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By: Dave Helgeson
Dave Helgeson and wife Cheri enjoy exploring the Western United States in a RV. Their interests include off-roading, hiking, prospecting, ghost town hunting, and exploring other out-of-the-way and forgotten places.

Imperial Sand Dunes

Places to Ride: Imperial Sand Dunes, California
The Granddaddy of Sand Dunes in the United States



First tracks!
First tracks!

One of many camp areas.
One of many camp areas.

Vendors.
Vendors.

Big dunes.
Big dunes.

Border fence with Mexico.
Border fence with Mexico.

Fun for all!
Fun for all!

The Imperial Sand Dunes, located in the southeast corner of California, are the largest sand dunes open to off-road vehicle use in the United States. Imperial Sand Dune Recreation Area (ISDRA), which is the official title of the area, encompasses the entire dune complex which measures 40 miles long in a band averaging 5 miles wide. Other names you are likely to hear the ISDRA called include: Algodones, Glamis, Buttercup, and Ogilby among others.

As a result of it being a designated wilderness area, administrative closures, roadways, and a canal, the areas where riding is allowed are pretty much broken up into four distinct segments. The areas from north to south are as follows:
Mammoth Wash - This area contains the very northern tip of the dunes, it is the least utilized of the four and offers the most solitude experience.

Glamis - This is the area immediately to the south of Hwy 78, which includes the Cahulla Ranger Station and the majority of the improved camping areas via paved access. This is where you will find the largest and most heavily used dunes. If you want to hill climb or just watch the action, head out to one of the many named dunes such as: Competition Hill, Oldsmobile Hill, Brawly Slide, Lizard Hill, or China Wall.

Ogilby - This area is north of I-8 and the All American Canal. The area contains three designated camping areas via un-surfaced roads and Test Hill.

Buttercup - This area is south of I-8 and north of the International border with Mexico.

It includes the Buttercup Ranger Station, three designated camping areas via paved roads and Comp Hill. It also contains a short section of the historic plank road which was the first roadway through the dunes.

The sheer surface area of the dunes assures there is something appropriate for every skill level. Big dunes, little dunes, valleys, and desert scrub, the ISDRA has it all.

Best times to ride are fall through spring. Winter temperatures range in the 60-70° range while summer temperatures consistently exceed 100° and may reach 120° on occasion.

With the annual rainfall at less than 2”, the only weather hazard you may experience will be blowing sand. Three-day weekends can be busy with up to 160,000 visitors on the sand.

A map of the dunes showing the riding areas and campgrounds can be found at:

Imperial Sand Dunes Map

One of the local ATV clubs that calls the ISDRA home is the DIRTY Southwest Off-Road Badboys Society.

Other groups supporting off-road recreation in the dunes:

  • The United Desert Gateway (UDG). A nonprofit public benefit corporation comprised of the Brawley, El Centro and Yuma Chambers of Commerce. They work hand-in-hand through an Assistance Agreement with the Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management and other partners to enhance the recreational experience at the ISDRA.
  • San Diego Off-Road Coalition (SDORC)
  • American Sand Association (ASA)

Camping:

NO SAVING SPACES - The reserving of camping spaces is prohibited. Sites are allocated on a first come/first serve basis.
DUMPING - Dumping of sewage (black) and/or gray water is prohibited.
CAMPING LIMITATIONS - A 14-day camping limit is in effect in the ISDRA. There are no additional fees required to camp in the ISDRA.
DISPERSED CAMPING - Dispersed camping is allowed throughout the ISDRA. No parking or camping within 10-feet of the pavement on Gecko Road is allowed.

Getting There:

For the northern end of the dunes (Mammoth Wash and Glamis) take Hwy 78 east out of Brawley, California or Southwest out of Blythe, California.
For the southern end of the dunes (Ogilby and Buttercup) take I-8 east out of El Centro, California or west out of Yuma, Arizona. A map of the entire ISDRA with access routes can be found at the link listed above.

Services:

The two largest cities in the vicinity of the ISDRA containing all major services are Yuma, Arizona and El Centro, California. Other than seasonal weekend vendors that set up in the staging areas, services are very limited in the vicinity of the dunes, so come prepared.

If you didn’t bring your own ride, rentals are available at:

Imperial Sand Dunes ATV Rentals - Phone (928) 314-4345
Jet Rent - Phone (928)314-4345

Rules and Regulations:

  • PERMITS ARE REQUIRED FOR THE MAIN VEHICLE ENTERING THE ISDRA. Permits are $25/week or $90/year if purchased off-site before entering the ISDRA. Purchased on-site permits are $40/ week or $120 / year. Pay stations located throughout ISDRA accept cash and credit cards. Complete details along with a list of off-site permit vendors are available at:
  • SAFETY FLAGS ARE REQUIRED ON ALL VEHICLES IN THE IMPERIAL SAND DUNES RECREATION AREA. All vehicles shall be equipped with a whip mast and a 6x12 inch red/orange flag. Flags may be of pennant, triangle, square, or rectangular shape. Masts must be securely mounted on the vehicle and extend 8 feet from the ground to the mast tip. Safety flags must be attached within 10 inches of the tip of the whip mast with club or other flags mounted below safety flag or on another whip.
  • A 15 MPH SPEED RULE EXISTS ON THE SAND HIGHWAYS. No person shall operate an OHV in excess of 15 mph on public lands within 500 feet of Highway 78, Grays Well Road, Gecko Road and access roads within the Gecko and Roadrunner recreation sites.
  • FIRES: The burning of potentially hazardous materials e.g. (but not limited to) gas, oil, plastic and magnesium is prohibited.
  • NO GLASS BEVERAGE CONTAINERS ARE ALLOWED. Possession or use of any glass, cup or bottle, empty or not, used for carrying any liquid for drinking purposes is prohibited. Persons may pick up glass beverage containers discarded by others to remove for deposit in approved trash receptacles.
  • NO ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES ALLOWED WHILE RIDING ON BLM LANDS. No person shall drink an alcoholic beverage, have in their possession or on their person any open container that contains an alcoholic beverage while operating in or on a motor vehicle or OHV on public lands administered by BLM within the state of California.
  • USE OF AUDIO DEVICES. No person shall operate or use any audio, such as a radio, television, musical instrument, or other noise-producing device or motorized equipment between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. in a manner that makes unreasonable noise that disturbs other visitors; or operate or use a public address system without written authorization from BLM.
  • PUBLIC NUDITY:  Public nudity is prohibited in the ISDRA.
  • RIDING IN PICKUP BEDS AND OTHER UNSAFE ACTIVITIES. No person shall ride in the bed of a pickup truck or any part of a motor vehicle not designed for passengers on or off-road.
  • SHOOTING: Target shooting is prohibited within the ISDRA. The legal pursuit of game is permitted.
  • LEASH LAW: Animals must be kept on a leash not longer than six feet and secured to a fixed object or under the control of a person, or otherwise physically restricted at all times.

REGISTRATION:

  1. Vehicles operated on federal and state highways, county roads, and BLM's Gecko Road, Gray's Well Road, and McCain Valley must be licensed for highway use.
  2. Off-highway vehicles owned by California residents must be registered with the California Department of Motor Vehicles and display a valid Green Sticker or Red Sticker Vehicle Identification Tag in a clearly visible location on the vehicle.
  3. Off-highway vehicles that do not have a valid registration or permit from the owner’s home state (incl. Mexico and Canada) will be required to purchase a California non-resident permit (sticker) through selected vendors in CA, NV, or AZ. Permits may also be purchased from CA Dept. of Parks and Recreation (916) 324-4442.

For Additional Information:

Bureau of Land Management
El Centro Field Office
1661 S. 4th Street
El Centro, CA 92243
Phone: (760) 337-4400
Fax: (760) 337-4490
Office Hours: 8:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., M-F
Website: http://www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/elcentro.html

Be safe, enjoy, and I hope to see you in the sand.


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