Summer Guide: Mountain of sand—Desert quest

Singing sands and off-road adventures lure our arts editor to Sand Mountain

ATVs are a common sight on Sand Mountain.

ATVs are a common sight on Sand Mountain.

Photo by David Robert

My heart was racing, and my stomach was reeling with anticipation, as I realized what I was about to do.

Ahead of me rose the soft peak of a large sand dune, and beyond that, an expanse of clear, azure sky. I stared at the horizon with a mix of apprehension and excitement, wondering what would happen once we made it over the summit.

I didn’t have much time to think about bailing out before the sand rail’s engine started up. The tires kicked up some sand, propelling me and the driver, Gordon Gebhardt, to the top. Up, up, up we went—the engine roaring, the sand rail shuddering. The top got closer and closer.

Three, two, one, I counted to myself and braced for the fall while holding on for dear life to my safety harness.

We crossed over the peak, and I felt for a split second that we were floating. Then, the front of the sand rail tipped straight down, my stomach churned, my chest tightened up and everything was a blur.

“Aaaaaaaaaahhhhh … eeeeeeeeee!” I screamed.

I plunged several hundred feet down the northern slope of Sand Mountain, which isn’t really a mountain but a massive dune that rises out of the desert valley about 25 miles southeast of Fallon. I felt a torrent of fear and exhilaration; it was probably the biggest adrenaline rush I’ve ever felt. Now I see why Gordon, and thousands of off-road vehicle enthusiasts like him, ride the 600-foot-high sand dune whenever they can.

Gordon said he and his wife, Shirley, have been coming to the “sandbox,” as he calls it, since 1973. On the warm Sunday afternoon I visited the Sand Mountain Recreation Area, the Gebhardts were riding with their friends, Mike and Karyn Werner of Dayton. Both couples said going to Sand Mountain has always been a family event. But on this day, it was just the parents who were playing in the sand with their big toys—their sand rails, four-wheeled vehicles made for driving in the sand.

“Now that the kids are gone, the parents are doing bad things,” Shirley said with a chuckle.

Seasons in the sun
About 30,000 people visit Sand Mountain Recreation Area each year, according to Bureau of Land Management figures. Many of these visitors come to ride their all-terrain vehicles, particularly in the spring and fall when the weather is nice and temperatures are tolerable. Chris Miller, an outdoor recreation planner with the BLM Carson City Field Office, said traffic increases on the dunes during the weekends and holidays. She said the BLM estimates about 5,000 people will visit the dunes during the Memorial Day weekend.

Of course, you don’t have to own an off-highway vehicle to enjoy the 4,795-acre recreation area. Walkers can hike up the dune and explore the area, although Miller cautioned that it’s best to do so later in the day or during the off-season, when there aren’t as many OHVs using the dunes.

Many of the OHV users come from Northern California. Miller explained that they come to Sand Mountain because it’s closer than the dunes in Southern California, there’s no admission fee and there aren’t as many restrictions to use the recreation area as there are at some California areas.

She said the area is a generally safe place to ride OHVs, because there aren’t a lot of rocks or vegetation in the dune area. But accidents can happen. A few occurred during Spring Break and the Easter holiday weekend, she said. Usually, it’s the result of people not paying attention to their speed or to their surroundings. For the safety of all drivers, OHVs are required to have a fluorescent orange whip flag that extends 8 feet above the ground level when the vehicles are at rest.

Gordon said it’s important to respect the mountain. He takes precautions such as riding around the mountain and checking out the terrain to make sure it hasn’t changed significantly since the last time he was there. He also said he never drinks alcohol before going on a run.

“If you pay attention, there’s no reason for you to get hurt on that mountain, but you have to respect it,” he said.

Mike Werner (front) and Gordon Gebhardt (with Kelley in the other vehicle) were kind enough to take Kelley on the ride of her life.

Photo by David Robert

Unfortunately, some people don’t respect the mountain. During my visit, I saw several blown-out radial tires, car parts and beer cans scattered about or buried in the sand. I was told that some people even set tires on fire and push them down the dunes at night. The results of these pranks could be seen on the dunes in the form of black smudges against the fine, whitish sand.

“It makes a hell of a mess,” said Jay Jamison, a maintenance worker with the BLM Carson City Field Office, who was making a stop at the area on the day I visited. “The radial tires burn for a few days. … It ruins the sand, and it ruins the environment.”

Miller said burning tires are considered a public safety hazard because they could roll into the camp area at the base of the dunes and hurt somebody. The metal strips from burnt or blown-out tires can wreak havoc on OHVs.

Despite these incidents, Miller said most visitors are respectful of the land, because they don’t want to lose the privilege of using it. Several local and regional groups—even a group from California, the California Off-Road Vehicle Association—volunteer to clean up the area. In the meantime, visitors can dump their litter in trashcans located near the camp area.

“A lot of [visitors] are family people, and they want it safe for their family,” she said. [page]

Sands of time
Of course, off-road vehicle enthusiasts weren’t the first people to discover Sand Mountain. Philip I. Earl, former curator of history at the Nevada Historical Society, wrote in a column titled “The Saga of Sand Mountain,” which was part of his “This Was Nevada” series, that emigrants crossing through the Nevada desert mentioned the large dune in their diaries. Several Paiute myths also centered on that landmark.

The BLM Sand Mountain visitor’s guide explains that the dunes formed several thousand years ago. During the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago, runoff from glaciers created the massive Lake Lahontan, which covered most of Western Nevada. When the climate began to warm, the glaciers receded, and the lake began to dry up.

About 4,000 years ago, the guide continues, the lake level dipped below the area where Sand Mountain now stands. Quartz particles, which the glaciers had ground away from the Sierra granite, were washed down the Walker River and were deposited in the river delta. Winds blew this fine sand high into the air, carrying it more than 30 miles northeast. The southwestern flank of the Stillwater Range, however, forced the winds to slow and to deposit the sand, which collected in a large basin. Over the centuries, the sands formed into a dune and grew to its present height of 600 feet. Today, the dune area is about four miles across and one mile in width.

The dune is also known by the name “Singing Sand Mountain” because of the sand’s ability to create a strange “singing” or “booming” sound. Earl mentioned in the same 1999 column that a Paiute story claims a sea serpent, whose body lies under the sand, is responsible for the dune’s “singing sands.”

According to the information posted at the BLM kiosk in the camp area, Sand Mountain is one of three dunes in the United States that are known to produce the low-frequency sound. The sound is produced by sand crystals, which vibrate and move in the wind. The sand grains roll against each other and emit a low-frequency sound. Some people say it sounds like a boom or a roar, while others say it sounds like a low note from a musical instrument. Miller described it as a low humming noise.

Sand Mountain is certainly not your average sand dune.

Photo by David Robert

I listened for this sound when I was there, but the noise from all the OHVs made that nearly impossible. Jamison told me the best chance I had to hear this sound was in the late afternoon or early evening when the winds kicked up and the off-roaders started heading home, or during the week when the area was virtually empty. He also mentioned that in the latter part of the day, as the sun starts to set, one might see the serpentine shadow cast along the “fingers,” or small ridges of the dune.

Desert life
Near the dunes are the ruins of the Sand Springs Pony Express Station. Built in 1860, it was a stop along the famous Pony Express Trail until it was run out of business by the telegraph and railroad industries. Wells Fargo used the station through 1900, but after that it was buried by the drifting sands. In 1975, a University of Nevada, Reno, archaeological team excavated the site and recovered artifacts. Today, visitors can walk through the station, which was built with the purplish-black volcanic rock in the area.

Contrary to popular reports, Miller denied that the sands have ever covered part of Highway 50. Although the dunes do shift, they rarely move more than a couple hundred feet in any direction.

“We have some [measuring] posts that get buried in a year … but [the dunes] don’t seem to go out into the Four Mile Flat area that much,” she said. ‘They partially cover up parts of the Sand Springs Pony Express Station, but it’s [the low dunes], not the mountain.”

The fauna inhabiting the area of Sand Mountain also add to its mystique. The Sand Mountain blue butterfly and scarab beetle are unique to the area. You can also find a variety of lizards, birds and larger animals, like jackrabbits and rarely seen kit foxes. But visitors should be careful, as there are snakes and scorpions there, too.

Although the BLM doesn’t give guided tours on Sand Mountain, it does offer tours at nearby Hidden Cave and Grimes Point, two archaeological points of interest located about 15 miles from Fallon. The free tours, which Miller often leads, begin at Churchill County Museum and Archives in Fallon every second and fourth Saturday of the week. Miller said she will also answer questions about the sand dunes.

Desert treasure
Although I have lived in Nevada for 21 years, I’m ashamed to admit that I hadn’t even heard of Sand Mountain until my editor told me about it last year. Now that I’ve been there, I can say it was worth the 1 1/2-hour drive. The climb up the dune was tiring, but I was rewarded with a beautiful view of the valley and surrounding mountains. And I got an unexpected thrill when I rode a sand rail for the first time. It’s a place I’m sure most visitors, including myself, would want to return to again.

Miller—who’s been working for the BLM for 17 years, three of them in the Carson City field office—said she still enjoys visiting Sand Mountain.

“I always find the view pleasant to look at,” she said. “Every day, it can look a little different depending on shadows, clouds, the weather. It really is spectacular as it just rises up from the valley floor. … I think it’s a national treasure, and we’re real lucky to have it in our district.”

Getting to Sand Mountain
Sand Mountain is located 86 miles from Reno. To get there, take Interstate 80 East until you reach Fernley. Then, take Exit 48 to East Fernley. You’ll make a couple of turns, but as long as you stay on U.S. 50 Alternate, you’ll be fine. Continue east on U.S. 50, and you’ll reach Fallon. Continue heading east on U.S. 50. Sand Mountain Recreation Area is about 25 miles southeast of Fallon.

As you near the recreation area, you will turn left onto a dirt road. Drive down about a mile, and you will enter the dunes.

Chris Miller, an outdoor recreation planner with the Bureau of Land Management’s Carson City Field Office, said cell phones usually don’t work well in the area, but there’s a public phone for visitors to use in case of emergency. Although no water is available, there is a vault toilet on site.

Miller said it’s important for visitors to tell family and friends exactly where they’re going and how long they expect to be gone. She recommended that visitors wear sunscreen and hats, and watch out for signs of sun or heat stroke, because it can get very hot (sometimes reaching 110 degrees or more) during the summer.

She also suggested that off-road vehicle riders wear protective gear and pay attention to their driving. If a vehicle gets stuck in the sand, drivers will have to call a towing service, because the BLM does not provide that service. Firearms are prohibited in the area.

For more information about Sand Mountain Recreation Area, call the BLM Carson City Field Office at 885-6000 or visit