Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes – Death Valley National Park, CA

When I imagine the desert, I imagine sand dunes. There is something profoundly romantic about an ever-shifting landscape, knowing that the hills I see on the horizon will not be the same hills I see tomorrow or even an hour from now. The wind will shift the sands, erasing footprints and reshaping the hills. The dunes endure in a constant state of transition. It is the desert at its most ephemeral.   

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The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes cover a 14-mile area. There are no trails, obviously. But visitors wander from the parking lot onto to the dunes. Like Badwater Basin, there are a lot of people near the entrance but the farther we wander out the less crowded it becomes.

As signs at the site explain, the Mesquite Flat sane dunes are formed as rock erodes from the nearby mountains into loose sand. The northern winds carry the sand into the valley until the winds are blocked by Tucki Mountain. The southern winds carry the eroded sand from Tucki Mountain into the valley. Collected sand forms the dunes. A clay lakebed is the floor of the valley and we could see cracks as we walked over the flat surface.

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The dunes form a variety of shapes – crescent, star, and linear – but I can’t appreciate the difference from the ground. Aerial photography can better show the simple and complex forms created by the winds. The dunes were small compared to others in the area. The highest is only about 100 feet according the National Park Service.

There is a cinematic quality to a horizon of yellow dunes beneath a clear blue sky, so it is unsurprising the Mesquite Flat sane dunes have been featured in film. Fans of Star Wars may recognize the Mesquite Flat sand dunes as the Tatooine Dunes. It is where George Lucas filmed the scene between C3PO and R2D2 after they survive their pod crash. Death Valley actually served a film location for a number of scenes in the original Star Wars films. Desolations Canyon, Artist’s Drive, and Golden Canyon all appear in the film in addition to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.

When I imagine sand dunes, I usually think of Peter O’Toole (or more recently, Daisy Ridley) marching over an endless, barren desert. But there is wildlife in the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, including the Mojave desert sidewinder. This venomous snake leaves distinctive tracks as it undulates across the sand. Fortunately, I don’t see a snake or it’s tracks.

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If you’re visiting, I suggest going close to sunrise or sunset. It is beautiful to watch the light dim and colors change over the distant mountains and hills of sand. There are also usually less people at the beginning or end of the day, less still if you hike about half a mile or so out onto the dunes. Visitors can also visit after dark to star gaze.

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are a beautiful place to end our visit to Death Valley National Park. We had climbed golden canyons, slid down pale dolomite dry falls, and descended into salt flats as we explored the wilderness. Beside us on the trail were our new friends from Trail Mavens . Standing on the sand dunes with them, our shared experiences forming a bond both sudden and strong, I have a profound sense of serenity.

We don’t stick around after sunset. Tired from hiking Mosaic Canyon and exploring the sand dunes, we drive back to our Furnace Creek campsite to celebrate our last night in Death Valley National Park with a little wine around the campfire.

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We have not received any compensation from Trail Mavens for this post.