Killpecker Dunes: A desert oasis

Killpecker Dune Field

A flight over the Red Desert near Rock Springs, Wyo., Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2008, reveals the scale of the Killpecker Dunes. These dunes are part of the largest active sand dune system in North America and second largest in the world, beat only by the massive Sahara Desert. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

     This is where we’re going to get stuck. The Jeep Wrangler bounces into slow motion as we encounter a stretch of dirt road now impassible thanks to a mound of sand several feet thick which blew over the road the previous winter. To our left stretches scalloped mound after mound of pristine, bright sand dunes. Soft sand shifts under the tires. Trying to drive over this bit of road would be foolhardy,even in the Jeep. To explore any further, we’re going to have to go on foot into the Red Desert’s Killpecker Sand Dunes, part of the largest active dune system in North America.

The dunes here bury snow, which in summer leaks out creating pockets of desert wetlands that support countless birds and other animals. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

The dunes here bury snow, which in summer leaks out creating pockets of desert wetlands that support countless birds and other animals. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

     The Killpecker Sand Dunes sit in the northwest corner of the Red Desert, a sea of sand stretching north and west  for miles dwarfing it’s more popular cousin the dunes of Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. Here, 50 to 60 mph gusts advance the dunes across the martian landscape of the Red Desert. Each winter, storms blow through Wyoming — the powerful winds having the unusual phenomena of burying snow within the dunes. These dunes compact the snow turning it into ice and storing it in a natural locker until spring thaws. As the dunes heat up, water leaches into the desert, transforming the dunes into a rare desert wetland that provides desert elk, antelope, badgers, and thousands of birds with a vital source of water in this harsh environment.

     The Killpecker Dunes contain two of the seven Wilderness Study Areas in the Red Desert, the Sand Dunes and Buffalo Hump WSAs. And not far away is the Steamboat Mountain area, critical breeding habitat for desert elk. But even so, the Killpeckers are under constant threat. On this hike we saw people illegally four-wheel driving in the WSA, sand spraying high as the rider spun donuts on the dunes. (There’s a special ORV area at the other end of the dunes.) On another trip we found used shell casings within the Wilderness Study Area. And even though the WSAs guard the area from industrial development, gas wells chug and thump within 100 feet of the protected area.

    The Killpecker Dunes area is one of the areas up for potential expansion of protection should Congress ulitmately approve the proposed National Conservation Area. This National Conservation Area would safeguard about a million acres of the Red Desert.

 

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One response to “Killpecker Dunes: A desert oasis

  • Dan Delasantos

    Hi Morgan,

    I am a journalist and I would like to speak with you if possible. 303-347-9277. I truly admire your shots of the Killpecker sand dunes.

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