Discovering America’s most beautiful sand dunes
Monday, March 06, 2017
"I have always loved the desert," noted the late French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, "One sits on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams."
Deserts do seem to possess a kind of mystical, magical appeal. For some, the vast emptiness of a desert landscape offers a welcome escape from the hustle and bustle of the everyday world.
For recreation seekers, the wide-open spaces invite play — hiking, horseback riding, sand boarding and racing about on dune buggies or bikes. Others prefer to sight-see or to photograph the wind-sculpted dunes.
The accumulation of windblown sand presents one of nature’s most interesting and beautiful phenomena. Windswept and rippled, sand dunes form throughout the world, from coastal and lakeshore plains to desert regions.
They are nonetheless rare environments, making up only 15 percent of the earth’s deserts. Each dune is unique, some of them changing with just a simple shift in the wind. They can range in height from a few feet to as tall as a skyscraper and in color from white to tan to red.
The world’s largest sand dunes in terms of square miles are the Simpson Dunes in Australia, covering more than 65,000 square miles. Argentina claims the tallest roving sand dune, a 4,035-foot monster named Duna Federico Kirbus, although Namibia argues that its Dune 7 in the Namib Desert is number one. The tallest stationary dunes are found in Mongolia, and they are more than 1,600 feet tall.
America, too, has its share of beautiful and impressive sand dunes. The massive Algodones Dunes complex in Southern California covers more than 1,000 square miles, making it the nation’s largest dune system.
The tallest sand dunes in the U.S. are found in Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. There, visitors can scale dunes as high as 750 feet.
Come along with us for a look at these and a number of other major American sand dunes.
Imperial Sand Dunes, Glamis, California
Part of the Algodones Dunes, the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area (ISDRA) is 123,000 acres of sandy paradise located in the extreme southeast corner of the Golden State, just east of Brawley.
The wee town of Glamis serves as gateway and supply center for the hordes of off-road enthusiasts who come here during all but the hottest summer months to "kick sand." As many as 300,000 people flock to ISDRA on big weekends to challenge the massive 300-foot dunes and to ride the ridges and sand bowls on their ATVs.
Helmets, safety flags and use permits are required and ISDRA is a fee area from Oct. 1 to April 15. Purchased in advance, weekly permits are $35 and yearly permits are $150. ATVs can be rented at a number of vendor outlets in Glamis.
Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, Reedsport/Winchester Bay, Oregon
The ODNRA stretches roughly 40 miles along the Oregon coast from Florence to Coos Bay, making it the largest expanse of coastal dunes in North America.
Dunes here reach a height of nearly 500 feet and offer plenty of recreational opportunities for ATV riders, hikers, sand boarders, and horseback riders. Thick evergreen forests back the dunes along Highway 101 and a number of fun riding and hiking trails snake through the greenery.
The communities of Reedsport and Winchester Bay are at the epicenter of ODNRA activities and serve as home of Dunefest, a yearly celebration of all things sand. This year’s festival is set for July 26-30 and will feature a busy slate of motorsport activities, a treasure hunt, demo track testing of new 2018 off-highway vehicles (OHVs), and "Show & Shine," an OHV beauty contest.
Bruneau Dunes State Park, Mountain Home, Idaho
This 4,800-acre sandbox sits 64 miles south of Boise, near the town of Mountain Home, and it boasts the tallest single-structured sand dune in North America with a peak rising 470 feet above the desert floor.
It may seem like splitting hairs, but North America’s tallest multi-structured dune (750 feet) is at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. Off-roading is not allowed here, so the park remains a peaceful domain for nature lovers, hikers and horseback riders.
Sand boarding is popular among those wishing to test their skills on the tall dunes, and rental boards are available at the Visitor Center Nature Store.
The park features equestrian facilities and a pair of riding trails around the dunes. Two small lakes at the foot of the dunes offer an opportunity for non-motorized boating and bluegill fishing.
The park’s most unusual feature is the Bruneau Dunes Observatory, where night-sky gazing can be enjoyed on Friday and Saturday nights from mid-March to mid-October. A campground offers two cabins and 82 serviced RV sites.
Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Kanab, Utah
Rippling arcs of vibrant pink sand welcome you as you enter this park, located just southeast of Zion National Park. With its contrasting blue skies, juniper and pinon pines, and stunning red cliffs, the park is a favorite with photographers.
The sand here gains its color from iron oxides in the Navajo sandstone from which it is derived. The park is extremely popular with the OHV set, with about 90 percent of the dunes open to riding.
Other pursuits here include sightseeing, hiking, sand boarding, picnicking and camping. The park campground offers 17 pull-through sites for RVs up to 40 feet.
There are no hookups, but there are restrooms, showers, picnic tables and BBQ grills. ATV rentals are available at the visitor center.
Great Sand Dunes National Monument, Mosca, Colorado
I can personally testify to the challenge involved in climbing the spongy ridge of sand leading to the 750-foot summit of Star Dune at Great Sand Dunes National Monument. Although sweating and gasping for breath, I must say that the view of the San Luis Valley below and the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains made the struggle well worth the effort.
The monument’s 30 square miles of shifting sand comprise one of the nation’s largest inland dune fields. And, as previously mentioned, Star Dune is the tallest multi-structured dune in North America.
I spoke with a family that was having great time sandboarding off the dune, learning that the boards and sleds they were using are specifically designed (with slick bottom surfaces) for sand. Ordinary snowboards and sleds won’t slide properly, so take note if you plan to try the sport.
I made some photos before ambling down the big dune — and then shed my shoes to cool my feet in Medano Creek. This amazing stream is made up of snowmelt from surrounding mountains and flows along the base of the dunes during spring and early summer months.
White Sands National Monument, Holloman AFB, New Mexico
Rising from the heart of the Tularosa Basin is one of America’s great natural wonders — the glistening white sands of New Mexico. Massive wavelike dunes of pure white gypsum sand have filled 275 square miles of desert, creating the world’s largest gypsum dune field.
Begin your visit with a stop at the historic 1936 Pueblo Revival-style visitor center where you can view an excellent orientation film and explore the interactive museum and native plant garden.
Dunes Drive, an 8-mile scenic drive leads from the visitor center to the heart of the sprawling dune field. Cycling is permitted on Dunes Drive but not on the park’s five established hiking trails. Off-road driving is taboo.
Sandboarding/sledding on the slip face of the dunes is popular, although permitted only in the loop portion of Dunes Drive where there is minimal vegetation. Three shaded picnic areas with 62 tables are located along Dunes Drive and there are 10 primitive backcountry campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Empire, Michigan
This national lakeshore on Lake Michigan goes to show that there doesn’t need to be a desert to produce sand dunes. The impressive dunes along Michigan’s Lower Peninsula shoreline were created by the prevailing westerly winds blowing sand from along the beaches up into dune formations.
Stretching for some 65 miles, this is the largest dune system in the world associated with a freshwater lake. The most prominent features, and those for which the park is named, are the perched dunes above the lake.
These immense sand dunes are "perched" atop already towering headlands that formed as glacial moraines. The dune overlooks at Sleeping Bear, Empire and Pyramid Point bluffs stand about 450 feet above Lake Michigan. Off-road driving is not permitted in the park but you can hike on the dunes until you drop.
The infamous "Dune Climb" — a 450-foot nearly vertical climb in ankle deep sand is a rite of passage for many visitors, rewarded at the summit by a panoramic view of Lake Michigan and Glen Lake to the east. Insiders suggest using the 1.5-mile Cottonwood Trail as a less torturous option to reach the top.
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