What amazed me the most about our road trip through Death Valley is the variety and diversity in colors, textures, and shapes. Each mountain range, and even parts of mountain ranges, have completely different characteristics. I don’t know why I thought Death Valley would be a vast area of sand and desert flats, but I did… and I was so wrong.
Apparently, it’s a common misconception that Death Valley is a giant sandy expanse. In fact, when we told our friends and family that we were spending a week in Death Valley for Thanksgiving, the most common response was, “Why?” But once we arrived, the reasons were obvious…
Death Valley National Park is a fascinating mix of mountains, lava flows, springs and meandering creeks, scenic viewpoints, sandstone outcroppings, sand dunes, deep limestone and marble canyons, salt flats, abandoned mines, ghost towns, and even a waterfall. This is actually one of our most favorite National Park vacations to date!
We began our trip with the farthest activities from our hotel in Furnace Creek, like Father Crowley Vista and Rainbow Canyon, Darwin Falls, the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, Aguereberry Point, Eureka Mine, Cashier Mill, and Aguereberry Camp, Mosaic Canyon, and now the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
There are five major dune fields in Death Valley — Mesquite Flat, Panamint, Ibex, Saline Valley, and Eureka. The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are the easiest to access because they are so close to Stovepipe Wells Village and right off the highway. The rest are either too far out of the way or much too difficult for the average visitor to access.
The sand dunes at Mesquite Flat cover 14 square miles, are made up of tiny pieces of quartz and rock, and include three different types of dunes dotted with Mesquite trees:
- Crescent dunes
- Linear dunes
- Star shaped dunes
I’ll be honest, visiting the sand dunes weren’t high on our list of must-do activities in Death Valley. After all, we have driven dune buggies on the world-famous Pismo Beach sand dunes and gone sand sledding on the incredible Inglenook Fen Ten Mile Dunes. We sort of had a been there, done that feeling about the dunes, but had to visit them anyway because it was a location used in the filming of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, when C3P0 and R2D2 are seen lost in the sand dunes of Tatooine.
I’m actually really happy we stopped.
Brian and Carter traversed far out into the dunes to get a closer look at the largest dune in the park, the 140 foot tall Star Wars Dune, named for it’s role in the movie. Natalie and I stayed closer to the parking area, meandering up and down the dunes among the trees and we found several weird patches of broken, hard dirt that we hadn’t encountered at the other dunes. It turns out that the patches of hard polygon-cracked clay is actually the floor of an ancient lakebed.
The Mesquite Flat dunes are one of the most photographed locations in Death Valley National Park, and it’s easy to see why. We visited the dunes just before sunset and they were incredibly beautiful.
Know Before You Go
- The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are located just outside Stovepipe Wells Village on CA-190 in Death Valley, California 92328 about 30 minutes west of Furnace Creek.
- There are vault toilets at the paved parking area.
- The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes cover 14 square miles and are easy to access and incredibly popular with Death Valley National Park visitors. It is very crowded near the road, but if you hike into the dunes, you can find areas of quiet and solitude.
- There is no formal trail to follow, but if you want to reach the summit of the high dune, it is one mile each way.
- It gets very hot in the dunes! Be sure to bring plenty of water and consider hiking out into the sand dunes early in the morning or late in the day.