When the conditions are right, Sand Mountain produces a beautiful song.
STORY & PHOTOS BY MARIE NYGREN
Screaming. Roaring. Whistling. Squeaking. Singing. All can be used to describe the sounds of Sand Mountain’s sands. I travel to experience this puzzling, impressive, natural phenomenon, some 30 miles east of Fallon, along Highway 50, where the expansive mountain is located. The emission of sound is caused by naturally blowing wind, but can also be created by movement, such as in creating “mini avalanches” while walking downhill. So first I must hike to the top. Upon arrival, with my camera gear and water packed, I walk across the flat land and ready myself for the ascent.
My rigorous passage to the summit starts with a climbing pattern—two sinking steps forward and one sliding step back. Several times what appears to be the last knoll to mount, and a sweet successful arrival to my destination, is often met with another mound of sand to conquer. Finally, there is triumph. I am joyfully 600 feet high and able to see the scope of Sand Mountain’s immensity, more than 4,795 acres stretching across 2 miles. The views from the top are spectacular. To the south is Sand Springs Pony Express Station, Huck’s Salt Mine on Four Mile Flat, and the Sand Springs Range, to the north and south is the Stillwater Range, and west are fantastic sand dunes that look alien, as if I’m on the moon. The vast Nevada sunlit sky is a canopy over the 360-degree landscape. It is quiet, with a soft breeze stirring up small fans of fine sand, which attempt to rearrange my hair. Something primal makes me want to sit and ponder. I linger, photograph, and appreciate. I begin to anticipate reaching my quest to hear singing sand!
Here I go! First walking, then increasing my speed, the first low C notes reach my ears. Goooosh! Hurrrrmp! Grooomph! Definitely a low-pitch rumble!
SOURCE OF THE SINGING
My desire to learn more about the mystery of these sounds leads me to do research, beginning at the Churchill County Museum. I am handed a bulging folder with documents, pictures, letters, and articles from scientists, photographers, professors, and authors.
I read of a strange mystery in the desert, the singing sand at Sand Mountain, stories of which have circulated for years. The Native Americans believed the dune to be a living creature that roared. When traveling by, the terrifying mountain was given a wide berth. Stories abounded of people disappearing in a crater at the top, never to be seen again.
Scientific articles proclaim that the sounds and vibrations may be caused by heat, friction, gases trapped between layers, and possibly electrical influences. The billions of smooth, pure white grains of quartz, silica, feldspar, and magnetite, so uniform in size and shape, create the “voices.” It is speculated that the conditions to produce singing are special and limited: The wind must be able to rework sand grains over long reaches of transport to create highly polished, round grains of sand containing silica that are 0.1 to 0.5 inches in diameter, and certain levels of humidity and 0.01 percent moisture are required, as is friction and compression of air. Only dry sand sings. Wet grains of sand stick together and make no sound. This acoustical energy is not completely understood.
The song of the sands is an eerie vibrating moan or a thunderous roar, changing with the seasons, humidity, wind direction, and variations of disturbance. Some say it sounds like rolling thunder. Or a vibration like a jet. Others hear a musical instrument—a violin, bass, tambourine, or zither. Its pitch can be up to 105 decibels and last several minutes.
Blowing sands constantly shift and change the shape of Sand Mountain. Geologists say the sand originally came from the prehistoric Lake Lahontan that covered 8,500 square miles in much of Nevada. About 9,000 years ago the lake began drying up due to climate change at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, which led to evaporation of the ancient lake. The sand still blows today from Weber Reservoir through an opening in Cocoon Mountains, then through Simpson Pass and across Four Mile Flat, where it continues to accumulate particles in a huge pile against the Sand Springs Range creating this mound.
Interestingly, a Japanese researcher, Professor Shigeo Miwa from the Faculty of Engineering in Kyoto, under the guidance of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, visited Churchill County and studied the mystery of the singing sands in 1992, then proceeded to write a letter to the museum of his findings and urging for the protection and reverence of the sands. At that time, there were only three desert sites in the U.S. with singing sand, thus he proclaimed them a rarity. Today there are seven known sites in the U.S. Three are in Nevada: Sand Mountain, Big Dune, and Crescent Dunes. Professor Miwa said that the singing of sand can be compromised by digging, detergent, oil, dust, and sewage.
Sand Mountain is a popular and fun recreation site, mostly known as a place to ride off-road vehicles. Climbing the mountain, sledding, photographing, and visiting the historical Pony Express Station are other favorite activities.
Perhaps the most special part of Sand Mountain is walking and hearing the sand sing. Add this to your adventure list. Be part of the legend of the mountain. The singing Sand Mountain adds to the reasons why Nevada—with its mysteries, legends, and variations of landscape—never disappoints.
HEAR IT FOR YOURSELF
Sand Mountain Recreation Area
U.S. Highway 50
Fallon, NV 89406