Snow may be fun for some, but for others, the winter weather out there is, as they say, “frightful.” However, you don’t need that frosty white powder to have fun on the slopes, for there is an alternative that can be every bit as exhilarating: sandboarding.
Surfing the Sandbox
Sandboarding is exactly what it sounds like: snowboarding on sand, but in much warmer weather. This trending desert sport is performed all around the world wherever there are formidable sand dunes and adrenaline junkies to be found. If you’re itching to surf the sand, the premier place in the United States is Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in southern Colorado, boasting the tallest sand dunes in North America. “Most people, when they think Colorado, they’re thinking mountains,” says Raleigh Burt, local sandboarding enthusiast and manager of Kristi Mountain Sports in nearby Alamosa. “This place is really special because it’s this little oasis in the middle of the mountains where you’ve got a big ol’ pile of sand.”
Choose Your Weapons
Ten years ago, before the recent surge in popularity of sandboarding, enthusiasts often settled for using an old snowboard, or a skateboard with the wheels and trucks removed, to carve their way down the dunes. Manufacturers now create boards that are specifically designed for sandy terrain. The cheaper ones are made of plastic, but true sandboarders opt for boards with a hardwood core. Shorter boards provide better maneuverability for tricks in a sand park, while longer, surfboard-style ones provide a bigger surface area – perfect for gliding down the Great Sand Dunes.
When Gravity Lets You Down
Anxious to hit the slopes, I cross Medano Creek and walk up the closest sand dune from the base of the dune field’s eastern ridge. I wax my board, strap in my bare feet – in the goofy stance that I usually snowboard – and lean in to let gravity do its thing. However, due to rain the night before, the ride isn’t as fast as I’m used to on wintry slopes. I get stuck about a third of the way down in the mixture of wet and dry sand. “It’s not so good if the sand is alternately wet, dry, wet, dry,” says Kelly Desautell, another local sandboarder. “It’s better if it’s either all wet or all dry.” I consider waiting for the warming sun to dry out the wet spots, but Burt has some other advice. “Down low, there's rocks and really coarse sand. The finer sand is deposited up higher,” he coaches me. “Climb higher on the dunes to the second or third tier, where the sand is finer and the boards tend to work better.”
Photo: Erik Trinidad
Scaling the Heights
I hike up a higher dune with a steeper slope, realizing from my fatiguing hamstrings and quads that riding down a dune is a lot more fun than climbing up one. “I forgot how challenging it can be to hike in the sand, but it’s worth the sweat to get in the longer runs,” offers Melissa Niemann of Denver, one of several people I meet in the dune field.
“There should be a rope,” comments Shanu Montanero of Westminster, Colorado, watching from the top of a dune ridge while her kids charge down the slopes on sandboards and sand sleds. I agree with her; there should be something to aid in dune ascension. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is a unique and delicate place – one that was not created overnight – and sandboarding and sandsledding enthusiasts should make every effort to minimize their impact on its environment while enjoying their sports.
Time to Make the Dune-Nuts
According to the National Park Service, the Great Sand Dunes are estimated to be 440,000 years old, formed over time by natural factors unique to this geological nook on the North American continent. The dune field is situated in the San Luis Valley between two mountain ranges: the San Juan Mountains to the west and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east. Over time, the sand was piled where the winds met, forming the tall dunes of today. The tallest is Star Dune, with a skyscraping height of 750 feet.
The nearby Medano Creek still brings sand and sediment down from the mountains, albeit in smaller quantities, which makes dune formation – and recovery – happen slower than a snail’s pace. However, wind still shifts the existing sands around, creating optimal places to sandboard if you know where to go. “When the sand is drier, you get more on the leeward side of the slope where the sand’s been kind of blowing and depositing,” Burt informs me. “It’s like powder.”
Alejandra Gómez enjoys her first time sandboarding. Photo: Erik Trinidad
Once More unto the Beach
With tired thighs, I strap in again and let the power of gravity compel me. This time around, much higher up and with dry sand all the way down, gravity has an absolute field day; I rocket down the dune with a huge, open-mouthed smile on my face, sand particles flying into the air in a great spray underneath my feet. Using the techniques I’ve known from years of snowboarding, I’m able to carve back and forth down the dune on a longer run – although admittedly it’s a little trickier than snowboarding because you don’t feel completely attached to the board. The sensation of sandboarding is more akin to surfing or wakeboarding than snowboarding.
First Run of Many
I thought that my prior experience with riding on boards gives me an advantage with sandboarding, but the learning curve isn’t so bad. Others agreed. “I didn’t think I was going to make it, but hey, I did it!” raved Alejandra Gómez of Dallas after her first run of the day – the first run of her life, in fact – on the Great Sand Dunes. “I have to practice now,” she says, as she gamely charges up the dunes to go again.
Despite having to take a strenuous hike up each dune that you want to ride down, the desert sport of sandboarding is truly addicting – especially if you’re already into action in the open air. As Melissa Niemann put it (with pun intended), “My friends all love outdoor activities, so it did not take much convincing to get everyone on board.”
Plan your own visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, and have your own sandboarding adventure.
Photo: Erik Trinidad