Pinto Basin Sand Dunes, Turkey Flats Backcountry Board, Joshua Tree National Park, California

Pinto Basin Sand Dunes - 2.2 miles

Turkey Flats Backcountry Board

Spring wildflowers cover the basin floor leading to the dunes

Spring wildflowers cover the basin floor leading to the dunes

Round-Trip Length: 2.2 miles (No Trail - Cross Country Travel Required)
Start-End Elevation: 1,791 - 1,778' (1,740' - lowest elevation)
Elevation Change: -13' net elevation loss (+147' roundtrip elevation gain)
Skill Level: Easy
Dogs Allowed: No
Bikes Allowed: No
Horses Allowed: No
Related Trails:

Pinto Basin Sand Dunes - 2.2 Miles Round-Trip

Pinto Basin formed as opposing fault lines stretched and pulled the earth's crust apart, forcing mountainous uplifts on either side while the expanding space in between sank. This depression once held a shallow lake that disappeared with a warming climate.

The Hexie Mountains (south) and Pinto Mountains (north) - once much taller than we see today - have since partially layered the basin's perimeter with sand and gravel eroded from its steep, sparsely vegetated slopes. Mountain erosion began at the end of the last ice age as rapid warming killed plants and grasses once prevalent along their hillsides.

No longer anchored by plants and grasses, soil and sediments were rapidly washed down natural drainages and deposited in the bajadas and alluvial fans at their base.

The finest sediments spread out into the basin, forming deep soils that can retain moisture for many months and support desert scrub communities.

These soils are the preferred burrowing habitat of desert tortoises, which excavate dens beneath the shade and obfuscation of creosote bushes and bunch grass. Sidewinder rattlesnake and jackrabbit also make this desert scrub community their home. The Mojave fringe-toed lizard lives nowhere but the dune and Pinto Wells vicinity.

The Pinto Basin Sand Dunes are not true dunes, but rather a modest layer of fine sand covering an elevated ridge along a fracture in the Earth.

There is no maintained trail leading to the dunes, however the ridge is visible from Turkey Flats and a fairly direct N-NE path can be taken to them. While the terrain is soft and flat, tortoise burrows pock the basin floor and pose an occasional pitfall.

En route you'll pass through a desert scrub community dotted with creosote and, in the spring, a brilliant wildflower display. Desert primrose, lily, marigold and purple lupine carpet the vast space between Turkey Flats and the dune ridge. Views from the elevated dune ridge lend perspective to the basin's true size and scale.

Though not very far from Pinto Basin Road, it's easy to lose sight of the parking lot once out in the basin's abyss. Use the trailhead's GPS coordinate (provided below) to ensure a safe return.

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Interactive GPS Topo Map

Key GPS Coordinates - DATUM WGS84

  • N33 54.109 W115 50.098 — Trailhead at Turkety Flats Backcountry Board

Worth Noting

  • Local folklore suggests that, in the 1920s, an enterprising poultry farmer attempted to raise turkey in the vicinity of this trailhead, but lack of water and transportation undermined the endeavor. Today his efforts are memorialized in the name 'Turkey Flats'.

  • This area spans the ecological transition zone between the Mojave and Colorado deserts.

  • Wildflowers and mild temperatures make spring the best time to visit these dunes. Summertime hikers should anticipate exceedingly hot temperatures and complete exposure. Prepare accordingly.

Directions to Trailhead

The Turkey Flats Backcountry Board and parking area is located approximately 14 miles north of the Cottonwood Spring Visitor Center on the east side of Pinto Basin Road.

Contact Information

Joshua Tree National Park
74485 National Park Drive
Twentynine Palms, CA 92277-3597

Visitor Information

Park Headquarters

Trip Reports

There are no trip reports on this trail.


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