Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area

Today on my friend Lisa is taking us to a place that she took me last Spring. The Imperial Sand Dunes. My family was lucky enough to spend a few days with her family riding the dunes and digging in the sand. She even taught me how to ride a little. I wanted to share about the dunes, but knew she would be able to tell a better story. So here it is.

Imperial Sand Dunes. From late fall to early spring you can find people out riding the dunes and having a lot of fun!

Over the past 25 years or so, I have spent many weekends camping at the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area (ISDRA), also known as Glamis, CA. Growing up, my dad would take me out to ride in his dune buggy and play in the sand. It is where I met my husband. And now it is where we take our kids to get out of the city, camp, and ride.


The Imperial Sand Dunes is located in the south-easternmost part of California. The Arizona border is mere minutes down the road and the sand continues down past the border with Mexico.  The dunes are about 45 miles long and about 6 miles wide. Some of the areas are closed to vehicles for preservation, but most are available to ride through.


Thousands of years ago, the valley where Palm Springs and the Salton Sea are located was all covered with water. As that water dried up, the sandy lake bed was at the mercy of the wind, which blew the sand together and formed what now makes up the sand dunes of Glamis.

There are a few different areas of the Imperial Sand Dunes available to check out. Interstate 8 will take you through the southern portion of the dunes, along the border with Mexico. There, you can see the border fence that is monitored by the US Border Patrol. There is also a section of the original Plank Road, as well as a replica of what it looked like. The Plank Road was built in the early 1900s as a way for vehicles to cross the sandy surface before paved roads were in place.


The northern-most end of the dunes is called Mammoth Wash. This area is a little harder to get to since there is no main highway running nearby. But, it is more secluded than other areas.

The most popular area in the middle portion of the dunes. Gecko Road is one of the two main camping areas and is right off of Highway 78. This is where the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ranger station is located. Along the road, there are “pads” where RVs, trailers, trucks, and cars can all park without getting stuck in the sand. There are also outhouse-type bathrooms located along Gecko Road, at the campsites. On the other side of the dunes is “The Wash” camping area. This area, although not paved, is hard-packed dirt, where trucks and RVs should have no problem driving on.


From October through April, our family spends several weekends down at Glamis. My husband and I both have quads and share a dirt bike. Our boys each have a quad and my dad has a sandrail. We enjoy going with friends as well.

One of the most important things we pass on to people who have never been there before is dune safety. Although beautiful, the dunes can be dangerous if you don’t know how to navigate them properly. It is always best to ride with people who know the terrain.


The dunes are open year-round but can get extremely hot in the summer. The BLM doesn’t even staff the ranger station past April, due to the heat and lack of people down there. That makes for a very dangerous time to be out riding since there is no help nearby if you need it. There is a parking/camping fee of $35 (if purchased off-site) for a week pass, at a participating gas station or store on your way out to the dunes (if you wait to buy it there, it is $50).


Glamis is a bring-your-own lodging kind of place. Most people have motorhomes or trailers to sleep in. If you don’t have one, there are a few companies that will rent them to you. Or there are a few hotels, including a couple of major chains, in the nearby city of Brawley, which is just a 25 min drive away from the most popular spots.


The Imperial Sand Dunes is a very unique place. Although there are other off-road sites around California, and the rest of the country, Glamis has the largest open riding area. Because there is so much space, no two trips down there are the same.

For more information on camping and safety rules, check out the BLM website

This is day 20 of my 31 Days in Southern California see the whole series here.

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