Thursday, March 30, 2017

Exploring New Sand at the Eureka Dunes

Eureka Dunes

Date: November 24, 2016
Place: Eureka Dunes, Death Valley National Park
Coordinates: 37.11377, -117.68100

Distance: 0.7 miles
Level: Strenuous

After the disaster that met Pappa Quail's camera at the Mormon Rocks we needed to get a new one. We were very fortunate to find a store that was still open in Phelan so late in the day. They only had a lens replacement, however, so I suggested to get a cheap and simple 'Point n' Shoot' pocket camera for the broad angle shots. In the end we bought the replacement zoom lens and Pappa Quail attached it to my camera, and I used the simple pocket camera for the remaining days of our road trip.
It turned out a very useful arrangement: the pocket camera yielded quite decent quality photos. Not up to notch like the one I lended Pappa Quail, but on the other hand it was much lighter and quicker, and I was not as stressed about it banging against rocks.
We managed to get to Ridgecrest that evening and had passed the night in a hotel there, and first thing in the morning we were headed toward Death Valley National Park. Sacrificing that day's hiking time, we made it right away to Mesquite Springs campground to find a spot. Mesquite Springs is a lovely, and quite desolate campground. It is the first campground we've ever camped at in Death Valley NP, when still a young couple sans chikas. It is a non-reservable campground, and it being Thanksgiving time, I was worried about not finding a place and having to camp in the wilderness. (Not that I mind wilderness camping, but on this occasion we preferred having the usual comforts of an established campground).
We were right to hurry to the campground. There were only 4 sites available when we arrived and by the time our tent was pitched the campground was full. When we were done setting camp and eating lunch, however, is was already afternoon and the day was growing short.
Pappa Quail gulped when I told him I wanted to go see the Eureka Dunes. Apparently, the dunes nearly two hours drive away from our campground. We went anyway, willing to drive back in darkness.
The Eureka Dunes are located in the south corner of Eureka Valley in the northwest part of Death Valley NP. To get there from the main park area where we needed to drive north on Death Valley Road, a long dirt road that leads to the north tip of the park and passes the Last Chance mountain range westward, leading out of the park toward the town of Big Pine.

Endless dirt road northward. 
It was a very lonely drive. We saw one car parked on the side of the road and along our drive we passed maybe two other cars. These were all who ventured north of the main park region.
The road splits at the Crankshaft Intersection and we stopped there momentarily before taking the Death Valley Road northwest toward Big Pine. I had to take in the scenery there. The vastness of the desert, the raw power of the sharp-angled mountains, near naked of vegetation.
I also had to photograph the interesting display at the intersection.  All made of ... crankshafts.

We continued across the Last Chance mountain range and past a small gold mine, abandoned of course. We descended into Eureka Valley and the road was straight and level once more. Just before exiting the park we took a left (southward) turn to the dunes.
The Eureka Dunes, the tallest sand dunes in California, were quite visible from the Death Valley Rd, about 10 miles away.
Eureka Valley and Dunes. 
Pappa Quail was driving and I was hungrily swallowing the view. Every now and then I asked him to stop so I could step out of the car and snap a few shots. All of these mountains deserve having their image displayed. I chose this one below.
"Last Chance" 
The mountains tower over the Eureka Dunes, dwarfing them. It was only when we approached that we understood how large they truly are.
Eureka Dunes
There's a small, primitive, and very run down campground at the foot of the dunes. I had this campground in my mind as a backup in case we couldn't find space at Mesquite Springs. When we arrived there, however, I was thankful for not having to stay there. I would have loved the isolation of the place, but everything else about this campground depressed me, as its few amenities were broken and soiled, the ground littered, and the single stall pit toilet in a disgusting state. It's unlock able door bore an angry note of a park ranger fuming over campers dumping trash into the toilet pit (a big no-no. Don't ever do that). In short, I'd rather have gone wilderness camping if that was the only established option.
A creosote (Larrea tridentata) bush at the dune's foot. 
The few campsites appeared occupied. Other cars were parked together a bit further away. We left the car near the campground and started toward the dunes. We had arrived there too late to make it to the summit, but still had a good hour of daylight to explore the dunes.
Our hike as captured by Pappa Quail's GPS
Going up a tall sand dune isn't easy. For each two steps you take, you sink one back. We found the tracks of previous hikers and followed in their footsteps, using their deep footprints as 'steps'. Still, it was a slow work uphill.
Going up
Taking frequent breathers along the way I stopped and looked around. One of the things I like about the desert is the visible geology, naked and unhidden beneath alluvial soil and vegetation.
Last Chance
The Last Chance mountains are of sedimentary rocks, limestone and geological relatives. The colorful rock layers marked the eras in which this place was submerged under water. Now one of the driest places in California, it is hard to believe this place was ever submerged.
I caught up with Pappa Quail and asked him to take a zoomed-in photo of the rock layers.
Last Chance - zoomed
An expert geologist may be able to count the number of geological eras by the visible rock layers, as a dendrologist counts tree rings. I am expert on neither so I just enjoyed the view east and then turned my gaze to the north. 
There, below me, lay the vast Eureka Valley, flat and arid. A white evaporation flat stretched to the west and a small column of dust marked the progress of a sole car in the distance. 
Eureka Valley
We continued along the dune's ridgeline. The wind was picking up and a sheet of sand flowed over the dune face. On the lee side the sand was settled in ripples, some ridged with dark grains. more dark sand had 'puddled' at he bottom of the concave vales between the dune ridges. Everything was on the move.
We arrived at the summit of the first dune and the chikas decided they'd had enough and wanted to stay there and play in the sand. Pappa Quail remained with them while I went forward a little bit further. There was no going to the highest peak that day, but I did want to get a bit wider view.
Eureka Dunes
Eventually I too had to turn around and go back. I said goodbye to the high dunes, silently promising to make better timing plans for my next visit there. 
On my way back I witnessed the first sunset. I stood at the perfect spot to see the sun disappear behind the peak of a nearby dune. 
First Sunset
A few steps away, however, and I was back in the realm of daytime, if only for a short while.
Creeping darkness
From there on I was hopping between night and day as I made my way back to my family and down the dune.
And with each step night was gaining.
Night and Day
And then the sun disappeared completely, this time behind the Inyo Mountains on the west.
There was still enough light to make it back to the car. And also to photograph some more. It turned out that my simple pocket camera had good light sensitivity.
I balanced on the ridge of the dune and progressed forward in large hops. Occasionally I looked down - it was a steep slope, and being made of sand - a very inviting slope. It was not in my desired direction, though.
After reuniting with my family we split again - Pappa Quail and the chikas took the shortcut down to the campground: the chikas rolled and Pappa Quail run down the slope. I waited behind for some time, unwilling to leave this place, but eventually I too started down the steep slope.
Last Sun
I tried butt-sliding, and failed miserably. Sand isn't snow - it is sticky. I had to paddle with my hands and feet to make it down a grade I would have had zoomed through if it was snow-covered.
But the slow, hard-working descent had its bonuses, because I had the time to stop and look at the pale plants that grew at the lower part of the slope. One of them was this interesting shrub:
Desert Dicoria, Dicoria canescens

The further down I went, the further the rest of my family got. I stopped to look at this strange-looking grass that turned out to be quite rare and endemic to the Eureka Dunes area and when I raised my eyes from the plant I saw that Pappa Quail and the chika were already near the car.
Eureka Dunegrass, Swallenia alexandrae
The post sunset daylight was disappearing fast. These last images only look bright because of the camera's sensor adjustment, but in fact these photos were taken under low light conditions. Including this beetle that crossed my path to the car.

The wind was blowing hard now, and when I made it back to the Eureka Dunes Campground the chikas and their father were already tucked inside the car, safe from the grind of the airborne sand. I took one last snapshot of the Last Chance Range in the last of that day's light and got in the car.
Last Chance in the last light
It was a very dark drive back to Mesquite Springs Campground, and very windy and cold when we got out of the car. Without delay we built a campfire and cooked dinner, after which the chikas and Pappa Quail went inside the tent.
I remained outside to clean up and enjoy the desert silence. I also had a little surprise to prepare. Just before going on this road trip I invested in my very first dutch oven and I wished to surprise my family with a campfire peach cobbler in the morning.
I mixed the ingredients and tried my best to maneuver the heavy iron pot on the glowing coals. Then I sat back and looked at the heavens.
It was a no moon night and as I had hoped for - clear skies with a spread of stars that can no longer be seen anywhere near the Bay Area. It was absolutely spectacular.
I felt the urge to document the starry night, but sadly, I have not the proper equipment for night photography. I switched the lenses on my old camera to the wide angle, and went for a walk around the campground. But even the more sophisticated camera didn't work. After much manipulations and frustration I managed to snap a single shot, then gave up and resumed my quiet enjoyment to the scenery without worrying about documenting it.
Eventually I got too cold and tiered. I walked back to the campsite and put the camera away. Then I checked the cobbler: it was almost completely burnt. With a sigh I removed the dutch oven from the campfire leftovers and set it under the table, hoping that no local animal would prove strong enough to lift the pot's heavy iron lid. Finally, I quenched the fire and went in the tent.
Orion's Belt
I have previously visited three of California's inland sand dunes. The vast Imperial, Algodones Dunes, the popular Mesquite Dunes, and the Mojave Preserve Kelso Dunes, which are the only dunes I have actually submitted (twice). Now I have been to the Eureka Dunes as well, and I would go back there in the future to summit this 680 ft sandhill. I will try to time my next visit with the desert spring bloom, because the Eureka Dunes have some of the most unique and interesting flora of California.

Many thanks to members of the California Native Plants Society for their help in identifying plants!


  1. To get an idea of the scale of the dunes, look closely at the picture titled "Eureka Dunes". There is a small black dot on top of one of the dunes on left. It is a hiker.

    1. Thank you for pointing it out, darling. It is good to have a scale reference.

  2. I think this is the post with the least anount of plants I've seen on your blog... But the area is beautiful :-)

    1. Oh, I remember a few with less plants ... but I do try to incorporate the flora whenever possible :-)

  3. amazing place.
    I am now connecting everything to the Ecology class I'm taking - comparing plants according to their ecological position.
    the dunes are so amazing! here we don't have any real dunes anymore - it's all builts or stationed some other way :-(

    1. Yes I'm aware of that. It is so sad. People don't think a millimeter beyond their pocket :-(