Travels With Frito Eureka Dunes

Eureka Dunes is little-known, remote and empty. In other words, it's perfect.

It's a long, bumpy road and it's far from anywhere else, but the journey to Eureka Dunes is well worth the time and discomfort. Now, I have to admit, I'm biased. I love deserts. But this desert is special. Not only is it spectacularly beautiful, it's remote. And that’s a good thing. It means that you might have it all to yourself. I've made the trip to Eureka Dunes half a dozen times over the years, usually in springtime. It never disappoints.

Eureka Valley. In the distance, the Sierra Nevada

It's inaccessible not because it requires a special vehicle to get there, but because it requires special people to get there. It requires dedicated people. People who really, really want to experience this valley. The access road itself, while rough and dusty, is negotiable by a regular car and any competent driver. But there are rules. Drive slowly. Be prepared. Take everything you need, because there's nothing there.

Eureka Dunes access road

At the turnoff from Death Valley Road, you can see the dunes in the distance, barely ten miles away. Curb your enthusiasm. You're not there yet. In fact, you're still an hour away from digging your toes into the soft sand of Eureka Dunes. That's right. Ten miles, one hour. You can do it faster if you like, but the faster you drive, the greater the risk of damage to your vehicle, in particular, your tires. The road surface isn't gravel, it's rock. Sharp, jagged, nasty rock, and it'll kill your tires. Do you have spare? Have you practiced changing it? You should, because help is far, far away. And when it arrives, it'll be very expensive. In fact, most regular travelers in these parts carry two spares. But don't worry. Even if you're driving a city vehicle, if you drive responsibly, slowly, carefully, you'll arrive intact. And when you do, you'll be glad.

Allow two or three hours to drive from Big Pine to Eureka Dunes. Only the last third of the distance is not paved.
Eureka Dunes
Campsite at the foot of the highest dunes in California.

Bettered in height only by the dunes in Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, Eureka dunes offer what other dune fields in America lack: Solitude. If you're fortunate, you'll arrive after a windstorm and the only footprints you'll see will be your own.

At the dunes campsite, there are picnic tables, fire rings and a pit toilet. That’s it. There’s no food, no water, no services, no fees. And, if you’re lucky, nobody else.

Eureka Dunes campsite.
The Last Chance Range

Equally impressive as the dunes themselves is The Last Chance Range. These mountains cradle the dune field to the east and provide a spectacular amphitheater-like setting.

The wind sculpts the sand in endlessly changing patterns.
I found this feature in the midst of the dunes where nobody but me had walked for some time. I speculate it was formed by a small whirlwind. Certainly no human made it.
It's a good idea to time your visit for a full moon.

Being ready means that you need to be up there in those dunes when the time is right, and that involves what may be the most difficult aspect of dunes photography: climbing them. Endurance runners train in sand dunes because it’s such a good workout. The old rule of “two steps forward, one step back” is in full force in the dunes and I’m usually pretty tired after a few hours on the sand.

The dunes are hard on photographers and hard on camera gear. The endlessly shifting sands, and their partner the winds, get in to every crevice of both camera gear and photographers, and the lack of any kind of bath or shower in the valley can take its toll on hygiene. Cleaning camera bodies is fairly easy. Cleaning human bodies, not so much. Plenty of water both for drinking and washing is an absolute necessity. Count on several gallons per person per day in hot weather. Even in early April, daytime temperatures can be more than 30 degrees Celsius - hot enough to be dangerous unless you stay hydrated.

Sunset in the Eureka Valley, looking southwest.

It's a difficult journey - one that's hard on vehicles, cameras and humans alike, but it’s worth it. It’s worth every discomfort, every pain, every thirsty moment. Even if the light is poor and the skies uncooperative, even if the photographs aren’t portfolio material and the food is less than gourmet, you get to be there. You get to experience the total and absolute silence of the desert. And that’s the real reason to visit Eureka Dunes. The photographs are just souvenirs. The real treasure is the experience.

Created By
Peter Mclennan


Photos by the author

Made with Adobe Slate

Make your words and images move.

Get Slate

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.