From the time Juan Bautista de Anza led a Spanish expedition from Tubac, AZ to the Golden Gate on the coast of Alta California, travelers have been daunted by the breadth and height of the Imperial Sand Dunes 20 miles west of Yuma, Arizona. The Spanish called them the Algodones Dunes. “Algodones” is Spanish for “cotton”. Indeed, from a distance, these dunes resemble bundles of cotton.
The earliest European explorers found a way around them rather than try to cross over these dunes on foot or horseback. Walking on mounds of fine sand is a rather hopeless endeavor. Progress comes at a great expense of energy.
Early in the last century, with the advent of the automobile, an enterprising soul, Ed Fletcher, conceived of a wooden plank road over the dunes. If successful, this new route could cut hours off of an automobile trip from San Diego, CA to Yuma, AZ.
With $8,600 from Imperial County (CA) for construction, Fletcher ordered 13,000 planks to be delivered from San Diego to Holtville (CA). Newt Grey, a local engineer, would supervise the road building. The first item on his schedule: dig a well on the western edge of the dunes so his crew could get fresh water. Grey’s Well is still there today near Interstate 8.
Work on the plank road started in February and ended in April 1915. It traversed 6.5 miles across the dunes east to west. While the plank road was considered a success, there were problems. Most notably, the desert wind caused shifting sand to cover the plank road. In order for cars to travel on the planks, huge amounts of sand had to be removed frequently. And then there was the wear and tear caused by hundreds of automobiles that used the plank road. In other words, the plank road needed constant maintenance. Engineers began to look for a better solution.
For two years, 1923 to 1925, engineers monitored the movement of sand dunes adjacent to the plank road and tested various surfaces. After concluding that hills of sand over 100 feet high moved very slowly and only the lower dunes moved rapidly, it was determined that a permanent pavement road was indeed possible if the grade was high enough.
They decided on a combination of asphalt and concrete surface constructed on top of a built-up sand embankment. The new road, 20 feet wide, officially opened on August 12, 1926. The old plank road fell into disuse and withered away. What few ruins that remain are now designated a California Historical Landmark.
You can still see remnants at the west end of Grey’s Well Road, the frontage road on the south side of I-8. A Plank Road monument and interpretive display lie approximately three miles west of the Sand Hills interchange. This portion was preserved as a result of efforts by the Bureau of Land Management, the Imperial Valley Pioneer Historical Society, the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, and Air Force personnel. These groups worked together in the early 1970s to assemble a 1500 foot section from various locations in the dunes.