Trip Report: Algodones Dunes Wilderness – Dec. 4, 2010

If you’re a landscape photographer, you’ll inevitably find yourself lost in a sea of sand.  No, this isn’t Tatooine (the desert planet in Star Wars, and Luke Skywalker’s home).  It’s the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness, an expansive dune field in the southeast corner of California.  Off-roaders know this area as Glamis.  George Lucas chose these dunes to film key scenes in his epic trilogy, and I traveled here to shoot some photographs that will never become quite as famous.  So, I suppose this is Tatooine, in a way.

Star Wars fans might wince at my reference to Lucas’ franchise as a trilogy, but as a child of the 70’s, that’s precisely what it is.  My apologies to Jar Jar Binks.

It’s no mystery why sand dunes make for such excellent photography.  They’re typically located far away from cities and people.  Dry and inhospitable, they don’t attract crowds or tourists.  The wind-shaped features provide wonderful leading lines, repeating patterns, and interesting shadows.  Constantly changing, each trip to the dunes brings something new.  This is a relatively simple, uncluttered environment where you must focus on the very fundamentals of composition.

Ripples in the Sand

Dune photography is not necessarily easy, though.  In a sparse, minimalist environment like this, composition becomes especially critical.  I have found that I’m unable to rely on fantastic sunrise/sunset light to aid in my dune photographs.  During those times, the sun is so low that the dunes themselves are often in shadow, leaving them looking flat and uninteresting.  Instead, there seems to be a 5-10 minute window of opportunity, about 30 minutes prior to sunset (or after sunrise), where the light is ideal for making a compelling dune photograph.

Algodones Dunes

There are other considerations, of course.  The bane of any dune photographer is footprints.  Human footprints are the worst, but as I discovered on this trip, even animal tracks can pose a problem.  My friend Scott Lawson, who arranged this trip, had been watching the weather for weeks and we decided to make the trip to Algodones following a few days of high winds.  We must have arrived too late, though, because the dune crests already showed traces of footprints.  Had someone walked these dunes a few days earlier?  Animal tracks were everywhere!  There were areas that looked like a wildlife super-highway.  Mice and other rodents, jack rabbits, lizards, roadrunners, and larger paw prints which I assume were left by coyote and fox.  And all manner of other tracks I was unable to identify.

We parked at the edge of the northern tip of the dune field, a few miles north of Hwy 78, and just east of the lookout.  It took us an hour or so to reach the highest dune, where we dropped our gear and made camp.  Camp consisting of two sleeping pads, a bottle of Syrah, and an odd mix of beef jerky and energy bars.

We discussed strategy.  Unable to levitate, we had to be careful where we roamed, since we would leave a swath of footprints in our wake.  I headed north and found a few interesting areas.  I remarked to Scott, how nice it would be if we could “control-z” our footprints away (that’s some lame Photoshop humor).  We eventually made it back to camp, where we spent the next 14 hours waiting for the sun to rise.  This is where the Syrah comes in handy.

Shadows and Curves

If you’re interested in dune photography, I have a few tips.  First, you’ve got to pick a site.  Here in Southern California, we have a number of options.  The Eureka Dunes and Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley are wonderful, but they do receive a lot of traffic (relatively speaking) and are fairly remote.  Death Valley, of course, offers a lot of potential for other types of photography.  The Kelso Dunes in the Mohave are really nice, and nearly as high as the Eureka Dunes.  This was my first trip to Algodones, and I will definitely return.  Though smaller than the aforementioned areas, these dunes seem to attract fewer people, and they’re a quick drive from Los Angeles or San Diego.  Actually, Algodones is far larger than the aforementioned areas, but most of the dune field is open to recreational vehicles.  Unless you want to photograph tire tracks while worrying about being run over, I’d recommend you stay north of Hwy 78.  A quick google search reveals many of the other dune fields in North America, like the fantastic Great Sand Dunes National Park (Colorado) and White Sands National Monument (New Mexico).

Of course, if you’re planning to spend the day (or days) on the dunes, you should be prepared.  Carry lots of water, let someone know where you’re going and when you intend to return, and protect your gear.  Hiking on fine sand is challenging, even if you’re in excellent shape.  You’re constantly going up and down steep slopes and by my estimate, a mile traveled over the dunes is equivalent to two or three on a typical hiking trail.  As I write this, my feet and calves are quite sore from the hiking we did.  I prefer to hike in thick wool socks (no shoes).  These keep my feet warm and offers protection from sharp pieces of vegetation, and socks don’t become packed with fine sand (this happens with shoes, and it’s painful).  You might find a pair of trekking poles come in handy.  A GPS device is useful, especially if you plan to ditch some gear and hope to find it later on.  I’ve never been on the dunes in high winds, but in normal weather your gear should be fine, as long as you’re careful.  If its windy out, use your best judgment before deciding to change a lens.

Experiment in Minimalist Black & White

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4 Responses to Trip Report: Algodones Dunes Wilderness – Dec. 4, 2010

  1. Andrew says:

    I see you got some nice shots out on the Algodones Dunes and was wondering where exactly you parked and started your hike from. I’ve been picking up some backpacking gear for next summer in the Sierra and wanted to hike out into Algodones dunes and spend the night for photography but when I drove out there earlier this year it looked like the tallest dunes were just on the northern side of 78 and from satellite imagery it looks like the northern tip just kind of peters off. Any help/advice you can give is greatly appreciated.


    • Jason Kim says:

      Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for your comment. I thought the same, based on some preliminary research using Google Earth. There is a dirt road just east of the lookout tower, and immediately west and adjacent to the railroad tracks. This road, which is well graded, runs along the eastern edge of the dune field, which extends for at least 5+ miles north of the 78. Here, the dune field is about 1/2 mile wide by my estimate, and there are lots of high crests to explore. Definitely lots of opportunities for photography and you’ll be able to find a nice secluded area, if that’s what you’re after. Have fun in the Sierra this summer, perhaps we will cross paths…

  2. Eli Reichman says:

    Jason, your work is beautiful. My son, a couple of friends and I recently visited the Great Sand Dunes in CO. Unfortunately it was a typical winter day with heavy winds and biting cold temps. Very interesting to see the dunes in those conditions, but not very hospitable for shooting! I’ll look forward to seeing more of your work. All the best, Eli.

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