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Born to ride: Dunes offer fun for off-roaders
Click here to grab detailed maps of some of the Yuma area's most interesting places, including the Imperial Sand Dunes
Off-road vehicles have long buzzed around the rugged Yuma and Imperial Valley desert. The dune buggy has deep and fond ties to the area, and so do many enthusiasts of the buggy and its off-roading cousins.
John Debernardeaux's dad rode. So did his sister, and even his mom, a little. Soon, his own girls could join him off-roading.
As the sales manager at Yuma's Liberty Motorsports, Debernardeaux spends all day among vehicles meant to be enjoyed where there is no pavement.
Here, there is the familiar four-wheeled quad, what you probably have in mind when you think “all-terrain vehicle” or “ATV.” There, is the utility task vehicle (UTV), which looks like a burly golf or custodian's cart. And over there, is the agile motorbike.
Whatever wheels spin beneath you, you aren't riding indoors.
“It gets you out in the fresh air,” he said.
Riders can take to the scrub desert around Yuma itself, or they can cross the state line and go to a favorite playground that doesn't need to be in Arizona to get Yuma love: the Imperial Sand Dunes.
Geologically speaking, the history of the dunes goes back millions of years, and its evolution continues today.
EARTH'S CHANGES, MAN'S CURIOSITY
Even before surplus Jeeps were sold to the general public following World War II — a major turning point in off-highway vehicle use — people were intrigued by the dunes. Dune buggies are thought to have been developed in this patch of desert in the far reaches of Southern California, with the first buggies made from stripped-down Model As.
The sand wasn't always there. As chronicled by the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, the California desert was once tropical: “As the earth's crust shifted along the San Andreas fault, the coastal mountains were pushed up, cutting off the moisture laden air coming from the ocean. At the same time, the interior plains of Southern California began to drop, forming a basin known as the Salton Sink. Gradually, the region dried, forcing many plants and animals to adapt or perish.”
Sometimes, the Colorado River flowed through the flatlands and into the Gulf of California, as it does today. Other times, it flowed westward toward the Salton Sink. These flows into the Salton Sink created the large freshwater Lake Cahuilla, which covered much of the Imperial, Coachella and Mexicali valleys. Prevailing westerly and northwesterly winds blew beach sands eastward from the old shore to their present location (they still do, actually, nudging the dunes to the southeast at the rate of about 1 foot per year).
So there's the prehistory. The BLM continues its brief history of the dunes by introducing the human effect on the area by Native Americans, including the Cocopah and Quechan.
For Spanish explorers and American pioneers, the dunes were an obstacle instead of a resource. In the 1910s and ‘20s, a wooden plank road allowed early cars to go straight through.
Motorized travel along the dunes? Now we're onto something.
The plank road was a family attraction that drew visitors out for picnics — and adventure and engineering. People enjoyed bumping along on the wooden highway, and they got curious about what it would take to drive in the sand.
The “modding” started, and technology and rider comfort has advanced considerably since.
Climbing the hills, and ranks of popularity these days is the UTV, or side-by-side, said Liberty's Debernardeaux. It's so called because it allows its two to four riders to sit next to each other. The side-by-side is like an off-road touring car, more relaxed and less taxing on the muscles than an “active ride” on an ATV or dirtbike. There's a reason why they look more like a golf cart than a motorcycle or go-kart.
“Back in the day, a lot of people were using golf carts, but they weren't designed for that,” he said.
Over time, off-road vehicles have become more sophisticated, he said. Their power, handling and suspension have improved, leading to better rides. Safety gear has become more light-weight.
Debernardeaux, now 30, started on a dirtbike at age 10. He learned a lot from his father, an especially outdoorsy guy.
Off-roading is a family pursuit. Scaled down quads are built for little riders — children can start out at age 6 on a 50cc ATV and move up to a 90cc model at 12 before graduating to the more powerful ones when they turn 16.
He currently keeps it on-road but he's sure he'll be back to the rocks, dirt and sand, probably with a family-friendly side-by-side. With his older daughter now 6, Debernardeaux expects the tradition to continue.
“I'm sure I'll be looking at ‘em here pretty soon,” he said.
ATVs, UTVs, sandrails and dirtbikes are a part of the Yuma fun-scape.