Kelso Dunes

A young woman stands on top of a Kelso Sand Dune with arms outstretched.
The Kelso Dunes is the most popular hike in the Mojave National Preserve.

B Michel, NPS


Sweeping Vistas of Singing Sand

The spectacular and majestic Kelso Dunes are our most popular hike for good reason. When hikers reach the summit, they are rewarded with a surreal backdrop of sand that seems to extend forever. Although this is the most popular trail at the Mojave Preserve, potential hikers can still expect solitude.

Hiking Safely

  • Hiking the dunes in summer is not recommended. Temperatures can reach up to 120° F (49° C) in the summer.
  • Water is not available at the trailhead. Bring water with you.
  • There is no shade on the trail. Wear sunscreen.
  • Though the trail lis only 3 miles round-trip and involves 600 feet of elevation gain, it is a strenuous hike. For most people, the round trip takes 2-3 hours.
  • The road to the trailhead is bumpy and potholed. Drive slowly and carefully.

Dunes Geology

Rangers frequently get asked, "why are the dunes where they are?" Although it seems like they’re in the middle of nowhere, there's good logical sense to the dunes' location.

The story starts between 5 million and 2 million years ago, when the Mojave River started flowing from West to East. The river carried sediments from the San Bernardino mountains – mostly Quartz and Feldspar. It filled a huge lake called Lake Manix, which was 93 square miles – about 1/3 the size of Lake Mead.

About 25,000 years or so ago, Lake Manix catastrophically drained, which formed Afton Canyon as the rushing waters scoured the rock. The draining water formed Silver Lake (just north of Baker) and Soda Lake (in the Preserve), which were together one lake called Lake Mojave.

As the land got drier and hotter, more and more sediment was exposed, and the winds blew the newly formed sediments here.

Most North American dunes were formed the same way, during the Pleistocene, as sand deposited in lakes in interior drainage basins was exposed and blown into dunes. Most of the Kelso Dunes accumulated 2400-9000 years ago. Nearby landforms (the Granite and Providence Mountains) cause eddies and crosswinds, which causes sand to drop out at around the same area time after time. This is why the dunes are where they are.

Winter and summer bring predominant winds from different directions, so the shapes and patterns of individual dunes varies daily and seasonally, but the dune field as a whole is stable. On the Kelso Dunes, crests travel back and forth within a zone of 30-40 feet wide, like sea waves. It just happens too slowly for people to notice.

Booming Dunes

Only seven known sand dune fields in North America produce booming, and the Kelso Dunes are one of them! It's a deep, eerie, rumbling sound you can feel in your bones; a rumbling vibration through your entire body. The best way to hear the booming is to have a big group all on the crest at the same time trying to shove off as much sand as possible, like an avalanche. Visitors will have more luck with this if they are on a crest no one has walked on for awhile.

Since the sand traveled 35 miles to get to the Kelso Dunes, the individual grains are extremely well-rounded and smooth. Most sand travels within 18 inches above the ground in a jumping movement. For dunes to boom, smooth and uniform grains are required. The sand must also be dry.

A lizard standing on the sand, with dunes grass surrounding it.
If you look closely at a Mojave fringe-toed lizard, you can see their namesake comblike toes. These fancy feet help the lizards frolic on top of the sand without sinking in.

B Michel, NPS

Notable Animals of the Dunes

The Kelso Dunes contains seven species of endemic insects. Endemic means that these species live on the dunes and nowhere else in the entire world. They include the Kelso dunes Jerusalem cricket, the Kelso Dunes giant sand treader cricket, and the Kelso dunes shieldback katydid.

During your visit, you may see lizards, especially the Mojave Fringe-toed lizard, which is not endemic but is rare elsewhere. Kit foxes, Kangaroo rats, Jackrabbits, Coyotes, Sidewinders, and Desert tortoises can also be found here.

While observing any kind of wildlife in any situation, remember to keep your distance. The first rule of wildlife photography is that if an animal changes its behavior because of you, it means you are too close.
A man in a reflective vest is holding out a drone, and there is a red slash mark through it. No drones are allowed.
Drones are prohibited at the Kelso Dunes, at the rest of Mojave National Preserve, and at every other National Park Service site.

NPS Photo

Rules and Regulations

  • The dunes are open to the public twenty-four hours a day.
  • Camping is allowed only at established undeveloped campsites. All sites are first come, first serve. Camping at the Dunes trailhead is not allowed.
  • Drones are not allowed. Launching, landing, or operating an unmanned aircraft from or on lands and waters administered by the National Park Service within the boundaries of Mojave National Preserve is prohibited, except as approved in writing by the superintendent.
  • Pack out all trash, including food waste.
  • The discharging of weapons is prohibited at the Kelso Dunes.

Last updated: May 9, 2021

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

2701 Barstow Road
Barstow, CA 92311


(760) 252-6100
For emergencies including vehicle breakdowns, dial 911

Contact Us