Sand Dunes of the Southwest

Kelso Dunes, CA

Kelso Dunes

Olsen Family Photo

The Kelso Dunes, also known as the Kelso Dune Field, is the largest field of sand dunes in the Mojave Desert, covering 45 square miles. They are the third highest dunes in the United States. Located south of Baker, California, the Kelso Dunes are a protected feature in the Mojave National Preserve, a natural area that is closed to vehicles.

The dunes can be accessed from Barstow via I-15 or U.S. 40, about 3 miles off Kelbaker Road where there is an interpretive parking area. The dunes are actually farther away and larger than they appear from the parking lot. A hike to the top of the nearest dune and back will take about two hours. Fine grains of black, iron-rich magnetite often accumulate at the dune crests, which can be found by dragging a magnet along the sand.

The sand that created Kelso Dunes originally blew in from the Mojave River basin, traveling about 40 miles across a stark plain known as the Devil's Playground. Geologists think that the Kelso Dunes are actually composed of five stacked sets of dunes, each set corresponding to a time of climate change in the past. There would be a greatly enhanced supply of sand grains from lakes and rivers during major dry periods, and a drop in sand deposits with a dramatic increase in plant life during wet years.

The Kelso Dunes formed at the southeastern end of the Soda Lake playa, where the Granite Mountains and Providence Mountains form a barrier to prevailing winds. Today, the Kelso Dune field contains both actively-forming migrating dunes and vegetation-stabilized dunes, sand sheets, and sand ramps. The tallest star dune rises high above the surrounding terrain. Over the last few thousand years, plants have progressively covered and stabilized areas of previously drifting sand along the edge of the dune field.

Plant life on the lower dunes consists of mesquite and creosote. In the spring, wildflowers include pink sand verbena, yellow and white desert primrose, and yellow sunflowers. In the Mojave Desert where the dunes are situated, high temperatures reaching over 100 degrees typically begin in May and last into October. May and June are usually the driest months. Most rain falls between November and April.

The Kelso Dunes are home to some endemic insect species: the Kelso Dunes Jerusalem Cricket, the Kelso Dunes Giant Sand Treader (a species of camel cricket), the Kelso Dunes Shieldback Katydid, as well as rare native bees, wasps, beetles, and a fly. In addition, the Mojave Fringe-toed Lizard, specialized in its ability to "swim" under the sand, is rarely found outside these dunes.

The Kelso Dunes are also notable for a phenomenon known as "singing sand," or "booming dunes." If the conditions are right, you can climb to the top of the dune and run or slide down the slope, triggering mini-avalanches and generating a low-frequency rumble that can be both felt and heard.

Click here to take a virtual field trip to the Kelso Sand Dunes.
Kelso Dunes

Google Earth image

References: - The Kelso Dunes (Powerpoint Presentation) - Desert Landforms and Surface Processes in the Mojave National Preserve and Vicinity, by Philip Stoffer (USGS) - Geology of Mojave National Preserve: Kelso Dunes (USGS) - Soil Properties of the Kelso Sand Dunes in the Mojave Desert, by Simon A. Lei

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