No snow, no problem! 10 great places to hit the sandy slopes
Sand skiing and sandboarding bring the excitement of alpine sports to the world's deserts and dunes.
When it's time to hit the slopes, enthusiasts traditionally head to ski resorts in famous alpine regions like Switzerland, Austria, the Colorado Rockies, British Columbia or Hokkaido. But if you live near coastal dunes or desert, you can still strap on some skis and carve your way to downhill bliss.
Once a novelty, the sandy versions of alpine sports are now taken quite seriously, with aficionados perfecting ski and board size and coming up with the best wax compounds to gain maximum speed on sand. If you're interested in checking out the desert and dune versions of snow sports, here are 10 great destinations to try.
1. Huacachina, Peru
Huacachina is an oasis in the desert of Southern Peru. Far from Machu Picchu and the forests of the Amazon, this region of Western South America is well off the tourist trail. However, those who venture here find one of the world's best sandboarding and skiing destinations. The dunes of Huacachina stretch all the way to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Not only are the steep slopes ideal for sand sports, but they are also very picturesque, with peaks and valleys that resemble sandy waves. In-the-know adventurers flock to Huacachina, and the small town's economy is almost entirely focused on dune skiing and sandboarding. Dune buggies and 4x4 vehicles take thrill seekers to the highest peaks in the area. Sandboarding is a popular sport in Peru, and there are several areas besides Huacachina that draw athletes and even host competitions.
2. Point Mugu Sand Dunes, Calif.
The Point Mugu Sand Dunes are located just north of the famous California beach town of Malibu. The slopes are relatively gentle here compared to some of the other places on our list. However, the views are spectacular and the runs are long. With the right equipment, boarders can still reach high speeds. Aside from thrill seekers, Mugu draws people who come to view dolphins and whales in the water off the coast. Because of its proximity to Los Angeles, this is a place where many people try sandboarding for the first time.
3. Negev Desert, Israel
Perfect sand boarding conditions on the dunes of the Negev. (Photo: SmSm/Flickr)
With the Mediterranean Sea to the West and green mountains in the North, the Southern half of Israel is arid desert. The soft sand dunes of the Negev Desert provide ideal conditions for dune riders. Some of the best slopes are found in the desert outside the city of Beer Sheva. Tour companies often include a stop at the dunes on a jeep tour of the Negev, though it is also possible to head out to the slopes for some boarding action without a tour guide. Steep and speedy runs can be found here, as can gentler routes suitable for children. Young children can even give it a try by using a sit-down sled instead of a stand-up board.
4. Viña del Mar, Chile
Dune skiing and boarding at Viña del Mar. (Photo: Eduardo Zárate/Flickr)
Viña del Mar, Chile, is located on the picturesque Pacific Coast of South America. This place is the most accessible of several noteworthy Chilean sand-sport destinations. The high Atacama Desert draws adventurous boarders, while Punta de Choros also boasts steep slopes. A city of about 300,000, Viña del Mar is a dune destination that has plenty of other attractions as well. But the towering sand hills, raised to their impressive height by the endless winds that blow in from the Pacific, are certainly one of the most attractive features in the area. Both locals and tourists board here, so there is a lively and social atmosphere. The one drawback is that you have to climb to the top of the dunes on foot unless you have access to a four-wheeler.
5. Swakopmund, Namibia
Swakopmund, Namibia, is home to some of the largest sand dunes on the planet. Two decades ago, the first tourists flew down the sandy slopes in the Namib Desert on sleds. Early desert skiers experimented with different types of wax, finding the best compounds for gaining high speeds on sand. One of Namibia's ski pioneers, Henrik May, holds the world record for highest speed ever skied on sand. May operates a skiing service in Swakopmund, equipping enthusiasts and novices alike with the best skis and boards and taking them to the highest dunes in the desert. The Namib is filled with dunes, but because of conservation concerns, many of these hills can only be skied by people who have been granted a special permit.
6. Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colo.
Colorado's Great Sand Dunes National Park. (Photo: Rob Pongsajapan/Flickr)
Colorado's Great Sand Dunes National Park holds some of the most impressive landscapes in the United States. Wind has been funneled through the San Luis Valley for centuries, raising the sandy peaks of this southern section of Colorado to a height of more than 750 feet. Visitors are allowed to ski, sled or board anywhere in the dunes that is not covered by vegetation. As the temperatures drop each night, the winds pick up, covering tracks and removing any evidence of the previous day's activities. As in Viña del Mar, you have to climb the hills on foot, which can be physically taxing for anyone who is not fit. However, many people liken the experience of skiing or boarding at Great Sand Dunes to back-country alpine sports. Simply grab your equipment and explore, seeking out the runs and lines that you think will provide the biggest thrills.
7. The Maldives
Coastal dunes in the Maldives. (Photo: Gobonobo/Wikimedia Commons)
The Maldives is an island nation covered with white-sand beaches, surprisingly similar in color and softness to the powdery snow that alpine enthusiasts enjoy. This low-altitude country (which has long been in danger because of rising sea levels) does not have the highest sand slopes on earth, but there are some spots for skiing, sledding and boarding. The small island of Fuvahmulah, for example, boasts wide beaches that feature gently-sloping dunes. And unlike many of the best sandboarding and skiing spots, most of which are located in desolate desert landscapes, the Maldives has the added bonus of being an idyllic, tropical paradise.
8. Cerro Negro, Nicaragua
Volcano boarding on Cerro Negro in Nicaragua. (Photo: Beth and Anth/Flickr)
Cerro Negro, Nicaragua, offers a different kind of setting for sandboarding. This is a very active volcano, which last erupted in 1999. Boarding takes place on the cinder cone, which is covered with black pebbles and ash from past eruptions. The surface is a bit harder than that of a sand dune, leading many boarders to wear knee and elbow pads or even helmets. Several companies offer sandboarding tours of Cerro Negro. These usually include boards and safety equipment. But some visitors simply slide down on a piece of cardboard or even run down the steep slopes on foot.
9. Monte Kaolino, Germany
Monte Kaolino is the best place to sandboard in Europe. This human-made dune in Bavaria has been the site of sand skiing since the 1950s. The sand on the hill is a by-product of kaolinite production. Conditions are so ideal here that Kaolino has been chosen to host the Sandboarding World Championships each year. Unlike the other dunes on our list, this one is laid out like a ski resort. It has several different runs as well as a terrain park. Other attractions have sprung up in the area over the years. These include a waterside, alpine slide and funicular railway. On the sandy slopes themselves, skiers have been clocked at speeds up to 60 mph.
10. Sand Master Park, Ore.
Sand Master Park in Oregon. (Photo: OCVA/Flickr)
Sand Master Park, in Florence, Oregon, is one of the first sport-specific parks in the world for sandboarding. Many runs and features are sprawled over this 40-acre park, which sits near the Pacific Ocean. The annual Sand Master Jam competition takes place each summer, drawing the best freestyle boarders on earth. An onsite pro shop and optional sandboarding lessons make Sand Master Park a great place for novices. Meanwhile, ramps, rails and other "trick" features mean that the world's best boarders have plenty of options for displaying their skills.
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