Woke Up at 4AM and Drove To Kelso Dunes

It’s weekend before Finals week? Well, that didn’t stop me from hiking up one of the largest sand dunes in North America. Kelso Dunes is in the Mojave National Preserve. At 45 square miles and 650 feet above the desert ground, Kelso is larger than any dunes found in the famous Death Valley. This highly underrated park deserves some more recognition.

kelso dunes
kelso dunes

the basic info about kelso dunes

Where: Located on the Kelso Dunes road in Mojave National Preserve
Miles: 3 round trip
Elevation Gain: ~600 ft
Difficulty: It can be as easy and hard as you want. If you hike to the top of the tallest dune, then it can be a little bit tough but you get a pretty view still at the top of a small dune.
Trail Head: GPS for exact trail head is 34.886424, -115.715783
Highlight: A stunning view of the dunes area
Estimated Time: 2 hours (I was there for 4 hours of course because the view was amazing and I ate lunch at the top)
When To Hike: I highly suggest you hike before noon up because the sun will be behind you. Then hike down afternoon so the sun will be behind you on the way out as well. Trust me, hiking up this mountain of sand with the sun beaming in your eyes are no fun. Also, during the summer, starting at dawn is your only option because it will be too hot to hike after even 9am.

Check out this video I took of the dunes at the top

The weekend before finals, I felt the urge to rejuvenate my soul before a week of pure stress. After deciding that a Saturday to myself is necessary for main sanity, I woke up dark and early at 4AM and hit the road to the majestic Mojave Desert with Kelso Dunes and Lava Tube in mind.

shadow kelso dunes

Entering the Mojave National Preserve was an experience in itself. No one else was on the road and you will feel as if you’re driving to nowhere. This further provoke my wanderlustful soul. Filled with excitement, I sped up the car and in a matter of minutes, I saw the Kelso Dunes coming up on my left.

Be careful as there is no obvious sign, you will want to turn onto Kelso Dunes Road to head toward the Kelso Dunes. In about 5 minutes, a restroom will come up on your right and this will be where you park.

Don't hike up this slope; it's too stepp and too much work unnecessary. Try to find a small slope to hike up to the ridge of the dunes.
Don’t hike up this slope; it’s too stepp and too much work unnecessary. Try to find a small slope to hike up to the ridge of the dunes.

The trail is none existing. The wind blows away the foot print and eliminate any ability to actually create an easy to follow trail here. This hike will require some guts feeling and willingness to explore.

The trailhead will lead you out into the open and vast desert floor of the dunes and quickly you will realize that the trail has ended but instead, you will see hundreds of footprints in the sand that go off at dozens of different directions. There’s no need to pick one to follow. None of them are leading you to the right place. It really depends on you. Just hike toward the dunes and as you get closer just make sure that you’re heading toward the tallest one.

kelso dunes view

Make sure to stay on the sand as the freezing nights and unbearable hot days already make it difficult for these plants to survive here. You will see a dune with a clear path to the top; this isn’t the best way to get to the top. The slope is extremely steep and the sand is so soft that you will literally be on your knees trying to crawl up the dune.

It is much easier to hike up on the right than straight up. Explore around a little bit and hike up the shorter slope. Once you get to the top, stop, and take in the view. It is majestic and the vastness of the area is unbelievable. The dunes are surrouded by a range of mountain, making it seems as if you’re standing in the center of the world.

sun kelso dunes

It was quiet when I was there because I was the only one. I could hear the nothing but the sound of the wind and it was the first time ever when I hear the wings of a bird. I sat down and the sand was cold (i hiked in December). I rested my backpack and pulled out my lunch. Although it was 10am, I was already hungry enough to eat a turkey.

The ridge of the dune
The ridge of the dune

I thought at the moment that this was exactly what I needed. After weeks of hard work, this was so rewarding. Nothing is quite like spending time with myself. It makes it much easier to go on my own pace, stop whenever I want, and just truly be myself. I just sat there and stared out into desert floor. I felt so content. This helped me through a week of finals. Thanks Kelso Dunes, you kept me sane.

kelso dunes black and white hiking kelso dunes

The high dunes
The high dunes
one of the best spots for lunch breaks ever
one of the best spots for lunch breaks ever
Me at the top of the dunes
Me at the top of the dunes


  1. I’ve been dreaming about going dune sledding over Christmas Vacation. I am a weekend warrior too. Check out my blog and maybe we can share some ideas 🙂 Thanks for great post and beautiful pics!

  2. Kelso Dunes looks like a beautiful place to visit. It is amazing how just by going to a less popular place you can truly sometimes get the place to yourself. Solitude is a rare commodity these days.

    1. hi Frank, it’s a gravel road but all vehicles will make it. it was a super easy drive but dusty. You should definitely do this! it’s awesome. if you go on Saturday at 11am, a ranger will lead a hike which might be interesting. let me know if you have other questions

    1. Very worth it! the view is awesome and the hike up isn’t too bad – just take your time! there are quite a few other things to do in the mojave as well.

What do you think about this cool place?

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