FLORENCE, Ore. — On the central Oregon coast, sand is about more than beaches: It’s about skidding, sliding, sledding and slogging down the slopes of giant dunes.
Stretches of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area — especially those closest to the towns of Florence, Winchester Bay and North Bend — are playgrounds for fans of off-road vehicles. But the dunes are a big draw for fans of human-powered activities, too, and the dunes’ hilly geography provides hidden pockets for those seeking quieter recreation.
This is the largest dune expanse in North America, encompassing 40 miles of the coast between Florence and North Bend. The piles of driven sand loom up to 500 feet above sea level, and in some places the dune landscape is more than two miles wide. When you’re in the middle of it, the buff-colored sand seems to stretch on forever.
Sandboarding is the dunes’ latest craze, and you’ll see people sliding down many of the area’s easily accessible dunes. Made of polished plywood and sized somewhere between a skateboard and a snowboard, the boards have straps for your bare feet and work best when liberally waxed. Rental shops along the coast will lend you one (with wax) for as little as $5 a day.
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Most reasonably fit people need only a couple test runs before they can make it down a bunny hill without falling, which in my mind makes it superior to snowboarding. Even when you fall, sand is much warmer and softer than “Cascade-concrete” snow. You do have to haul your board back up the slope after each run, which makes for quite a workout.
Jumps and sculpting, too
Sand Master Park in Florence offers a more organized sandboarding experience with jumps. The park offers lessons, rents snowboards and gives free sand-sculpting clinics on summer weekends.
For those who prefer a less taxing kind of recreation, trails wind up and down among the dunes, leading through “tree islands” — oases of dense vegetation between the dunes, some surprisingly large — then back out onto the sand. A new vista rises beyond every crest, presenting ever-changing landscapes of sand, water and stubborn trees and grasses that populate the dunes — a deep and shady green contrast to the sunbaked golden surroundings.
Most of the area’s plentiful camping areas incorporate trails. Some of the most peaceful are at the Tahkenitch and Carter Lake campgrounds and the Oregon Dunes Day Use Area. Many of the trails are short, and some are wheelchair accessible. For a day hike, the Tahkenitch Dunes-Threemile Lakes Loop is a rewarding 6.5 miles through many kinds of vegetation, past three lakes and to the ocean.
Hiking among the dunes on a foggy day is a memorable journey, because you sometimes have no idea where you are or where you’re going, and everything feels mysterious and hidden away. If you do take a foggy hike, make sure you stick to the trails: smartphones might not have enough reception to show you the way out. During a rainy spell, watch for honest-to-goodness quicksand in low-lying, unvegetated areas.
Another option: touring by water. A handful of rivers run to the ocean via estuaries, and throughout the recreation area, dunes have dammed dozens of rivers into small lakes. You can canoe or kayak to the dunes, scramble around in the sand for a while and then paddle back. Nearly every time my family visits the area, we head for Honeyman State Park, just south of Florence. There, we can run, roll or slide down a dune right into the water. The lakes are also wildlife havens: Some of the quieter ones are home to beaver or nutria.
Both lakes and dunes are great places for bird-watching. Raptors and vultures love to float on the wind currents, while lakes harbor water birds and forests are home to tree-loving birds.
How did the dunes get here? For thousands of years, rivers have tumbled rocks from the Coast Range to the sea. Those rocks reach the ocean as sand, which water and wind push back onto this stretch of the coast.
Be sure to make the quick stop on your way in or out to check out the prehistoric-looking carnivorous plants at the Darlingtonia State Natural Site, just north of Florence. You can see the whole thing in 10 minutes.