The southern coast of Oregon hides a secret natural wonder—wind-sculpted sand dunes that tower 500 feet above sea level. Set off Highway 101, west of Eugene, these remarkable formations are part of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Head to the dunes for a week or a weekend of outdoor fun, enjoying hiking, fishing, canoeing, horseback riding, OHV riding, and incredible photography.
The Oregon Dunes NRA extends for forty miles along the coast, roughly from Coos Bay to Florence. This is the largest group of coastal dunes in North America, encompassing a variety of ecosystems like open dunes, marsh-like plains, beaches, and “tree islands.”
Dunes are synonymous with dune buggies—or with OHVs, today’s equivalent. These off-highway vehicles are perfect dune machines, carrying riders up and down the sides of these towering sand piles. Three dedicated OHV areas have been set up in the NRA. You can explore the sand roads between South Jetty and the Siltcoos River, ride the dramatic slopes of the Umpqua Riding Area, and cruise between Spinreel and Horsfall. 4x4s, motorcycles, sand rails, and quad-runner are also welcome. If you want to take a ride but don’t have your own vehicle, just inquire about guided dune tours.
You’ll find plenty of water sports at the Oregon Dunes. With more than thirty lakes and ponds, plus a myriad of streams and rivulets, there are miles of space for sailing, canoeing, swimming, and water skiing. Enjoy scuba diving in the lakes or fishing on Siltcoos or South Tenmile Lake. Anglers flock to this area for the chance to fish for salmon, steelhead, trout, and warm-water species. The warmer, salt-water estuaries are home to salmon, crab, mussels, and rock fish.
Beyond the fringes of the dunes, lush fir and spruce forests roll down to the coast, offering endless opportunities for hiking and mountain biking. Some trails even lead you up and over the tops of the dunes, providing breathtaking views. More than 230 miles of trails lead you through the recreation area, some trailing along lakeshores and creeks, other leading into the heart of the dunes.
The sand that makes up the dunes comes from the Coast Mountain Range, sedimentary rock that uplifted 12 million years ago. As the rock tumbled down rivers, it graded into fine sand. Over time, tides, waves, and coastal winds built up the sand in this inland area, piling it on top of the solid Coos Bay Dune Sheet. This low, rocky sheet is flanked by beaches with steep banks and headlands, so once the sand arrived on the Coos Bay sheet, it was hemmed in from both sides and forced to stay.
The dunes themselves were built by the action of wind and waves. In the winter, winds can reach up to 100 miles per hour here, whipping the sand particles up into hillocks and mounds, much the way it builds snow drifts. Currents, tides, and waves all helped keep new sediment from the rivers close to shore, adding to the mass of the sand dunes.
You’ll find some unique formations at Oregon Dunes, including that staple of old-time adventure stories – quicksand. Because sand absorbs water quickly, the ground here can become saturated during a big rainstorm. If the marshes flood, the sand grains will actually float on top of the water, making quicksand.
The Oregon Dunes have about 32 lakes that were once mountain streams but got stranded by the sand. Others are ocean inlets that got cut off by shifting dunes.
Changes in the wind direction can result in new and strangely formed dunes. Summertime winds often make dunes that lie against the prevailing wind. From time to time, you might come across tree islands, little clusters of old forests that are almost totally buried in the sand. Just think—if sand can bury forest, is there anything it can’t cover up completely?