Planning our Mojave Desert road trip, I imagined sand dunes with deep ripples in undisturbed sand, looking like we have a vast desert to ourselves. All this in an a national park?
We saw no sand dunes on our first day at Death Valley, when we drove more than an hour south to the end of the road. On our second morning, we drove a half hour north to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
With 2″ of rain a year, Death Valley National Park is certainly a desert. We think of deserts with sand dunes, but the National Park Service says that “less than one percent of the desert is covered with dunes”.
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 provide plenty of sand, the wind seems to always blow (especially in the springtime), but there are only a few areas in the park where the sand is “trapped” by geographic features such as mountains.
After arriving at the sand dunes, we noticed that the sand dunes close to the parking lot already had footprints, like the above photo.
A ranger told us that the fierce windstorm when we arrived at Death Valley actually did us a favor. High winds move sand and erase footprints in the sand. Without the storm, there would have been even more footprints.
We found this sand dune without footprints. Creosote bushes are on the left; other dunes and the Amargosa Range are in the distance. Creosote bushes (larrea tridentata), a California native plant, are common on the valley floor. We asked the ranger about mesquite here at the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, and he pointed to a circle of dead trees.
We found some tracks and got excited. They’re on the left side of this photo. A snake, perhaps?
On the way back to the parking lot, we found the ranger and asked about snake tracks.
He pointed to some tracks. “Was it like this?”
“Yes, that’s it!”, we said.
“Beetle, with sharp indentations from its feet”, said the ranger.
So much for tourist fantasies. Here a broader sand dune with beetle tracks in the foreground.
The ranger told us that Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are formed by alternating north and south winds that blow the sand to this spot near the middle of this north-south valley. If the winds didn’t alternate, the sand dunes would be at the north end or the south end, and not the middle.