The sun shimmered off the desert sand. The temperature could be reaching up to 65° C (150° F) today. I could hear my breathing getting heavier as I climbed but I could not rest even my ascent took my effort near the top. With every step up up the dune, the sand shifted slightly back down the incline under my feet, clad only in socks. Sweat trickled down my neck but I could not stop.
It was my turn with the sand surf board and I didn’t want to miss it.
It’s official: I love sand surfing
We were at one of the best places to go sand surfing in America, the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. I went this summer with my daughter, my mother and my brother’s family, and I have to tell you, this experience was a real dream come true.
Years ago, I read an article about sand surfing in Namibia — shushing down a slope of silicon dioxide in a sculptural, practically lunar landscape of dunes. No need for salopettes or thermal fleece. I’ve wanted to try it ever since. This summer I got the opportunity to go during our family trip to Taos, New Mexico.
I grew up spending summers in Taos and have been back over the past 2 years, but I never realised how close Colorado is (mountains! backpackers! marijuana dispensaries!) and how accessible this amazing national park is.
About Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park features the tallest dunes in North America, rising to 750 feet. They sit alongside with grasslands, wetlands, and forests. You can hike, sand sled, splash in the creek at the foot of the dunes, go wildlife spotting, stargaze with a ranger and more. Week-long entrance for a car is £15 (see all fees here). As you approach the park, you can see the dunes when you’re still half an hour away.
What’s sand surfing like?
Sand surfing seems like it will be as much as surfing waves, except you can replace that strenuous paddling out through crashing waves with a climb up the shifting sands of a giant dune — no lifts here. To catch a wave on the water, it’s all about judgement, timing and picking the right swell.
On the dune it’s about pushing yourself over the edge and having the nerve to point yourself straight down without fear.
Expectation: Me shushing down the face of a dune in a low crouch, looking sporty and tan.
Reality: Me starting downhill, picking up speed, getting nervous and gradually turning to slow my descent, before ending up splayed on the side of the dune.
The kids had no such problem. My 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old nephew wanted to go as far and as fast as possible. They looked like naturals. Even my mother aced her inaugural ride on a sand sled, which is harder to control than a stand-up board.
After a successful ride that ended in a complete wipeout, my brother opted for a long trek up to the highest dunes. I think his pictures show it was worth it.
Sand surfing is a lot of fun and as our outing showed, great for the entire family. There were kids of all ages alongside us that day — I highly recommend it. Just don’t think about what you look like going down…or back up.
Tips for sand surfing at Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Rent a proper sand surfing board or sand sled. There’s a shop just outside this park entrance called Oasis. We picked up ours in the nearby city of Alamosa at Kristi Mountain Sports, where the shop assistants were very friendly and the bathroom was very clean.
- Consider a sand board over a sled. This sounds counterintuitive but the sand sled, while it will be more comforting to younger kids, is harder to control than a board. From my experience, older kids and adults will find a board easier to ride even as novices.
- Go early. The heat can be punishing. Hit the slopes early for great rides before it roasts.
- Wear socks! I got this tip when we booked our boards from the shop assistant. The socks protect your feet from the hot sand and are easier to walk up in than trainers (just think of these as sand scoops that tiresomely have to be laced up after each ride) or flip-flops (just…don’t).
- Bring a bandanna or lightweight sport snood to cover your mouth. Because without one, you create a little sand beard with every face-plant.
- Pack plenty of water/cool drinks/snacks. This is a national park, which means there isn’t a vending machine every 5 steps — you need to bring everything you want to consume on the dunes.
- Open an umbrella. My mother took a regular rain umbrella, which served as a parasol while we watched each other take turns. If you’re going for a full-on day trip, you could bring folding chairs and sun umbrellas to stick in the sand, like we saw some families had.
- Wear a bathing suit, if you fancy cooling off in the creek afterward. The parking lot is divided from the dunes by Medano Creek, a shallow flowing stream where you can bathe your feet or kids can splash around.
- Keep some sandals and possibly a change of clothes in the car. You’ll have sand everywhere. You’ll be a lot more comfortable on the ride back in a fresh outfit.
- Other things you’ll be glad to have with you:
- High-SPF sunscreen
- Long-sleeve shirt or rash guard
- Camera — I kept my camera phone in a Zip-loc bag between uses
Other great places to sand surf
- USA: Sand Master Park in Florence, Oregon – This calls itself the world’s first sandboard park; you can take lessons, go on a sand dune buggy tour and more
- USA: Silver Lake State Park in Mears, Michigan – Travel + Leisure magazine named this one of America’s Best Little Beach Towns; it has 2,000 acres of natural sand dunes
- Nicaragua: Carro Negro Volcano – This active volcano lays down a layer of black ash that’s reportedly great for boarding down
- Germany: Hirschau – This small mountain resort features a lift, making the trek up after a ride so much easier
- South Africa: Atlantis dune field, Cape Town – White sand, blue sky, awesome rides…ok, then.
Have you ever been sand surfing? Would you like to try? Let me know in the comments!