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Death Valley – Day 1: Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

In late October 2015, I spent a week traveling through Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra Nevada region.

A three-hour drive took me from Las Vegas to Stovepipe Wells in the heart of Death Valley National Park.

Image courtesy Google Maps


Next to Stovepipe Wells, and located at the northern end of the Death Valley floor, are the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, which I visited at sunrise on day 1.  It was a most extraordinary experience to walk into the dunes for the very first time. A profound stillness and calm overcame me as I stood among the vast, gently undulating sandy expanse. It was a truly magical experience. I did visit the dunes again later in the week, and they were still magnificent, but the almost spiritual nature of my initial visit was not to be repeated.

On this particular day, there was extensive low cloud, with diffused soft light enveloping the dunes and producing scenes with relatively low contrast.

The dunes cover a vast area, even though the highest dune rises only about 100 feet. They are surrounded by mountains on all sides.  The dune field includes three types of dunes: crescent, linear, and star shaped.

The largest dune is called Star Dune and is relatively stable and stationary because it is at a point where the various winds that shape the dunes converge.

The primary source of the dune sands is probably the Cottonwood Mountains which lie to the north and northwest. The tiny grains of quartz and feldspar that form the sinuous sculptures that make up this dune field began as much larger pieces of solid rock.

In between many of the dunes are stands of creosote bush and some mesquite, which used to cover this part of the valley before the dunes intruded (mesquite was the dominant plant here before the sand dunes but creosote does much better in the sand dune conditions).

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes have been used to film many desert and sand dune scenes in movies, including those in the Star Wars series.

More images from the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are in the ‘Dune‘ gallery on this site.

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