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A wild ride


The sand dunes at Little Sahara State Park create a mythical playground for off-road enthusiasts.

Heide Brandes August 17th, 2011

Legends say the towering sand dunes of the Sahara Desert in northern Africa were created by the chaotic consequence of a foolish joyride.

Pantheon, son of Helios, grabbed the reins of the Greek god’s sun-chariot to speed across the sky, but when he lost control, the flames scorched the land, creating the arid desert.

Half a world away, sons and daughters are still going on joyrides through another Sahara, this time without world-destroying results.

Located in Waynoka, Little Sahara State Park has more than 1,400 acres of flowing sand dunes that reach heights of 75 feet.

Strictly used for off-road vehicle riding today, it was formed from terrace and quartz deposits made by the Cimarron River, which once covered the entire area. More than 11,000 years old, the dunes provide a playground where visitors whip across Oklahoma’s little desert in a wild ride of their own.

“We only charge riders who get out on the dunes, so yearly, we have 57,000 to 65,000 riders at the park,” said Jason Badley, park manager. “But that’s only the riders. That doesn’t count the passengers or friends. I’d say we get a quarter of a million visitors a year.”

Located in northwest Oklahoma, the park is one of the most unique ecosystems in the state. Famous for its offroad vehicle fun, it’s also home to sand flats and trails that wind through cottonwood groves under the overshadowing presence of the Glass Mountains. The most popular activities, however, are the dune buggy and ATV riding. The park offers rentals to the public, or visitors can bring their own.

“The terrain changes daily. It flows, and it’s never the same day to day,” Badley said. “If there’s a strong wind, you’ll see even greater changes.”

Although open year-round, the park is busiest in spring and summer, as well as during a fall riding season. Yet, the sand dunes are pretty empty on scorching summer days.

“Most people in the summer will sleep all day and ride all night long,” Badley said. “That sand soaks up the heat in the summer. We went out with a thermometer once, and it reached 140 degrees. The sand was even hotter.”

Little Sahara is one of the most visited parks in the state, and the most unique, being the one state park not located on or near a lake, according to Keli Clark with Oklahoma State Parks.

“Last time I was out there, I talked to a group of guys from Wisconsin,” she said. “They were told about the Little Sahara sand dunes, and drove all night to come.”

The park offers other amenities, including camping sites, showers, picnic areas and RV parking with water and electricity. Clark said improvements to those areas are under way.

“The park is renovating 37 sites at the Gold Sands campground by adding new concrete pads, 50-amp hookups and new water hook-ups,” she said. “It’s also doing an erosion-control project. Because the sands shift, the park is installing a barrier program to keep sand from shifting even further.”

For those with a bit of courage, neighboring Waynoka hosts the Snake Hunt Weekend every year on the weekend after Easter. With their ominous rattles and hooded, angry  eyes, hundreds of rattlesnakes are captured, measured and weighed, with prizes going to those with the longest snake and heaviest snake.

Every June, park vendor Little Sahara Power Sports holds Sand Jam, a sort of appreciation day and concert for thrill-seeking enthusiasts.

The terrain changes daily. It flows, and it’s never the same day to day.
—Jason Badley

Coming up, SandFest is Sept. 17 in downtown Waynoka. Again, the thrill of the ride is the focus, with drag-racing, off-roading and ATV demonstrations on the dunes. Children can win prizes in the sand castle building contest during the event.
 
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