Standing atop 700 vertical feet of pure sandpack in your ski gear, you might wonder just how fast the wax coating your skis will send you careering toward the creek below. You zip your pockets in a fruitless attempt to keep sand from invading them, and then you push off. You barely move – at first – until miniature sand avalanches begin to slide away beneath you. You surge forward, barely in control.
Round up your rock skis, your most packed-out boots and plenty of water. Skiing in Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado requires gear that you won’t mind remaining eternally crunchy – boot buckles that have been to the dunes never snap closed as crisply as they did before. Great Sand Dunes rises abruptly from the edge of the San Luis Valley, one of the largest and driest high-altitude valleys in the world. (Dune elevation is about 8,000 feet.) Directly behind the caramel-colored dunes, the awesome 13,000-foot Sangre de Cristo range looms, steep and jagged, beckoning extreme skiers. Inside the park, constant winds whip up a terrain in flux – bizarre bowls and steep sand cliffs rise and fall where the breeze blows. Gusts texture the slopes with a series of small parallel ridges – Mother Nature’s corduroy.
Thirty square miles of dunes are open to exploration, but fewer than 250,000 people visited last year. (Vail sees that many in a month.) It’s a five-mile hike to Star Dune, North America’s highest with 750 feet of vertical. But trekking across five miles of sand is no day at the beach, so take the park’s one-lane, 4WD road to the steeper, yet shorter, dunes above Castle Creek. Signs warning of hot sand (surfaces can reach 140 degrees) and lightning (the dunes are naturally magnetic) add an aura of foreboding to this backcountry adventure.
It may look like virgin powder, but don’t expect to rip it up on the descent: Sand skiing is a slow-motion affair. Each run feels like a grabby, late-spring day when your skis are waxed up for January snow. Freshies? Not exactly. But there is one thing you can count on: A perpetual breeze that keeps every run – from first to last – blissfully untracked.