Working on the route from Zion to Grand Canyon, a little dot pops up on the map: Coral Pink Sand Dunes. Who doesn’t like scrambling around in sand? How could you not want to check out dunes with such a distinctive color?
Turning off the highway, the two-lane road passes through seemingly endless scrubby plains, what’s called “the sage steppe.” A sign points the way to the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, I pay the entry fee, and park.
Utah bought this land from the Bureau of Land Management a few years back, and they’ve done a nice job: water spigots, clean bathrooms, and a series of interpretive signs placed out in the sand, explaining some of the unique aspects of this sandy ecosystem.
I step out into the sand, which is surprisingly cool underfoot. At a 6,000-foot elevation, the temperature drops into the 50s at night.
A few plants are growing in little hummocks. To survive out here, plants need to grow new roots and stems before the shifting sands overtake and bury them. There’s sage, ephedra, salt bush, and some grasses. The badlands mule-ears (Scabrethia scabra) seem to be doing well: a handful are still in bloom:
The dunes accumulate in this area because of a gap between two mountains, Moccasin Mountain and Mount Moquith, which produces a “venturi effect,” that is, the gap funnels the prevailing southerly airflow and produces an acceleration sufficient to pick up and scatter sand grains. This is called “saltation” (from the Latin, “to dance”): the grains do not fly through the air, but rather bounce along the ground. When the wind blows, the dunes appear to be covered in a waist-high pink mist, according to one of the interpretive signs.
The sand comes from cliffs of pink-colored Navajo Sandstone a few miles to the south. Back in the Late Triassic period, some 200 million years ago, which is when this sandstone is thought to have formed, the atmosphere had almost double the concentration of oxygen (possibly a result of the spread of vegetation on land). As result of the oxidation of iron compounds, red sands were a common feature. During this time, as John McPhee suggests in “Basins and Ranges,” Earth might have outdone Mars as far as the color red.
I walk out toward a 100-foot tall star-shaped dune in the center of the park.
Avoiding the steepest slopes, I follow the ridge to the top of the dune.
Looking south, there’s a second dune off in the distance — a crescent-shaped or so-called “Barchan Dune” (from the Arabic for ram’s horns). Off in the distance, the gap in the mountains that funnels the wind. It’s a tough slog to the top, as there’s no avoiding a steep grade, which feels like one step forward and two back.
I’m walking back now, heading through a swale, and on the southern-facing slope the sand’s starting to get warm underfoot, while the northern slope is still cool. I’m keeping a sharp eye out for Off-Highway Vehicles (OHV), one of which is whizzing around off to the north. Suddenly I realize there’s a vehicle just in front of me, not an OHV, but a stock Jeep, stuck in the sand. Eventually the driver frees it, and the vehicle labors off with a clunking sound. In the distance, a solitary hiker has reached the summit of the star-shaped dune.
Leaving the state park, I notice another parking area on neighboring BLM land and can’t resist the temptation to hike up along a sandy trail to the top of a small peak, just to see what there is to see. This area is more heavily vegetated: sage, salt bush, juniper, pinyon pine, and here and there a grove of ponderosa sprouting from orange sand. The walking is difficult: steep slopes, some rocks, and pine needles and cones which are prickly underfoot. It’s starting to get warm, my water is almost out, yet I’m drawn on by the promise of a view from the top of the little hill. I struggle on only to discover that this is just a nob on a ridge that continues to rise into the distance.
Looking behind me, three OHV’s are motoring up the trail. I step off to the side, giving them plenty of room. The drivers are suited up and wearing helmets. One throws me a sign, which I return with a wave. Walking barefoot in sand is beyond slow: to explore more than a small corner of this desert, I can understand the appeal of an OHV.
On the way back, a couple of small wildflowers: pale evening primose (Oenethora pallida) with four white petals, and the western spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis).