Boise Daytrips

Bruneau Dunes State Park - The Best Sand Box Around

Just 65 miles from Boise is the largest sand dune in North America. Well, technically it's the largest "single-structure" sand dune in North America, whatever that means. Regardless, it's pretty darn tall at approximately 470 feet, and if you've never been to Bruneau Dunes State Park you're in for a treat if you take a day and drive over there. The best part about the place is that, unlike a lot of parks across the country, you have free reign to traipse all over and around the park's signature attractions without encountering any fences, railings, or nasty KEEP OUT signs. Seriously.

Why is that possible? Well, because the sand dunes are constantly shifting shape due to the wind, any footprints you leave behind are quickly erased. What makes the area unique is that, although the dunes are constantly moving, they tend to move in two directions that are 180 degrees apart, so they stay more or less in the same spot. According to the folks at Idaho State University, "The prevailing winds blow from the southeast 28 percent of the time and from the northwest 32 percent of the time, keeping the dunes fairly stable." Now, I'm not a whiz at math, but that still leaves the wind blowing from other directions 40% of the time, but evidently they're spread out enough so that they don't muck things up and blow all the sand out of the park. Whatever. The proof is that the dunes have been around in some form for over 11,000 years.

But enough with the boring geology and meteorology stuff. The reason you're going to the park is to get some sand in your boots (or between your toes), which is as easy as walking around for a few minutes. The whole area is a big sand trap, and there are three major dunes, which can be categorized as small, medium, and large. There are really no rules for climbing them, except you need to leave the dune buggies behind. Feel free to take your dog, your kite, and your pet chimp, but leave the motorized stuff behind. When it comes to the small and medium dunes, just take off, trudge to the top, and then enjoy the view. The largest dune, sometimes referred to as Big Dune, requires a greater commitment, and the steepness toward the top makes it the ultimate Stair Master. But the unique perspective from the ridge makes it well worth the workout.

Lots of folks like to take sleds with them to the top so they can slide down, but I've not had much luck in that department. In my experience, plastic, toboggan-style sleds are absolutely useless, but I was able to find some videos on the interwebs of folks using similar sleds with some degree of success. Maybe today's sleds are just too newfangled for me to figure out. The word is that the best contraptions are saucer-shaped sleds or, even better, waxed cardboard. Before I go next time I'm going to get a big sheet of cardboard and grease it up with that stuff Clark Griswold put on his sled in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. That would be something.

The key to getting the most enjoyment out of Bruneau Dunes is going at the right time of year. Late March through May in the spring and September-October in the fall are ideal. After all, the area is dry, exposed, and full of sand, so even an 80-degree day can be scorching when the sand absorbs all that heat. In fact, after spring turns to summer, you're probably better advised heading to the mountains where it's not so hot. But if you do go to the dunes in the middle of summer, you'll be a lot better off if you avoid the sand for the majority of the day. Case in point: In July 2011, a Swiss man and his son were were having a grand ol' time gallivanting barefoot on the dunes until they crossed from the shady side to the sunny side. After a fifteen-minute ordeal trying hurriedly to get to water and shade, the blisters and burns on the man's feet were so bad he had to be airlifted to a Boise hospital. Yeah, for real. That's not to say that you'd also be silly enough to leave your boots behind, but things can get uncomfortable fast.

Although the dunes are the centerpiece of the area, the park has a lot of other stuff to offer. There are two small lakes amongst the dunes, and both are managed as trophy largemouth bass fisheries. There are plenty of bluegill in there too, so kids should have no trouble summoning their inner Rick Dance. The lakes are restricted to electric motors, canoes, kayaks, float tubes, and the like, which is nice because it keeps things nice and quiet for everyone else, waterfowl included. If you don't have any of those waterborne contraptions, the smaller northern lake has a floating dock that's perfect for watching bobbers and acting like Huck Finn for awhile.

If you think it's a little odd to have two sizable pieces of water in a dune-riddled desert basin, you're right. Yes, they are man-made bodies of water, but not in the way you might think. According to Betty Derig's Roadside History of Idaho, the lakes suddenly appeared in the 1950s after farmers started pumping irrigation water out of nearby CJ Strike Reservoir, which raised the water table. Ponder on that one for awhile.

Although the park is great for those who love to blaze their own trail, there's also a sometimes-marked network of more formal trails in the park. You can park at the visitor center by the park entrance and hop on the trail there, or you can catch it numerous other spots. The unique thing about the trail is that it actually incorporates the ridge of Big Dune, allowing you to walk the length and height of the shifting serpentine structure. However, if you just want to get to the top of Big Dune as quickly as possible, park at the day use area by the larger lake and look for the trail signs at the boat launch area.

Since Bruneau Dunes State Park is so close to Boise, the thought of staying overnight in the park might not enter your mind. But it should. The park has two campgrounds and plenty of spots, and the opportunity to see the dunes at both dusk and dawn is well worth the trouble of packing a tent or towing a trailer. The older, western-most Broken Wheel Campground has almost all of the large trees in the area, and it's been improved with hookups and individual picnic shelters to provide a respite from sun and wind. Standard sites will cost you $16 a night, while the sites with hookups go for $22. The newer Eagle Cove Campground is more suited for RVs because the trees are small and the only shelter is the large pavilion in the center of it.

The far end of the Eagle Cove campground is where you'll find the park's two cabins, each of which sleeps five and has power, heat, AC, and a spiffy wooden porch swing that offers an outstanding view of the dunes. These homes-away-from-home can be rented for $50 a night. Dogs are welcome, but you'll have to leave your pet chimp tied to the hitching post outside.

Another advantage to staying at the campground is that you'll have easy access to the on-site observatory when the sun goes down. The Bruneau Dunes Observatory is open Friday and Saturday nights from mid-March through mid-October, and it's one of only two public observatories in the state. Uranus jokes aside, the area's dark skies allow you to see a whole lot of stuff in the heavens, including Newt Gingrich's moon colony. There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that they play Pink Floyd's The Wall after midnight, although that might happen in the campground if a group of aging hippies has taken up temporary residence there.

Destination: Bruneau Dunes State Park
Where: 65 miles southeast of Boise. Take I-84 East to the first Mountain Home exit, then follow the signs to ID-51 and ID-78.

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Park hours: The park itself is open every day, year round. The visitor center's days and hours of operation vary depending on the time of year and the current state budget.
Cost: $5 day-use fee
Website: State of Idaho Parks & Rec
Fun fact: Just think of the sand castles you can make.