Sandboarding the Great Dunes

By SEAN MCCOY

There are times in a man’s life when he needs to sit back and reassess the situation. Lying half-naked at the bottom of a 200-foot tall pile of sand in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park, a bit tipsy from Rumplemintz and a snowboard strapped to my feet seemed to be just such a time for me.

It was the end of summer. Moonlight played across the dunes. Far above, blue dots of headlamps moved on a ridgeline where friends climbed into the night. 

We were on a mission to sandboard the Great Dunes. What path in life led us to this? I thought about it for a moment and then dismissed the introspection — obviously, I was on the right path. 

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The sun sets on Great Sand Dunes National Park

Just a few hours earlier I’d been a sandboarding virgin. Fortunately, as an experienced snowboarder, there wasn’t much of a learning curve.

My friends Brian Kelley, Kurt Bohne and I had arrived at the dunes an hour before sunset. We set up camp and then climbed uphill, snowboards strapped on our backpacks. We had headlamps, a camera, a flashing emergency light, a few beers, and the Rumplemintz. What could go wrong? 

OK, well right or wrong, the ease of sandboarding under such circumstances led to some serious oneupmanship and pushing of limits. 

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All ready to make the descent

We chose nighttime for its cover as well as for its lack of sun and heat. As the moon shone, the dunes gave off their otherworldly vibe.

In daylight, the ground here is said to scorch at 140 degrees. We hiked barefoot on cool sand at night. We climbed into the dark, sitting down at the top to strap on a board and point it downhill. 

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Shredding down some sand; photo NPS

Vail on a powder day it was not, but sliding downhill on a huge sand dune, especially at night, is quite the blast.

The ride downhill is steep in places, but there’s enough resistance to keep even the “black diamonds” mellow. Each run is only up to about 200 vertical feet, making for maybe a 30-second ride. With each slope ending with smooth, flat sand, we opted to bomb the runs for maximum speed. Turning was not needed. 

We played on the sand until late that first night, hitting laps on a short, steep slope that gave plenty of speed. A few good crashes were a part of the fun as well.

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The Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the distance

The dunes are near Mosca, Colo., and a flat half-mile walk from the Pinyon Flats Campground. The journey across the cactus-covered desert to the base of the dunes was a pleasant stroll.

Once on the sand, the going got tougher. Think walking on a very fine, dry beach. Then make it steep. This is strenuous stuff but certainly in the realm of comfort for any moderately-fit hiker.

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Making the trek back up for another lap

After lounging through the heat of the afternoon on the second day of our trip, we hit up the dunes for one more twilight session.

Just standing on the dunes and watching a sunset is reason enough to make a trip. Add a snowboard, friends, maybe some Rumplemintz, and a full moon. Mix liberally and enjoy. There’s nothing like it.

—Sean McCoy is a contributing editor

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