Located a couple hours east of San Diego and directly above the US-Mexico border is a part of California that most people are unfamiliar with. The Imperial Sand Dunes are the largest mass of sand dunes in the state which makes it a popular destination for serious off-road aficionados and almost no one else. The forty miles of sand is typically deserted except for a few dune-buggies which bound across the dunes enthusiastically. This makes it an ideal location for a unique date as well as a popular spot for engagement photos.
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While it may seem like this national park may seem just like a bunch of sand in the middle of nowhere, it is much more than that. The dunes are an incredible place to take a break from the typical California scenery. When you arrive, it feels as if you are stepping out of the car and into the Sahara Desert. For those who haven’t spent considerable periods of time in desert landscapes, it feels otherworldly.
My boyfriend and I arrived at 6 pm and took in the spectacular view. We were immediately in awe. The mountains of sand leaned into each other for miles and eventually dissolved into the distant horizon. The untouched areas of sand were configured into incredible constellations. The entire experience was a wonderful way to rediscover my appreciation for the immense power that nature has. The Bureau of Land Management website says that this stretch of dunes was created by the “windblown sands of [the] ancient Lake Cahuilla.” The wind and land created this dune system in which some of them stand 300 feet above the desert floor. It is really an incredible place to get a little taste of wilderness and reconnect with the power of nature.
After taking a moment to appreciate the boundless landscape we set up a sweet picnic and relaxed. The sand was some of the softest I’ve ever felt. It wasn’t dusty, so it didn’t stick to our skin. We launched ourselves off the steep dunes only to be softly cradled by the sand upon landing. We spent the evening there and watched the sky fill with cotton candy colors as the sun set behind the dunes. It was one of the best dates we’ve ever had because it was like an adventure. We didn’t know what to expect and we didn’t have a plan. It was simple, yet beautiful. I highly recommend this experience to any adventurous person looking for a special experience.
Disclaimer: The Imperial Sand Dunes are in the middle of the desert so in the summer months it can be extremely hot during the day. The first time I went was in early May and the temperature was warm but extremely comfortable. We walked barefoot on the sand and a few spent hours exploring the dunes. I revisited the dunes in late September and it reached a scalding 110°F. The sand was unbearably hot, and the air was suffocating. I highly recommend visiting the dunes during cooler months. It is an unparalleled experience and it would be unfortunate for the experience to be spoiled by intolerable temperatures.
This hidden gem in southern California is unknown by many locals and most travelers. I highly recommend visiting but the experience is definitely what you make of it. You can get fancy and complicated with your sand dune plans but you can keep it simple and still have a great time. Bringing a picnic, a blanket, and a speaker is an easy way to ensure a pleasant time at the dunes.
Photos: Storrey Lance
Storrey has visited Imperial Sand Dunes twice for approximately three hours each time.
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