SCULPTED BY THE WIND and shifting with every breeze, the towering dunes of Florence, Oregon, are practically begging to be ridden in some fashion—and sandboarding may be the best way to do it.
Sharing the techniques of snowboarding, skateboarding, and surfing, the sport of sandboarding is definitely its own animal. About half the size of the average snowboard, with adjustable soft bindings, a sandboard slips easily onto my bare feet. I hop to the edge of the dune, drop off the lip, and that's when the difference between sandboarding and other board sports becomes immediately apparent. While a handful of snow will fall from your hand in chunks, sand runs from your palm like water—resulting in a smoother, more free-flowing ride. As a longtime snowboarder, I quickly make the adjustment from hard "heel-toe" turns, to letting the board flatten out, and shifting my weight to the rear. And that's when the magic happens.
While widely considered one of the pioneers of the sport, Sand Master Park owner Lon Beale (AKA Dr. Dune) is more than willing to share the credit for its invention.
"Back in 1972, I was living in Death Valley," Beale says, "and my friends and I would ride practically anything down a dune... cardboard, water skis, skate decks... and eventually I began designing boards that would work specifically on sand."
Possibly due to the limited number of areas in the States where sand dunes exist, sandboarding didn't gain popularity overnight.
"It just wasn't taking off," Beale says, "so I decided if sandboarding was going to happen, I'd have to make it happen."
In the early '90s, Beale began developing the sport (designing boards and wax) and establishing sandboard.com—immediately attracting interest from around the globe. In 2000, he purchased 40 acres of pristine dunes off the coast in Florence, and established what's become known as the mecca of sandboarding, Sand Master Park. A gorgeous, moon-like vista of sand and blue sky, Sand Master Park is a great place to inexpensively rent a board (or sand sled!) from their pro shop, get some instruction, and hone your skills on dunes of varying size and steepness.
Along with your rental board, you receive specially designed sandboard wax, which is quickly applied to the board's base before every run (though it may run like a liquid, sand still causes plenty of friction). If you've had other boarding experience, the learning curve is gentle, quick, and you're up and riding within minutes—and if you do take a tumble? Sand is mercifully forgiving (even more so than snow in some regards). A bone-crunching skateboard fall could have you laid up for weeks; the same fall here will have you almost instantly laughing, back on your feet, and making the return trek to the top of the dune. If there's any real downside to sandboarding, it's the lack of ski resort-style lifts. A good amount of climbing is involved, but the upsides are warm weather, a gorgeous, unearthly landscape, and a solid workout for the calves.
And since you're in the mecca of sandboarding, it might not be unusual during your visit to run into champions of the sport—who are more than willing to offer friendly advice. On my sunny Saturday afternoon visit, I was invited to travel to nearby Oregon Dunes National Recreational Area to ride with sandboard champs and enthusiasts Jeff Wheeler, Matt Walton, Maddie Webb, and JD Wheeler, who not only kindly cheered my beginning efforts, but allowed any bystander watching with interest to "give it a try," happily lending out their own boards. It seems everyone who tries sandboarding turns into an "instant ambassador"—which undoubtedly adds to the sport's increasing growth and popularity.
To see the best of the best in action, Sand Master Park holds two annual sandboarding competitions attracting competitors from across the nation and the world: the Sand Master Jam (always held on the third weekend in July—this year on July 19), featuring slalom, rail grinds, and sand drags, as well as the Huck Fest on August 16, in which competitors perform crowd-pleasing "jumps, jumps... and only jumps."
Later in the day, I quickly adjust my stance from "snowboarder" to "surfer" after dropping off the lip. I lean back, push my rear heel down, and begin carving long loping turns, kicking up sprays of sand behind me. Coming out of a turn, I flatten the board out, pick up speed, and pump a small jump off the crest of a dune where the wind has carved a natural ramp. I land and continue on, thrilled by the discovery of another sport to add to my growing arsenal of fun.
Sand Master Park
5351 Highway 101, Florence, Oregon
Open all summer, 9 am-6:30 pm