LITTLE SAHARA RECREATION AREA, Juab County — There are times when Jay Cram, the BLM’s man in charge of the 60,000 acres of sand dunes here in the West Desert, has the place all to himself. He can go out on the deck of his home next to the visitors center and strain his ears for all he’s worth and hear nothing but the sounds of silence.
Those times are not this weekend, however.
This weekend is Easter weekend, and at Little Sahara that means big attention. A place that in the dead of December has a population of one (Jay), suddenly has a population of 20,000 or 30,000, or roughly the same as American Fork. But without the traffic lights.
The draw is a combination of conditions and tradition. Springtime weather that’s pleasant but still on the cool side is ideal for people who like to play in the sand — ATV riders, for the most part — and those same people over the years have decided Easter weekend is the perfect occasion to coordinate and congregate. It's a time for them to turn Little Sahara into a kind of Woodstock on wheels.
This Easter tradition goes back a ways. The largest gathering at the dunes is reputed to have occurred in 1977, when some 60,000 sand enthusiasts showed up for the weekend. That was two years before the BLM organized Little Sahara into a national recreation area in 1979.
After that, user fees resulted, predictably, in lower but still impressive numbers. Anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000, depending on weather conditions, have showed up on Easter weekend ever since.
Last year, there were some 20,000 visitors. This year, thanks to Easter falling later in April and a favorable weather forecast predicting highs in the 60s and lows in the 40s, the BLM is bracing for 30,000 visitors or more. A new “modern-day” record is a possibility.
Jay Cram wouldn’t be surprised. Already, it’s been a busy spring. “Our numbers have increased every weekend since the first of February,” he says. “We had over 5,000 last weekend.”
Jay says this without flinching. As much as he loves the place when nobody’s there, he loves it just as much, maybe more, when the world beats a path to his front door.
“This is the fun part of the year out here,” he says. “It’s busy, it’s crazy. I admit it’s sometimes a headache, but this is what we live for.
“Where else can you see someone soaking in a hot tub that they’ve modified so it’s heated by their car?”
Or a “slightly” altered golf cart that can fly through sand traps?
Jay’s point is that there is no “normal” when it comes to dune-seekers. Some come in families and play in the sand like they’re going to the beach. Some set up their 45-foot motor homes and dine on Chateaubriand. Some sleep under their dune buggy. Some go to bed at sundown. Some don’t go to bed at all.
This all works because the large expanse of the sand dunes area, unlike most places under BLM control, is wide open. There isn’t an inch of ground that is off-limits to vehicles or pedestrians.
“There aren’t many places in the West that are as open as this,” points out Mike Gates, manager of the Fillmore field office of the BLM that has jurisdiction over Little Sahara. “If you can walk there or drive there, you can go there.”
There are three Little Sahara campgrounds with improved, designated campsites and a 10 p.m. curfew — White Sands, Jericho and Oasis — and a fourth campground at Sand Mountain with no designated campsites, no curfew, limited services and a vendor’s row that springs up on Easter weekend that sells everything from ice cream to hot chocolate to T-shirts to spare dirt bike and dune buggy parts.
Every year, the biggest crowds show up at Sand Mountain, a 700-foot tower of sand that challenges every form of motorized sand vehicle to go up, as well as sandboarders to go down.
Getting ready for the Easter masses is a full-time job in and of itself. “It takes months of preparing to gear up for a weekend of this magnitude,” says Lisa Reid, public affairs specialist for the Fillmore BLM office.
Jay, Mike, Lisa and crew have been busy making sure the campgrounds are ready, the water taps are all turned on and working, shifting sand is removed from the campsites, signs are all in place warning children to not tunnel in the sand (tunnel collapses have resulted in deaths), and that all support services are ready and waiting in the wings — including dozens of law enforcement officers coordinated by the Juab County Sheriff’s Office.
This year, the newest additions are two concrete helipads to make helicopter landings safer and easier.
Also, they’re tuning up the sandbulance — the high-torque sand buggy with a Corvette engine that is on call day and night to respond to accidents.
“What you dread most is to hear the radio tone for emergency,” says Jay, “because you know that’s going to happen.”
Still, he notes that injuries are about a third of what they were 30 years ago.
Not only are people driving safer, but they know they can and will be cited for a DUI if they drink and drive in the sand.
“We like it to be a party, but a party the whole family can attend,” says Jay. “Easter is when Little Sahara fills up with what you could call neighborhoods, full of people they only know from here.”
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company