However, there are others that are as high as mountains and as large as small villages, found in deserts bigger than many countries. We’ve gathered the tallest in the world to inspire your wonderment.
10. The Great Dune of Pyla
What an aerial view! The Great Dune of Pyla, or Pilat as it is also known, is a massive dune – and Europe’s highest – found near Aquitaine in France. It lies at the entrance of the Bay of Arcachon and has a volume of over 196 million cubic feet. That’s a lot of sand!
The Dune of Pyla is around 350 feet above sea level (107 meters), 1.8 miles (3 kilometers) long, and 1,640 feet (500 m) wide, so it really is a huge expanse. In January 2009, during a storm, winds of 108 mph (175km/h) damaged the dune.
9. Mingsha Shan
Mingsha Shan, located in China’s Taklamakan Desert, is a dune field known for the phenomenon of singing sand (see also Badain Jaran, entry 3), which is the sound the sands are known to produce – especially if one slides down the slopes of the dunes. Fittingly, Mingsha Shan means “echoing sand mountain” in English. The highest dunes here are thought to be a whopping 5,660 feet (1,725 meters) above sea level. The journey there certainly looks to be a spectacular drive!
The Taklamakan Desert stretches over 130,116 square miles (337,000 sq km) and is one of the largest shifting sand deserts on Earth. Eighty-five percent of the desert is made up of moving, crescent-shaped sand dunes hundreds of feet in height.
8. Star Dune
The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado is home to the tallest sand dune in North America, the Star Dune, which is some 750 feet (230 meters) in height. The park contains other similarly large dunes – which are approximately 12,000 years old.
Formed by the sand and soil deposits from the Rio Grande River, the dunes of the Great Sand Dunes National Park change shape daily and are still steadily growing thanks to the effects of westerly winds. Streams erode sand from the edges of the dunes and carry them downstream, then winds pick up the grains and redeposit them on the dune fields.
7. Mount Tempest
At over 920 feet (280 meters) high, Mount Tempest, on Australia’s Moreton Island, is considered the tallest coastal sand dune on Earth. Needless to say, it affords wonderful panoramic views of the surrounding coastlines. Coastal sand dunes occur when ‘constructive’ waves form accumulations of sand, and onshore winds blow them further inland. The sand grains then run into obstacles, such as vegetation or debris, which trap them. Winds deposit more sand on the far side of the dunes from which they are blowing, and the dunes sort of ‘walk’ inland, picking up more and more sand on the way.
6. Big Daddy and Dune 7
The brilliantly named Big Daddy is one of the most famous of the many sand dunes in Sossusvlei, Namibia. It is also the one of the tallest, standing some 1,066 feet (325 meters) in height, and is composed of five-million-year-old sand.
Another Namibian Desert dune that’s even bigger is Dune 7, which has been measured at over 1,256 feet (383 meters) and is so named because it is the seventh dune one encounters after crossing the river Tsauchab.
The dunes found in Sossusvlei are star dunes – pyramidal mounds with sloping faces on multiple arms that radiate from the dune’s central peak – and are reputed to be the highest range of such dunes found anywhere on Earth. The winds here, as in other places where star dunes lie, are multi-directional – they blow from the northwest, northeast, southeast and southwest – and it is this that causes the sides of the dunes to form into a star shape (when viewed from above). This wind pattern in Sossusvlei keeps the dunes fairly stable so that they move very little, if at all.
5. Isaouane-n-Tifernine Sand Sea
In east-central Algeria lies the Saharan sand sea of Isaouane-n-Tifernine. Sand dunes with an estimated height of 1,526 feet (465 meters) and a wavelength of 3.1 miles (5 km) long have been measured here, which makes them among the largest in the world!
4. Rig-e Yalan Dune
Standing some 1,542 feet (470 meters) tall, this huge dune in Iran has the added distinction of being situated near the hottest place on Earth, Gandom Beryan, which translates to “toasted wheat” (apparently a reference to a time when wheat left in the desert was scorched by the searing heat in a matter of days). The average land surface temperature reaches a sizzling 159 degrees Fahrenheit (70.56 °C) in the Dasht-e Lut desert where the Rig-e Yalan dune lies.
3. Badain Jaran
The dunes of Badain Jaran in China are over 1,640 feet (500 meters) in height, making them the world’s tallest set of stationary dunes. Despite windy conditions, they are anchored in place by an underground water source.
Badain Jaran’s dunes have another claim to fame, as well. Like those found in Mingsha Shan (see entry 9), the dunes whistle, sing or even boom. The sound is produced when the top layer of sand is whipped off the layer below it by desert winds. When this happens with a large amount of sand – like that which is found in a massive a dune – it makes a deep, rumbling sound that can reach 105 decibels. That’s pretty loud!
2. Cerro Medanoso
Cerro Medanoso (cerro means “mountain”) in Chile’s Atacama Desert is the second tallest dune in the world at 1,805 feet (550 meters). If its size were not enough to distinguish it, the desert in which it lies is also the driest place on the planet, with an average rainfall of just one milliliter a year in one part. Some areas are even thought to have had no rain to speak of between 1570 and 1971! The soil is so dry and devoid of life that it has been compared to the soil found on Mars. NASA has even tested instruments here for future missions to the Red Planet.
1. Cerro Blanco
There are many large dunes in the world but none are as tall and as massive as Cerro Blanco, located in Peru’s Nazca Valley. Some three hundred miles (482 km) away from Lima, this monster-sized dune rises 3,860 feet (1176 meters) into the air – and sometimes clouds – and also features a monstrous vertical drop. Loved by only the gnarliest of sand boarders, it can take four or five hours to climb. It’s been called ‘the Everest of the desert and the mother of all dunes.’ That pretty much says it all.