Earlier this week we took a break from our eastern side of the Mojave National Preserve to spend some time exploring the western portion of the place, specifically the Kelso Dunes. Spanning 45 square miles the dunes stand out from all the surrounding mountains with their soft brown peaks. Extending up from a skirt of creosote plains to approximately 600 feet at their tallest peak the dunes will catch your eye long before you get to them. Even though the previous week brought a rare dusting of snow to the dunes I had hoped that the recent heat wave might bring out some critters. I am hoping to one day catch a sidewinder doing its dance on the sands but I’ll spare you the suspense and tell you now there was no such luck this time.
Geologically young, Kelso Dunes started forming roughly 25,000 years ago. The fine grains of sand have blown over from the Mojave river sink and Soda Dry Lake to the northwest having been lifted and carried for miles by the prevailing winds. Dunes sort of march forward by having steep peaks that topple forward in a lift and fall repetition, stopping only when they meet a force greater usually in the form of a mountain range. In the case of the Kelso Dunes they stopped just north of the Granite Mountains. These are the Granite Mountains within the Preserve, not to be confused by the other two sets of Granite Mountains within a hundred miles of these Granite Mountains. These dunes have been stabilized in this location long enough with not much new sand accumulation to be pretty well covered in vegetation. The plants adapted to live with the ever changing dunes tend to have more stabilizing root systems and can withstand being partially covered from time to time. Although it’s not uncommon for them to be so buried that they suffocate and die. Even creosote growing in the sandy dunes skirts will adapt to have more roots than neighboring creosote in rocky soils. Other plants grow quickly spreading many seeds then die off before letting the dunes have a chance to change too much on them. We saw one such plant beginning to sprout, the endemic Borrego Locoweed. It only rains about 4 inches a year here. When it does rain the water percolates straight down. The fine sand is a tight filter so one does not have to dig deep to find moisture. Much like shimming your feet under the beach sand on a hot day.
Of course the best part of the sand is that animal tracks show so well. And because the wind is constantly sweeping tracks clean they are usually relatively fresh. Although it’s not always easy to know just who left the tracks you’re looking at it is a fun game to try and guess. A friend and her family visited us at the park and she took a picture that made me think immediately of ravens. However, comparing her boot next to the tracks in the picture makes one think it would be one big raven! There are kit foxes, coyotes, cottontail and jack rabbits, beetles, lizards and the world’s cutest rodent…the Kangaroo Rat.
As luck would have it Tim caught something small moving in a hole as we made our trek towards the top of the dunes. We sat quietly, Tim with a camera and me with the binoculars, while about 50 feet away emerged a Kangaroo Rat beginning his/her nightly duties of sweeping the entrances to at least four holes, taking stock of the plants nearby and occasionally stopping for a scratch. We giggled, took pictures and sat in gratitude for its willingness to share this time with us for about 15 minutes. After one last dramatic flip into its home again we moved on to our original intent. Slipping in the soft steep sand we made it to the top of the highest peak just in time for sunset. A moment shared with a few others who’d made the trek from the other side of the hill. Heading back down towards camp we ran down the untrodden portion of the hill and managed to make the dunes boom with each step. Kelso Dunes and the Eureka Dunes of Death Valley National Park are known for this booming sound as air escapes between the sand when it is disturbed. It brought a child like joy to the end of our evening.
Here’s a link to the video Tim took of the Kangaroo Rat: https://youtu.be/TecgDGdkqE8