Kelso Dunes at Sunset: Hiking in Mojave National Preserve

It’s hard to believe this vast expanse of desert is located only 3 hours from Los Angeles and even harder to believe the sheer size of the dunes when you see them for the first time. The Kelso Dunes are a great place to experience something completely different such as climbing to the top of a massive pile of sand, which is a feat in itself.  I recommend the journey in time for sunset as I am sure you will thank me for it when you see the colors the sun and the desert are creating for you, just remember these photos look better in real life.

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Details

  • Free
  • 4 miles and 700 hard feet of elevation
  • Dirt road for 3 miles to get there but should be passable by most cars

If you enter from the North side of the preserve you will be able to see the Kelso Dunes at least 25 miles before you get to them, they are that big. As one of the most popular locations in the park there are a decent amount of signs leading you to the dirt road that will take you to the dunes. While it is a little washboard it was not bad at all to drive on, there are worse roads in the Salton Sea and I easily did it in a Toyota Matrix.

Kelso Dunes 1

After three miles you will see a toilets and the trailhead to start this hike. Be warned this hike is not as easy as the details make it out to be. You are going to be walking in sand about 90% of the way and as you get higher up it will be two steps forward one step back. That being said it is worth it when you get to the summit.

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The terrain itself is a lot of hills as you approach the main dune so you will be going up and down and constantly seeing views like this. There is not really a path persay and you will see foot steps leading in all directions.

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As you start to get to the base of the dune you will be able to look back at the amazing dunes you have conquered so far.

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This is where the fun starts, from here you will push up to the small notch between the two biggest dunes.You can go explore the other one or just proceed up Kelso.I was chasing the sun so I just went up the main one.

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This part was actually pretty nice as well since the sand was hard in some places, making the incline much more doable.

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The push up is difficult but you will be able to see some amazing views as you climb as well as drops on both sides of you in the sand.

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After all of that you will make it to the summit, which is a T-shaped area that is only about 10 feet across at it largest point. Take it all in there is an amazing 360 degree view from up here.

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If you came at sunset like I suggested, kick off your shoes (they will be full of sand anyway) and just enjoy the barrage of colors that will soon greet your eyes over the desert sky.

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I happened to have my helicopter with me so I grabbed some video of the area, check it out below.

after you finish your time on the summit you will be ready for the trek back which is a lot more fun. The sand is soft and it seems to go fast as you walk back. In no time you will be back at the parking lot with a story to tell.

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Check out the rest of the photos below and get directions. I would love to hear your comments below as well, especially if you have done it and have something to add!

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  • John

    How much time would you say the walk is from where you park near the toilets?

    • It would depend on how fast you normally hike, as the sand is difficult to walk in. It normally takes about 2 hours for me to complete the trail which is 3 miles.

  • michelle

    is there a trail that you can follow here?

    • There are a lot of footsteps that you can follow but no real trail, it is mostly just walking whatever way you think will be best for getting to the top. I always aim for the notch to the right of the dunes as it seems to be the best place to get up to the top.

  • Kristins

    This was such a awesome hike. Amazing views and something I never expected to see in California. It was pretty challenging to get to the top but we made it… Going to see the lava tube prior to the hike was also a huge treat.

    A tip for anyone planning to do this hike: check the wind report! We couldn’t hang out until sunset because the wind was kicking up the sand like crazy. It was like being in a tornado of sand. I am going to be coughing it up for weeks :).

    • Thanks for the comment, I am glad you enjoyed the hike! That is a good tip about the wind, I have been lucky when out there but I imagine it kicks up pretty good.

  • Jun

    Your blog blog is amazing! I am thinking about getting up the dunes before sunrise. Is there anything which would speak for a sunset trip instead? (I want to take pictures.)

    • Thanks for the comment! It shouldn’t be too hard to navigate in the dark as there isn’t a great trail anyway you just want to continue heading up and make sure to bring water and a headlamp. I am sure it would be stunning at sunrise!

  • Lidia Chavaque

    These pictures really caught my eye! I would love to be there for the sunset though. What time do you recommend I get there? I’d say my level of hiking is intermediate.

    • I would say it takes double your normal time to go 2 miles uphill. The sand is tough as you get higher. I would plan on at least an hour to get up to the summit. It is worth the hike as it is so amazing for sunset!

  • Thanks for the comment and nice work on that video, it is awesome and windy!

  • Nilabjo Banerjee

    this seems super cool! would you suggest its okay doing this solo? also, is it alright to drive here with a rental car?

    • I think this hike fine to do solo, but make sure to not do it when is really hot outside though! I am not sure what to recommend about your rental car question as all policies are different for those cars.

  • Chinedu O

    Hi Josh,
    Greetings from up here in Toronto, Canada. I just happened to stumble upon your very amazing blog while planning my Christmas 2016 roadtrip to California / Nevada. The original plan was to spend three days just exploring Death Valley with a friend. Then I decided to check out Joshua Tree National Park and what might be interesting to see on the way…….and bam! Kelso dunes come up. We’ll be staying in LV and doing the 3 hr trip to DV, Hoover Dam etc.
    Sorry for the “longness” of this post, but is there anything else that you could recommend between/around LV and Joshua Tree? I’ve tried to fit in Yosemite, but can’t. I need 3 days plus, to drive back to Toronto through Calgary (to drop off my friend) in the winter.
    Great job with your travels. I love travelling too. Just did a road trip from Toronto to The Arctic Circle (Canada) and Fairbanks, Alaska in August.

    Thanks “muchly”,
    Chinedu………call me Chi, everyone else does.