If you crave a wilderness experience of solitude, silence, and stark beauty, than the Eureka Dunes, in the remote Eureka Valley of Death Valley National Park, are calling your name. At more than 680 feet, they are the tallest dunes in California and the second tallest in North America. Covering an area of only 3 square miles, these majestic dunes are tucked at the foot of the Last Chance Mountains in a dry lakebed, and are in one of the remotest areas of the park that is still accessible by vehicle.
Location: Death Valley National Park, California, USA
Trailhead: Various points off South Eureka Road; From Scotty’s Castle Road, take a left on Ubehebe Crater Road (3 miles), make a right onto Death Valley Road (33 miles), finally turn left onto South Eureka road and continue 9 miles until you arrive at the dunes. They last 42 miles are mostly on graded dirt/sand roads; pit toilet
Length: 3+ miles roundtrip to tallest dune (distance varies by route); elevation gain also varies by route
Trail Type: Open route
Warnings: No water or services available. Only high clearance vehicles with four-wheel drive can travel the unpaved, rough, and sometimes rutted roads. Be ready for possible flat tires and no cell service or immediate assistance. Bring food, water, and supplies to last you multiple days in the event you need assistance. The Eurek Valley is not frequently visited. Sandboarding is illegal. It is illegal and destroys the rare and endangered vegetation that exists only on these dunes.
The Eureka Dunes are hands down my favorite place and my favorite hike in Death Valley. White sand and steep cresting dunes, an all-encompassing silence, and the feeling that one has found their way into Mother Nature’s bosom await those fortunate enough to complete the journey to the Eureka Dunes.
And what a journey it is. Coming from the Stovepipe Wells area, the trip out to the dunes covers 86 miles and the last 42 miles are on graded dirt and sandy roads that range from slightly rough to downright bumpy. With careful driving, however, even rental SUVs equipped with 4-wheel drive can make the journey. To be safe, make sure you have a spare tire and a can or two of Fix-a-Flat.
After arriving at the dunes, you have your choice of starting points for your hike. If you are staying at one of the dry campsites, you can setup your tent and hike from there or you can continue driving along South Eureka Road, which flanks the dunes, until you find a suitable spot to park. Be sure to pick out some natural landmarks near your car because distances are deceiving as you walk along the dry lakebed to the dunes from your car. Since there really is no path, I suggest you aim for the top of the highest dune and start heading up. This is easier than it sounds because you are walking on sand and the incline becomes quite steep as you progress. You may soon find yourself on all fours just so you can make decent progress. As you climb, the views become grander and the shrubs on the valley floor turn into distant specks. Rather than a slow trek to the top, I opted for some sustained cardio and kept my legs pumping as fast as they would go until I ran out of breath and had to take a breather. The many false summits made the trek to the top a little exasperating at times, but I was always able to console myself with the surrounding views.
When I finally crested the top of the highest dune, I was elated and held speechless. The Last Chance Mountains loomed on my left, the Saline Range stood resolute on my right, and the Eureka Dunes spread down below my feet as I continued to walk along the upper crest of the dune. I spied four fellow hikers about half a mile away on a lower dune and their silhouettes stood out starkly as the warm rays of the setting sun turned the dunes a golden-yellow.
I sat quietly for a time alone with my thoughts and then started my journey back to camp. It was time to cook up some hot food and then wait for midnight with a bottle of champagne to welcome in the New Year.
*One thing to note is that the valley and dunes themselves are extremely cold in winter. I did this hike on New Year’s Eve and stayed the night to celebrate the New Year (the best New Year’s ever btw) and the temperature got down to 15 degrees. Day time temperatures were above freezing, but I was still bundled up until I worked up a sweat climbing the dunes.