Kelso Dunes

Struggling to Photograph Mojave National Preserve, Part 2: Success!

Last time I visited Mojave National Preserve I was hoping to visit the Kelso Dunes. Unfortunately, I encountered numerous problems as described in part 1 of this story. I didn’t get to visit the dunes, although I did make a nice photograph of a field of Joshua Trees. I have since returned to the preserve, and this time I had more success.

Kelso Dunes at Mojave National Preserve at Sunset
Kelso Dunes at Mojave National Preserve at Sunset

I double-checked my camera and tripod--they were ready to go. I made sure my flashlight was packed. I rechecked the weather one more time. Everything was in order, so I hit the road. This time I exited the interstate at Nipton Road and then turned onto Ivanpah Road to enter the preserve from the north. Like last time, after exiting the interstate I was pretty much isolated. That’s definitely one of the features of the preserve. If you want to get away from everything, this is a good place to do it. Actually, it was a much busier day. I saw more than 10 times the number of cars I saw last time. Of course, since I only saw one or two last time, that’s not saying much!

The Kelso Dunes are some of the tallest sand dunes in the country and took about 25,000 years to form as they are now. The tallest dune is over 600 feet high. That’s somewhere between 50 and 60 stories tall, and hiking up into the dunes was not a simple walk. It’s like walking on a beach that’s all uphill. For every two to three steps you take you advance about one and a half steps as you slog through the sand. Very quickly, my boots started filling up with sand, which made things even more difficult. The last part was the hardest part, where it’s a steep uphill climb onto the main dune.

Kelso Sand Dunes in Mojave National Preserve
Kelso Sand Dunes in Mojave National Preserve

I turned onto the main dune and looked down at the sand. Along the way, the sand has ripples from the wind as seen in this picture. Once I was on the main dune, it was different. The eastern side of the dune, which was facing into the wind, had what looked like the same ripples, but actually the surface of the sand was flat. The rippled pattern was a design caused by variations in the darker and lighter sand. All of the sand I saw on the way up was the lighter kind, and I’m not really sure where this darker sand comes from.

Alternating light and dark sand pattern on Kelso Dunes
Alternating light and dark sand pattern on Kelso Dunes
Closeup of sand pattern
Closeup of sand pattern

It’s a beautiful pattern, and I kind of felt bad disturbing it by walking on it. But it’s amazing how quickly the wind shifts the sand around and reforms the patterns. I was up on the dune for an hour and a half or so, and by the time I was leaving, most traces of my presence were already gone. I’m sure that within a couple of hours there would be no evidence I had walked there at all.

Going back down was much easier than going up! And this time around I had my flashlight with me. I stopped a couple times on the way down to do some experimental moonlight photography. The trail was dark, so I was glad to have that light. When I arrived at the car, the first thing I did was took off my hiking boots and emptied a huge pile of sand onto the ground! What a relief that was. By now all that sand is back on the dunes where it belongs.

I am very glad I returned to visit the Kelso Dunes. It’s really an amazing place. I was also pleased with the photographs I came back with. That was pretty much what I was envisioning and hoping for.