Not Exactly a Day at the Beach

The Otherworldly Landscapes of America's Sand Dunes
By Jan Bannan
Yucca plant at White Sands National Monument
Yucca plant at White Sands National Monument

Climb to the top of a high sand dune and your brain will ask questions. Why are these sand dunes here? What type of dune formations are they? What kind of sand is it and where did it come from? Can vegetation survive in blowing sand? What animals live here?

The answer to the first question is always the same. Sand dunes need lots of sand, wind, and space. Besides a considerable sand supply, the wind must be strong enough to move the sand around and pile it up as sand hills and dune formations reflecting the direction of the blow. And the terrain must be receptive—a place where sand and wind can become the principal actors on an open stage. Though the mind's eye might envision dunes as scorching, inhospitable desert places, sand hills and ridges also occur in nondesert regions, both inland and in coastal areas with temperate climates. These make it possible to explore intriguing dune landscapes while enjoying comfortable temperatures.

For each of the following suggested places to visit, the environments are unique. While you explore, remember that the dune landscape is very dynamic. It is neither neat nor organized but is always transitional. Something is always happening. It is a rare opportunity to be able to witness this struggle, the forces of nature in operation.

Sand dunes are like science fiction compared to your childhood sand box or your first sand castle, but it is sand all the same. (In fact, sand hills inspired the science-fiction writing of Frank Herbert in his Dune series). The dunes startle the eye and dare you to climb them. If you do, you will have fun, whether you go only a few steps from viewpoints or trek out for a day of strenuous climbing. And the scenery is grand.

Sand dunes are a haunting, daring change of scenery. At first, it seems strange that sand could be at all interesting. Close encounters prove, though, that this is not true. You have to rethink your idea of trails, of walking, and of vistas. Dunes are a perfect place to practice orienteering skills while learning about a different landscape. But you must pinpoint yourself within the terrain and remember landmarks, or you will be lost like a grain of sand in the wind.

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