These dune towns have turned deserts into adventure oases
In the past 15 years, destinations with impressive dunes—some taller than the Empire State Building—have become meccas for the new-ish sport of sandboarding (also known as dune surfing).
While people have been sliding down sand dunes for centuries, doing it for sport (or, OK—fun) started in the 1970s. That’s when Lon “Dr. Dune” Beale—who many credit for creating the sport—turned some old skis into a sandboard. Eventually, snowboards were used and then lighter and more maneuverable sand-specific boards began popping up.
“Sand is very forgiving,” says 24-year-old Gabe Cruz, sandboarding’s current world pro champ. In nine years of hucking front flips, 360s, and 30-foot jumps, Cruz has never suffered a true sandboarding injury—only bumps and bruises.
Before you check out one of these dune surfing hubs, heed this advice. You can go sitting (to start), laying down (once you’re used to it) or standing (for experts)—just keep your camera wrapped in a plastic bag. Sand is not technology’s friend.
Stockton Sand Dunes, Australia
Best For: Easy thrills
Dune Heights: 100-130 feet
Speeds: 30 mph
The Stockton Dunes are surreal—imagine 20 miles of towering sand mountains wedged between lush, densely vegetated hills and the blue Tasman Sea. Slopes here are short (mercifully brief uphills!) but steep (approaching 60 degrees) so stand-up and sit-down riders use light swallowtail sandboards with a notched tail for maneuverability. But given the fineness of the sand, falling is exceptionally fun—like face-planting into a big bowl of cornstarch.
Port Stephens 4WD Tours runs dune shuttles every half-hour ($28 AUS, a 5-minute trip from Biruibi Beach), dropping you off at a “big” and “little” hill where an instructor is stationed to offer tips. Hike and surf for as long as you like; once you’re tuckered out, you just catch the next shuttle back to Stockton.
Sand Master Park, Oregon
Best For: Growing Your Skills
Dune Heights: 100 feet
Speeds: 15-30 mph
Yes, a Fred Meyer store borders the sand, but Sand Master Park still feels like it could be in the Sahara rather than Oregon. It’s a privately owned, 40-acre parcel of drifted sand that lets riders explore at will: The park offers lessons, but no guided group tours. And it’s a veritable amusement park for sandboarders, with clumps of dunegrass that create natural jumps and narrow “couloirs” that require quick, precise turns. “This is very technical terrain,” says Sand Master owner Lon Beale. “But the coastal sand glides like snow and really spoils you for any place else.”
First stop is the Sand Master store, which doubles as the sport’s de facto hall of fame with news clippings and pros’ autographed portraits filling the walls. Rent a terrain board (which is lighter and more efficient than “big-mountain” sandboards) to exploit the park’s many natural features, or just pick up a skimboard or sled (which require no previous experience or skills). Practice on the shop’s 40-foot sand ramp, then strike out into the dunes.
Best For: The After Party
Dune Heights: 350 feet
Speeds: 20 mph
Set in the coastal Ica desert, Huacachina is home to 115 permanent residents who live around an emerald-green lake, ensconced within tall, tawny dunes, fringed with palm trees, mom and pop hotels, and more than a few nightclubs and bars. Just outside? Sand, as far as the eye can see.
You can rent a sandboard for a few soles from one of Huacachina’s street vendors (be sure they send you off with some wax, or cera, to facilitate easy gliding) or book with Peru Adventure Tours, which uses dune-buggies to turn the uphill slog into a joyride (from $65 for two hours of four-wheeling and 5 sandboarding runs). You’ll see far more belly-riders than accomplished carvers—these sustained, relatively steep pitches intimidate most would-be stand-up boarders—but Huacachina is dedicated to play, not high performance, and no one looks askance at never-evers.
Huachachina’s clubs are open and filled almost every night, so afterwards, laugh off your mistakes with an ice cold Crusqueña.
Cerro Dragón, Chile
Best For: Sunset sand surfing
Dune Heights: Up to 1,640 feet
Speeds: 30 mph
“Dragon Hill” overlooks the city of Iquique and shimmering expanses of the Pacific on one side, and the endless Atacama desert on the other. Local sandboarders hike up at sunset, and not just for the amber light: With all moisture baked away by the afternoon sun, the cool, extra-dry sand makes for speedier descents.
At any hour, runs are bogglingly long, and will force all but those with the strongest quads into crying uncle midway down the slope. Pause too long, and you’ll notice the many water bottles, boxes, and other pieces of scattered trash littering the sand—evidence of Cerro Dragon’s proximity to the city and its popularity with OHVs. Why go? The same reason that skiers flock to Alaska: Few other spots offer such long descents, with the sandy bowls and ridges that offer endless opportunities for creative expression.
Dragon Adventure hauls sandboarders up in dunebuggies. For a more eco-friendly, non-motorized option, book with Mistico Outdoors: Its English-speaking owner leads fatbike tours in the Atacama dunes, and will tack on a few sandboarding runs at no additional cost.
Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
Best For: Night boarding
Dune Heights: Up to 750 feet
Speeds: 20 mph
A brilliant sight to behold: 19,000 acres of dunes—the tallest in North America—rest at the foot of the knifelike Sangre de Cristo mountain range. And they deliver an equally supersized payoff: The long runs let you link scores of satisfying turns.
The coarse sand here develops a hard, crusty layer beneath the midafternoon sun. For softer sand and a smoother ride, go in morning or evening—or, better yet, at night. Colorado’s ski bums flock to these dunes during full moons, when the sand reflects the ghostly light (which is bright enough to cast shadows on the dunes). But every cloudless evening presents a dazzling night show: Great Sand Dunes sits 30 miles from the nearest city (Alamosa, population 9,562) so the stars here seem as bright as Las Vegas marquis.
On your way to the park, rent a Venomous sandboard or sled ($18/day) from Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa. Park in the dunes’ main parking lot to access slopes ranging from mellow to extreme. Or camp inside the park at Piñon Flats Campground to stage a nighttime session. And if you go in May, when Medano Creek is flowing, you can cap off your sandboarding session with a plunge in the sandy-bottomed stream.
Best For: Speed demons
Dune Heights: Up to 328 feet
Speeds: 40 mph
Sand dunes rise up from most of Namibia’s 976-mile-long coastline and encompass 21,000 square miles of land. Dunes here are so ubiquitous that in Namibia, sandboarding is more than just an amusement-park stunt: It’s a national pastime. “Parents use it as a way to tire kids out,” says conservationist Jason Nott, a native of Omaruru, Namibia. Instead of buying dedicated sandboards, most families keep a few pieces of thin particleboard (the kind you might buy from Home Depot’s lumber department) in their cars’ trunks for impromptu roadside romps on the sand.
Visitors can give it a whirl at Swakopmund, the country’s sandboarding hub and the home base for Alter Action Sandboarding. Run by Marin County, California native Beth Sarrow (who started the first commercial sandboarding operation on the Namibian coast), Alter Action leads half-day trips into Namib-Naukluft National Park. Just like Namibian kids, you have to hike yourself up the dunes—park regulations prohibit jeeps—but once at the top, you see endless dunes in every direction. Groups average five runs, but speedy, stamina-filled boarders can pack in seven runs or more.
With the stand-up option ($45), you use actual snowboards and boots to carve down a 330-foot-high slope (and even soar off a constructed jump). Speed freaks choose the lie-down version ($30), roaring downhill face-first on a piece of waxed particleboard (the record-setting speed is 55 mph). It’s the kind of flight that calls for a toast—and fittingly, the outing ends with a cooler full of Tafel Lager.