Skip to main content

Little Sahara State Park: The Roaming Sand Dunes of Oklahoma

Eric Standridge is a freelance writer with an interest in history. His main focus is writing about Oklahoma.

Ride on dune buggies in Oklahoma's Litte Sahara State Park!

Ride on dune buggies in Oklahoma's Litte Sahara State Park!

Oklahoma Sand Dunes

In the Little Sahara desert, one can almost picture Egypt's wandering camels, Arabian princes, and majestic sphinxes, all without the 6,000-mile trip. Most of what you’ll find in the Little Sahara desert is lizards, sand dunes, and dune buggies—lots and lots of dune buggies!

The Little Sahara State Park is one of the most popular places in Oklahoma for dune buggy enthusiasts. With over 1,600 acres of sand dunes, there is ample room to ride well into the twilight hours.

Still, there's more to this mini-Sahara than that. The wandering sand dunes provide some of the most unique scenery found in Oklahoma. This state park also offers a glimpse into history, back to a time when over half of the United States was covered in water.


History of the Little Sahara Sand Dunes

The Little Sahara Sand Dunes were formed more than 11,000 years ago, during the end of the Pleistocene epoch. During this time, massive glaciers reached down as far as northern Kansas. Runoff from these glaciers formed large rivers that spread south towards the Gulf of Mexico. One of these rivers would eventually become known as the Cimarron River.

The Cimarron River’s path has meandered across the state of Oklahoma many times since it was first formed. During the Pleistocene epoch, the Cimarron was a massive river that flowed directly over the present sand dunes. This ancient river left behind deposits of rock that consisted mainly of quartz. Over time, the deposits from this ancient river bed eroded, leaving behind a very fine quartz sand.

The Little Sahara has become one of the most popular places to see well-developed, “active” dunes. These wandering sand dunes creep across the landscape of Oklahoma, encroaching on farm fields, roads, and homes. In fact, northeastward migrations have caused the relocation of US Highway 287 twenty-five to fifty yards east of its previous location three times since 1940.

Still, there is little danger in the dunes disappearing anytime soon. The sand dunes in the Little Sahara State Park range from 25 to 75 feet in height, and the parks layer of sand is more than 25 feet thick.

As one of the most unique landscapes in Oklahoma, the Little Sahara always remained a popular place to visit.


The Birth of the State Park

When early explorers of the area first discovered the large sand dunes, they were amazed at the landscape. Used as a point of reference, these early explorers called the dunes “walking hills”, as they found that the sand dunes were in a different place each time they went back. When modern geologists measured the rate of movement, they discovered that the sand dunes “walked” about a foot to the northwest every year.

It wasn’t until 1958 that the dunes were exploited for tourism purposes. That year, the Waynoka Chamber of Commerce purchased two camels from a circus and let them roam free throughout the sand dunes. The idea became a hit, and people from all over the area flocked to see the “Little Sahara”.

The idea was so successful that, in less than a year, the Oklahoma Legislature appropriated $12,500 to buy land from the Oklahoma State Land Commission in order to develop the park. It has remained a popular tourist destination in Oklahoma ever since.


Dune Buggies and More!

As the park grew in popularity, so did the number of dune buggies. Today, most visitors to the Little Sahara State Park traverse the wandering dunes in dune buggies, as this is the easiest and most exciting way to see the park. There are so many dune buggies at the park that it can easily be considered as the dune buggy capital of Oklahoma.

Many events center on this popular riding activity, from dune buggy races to drag races. For those who don’t own dune buggies, they are available to rent in several locations. Dune buggy rides are also offered for those who would rather take the back seat.

Besides the ever-popular dune buggies, several other events are offered throughout the year. Snake Hunt Weekend is an event for those who aren’t faint of heart. Rattlesnakes are captured, weighed, and measured. Prizes are given out in various categories, including longest and heaviest snake.

Sandfest is another popular event. This event offers drag racing, off-roading, and ATV demonstrations on the dunes.

While a lot of this is centered on adult activity, the Little Sahara State Park offers a lot of activities for children as well. Kids can be entertained for hours playing in the massive sandbox on Main Street in Waynoka, or, for the more creative, the sandcastle building contest is always a major hit.

The Little Sahara State Park draws more than 100,000 off-road vehicle users each year. Located south of Waynoka in northwest Oklahoma, the park offers several amenities, including RV sites with water and electricity, tent sites, picnic areas and showers.

© 2011 Eric Standridge