Algodones Dunes

Last updated
Algodones Dunes
AlgodonesDunes ISS011-E-11543.jpg
The dunes from space
Location Sonoran Desert, Imperial County, California, United States
Coordinates 32°55′N115°3′W / 32.917°N 115.050°W / 32.917; -115.050 Coordinates: 32°55′N115°3′W / 32.917°N 115.050°W / 32.917; -115.050
Length45 miles (72 km)
Width6 miles (9.7 km)
Geology Erg

The Algodones Dunes is a large sand dune field, or erg, located in the southeastern portion of the U.S. state of California, near the border with Arizona and the Mexican state of Baja California. The field is approximately 45 miles (72 km) long by 6 miles (9.7 km) wide and extends along a northwest-southeast line that correlates to the prevailing northerly and westerly wind directions. The name "Algodones Dunes" refers to the entire geographic feature, while the administrative designation for that portion managed by the Bureau of Land Management is the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area (sometimes called the Glamis Dunes). In 1966, Imperial Sand Hills was designated as a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service. [1] The Algodones Dunes are split into many different sections. These sections include Glamis, Gordon's Well, Buttercup, Midway, and Patton's Valley. Although the Arabic-derived Spanish word algodones translates to "cotton plants", the origin of the toponym is unknown.



Dunes in the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area. Imperial sand dunes.jpg
Dunes in the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area.

The dunes are located west of the Chocolate Mountains in Imperial County, and are crossed by Interstate 8 and State Route 78, which passes through the old train stop of Glamis at the eastern edge of the dune field. The northwestern end is located at 33°8′53″N115°19′29″W / 33.14806°N 115.32472°W / 33.14806; -115.32472 about 11 miles (18 km) east of Calipatria, California, and the southeastern end is located at 32°41′4″N114°46′7″W / 32.68444°N 114.76861°W / 32.68444; -114.76861 near Los Algodones in Mexico, about 6 miles (9.7 km) west of Yuma, Arizona. The dunes are also now separated at the southern end by agricultural land from the much more extensive Gran Desierto de Altar, to which they once were linked as an extreme peripheral "finger". The only significant human-made structures in the area are the All-American Canal that cuts across the southern portion from east to west and the Coachella Canal on the western edge.


Remains of Old Plank Road in 2001 Oldplankroad.jpg
Remains of Old Plank Road in 2001

Because the Colorado River flowed through very flat terrain, the course of the river varied over a wide area, being periodically diverted in one direction or another by silt deposits remaining after floods. Sometimes the river flowed into the Gulf of California, as it does today (no longer flows into the Gulf of California due to irrigation in the Imperial Valley and Mexicali Valley); other times it turned westward toward the Salton Sink. Each time the Salton Sink received the river flow, a large freshwater lake called Lake Cahuilla formed. The last Lake Cahuilla covered much of the Imperial, Coachella and Mexicali Valleys as late as 1450. The most popular theory holds that the Algodones Dunes were formed from windblown beach sands of Lake Cahuilla. The prevailing westerly and northwesterly winds carried the sand eastward from the old lake shore to their present location which continues to migrate southeast by approximately one foot per year. [2]

The dunes have frequently been a barrier to human movement in the area. Foot travelers frequently diverted south into Mexico, and in 1877 the Southern Pacific Railroad was diverted north to avoid the dunes, but in 1915 Colonel Ed Fletcher built a wooden plank road across the dunes to prove that cars could cross the dunes and to connect San Diego with Yuma, Arizona. This trail eventually became part of Interstate 8. During World War II, the U.S. military conducted desert warfare training on the dunes, which were part of the California-Arizona Maneuver Area. People have been driving on the dunes for recreation almost since vehicles first reached the area, which may have been the proving ground for the first dune buggy, a modified Ford Model A. Off-road driving surged following World War II when surplus Jeeps became available to the public. [2]

Current recreational use

Holiday Weekend Traffic On The Dunes From Off-Roaders - Presidents Day Weekend. Glamis Presidents 263.jpg
Holiday Weekend Traffic On The Dunes From Off-Roaders - Presidents Day Weekend.
BLM Ranger EMS Rescue vehicles and helicopter drill, Algodones Dunes ORV area BLM EMS Park Ranger Rescue vehicle.jpg
BLM Ranger EMS Rescue vehicles and helicopter drill, Algodones Dunes ORV area
ATVs at Algodones Dunes SlabCityS-30.png
ATVs at Algodones Dunes

Environmental protection groups (notably the Center for Biological Diversity [3] ) and off-highway vehicle advocacy groups (notably the American Sand Association) have filed numerous petitions and lawsuits to either restrict or re-open vehicular access to the dunes. Most of the dunes located north of State Route 78 are off-limits to vehicular traffic due to designation as the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness. The federal government protected these 25,818 acres (10,448 ha) in the early 1980s and closed them to vehicles as part of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act (Public Law 103-433). Much of the area south of this road remains open for off-highway vehicle use, though a lawsuit in 2000 closed over 49,000 acres (20,000 ha) to vehicular access, leaving about 40% of the recreation area open to vehicles. In 2014, a significant portion (approximately 40,000 acres) of this area was re-opened for vehicular use. It is the largest sand dunes open to off-highway vehicle use in the United States. [4] The site's large sand dunes are a preferred terrain for many off-road vehicle owners. Motorcycles, sandrails, ATVs, and 4-wheel-drive vehicles are commonly driven across the dunes. Open camping is permitted, and on major winter holidays, as many as 150,000 people can visit in a single weekend. [5] These recreationalists bring an economic boom during the cooler months to the nearby towns of Brawley, California, Yuma, Arizona and El Centro, California.


According to the A. W. Kuchler U.S. Potential natural vegetation Types, the Algodones Dunes would have a Desert (vegetation absent) (46) vegetation type and a Great Basin Shrubland (7) vegetation form. [6] Research indicates that there is significant reduction in the diversity and abundance of species in dune areas subject to heavy ORV traffic. [7] A two-year survey of dune insects revealed over 1100 species were present, at least 60 of which were new to science. [8]

Endemic species

North Algodones Dunes Wilderness: This image shows the vegetation of the dunes, where they are not disturbed by recreational vehicles. Cbnorthalgodonesdunes2 100108.jpg
North Algodones Dunes Wilderness: This image shows the vegetation of the dunes, where they are not disturbed by recreational vehicles.

As they are the largest dune ecosystem in the United States, there are many species which are endemic to the Algodones system, so the region overall is biologically unique on a global scale. The Algodones were once part of an even greater dune system that now resides primarily in the Mexican state of Sonora, with a few extensions also in southwestern Arizona, especially in the vicinity of Yuma. Accordingly, it is likely that many of the species presently known only from the Algodones also occur in the Gran Desierto de Altar in Mexico, but this is difficult to ascertain without biological surveys of the latter area.

Among insects, there are dozens of species found only in Algodones or its neighboring areas, including:

In August 2006, federal wildlife officials decided not to list these species under the Endangered Species Act, due primarily to insufficient documentation of their distribution and phenology; biological survey work is planned to address this. [12]

Movie setting

The dunes were used to film parts of Road to Morocco , Flight of the Phoenix , Tobruk, Stargate, Resident Evil: Extinction and the Tatooine scenes in Return of the Jedi . John Ford made the 1934 version of The Lost Patrol (1934 film) here. Outside of movies, the dunes also appear in the opening sequence of the TV series Kung Fu , and were the filming location for the music video of Deftones' 2003 single Minerva. [13]


According to the Köppen climate classification system, the Algodones Dunes have a Hot desert climate (BWh). According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the Plant Hardiness zone is 10a with an average annual extreme minimum temperature of 32.7 °F (0.4 °C). [14]

Climate data for 6 S Glamis, Imperial County, CA
Average high °F (°C)69.1
Average low °F (°C)43.3
Average precipitation inches (mm)0.46
Average relative humidity (%)39.537.233.026.724.321.629.033.331.131.334.339.231.7
Average dew point °F (°C)31.9
Source: PRISM Climate Group [15]

Related Research Articles

Imperial County, California County in California, United States

Imperial County is a county in the U.S. state of California. As of the 2010 census, the population was 174,528, making it the least populous county in Southern California. The county seat is El Centro. Established in 1907 from a division of San Diego County, it was the last county to be formed in California.

Imperial Valley Valley in California, United States

The Imperial Valley lies in the California counties of Imperial and Riverside in southeastern Southern California with an urban area centered on the city of El Centro. The Valley is bordered by the Colorado River to the east and, in part, the Salton Sea to the west. Farther west lies the San Diego and Imperial County border. To the north is the Coachella Valley region of Riverside County, which together with Imperial Valley form the Salton Trough, or the Cahuilla Basin, also the county line of Imperial and Riverside counties, and to the south the international boundary with the U.S. state of California and Baja California.

Colorado Desert Subdivision of the larger Sonoran Desert, California

California's Colorado Desert is a part of the larger Sonoran Desert. It encompasses approximately 7 million acres, including the heavily irrigated Coachella and Imperial valleys. It is home to many unique flora and fauna.

Old Plank Road Historical trail and road

The Old Plank Road is a plank road in Imperial County, California, that was built in 1915 as an east–west route over the Algodones Dunes. It effectively connected the extreme lower section of Southern California to Arizona and provided the last link in a commercial route between San Diego and Yuma.

Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Dune system in California

Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes is the largest remaining dune system south of San Francisco and the second largest in the U.S. state of California. It encompasses an 18-mile (29 km) stretch of coastline on the Central Coast of California and extends from southern San Luis Obispo County to northern Santa Barbara County.

Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge

Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge (CPNWR) is located in southwestern Arizona in the United States, along 56 miles (90 km) of the Mexico–United States border. It is bordered to the north and to the west by the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, to the south by Mexico's El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve, to the northeast by the town of Ajo, and to the southeast by Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument Protected area in California

The Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument is a National Monument in southern California. It includes portions of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountain ranges, the northernmost ones of the Peninsular Ranges system. The national monument covers portions of Riverside County, west of the Coachella Valley, approximately 100 miles (160 km) southeast of downtown Los Angeles.

Delhi Sands flower-loving fly Species of insect

The Delhi Sands flower-loving fly is a species of mydid fly in the genus Rhaphiomidas. It was the first fly added to the Endangered Species List in the United States.

Glamis, California Unincorporated community in California, United States

Glamis is an unincorporated community in Imperial County, California. It is located 22 miles (35 km) northeast of Holtville, at an elevation of 335 feet.

Ogilby, California Ghost town in California, United States

Ogilby is a ghost town in Imperial County, California, United States. Ogilby is located on the Southern Pacific Railroad 42 miles (68 km) east of El Centro, and 3.8 miles (6.1 km) north of Interstate 8 on County Road S34. The name is official for federal use, and a feature ID number of 252950 has been assigned. Ogilby is defined by the US Geological Survey as a populated place at 356 feet (109 m) AMSL elevation. NAD27 latitude and longitude are listed at 32°49′01″N114°50′20″W on the "Ogilby, California" 7.5-minute quadrangle (map). It is included in the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District. It lies at an elevation of 364 feet (111 m).

Sand dune stabilization

Sand dune stabilization is a coastal management practice designed to prevent erosion of sand dunes. Sand dunes are common features of shoreline and desert environments. Dunes provide habitat for highly specialized plants and animals, including rare and endangered species. They can protect beaches from erosion and recruit sand to eroded beaches. Dunes are threatened by human activity, both intentional and unintentional. Countries such as the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Netherlands, operate significant dune protection programs.

Lower Colorado River Valley

The Lower Colorado River Valley (LCRV) is the river region of the lower Colorado River of the southwestern United States in North America that rises in the Rocky Mountains and has its outlet at the Colorado River Delta in the northern Gulf of California in northwestern Mexico, between the states of Baja California and Sonora. This north–south stretch of the Colorado River forms the border between the U.S. states of California/Arizona and Nevada/Arizona, and between the Mexican states of Baja California/Sonora.

Havasu Wilderness

Havasu Wilderness is a 17,801-acre (72 km2) wilderness area located within the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge near Lake Havasu in the U.S. states of Arizona and California. 14,606 acres (59 km2) are located in Arizona and 3,195 acres (13 km2) are located in California.

Pilot Knob (Imperial County, California)

Pilot Knob is a peak in Imperial County, California. Pilot Knob is located 8 miles (13 km) southeast of Ogilby, It rises to an elevation of 876 feet (267 m). Pilot Knob is a rocky landform, geologically a Volcanic plug, west of Yuma, Arizona–Winterhaven, California; it is connected to the Cargo Muchacho Mountains, the central portion of the mountains being about 7 miles (11 km) north. Pilot Knob was named for its prominence as a landmark for riverboat traffic in the 19th-20th centuries on the Colorado River which borders Winterhaven–Yuma. Pilot Knob is an Area of Critical Environmental Concern administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

Lepismadora is a monotypic genus of beetles in the family Buprestidae, the jewel beetles. It contains the single species Lepismadora algodones, which is known by the common name Algodones sand jewel beetle. It is endemic to California in the United States, where it has been collected only from the Algodones Dunes in Imperial County.

<i>Cicindela albissima</i> Species of beetle

Cicindela albissima, commonly called the Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetle is a species of tiger beetle endemic to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in southern Utah, United States. It was originally described by Rumpp in 1962 as the subspecies Cicindela limbata albissima, but mitochondrial DNA, along with the species' morphological and geographical distinctiveness, have shown that it is a separate species. C. albissima can be distinguished from other Cicindela species by its restricted range and lack of pigmentation on its elytra.

Lake Cahuilla Prehistoric lake in the Salton Sea basin of California

Lake Cahuilla was a prehistoric lake in California and northern Mexico. Located in the Coachella and Imperial Valleys, it covered surface areas of 5,700 square kilometres (2,200 sq mi) to a height of 12 metres (39 ft) above sea level during the Holocene. During earlier stages of the Pleistocene, the lake reached even higher levels, up to 31–52 metres (102–171 ft) above sea level. During the Holocene most of the water came from the Colorado River with little contribution from local runoff; in the Pleistocene local runoff was higher and it is possible that Lake Cahuilla was supported solely from local water sources during the Wisconsin glaciation. The lake overflowed close to Cerro Prieto into the Rio Hardy, eventually draining into the Gulf of California.

Pseudocotalpa andrewsi, known generally as the Andrews dune scarab beetle or Andrews dune beetle, is a species of shining leaf chafer in the family Scarabaeidae. It is endemic to the Algodones Dunes in California.

Anomala hardyorum, or Hardys' dune beetle, is a species of shining leaf chafer in the family Scarabaeidae. It is endemic to the Algodones Dunes in North America.


  1. "National Natural Landmarks - National Natural Landmarks (U.S. National Park Service)". Retrieved 2019-04-14. Year designated: 1966
  2. 1 2 Where Did the Sand Dunes Come From? Bureau of Land Management. Archived 2007-02-04 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved on February 18, 2007.
  3. "Algodones Dunes - GLAMIS". Retrieved 5 April 2018.
  4. "ISDRA Sand Dune Guide". Retrieved 5 April 2018.
  5. Sandsports at Archived 2006-11-01 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved on February 18, 2007.
  6. "U.S. Potential Natural Vegetation, Original Kuchler Types, v2.0 (Spatially Adjusted to Correct Geometric Distortions)". Data Basin. Retrieved 2019-07-10.
  7. Van Dam, A.R. & Van Dam, M.H. (2008) Impact of Off-Road Vehicle use on dune endemic Coleoptera. Annals of the Entomological Society of America 101:411-417. DOI: 10.1603/0013-8746(2008)101[411:IOOVUO]2.0.CO;2
  8. Wasbauer, M.S., Kimsey. L.S. (2009) The Pompilidae of the Algodones Dunes, California, with description of new species (Hymenoptera: Pompilidae). The Pan-Pacific Entomologist, 86(1): 2-9, DOI:
  9. Bureau of Land Management, El Centro Field Office. Retrieved on February 18, 2007.
  10. California Department of Fish and Game. Retrieved February 18, 2007
  11. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-02-16. Retrieved 2007-02-18.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link) Retrieved on February 18, 2007.
  12. "Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; 90-Day Finding on a Petition To List 16 Insect Species From the Algodones Sand Dunes, Imperial County, CA, as Threatened or Endangered". Federal Register. 71 (160): 47765–47771. 2006.
  13. Dangelo, Joe. "Deftones Brave the Elements to Shoot Minerva Video". MTV. Retrieved 23 February 2021.
  14. "USDA Interactive Plant Hardiness Map". United States Department of Agriculture . Retrieved 2019-07-10.
  15. "PRISM Climate Group, Oregon State University". Retrieved July 10, 2019.