You can surf on the Gulf Coast in Texas but you can also surf at Monahans Sandhills State Park in West Texas. Essentially a giant, hilly sandbox, the park is a small part of a dune field that extends further into Texas and New Mexico. Rent sand disks to surf the dunes or bring your horse and check out the 800-acre equestrian area. Just make sure you mark off “surfed in a desert” from your travel bucket list.
It’s never the same park twice. With an ever-shifting landscape that is always at the mercy of the West Texas winds, Monahans Sandhills State Park transforms itself almost daily. And that’s just the beginning of why one of the most unique geological areas of Texas is worth a visit.
Monahans is a remarkable geographic formation dating back tens of thousands of years. Erosion from as far away as the Rocky Mountains was blown south and east eventually trapped by higher elevations surrounding the Permian Basin. It’s only a small fraction (although, at nearly 4,000 acres, small is relative) of a much larger dune field that stretches across state lines yet it is unique within Texas.
Indigenous people lived—and thrived—on this land as far back as 12,000 years up until the late 1800s. That’s when the town of Monahans was created as a water stop for steam engines on the Texas and Pacific Railway. Not long after, the area’s oil boom began. The park was created in 1957 to preserve this stunning landscape and its unique and diverse ecosystem.
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Come out and join people of all ages who find serenity in this vast park and surf the dunes—you can rent a “sandboard” at the park.
Due to its ever-changing nature, the park does not have marked trails. And with hills that often look alike it can be easy to lose your way so take plenty of water when heading out. On the flip side, exploring most anywhere in the park offers the chance to encounter numerous plant and wildlife species that thrive in this tough environment. Explorations of active dunes can reveal all kinds of tracks from jackrabbits to lizards to snakes; it’s even exciting to explore the unique characteristics of insect tracks.
Monahans is a great place to camp out under the stars. There are 26 campsites in the park, each with water and electricity. The surroundings are particularly serene at sunset when the sands glow golden-orange and the sparse vegetation creates long, delicate shadows across the surface. And come sunrise, the windswept dunes may even look slightly different than the afternoon before which allows eagle-eyed campers the opportunity to spot the changes.
Some folks jog. Others play tennis, swim laps, or practice yoga. And others ride the dunes at Monahans Sandhills State Park in West Texas. Sand surfing is wonderful exercise. It’s very aerobic when you climb up the hills. Low impact, too, because of the sand! Kids of all ages love surfing, sliding, or tumbling down the sandhills and hiking back up to do it all over again.
Want to sand surf, too? Give it a try at Monahans Sandhills where you can rent sand disks for a mere buck an hour and boards for $2. Slopes range from gentle grades to steep inclines that reach 60 feet or higher. The park’s 3,840 acres of dunes—which peak at 70 feet high—lie within a massive dune field that stretches some 200 miles from south of Monahans and north into New Mexico.
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Pro tip for newbies: Lean forward and stay low. Keep your weight forward. Otherwise, if you go too fast and get scared, you’re going to fall back. Wax your board and never goes barefoot (shoes and socks a must).
Shifting sand against blue skies and sunsets will call to your inner painter and photographer so bring along your gear. You’ll also find a surprising variety of wildlife including roadrunners—watch for tracks in the sand.
Though most visitors come to check out the dunes the park offers other activities, too. For instance, horses are welcome in the 800-acre horseback riding section (hitching posts and water available). Campers can book a site with water, electricity, and a shade shelter. The brush is thicker in this area but you’ll love exploring on horseback.
One of the largest oak forests in the world is found here. Acorn-bearing Harvard shin oaks cover stabilized dunes (those that don’t change with the winds) across the park yet only grow 3-4 feet tall at maturity.
Numerous bird species including pyrrhuloxias, western meadowlarks, black-throated sparrows, Harris’s hawks, and curve-billed thrashers abound in the park. In early morning and late evening, watch for coyotes, javelin, and mule deer.
Inside the Dunagan Visitor Center, interactive exhibits tell about the area’s oil production, native flora and fauna, and the constantly changing dunes. They’re spectacular when the sun is setting and the wind is blowing and you’re walking toward the sun. The sunlight reflecting off the sand looks like a silver river running over the dunes.
The sandhills are located on the east side of Monahans, 30 miles from Odessa beside I-20 and they have a dedicated interstate exit (#86). The land on either side is also sandy but quite bushy and used for oil drilling—countless oil wells (pumpjacks) are scattered over the surrounding flat plains of the Permian Basin for several hundred miles in some directions.
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Monahans Sandhills State Park truly is unlike any other destination in Texas. Its landscape may seem uninviting from the outside but its beauty, history, and diversity of life along with all the activities and excitement you can handle once you’re here, make it a Texas gem you don’t want to miss. So come see for yourself and surf the dunes at Monahans.
Elevation: 2,724 feet
Climate: January average low is 29 degrees. July average high is 96 degrees. Average rainfall is 12.3 inches.
Entrance fee: $4/person
Camping facilities: 25 sites with electric and water hookups, picnic table, fire ring, shade shelter, waist-high grill, restrooms with showers nearby
Camping fee: $15 + entrance fee
Horse sites: 3 sites are next to each other in the same parking area designed for large vehicles and trailers to back in, only
Horse sites fee: $2/horse/day
Note: The Dunagan Visitor Center is currently closed for renovations. The park office is now at the Sandhills Picnic Pavilion. Contact the park for more information.
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Texas Spoken Friendly
I am humbled by the forces of nature that continuously -mold our great state of Texas into a beautiful landscape complete with geological diversity, flora and fauna. It is my goal as a photographer to capture that natural beauty and share it with others.
—Chase A. Fountain