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Four Ways to Explore Oregon's Sand Dunes

Published: October 07, 2022

 

Towering mountains of sand cover a 40-mile (64.37 km) swath along the Pacific Ocean, intriguing coastal visitors with a seemingly impenetrable mystery.

The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, North America's largest coastal dunes, stretches from Florence to the south, and encapsulate a unique eco-system in an other-worldly landscape. The dunes are at once beautiful and intimidating. If you'd like to explore them, here are four of the easiest ways to access the sand and to see what is out there.

1. Hike into the Dunes

Depending on your ability, you can take a few steps out onto the dunes, or, with a beach wheelchair or fat-tire bicycle, ride across the flatter areas (at this time, you'll need to bring your own chair or bike as local rentals are not yet available). And if you are prepared for physical excursion, you can hike in and up even further. There are many places you can park and walk out into the dunes, getting your feet into the sand and experiencing the shifting landscape. 

South Jetty Dunes - Florence

South Jetty Dunes

Photo: Eugene, Cascades & Coast

Easy Access For Dune Hiking

The South Jetty

Drive out along the South Jetty. At intervals along the quiet jetty road there are parking lots (fee permit required) with trails leading straight up and over a steep ridge of sand dune to the ocean beach on the other side. While the hike is steep, the view from the top is spectacular. At the very end of the jetty, a flatter walk beyond the pavement to a dirt and rocky road eventually becomes sand and beach. Surfers catch the waves near the mouth of the jetty, crabbers lower nets along the inlet and fish off the piers. Bring a sled or a sandboard and slide down the lower sand hills on your walk to the beach.

Jessie M. Honeyman Memorial State Park - South Shore of Cleawox Lake

Honeyman State Park backs right up into the sand dunes, making it a popular camping spot for sandboarders. The day use area on the south shore of Cleawox Lake, within the campground, provides one of the simplest and prettiest places to experience the dunes. Not only is there parking (fee permit required), restrooms and lake access; but on the west end of the parking lot you can step directly onto the dunes. If you stay to the northwest edge, the sand is more flat where it meets the lake shore, creating an idyllic beach experience. But straight ahead and south the sand goes steeply up into the dunes. Muster your strength and climb to the top for stunning views of the lake below, the ocean beyond and miles of rolling dunes. Below this first crest to the south is an ATV riding area, so for your safety, please don't hike down on the south side into that zone.

Oregon Dunes Loop Trail

South of Florence in the Oregon Dunes Day Use Area, the Oregon Dunes Loop Trail provides the easiest access of all with wheelchair accessible viewing platforms near the trail origin. From the parking lot (fee permit required), start off on a loop trail that offers staggering sightlines of the dunes and beach below. Follow the two-mile trail down and through the sand drifts (four-miles roundtrip). The trail rapidly becomes narrow, uneven, sandy and inaccessible for wheelchairs. However, the rough path is easier than plunging off into the sand on your own.

2. Take a Dunes Tour

A guided tour will give you safe access to the miles of sand along with interesting information about the dune's history, ecosystem and special locations.

Tour by Dune Buggy

The easiest way to cover the most ground and see the greatest expanse of dunes is on a guided dune buggy tour. Local dune buggy companies offer both "mild" and "wild" adventures across the coastal dunes. On the big buggies, roll comfortably up and down the sand hills learning about the landscape, the plants and the animals that thrive here. Book a tour on a slimmer sand rail for a speedier ride, or rent an ATV for an independent spin across the sands.

Oregon Dunes Tour by Dune Buggy by Eugene, Cascades & Coast

Oregon Dunes Tour by Dune Buggy

Photo: Eugene, Cascades & Coast

Tour by Horseback

Another option is to skirt the dunes and enjoy the wide open beach on a horse ride with C&M stables. This reputable stable has offered trail and beach rides for over thirty years.

3. Paddle through the dunes

For stunning views of the sand dunes, you can follow a water course, appreciating their beauty from the seat in your watercraft. Skip the challenge of walking through sand and the roar of rolling over the dunes in a buggy — instead enjoy the serene experience of gliding past the magnificent landscape.

If you don't have your own watercraft you can rent it from Oregon Paddle Sports. They offer a selection of kayaks, paddle boards and canoes from west Eugene. 

Cleawox Lake

Cleawox Lake is located in Honeyman State Park and you can enjoy the water from either the north or the south side day use park areas. The north location is scenic with a dock, roped swim area and sandy beach — plus there are seasonal craft rentals including kayaks and paddleboats. From here, launch your craft — kayak, canoe or stand up paddle board and paddle toward the south side's massive dunes.

Siltcoos River Trail 

An enchanted 3.5 mile paddle (round trip is seven miles) starts at Siltcoos Lake on the east side of Highway 101. Launch your kayak or canoe and paddle the Siltcoos River Trail through shady forest, lagoon-like channels and out into the dunes. Plan your paddle around the tides so that the return trip back goes with the current. Portage is required at one spot, and, during spring's Snowy Plover nesting season, please stay in your boat during the last third of the trip toward the ocean

Siltcoos River Trail

Photo: Melanie Griffin

4. View The Dunes By Air

See the miles of sand dunes by helicopter or biplane tour. Apex Helicopter offers a tour of the south sand dunes in the spring and early summer seasonally. Enjoy the dramatic views from the helicopter all along the coastline. 

Tommy Aero Biplanes also offers views of the sand dunes. Retired USAF Colonel Terry Tomeny flies his biplane from the Florence Municipal Airport. Cruise over the Siuslaw River as it flows into the ocean, soar above the dunes and the many coastal lakes. Learn about the history of the Coast Guard Station and the historical jetties.

Florence Municiple Airport

Enhance your Dunes Experience

Learn about the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area with the OSU Quest program— you can purchase this program at the Florence Area Chamber of Commerce information center or from Books n Bears in Old Town Florence. Stay at the Three Rivers Casino Resort and add gaming and golfing to your plans; or stay beachfront at Driftwood Shores Resort and swim in their indoor aquatic center.

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Tips for Navigating Sand and Leaving No Trace

  • Be prepared: Walking in sand is not easy. It's like snow drifts but it moves. Set your expectations that this may be challenging, especially uphill. Walk slowly and take a break when you need it. It's easier to walk in someone else's footprints, so send your strongest "trail maker" to the front. If there are maintained paths, those will be significantly easier than just tackling a dune on its own.
  • The right footwear is crucial. Slippers and flip-flops will not navigate the deep, sinking sand drifts; bare feet makes you vulnerable to hidden branches and debris; and tennis shoes, or any closed shoe or boot will invariably fill with sand — although they are more sturdy and are still a good choice. We recommend wearing shoes that provide a protective base for your foot, hold securely with straps or laces, but allow for sand to move in and out... Tevas or Keens are good examples. But whatever shoes you choose, you'll have to cope with some sand in them.
  • Expect wind gusts. The Oregon Coast can be windy. Wear a hat with a strap that won't blow off — plus it will keep you protected from the sun. Sunglasses can help shield your eyes from sand that may be blown or be kicked up. It is also helpful to tie long hair back in a ponytail, braid or bun so it won't tangle or fly in your face.
  • Stay out of ATV areas. The sand hills create blind spots and ATV drivers will not see you (that is why they have tall flags to note their own locations). Make sure you know where the ATV zones are, and avoid them if you are hiking. 
  • Respect the fragile environment. Despite its barren appearance, the dunes are home to critters and plants. Please be respectful where you tread, don't disturb wildlife and pack out any items you bring with you. The Western snowy plover is a protected shore bird which nests along the sandy beach line. From March 15 – September 15, please observe posted restrictions where they are nesting — stay on the wet sand where hiking and riding, do not bring dogs and give the birds plenty of space.
  • Volunteer! Sign up with a local environmental organization, like Save the Oregon Dunes, to put in your time pulling and digging out invasive plants like Scotch broom.
Author: Taj Barnhart Morgan

Taj Barnhart Morgan is the Director of Content Strategy for Travel Lane County. A journalism graduate from the University of Oregon, Taj has two decades of special event management and hospitality marketing experience in San Diego, CA and Maui, HI. Passionate about mothering, and back to her Oregon roots, she is discovering the Eugene, Cascades & Coast region all over again through the eyes of her daughter.