So much sand, so little time. | hadynyah/ E+/ Getty Images
So much sand, so little time. | hadynyah/ E+/ Getty Images

Meet Sandboarding, Your New Favorite Desert Sport

Coasting down undulating golden hills on a wax-slick sandboard? Sign us up.

The first thing you’re gonna want to do is wax your sandboard. Cover the surface well, moving the wax back and forth. Get it good and slippery—this both protects your vehicle from the elements and helps to eliminate the possibility of friction. Friction which could save you from falling on your face as you attempt to Kelly Slater your way down the slopes at Killpecker Sand Dunes.

It’s a lot of sand. Operated by the Bureau of Land Management, the stretch of tan, undulating mounds that make up the Southwest Wyoming Open Play Area appears like it would be right at home in the deserts of Namibia or Mongolia. But they’re here in Sweetwater County, created by glacial melt and deposited by the Big and Little Sandy Rivers near the city of Rock Springs. And at 109,000 rippling acres, this is one of North America’s largest sand fields, radiating out like an endless beach with no relief of sea.

Choose your own sand adventure at Killpecker Sand Dunes. | Courtesy of Sweetwater County, Wyoming

To enter is to immerse yourself in a full ecosystem. The sand dunes are undoubtedly alive, and not just because of the life that teems within: the spadefoot toads and Jerusalem crickets that burrow deep down in the grains, or the wild horses and rare desert elk that make the desert their home. No, thanks to ever-present winds, the topography is constantly writhing, churning, and changing form, earning Killpecker the distinction of the world’s second-largest “active” sand dune (the active dunes found in North Africa's Sahara desert claims the grand prize).

It’s also multi-sensory. Listen closely for a low-pitch noise, almost like a booming cello—Killpecker is one of about 35 dunes in the world said to sing. When Marco Polo heard the same sound in the deserts of China, he thought it was thanks to evil spirits. According to National Geographic, after studying dunes in Morocco and Oman, Parisian bioscientists concluded the sounds were formed by the wind running over a certain size of grain. Either way, it makes for a pretty good—if ominous—soundtrack for outdoor adventure. The full sight and sound immersion is a reminder that these things are ancient, built up over centuries, and you are but a mere blip in its timeline.

Some boarders are better than others. | SOPA Images /lighrocket/Getty Images

Not that they hold it against you. In many dunes, you’re welcome to stay awhile and play, trying your hand at sledding, sandboarding (a.k.a. sand surfing), sand skiing, ATVing, motorcycling, or just rolling down like a bug in a blanket if that’s more your style. Killpecker is one of many official dune-strewn Open Play Areas that grace the landscape of the United States, popping up in places like Arizona, Texas, Idaho, Michigan, and Oklahoma—that’s the adorably named Little Sahara State Park. Perhaps the most famous are the stark, otherworldly gypsum mounds of White Sands National Park in New Mexico or Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, home to the largest dunes in North America, shooting up to 750 feet tall and hosting night sledding under dark skies.

In Florence, Oregon you’ll find Sand Master Park, the first park made specifically for sandboarding, where you can rent equipment and take lessons from sandboarding pros. The park was established in 2000 by Lon Beale, who is also credited with inventing the sandboard in 1991 after spending his teenage years lugging makeshift cardboard and metal sleds up the dunes in Death Valley. His slippery creation quickly gained widespread popularity thanks to the internet, connecting all adventure seekers longing to play in a giant sandbox. Aspiring surfers and snowboarders without access to a beach or mountains suddenly had their own slopes, while winter sports fanatics now had something to keep them busy during the off-season. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find a massive sandy mound that hasn’t already been claimed by adventurers. There are even sandboarding competitions, like Brazil’s Pan-American Sandboarding Challenge, Peru’s Sandboard World Cup, and Oregon’s Sand Master Jam.

Boar's Tusk, and some antelope. | Courtesy of Sweetwater County, Wyoming

Killpecker Sand Dunes is located in Wyoming’s Red Desert, an almost 10,000-square-mile expanse littered with pungent sagebrush and sitting a mile above sea level. Its overseer, the Bureau of Land Management, is also responsible for the nearby White Mountain Petroglyphs, a remarkably preserved 300-foot cliffside with great cultural significance to the Plains and Great Basin Native Americans. Accessible to the public, here you’ll find handprints imprinted into the sandstone alongside etched records of elk and bison hunts, horses, and riders (just remember not to touch).

A few miles away, you’ll also find the Boar’s Tusk springing up in the middle of vast nothingness. Named by trappers, the imposing remains of a volcano reach 7100 feet in the air, higher than the state’s other monolith, Devil’s Tower, but much less famous. Of course, it’s better that way—stumbling upon it still feels like a secret.

Examining the White Mountain Petroglyphs. | Courtesy of Sweetwater County, Wyoming

Entry to the dunes is free—simply show up with your own sandboard or sled and look for the designated Open Play Area. You can also purchase one from the Rock Springs Visitor Center for $209, complete with wax and a bright red flag to signal your position to ATV drivers and other folks out cruising the dunes.

You’ll want to wear long pants and sleeves and something to protect your eyes and mouth. Knee and elbow pads are also helpful, as well as a helmet. Closed-toed shoes are best: Keep in mind that what comes down, must go up, meaning you’ll be hiking a bit in unstable, sometimes steep terrain before sledding down. Bring water, and stay hydrated.—you’re in a remote desert, after all.

Then, you’re good to go. In preparation for my time on the slopes, I watched multiple videos of expert dune sledders and boarders soaring down the sandy hills, leaning back on their boards to gain momentum. My experience… was a little different. I sat perched on the back of my sled, teetering on the crest of a hill and expecting a smooth ride down. You know when a baby scoots around on its behind because that’s the only way it can figure out to get from one place to the next? That was me. The next time I went, I used more wax.

The inventor of the sandboard, Lon Beale, showing off his stuff in Oregon. | Gabriel Buoys / AFP/ Getty Images

Where to sandboard in the US

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Duncan, Colorado
Not only does Great Sand Dunes National Park boast the tallest dunes in North America, it’s also an International Dark Sky Sanctuary. Which means that activities and other programming are just as robust—and even more stunning—when the sun goes down. The park does not rent boards, but there are several options for finding one locally. Entrance to the park is $25 for a seven-day pass.

Sand Master Park
Florence, Oregon
Stationed just off the Oregon coast, the world’s first sandboard park utilizes 40 acres of natural dunes sculpted for all types of sandy play. You can take boarding classes if you’re a newbie, or if you’re already acclimated, rent sandboards, sleds, boogie boards, and more from their pro shop. Try out your moves within the park’s privately run facilities, or keep it going by hitting up other nearby sites like the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Sand Master Park also offers sand sculpting clinics and sponsors the Circles in the Sand labyrinth beach experience every October. Entrance is free, but gear rental and instructional class rates vary.

Sand Mountain
Fallon, Nevada
Rather than a stretch of mounds, this spot Off Highway 50—a.k.a. The Loneliest Road in America—appeals to off-roaders and sandboarders alike because it offers one giant sand mountain, so to speak, making it ideal for those with a competitive spirit. A $40 pass will get you access for a week, but it’s free for non-motorized vehicle use lasting under an hour as well as all-day Tuesdays and Wednesdays. There’s a designated camping area at the base, but you’ll need to bring your own equipment (plus plenty of water) if you want to hang out. The 4,795-acre recreation area is managed by the BLM and shares a campus with the Sand Springs Pony Express Station Historical Site (dating back to 1860), as well as the Sand Springs Desert Study Area.

Killpecker Dunes
Rock Springs, Wyoming
About 35 miles north of Rock Springs, Wyoming’s Killpecker Dunes has carved out 11,000 acres of the Red Desert for free recreational play . Bring your own sleds and boards, or pick one up from the Visitors Center at Rock Springs for $209 (includes wax and a flag to signal your location).

Heading up Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. | David Spates/Shutterstock

White Sands National Monument
Las Cruces, New Mexico
The glistening allure of its 275 sandy square miles is hard to resist, but according to the National Park Service, the soft sands of White Sands National Park are probably more conducive to sand sledding than sandboarding. No reason you can’t try both, though, and see how you fare. Bring your own equipment, or pick up a plastic sled at the park’s visitors center for $10. Sledding is allowed in designated areas.

Monahan Sandhills State Park
Monahans, Texas
Though it certainly looks like it, 3,840-acre Monahans Sandhills State Park is technically not desert. Don’t worry, though—they still provide all the same sandy fun. Entrance runs $4 to access dunes that soar 70 feet high, and sand boards, sand disks, and sand toboggans can be rented onsite.

Kelso Dunes
Kelso, California
As the birthplace of the sport’s founder, California is by far one of the most popular destinations for sand sledding and sandboarding. In the Mojave National Preserve, the quartz and feldspar pockets of the Kelso Dunes offer 45 miles of recreation closed to vehicles. You’ll need to bring your own equipment here—no rentals are available—though there is a visitors center located in the ghost town’s former train depot.

Little Sahara Sate Park
Waynoka, Oklahoma
Little Sahara State Park’s 1,600 acres of dunes were originally formed by deposits from Oklahoma’s ancient Cimarron River. Today, the recreational area is a haven for dune buggies, ATVs, and sandboarding. Entrance runs $10 a day, and camping is available on premises.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She probably needs more wax.