The term evokes images of distant lands where the desert covers vast amount of miles. Vegetation barely exists. The wind works its wonders by forming well-defined crests at the top of piles of sand. The movement of the sun keeps changing the color of the panorama during the day.
In California we have deserts (Mojave, Great Basin, Colorado) but they are not covered by tall ‘mountains’ of sand. For dunes to exist there must be a source of sand, prevailing winds to move the sand, and a place for the sand to collect. The eroded canyons and washes of the deserts provide the sand, the wind seems to always blow but there are only a few areas where the sand is ‘trapped’ by geographic features such as mountains.
In Death Valley National Park (which lies on the Mojave Desert), there is an area surrounded by mountains on all sides (a perfect trapping site). There lies the notorious Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. They are not famous because of their height (tallest dune is about 100 feet which is kind of small) but because of their accessibility. It is easy to check out the dunes from one of the highways crisscrossing the park (there are other dune habitats in Death Valley but the access is more complicated).
Ohh, and these dunes are famous because of its relative proximity to Hollywood. Yes, Hollywood! Several movies such as Star Wars have been filmed in the area.
So, if film makers are able to use this place to recreate fantasy worlds, well, I think mere mortals can let their minds assemble all sort of scenarios when encountered with such a place.
It is estimated that about one percent of the desert is covered with sand. For that reason, a sand dune environment is highly coveted by the residents (and visitors) of the most populated state in the nation (i.e. people scream like children when they see dunes). And yes, the rangers will allow you to slide down the dunes.
The primary source of the dune sands is probably the Cottonwood Mountains which lie to the north and northwest. Experts believe large pieces of rock covered the field. With time, water and wind worked their magic and ended up creating the tiny grains we see today.
This part of the valley was covered by mesquite trees (hence the name of the place) before the dunes took over. The trees still survive in the new surroundings (along with the creosote bush).
An interesting fact to point out is that the Mesquite Flat dune field includes three types of dunes (oh boy, everything is classified nowadays): crescent (mounds wider than longer, the wind blows them from one direction), linear (mounds with straight ridges, they can present a light curvature in the ridge), and star shaped (several arms radiate from the top of the mound). Wow, who knew?
My visit to Death Valley National Park was affected by time constraints. Therefore, I didn’t get to climb the dunes or get far enough from the parking lot. However, it felt good to contemplate this sand sea, especially with a background of colorful mountains.
Next to the dune field, there is a feature called Devil’s Cornfield. It consists of an area covered by a plant called arrowweed. People who like to give a jovial tone to everything started to compare the weeds to corn (maybe because of the yellow hues on the plant) and started to say only the devil could eat the corn coming from those plants.
Have you been in contact with sand dunes?