Running the Dunes

“Let’s do something different,” my husband said, so on the first day of July we headed northwest of Fort Collins two hours to the North Sand Hills Recreation Area near Walden, Colorado (locally these sand hills are also known as the “Walden Sand Dunes”). The area contains 1400 acres of sand, with the only drive-able sand dunes in the state. It was an interesting experience and, well, definitely something different!

While there are established campsites at the Sand Hills (complete with pit toilets), we wanted dispersed camping in the woods farther away from the dunes since I’d read that ATVs run all night and create some noise. So, we drove north of the Sand Hills area to Kings Canyon, and began our trek into the woods on Forest Service Rd 204. We quickly entered public land – Roosevelt National Forest – and came across one dispersed camp area that initially seemed beautiful but turned out to be pretty swampy, so we moved on. The next open spot was in a clearing among stands of old pines – many of which were dead from the Mountain Pine Beetle. Too many widow-makers for us, so on we went. The forest service trails (FSR 881, FSR 882) split into a spiderweb of rough driving from there, the descent getting gradually steeper and rockier. It was good to be doing some wheeling but we had planned on finding a spot to camp back on FSR 204 initially, so we hadn’t aired down our tires or disconnected sway bars making it a pretty rough ride! Plus we usually try to take hub’s Jeep on easier trails due to the extra weight of the rack plus roof-top tent atop his rig. At one point he mentioned over the radio, “If I have to change my shorts when we get to camp I know it’s my fault because I wanted to keep going!” Navigating some tight switchbacks was a challenge but we took it slow and steady.

One thing we hadn’t anticipated with the Jeep plus rack and roof-top tent was the height limitation beneath low-hanging tree branches. At one point in the woods hub felt like he was being pushed off trail and it turned out that the roof-top tent was scraping by some branches and throwing the Jeep off balance a bit. This is something to consider and keep in mind when wheeling with extra height on an off-road vehicle. (He scraped by and stayed on trail).

We continued on our descent and I could tell from the map that we were heading back down toward the Sand Hills area. The trail continued to be rocky, steep in places, with tight switchbacks and many ATVs heading up trail. Due to the narrow trail it was somewhat difficult to find spots to pull over far enough to let them pass (trail etiquette gives right-of-way to uphill vehicles), but we managed.

Then the woods opened up and the view of the North Sand Hills area was breathtaking!

At this point we could hear ATV noise coming from the dunes and surrounding trails and I knew we’d have no choice but to try and find a dispersed campsite close to the dunes because there was nowhere to turn around. So, we persisted and ended up finding a beautiful dispersed camping spot in a stand of aspens.

I’ll do another post on camping at the dunes (read it here!), because I took a ton of photos. But, for anyone who plans on camping and off-roading at the North Sand Hills Recreation Area, here are my recommendations -

- Camp at least ten miles away from the dunes. Unless you like Party Central with uncontrolled drinking all night and gunshots galore at 2 a.m., then by all means camp at the Sand Hills. We camped half a mile from the dunes and were stunned at the amount of shooting in the middle of the night, amid all the ATVs running (many without lights) and dispersed campers all around the area. (Incidentally when we returned home we heard on the news that one person had also been stabbed at the Sand Hills that same weekend). We definitely won’t be staying that close to the dunes ever again. An additional benefit of camping farther away is that you won’t hear ATVs running all night – and yes, I do mean all night. Consider researching camp options in nearby forests: Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, or Colorado State Forest State Park.

- Consider running the dunes in an ATV, side-by-side, or sand buggy instead of a Jeep. While it was a good time once, I wouldn’t take my Jeep on the dunes again. Even aired down I had to keep moving or I’d sink into the sand (I never got stuck) but I couldn’t go too fast because of all the whoop-de-do’s that threatened to send me airborne (fun in an ATV, not so much in my daily driver!), and because of all the ATVs that zipped around me like flies – most driven by kids. So, I had to drive slow enough to watch out for the kids (who weren’t watching for me), but fast enough so I wouldn’t get stuck. And, whenever I did stop I’d start sliding downhill which was pretty disconcerting.

- Take copious amounts of bug spray. There’s a lake nearby (which we didn’t visit) so even though the dunes are dry and dusty, there are armies of mosquitoes EVERYWHERE. Seriously, bring the DEET.

- Bring along goggles and a shemagh. If the wind blows, sand and dust will kick up everywhere. Best to be prepared to protect your eyes and cover your face.

- Air down. Having better traction on the dunes is imperative. I aired down to 15 psi and it felt comfortable. (An aside, this was my first time using these awesome Staun Tyre Deflators and I excitedly mentioned to my husband that it was the best $80 I’d ever spent – he reminded me that our marriage license had cost $80… whoops…!). Seriously though, if you’re looking for a birthday, Christmas, or just-because gift for the wheeler in your life get ‘em a set of these deflators and they will love you forever! Here’s a good video on setting the psi on the deflators – they come in a set of four and to use you just attach to your tires and walk away while air is let out down to your set psi. They shut off automatically when the set psi is reached. Genius!

At the end of the day, though, driving the dunes was a cool experience and there were plenty of photo and video opps -

That’s it for today, folks! Be safe out there, and Happy Trails!

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