When 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 we’d get stuck in the largest stretch of sand dunes in California.
“We don’t really know what we’re 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.”
Through 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.
Riders 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 judge’s recent decision overruling the objections of environmentalists who argued for the protection of an endangered plant in the area.
The 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 5-8 miles wide.
Entry into the recreation area requires a permit Oct. 1-April 15. 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, Arizona, and El Centro, California, and at businesses in the small towns surrounding Glamis, California. You can also order permits at imperialsanddunes.net. Season permits cost $150.
OHV 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, but if you want to make a trip late in the year, when it’s cooler (summer highs can reach over 110 degrees), it’s best to make a reservation.
If you don’t own a vehicle capable of towing OHVs, some rental operations offer drop-off and pick-up services.
If flying over sand dunes in an OHV isn’t 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 California Route 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.
I 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 forward.
It’s 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.
The 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. Bureau of Land Management.
Thoughts 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 couldn’t 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 themselves deeper.
Eventually, a larger group of friends we were supposed to meet descended from a nearby dune to help dislodge the Lexus – 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.
We 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.
“It is nice because it reminds me of home,” Alajran said over a cup of tea. “I think I would like to come here again.”
The 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.
The beauty of the dunes is that there is a variety of experiences to be had while you’re 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.
To experience the Imperial Sand Dunes, you don’t need a tricked-out dune buggy to have a great time, but it probably wouldn’t hurt if you did.