The following article is part one of a six-part series of a tour through the Big Bend Country region of west Texas. Coming up: Balmorhea State Park, Fort Davis and the Davis Mountains, the McDonald Observatory, Marfa and Marathon.
Anyone that has driven Interstate 20 west out of the Metroplex knows that once you get past Fort Worth there really isn't a lot to see until you get through the Panhandle Plains. Going west you'll eventually run into the visually stunning landscape that makes up the Davis Mountains, but shortly before that you'll come across something that doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of the landscape -- the Monahans Sandhills.
The Monahans Sandhills are natural sand dunes, some as high as 70 feet, that exist over 3,800 acres in West Texas. The dunes pop up out of nowhere and look so out of place that they will leave you wondering if you're still in Texas. While simply looking at them, and the relatively dense vegetation, is entertaining enough, the real fun at the state park is stretching out on your backside and sledding down the dunes for some backside sand surfing.
Didn't pack your sled? No worries, for a couple of bucks the state will rent you a sled that resembles the top of a plastic garbage can -- but it more than gets the job done and will have you sliding down the dunes in no time.
If you're feeling a little more brave, try surfing the dunes standing up for an added challenge. Admittedly, dune surfing/sledding is a better activity for children with boundless energy, as climbing sand dunes is quickly tiring even for adults accustomed to moderate activity -- that would include me. But the ride down is fun and worth a couple of trudges up the hill.
If you have kids, turn them loose on the dunes for a couple of hours while you camp out with a cold one. Watching them exhaust themselves sounds like the end of a pretty good day on the road, which will have been about six hours from Fort Worth. And after that haul, they'll likely be a little stir crazy and needing to cut loose anyhow.
Once they've tired themselves out ... bunker down for the night at one of the campsites in the state park and watch the wildlife. The desert nights can be cool ... so you may want an extra blanket in the fall.
Speaking of the weather, the park is at 2,700 feet and we've heard that temperatures in late summer can be brutal with an average desert temp of 96. (Remember, sand gets very hot) I visited in early October and the weather was perfect and the sand was cool under my feet. In January, the average temp is 29.
More on the sandhills from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department:
The park is only a small portion of a dune field that extends about 200 miles from south of Monahans westward and north into New Mexico. 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, so the visitor may experience a dynamic landscape.
Fresh water occurs at shallow depths within the dunefield 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, jack rabbit, and cottontail.
Finally, to complete the story of the odd landscape -- the dunefield is buffeted by one of the largest oak forests in the United States --- though the trees aren't very tall. In fact, most children will tower over the Harvard oaks as they reach only about three feet in height. While they aren't tall above ground, their roots can dig 90 feet underground searching for water.
Outside of the sandhills, there isn't a lot going on in Monahans other than some 3A football and the Million Barrel Museum. Check them out if you like, otherwise it's time to hop back in the car ... the next stop is only 75 miles away at Balmorhea State Park.