The Legends of Sand Mountain, Nevada

Sand Mountain is a natural sand formation located about 20 miles southeast of Fallon, Nevada. This is one of the best places to experience booming dunes in the western United States, and, as such, it is a popular location for visitors from around the world. But it’s the legends of Sand Mountain that makes it particularly poignant – legends of the Singing Mountain where Kwasee, the ancient benefactor of the Shoshone Paiute, still sings for his mate, or the folklore of giant prehistoric beasts who once frolicked in Lake Lohontan, one now moaning for the loss of its mate, forever buried beneath the shifting sands.

A view of Sand Mountain

A view of Sand Mountain

The Natural Formation of Sand Mountain

Once upon a time, geologists tell us, Lake Lohontan covered the bulk of Nevada as agreat sea. This was the time of the ichthyosaur and the pleisiosaur that once frolicked beneath the waves of this huge body of water. Eventually, the lake dried, and as it subsided, sediment was forced onto the shores of the new lakebed, ground, in time, into fine silt and sand. Strong winds formed dunes, including Sand Mountain, which exists to this time as an awesome example of the power of nature. But it’s the composition of the sediment that causes the natural booming or singing effect of the sand, and which gives rich life to the legends.

How Do You Make a Mountain Sing?

To appreciate the acoustical phenomenon of singing, or booming, you have to climb to the crest of the dune and then slide down the slip face. Going down with an avalanche of sand is like riding down an escalator ankle-deep in sand. The vibration of the sand is what causes the loud “ booming effect,” likened to the drone of bombers or vintage fighter planes.

sand-mtnIt’s also possible to hear the booming sounds as more of a hollow rustle when the wind shifts across the sands. Scientists tell us that the mountain sings or booms as a result of the vibrations and movements of the smooth, rounded grains of sand and the warm, dry climate.

The Legends of Serpents and Dinosaurs

In the Nevada Official Bicentennial Book, Mary Holliday relates the tale of the large sea dinosaur (plesiosaur) that once lived and frolicked with its mate in ancient Lake Lahontan.  Strong winds piled the sediment of the lakebed into what is now Sand Mountain, burying the mate under hundreds of feet of sand. To this day, it is said, the dinosaur moans for its mate and the deep blue waters of Lake Lahontan.

large sea dinosaur (plesiosaur)

large sea dinosaur (plesiosaur)

But the local Paiute-Shoshone tribe has a different explanation. According to their beliefs, the singing is the hissing of Kwansee, an ancient serpent that once lived with their people where they were created at  Fox Peak, the sacred mountain in the Stillwater Range. Kwansee and his wife lived beneath the Stillwater Mountains, journeying across what is now present-day western Nevada (Pyramid Lake, Lake Tahoe and Walker Lake), dispensing wisdom and spreading joy wherever they went. When Kwansee’s wife died, he was so saddened that he buried himself in the sand at the foot of the Stillwater Range, and he remains at that sacred spot to this very day, dispensing guidance and protection while mourning his mate.

Whatever the legend, the fact is that this is a beautiful spot that should be respected because of its tribal  spiritual significance. Off-roaders should take particular care not to disturb the local wildlife, and to appreciate the serenity of the area as it has existed for hundreds of years.

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