A virtual island in a Permian Basin sea, the narrow strip of sand dunes runs for 200 miles from just south of Monahans north into New Mexico and creates a unique habitat that’s home to a variety of wildlife and supports one of the world’s largest oak forests—albeit the oaks themselves are of the diminutive variety.
Most of these dunes are stabilized by vegetation, but the park is one area where many dunes are still active. Active dunes grow and change shape in response to seasonal, prevailing winds. At Monahans Sandhills State Park, the visitor will experience a dynamic landscape.
Fresh water occurs at shallow depths within the dune field and sometimes stands in shallow ponds in low areas between dunes. A quiet vigil near such ponds at dusk or dawn is the best way to observe wildlife such as mule deer, gray fox, coyote, bobcat, opossum, wild hog, porcupine, skunk, ground squirrel, jackrabbit, and cottontail.
Once inside the state park, rent a sand saucer and head to the back of the park (1.8 miles from the visitor center) where you’ll find huge 30-foot-tall sand dunes reminiscent of the Sahara Desert. Your youngsters will have a blast surfing the big dunes and climbing the sand hills.
Monahans Sandhills State Park consists of 3,840 acres of wind-sculpted sand dunes, some up to 70 feet high, in West Texas, 38 miles southwest of Odessa on Interstate 20.
More than 400 years ago, Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to report the vast hills of sand. These sand hills once presented an enormous problem for pioneers and their wagon trains as they moved through the state.
Native Americans were present in this area as far back as 12,000 years ago. Various Indian tribes used the area for temporary campgrounds and a meeting place, finding game, abundant fresh water beneath the sands, acorns, and mesquite beans for grinding into paste with their stone tools.
The area remained a favorable environment for Indians until the 1880s, when the Texas and Pacific Railroad selected Monahans as a water stop between the Pecos River and the town of Big Spring. In the late 1920s, oil production began in the area, now commonly known as the Permian Basin, and today Monahans is a marketing center for more than 800 square miles of oil and cattle country.
This water has also been the source of nourishment for one of the largest oak forests in the country. However, the Harvard oaks that cover more than 40,000 acres here seldom rise above three feet in height, even though their root structure may extend as deep as 70 to 90 feet in the silica dunes that gave Monohans Sandhills State Park its name.
The name honors American botanist Valery Havard (1846-1927). The tallest Havard oaks makes it to only four feet, but even though short, it can live up to 300 years.
Though most visitors come to the park to play on the Sahara-like dunes, the Harvard oak forest is readily accessible from the two-mile, paved roadway winding through the park. Though too small for climbing, swings, or a tree house, these little-known trees play a vital part in the park’s ecosystem, adding stability to the sand dunes that attract thousands of visitors annually.
The park offers an interpretive center and museum, as well as picnicking and RV camping and a favorite activity of many visitors, sand surfing. The 26 campsites offer electric and water hookups, picnic table, and a shade shelter.
The Dunagan Visitor Center features hands-on exhibits of the cultural and natural history of the Sandhills, including Dune Dynamics, Permian Basin Heritage, and Wildlife Habitat. Scenic windows offer spectacular viewing of birds and other wildlife as they come for food and water. Park orientation is available. Sand toboggans and disks, for “surfing” on the sand dunes, can be rented at park headquarters.
But, what really makes this park special and sets it apart is the fun you can have on sand.
Texas Spoken Friendly
The forces of nature and their impact on the Texas landscape and sky combine to offer an element of drama that would whet the imagination of artists from any medium.