Many people think that the Sonoran Desert looks like the Sahara. Sorry, it doesn’t. Our desert has scrub brush, sagebrush, various cactus species, and lots and lots of granite rocks, burped up from volcanoes that shaped the desert when it was still an ocean.
But in a tiny corner that scrunches Mexico, Arizona, and California into a wrinkle, there are sand dunes that look exactly like the Sahara. I drove through them today as I drove from Phoenix to San Diego to the poetry retreat.
The Imperial Sand Dunes (the link takes you to a map) were blown into place from the long-gone Lake Cahuilla. The lake was there when the desert was still tropical, before the San Andreas fault pushed up mountains that blocked the ocean air from the land.
The dunes created a natural barrier which blocked rail and foot traffic until the 20th century. The first road across the dunes was a plank road. The same workers dug a canal to bring water from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley, which is the vegetable and fruit basket of California.
The stories about the dunes–the natural history–are many and wonderful. After the canal was built to supply water to
the Imperial Valley, the Colorado River flooded. A mistake in the plan of the canal caused water from the flooded river to create the Salton Sea, a lake that experienced huge popularity as a spa location in the 1950s and then went bust. It’s busy drying up now. Because it collects silt, it is also saltier than the Pacific Ocean.
Back to the dunes. Driving west on I-8, you cross the dunes for about five miles. It’s a culture shock, seeing red and gold sand dunes after driving across the Sonoran desert floor for long stretches without towns, gas stations or even the ever-present RV parks.
The sand dunes are moving. The wind keeps blowing, and the dunes are moving southwest at the rate of one foot a year. Don’t get in their way. They won’t go around you.
—Quinn McDonald is a naturalist who is easily impressed by the combinations dreamed up by Mother Nature and Father Time.