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Visiting and Camping at Bruneau Dunes State Park, Idaho

A longtime camper, Dan has experience with tents, pop-up trailers, camp trailers, and motorhomes.


Bruneau Dunes State Park

Home to a national observatory, Bruneau Dunes State Park can be a fascinating place to visit, but take care to choose the right time of the year. You see, Bruneau Dunes is located near Mountain Home, Idaho in the southwestern desert area of the state. This location dictates that summer temperatures can be very high and uncomfortable, while spring and fall temperatures can fall drastically at night. At the same time there is much to do and experience, and it can be well worth the trip.

First and foremost are the sand dunes. Advertised as the tallest such dunes in North America, they are worth the visit by themselves. Youngsters of all ages will find it a must to climb these massive piles of sand, just to have climbed them, and coming back down can often be an interesting experience as runners seldom make it without plowing a body shaped groove in the surface of the sand.

There are two campgrounds at Bruneau Dunes; one aimed primarily at tents and smaller RVs with the other one mostly for the larger RV campers and motorhomes.

A small lake provides good fishing for those interested, and float tubes are a common sight. No motors allowed on the lake, though.

And finally, Bruneau Dunes is home to a national observatory which is made available to the public on weekends. This can be a very interesting experience and probably the primary reason I enjoy my stays there so much.

To get to Bruneau Dunes, take Idaho 51 south from Mountain Home for about 18 miles, then turn left on Idaho 78 for 2 more miles. Signs are well placed.

The Giant Sand Dunes

The trademark of Bruneau Dunes is, of course, the large sand dunes to be found there. They are unique in the western hemisphere as they are formed at the center of the basin they occupy instead of the edge. Most other sand dunes move about, but the dunes at Bruneau are relatively stable as the prevailing winds blow from the southeast and northwest for about equal times, keeping the dunes in the same place instead of moving slowly across the face of the earth.

The sand dunes are open to hikers and equestrians (no motor vehicles allowed) and nearly everyone just has to climb them - like mountains, they are there and must be conquered. With dunes of varying heights and distances, there is something for everyone and children particularly have a ball in this giant sandbox. A park road winds between the visitors center, campgrounds, observatory, lake and the dunes and passes only a few yards from the base of the sand dunes; the walk from your parked car to climb the dunes is quite short and can make the experience a little more comfortable in the summer heat.

A small picnic area is also located near the dunes and the lake with some shade available. Both fishermen and swimmers are often seen near here and the lake makes a pleasant respite from high temperatures. It is a very pleasant way to spend the day, climbing, picnicking and swimming or fishing.

Camping at Bruneau Dunes

As noted, there are two campgrounds at Bruneau Dunes available to choose from. The first is a nicely wooded area with about 100 campsites with water and electric hookups, while the second is aimed at larger RV users. There is a dump site available as well for RVs.

I have always used the first, as its trees and shade makes it a nicer place for children, although the trees in the RV section have grown over the years. Interestingly, we have always visited in the spring and have always seen one campsite in particular closed to camping as there is a pair of owls nesting there each year. We usually arrive when the baby owls are just peeking over the edge of their nest and calling for mama to bring lunch. Coupled with the hoots of the adults in the evening and night they add to our experience.

From the campground the visitors center and sand dunes are a short drive or a long walk. The observatory is closer, at about a 20-minute stroll, but is only open at night.

One of the neatest experiences I have ever had was at the Bruneau Dunes campground one night: a trumpet across the campground from us began playing the old patriotic songs of America. Within a few minutes another trumpet joined in from a different direction, followed by a third one from the darkness. The whole campground was nearly silent for an hour as the three trumpets serenaded us through the night air and people listened or quietly sang along with them. The next day I talked to all three and none knew the others or that they were even there until the music began.

The visitors center near the campground

The visitors center near the campground

Bruneau Dunes Observatory

Bruneau Dunes is home to one of the later observatories to be built in the United States and is open to the public on Friday and Saturday nights. Along with the main 25-inch telescope, local residents sometimes bring their own telescopes and binoculars that visitors are welcome to look through. These are not the cheap telescopes to be found in department stores but rather near professional quality instruments. There is a short presentation before dark about the observatory and stargazing in general available for $3. The observatory is a major addition to the entertainment at Bruneau Dunes and one of the primary reasons I visit each year.

If looking at the stars and planets interests you, take care to visit at the right time of year. You will be disappointed if you come to see Saturn or Jupiter only to find they are on the wrong side of the Sun or the weather is overcast or for some other reason can't be seen while you are visiting. It is worth your time to visit the observatory; I have seen the Pleiades nebula in color through the large scope, and the views of Saturn and Jupiter through the smaller scopes were astounding to a neophyte stargazer like myself.

A couple of words to the wise if you plan to visit the observatory. The desert gets cold at night so take a winter coat with you in the spring and at least a light jacket in the summer. It's not much fun to be shivering too hard to look through an eyepiece. And secondly: drive, don't walk, to the observatory. If you must walk, take a flashlight for use during the walk back and stay on the road even though it winds around somewhat. We did neither (after all, we could see the lights of the campground only a few hundred yards away) and walked through the desert on a moonless night. A few minutes into our walk we began to be concerned about desert scorpions and rattlesnakes every time we heard some night creature move away from us; we couldn't see the sagebrush or hills and often fell on our hike. A stroll I have no desire to repeat.

Questions & Answers

Question: Does Bruneau sand dunes have cabins?

Answer: There are 2 in the newer camping area called Eagle Cove. They are powered, with heat and air conditioning.

© 2010 Dan Harmon

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