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Coral Pink Sand Dunes Park - A Desert Experience in Utah
A Great Little State Park in the Shadow of Zion National Park
Among other things, the American Southwest is famous for its popular national parks.
Arizona’s Grand Canyon and neighboring Utah’s Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks are geological wonders that are famous for their spectacular scenery.
However, spectacular as they are, these world famous national parks are not the only geological and scenic marvels the American Southwest has to offer. There are also many other national parks, monuments, wilderness areas and forests that are available for tourists to enjoy.
As if that were not enough, there are also some spectacular state parks with Utah’s Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park being one of them.
Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park
Visitors to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks are informed that a couple of hundred million years ago the area that is now the American Southwest was a vast, Sahara like, desert covered with shifting sand dunes.
In time the sand was compacted into the rock known as sandstone, and rivers began carving out canyons including the spectacular Zion, Bryce and Grand Canyons.
Today this area is mostly a high desert plateau supporting cacti and other plants that have adapted to the harsh climate, and dotted with mountains and canyons.
The Sahara like sea of sand and shifting dunes is gone. Well, almost gone, as 20 miles southeast of Zion National Park lies a 1,200 acre sea of sand complete with shifting sand dunes.
Known as Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, this little place in Utah gives those who learn about it and make the twenty-some mile journey from Zion to visit it a chance to get a glimpse of what Utah and surrounding states looked like 200 million years ago.
The Sand Dunes are Not Ancient
Despite its similarities to the shifting sands of the ancient desert that covered this part of the world millions of years ago, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park is, geologically speaking, of more recent origin.
Sandwiched between the Moquith and Moccasin mountains, this narrow patch of shifting sand exists as the result of a phenomenon known as the Venturi Effect.
As the prevailing winds pass between the mountains they are funnelled through a narrow gap northeast of the park that separates the two mountain ranges.
The Venturi Effect here is the increase in the speed or velocity of the wind as it is forced through this narrow gap between the mountains.
This increased speed enables the passing wind to pick up and carry with it grains of the reddish pink Navajo sandstone that are continually being eroded from the sides of the two mountains.
After passing through the gap, the topography widens into the valley where the park is located. Once in the wider area the wind speed slows and the grains of sand dropped over the valley.
Routes to the Park
According to the sign in Zion National Park, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park is twenty miles southeast of the park. I assume this refers to the actual distance and not the driving distance.
From the west entrance of Zion by Springdale, Utah the driving distance, using paved public roads, is about a 40 mile.
The trip includes traveling through the park on Utah State Highway 9 (a day pass for the park costs $25 per car, while the fee for simply passing through on State Highway 9 is $15).
This route through Zion offers spectacular scenery as the highway climbs and winds through the mountains that makeup the park. The trip includes passing through a tunnel that connects the east and west sides of the park and descending to the flat, high desert plateau outside the park.
An alternative route would be to exit Utah State Highway 9 at Hurricane, UT, (approximately 22 miles east of Springdale and the entrance to Zion) turning south onto State Highway 59 toward the Arizona border.
At the border the name changes to Arizona State Highway 389. The name changing again as the road re-approaches Utah, with it first merging into U.S. Highway 89A and then, at Kanab, UT, U.S. 89.
This route is about 82 miles long and takes about two hours for the trip. The road is a paved, two-lane highway with few curves and no mountains to traverse.
Zion National Pk to Coral Pink Sand Dunes via State Hwy 9 from Zion
Park Fees and Amenities
This is a state park and Federal national park and Federal recreation area passes, including the lifetime Senior Passes are NOT recognized in Utah State Parks.
Instead there is a $6 per non-commercial vehicle (with up to 8 passengers) day pass. This fee is charged year round; however, during the off season there is generally no park personnel available to collect the fee.
Not to worry, as there are envelopes with a tear-off window receipt and locked container for the envelope with your $6 in it. I presume that during the summer tourist season you can pay with a credit card.
However, if you arrive during the off season, especially on a weak day, have six dollars in cash ready to put into the envelope as there is no place to swipe a credit card.
Despite the fact that there are no rangers on regularly on duty during off times, it is a good idea to pay the fee and put the receipt on your car’s dash board where it is visible through the window.
Not only does this $6 fee help to defray the costs of maintaining the park but I am sure state park personnel make periodic checks of the area and, in the process ticket, or worse, cars without a receipt in the window and $6 in the corresponding envelope in the metal payment receptacle.
Campsites are available for $16 per night.
Picnic facilities are available along the edge of the dune area. There is a visitor center at the entrance to the park along with modern restroom facilities. This and other similar restrooms are maintained and open all year.
ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) tours can be purchased from a site adjacent to the parking area. This place also advertises sand sleds and sand boards.
We did not check to see if this place was open and, while we were visiting there the only people were a few other visitors exploring the dunes on foot like us.
Off the highway vehicles (OHV) are allowed in the dunes area. There are a number of hiking and OHV trails in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management areas adjacent to the state park. Since our purpose was a short visit to the dunes we did not explore these other areas.
Length of Visit
The sand dunes themselves can be easily viewed and experienced within a couple of hours.
Walking in the sand, especially walking up a sand dune, requires extra effort and can be tiring.
Despite the shifting dunes, there is some plant and small animal/insect life. A number of plants that can thrive in the sand can be found along the edge of the dune area parallel to the road.
Metal markers identify and describe the plants and this makes for an interesting and educational short hike.
Sledding on the dunes is an additional fun pastime for both children and adults.
No one was doing this at the time of our visit although my wife and I observed a number of families enjoying this activity on the sand dunes in New Mexico's White Sands National Monument which we visited a few years ago
White Sands is similar Coral Pink Sand Dunes in that the shifting sand is the result of a similar Venturi effect due to wind being forced through a narrow gap between two mountain ranges.
However, the white sand at the White Sands National Monument is composed of fine grains of gypsum rather than grains of pink sandstone.
For us, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park was simply an unplanned a side trip while visiting Zion National Park.
It sounded interesting, so we made the trip to the park, viewed it, walked around the dunes and were impressed. Our visit lasted about two hours and the entire visit, including time, consumed about four hours.
The park can be a nice day outing and picnic for a family or an overnight stay at the campground (be sure to make advance camping reservations during peak periods).
Photography enthusiasts could easily spend a day exploring and photographing the dunes and its flora and fauna.
The changing colors of the landscape as the angle of the sun changes as the day progresses from sunrise to sunset are another reason photographers might want to plan on spending the entire day here.
Finally, those who love the outdoors and want to explore and experience the park and surrounding areas should plan on as many days as they can afford to spend here.
The American Southwest has an abundance of natural wonders. Utah’s Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park is one of the lesser known natural wonders but it is well worth visiting if only because it is so different from the canyons and mountains for which the American Southwest is famous.