If you’re much of a Star Wars fan like we are, you may remember the scene in New Hope where C3P0 and R2D2 are arguing on sand dune about which way to go. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is where that scene was filmed. Although Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes lacked droids and other Tatooine denizens, the scenery awestruck me. Tawny dunes smoothly rise up from Mesquite Flats, perpetually whipped up by wind. The desiccant air sapping moisture at every opportunity, and the sun merciless and threatening to pierce any kind of sunblock I have on. The sand underfoot gives way at the slightest pressure and despite extended effort, I made half as much distance than intended. And yes, the sand invades everything.
In the late afternoon, light accentuates the ripples and patterns, sometimes turns the sand into a bronze color. Scattered between the dunes are colonies of creosote bush and some mesquite trees. In the distance, there’s the largest crest of sand that I could never hope to reach without more water: the Star Dune, with sand 140 feet deep. This dune is considered stable and stationary because it is at a point where the various winds that shape the dunes converge. This sand Dune isn’t highest dune in Death Valley National Park, that honor belongs to Eureka Dunes, where the sand crests up to a whopping 680 feet.
Down further into the basins of Death Valley, we wandered on a rough road to the spring-fed Salt Creek. The minute you get out of the car, you can almost smell the water — according to the signs the water is too salty to drink. The hike was easy in comparison with the dunes. The trail is a wooden boardwalk which loops 1/2 mile through pickleweed bushes and past pools reflecting badland hills. When the creek swells from rainwater in the spring, the Death Valley pupfish (which are only found in Salt Creek) emerge and mate in the brackish waters. We saw plenty of pupfish writhing in shallow waters laying and fertilizing eggs. In the summer, much of the creek dries up, and the pupfish retreat to pools found on a small side trail beyond the boardwalk.
Along the boardwalk we ran into a chuckwalla lizard, who was munching on some vegetation but got startled by our approach. We attempted to follow it, but it quickly ran off to hide in some rocks of the nearby hills. We also spotted a number of insects and birds, which frequent the waters during spring, but are said to be sparse in high summer.
Both places are worthy of a visit, just bring plenty of water. And it’s okay to take a bit of sand with you if it’s caught in your shoes, but leave the pupfish to their romantic frolicking.