ATV’ing California’s Sand Dunes
Camping and Riding in SoCal
Picturing Southern California conjures up images of Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Newport Beach and San Diego — but there’s so much more to explore beyond the mountains surrounding this cosmopolitan megalopolis. Drive away from all the people, heading east from the greater Los Angeles basin, and the scene quickly morphs. Skinny palms, packed freeways and pine-covered hills give way to barren, rugged mountains along Interstate 10. After passing the San Jacinto Peak near Palm Springs, the range opens to a desert valley populated by unnaturally tall wind turbines spinning in the rapidly moving air of this expansive basin.
Breaking off the interstate at Indio and heading southeast, state Highway 86 is the gateway to one of the most otherworldly regions in the United States: the brine-choked Salton Sea shining like an oasis, the abandoned resorts of Desert Shores and bright green farm fields that seem entirely out of place on this arid land. Who would’ve thought so much of our country’s produce comes from the desert?
Approaching the town of Brawley, just north of the U.S.-Mexico border, the terrain shifts again to impossibly flat, with the dark-shaded Chocolate Mountains looming in the distance. Twenty miles east of town, the farm fields abruptly end, and suddenly you’re surrounded by nothing but sand dunes. It looks like the Sahara, but you have now entered California’s Imperial Sand Dunes, where the landscape is so harsh that, in most cases, campers need the hard sides and stability of an RV to stay overnight. It’s either that or brave the elements, a contest the desert usually wins.
Arriving at California’s Sand Dunes
From above, the heart of the narrow Imperial Sand Dunes resembles a beige-colored fish on its side stretching 45 miles long by six miles wide. Its extreme terrain has been used to simulate other planets in films but is an earthly paradise to the motorized recreation crowd who call this place Glamis.
Local outfitter, Camp ‘N Style, services visiting riders and campers looking to brave one of America’s most unforgiving places. Our group was going to spend three days in the dunes, and boondocking in a trailer would be a powerful reminder of nature’s beauty and relentless power, as well as the Imperial Dunes’ remarkable recreation possibilities.
The trailers were delivered before we arrived. Our unit was a 26-foot toyhauler trailer that was capable of sleeping six and was one of four rental options ranging up to a 40-foot fifth-wheel. Each trailer came stocked with an on-board generator, TV with DVD player, a fully furnished kitchen (including coffee) and cleaning supplies for keeping things tidy during our stay.
Renting a Trailer
For the Imperial Sand Dunes, Camp ‘N Style charges a one-time delivery fee of $95, and a minimum two-night stay ranges from $378 in a 26-foot front queen travel trailer with a slideout, rear bath and adjacent rear bunk beds, or up to $478 for a fancier, 28-foot toy hauler with a front queen and bath, and a pull-down queen bed in the rear. Group discounts are available to those reserving three trailers on the same dates.
There are several other RV rental companies serving the park. However you come, all sites are primitive, widely dispersed and have no signage denoting individual sites. Several places also rent ATVs, multi-passenger UTVs and dirt bikes to visiting riders.
In brief, camping is allowed in the park for up to 14 days within a 28-day period at any location and is prohibited within 300 feet of any water source to protect wildlife and livestock. All trash must be packed up, camping is prohibited outside the six designated campgrounds within the Yuha Area of Critical Environmental Concern and a permit may be required for campfires. Contact the El Centro Field Office for current fire restrictions and assistance picking your site.
Two friends and I shared a toy hauler trailer — a coin was flipped for the queen-size front master bedroom, which I won, while my cohorts Jeff Henson bunked on the streetside sofa bed and Bill Lanphier climbed up on the elevated over-the-garage queen mattress.
A spacious bathroom was adjacent to the master bedroom in the front of the unit, and the ample space and ceiling height made post-ride showers easy for 6-foot-plus guys like us. The open-format galley, microwave, three-burner stove with oven and standard fridge made it easy to prepare morning coffee or mid-day snacks, although we left the major cooking to the culinary experts attending this trip.
Even when temperatures break 90 or 100 degrees during the day in this area, the dry air quickly cools when the sun slinks behind the horizon, so we had little use for the air conditioning. Ferocious winds rocked our trailer all night, though, which can be relaxing or disconcerting, depending on your point of view. After previous camping trips to Glamis, I’ve grown to enjoy the wind-blown nighttime soundtrack.
Sunrises here are equally mesmerizing, as shades of orange and yellow spread across the sandy horizon. The night winds wipe away the previous day’s tracks and footprints, leaving a clean slate of fresh sand. As soon as the sun begins its rise, the mercury starts climbing. Summertime temperatures often reach well above 100 degrees, so naturally spring, fall and winter are when the area attracts crowds, which can exceed 150,000 on holiday weekends.
Visiting the Sand Dunes
Most visitors come by truck or motorhome, pulling travel trailers, ATVs, dirt bikes and high-powered sand rail cars (some with burly V-8 engines) that can effortlessly charge up the tallest dunes. Some non-gearheads also come to bike or hike — only 40 percent of the sand field is open to motorized recreation — and others come to camp and enjoy the unique solitude of the desert.
Luckily, we came during mid-week and, seemingly, had the whole place to ourselves. That meant we also had our choice of where to set up basecamp, and picked a prime spot right against a tall dune along Gecko Road on the west side of the park.
ATV Riding in the Sand Dunes
With so much space to play in, beginning riders can go at their own pace as they learn to navigate these towering mountains of sand. Never assume what’s on the other side of a hill and watch out for sharp divots that hide in the shadows.
Advanced riders, like many in our group, take desert riding to a higher, faster level that’s a work of fine performance art. Thirty riders in bright safety gear lined up atop the rib-like dune behind our trailers as the lead rider shot off into the distance with the pack following right behind.
Staying close together, but not too close, can allow you to get into a symbiotic relationship with the rider you’re trailing, telling you precisely how to navigate the succession of massive sand bowls, long side hills, brush-lined scrubby sections and the steepest, tallest hills — Oldsmobile and China Wall, the two most famous attractions in the Imperial Sand Dunes.
We flew through enormous banked turns that pinned us to our seats, jumped our way out of bowls only to land in another, quickly scrambled across crumbling ridge tops, gained momentum following stomach-wrenching drops and threw gigantic rooster tails of sand executing the sharpest high-speed corners imaginable.
After every ride, we returned to camp wearing permanent smiles, covered in sweat and completely, utterly wiped out. With cooks preparing a lumberjack’s dinner, everybody cleaned up while the campfire was stoked and the sun faded. Even though water pressure was low, having a shower makes a big difference after such an active day. Also, the rear garage of our toy hauler camper was particularly useful as a place to shed and store sandy gear.
Around the Campfire
With two grills, a few Dutch ovens and a propane-fired grill combo camp oven, we roasted pork loins that were a welcome delicacy after a long day of exercise. We learned a few camp cooking tips, like slicing pork loins in half lengthwise to allow the seasonings to penetrate deeper for a juicier, more flavorful cut of meat.
After a little story telling around the fire, it was time for a competitive horseshoes tournament. Generator-powered floodlights illuminated our site and kept us lively until the sky was pitch black and our breath formed clouds in the cool night air. Being able to retreat to the comfort of a heated trailer was the cherry on top, an ideal end to a day spent in paradise; sleep came easily.
Sand Camping Tips
A few sand handling tips come from experience: blowing sand can damage the paint of your truck and trailer — or anything else left in the elements. Pay attention to the wind’s direction to minimize exposure, and take extra steps to prevent sand from intruding into nooks and crannies. A simple strip of tape over a keyhole, for example, can make a difference.
Sinking vehicles in the sand is also a concern, and a pushing them out is a common team activity out here. Don’t drive far off the paved road, because you can easily bury your truck up to the axles. As a preventative measure, lower the air pressure of your tires for maximum flotation and traction in the sand.
Not Just for ATV Riders
The sparse, unusual vegetation and the scent of wild sage blowing between the dunes, wild temperature extremes, driving winds and the remarkable sunrises and sunsets are just a primer for what you can expect while visiting this strange place.
Riding made it famous, but Glamis is not just for the motorized set. Other area attractions include the aforementioned Salton Sea and Joshua Tree National Park to the north, Picacho State Recreation Area and Chocolate Mountains to the east and the Anza-Borrego Desert State Wilderness Area and Cuyamaca Rancho State Park to the west. IAnd, for the truly adventurous, the lively town of Mexicali is just a short drive south of Brawley across the Mexican border.
In younger years, the desert never seemed of interest. Now expectations of a desert visit make me feel like a child approaching Disneyland for the very first time. The exotic desert camping and exciting off-road riding in the Imperial Sand Dunes are unforgettable proof that there’s much more to Southern California than its crowded coastal cities.
Sand Dune Regional Attractions
From bird watching at the mysterious Salton Sea to the tony resorts and restaurants at Palm Springs, extreme Southern California has many diverse places to create a unique and adventurous itinerary for your visit. Here are a few can’t-miss adventures within two hours of the Imperial Sand Dunes.
Named for twisty, spiky trees in the area, Joshua Tree National Park lies directly north of the Salton See just south of Twentynine Palms and encompasses 550,000 acres of scenic desert terrain. There are nine campgrounds in the park, as well as picnic areas for daytime visitors. Consider joining one of the ranger-guided walks, hikes or campfire talks, mostly during spring and fall, where you can learn more about the park and its surrounding ecosystem.
One of the planet’s largest inland seas and lowest spots — 227 feet below sea level — the Salton Sea stands out from its arid surroundings like an oasis in the desert, because that’s exactly what it is. Covering 14 miles on the northeastern shore, the Salton Sea State Recreation Area attracts campers, anglers, canoe and kayak enthusiasts, hikers and photographers. Bird watchers frequent the area for the diversity of migrating fowl that use this unique body of water as a rest stop on their cross-continental journeys.
An easy-to-reach gateway to California’s south-central region, Palm Springs is one hour and 45 minutes northwest of Brawley just off I-10. Aside from upscale restaurants and boutique resorts, Palm Springs has biplane and carriage rides, the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens, Hummer tours through nearby canyons, top-rated golf courses, bike and hiking trails, rock climbing and much more
Known for vibrant wildflower displays and blooming cactus in the spring, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park approximately one hour west of Brawley and is California’s largest state park. Visitors should keep their eyes peeled for desert wildlife including golden eagles, fox, mule deer, bighorn sheep, chuckwalla lizards and rattlesnakes. Camping is first-come, first-served, with hookup sites going for $30/night. The maximum trailer length is 35 feet. Day passes for fleeting visitors are $5 per car. The park is named for Juan Bautista de Anza, an 18-century Spanish explore, and borrego, which is the spanish word for bighorn sheep.