Backpack to Panamint Dunes

Yosemite Panamint Dunes Trailhead

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These are the least visited and most remote large sand dunes in Death Valley, so there is a very high likelihood that you will have them all to yourself. On a calm night you can sleep at the base of the dunes out under the stars and awake to explore one of nature's best playgrounds.

You can do this as a day trip and just wander the dunes, but I really enjoyed the overnight with great evening views, amazing stargazing, and a sunrise exploration of the sand dunes. For an overnight trip I recommend you start hiking later in the day, when the temperature is a bit cooler.

If you're going for an overnight adventure you will need to pick up a (free) permit from the visitor's center, which is actually quite a drive down the road from the trailhead. Make sure you leave enough time to make the 1-1.5 hour long drive between the visitor's center and the trailhead. Make sure you are familiar with the rules and regulations regarding backpacking in Death Valley (the rangers will explain when you pick up your permit). You will probably also want to fill up on water here, as there will be no water source for the rest of your trip.

The 3-4 mile trek to Panamint Dunes begins off of Lake Hill Road, which is an unmarked dirt road off of highway 190 (the main road through Death Valley). If you're coming from the west, the road is about 4.5-5 miles past Panamint Springs (on the left side). However, most people will be coming from the visitor's center (where you picked up your permit), so the road will be on your right, before the large outcropping of rocks. It is a fairly rocky road and will take you just east of the large outcropping of rocks. You will probably want a higher clearance vehicle for this road, but you can get by with lower clearance as long as you take it slow and it hasn't rained recently (this is what I did). You may see the sand dunes in the distance; they look like a pile of ant hills at the north end of the valley. 

A few miles down this road, after you've passed the large outcropping of rocks, you will see a makeshift parking lot before the road makes a turn to the right. You will want to park here. Gather all of your backpacking gear (if you're staying overnight), and don't forget plenty of water. I would recommend bringing a tent in case it is windy or conditions just don't feel right for laying under the stars.

From the parking lot there is no real trail to the sand dunes. Just start walking toward the dunes. It will take longer to get there than you think, as the terrain will start to get a bit soft/sandy and you will have to head uphill. Around 2 miles you will reach the very base of the dunes, and at 3 miles you will probably be high enough to set up camp for the night. The terrain is pure sand here, so you won't have anything to put your tent stakes into. If it's a calm night, I highly recommend just throwing down your sleeping bag and laying out under the stars. You will have a great view of the valley from here! Bonus points if it's a new moon, as you will see the most amazing display of shooting stars! (Note: Be cognizant of the wildlife in Death Valley; I awoke to find a scorpion had made a shelter out of my backpack!)

The sunrise will greet you in the morning and you will almost certainly leave the first (if not the only) footprints in the sand dunes. Spend the cooler part of the morning climbing up the tallest sand dunes and let your inner kid shine as you run down the other side! I recommend using a trekking pole or two to keep your balance as you climb the ridge lines.

Spend as long as you like exploring the Panamint Dunes, then head back to your campsite to gather your belongings and make the trek back to your car. You can easily spot the parking lot as you make your way downhill and back to the car. Now go out and explore the rest of Death Valley!

Pack List

  • Backpacking permit from the visitor's center (free; however you will have to pay the park entrance fee)
  • Map of Death Valley (you can get one at the visitor's center)
  • Backpacking/hiking gear (tent in case, sleeping bag/pad, cookware, headlamp, trekking poles, hiking shoes, etc)
  • Sun gear (hat, sunglasses, sunscreen)
  • Plenty of water
  • Food for whatever length of time you'll be spending at the dunes (overnight vs day trip)
  • Camera to capture the amazing views and memories
  • An adventurous spirit!
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Activities:

Camping, Photography, Backpacking, Hiking

Skill Level:

Intermediate

Season:

Spring, Autumn

Trail Type:

Out-and-Back

Distance:

8 Miles

Rating:

Features:

Scenic

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5 months ago

Isolated!

Did a day hike here, and it was absolutely magical! It wasn't crowded at all, compared to the Mesquite Sand Dunes inside Death Valley. We had it all to ourselves. Well-worth the 8 mile rt hike!

5 months ago

Added by Sarah Eichstedt

Lover of spontaneous adventures, photography, farm animals, and travel. Outdoor enthusiast by day, ICU nurse by night. Favorite adventures: sailing around the world, bicycling across the US, backpacking through South America and Africa.

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