No matter if you’re a California resident or you live across the country, if you are into UTVs, side-by-sides, ATVs, dune buggies, and running sand tires on dirt bikes, you’ve probably heard of the Imperial Sand Dune Recreation Area (ISDRA), or as it most often referred to, Glamis. Glamis is renowned for its expansive and exciting sand dunes. However, for those outside of California you may not realize that here in southern California we have a sand season. It’s basically the time of year when the temperatures cool down enough to make the desert region that encompasses the ISDRA bearable.
Actually, if you are new to the area or new to offroading and ripping sand dunes there’s a lot to learn about Glamis, which we will cover by answering the five Ws: Who? What? Why? When? Where? But not in that particular order.
The Imperial Sand Dune Recreation Area is geographically known as the Algodones Dunes. It is the largest sand dune mass in California and the largest OHV recreation area for sand dunes in the country. The dunes stretch out about 40-miles long, are around 6 miles wide, reach up to 300 feet tall, encompass approximately 118,000 acres that are open to OHV recreation. There are many camping areas scattered throughout the dunes. The majority of people camp in RVs, toy haulers, or 5th wheels and some even tent camp. It is in the desert so facilities are extremely limited with mostly only vaulted toilets available. Other than that you have to be self-sufficient for fresh water, electricity, showers etc.
Besides being home to plenty of two, three, and four wheeled action, the area is also a popular site for movie shoots with block buster films like American Sniper, War Dogs, Star Wars, and Lawrence of Arabia having been filmed in the region.
The dunes are located in California’s Imperial County at the south end of the state. They border Arizona to the east and Mexico to the south, and are located west of the Chocolate Mountains. The northwestern end is about 11 miles east of Calipatria, and the southeastern end is near Los Algodones in Mexico, about 6 miles west of Yuma, Arizona.
While the dune system is generally called Glamis the four main areas for camping are: Mammoth Wash at the north end, Glamis Flats along the east side, Gekco Flats/Gecko Rd along the west side, and Buttercup Valley at the south end. There are other popular areas and landmarks/points of interest as well. Some of these names aren’t exactly official and everyone seems to have their own nicknames, so for example, what may be Oldsmobile to one person may be Drag Hill or Dune #2 to someone else. There are several popular dunes or hills that run north to south: Competition Hill, Oldsmobile, Brawley Slide, Lizard Hill, China Wall, The Wall, and The Ceiling.
Competition Hill/Hill #1: A small dune which used to be the gathering spot back in the day. People used to race up the hill, hang out and drink a cold one. The “hill” isn’t so big anymore so, now it’s just a memory and isn’t as popular anymore.
Oldsmobile/Hill #2: This is now the dune of choice for many and somewhat replaced Competition Hill a few years ago. It's a big dune where many people gather to hang out all day. People will pitch E-Z Ups, have lunch, drink a beer, and hang all day. It’s the sand version of “the channel” at Lake Havasu.
Brawley Slide – Hill #3: A fun little hill to meet up with your friends. It's a side hill off from Olds.
Lizard Hill/Hill #4: Like Oldsmobile, Lizard Hill is one of major dunes that gets a lot of action.
China Wall/Hill #5: The hill of all hills. As a young kid it seems like it’s straight up and down and goes forever.
The Wall/Hill #6:
The Ceiling/Hill #7:
Gordon’s Well/Dunebuggy Flats: Camping area at the south end, north of interstate 8.
Ogilby: Campground area south end, north of interstate 8
Osborne Overlook: Paved overlook and camping area off highway 78 that gives you a good view of the dunes.
Gecko Road: Runs north and south along the west side of the dunes and is lined with camping spots. This is the road you first see when driving to Glamis. This is the sign you have arrived. It's the time where you’re driving and all the excitement of the dunes are here because you have reached Gecko. It's also a road where many people camp. The road just got paved so it’s nice and fresh. There are different pads where people can pull off to set up camp. Many people think of this as the high dollar camping area for people who don't want to get their RVs dirty.
All-American Canal: A major canal that runs across the south end. Many people talk about jumping it or swimming in it but most never do—there’s a fine if you get caught.
Wash Road: Runs north/south along the east side of the dunes and is lined by a bunch of numbered washes where people camp. This is where the people who don't care if their coach/toy hauler gets dirty go. Back in the day this road was not groomed and used to have some pretty serious whoops, in fact it was so bad that people used to stand up in their RVs and hold the cupboard doors closed so that all the pots and pans wouldn’t fall out. There’s a huge open areas where people camp in a circular fashion. It's on the opposite side of Glamis near the railroad tracks.
Boardmanville Trading Post: A bar/store/eatery. This was a fun adventure for kids because you used to cross under the railroad tracks and then once there you’d staple a dollar to the walls. It was closed for a while and has reopened. You can’t drive your off highway vehicle there now so it makes it difficult to get to.
Glamis Beach Store: The place to go to get the ketchup or lettuce you forgot at home that you will pay 10 times too much for. Kids like to go to get an ice cream. Just this past August it was announced that Polaris would be purchasing the Beach Store and surrounding property from the original proprietor, the LeBlanc family.
Vendor Row: Area right next to the Beach Store where you can find a burger, root beer float, tee-shirt, or UTV parts for your broken vehicle.
Duners Diner: Bar/restaurant that used to be called Pair a Dice. Located at the far south end just north of interstate 8 A destination ride to eat lunch.
Flag Pole: A memorial flag for first responders that was placed in the middle of the dunes back behind Brawley Slide and Olds. Many people use this as a destination spot and a great spot to relax and have lunch.
Sand Highway: A popular route that runs east west from Gecko Rd to the washes and also runs south from Gecko Rd along the west side. It’s generally an easier way to travel in the due system without going through the dunes themselves. It’s not exactly smooth though, it’s lined with whoops. Many people like to take it because you have less chances of getting lost than traveling through the dunes.
The dunes are open year round, but if you value your skin you don’t want to visit the area outside of fall/winter/early spring. Sure you might have the dunes all to yourself, but with the dry desert temperature reaching above 110 degrees during the summer; it’s not worth that kind of suffering and agony—unless you’re some kind of heat masochist. The “Sand Season” is October through mid-April when things cool down and you can actually touch the sand without it melting through to your skin.
A permit is required at all times from October 1 through April 15 each year. Permits are sold on a per primary vehicle basis (any street-legal vehicle used for transportation to the recreation site). Permits are available as either season passes or weekly passes (valid for seven days). While you can purchase permits when you get to the dunes (on site season passes are $150 and weekly passes are $50) lines can get pretty long, so it’s highly suggested to purchase a Glamis pass at one of the participating outside vendors such as Chaparral Motorsports (not sold online you have to come into the store). By purchasing a pass before you go you can not only save time but money on weekly passes (off site passes: Season $150, weekly $35).
The high times during the season are Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas break and New Year’s. You know, all the times when you and your family have time off from work and school just like everyone else. The past couple years Polaris has held its Camp RZR West event out a Glamis. This year the event takes place the weekend before Halloween on October 27th-28th. There’s plenty going on all weekend like a Show ‘n’ Shine custom RZR competition, riding events, RZR giveaways, concerts and more.
It’s been estimated that more than a million people visit Glamis every year. People travel from up and down the state of California as well from across the country and beyond to experience the infamous Glamis sand dunes.
Camping, hill climbing, exploring, sand drag racing, partying, spending time with family and friends, and relaxing are just a few of the reasons as to why people go to Glamis.