Wednesday, March 9, 2011

singing sands

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, 3/5/2011

Boy howdy, with all my time eaten up by a new job, cold weather keeping us indoors, and all the birthday and anniversary activities the a-go-gos posts have been few and far between. With all that going on I did squeeze in a day trip to the Mojave National Preserve with some old pals. It was a four hour drive one way making for a long day of driving. We did visit other parts of the preserve, namely abandoned houses in Cima, the forest of Joshua Trees that gives Joshua Tree National Park a run for its prickly trees, and the cinder cones and lava flows of the North-West side of the preserve; but the highlight of the trip was a hike in the Kelso Dunes.
The dunes are one of only thirty sand dune sites known for their singing sands. The phenomenon is sometimes described as booming or thrumming and is apparently the result of the particular qualities of the sand grains at this site. Under particular wind conditions the steady cascade of sand scooting down the leeward side of the dunes develops an audible oscillation. On our visit we were not lucky enough to hear the sound of the sand as produced by the wind but our footsteps along the ridges dislodged smaller cascades on the dune faces. These cascades gave us a small taste of the thrumming. We could briefly hear the sound and feel the vibrations in our feet buried in the sand. I would describe it as similar to a distant prop airplane sputtering. It must be something else to hear the dunes on the occasions when the wind makes the whole dune complex vibrate.
We managed to arrive at the dunes at 9am on a mild day. To see the dunes in the best light get there near to sun rise or sun set. We were a bit late for the best light but we had a nice mild temperature for our walk. It goes without saying that in the summer this would be a poor choice for an afternoon hike, and in the winter the early morning and late afternoon is likely to be quite cold. Spring and Fall offer the best temperatures but the overnight winds typical of the in between seasons can make overnight camping in a tent a bit trying.

Our hike took about three hours including a nice snack break on one of the peaks of sand. Even on a cool day this is no hike for the timid. The sand really eats up your energy and the high slopes of the big dunes are surprisingly steep. Take your time and don't give up. With plenty of rest stops on the slope you can make it to the top of the world. After seeing the top the slide back down in a cascade of sand is well worth the hard work and a welcome reward in spite of the buckets of sand you'll be pouring out of your shoes and pockets... and nether regions. Take lots of water. The desert air will dry you out like cat turds in the litter box.
Wanna go? The dunes are south of the Kelso Depot (where you'll find the visitor center, and a lunch counter) on Kelbaker Road. The distances are longer than they look in this wide open place so fill up your gas tank before you get into the preserve. Kelbaker Road winds North-South between interstate 15 at Baker, CA to interstate 40. The whole big 'ol preserve fills much of the space East of Barstow, CA and West of the Nevada boarder. It's a whole lot of lonely out there.

The preserve offers much more than the dunes. mrs. a-go-go posted some photos of our first visit to the Mojave National Preserve in 2009. Take more than a day if you can, and stay overnight to catch the best morning and afternoon light. Now I just need to get some time off from my new job for another trip to the singing sands.

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