When you go to visit Colorado, you usually expect snow, mountains, and rivers. You definitely aren't expecting sand dunes, especially in the middle of a seemingly normal valley. Well, if you go visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park, you will be in for an interesting sight. The valley is home to the tallest dunes in North America, and they look just a little out of place. It's as if there was a giant child playing in a sandbox who decided to dump a bucket of sand in the middle of the Sand Luis Valley. The Great Sand Dunes National Park website details the Native American history of the area, the unique ecosystems, and the recreational activities visitors can participate in.
The valley is home to four "life zones" each unique in it's climate, terrain, and wildlife.Denise Williams, taken at Park Visitor's Center Trail
Visitors can camp, hike, climb the dunes, and seasonally play in the Medano Creek. The water flow varies throughout the year because it depends on the snowmelt from the surrounding mountains. Depending on when you choose to visit, the weather will vary significantly, and your recommended activities will change. One truly unique recreational activity is sand sledding and boarding. Assuming that the majority of the population hasn't tried this yet, here are some tips for your first try.
Rent a Sled or Board
Sand sleds and boards are specifically designed for this activity, and even they don't always work well. If you try to take your plastic Walmart sled or your snowboard out there, it just won't work. Sand isn't slick like snow and ice, so the only force working in your favor is gravity. Depending on where you choose to rent from, it's fairly affordable. The average is $20 a day, and if you share with your friends, that's a good deal. Check out this link to see a list of rental places.
Wear Sandals, Or Go Barefoot
Much like visiting the beach, the dunes are sure to get you covered in sand, and walking in it with anything other than good shoes is a great way to twist an ankle. My dad tried Crocs, and eventually abandoned them to go barefoot, I wore Chacos, and was fine. If it's not the summer (the sand can reach temperatures of up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit on a summer afternoon), or winter (the sand freezes over and rentals aren't available), going barefoot is okay. Either way, socks and tennis shoes will just get filled with sand.The national park's website has a page dedicated to safety that's worth viewing before planning your visit.
Wear Sunglasses or Goggles and a Windbreaker
When sledding or boarding, falling is inevitable. When you fall, you will be covered in sand. If there's any wind, you will also get covered in sand. The moral of the story? You will get covered in sand, and that may be unpleasant. To protect your eyes, wearing sunglasses or even goggles will help. As for the rest of you, wearing a light weight windbreaker will help protect you from windburn and keep the sand off of you. It's also not a bad idea to bring a change of clothes, so you're not sitting in sandy pants for your drive home.
Use LOTS of Wax
Here's the wax I received from the Great Sand Dunes Oasis Rental Shop.
Sand sleds and boards are specifically designed to be very slick, so that they will slide. However, they're useless without wax. When you rent them, you are given a cake of wax, which you then put on the bottom of your sled or board. After you get a good layer of wax on, you then "buff" it, by sliding it back and forth on the sand. In my personal experience, the second trip down the hill after waxing is the best.
Go With the Grain
Here's one dune I went down. I actually left behind a pretty straight line. The interesting thing with the sand dunes is that the wind shifts the sand to erase your tracks. Just 15 minutes after this photo, you'd never know I was there.
In order to slide effectively down a pile of sand, it's a good idea to go with the sand... not against it. Pay attention to where other people are sledding, and try to pick similar dunes and directions. If you go against the grain, you'll get turned around, and then your sled with dig into the sand and send you rolling down the hill. Let's just say I know from watching other people, rather than personal experience.
Survey the Terrain
Standing among the sand dunes, it feels like you're in another world.
When you're driving, it's important to watch the road. The same applies to sand sledding and boarding, but in this case you have less control. It's a good idea to pick dunes that are somewhat steep, in order to get momentum, and a smooth base, so you have time to slow down safely at the bottom. Watch out for harder surfaces, rocks, and weeds.
There you have it! Sand sledding may or may not be your favorite thing, but it's something I think everyone should try at least once. Have fun, and be safe out there!