Wind is a fickle sculptor, sand a fluid medium. Combine those elements and you get a scene that is always shifting, never quite the same from one day to the next. Add the intriguing play of light and shadow on unusually colored ground and you have the Coral Pink Sand Dunes.
These are living dunes, says Rob Quist, one of the rangers at the state park there. "It's interesting to see the shifts over a period of time."Some people come to the park just for that - to see the shifting sands of time. Some come to take pictures, some to hike along the sandy trails, some to ride ATVs and ORVs along the crests and through the sandy valleys.
That's one of the unusual things about this park, says Quist. "People come here for a lot of different reasons. We have to manage the resources and also for the recreational activities." That sometimes presents challenges, he says, "but I believe we can all co-exist."
Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, established in 1963, is located 12 miles off U.S. 89 about halfway between Mount Carmel Junction and Kanab. Park facilities include a 22-unit campground, modern rest rooms, hot showers and a sewage disposal system. A number of picnic sites, including a large group-use area, are also adjacent to the dunes. Campsites are available by reservation (call 1-800-322-3770), although a couple are held for daily first-come occupancy.
If you want to get technical, the dunes here are "barchans," dunes shaped like a crescent and horns pointing downward, with a sloping side up and a steeper leeward side. Slope and contour change with the prevailing winds.
The sand, given its rich color by a high iron-oxide content, has been eroded a grain at a time from the nearby Navajo sandstone cliffs. But it takes special conditions to create dunes. There must be not only wind and sand but also a unique environment for them to work in.
At Coral Pink, this setting is created by a notch between Moquith and Moccasin mountains. The wind is funneled through this notch, causing an increased velocity that makes it possible for the air to carry grains of sand. Once through the notch, however, the wind fans out and speed decreases, causing the sand to be deposited in the dunes.
Sand dunes are known for their distinct ecosystems; the combination of sand and desert vegetation create habitat for a wide variety of creatures. Among them is an unusual insect, the Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetle, which is only found at this place. Its ability to adapt to the desert environment, its rarity, the fact that it lives within one of the smallest geographical ranges on Earth and evidence that it is vulnerable to human disturbances - particularly off-road vehicle activity - have brought the tiger beetle to the center of a spirited debate.
Recently the park completed a conservation agreement that sets aside an additional 200 acres (some 65 acres had already been designated) for non-motorized uses only. "We feel this is a workable solution," says Quist. The conservation area, which contains the prime habitat for the beetle, is easily accessible from the road and will give people a chance to get away from the noise of the machines while still leaving plenty of room for vehicle users.
Mule deer, mountain lions and bobcats also live in the park. "We don't see them, but we see their tracks," says Quist. And the same is mostly true of scorpions, also part of the park's citizenry. The idea of scorpions freaks out some visitors, says Dan Richards, another ranger at the park. But his program on scorpions is probably the most popular of the campsite programs the rangers offer.
"People have a preconceived idea of the scorpion; it's their nightmare incarnate. But we show how scorpions fit into the ecological system and talk about how their venom is not toxic enough to have serious human consequences unless you're highly allergic. It's like a bee sting. We talk about their courtship and mating behavior and how they are more afraid of people than people are of them." By the end, he says, he wins over a few creepy-crawly fans.
The rangers keep a tank with scorpions in the visitors center and also have some tiger salamanders that kids can feed. Other interpretive programs deal with such topics as desert survival, snakes and sand. "We have a sand collection donated by visitors from all around the world," points out Quist. And they have sand grains mounted on slides so visitors can see differences in the grains.
All sand is not alike, and the fine-grained texture of the sand at Coral Pink makes it particularly appealing.
The dunes can be viewed from a boardwalk viewing deck at the visitors center. A marked nature trail also takes off from there that provides a 20- to 25-minute walk around the dunes.
The nature of the sand also makes it ideal for dune buggies and other off-road vehicles. And while use is permitted and encouraged here, it is also carefully regulated. Helmets and flags are required, as are other safety measures. Vehicle users are asked to check with park personnel to make sure they understand the laws and rules before venturing out on the dunes. It is also BYOB - bring your own buggie. Rentals are available in Cedar City or St. George, but not in Kanab or at the park, says Quist.
Coral Pink is open year-round. "We have great sledding and tubing in the winter," says Quist. Because of the park's elevation - 6,000 feet - it is cooler here than in most deserts. "We're usually 10 to 15 degrees cooler than Kanab or St. George. The hottest it gets in the summer is about 95 degrees." Gambel oaks, juniper and sage grow on the ridges; in the summer an abundance of wildflowers bloom.
People come to roll Easter eggs on the dunes. They come to fly kites in the wind. They come to take pictures and to enjoy the solitude. They come for a wild ride along the crests and ridges of the sand. They come to enjoy the contrasting colors and moods of the scenery and to see the shifting artwork of nature.
"There are so many people with so many interests," says Quist. And, he says, they can all find something at Coral Pink.
It is a place to play and also a place to ponder. There is room for tiger beetles and dune buggies, and even a little William Blake:
To see the world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.