Three major eolian sand populations can be recognized in the Gran Desierto sand sea of northwestern Mexico by using spectral data from the Landsat thematic mapper in conjunction with textural and mineralogical studies of surface sands. Each sand population has distinct textural, mineralogic, and spectral properties that can be related to sand-dune morphology and position with reference to source areas and transport paths of the sands. The oldest eolian sediment in the sand sea was derived from the early to middle Pleistocene Colorado River that flowed through the area of the western Gran Desierto. Subsequent inputs of eolian sands came from the area of the present Colorado River valley and the coast south of the sand sea. The spatial and temporal pattern of eolian deposition in the region has been controlled by Quaternary tectonic and climatic changes, resulting in the episodic input and deposition of sand.