Death Valley has several sets of dunes. The most accessible (and therefore crowded) are the ones a few miles east of Stovepipe Wells. A bit less accessible but still regularly visited are the Eureka Dunes in the northern part of the park. There are more dunes located throughout the park in even less accessible locations. It was one of these locations, the Panamint Dunes, that we visited on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
These dunes aren’t particularly difficult to get to, but the minimum six mile round-trip hike to their edge deters many casual visitors. The road to the parking area isn’t great either – while it’s passable in passenger car I definitely would not feel comfortable taking one on it! 2WD is okay but the blowing sand and washboarding make having a hearty vehicle a must.
From the parking spot the dunes are plainly visible across the desert. They don’t look too far away but the scale of Panamint Valley really messes with distance perception. It is a three mile walk across the desert to reach these dunes. It is dry and sandy and they never seem to be getting any closer. Additionally, the barely detectable uphill slope (1000 feet of gain) wears you down. But eventually you’ll get there.
And when you do – hopefully you’re the only one to have made the entire trek with energy to spare in recent times. If so, you’ll have unbroken, footstep free dunes to play on and photograph. Good luck getting that by Stovepipe Wells! There were two major dune crests that we climbed and played on. We got to experience some fun dune phenomena like singing sand – sounding much like the drone of an airplane in the distance. And the best part of all – we had the dunes to ourselves.
The trek back to the vehicles is just as long but slightly less grueling due to the downhill slope. It helps to have GPS waypoints preloaded to avoid some of the wandering that is bound to happen on this long trek across terrain with no trail to guide you. As you can see from my track below we maintained a pretty straight path – it helped to have waypoints to navigate to along the way to maintain this straight line. And, although the dunes are clearly visible from the parking, it’s hard to see the parking from the dunes – make sure to drop a waypoint so you aim correctly on the hike back!