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Kelso Dunes
Hiking Around Las Vegas, Mojave National Preserve
Kelso Dunes
Kelso Dunes
Kelso Dunes (view N from trailhead)


This route runs across open desert and sand for about 1.5 miles to the top of the Kelso Dunes, which stand some 470 feet above the trailhead. After the first few minutes, the trail disappears into the sand, but the summit is always in view and there is little chance of getting lost. Running down the steep south face of the tallest dune makes for a fun route back to the trailhead.

The sand dunes spread across 45 square miles and rise to a height of about 650 feet above lands to the north.

Link to map.

Kelso Dunes
Dunefield near the trailhead (view N)

Watch Out

Other than the standard warnings about hiking in the desert, ...this is a safe hike. Guard your eyes and camera equipment if the wind and sand are blowing.

While hiking, please respect the land and the other people out there, and try to Leave No Trace of your passage. Also, even though this is a short hike, be sure to bring what you need of the 10 Essentials.

Kelso Dunes
Afternoon color at the crest of dunes (view E)
Getting to the Trailhead

This hike is located Mojave National Preserve, about 2 hours south of Las Vegas.

From town, drive out to the Kelso Depot Visitor Center (Table 1, Site 0837). In Kelso, turn left and drive south on Kelbaker Rd. Cross the railroad tracks and continue south for 7.8 miles (towards Interstate-40) to Kelso Dunes Road (Site 0838), which is just before some tin buildings that can be seen from a long ways off. Turn right onto Kelso Dunes Road and drive west for 2.9 miles to a pullout with restrooms (Site 0121), which is just southeast of the highest dunes. Park here; this is the trailhead.

Kelso Dunes

The Hike

From the trailhead (Table 2, Waypoint 01), walk north towards the highest sand dunes. There is no particular route, just wander out into the sand following the footprints, but avoiding walking on the vegetation (it is hard enough to live out here without getting trampled). Heading for, and then ascending, the east ridge makes for a reasonable route to the summit.

Kelso Dunes
Dunefield and trailhead (view S from summit)

Out in the dunes, watch for footprints from the animals that live out there. The burrows around the bushes are mostly dug by kangaroo rats. These cute little rodents hop on their hind legs like kangaroos. They have long tails with a tuft of fur on the end that they use for balance. Watch for their tracks. When they are hopping along slowly, you will see side-by-side footprints with a mark where their tail drags in the sand. If hopping fast, they hold their tail in the air for balance, so there is no drag mark, and the paired footprints can be several feet apart. Lizards also make tail-drag marks, but their footprints are alternating rather than paired. Watch for "sand swimmer" (Mojave fringe-toed lizard) tracks: lizard tracks that seem to disappear into the sand.

kelso dunes
High winds produce ripple marks in the sand
Bird prints tend to alternate, never have a drag mark, and have three toes pointed forward and one toe pointed backwards. Snake tracks are seldom seen, but watch for lines of smoothed out sand with no footprints. If you are really lucky, you might find the disconnected, S-shaped tracks of a Sidewinder. If you follow the tracks and find the snake, don't try to pick it up. Most people who are bitten by rattlesnakes get that way because they tried to catch the snake, and the poor little frightened thing just tried to defend itself from the monster.
kelso dunes The route into the dunes starts out heading slightly downhill following the slope of the land. Through this area, the vegetation is typical of lower-elevation Mojave Desert: vast flats of Creosote Bush and White Bursage on coarse, sandy soils. There are many kangaroo rat burrows through here too. After about 0.25 miles, the route gets into the dunes, and the vegetation switches to species that can survive on the shifting sands: here bunchgrasses (probably Big Galleta Grass) and a straw-colored shrub. After another 0.4 miles, the dunes start to get steep. On the steep dunes, it is another 0.6 miles to the crest. Climbing to the crest of the dunes in the soft sand is hard enough, but the really hard part is hiking along the crest to the summit (Wpt. 02).
Kelso Dunes
Dune grasses at sunset (view SE)

The views from the summit are worth every effort. Off to the east are the steep and craggy Providence Mountains. To the south are the imposing Granite Mountains. To the west is the Devil's Playground where sand fields seem to go on forever.

Return to the trailhead by running and rolling down the steep south face of the tallest dune, then wander back among the dunes to the trailhead, which is always visible from high points in the dunefield.

Table 1. Highway Coordinates Based on GPS Data (NAD27; UTM Zone 11S). Download Highway GPS Waypoints (*.gpx) file.

Site # Location Latitude (°N) Longitude (°W) UTM Easting UTM Northing Elevation (feet) Verified
0121 Kelso Dunes Road at Dunes trailhead 34.8923 115.6982 618949 3861679 2,614 Yes
0837 Kelso Road at Kelso-Baker Road (Kelso) 35.0120 115.6533 622875 3875010 2,119 Yes
0838 Kelso Road at Kelso Dunes Road 34.9012 115.6483 623497 3862721 2,815 Yes

Table 2. Hiking Coordinates Based on GPS Data (NAD27; UTM Zone 11S). Download Hiking GPS Waypoints (*.gpx) file.

Wpt. Location Easting Northing Elevation (ft) Verified
01 Kelso Dunes Trailhead 618950 3861680 2,614 Yes
02 Kelso Dunes Summit 617181 3862879 3,083 GPS

Happy Hiking! All distances, elevations, and other facts are approximate.
copyright; Last updated 120427

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