Bureau of Land Management (El Centro office), 760.337.4400
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Click here for permit purchase information
Yuma serves as the gateway to one of the nation's largest mass of inland sand dunes, which extend for more than 40 miles along the eastern edge of California Imperial Valley.
Now a national recreational area, this natural sand box acts as a magnet for off-road enthusiasts in all but the hottest months and welcomes more than one million visitors every year (go to the BLM website for a short video introduction with manager Neil Hamada).
Just 20 miles from Yuma, the dunes also have served as a movie location since the silent-picture era. Moviemakers first filmed here in 1913, and pictures have been made here in every decade since, including "Star Wars" and more recently, "Jarhead" and "Scorpion King."
Want to get out in the sand on your own? Rent an ATV, Razor or Rhino from YVB member Jet Rent and give ‘er a try - (928) 314-4345, www.jetrentyuma.com.
The dunes are divided into three areas, beginning with Mammoth Wash in the north. Next is the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness, where motorized vehicles are not allowed and access is by foot or horseback only. The biggest and most heavily used part of the dunes begins at Highway 78 and continues south just past Interstate 8. More than 80,000 acres are open to off-highway vehicle use.
A watchable wildlife area off Glamis-Niland Road north of Highway 78 provides parking with access to the wilderness area. The Osborne Overlook off Highway 78 offers scenic views into both the wilderness area and the unrestricted part of the sand dunes.
Vehicle camping is permitted in all areas open to vehicle use, with sites available on a first-come, first-served basis. The two main camping areas are Buttercup, Midway and Gray's Well campgrounds along Gray's Well Road south of Interstate 8 and Gecko and Roadrunner campgrounds along Gecko Road south of Highway 78. All offer parking pads, toilets and trash facilities.
Use permits are required within the recreational area for "primary vehicles" - the street-legal vehicle that gets you there - and are available for the season or for a seven-day period. Permits are also required for vendors, filming or special events like weddings, races or organized group activities. Season permits run from October 1 through September 30 of the next year.
Save money by buying your permit offsite - by phone, online or from an authorized dealer (locations through Arizona and Southern California), see www.imperialsanddunes.net for details. A season permit costs $90 offsite, $120 at the dunes, a weekly permit costs $25 offsite, $40 at the dunes. This change was made to reduce congestion at dunes checkpoints, so take advantage and save.
Don't miss seeing a remnant of the plank road that first crossed the treacherous "sand hills" in 1915. Made from lumber spiked to wooden crosspieces that "floated" on the shifting sands, the original was improved the next year and used until 1926. The plank road remains can be seen at the west end of Grays Well Road, south of Interstate 8 (there's also a section of the plank road at the Quartermaster Depot park in Yuma).
There is a highway rest area between the eastbound and westbound lanes of Interstate 8 that will let you get a closer look at the dunes (and turn your vehicle around) without paying a fee, but there is no access to the dunes from the rest area. If you drive out to take a look at the dunes, keep your eyes open for glimpses of the fence that marks the border with Mexico - it was designed to "float" on the surface of the sand.