What would a desert be without oases and sand dunes? At Joshua Tree National Park in the California desert, you can hike to both … sort of.

Joshua Tree has a few oases, of which 49 Palms Oasis is the most famous and the easiest to reach. And then there are the Pinto Basin Sand Dunes.

They technically aren’t dunes but a layer of fine sand covering an elevated ridge.

No marked trail heads to the dunes, but they’re visible from Turkey Flats and can be reached with a 3.94-miles round trip north-northeast cross-country walk.

To reach the trailhead, from the park’s Oasis Visitor Center on Utah Trail just south of Calif. Hwy. 62, take the former south. Once in the park, Utah Trail becomes Park Boulevard. Turn left/southeast onto Pinto Basin Road. In a little more than 12 miles, look for the Pinto Basin Sand Dunes Trailhead on the road’s left/north side. Park in the lot.

A trail that used to be an old road at the lot’s north end heads across Turkey Flats for about 400 feet to a borrow pit. It’s a man-made feature where material excavated for use at another location.

Hike to sand dunes in Joshua Tree National Park

The hike to the Pinto Basin Sand Dunes requires bushwhacking across the desert.

You don’t have to stop hiking there, though. The rest of the way to across and into the dunes requires some bushwhacking, and you’ll gain about 65 feet in elevation along the way.

Begin by heading back to the parking lot. Then walk in a straight line on a bearing of 34 degrees. (Yes, you should carry a compass when day hiking!) Prominent on the horizon is Pinto Mountain, a 3,987-foot summit.

This bearing crosses Turkey Flats, so named because allegedly a farmer bought the land in the 1920s with the intention of setting up a turkey farm there. Reality sunk in so no turkey farm was built, but the name stuck. Creosote Flats – as creosote is the dominant plant here – would be more fitting.

The route heads up a “dune,” though you’ll be able to tell that you’re just on a ridge as rocky outcroppings rise out of the sand.

Another giveaway that you’re not a dune are diminutive wildflowers that bloom in spring. Both violet-colored desert sand verbena and pink desert calico blossoms can be seen, and neither would be able to root in shifting sand.

One thing you won’t see in the basin is the Joshua tree. At a lower elevation than the park’s northwestern portion, Pinto Basin sits in the Sonoran Desert where Joshua trees don’t grow.

Hike to sand dunes in Joshua Tree National Park

The walk to and over the dunes passes a lot of desert scrub and creosote.

Some 2000 to 9000 years ago, the basin was far less foreboding; in fact, it was downright inviting. Creeks flowed off the surrounding forested mountains with a waterway heading down the basin’s center. Hunter-gatherers, named “Pinto Man” by modern archeologists, flourished here.

At about 1 mile in, you’ll crest the ridge. Stay on a 34 degrees bearing, and in 0.9 miles, you’ll reach a drop-off, where the ridge falls 100 feet into the Pinto Wash. This marks a good spot to turn back.

The entire hike is exposed to the sun, so be sure to don sunscreen, sunglasses and sunhat as well as carry plenty of water. As you’re slogging across sand, you’ll definitely want to wear quality hiking boots and use a trekking pole. To avoid heat stroke, the trail is best done during February to April and October to November when temperatures are pleasant.

If hiking in a group, walk single file to minimize impact on the terrain; a number of animals make their homes here by burrowing, and stepping over the desert can pack the soil or cover openings with sand.

Note: You can shorten the route by 0.14 miles by skipping the road to the borrow pit or by 1.8 miles if you only walk to where the dune – er, ridge – crests.

sand dunes







Image Sources

  • The hike: Rob Bignell
  • scrub and creosote: Rob Bignell
  • They look like sand dunes: Rob Bignell