South of Florence, wind-sculpted sand dunes soar up to 500 feet above sea level, surrounded by clusters of trees, marshes, and beaches. This is the nearly 50-mile stretch of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, the largest expanse of coastal sand dunes in North America. Formed by the weathering of inland mountains and volcanic eruption, these dunes are a testament to nature’s artistry. “Tree Islands” remain as a reminder that before deposits of sand piled high onto the shore, a large forest covered the area. Travelers make pilgrimages here to see these ever-changing anomalies for themselves. Author Frank Herbert’s famous science fiction novel Dune was inspired by these mountains of sand.“Tree Islands” remain as a reminder that before deposits of sand piled high onto the shore, a large forest covered the area.

The geography is best explored at the dunes’ midpoint, just south of the small town of Reedsport. Permits, required for day-use, hiking, and camping, are available at the Reedsport Visitor Center (855 US-101, 541/271-3611, 6am-10pm daily).

The shoreline at Oregon Dunes National Recreation Park.

Oregon Dunes National Recreation Park. Photo © Capricornis/Dreamstime.

Tours and Recreation

Just off US-101, the Oregon Dunes Overlook is the trailhead for several loop hikes that lead through marshes, tree islands, forests, and dunes to the sea. The John Dellenback Dunes Trail is a moderate 2.7-mile trek that begins at Eel Creek Campground and continues through evergreens and freshwater lakes before ending on the beach. The 3.5-mile loop to Tahkenitch Creek offers diverse flora and fauna, and glimpses of wildlife.

For a guided tour or to rent a dune buggy, head a few miles south of Florence to Sandland Adventures (85366 US-101 S., 541/997-8087) or Sand Dunes Frontier (83960 US-101 S., 541/997-5363). Tours generally cost up to $50, while dune buggy rentals run about $45 an hour.

For an even more exhilarating experience, try sandboarding down the dunes at Florence’s Sand Master Park (87542 US-101 N., 541/997-6006, 10am-5pm Mon.-Tues. and Thurs.-Sat., noon-5pm Sun., $10-25). It’s much like surfing—although you don’t get wet!

Where to Stay and Eat

In the midst of the dunes, the line of motels and burger joints in the town of Reedsport seems a little surreal. Maple Street Grille (165 Maple St., 541/997-9811, 11am-9pm Tues.-Sat., under $18) cooks up good, old-fashioned dishes like pot roast, fried chicken burgers, and mac and cheese. Located just north of Reedsport, Gardiner Guest House (401 Front St., 541/543-0210, $75-95) offers a convenient stay in an elegant restored Victorian.

A number of campgrounds offer access points to the local dunes. Eel Creek Campground (72044 US-101, milepost 222), which offers flush toilets and drinking water, is the starting point of a moderate 2.7-mile trek through evergreens and freshwater lakes that ends on the beach.

Umpqua Lighthouse State Park

You can explore a mosaic of open sand dunes, ocean beach, freshwater lakes, and old-growth coniferous forests at Umpqua Lighthouse State Park (505 Lighthouse Rd., 800/551-6949, year-round, $5 day-use). The park was originally designated to preserve the forested basin of the small freshwater Lake Marie, which lies between the headland and dune ridge formations. Swimming and fishing are popular activities. A one-mile hiking trail loops around Lake Marie, and a spur trail extends westward to an overlook at the edge of the forest above the sand dunes.

The campground (800/452-5687, 8am-5pm Mon.-Fri., $16-90) at Lake Marie has 44 campsites for both tents and RV; there are also yurts and log cabins. Showers are free and are centrally located near the restrooms.

The Umpqua River Lighthouse (1020 Lighthouse Rd., 541/271-4631, tours: 10am-4pm daily May-Oct., 10am-3pm Fri.-Sun. Mar.-Apr. and Nov.-Dec., $5 adults, $4 students and seniors) is adjacent to the park, an easy 0.6-mile hike from the campground, and offers panoramic views of the ocean, perfect for spotting California gray whales.

The lighthouse was first constructed in 1857 along the Umpqua River, but strong winds and mountain runoff in 1861 caused severe damage and a few years later it collapsed. Rebuilt in 1864, the tower rises over the entrance of the Umpqua River with a focal plane of 165 feet above sea level. Guided tours are provided through the Umpqua River Lighthouse Museum (541/271-4631, Mar.-Dec., 10am-4:30pm daily May-Oct., free), located in the historic Coast Guard Station. There is no direct access to the dunes from Umpqua Lighthouse State Park.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip.