In the southeastern corner of California lies a vast expanse of fine, blown sand and dunes that is the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area (ISDRA). These dunes lie on federal lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. As with most popular off-road sites, it has gathered its share of scrutiny over the years. In 2000, the BLM was sued by preservationist groups claiming the department was in violation of the Endangered Species Act and there was potential harm being caused to desert animals and the Peirson's Milkvetch plant.
As a result, 49,000 acres of the area was closed to OHV access in October 2000. This was followed by additional area closures in 2001. Some areas are considered permanently closed and some could be reopened in the future. In 2008, the BLM began to formulate a new management plan for the dunes area. The plan was open for comments over this past summer and some preferred plan alternatives actually suggest providing more OHV area than what is currently open for that use today.
To be legal out in the dunes (or in any California OHV park) requires that you first have the proper permit for your OHV. State residents need to have a street-legal license plate, or a red or green California OHV sticker to be legal. Vehicles issued with red stickers can only be used during certain times of the year. Fortunately, they are allowed access all year in the Imperial Dunes. Non-residents must have a street-legal license plate from their home state, a valid off-highway registration or identification from their home state, or purchase a California Nonresident Use Permit (currently $30 per year). You can find more specific details on California OHV regulations at http://www.ohv.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=1234.
In addition to a vehicle permit, vehicle requirements consist of having a safety flag on all vehicles in the dunes, front and rear lighting during dark hours, brakes, muffler and/or spark arrestor, and there are maximum noise limits set based on year of vehicle manufacture.
In 2006, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) defined new exhaust emission regulations that apply to "sand cars" built by commercial manufacturers. This can also include most any four-wheeled vehicle with bench or bucket seats, steering wheel and internal combustion engine, and can include rock crawlers and other off-road vehicles. Home built vehicles do not yet fall under these restrictions, although they are examined during titling and registration at DMV for emissions equipment, as required. Home builders are safest using an OEM engine with complete emissions system in place or using one of the engines that has been listed as emission certified by CARB.
In any case, builders must have their cars emission tested to receive approval for sale in California. Once the specific engine and vehicle are CARB certified, it is illegal to perform engine modifications that could affect emissions unless the upgrade product has been approved for the application by CARB. These regulations are primarily enforced at the vehicle manufacturer, and are in effect regardless of production quantities of the builder. After any initial emission testing, no future testing is done on these vehicles at this time.
Side by sides and golf cart type rigs seem to swirl up controversy over street legality across the California border. Reciprocity agreements between the states usually mean that a vehicle that is street legal in one state is often street legal in another state. However, vehicle laws and equipment regulations vary between states. Even if your out-of-state licensed vehicle is technically legal in California, you may experience some problem with law enforcement officers trying to determine if your vehicle is in compliance with local regulations.
From accounts, it seems the most common violations cited out in the dunes areas are typically due to unlicensed vehicles running on connector roads and cases where law enforcement stops a vehicle for unsafe driving practices or gross safety-related issues.
For more detailed information on vehicle rules and restrictions and to find out about fee permits required for entry and camping, you can point your browser to:
Mini Clean-ups are scheduled from time to time in the dunes area. You can find out when the next one is planned by looking at the same ISDRA web site.