Great ATV Rides: Imperial Sand Dunes

imperialIt’s the best time of the year for ATV enthusiasts who are looking for a special ride to explore a recreational gem located in the southeastern corner of California. The Imperial Sand Dunes have something for everyone; big and little dunes, wide open stretches, valleys and desert scrub. It’s all part of the largest sand dune area open to off-road vehicle use in the United States. And right now is actually the ideal time to give it a test ride, since winter temperatures stay in the comfortable 60-70 degree range (summer temps can soar as high as 120 degrees!)

These dunes are officially called the Imperial Sand Dune Recreation Area (ISDRA), and consist of an ATV rider’s paradise 40 miles long and 5 miles wide. The area is broken up into quarters, with Mammoth Wash at the northern tip of the dunes. This area is the least used and offers the most solitude. The Glammis section includes the Cahulla Ranger Station and has paved access to camping areas. The biggest, most challenging and heavily used dunes are located here, and their names tell the story: Competition Hill and China Wall are overwhelming favorites for ATV riders. The Ogliby section is north of the All American Canal, and has three designated camping areas accessed via un-surfaced roads. The Buttercup section lies just north of the international border with Mexico, and is home to the Buttercup Ranger Station. Here you can see a short section of historic plank road that long ago was the first roadway across these dunes. This section also has three designated camping areas reached via paved roads. Camping throughout ISDRA is on a first-come basis.

Numerous riding groups support off-road recreation in the dunes, and the local ATV club, DIRTY Southwest Off-Road Badboys Society, calls the Imperial Sand Dunes their home. The two largest nearby cities are Yuma, Arizona and El Centro, California. Weekends – especially three day holidays – can be busy here so expect a lot of “dune traffic.” There are seasonal vendors but services are still limited, so plan ahead and come prepared.

Permits are required for the main vehicle entering the ISDRA, and can be purchased off-site at for $25 per week. On-site permits are $40 per week with pay stations located throughout the area. Safety flags are required on all vehicles: equip yours with a whip mast and 6×12 inch red/orange flag. Flags can be pennant, triangular, square, or rectangular. Masts must be securely mounted and extend eight feet from ground to mast tip.

If you’ve yet to ride sand dunes, this is the place to go for your initiation; there’s really nothing quite like making the first tracks through miles of sand extending as far as the eye can see. It’s an ATV-charged adrenalin blast of pure fun, and an absolutely unique experience.