes are in the Mojave Desert National Preserve, and are among the biggest dunes in the United States. The dunes are known for their "groaning" noises, made when hikers step on the steep sandy slopes, creating small sand avalanches. We visited the dunes, staying here a night, on our way to Death Valley.

From Phoenix, we followed Interstate-10 west to Desert Center in California. In all my times travelling across the desert, I have never explored this bizarre little community, which sits half-way between Blythe and Indio.

We rolled into town in the late morning and stopped for a meal at the cafe. There is very little to the business district, as the town's population is supposedly about 100 people, but probably way less. The food was decent, although we weren't expecting anything fancy.

Desert Center is known today for one significant contribution to mankind: one of the first health insurance schemes was developed here in 1933. Workers on the California Aqueduct had a small amount subtracted from their paychecks by their employers and prepaid to a local hospital to cover the expected costs associated with injuries that occured often. This humble "health plan" has since grown to become Kaiser-Permanente, one of the biggest health insurance providers in the country.

The town has a colorful past, but has always felt like a wasted opportunity in the nearly 40 years I've known about it. It's never been much more than a scruffy little desert outpost. I recall there being a functional gas station there in the 1980s-1990s, but nothing since. Its location would make it an ideal stop for motorists on the 100-mile stretch between Coachella and Blythe. A couple gas plazas, restaurants, a hotel, that place could do very well. Instead, they planted palm trees in geometric patterns. The landowners seem to have no interest in developing the place. Since our stop in town on this trip, I have not once stopped in Desert Center.

From Desert Center, we went north through Twentynine Palms, and stopped to explore Amboy Crater on historic Route 66. This is a recent (last thousand years or so) lava flow, leaving behind a symmetrical caldera and many square miles of lava beds. We then drove north to the Kelso Dunes, about 15 miles north of Interstate-40 from the Kelbaker Road exit. We arrived at 4 p.m., 400 miles of driving since we left home.

We found a camping spot and settled in for the night. The Kelso Dunes were to the north, and we watched as dozens of kids & teens ambled up to the very top then attempted to ski or sand-board down the slopes, with varying success. They looked like they were having fun.

Early the next morning, we drove back about a mile to the main parking area and followed a trail through the desert for a mile until it gave away at the base of the dunes. Soon, we were stepping on the soft sand, following the hundreds of footprints left from yesterday's crowd, as we hiked steeply up toward the top.

We took our own separate routes to the ridge, meeting together after being split for about 20 minutes. From here, we walked up the final portion to the top, from which we had wonderful views over the deserts and of the surrounding peaks. The sand was cool under our feet and near the top, it was at its angle of repose: any little disturbance sent down a torrent of fine soft sand, which flowed like fluid. It was entertaining, and we stayed at the top for 30 minutes.

Coming down, we chose to descend its south face, a steep wall of sand at a 40% grade. But in bare feet, we took long loping steps and let our feet sink into the sand up to our ankles as we skidded ten feet with each step. And each time we made these steps, the dunes themselves groaned and rumbled. We descended about 500 feet in 10 minutes. Once down onto the flatter parts, we walked out the last of the remaining sand and back onto the trail to our truck. Despite the early morning hour, I ended up with a hefty sunburn.

From here, we drove to the old railroad town of Kelso. In its heyday, Kelso had nearly a thousand people, but nowadays it has maybe 20. It features a beautiful train station that is the town's centerpiece. The station functioned up until the 1980s when the railroads stopped stopping there. Since then, it's been maintained but not used for anything. I read that the Mojave National Preserve people will refurbish the site and make it the Preserve's main visitor's center. If they do then that will be great. It really is a neat little place. There's just enough "ghost-town" remnants to make the place interesting.

The rest of our trip can be read here: Death Valley, 2005.

(c) 2005, 2019 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience. .