With a roar, we’re diving down that impossible canyon with nothing but pink sand visible through the windscreen. In seconds, we’re roaring up the other side seeing blue sky and the treetops. We head back to the Valantine family’s RVs, circled into a family campsite.
Matt and son Cary are whipping up dinner for the families, their collective sons, daughters, in-laws and many grandchildren.
“We just don’t get opportunities like this to have everyone together at one time,” Valantine says while stirring a Dutch oven of chicken. “We laugh, share stories and build memories on these dunes.”
Coral Pink Sand Dunes is one of 16 public dunes in the American Southwest. From southeast California across Texas and Colorado, dunes abound for camping, OHVs, kid-oriented family fun, solitude, incredible views and exploration. Some dunes are where the wind deposited millions of years of local dust; others are remnants of eon-old oceans and inland waters.
Up the road from the Valantines, Ruby Johnson is sitting at a picnic table under the trees while her grandchildren are on snow sleds racing, sort of, down the dunes. Chased by the family dogs and watched by their parents, the kids’ laughter rolls up the slope when the sled grinds to a halt about halfway down the sandy slope, and one child tumbles down a little further down the slope without the sled.
“This is some of the softest sand you’ll ever find,” Johnson says. She and some of her family live in nearby Kanab. “Our family comes here a couple of times a year. Sometimes, I carry a beach umbrella and chair, put it in the sand, and sit and watch the gang.”
Tromping on the dunes anywhere means sand in shoes and socks; lots of sand. When it’s not sizzling hot, most take to the sand in bare feet. At Coral Pink, it’s not surprising to see a line of shoes at the trailhead. At Imperial Dunes, shoes come off before leaving the car in the parking area. Sandals are de rigueur when a foot covering is needed.
The largest dunes area in the United States starts as oceanfront property in Arizona, then crosses the Colorado River into southeast California. It’s all beach sand for about 40 miles from the Arizona state line west. The BLM’s Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area is another multi-use sandy paradise. There is a wilderness area for foot traffic, non-vehicle areas for hiking and equestrian use, and miles of OHV area.
“I’ve been coming here since 1990,” says Armando Morales. He and Vince Ventura, both from the Los Angeles area, are standing next to their red OHV at the Hugh T. Osborn Lookout in Imperials Sands.
Morales and Ventura jump into their OHV, and the engine roars to life. “This can go over 100 miles per hour,” he shouts as they take off in a rooster tail of dust, heading for one of the tallest dunes in sight, over 300 feet tall.
There is a no-vehicle area across the parking lot, and a family is setting up beach umbrellas, sand toys and tracking children scurrying up and down the dune above them.
Down California Highway 78, in the town of Glamis, the welcome sign says “Glamis Beach, the Sand Toy Capital of the World.” A barely permanent structure appears to be the town and houses a store, pizza parlor and roof-deck bar. The rest of the city is a bustling recreation vehicle park and a sprawling community of cramped recreation vehicles in a grid of snack vendors, food trucks, OHV repair and custom gear tents. The RVs extend as far as the eye can see in every flat area of dunes at Glamis.
There are other dunes in the west more for sandy experiences. Great Sand Dunes and White Sands national parks as well as Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park are for day use and exploration. Great Sand Dunes and White Sands allow backpacking into the dunes. Otherwise, visiting the dunes is limited to foot traffic in and out.
Ruby Johnson is pulling off her shoes before heading up the dune from the picnic area to watch her grandchildren sled; she turns and says, “Dunes are the kind of experience you do as a family, and everyone remembers their whole life. My husband’s grandfather brought him out here as a kid. Johnson Canyon (in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument) by Kanab, that’s named for his great-grandfather.”
Other dunes in the Southwest
Arizona (Navajo Nation)
Sand Springs, Monument Valley Tribal Park, Olijato, Arizona/Utah
Public overlook; Navajo guide required to access the dunes. Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation. Sacred and historic area, dunes have been featured in well-known movies.
From Houston: 17 hours
Hiking, sandboarding, sledding. National Park Service. Easy to enjoy family experience.
From Houston: 23 hours
Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, Glamis, California; Yuma, Arizona
Equestrian, hiking, OHV, sandboarding, sledding. Bureau of Land Management. There are almost unlimited areas for OHVs, areas set aside for solitude or family use at Hugh T. Osborn Lookout.
From Houston: 19 hours
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Mosca, Colorado
Backpacking, hiking. National Park Service. Ecological preserve and backcountry, hiking is not restricted to trails in the dunes.
From Houston: 14 hours
Big Dune, Amargosa Valley, Nevada
Backpacking, camping, hiking OHV, sandboarding. Bureau of Land Management. Almost unknown area outside of Nevada with significant riding areas.
From Houston: 22 hours
Clayton Valley Sand Dunes, Between Beatty and Tonopah, Nevada
Camping, hiking, OHV on marked trails only. Bureau of Land Management.
From Houston: 24 hours
Sand Mountain Recreation Area, Fallon, Nevada
Camping, OHV, sand sailing, sandboarding, sledding is discouraged because of the lack of separation from OHVs. Bureau of Land Management.
From Houston: 27 hours