No, It’s not a mirage. Each fall, bands of ski bums return to Great Sand Dunes National Park as regularly as migrating elk to skid down the 750-foot-high dunes in a tradition that, for many, begins the new ski season.

One group from the Boulder area comes dressed as Arab sheiks. Members of a Summit County-based “disorganization,” who call themselves the Planet Earth Defenders, have shown up the weekend before Labor Day for more than 25 years to hold an informal ski fest they call the Erwin Rommel Desert Classic. And then there are the Moon Dune Loonies, a group from Steamboat Springs that for about three decades has skied the dunes by the light of the harvest moon every September.

“It’s basically a bunch of drunk old hippies who love to ski,” said Kim Teot as she pulled a battered pair of alpine boards from her pickup. “We keep coming back because it’s just so beautiful here. Plus, the skiing’s not bad; I can honestly say it’s the best skiing you can do in Colorado in September.”

Al Tyler, a Loonie who — though sipping a Budweiser from a can tucked in a foam cozy — did not seem particularly drunk, old or hippy-ish, agreed the dunes offer the best skiing this time of year. But the sand, he said, has subtle quirks.

“Sand is not as slippery as snow, so it’s like skiing in slow motion. You have to make shallow turns, but it’s definitely real skiing. That’s why we come back every year — because we’re jonesin’ to ski. Most of us haven’t skied for months.”

Over the years, the Loonies have given names such as Mondor, Sheik Peak and Thigh-burner Bowl to their favorite runs. They’ve also learned that sand doesn’t harm skis, but it can be murder when it pelts bare skin in a high wind. And they’ve figured out that what would be a black run on snow is only an easy blue on sand.

Tyler’s advice to newbies: Inertia is your friend. Point straight downhill and pick up speed before trying any turns. If you fall, keep your mouth closed. “Or you’ll never get all that sand out of your mouth.”

It’s a small, sandy world

The Loonies aren’t as unusual as they might seem. Worldwide, people ride dunes wherever dunes pile to unusual heights: the 140-foot coastal drifts of Jockey’s Ridge State Park in North Carolina, the 500-foot Pacific sand swales of Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, far-flung sand traps in southern Africa and Australia.

Most dunes are on public land, but during the last few years, private sandboarding parks with rails and jumps like their snowy terrain park cousins have opened on dunes in Oregon and California. Monte Kaolino, a 350-foot artificial dune in Germany made from the tailings of a silica mine, even has a chairlift and lights for night boarding. Since few places with tall dunes also have ski resorts nearby, most sand sliders don’t have a cache of old ski equipment lying around. Instead, they ride sandboards, which look like snowboards but have a hard plastic base specially made to glide on gritty terrain. They boost the glide factor by rubbing on temperature-specific sand waxes and Teflon lubricants.

None of this happens at Great Sand Dunes. Riders in the Rockies tend to treat dune skiing like methadone — a little fix to stave off the cravings until the real season starts — so early 1990s ski gear is good enough. Many at the harvest moon meet-up said that a little lemon-scented Pledge or spray-on Pam helps the boards slide, but no one brought any, and besides, the Park Service bars waxes or lubes on the dunes.

Hiker During Sunset on The Great Sand Dunes - OutThere Colorado
A hiker makes his way along the dunes as the sun sets over the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. The dunes have grown to enormous heights, in part because of prevailing southwesterly and northeasterly winds that recycle the sand and continually shape the dunes.

Beauty, friends await

Rangers see a steady stream of visitors throughout the year lugging skis up the dunes. (The National Park Service even added a sandboarding video to its website in 2013.)

“Usually they try it once and don’t go anywhere, so they put their gear down and hike up and have a great time anyway,” said Carol Sperling, the park’s chief of interpretation and visitor services.

But some visitors have figured out that on the dunes’ steepest slopes, which max out at about 32 to 34 degrees, skiers do indeed go somewhere, and they go there fast enough to link graceful turns all the way down. These are the folks who come back again and again.

“You know, I get the feeling they don’t just come for the skiing,” Sperling said. “I think a lot of it is just meeting up in a beautiful place.”

She’s probably right. Among the old skis and snowboards brought by the Loonies was a contraption called the “shotski.” The shotski is an ancient Pre 1200 downhill ski with four plastic shot glasses glued to the top at regular intervals. The design forces any Loonie wanting to take a shot to round up three friends before orchestrating a tottering round of synchronized swilling.

“Skiing the dunes is like any ski trip; half of the fun is just getting together with friends,” said Kris Hagenbuch, a Steamboat ski instructor who founded the Loonies in 1980 and has come to every rendezvous since.

After an afternoon of carving up the dunes, he was one of the few who abstained from the shotski. Somewhat of a ski purist, he wanted to go out and get more runs that night. The others said the sand would still be there tomorrow.

So, as the moon rose above the campground and spilled a ghostly blue light over the valley, the shotski made several rounds and Hagenbuch strapped on a pair of cross-country skis and slid out into the dunes. The sand moaned quietly like very cold snow as he climbed up a sinuous ridge. A half-hour later, he was standing on a 600-foot crest with the lights of San Luis Valley scattered to the west and the long, pointed backs of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains breeching in the east.

“This is magical,” he said as he caught his breath. “We have fresh, unskied lines, just like you do on a powder day. We have all the dunes to ourselves. And this view . . .”

His words trailed off into quiet shifting of the sand. The reason for coming back every year seemed as clear as a dune in the moonlight: This is a special place, changing with every wind, but always the same for those who return. Even Loonies who started as five-to-an-apartment ski bums 25 years ago, who have seen their quiet ski towns grow frantic and who have built successful businesses, can come back and teach their kids the finer points of skiing sand on dunes that haven’t changed.

Without another word, Hagenbuch shot down into the blue moonlight below, shedding light on another reason to return again and again: best skiing you can do in September, nothing even comes close.

Hiker Walking Along The Great Sand Dunes - OutThere Colorado
A hiker walks along the sand at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

SAND AND DELIVER

Gear up: Skis and snowboards work well. Sand doesn’t appear to damage the base, but may dull edges and jam alpine ski bindings. A handful of companies make sandboards specifically designed for riding the dunes ($150 to $400); check out a few designs at www.sandboard.com.
Head for the dunes: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is a three-hour drive southwest of Colorado Springs in the San Luis Valley. The park is open daily. Entry fee: $3. Camping is available.
The ski tip: For the best runs, skip the main dunes trailhead and head to Castle Creek picnic area 2.6 miles up Medano Pass Road.

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