Sand Dunes of the Southwest

Dumont Dunes, CA

Dumont Dunes

Olsen Family Photo

The Dumont Dunes are located approximately 30 miles north of Baker, California, on the east side of Highway 127, just outside the southeastern corner of Death Valley National Monument. The dunes are situated on a mesa above the Amargosa River and stretch across nearly 12 miles of desert, covering about 8,150 acres. They are bordered by volcanic hills on the other side.

These dunes were likely the result of wind-blown sand being deposited by prevailing westerly winds from a prehistoric lake that had dried up. Since the adjacent Dumont Hills form a natural amphitheater, the sand was trapped here. The configuration of the dune field is still being altered by the wind, and studies show that the eastern edge of the dunes is slowly migrating farther eastward.

The Dumont dune field contains about every type of dune including barchan, star, transverse, and longitudinal. Some of the dunes are very steep, and the razorback crests can be very sharp. The elevation here varies from 700 feet at the river to 1,200 feet at the top of Competition Hill, the tallest of the dunes at 500 feet.

The Dumont Dunes are also notable for the “booming” sound made by sand avalanches. A group of engineering undergraduates at Cal Tech systematically recorded and studied the sounds, and in 2007 published a technical paper explaining how the low hums are produced by sand grains rubbing against each other. Apparently, the interface between the dry surface sand and the moist interior sand forms a “waveguide” to amplify the sounds.

The low elevation in the dunes area makes for warm to extremely hot conditions in spring and summer. Native vegetation consists of mostly creosote scrub, some annual grasses and spring wildflowers. There are quite a few old mines in the area, and the historic Tonapah and Tidewater Railroad to the east was in operation between 1905 and 1940.

Because the Dumont Dunes are a designated Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area, on weekends they are completely overrun with off-road vehicles. Access to the dunes themselves is limited to those who purchase a high-priced park pass. The Ibex Dunes in Death Valley National Monument just across the highway to the west may offer a better experience for those seeking solitude, natural scenery, or studying geology.

Dumont Dunes

Google Earth image

References:

Dumont Dunes Off-Highway Vehicle Area (BLM)

Southern California's Lost Lands of "Land of the Lost" (Bay Area Science)

Solving the Mystery of Booming Sand Dunes (Geophysical Research Letters)

http://www.palomar.edu/geology/DVWeb.htm - A Field Guide and Virtual Tour of the Geology of Death Valley National Park and Environs, by Steven G. Spear, Ph.D.

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