ride ATVs on the sand dunes in Glamis, a popular
section of the Imperial Dunes in southeastern
California, on March 9, 2014. Hundreds of thousands
of off road vehicle enthusiasts and hikers populate
the recreational areas of the Imperial Dunes, which
runs from late October until April.
I set out for a trip to the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation
Area, I hardly thought I would find myself with a group of
Kuwaitis in the back seat of a Lexus LX470 as it slipped
and slid across the sandy terrain. As the sand became
thicker, I knew it was inevitable weíd get stuck in the
largest stretch of sand dunes in California.
donít really know what weíre doing," Majed Qliner
said while laughing with his friends. "If we get
stuck out here, we would need a, how do you say,
helicopter to come and rescue us."
the passenger window, I occasionally saw off-roaders with
more capable dune buggies, ATVs and dirt bikes, carving in
and out of the dunes that can reach upward of 300 feet.
These dunes attract hundreds of thousands of off-highway
vehicle, or OHV, aficionados annually during the peak
riding season, from late October to April.
will soon have another reason to visit, as 40,000 acres of
the dunes that were formerly restricted to OHVs will open
to vehicles. This increased access follows a federal court
judgeís recent decision overruling the objections of
environmentalists who argued for the protection of an
endangered plant in the area.
Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area is part of the
Algodones Dunes in the southeastern corner of California
near the Arizona border. Formed from the windswept sands
of ancient Lake Cahuilla, the dunes stretch for more than
40 miles into Mexico and average about 5 to 8 miles wide.
into the recreation area requires a permit Oct. 1 to April
15, although many day visitors I came across didnít have
one. Seven-day permits cost $50 at an on-site ranger
station, but they can be found for $35 at a number of
off-site locations in Yuma, Ariz., and El Centro, and at
businesses in the small towns surrounding Glamis. You can
also order permits at imperialsanddunes.net. Season
permits cost $150.
rentals are available in Yuma, El Centro and even in the
campgrounds in Glamis. Prices start at around $25 hourly
for a small ATV and can cost upward of $80 an hour for a
four-seater dune buggy. Day rates are also available for
those planning on camping out at the dunes. Rentals are
pretty easy to find now, as the peak season comes to an
end, but if you want to make a trip late in the year, when
itís cooler (summer highs can reach over 110 degrees),
itís best to make a reservation.
you donít own a vehicle capable of towing OHVs, some
rental operations offer drop-off and pick-up services.
flying over sand dunes in an OHV isnít your cup of tea,
the entirety of the Algodones Dunes system is open to
hikers and horses. The best area for this is north of CA
78 in the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness. There you can
find the tallest dunes, and since OHVs are restricted from
entering, an abundance of unusual plants and wildlife.
spent most of my time at the dunes on foot, and it was
exhausting. As the fine sand sank beneath my feet, it felt
like I moved a step backward for every attempt to go
easy to feel small when you stare out at the vast
landscape. When I worked my way up my first dune, I stood
in awe as particles of sand glistened in the sunlight, the
wind blowing them off the edges of the dunes.
wind carried on through most of the night, pushing sand
through the mesh vents of my two-man tent. By the time I
awoke in the morning, every footstep and OHV trail that
existed the previous day had all but vanished. A year from
now, thanks to this constant movement of sand, the entire
dune system will have shifted farther east by about a
foot, according to the agency that administers the
recreation area, the U.S. Department of the Interiorís
Bureau of Land Management.
turned to that wind while I sat in the Lexus, as my new
Kuwaiti friends stuck their hands deep in the sand to dig
out the wheels of their massive SUV. How would we get back
to camp if we couldnít retrace our path back to the
campsite? To the others in the group, it seemed of little
concern as they tried to push the vehicle out of the dune,
sand flinging in their eyes as the tires inevitably dug
a larger group of friends we were supposed to meet
descended from a nearby dune to help dislodge the Lexus
ó as well as an equally stuck VW Touareg. The group, now
totaling about 30, managed to get the vehicles free just
as the sun fully set beyond the dunes.
made our way to an area on the other side of a nearby
dune, where they had a few small rugs spread out across
the sand and a small fire burning. One member of the
contingent, Saad Alajran, took out a set of pots and began
preparing chai tea and coffee. Though he now lives in San
Diego, this was his first trip to Glamis. But he told me
when he lived in Kuwait he and his friends would make
weekend trips to dunes in Saudi Arabia.
is nice because it reminds me of home," Alajran said
over a cup of tea. "I think I would like to come here
rest of the evening, we exchanged stories, sang songs and
Alajran made sure my cup of chai was never empty. At one
point, most of the group pulled away from the campfire to
pray under the moonlight. By that time, any stress I had
was gone and I was grateful to be a part of their first
experience in a place that reminded them of home.
beauty of the dunes is that there is a variety of
experiences to be had while youíre there. And just like
the harsh, desert landscape, those experiences can be
unpredictable, dangerous or, in my case, incredibly
rewarding. You can spend the day with hundreds of
thousands of OHVs, or you can sprawl out on a dune at
night and stargaze in isolation.
experience the Imperial Sand Dunes, you donít need a
tricked-out dune buggy to have a great time, but it
probably wouldnít hurt if you did.
a map, brochure and more information, visit the U.S.
Department of the Interiorís Bureau of Land Management
site at blm.gov (search for Imperial Sand Dunes).
Algodones Dunes Wilderness: This protected wilderness area
has the largest dunes, with a variety of plant and
wildlife. OHVs are restricted from entering the area, but
itís open to hikers and horses. Thereís also a
watchable wildlife site with vehicle parking off
Overlook: Popular with day visitors, the overlook offers
scenic views of the dunes in Glamis. They are easily
accessible from the parking lot for short hiking sessions.
This mining ghost town is off Ogilby Road, 25 miles
northwest of Yuma. There are trails leading up to the
crumbling foundations of buildings. Itís closed to
camping and vehicle travel.
Road: A 1,500-foot stretch of decaying wooden planks is
all that remains of the first attempt to lay a road across
the Imperial Sand Dunes, in 1916.
Beach Store: If your OHV is in need of repair after a long
day of riding in Glamis, this is basically your only
option. The store, at 5775 E. U.S. 78 in Brawley, offers
parts and other supplies. Be prepared to pay a premium for
pretty much everything in the store, because itís the
only one for miles.
border fence: If youíre driving past Buttercup Valley on
I-8, you can catch a glimpse of the towering border fence.
Itís about a mile south of the Buttercup campgrounds and
can be easily accessed by OHV. Legally, you can go right
up to the fence, but donít be surprised if Border Patrol
agents on ATVs question you as you get close.
Dunes: The most popular section of the Imperial Sand Dunes
Recreation Area also provides the most open camping space
for those looking for an OHV getaway. Campsites on Gecko
Road just off CA 78 provide an abundance of on-site
restrooms and typically will have vendors selling
supplies, gasoline and spare OHV parts. Expect to pay a
pretty hefty fee for those goods.
Valley: These dunes are in the southernmost section of the
Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area and run right up to
the U.S.-Mexico border. There are a number of riding areas
here including Buttercup, Grays Well and Gordons Well. All
of them have restroom facilities, although I found there
to be more in Glamis. This area tends to draw more day
visitors due to its proximity to El Centro and Yuma, but
doesnít get nearly as packed as Glamis. Stargazers might
want to consider this area because itís just far enough
from the surrounding towns that light pollution is
minimal. I was able to easily see the Milky Way from my
campsite at Buttercup.
For those who donít own an RV ó or if camping out in
the desert doesnít sound appealing ó Yuma is only a
20-minute drive from Buttercup and Gordons Well. The great
thing about Yuma is that gas, food and lodging are
typically cheaper than you would pay in California. I
stayed at a Howard Johnson in Yuma the first night of my
trip and paid $80 for the evening. You can easily find
cheaper lodging if youíre on a budget, or splurge for
something more luxurious. Even if you donít end up
staying the night, I recommend stocking up on gas here.
You can easily save $1 per gallon compared to filling up
in the California towns surrounding the dunes.
Centro: The largest city in Imperial County, El Centro is
pretty close to the southern section of the Imperial Sand
Dunes Recreation Area. The selection of hotels and motels
is much more limited than in Yuma Ė donít expect to
find luxury accommodations.
Casino: The casino-resort (at 525 Algodones Road, in
Winterhaven), is on I-8 between Yuma and the southern
section of the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area. Itís
there if you want to get in a game of poker during your
trip to the desert. Rooms start at around $85 per night.