Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Left field.

Last week I was on my way somewhere else when I drove past the entrance road to the Coral Pink Sand Dunes.  In SW Utah it's easy to drive (or ride, or walk) past a lifetime worth of must-explore places.  Between Bryce, Zion, Escalante-Grand Staircase, and that little ditch just south of the border, there are simply too many for any one human to visit or delve deeply into, so spending time there necessarily demands triage.

But my original plan got scuttled, so a few hours later I found myself handing over $8 to the Utah State Park Ranger, then unloading my bike and going for a ride.

A cleft between the Moquith and Moccasin mountains causes the prevailing winds to accelerate as they pass through, frequently reaching speeds capable of carrying grains of sand and, over time, forming the dunes.  You might not always be able to feel the wind on your person -- especially when down in the troughs between -- but up on the ridgelines sand was constantly moving from windward to leeward.

The dune area is relatively tiny and, as Jeny put it, "furry" with trees and veg.  While this small park may lack the massive seas of dunes out in the Mojave, there is no shortage of sand and the furred fringes of the park were more appealing from a pure riding perspective.  

Coming off of a long winter riding snow, what struck me most about riding here was how quiet it can be.  Silky is the best descriptor for both the sound and feel of tires gliding across sand.

Before I was out of sight of the parking area I'd stopped three times to drop pressure, ultimately settling around 1.2 to 1.5 psi.  This didn't allow me to ride absolutely everything, but with proper attention to grade and sidehill you could get just about anywhere.

The park is fringed by sandstone bluffs and buttes dotted with piñon, juniper, grasses and sages.  I saw nothing flowering despite the fact that temps here had been in the 70's for weeks already.

There are no roads or trails proper through the dunes, but there are clearly favorable routes that most of the jeep/atv crowd use with regularity to get from one zone to the next.  Counter to my expectations -- born from decades of snow riding -- just because many vehicles have passed doesn't mean the sand will become more packed or rideable.  In fact the opposite seemed to be happening, where the untracked sand was more easily ridden.  My guess is that every time a vehicle passes the sand is turned over/churned up, and any residual moisture is released.  Thus you sink deeper.

Whatever the cause, plotting and linking rideable routes on-the-fly was one of the more enjoyable aspects of the day.

No surprise that the dunes are popular on spring and fall weekends.  I visited on a Friday and encountered zero other humans in my few hours out, but uncountable amounts of tracks left by bugs, birds, deer, fox, and coyote.

Perhaps the rarest sight in the park was an aspect unmarred by tracks of any sort.  Look closer and you'd discover that the untracked areas were the most affected by wind -- thus they were simply getting wiped clean faster.

When I finished my ride I spoke briefly with the park rangers, whom said they see virtually zero fatbikes, despite the fact that almost the entire park is open to them.  One ranger shared an anecdote about an off-road triathlon that was held on the dunes last year, explaining that almost no one was riding -- everyone just pushed, uphill and down.  He theorized that word spread that the dunes were just too steep or dry to be rideable, and that was simply that.

In the hotter (thus drier) months I bet it can get too dry to be fun, but my guess is that in fall/winter/spring the only thing preventing a good time is a fine understanding of tire pressure.  And that understanding is easily gained -- you just have to take the time to fiddle.  

If I lived closer I'd probably spend a few days out there noodling around every year.

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