First visit to Algodones Dunes

Three abstracts/extracts of the fantastic shapes and forms of Algodones Dunes, at or near the Hugh Osborne Overlook, where Highway 78 traverses the dunes.

I’ve long meant to visit Algodones Dunes (also called Imperial Sand Dunes because they’re located in Imperial County, and sometimes Glamis Dunes because a portion popular among off-roaders is located near the old railway station of Glamis, at the east side of the dunes on Highway 78). To visit the dunes in mid July may seem crazy at first, I know!

In Winter however, most of the area that has the biggest and most beautiful dunes is occupied by recreational users of off-highway vehicles – sand buggies, motorcycles, quads, and so on leave their tracks on the dunes. According to Wikipedia, up to 150000 people visit the dunes during the Winter months! Not pretty if you’re looking for unspoilt dunes. :) And also, while the temperatures are pleasant, Winter storms with rain and clouds coming from the West hardly reach the area.

That leaves Summer for photographing the dunes – in scalding temperatures of course. The interesting thing about Summer though is that tropical monsoon storms from the South-East (Arizona and Mexico) very well reach the area, bringing dramatic clouds and/or a cloud cover with very gentle and flat light, even when the sun is up. The downside are the temperatures. Then add a monsoon storm on top of it: temperatures above 90F (~35C), and high humidity – a combination that made me think “am I nuts?!” more than once.

When I visited the dunes, a monsoon storm had just passed through, leaving the top 1/2″ of the sand wet, but then while baking in the heat, a temporary, relatively hard layer that was actually easy to walk on had formed (while usually, the soft sand means two steps up, and slide one step back down, which would be an absolute killer in these temperatures). That way I was able to walk a bit into the actual dunes from Hugh Osborne Overlook and make the above photos (otherwise, snow shoes actually seem like a good idea).

I didn’t venture too far though because I wanted to scout more of the area. Further exploration led me down Gecko Road, where I almost got stuck in a ridiculously short bit of a sand that had drifted onto the pavement. Deactivating traction control, first gear and full throttle got me out of it, luckily. Wouldn’t have wanted to pay for a tow truck to go to the middle of nowhere!

With regards to the photographic quality of the dunes I’m a bit torn at the moment. They’re incredibly beautiful (I mean, just look at these shapes!), but also pretty damn far from San Diego: round trip including some side trips to check out other spots was 400 mi/640 km. The areas that are attractive and easily accessible are actually not that big. The highest dunes are south of Highway 78 – but along the ~5 mile stretch of Highway 78 that traverses the dunes are “No Parking Any Time” signs along both sides of the road. That only leaves Hugh Osborne Overlook as the starting point for explorations, and parking there is officially limited to two hours.

Maybe I’ll watch the weather forecast for the next two weeks more closely for that area… :-)

PS: I drove out on I-8 East, and somewhere between Ocotillo and El Centro, it rained really hard (Instagram video – warning, terrible sound, mute your speakers before clicking). Then the outside temperature climbed to 99F. Past El Centro, I continued north on Ogilby Road, and had to wait 15 minutes for flash flooding to die down in one spot. In other spots the road was flooded as well (another Instagram video). I love these extreme conditions (enjoyed from the safety of a car with A/C, obviously). And it really made me wonder where all that water goes.

9 Responses

  1. That looks Awesome, I need to explore that area more. 19 years and I still haven’t seen it all…thankfully. Nice shootin Pardner

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