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.
Places to Ride: Imperial Sand Dunes, California
of Sand Dunes in the United States
One of many camp areas.
Border fence with Mexico.
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
Mammoth Wash - This area contains the very
northern tip of the dunes, it is the least
utilized of the four and offers the most
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
Other groups supporting off-road recreation in
- 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)
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
For the northern end of the dunes (Mammoth Wash
and Glamis) take Hwy 78 east out of Brawley,
California or Southwest out of Blythe,
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.
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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
- 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.
- 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
Be safe, enjoy, and I hope to see you in the