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Oregon Coast Dunes

The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area is the West Coast's biggest sandbox.

Oregon Dunes NRA is the largest stretch of coastal dunes in North America.
Photo caption
Oregon Dunes NRA is the largest stretch of coastal dunes in North America.

About halfway around the four-mile Oregon Dunes Loop Trail, I paused to make a hopeful calculation. After trekking through soft, fine sand for an hour—a much more strenuous activity than I’d expected—my body surely must have metabolized the massive slab of Italian wedding cake that I’d devoured the night before while dining with my wife at a cozy trattoria in nearby Florence.

But there was a further bonus: As the calories melted away, our sense of wonder and adventure was being richly nourished. Moments after setting out, we had been utterly transported from the known world into a realm of strange, sculptural beauty and solitude—two tiny figures and a dog who'd stepped into the greatest expanse of coastal sand dunes in North America. Standing at the base of a colossal dune, surrounded by sand and stillness, I felt like a traveler on the desert planet Arrakis, the setting of Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 sci-fi novel Dune.

Not coincidentally, Herbert himself tramped over this fantasyland in 1957 to research a magazine article he planned to call “They Stopped the Moving Sands,” about how the U.S. Department of Agriculture was planting drought-resistant grass and shrubs on the dunes to prevent windblown sand from overrunning roads and buildings. He never did write the article, but during his visit—including time spent in a chartered plane looking down on the dunes—he began to imagine a sweeping epic that played out on an arid planet.

Like Herbert, we’d chosen Florence as our base, specifically the original part of the city laid out in the late 19th century along the banks of the Siuslaw River. Once a gritty harbor of salmon canneries, sawmills, and saloons, Florence’s historic Old Town has been charmingly transformed with boutiques, art galleries, and some outstanding restaurants. We were within easy striking distance of beachcombing, whale-watching, birding, clamming, crabbing, diving, fishing, lighthouse touring, and sea kayaking. But the main attraction here is playing in Oregon’s enormous sandbox, whether on foot, horseback, dune buggy—or, if you’re game, by slaloming down the face of a towering dune on a small wooden plank called a sandboard.

The dunes extend for nearly 60 miles, from Coos Bay in the south to Heceta Head north of Florence. The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area occupies the central 40 miles, and here the tallest peaks soar more than 500 feet above sea level. Encroaching sand has dammed the mouths of ancient streams, creating a chain of freshwater lakes, and smothered whole stands of forest, leaving only bleached and rotting snags protruding from the dunes—or, more hazardously, hidden beneath the surface.

In Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey’s fictional evocation of a rough logging town on the Oregon coast, a character walking the dunes at night plummets into the shaft of a buried hollow tree—a devil’s stovepipe. Seconds after he’s rescued, the bark walls implode with a muffled whump.

“There was a lot more open sand in the 1960s when Kesey wrote that book,” said Grant Christensen, a former ranger we met in Honeyman State Park, a popular camping and recreation spot three miles south of Florence. “Between 60 and 80 percent of the dunes that were open before 1940 are now partially covered by vegetation.”

Christensen, who is now with the Oregon Travel Information Council and goes by the handle the Sand Scientist, led us to the top of a 100-foot dune rising straight out of the sparkling blue waters of Cleawox Lake, one of two lakes in the park. From the summit, the evidence of change was clear. Nearly every dune between the distant beach and the lush, temperate rain forest at our backs supported a plantation of gleaming, wind-ruffled European beach grass—the very plant that inspired Frank Herbert. The aggressive nonnative species has thrived beyond expectations. According to some dire predictions, these open dunes may disappear altogether within the next century. In the meantime, the U.S. Forest Service is exploring ways to halt the spread of the grass—using bulldozers and herbicides—and to preserve critical habitat for the western snowy plover, a threatened shorebird that nests only on open sand.

Some scientists believe that in prehistoric times the dunes stretched 15 miles inland. Roughly half the sand we see today likely originated as rock in the Cascade and Siskiyou mountains, Christensen explained, and was carried to the Pacific by major waterways such as the Rogue River. The other half probably eroded from the coast’s shallow continental shelf in the last ice age when ocean levels dropped and the sloping sandstone terrace was exposed to winds and tides. Elsewhere on the coast, steeper headlands have kept enough sand offshore to prevent extensive dunes from forming.

As Christensen unraveled the mysteries of the dunes’ geological history, three teens reveled in the present, sandboarding down the steep slope to the lake’s edge. Though the sport is a recent trend, family vacations at Honeyman have been a tradition for decades, since the Civilian Conservation Corps created the park in the 1930s.

Creature comforts are but 10 minutes away in Florence’s Old Town, tucked beside the Siuslaw River beneath an eye-catching art deco drawbridge that opened to traffic in 1936. Taking a break from the dunes, we explored the beguilements on and around Bay Street, from espresso and scones at Siuslaw River Coffee Roasters to local artists’ creations at the River Gallery to the display of rare editions at Port Hole Books and Publications. We topped off the day with a magnificent dinner at the Waterfront Depot, a lively bistro housed in a onetime train station salvaged from the town of Mapleton, 12 miles up the Siuslaw. The little building was sawed into thirds, floated on a barge, then trucked to Old Town and rebuilt at the river’s edge.

As usual, there wasn’t a single table to spare that evening, so owner Marianne Brisbane seated us at a coffee table in the lounge. A chalkboard mounted on the depot’s freight door listed 15 entrées, none more expensive than $15 (including salad), and a tempting menu of small plates. We decided on crab-encrusted halibut with chile cream sauce and a bountiful Portuguese seafood stew. The Mexican chocolate cake we chose for dessert is so popular that arriving customers put dibs on slices with toothpicks.

Early the next morning we were back hiking on the dunes, this time along Heceta Beach north of Florence. Overnight, a furious wind had scoured the sands, but in the sheltered lee of every twig and pebble and bit of beach flotsam, a tiny drift of sand was left—the beginnings of a dune. Gazing down at the miniature dunescape as we walked along the beach, I suddenly fantasized about flying in low orbit over the surface of a desert planet. Frank Herbert might have called it Arrakis.

Photography courtesy Wikipedia/Rebecca Kennison

More Sands Worth Your Time

Looking for other sensational spots where you can slip, slide away? Traveling the West, you’ll find pink dunes, petrified dunes, even dunes that sing.

ALASKA
Summer temperatures occasionally hit 100 degrees at the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, a taste of the Sahara 40 miles north of the Arctic Circle. (907) 442-3890.

CALIFORNIA
The Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes provide refuge for endangered critters, including the red-legged frog, Morro blue butterfly, and tiger salamander. (805) 343-2455. On dry days, the Kelso Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve will sing or “boom,” emitting a low rumble when hikers slide down their slopes. (760) 252-6108.

COLORADO
North America’s tallest dunes rise 750 feet in Great Sand Dunes National Park, also home to alpine tundra, forests, grasslands, and wetlands. (719) 378-6300.

IDAHO
From the northern reaches of the St. Anthony Dunes, lucky visitors can spy moose in bordering aspen groves. (208) 523-1012. In April, shocks of star-shaped white desert sand lilies spring up in Bruneau Dunes State Park, also a fabulous spot for stargazing. (208) 366-7919.

UTAH
Sandstone cliffs—petrified relics of ancient sands—surround Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, lending rust-colored hematite to the current dunes. (435) 648-2800.

This article was first published in March 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.