Monday, April 4, 2016

The Desert's Playground: Mesquite Dunes of Death Valley National Park

Mesquite Dunes, February 2016
Dates: October 11, 2011 and February 13, 2016
Place: Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California
Coordinates: 36. 606183, -117.116244
Length: As far as you like
Level: easy to strenuous, depending how far you go and how hot it is.

Mesquite Dunes are right by Hwy 190 a few miles east of Stovepipe wells. It is impossible to miss them when driving into Death Calley from the west. My friend and I, however, did exactly that - we entered Death Valley in the last hour of daylight and zoomed past the dunes on our way to Texas Springs campground, near Furnace Creek.
A flash of yellow by the road side east of the dunes had lured me into a quick stop, just before the intersection with Scotty's Castle Road. The yellow color was desert sunflowers that were blooming, of which we would see endless fields near Badwater on the following day. But the area east of Mesquite Dunes has its own special appeal: it is a vast field of neatly spaced little mounds of sand held in place by arrow weed shrubs (Pluchea sericea). The distance between the stub-topped mound is their root's reach.
Devil's Cornfield, January 2016
Our one full day in Death Valley NP my friend and I spend along Badwater Road, enjoying Badwater Basin, the beginning of the Superbloom and the Artist Drive. The latter part of that day we went to see Ubehebe Crater. By the time we were driving back west the dunes were already covered in darkness.
Moonrise, October 2011
On our following visit to Death Valley NP in February we made sure not to miss the dunes. By that time I became aware that the beautiful sand verbena was also blooming in the park and I wanted to see them too (and found out later that their bloom area is nowhere near Mesquite Dunes), but the main reason was the children, both tree age kids and pretend adults :-)
Our previous visit to the Mesquite Dunes was on October of 2011, and some of the photos in this post were taken at that time.
We arrived at the dunes in the late afternoon and didn't wonder far.It was enough time to appreciate the dunes' beauty, to enjoy sand play, and to study closely some of its fascinating aspects.
Mesquite Dunes, October 2011
Mesquite Dunes, like other dunes in desert basins, are formed when the winds concentrate the finest eroded sand in a big pile inside the basin. These sands shift again and again with the winds, but their main form is usually the same. 
One thing that bolts down sand dunes is vegetation. At the edge of Mesquite Dunes are creosote bushes, their long roots holding on to the sand, keeping it in place.
Creosote (Larrea tridentata)
 The creosote roots also scaffold the home burrows of desert rodents. There were quite a few of these holes about, with many tracks at the opening. I never got to see the residents of these holes, though. They are largely nocturnal.
Rodent hole
The creosote was the one plant that I found blooming in the Mesquite Dunes area. 
Creosote (Larrea tridentata)
The sand that isn't bolted down by roots is game for the winds. When the winds change, patches of hardened soil get to see the light of day.
Mesquite Dunes, October 2011
Collected rain and flood water remain long enough to weld the silts into tiles of hardened clay. When the wind blows the sand shifts and shows a mosaic of natural tiles between the peripheral dunes.
Desert Tiles, February 2016
The tiles' pattern is elaborate and beautiful. I wonder if given clean silt and even water distribution, would there be a regularity to the pattern formation. One of nature's beauties, however, is its irregular regularity. I can expect the formation of these dry tile patterns, but never the pattern itself :-)
Desiccated silt tiles.
Last February Death Valley NP had many other visitors that, like us, were checking out the superbloom. Naturally, there were plenty of people exploring the dunes as well, so taking human-free, or even human tracks-free photos proved to be challenging.
Animal tracks, however, I was more than happy to see and photograph (quickly, before the curious children would trample all over them in their excitement).
Rodent tracks
The shifting sands make a wonderful dry-erase check-in board for the dune's wildlife. A nice activity would be to mark a certain area and visit it each hour and see what tracks have been added there in the time elapsed.
Bird (raven?) tracks.
This activity would best be done away from human traffic, and possibly through the night to catch the nocturnal visitors' sign-ins before they get erased by the winds.
The most likely tracks-making animals to find there are beetles, but on our last visit we didn't find them either, only their tracks.
Beetle tracks
Our best visits to Mesquite Dunes took place late in the afternoon, when the sun is already low and the heat isn't as intense. Sticking around to see the sunset is always an added bonus, but on our 2011 visit we also got to see the moon rise over the Amaragosa Range, as the last glow of sunlight touched the mountaintop.
Moonrise, October 2011

A few minutes later we had made our way back to the car in the moonlight.

Full moon rising over the Amaragosa Range, October 2011

Mesquite Dunes are one of the must see places in Death Valley National Park. When arriving with children it is also a special bonus as it is the perfect playground after the long drive to get there. Best times to visit the dunes would be early morning or late afternoon. Always have sun protection and plenty of water when going out there. 

Who knows? Maybe next time I'll stay out at night to see the nocturnal residents of the dunes :-) 


  1. The dunes are beautiful - and so are the tracks' pictures :-)

    1. Thank you! It's always fun to go on the dunes (when the heat isn't excessive), and I never miss the chance to go barefoot :-)