Perhaps you’ve played in the warm sand of North America’s tallest single-structure sand dune, or gazed through the observatory’s telescopes on a summer night. The sand and stars call you back to Bruneau Dunes State Park in cold weather, too.
Here are five reasons to visit:
Gliding on those huge dunes is a thrill any time of year.
In summer, only sandboards work well. But in winter, when the sand is wet or snow-covered, you can hurtle down the dunes on sandboards, plastic sleds, saucers, foam boards or almost anything with a flat bottom.
“Do not bring cardboard, OK? There’s some urban legend that cardboard makes good sliding on the sand, but that’s not true,” office specialist Kim Durr said. “I find tons of it abandoned.”
You can have as great of a ride as you’re willing to climb for. The large dune is 470 feet tall.
“You climb that and you’d have the ride of your life ... but it is an investment,” Durr said.
Not that ambitious? You could climb a smaller roadside dune in about 10 minutes.
Bruneau Dunes’ visitor center offers sandboard rentals year-round: $15 a day or two boards for $25. During winter, the center is open just four days a week and the days vary.
Call ahead at 208-366-7919.
Campsites & cabins
Where else can you ponder the morning’s first light on snow-crusted sand dunes from the porch of a heated cabin?
The park rents two small log cabins, each with bunk beds and futons to sleep five. Each cabin has a table, benches, a fire ring, electricity and a heater. Vault toilets aren’t far away. Bring your own bedding and be prepared to do all your cooking outside.
Winter price for Idahoans is $45 (not including taxes or the park’s $5 entry fee) on weekends and $40 on Mondays through Thursdays. The cabins are the park’s only overnight facility that can be reserved — with a $10 reservation fee.
Rather bring your RV?
The park’s RV campsites have electricity year-round. In winter, water is available only at the equestrian campground. (The equestrian campground has a couple of corrals for horses, but you don’t have to have a horse to camp there.)
All the campgrounds have vault toilets, and the flushing toilets at the visitor center are open all the time thanks to an outside entrance.
Winter camping rates for Idahoans range from $12 to $21, Durr said, and seniors pay about half that on Mondays through Thursdays.
Summer hiking in the sand can mean intense heat. So consider taking the park’s trail loops in winter, instead.
A 6-mile hiking loop begins behind the visitor center and follows a circular path in semi-wilderness desert terrain, with lakes and marshland along most of the trail. You’ll climb to the crest of a dune, reaching a height of 470 feet with some of the most spectacular vistas in the park.
The park’s observatory is closed in the winter, and a distant glow from Mountain Home is starting to encroach on the night sky, but the park is a great place for stargazing.
Why shiver to see the stars? Cold winter air can’t hold as much humidity as warm air and water vapor absorbs starlight.
“Drier air makes for clearer skies,” said Chris Anderson, who manages the College of Southern Idaho’s Centennial Observatory in Twin Falls. “If the moisture’s on the ground, then it can’t be in the way of the starlight.”
Did you find optics under the Christmas tree? A great target for beginners this time of year is the Great Orion Nebula in the southern sky, Anderson said. Look to the southeast in early evening or the southwest in late evening. Look for the three perfectly spaced stars of the constellation Orion’s belt. From the left star of the belt, drop straight down to a short, vertical line of three stars. That line is Orion’s sword, and the middle star of the sword is the nebula.
Life on the lakes
The park has a pair of semi-natural lakes; they appeared spontaneously when the building of the C.J. Strike Dam on the Snake River raised the water level, but now they’re augmented by pumping in river water from October to May. Cattails, Russian olives, elms and cottonwoods line the shores, and winter birders see a variety of ducks and geese.
In February, migrating swans typically appear. “You’ll see a dozen or so for a period of a couple weeks,” Durr said.
The lake has bass and bluegill. If it’s cold enough, Durr sees anglers ice fishing.
From Boise, take Interstate 84 east to Mountain Home and Idaho 51 south toward the Snake River. Follow the signs east on Idaho 78 to the park. Driving time is a little over an hour.
A daily $5 motor vehicle entry fee is required year-round — unless you have the $10 annual Idaho State Parks Passport.