East Mojave's Kelso Dunes Make Their Kind of Music

In the heart of the heart of the East Mojave lie the Kelso Dunes, one of the tallest dune systems in America.

"They're grand, magnificent," proclaimed Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) while on a recent excursion to the Kelso Dunes. If Congress approves Cranston's proposed California Desert Protection Act, the dunes, as well as 1.5 million acres of the East Mojave now under U.S. Bureau of Land Management administration, would become Mojave National Park.

"And the dunes give off great vibrations," Cranston added as he hiked along the Kelso Dunes Trail.

The good vibrations that caused the enthusiasm of California's senior senator are not the desert's spiritual emanations--which many visitors find considerable--but the Kelso Dunes' rare ability to make a low rumbling sound when sand slides down the steep slopes. This sound has been variously described as that of a kettle drum, low-flying airplane or Tibetan gong.

The dunes are one of the many wonders the traveler encounters in the East Mojave, which is actually a mixture of three deserts: the low or Colorado Desert, the high or Mojave Desert and the Great Basin. This convergence of ecosystems is bounded by Interstate 40, Interstate 15 and the Nevada state line.

Sometimes referred to as the "lonesome triangle," this land is a microcosm of the whole 25-million-acre California desert. Winter is a great time to visit the East Mojave and check out what may become the nation's 50th national park.

Directions to trailhead: From Interstate 15 in Baker, about 60 miles northeast of Barstow, turn south on Kelbaker Road and proceed about 35 miles to the town of Kelso. Pause to admire the classic neo-Spanish-style Kelso Railroad Depot next to the Union Pacific tracks. Now boarded up, the building will no doubt see some future use--perhaps as the Mojave National Park visitors center.

From Kelso, continue on Kelbaker Road for another seven miles to a signed dirt road and turn west (right). Drive slowly along this road (navigable for all but very low-slung passenger cars) three miles to a Bureau of Land Management parking area. The trail to Kelso Dunes begins just up the dirt road from the parking area.

The Hike: Only the first quarter mile or so of the walk to the dunes is an established trail. Once the trail peters out, angle toward the low saddle atop the dunes, just to the right of the highest point. Know the old saying, "One step forward, two steps back?" It will take on new meaning if you attempt to take the most direct route to the top of the dunes by walking straight up the tallest sand hill.

As you cross the lower dunes, you'll pass some mesquite and creosote bushes. During spring of a good wildflower year, the lower dunes are bedecked with yellow and white desert primrose, pink sand verbena and yellow sunflowers.

The sand that forms Kelso Dunes blows in from the Mojave River basin. After traveling east 35 miles across a stark plain known as the Devil's Playground, it's deposited in hills nearly 600 feet high. The westerlies carrying the sand rush headlong into winds from other directions, which is why the sand is dropped here and why it stays here.

Patterns in the Sand

For further confirmation of the circular pattern of winds that formed the dunes, examine the bunches of grass on the lower slopes. You'll notice that the tips of the tall grasses have etched 360-degree circles on the sand.

Other patterns on the sand are made by the desert's abundant but rarely seen wildlife. You might see the tracks of a coyote, kit fox, antelope ground squirrel, pack rat, raven or sidewinder. Footprints of lizards and mice can be seen tacking this way and that over the sand. The dunes' surfaces record the lightest pressure of the smallest feet. Sometimes one set of animal tracks intersects another in a way suggesting the demise of one animal and dinner for another.

When you reach the saddle located to the right of the high point, turn left and trek another hundred yards or so to the top. The black material crowning the top of the dunes is magnetite, an iron oxide, and one of about two dozen minerals found within the dune system.

Enjoy the view from the top: the Kelso Mountains to the north, the Bristol Mountains to the southwest, the Granite Mountains to the south, the Providence Mountains to the east. Everywhere you look there are mountain ranges, small and large. In fact, despite evidence to the contrary--most notably the stunning dunes beneath your feet--the East Mojave is really a desert of mountains, not sand.

While atop the dunes, perhaps your footsteps will cause mini-avalanches and the dunes will sha-boom-sha-boom for you. There's speculation that the extreme dryness of the East Mojave, combined with the wind-polished, rounded nature of the individual sand grains, has something to do with their musical ability.

After picking up good vibrations, descend the steep dune face (much easier on the way down!) and return to the trailhead.

Kelso Dunes Trail

BLM parking area to top of dunes three miles round trip; 400-foot elevation gain .

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World