Guide to the Imperial Sand Dune Recreational Area [Algodones Dunes]

Imperial Sand Dunes/Algodones Sand DunesHave you ever been driving out of San Diego or LA and noticed those massive sand dunes just off the freeway? Maybe you thought to yourself…”how could I have lived here for so long and never knew about this?”. Or maybe you grew up near them and know everything I’m about to tell you. Either way, here’s the breakdown of the Imperial Sand Dune Recreational Area, also known as the Algodones Dunes.

Imperial Sand Dune Recreational Area vs Algodones Dunes?

The term “Algodones Dunes” refers to the entire geographical feature of the dune system, whereas the term “Imperial Sand Dune Recreational Area” refers to the administrative body that governs it. The terms are used interchangeably to describe the same area. The term “Glamis Dunes” is an informal term used because the major town in the area is Glamis.

Imperial Sand Dunes/Algodones Sand DunesWhat is the Imperial Sand Dune Recreational Area (Algodones Dunes)?

Its the largest sand dune field in California, stretching approximately 45 miles by 6 miles. It runs southeast from Hwy 10 all the way south to the boarder with Mexico. The dune system was created when the Colorado River would periodically flood or change its course, leaving silt deposits that built up over time.

How To Get to the Imperial Sand Dunes:

There are two main routes into the dunes. The most common is Hwy 78 that runs through the town of Glamis. The other is Hwy 8 that runs through Yuma.

From Hwy 78, you can pull off near Glamis (AKA Vendor Row) or on Gecko Road. Both areas have camping and some basic amenities (Firewood, food, fuel, ATV Rentals).

From Hwy 8, you can pull off at Gordon Wells or Buttercup. Each one allows camping and has basic amenities.

Imperial Sand Dunes Ranger Stations:

Here you can purchase your required permit. It’s $50 onsite or $35 online for a week…or $150 for the season. The ranger station can give you a map and more detailed info about what to see and do in the area.

Cahuilla Ranger Station
4500 Gecko Rd. HCR 76
Brawley, CA 92227
Phone: (760) 344-3919

Buttercup Ranger Station
6808 Grays Well Road
Winterhaven, CA 92283
Phone: (760) 572-2220

Sandboarding on Imperial Sand DunesOrientation:

The Imperial Sand Dunes/Algodones Dunes are broken up into three sections.


The northern most section, known as Mammoth Wash is a more isolated area that does allow OHV riding.


This is the “North Algodones Dunes Wilderness” area. It was established in 1994 and is closed to all motorized vehicles. But it is quiet and is open to hiking, horseback riding and sandboarding.


This is everything south of Hwy 78. It’s a heavily used area and can get very busy on holiday weekends. This is the playground of quads, bikes and side-by-sides. This is where you’ll find the campgrounds, ranger station and, on some weekends, 250,000 other people.

Where to Camp?


Camping is free anywhere in the dunes along Hwy 78, however you will need a valid permit to avoid getting a fine. Camping is first come, first served so if you show up to a spot next to other people, just be sure to ASK FIRST before setting up shop. Most people are pretty nice, but if you just start setting up next to someone you may end up in a fight.

Gecko Road: Gecko Road is a six mile paved road that allows free first come, first serve camping along a series of “pads”, or paved areas. There are toilets along the road in various places. Its operated by BLM and they do not accept reservations.

Glamis/Vendor Row: This area also allows free camping, although it is smaller and busier. The nice thing about this area is that it is just off of Hwy 78, so less driving and easier to get out on busy holiday weekends. It also has public toilets and does not take reservations.


Gordon Wells: Gordon Wells has a nice and helpful campground on the south end of the dunes on a paved road. These are paid spots.

Buttercup: Buttercup also has a paid camping location just off of Hwy 8 with public toilets.

Where to go OHV Riding:

The only area in the dunes where you cannot ride an OHV (ATV, Quad, Dirtbike, Motocross) is in the “North Algodones Dunes Wilderness”. This is the green section on Google Maps. So the north section of Mammoth Wash and everything south of Hwy 78 is all fair game.

Imperial Sand Dunes/Algodones Sand DunesWhere to go Sandboarding:

If you’ve got a quad and a board, then you’re golden! Pick the biggest dune, watch for other riders and go for it.

If you just have a board, sandboarding gets a bit trickier. The first problem is parking. If you don’t have an OHV, then you are stuck to areas near roads, or to hiking in…and these are not going to be your large dunes. Most of the largest dunes are in the OHV areas, so you’ll have no way to reach them. One exception is the Osbourne Overlook, but you will be battling OHV riders.

If you’re looking for a place to park and go sandboarding without the threat of a quad slamming into the back of you, here are a few options.

Glamis/Vendor Row:

You can park here and walk across Hwy 78 into the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness. Here you’ll have access to medium sized dunes and no OHV riders.

Ted Klpf Road:

You can also take the Ted Klpf Road north along the eastern side of the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness. It’s a gravel road but has periodic pull off areas where you can park and hike in. Keep in mind that some of the sand at these pull off areas can be deep, so a 4 wheel drive is wise.

Things to See and Do:

Osbourne Overlook:

This is essentially a drive up view point where you can get an amazing view of the dunes looking south.   You can also camp here for free, but spaces are very limited.

OHV Riding:

As stated above, you can ride anything from quads, dirtbikes, side-by-sides. It’s an ATV paradise.


As stated above, you can sandboard here….anywhere in fact. The trick is just reaching the right area.

Hiking and Horseback Riding:

This is done in the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness. You’ll probably have it mostly to yourself.

Daniel Royse Written by:

Daniel Royse is the founder and editor in chief of the online travel publication, This Boundless World. He has written numerous articles on travel, business and politics and has recently completed his first full-length novel titled The Watermelon King. Daniel is an obsessive writer and explorer who has backpacked to over 50 countries, spanning five continents. To the disbelief of many, he still enjoys long, hot bus rides through chaotic places. More information about The Watermelon King can be found at Contact: danroyse(to)