A couple of weeks ago, I set a new benchmark for the most intense experience I’ve had off-road. I went out to the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area in Glamis, California, where I spent the weekend getting my face sandblasted as my right foot was welded to the floor of a side-by-side. If taking flight from sand dunes and high adrenalin, full-throttle exhilaration weren’t enough, I then rode in a Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk that performed some incredible maneuvers. All of it was part of a huge party in the dunes and just thinking about it is raising my heart rate again.
For many people in the United States, the off-roading season is either coming to a close or is becoming a wintry mess of mud, snow, and ice. As someone who lives in Northern Illinois, that description fits me. A lot of off-road environments in the Midwest are forest trails, dirt, mud, grass, and maybe some rocks here and there. Throw in cold weather, and it’s much of the same, only now you’re wearing Carhartts and figuring out a Ford Festiva works better with doors and windows. You might find some sand, but it’s nothing like the vast expanse of incredible dunes found in California’s Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area.
(Full Disclosure: Polaris invited me out to Camp RZR to take part in a massive celebration to kick off the dune season as well as to get behind the wheel of some capable side-by-sides. Polaris paid for my travel, provided food, booze, and housed me in a comfy air-conditioned travel trailer for the weekend.)
While many off-roaders on this side of the country are winding down, the party is just turning up in the deserts of California. As locals tell me, the desert is just too hot during the summer, so while people like me are wheeling around the Midwest, they’re waiting for the cooler temps brought on by Fall. For people in Southern California and those coming up from Mexico, the dune season begins in early October and if they’re lucky, the party rocks on until Easter.
To help kick this celebration off, manufacturers, dealers, and vendors descend into Glamis. Since 2012, Polaris has been hosting Camp RZR. It started as a get-together for owners of Polaris RZR side-by-sides but has since grown into an event so huge it gathers enough people and campers to be considered a small city.
Arriving in Camp RZR, I was reminded of the King of the Hammers’ Hammertown. However, this was way better than Hammertown. Unfortunately, when I went to King of the Hammers in 2022, Hammertown and the King of the Hammers event was an unwelcoming place to be. I felt like I had stumbled into a specific political candidate’s rally and found myself surrounded by literally thousands of flags with all sorts of sayings on them. The event’s races were also spoiled by political chants by hundreds of people or more that had absolutely nothing to do with the vehicles climbing the rocks below. It was disappointing, to say the least, and wasn’t one bit family-friendly. I was there to go wheeling, not whatever those guys came there for.
Thus, Camp RZR was refreshing. Sure, I saw a few silly flags out there, but the atmosphere was far different. It seemed that the folks at Camp RZR and Glamis in general were a lot more laid back and easygoing. Honestly, it’s wild because Johnson Valley, where King of the Hammers takes place, and Glamis aren’t that far apart. Yet, clearly, these events attract quite different people. Instead of political flags, I saw the flags of countries. Those who drove in from the southern border flew the flag of Mexico. They weren’t alone! I saw a couple of maple leaf flags, a couple of flags from Brazil, one from Hawai’i, and even the Union Jack. People came in from all over not just to send it in the dunes, but to celebrate a fun form of motorsport.
Once inside the gates of Camp RZR, visitors–who aren’t required to own a Polaris product–are presented with an event about all things side-by-side. Each row is full of things to do from various vendors to customize your ride to test drives, education, and play areas for kids. Camp RZR even had a Ferris wheel, tons of food trucks, and a stand where you could get temporary tattoos and hair extensions. Apparently, in previous iterations of Camp RZR, the tattoo booth did real permanent tatts. Camp RZR is so comprehensive that you could walk into the event not knowing a single thing about side-by-sides and walk out with the desire to hit those dunes running.
On Saturday night, Camp RZR was also the site of a concert featuring Everclear. That’s Everclear the band, not the drink.
My favorite part about Camp RZR was the side-by-side service area. Anyone who off-roads knows that sometimes things go wrong. Maybe you’ll blow a tire, snap a belt, or damage a steering component. If you’re unlucky, as I have been, you break your rig at the very beginning of the weekend, ending things right then and there.
Polaris thinks your fun shouldn’t stop because of a part failure. So long as you can get your machine to the service tents and so long as the service team can get the part, they will fix your rig for free. You don’t even have to pay for the parts. The other limitation is that you can’t bring a previously broken rig to Glamis and expect it to be fixed. Otherwise, the repair team works around the clock to get broken UTVs back into the dunes as fast as possible. As someone with too many broken things, I thought that was incredible.
While Camp RZR was plenty of fun, the real party was out on the dunes. During my trip, I had access to a Polaris RZR Turbo R and a Polaris RZR Pro R. I will write about these on a different date, but the important bit to know is that both RZRs are built as “Wide Open” side-by-sides, the sorts of vehicles made for full sends. The RZR Turbo R features a 925cc twin-cylinder turbocharged engine making 181 HP while the RZR Pro R packs a 1997cc naturally aspirated four making 225 HP.
If you haven’t made the pilgrimage to a place with dunes, you need to know that off-roading on them is a different experience than you’re used to. Here in the Midwest, off-road training programs will teach you that much of off-roading is about clearing obstacles with as little throttle as you can get away with. The idea is to gently get through, not do a full send. If you went to 4Fest Detroit, you would have seen the off-roading classes moving at a sedate pace, not setting hot laps through a forest.
Sure, you’ll see people doing full sends at Gambler 500 events. “Send It” is probably the second-most said st at a Gambler 500 behind “ABG!” Yet, many of us Gamblers lose the bet on a full send. Often, we pay the price when we break stuff or worse, our cars catch fire.
Dunes are different. While you may not want to use the throttle to power through a rocky trail, you often need a whole lot of skinny pedal to get through large sand dunes. Think of dunes like you’re driving on steep, icy hills without studded tires. If you go too slow, you’re likely to run out of momentum before you get stuck or slide down. If you want to make it up that steep grade, you can’t be afraid to bury the go pedal.
That’s really only part of it. Liberal application of firewalling the throttle will get you to the top of a dune. Getting around it is another story. When you reach the top of a dune, you may feel inclined to steer the wheel to get you back down again. Perhaps counter to what you’re thinking, you do turn the wheel, but not a whole lot. The dune and the machine will work together to get you back down. It’s magical how gracefully the RZR carves its way through the sand when you go with the flow of the dune.
Armed with this new knowledge in mind, we hit the dunes. On early Saturday morning, I was in a group of journalists led by Polaris racers in a run to beat the sunrise. Leading the pack was none other than racing legend Tanner Foust. I followed right behind in a Polaris RZR Pro R. Tanner is a talented driver no matter what he’s commanding and he made driving through dunes look like a ballet. I followed closely behind, engine roaring, wheels lifting into the brightening sky, and sandblasting my machine’s interior. I was given a license to full send, and you bet I was using it.
Our morning dun run started easy enough with some small dunes to practice in, but as our group weaved through the sands, the dunes became larger, the climbs steeper, and the stakes higher. If you didn’t have your foot down, you weren’t going to make it. I saw each dune as a challenge. At the bottom of a dune, I punched the throttle, watched as my RZR pointed at the sky, and committed. The four-cylinder behind me wailed as the CVT ran up to speed and the tires dug in. As all of this happens, it feels as if my heart is running at a beat matching the maxed-out tachometer. I thought about drinking a Red Bull that morning, but it turned out I just needed some octane to get me firing.
The incredible part about riding the dunes isn’t just getting to lay into a throttle pedal and letting your inner rally driver out. Ok, that part is incredible. But, the whole sequence feels like you’re riding a rollercoaster. As you enter the bottom of a dune, you feel your body sink into the seat. Then, like a coaster with a launch system instead of a lift hill, you get pinned back when you give it everything for the climb. At the top of a dune, you get to look at what’s ahead, just before you feel weightless, just for a moment, and glide your way around a bowl.
Unlike a rollercoaster, you can do this for as long as your rig has fuel in it. The fun lasts for as long as you want it to. Even better is the fact that dunes feel somewhat softer than dirt. So, you aren’t getting bruised and beaten in your vehicle as you might trying to race through a trail.
More Than Just Dune Running
The Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area is large enough that you could go riding for miles. Here’s what the Bureau Of Land Management says:
Formed by windblown sands of ancient Lake Cahuilla, the dune system extends for more than 40 miles in a band averaging 5 miles wide. Dunes often reach heights of 300 feet above the desert floor, providing outstanding opportunities for recreation. A favorite place for off-highway vehicle (OHV) enthusiasts, the dunes also offer fabulous scenery, opportunities for solitude, and a home to rare plants and animals.
When you aren’t running dunes, there’s still plenty to do. People love to gather in spots, usually around tall challenge hills such as Competition Hill or Oldsmobile Hill. We spent a lot of time at Oldsmobile Hill. This was a place to catch an epic sunrise but also a place to watch vehicles attempt the steep climb. Oldsmobile Hill brought some challenges. Not only do you need to stay on the throttle to make it up, but you also have to maintain traction.
Glamis attracts not just people with side-by-sides, but folks with pickup trucks, SUVs, off-road cars, dirt bikes, and quads. Watching the trucks and SUVs attempt the climb showed how great side-by-sides are at the job. The trucks needed to have their throttles pinned and their V8s screaming to make it up Oldsmobile Hill. Other trucks needed a good head start while some, like an old stock Ford Bronco II, just couldn’t do it.
We sat at the top of Oldsmobile Hill and watched people tackle the hill for hours. It was a sight to see. Pickup trucks raced three-wide up the hill, teens on quads ran up the hill while doing wheelies, and two-stroke motorcycles with paddle tires made the climb seem like a drive through a parking lot. While all of this was happening, there were lights and glowing whips as far as the eye could see. Glamis may not have had the turnout that events like King of the Hammers get, but there was a staggering number of people there.
After our morning dune run, we returned to Camp RZR to hang out and discover what the festival had to offer. While there, Polaris’ reps asked us if we wanted to take a helicopter ride. As an avgeek, it’s physically impossible for me to say no to such an offer. What I didn’t expect was for that aircraft to be a Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk.
Sure enough, I saw the helicopter tear through the sky above. My heart skipped in excitement.
Prior to this day, my most memorable helicopter ride was a helicopter tour of Chicago. I don’t even remember what model of helicopter it was, but it was a cute little guy. This chopper was a 1981 Sikorsky UH-60A and its large rotors were powered by a pair of GE T700-GE-701D turboshaft engines making 1,994 SHP each. Apparently, this helicopter is owned by YouTuber HeavyDSparks.
The pilots at the controls touched down and we boarded the helicopter with the engines hot. It felt like we were in a movie from the dramatic rotor wash to ducking under as we hopped in and strapped ourselves to the seats. The journalists at the event expected this to be a gentle tour around Glamis, but that’s not what we got.
The skilled pilots made this chopper do some impressive stunts. We got what felt like was just feet above the sands and the pilots performed dives so fast that air rushing into the cabin tried to rip my clothes off. The helicopter was flying so fast with the doors open that I couldn’t even muster a “holy shit” before the next maneuver. In addition to the stunts, we flew lower than the tops of the dunes. At times, there were side-by-sides on the ground sitting way higher than we were flying. I knew Black Hawks were versatile helicopters, but I had no idea these things were so agile. I began to wonder if we were going to do a barrel roll or something like a Red Bull stunt chopper.
The chopper ride was also a fantastic way to show the scale of Camp RZR and the Glamis dunes. Even when the helicopter flew higher, the dunes went straight to the horizon. If you squinted, you might have even seen side-by-sides off in the distance, too.
The Black Hawk ride lasted about 15 minutes, and in the end, my heart didn’t stop rushing. The energy flowed through me so much that I felt like I wanted to jump out of a plane and go skydiving or perhaps take flight in one of the RZRs on site. How do you top a near-vertical dive in a military chopper? Someone’s going to have to get me behind the controls of a Boeing 747 or something.
A Giant Overnight Party
Still with the turboshaft power pumping through my veins, we returned to camp, ate dinner, and got partying. Much like King of the Hammers, people don’t stop having fun even after the clock strikes midnight. Check the dunes and you’ll see lights out there all night. Closer to camp, you’ll hear music blasting from loud stereo systems.
We partied with the extended Polaris team, its driving talent, and even the vendors. Rockford Fosgate rolled out a custom stereo rig that punched out so much sound that my hair shook to the sounds of remixed Taylor Swift. This thing was nutty, with speakers even lining the underbody of the side-by-side. Those speakers were so powerful they pounded sand out of the way with their wind. I’m pretty sure I lost some hearing that night. Now, what did you just say?
Sadly, the party in Glamis ended nearly as quickly as it started. It was a great weekend and an incredible adventure, made better only by great people and fantastic machines. This event was what I hoped King of the Hammers would be. It was a celebration of off-roading fun in the middle of the desert. Nobody was chanting anything, nobody was out there going out of their way to be jerks. It was just a lot of smiles, a lot of fun, and oh so much sand.
Polaris’ Camp RZR may be over, but the good news is the dune season is only just beginning. Locals tell me that what I saw out there was nothing. At the peak of the season, there are easily two or three times as many people out there. So, if you’re looking for high-powered fun in the middle of the desert, head out to Glamis with your best off-road rig. Soon, I will review the side-by-sides themselves. In the meantime, if you go out there, be sure to use extra skinny pedal and have a blast.
(Images: Author, unless otherwise noted.)
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