When you think of travel and sandy destinations, more likely than not it’s the beach that comes to mind. This week’s Bucket List is here to change that with seven of the biggest, baddest and best sand dunes around the world. From Colorado to China, these mountains of sand tower at impressive heights along coastlines and rise from the middle of valleys begging to be explored by foot, sled, sand board and more.
Paste Travel’s Bucket List columnist Lauren Kilberg is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Her travels have found her camping near the Pakistani border of India and conquering volcanoes in the Philippines.
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Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve spans 30 square miles in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. The highest among them measures in at 750 feet tall, making it the tallest dune in North America. While they can't compete with the handful of mountain peaks that tower at more than 13,000 feet in the park, the dunes remain the star attraction. Hiking, sledding, camping and horseback riding are among your options for exploring them. Camping overnight near the park will also afford you the chance to take in some of the best stargazing around. Studies have also found that the area is the quietest place in the contiguous U.S., meaning you'll sleep well if you opt to do so.
Photo by Patrick Alexander, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Head to China to see the tallest stationary dunes in the world. The Badain Jaran Desert covers 19,000 square miles and is home to 100 or so dunes, as well as more than 100 lakes. The sand behemoths there rise to 1,600 feet. While the massive dunes are certainly worth seeing, it's not the only noteworthy aspect. The desert is known for its singing sands, one of only a few dozen places on the planet where this phenomenon occurs. Don't let the term mislead you, these dunes boom at a volume that can exceed 100 decibels. Researchers believe it's the result of a combination of wind, sand and electrostatic charges. A visit to the Badain Jaran Temple is another must. Located in the middle of the desert and dating back to 1868, this Tibetan-Buddhist temple contains wood carvings, artifacts, statues and more open to the public for viewing.
Photo by Runner PL, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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What's unique about the dunes at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico isn't size, but rather color. They're composed of gypsum crystals, which give them their white hue. Covering 275 square miles, White Sands National Monument is the largest gypsum dune field in the world. You can explore these dunes free from fear of burning yourself on the hot sand. Gypsum doesn't convert energy from the sun into heat like the more commonly found quartz sand dunes. Between the white color and lack of heat, you might find you have to remind yourself it's sand and not snow as you sled down the dunes.
Photo by Doc Johnny Bravo, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Moreeb Dune is not only the tallest in the United Arab Emirates, at nearly 985 feet it's also one of the tallest dunes in the world. Sometimes called Al Moreb Hill, this dune and the others surrounding Liwa are famous for their singing sands. Only 30 or so other dunes on the planet produce a similar phenomenon. The roaring sands, said to be the whispers of evil spirits according to local legend, are among the loudest of their kind. If you plan to hear for yourself, heading out alone is not recommended. The dunes around Liwa are part of the Empty Quarter and should not be explored without guides.
Photo by Globovisión, CC BY-NC 2.0
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Within the Siuslaw National Forest along the southern Oregon Coast you'll find the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. This isn't your typical beach. Here the dunes tower at heights of 500 feet in parts before meeting the ocean. The area covers 40 miles from Florence to Coos Bay, making it the largest stretch of coastal sand dunes in North America. Visitors can explore the dunes in off-road vehicles, by horseback or simply hiking it on foot. Camping, fishing and other outdoor activities are also popular within the recreation area.
Photo by Don McCullough, CC BY-NC 2.0
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France's Dune du Pilat reigns supreme as Europe's tallest. It's located just under 40 miles from Bordeaux in La Teste-de-Buch and stretches for more than 1.5 miles. The dune runs along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean and is sandwiched between Arcachon Bay and a large forest. The whole area presents a postcard perfect scene that is a wildly popular destination among locals and international travelers alike.
Photo by Jose Willaert, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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No list of sand dunes would be complete without inclusion of Peru's Cerro Blanco. Located east of Nazca in the Andes, it's the second tallest dune in the world at more than 6,800 feet above sea level. When measured, it's 1,176 feet tall from top to bottom. If you plan on tackling this megadune, you'll want a guide. Climbing takes around three hours and is said to be grueling. If you're just looking to have fun, sand boarding, paragliding, ATVs and dune buggies are all popular options.
Photo by A. European, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0