Windswept and rippled, sand dunes are some of the most magical places on the planet. Just a simple shift in wind direction can transform these majestic mountains into an entirely different landscape from one day to the next. Those very same wind gusts are what create a dune’s tell-tale waves—and help them form in the first place. The result is as beautiful and mysterious as the desert itself.
Dunes are rare environments in more ways than one: Because of their constant evolution, few species can survive in such a harsh environment, and the ever-changing phenomenon makes up just 20 percent of the Earth’s deserts. Each sand dune is unique, ranging in height from a few feet to taller than most skyscrapers and falling on a color spectrum that includes white, red and tan. And they're not just to be found in the Sahara Desert. Here are a few of the world's best dunes:
Dune buggy driving and sandboarding are two popular pastimes for visitors to Huacachina, a small village punctuated by sand dunes that’s located 200 miles south of Lima, Peru. According to legend, the hamlet’s oasis formed after a local princess was arrested for bathing in its waters. As she fled, her billowing gown turned into the towering dunes that encircle what is really a naturally formed lake. During the first half of the 20th century, Huacachina, which the locals call the “Oasis of America,” was a luxurious getaway for the wealthy thanks to the supposedly healing properties of its sulfur-rich waters. Today, a boardwalk and shady palm and carob trees surround the water along with several bars and restaurants, making the oasis a welcoming sight after a day in the desert.
Badain Jaran Dunes, Mongolia/China
If you’re quiet enough, you might hear the shifting sands of Badain Jaran Desert. Called “booming dunes” or “singing sands,” the dunes actually moan. Scientists believe this phenomenon is due to seismic waves, which result in a low-pitched rumble that can sound different depending on the dune. This 19,300-square-mile desert stretches between Mongolia and China and is considered a subsection of the Gobi Desert, and one of the best places in the world to witness the singing sands. Some of its dunes are the tallest in the world, with a few peaking at 1,600 feet, about 100 feet taller than the Empire State Building.
White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
Some 10,000 years ago, the first hunter-gatherers arrived in what is today White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico to hunt mammoth. Although now the likelihood of stumbling across one of these massive mammals is zero, visitors can still spot traces of the area’s prehistoric past in the preserved tracks left behind by the prehistoric herbivores. Scientists believe that the area, which was once a 1,600-square-mile body of water called Lake Otero, may represent the largest concentration of Pleistocene tracks in the country. As the lake dried up, it left behind the Tularosa Basin, home to White Sands, a 275-square-mile national monument defined by its glistening, snow-white dunes and famous for being the largest gypsum dunefield in the world.
Simpson Desert, Australia
Located smack in the center of Australia, the Simpson Desert stretches approximately 55,000 square miles across some of the remotest parts of the continent in an area that went from being a glacier to a sea to a series of lakes. It’s so desolate that the first European explorer to even recognize its existence was Charles Sturt in 1845—more than 200 years after the first Europeans began to explore the continent. Over the years, this desert, whose sand ranges in color from soft pinks to deep reds, has received more traffic and is a popular destination for hikers. Despite its location in one of the driest regions in the world, Simpson Desert is home to a wide array of wildlife. Birds, amphibians, fish and reptiles all live in the stands of vegetation that punctuate the otherwise barren landscape—a hint that the desert is located on one of the largest interior drainage basins in the world.
Little Sahara Recreation Area, Utah
Although practically the size of a postage stamp when compared to the Sahara Desert, which sprawls 3.6-million square miles, this 124-square-mile desert located about 100 miles south of Salt Lake City is one of Utah’s largest dune fields. Little Sahara formed as the result of sand deposits left behind by the Sevier River, which once flowed to an ancient body of water called Lake Bonneville. Strong prevailing winds helped shift the sands into dunes. Although dune buggies are permitted—one dune tops out at 700 feet—Little Sahara also contains a 9,000-acre, vehicle-free zone that’s a prime spot to see mule deer, antelope, reptiles and other fauna in their natural habitat.
Great Dune of Pyla, France
Located about 40 miles southwest of Bordeaux in France, the Great Dune of Pyla (also known as Dune du Pilat) is Europe's tallest sand dune, reaching more than 350 feet in height. What makes it stand out from other dunes around the world is its location, which drops steeply into the Bay of Arcachon. Over the years the massive dune, which stretches 546 yards in width, has been migrated away from the water and is overtaking the adjacent forest. Every year it moves back three to 16 feet and is continuing to shift. Scientists believe that maritime winds are to blame.