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Explore the great American sandboxes


    Some of sand dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park reach heights of up to 750 feet. Sandboarding requires healthy knees.

THERE were only two sand sleds left in the rental rack when I arrived one June morning at the Oasis store near Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Southern Colorado.

And then there were none.

Taking the last sleds to the cashier, I learned it was the second time in two months that they had run out, despite an inventory of 300 sleds and sandboards and a remote location in the San Luis Valley, 250 miles from either Denver or Albuquerque, New Mexico.

As a novice, my sand experience ended up being more R2D2 on Tatooine than Shaun White at the X Games.

Even so, it was easy to understand why sand sports have become so popular.

There were no lift tickets, no lines, no trails and no trees to avoid. There was spectacular scenery, and the contented feeling of ruling the sandbox.

Sandboard Magazine’s website lists places to ride on the sand in 44 countries, including nearly 90 locations in 25 states.

But really, the options are countless, according to Lon Beale, the magazine’s publisher and the owner of Sand Master Park, a private dune field in Florence, Ore.

“Just check Google Earth,” he said. “Most dunes are open to sandboarding because it’s nonmotorized.”

The tallest dunes in North America are at Great Sand Dunes National Park, with the highest rising 750 feet.

Because it’s so arduous to walk up the soft sand, it takes five hours to hike the 6 miles to the top and back, according to the National Park Service.

By midmorning during my visit, I was already finding the sand hot through my socks and sandals, so I stayed on the lower dunes, knowing I was unlikely to keep my $20 rental board the full day.

Although the breeze kept the air temperature comfortable, I had been warned that the sand can reach 150 degrees in the afternoon sun.

On the lower dunes, the views remained stunning. The dune field stretches for 30 square miles, and to the north and east rise the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

I thought of asking someone to try their board, but people were spread out a considerable distance on the dunes. Whether I was a wimp or wise by sticking to a sled depends upon whom you ask.

“With a sled you can just go and have fun,” said Chelsea Ammerman, 33, the manager of the family-­run Great Sand Dunes Oasis in Mosca, Colo., which started renting equipment three years ago. “There’s no learning curve.”

The sandboards, though, require core and leg strength, and healthy knees.

Still, Beale, 60, thinks it is the superior sport.

“When you stand up you have more maneuverability,” he said. “You can do jumps, you can slalom. There’s a lot more adrenaline involved.”

Regardless of which sport, there are some tips:

>> While you can wear shoes on the sleds, the bindings on the sandboards are designed for socks or surf bootees.

>> Sand dunes are formed by wind, so there’s a chance you’ll be peppered by blowing sand. Full-length, lightweight clothing will help keep you more comfortable, and cut down on the areas that need sunscreen. Some also recommend goggles to keep sand out of the eyes.

>> On steeper slopes, the sand cascades beneath your feet with every step, meaning you don’t cover much distance for the energy expended. It’s easier to approach the dune from the low side, then walk along the ridge to the slope you want to go down.

>> Plastic sleds, saucers and cardboard don’t slide on dry sand. (The children I saw trying to slide on garbage bags gave up and just rolled down the hill.) Similarly, snowboards aren’t a good choice for dunes, according to Beale, who manufactures the wooden sleds and boards rented at the Oasis and elsewhere.

>> Sand sleds have no steering, so Ammerman recommends people use their hands in the sand as rudders, assuming it’s not too hot to do so.

Lessons in sandboarding are available at Sand Master Park, which opened in 2000 and gets about 20,000 visitors each year.

The sand at the park is sculpted with earth-moving equipment, and ramps, rails and jumps are set up.

“We have everybody from 4-year-olds to 80-year-olds,” said Ammerman, who didn’t have a count for the number of rentals last season.

Still, she said, sand sports aren’t for everyone, and cites her 62-year-old mother, who owns the Oasis, as an example.

“My mom doesn’t like sand dunes,” she said. “It’s hot and she gets dirty.”

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