Sand Dunes of the Southwest

Sand Dunes of the Southwest

Sand dunes are some of the most spectacular and dynamic landforms on the planet. People of all ages find sand dunes irresistible as they climb up, then roll or slide down the soft slopes. Photographers seeking to capture the graceful curves, wavy patterns, and shifting shadows can’t ever seem to take enough pictures of dunes. The dunes themselves appear to have a life of their own. They are constantly moving and changing, forming shapes such as stars and crescents. All of them whisper as the wind blows, and a few even sing or boom as dry sand cascades down the steep face.

The dunes are not just fun to play on or beautiful to look at; they are natural icons representing the passing of geologic time. They were created by an intricate eolian (wind-based) process that transported the sand from one place to another. The tiny grains of sand originally came from large rocks, like those found in nearby mountain ranges. Weathering gradually broke the rock into smaller and smaller particles. Winds blew the fine grains into drifts and dunes, some of which grew to be hundreds of feet in height.

Dunes can sometimes cover vast fields. Nevertheless, despite visions of endless seas of sand that define the idea of “desert” in many people’s minds, only a fraction of the world’s deserts are covered with dunes. In the American Southwest, canyons and washes provide plenty of sand, which is scattered across the land. But in only a few places is it gathered by the wind and trapped by geographic features such as mountains, forming dunes.

As shown in the map below, sand dunes and sand sheets can be found in the southern Great Plains, high plateaus, and deserts of the Southwestern United States. In most of these areas, the dunes are stabilized by vegetation and the sand is not moving at present. The majority of active sand dunes are located in the hottest and driest regions. The purpose of this website is to describe the major southwestern sand dunes, to present a virtual field trip, and to provide a sand dune study guide.

USGS Map

USGS Map

Website design and content (c)2010 by Peter Olsen. This educational unit study was my PVCC honors project for GPH 211 Landform Processes.