Exploring the Oregon Dunes
It’s no surprise that most off-roaders associate sand dunes with the desert. After all, the Imperial Sand Dunes (known as the sand toy capital of the world) makes up nearly 150,000 acres of dunes stretching from the tiny little community of Glamis in Southern California all the way to the Mexican border. Extreme temperatures make it virtually impossible to visit the area during the summer months and while the area boasts the largest open dune riding area within our nation’s borders, it doesn’t offer much in terms of variety.
For those looking to beat the heat and have a completely different dune riding experience, the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area (ODNRA) is a veritable oasis, literally surrounded by lush forests and fresh water lakes and streams. What the area lacks in size, we believe it more than makes up for in its diversity and unique landscape.
Technically the ODNRA is made up of three separate riding locations that most people associate by the towns they are nearest to, Florence, Winchester Bay and Coos Bay. Each area offers a similar riding experience with a few unique features.
Florence would be the most similar to Glamis, with a large mostly open footprint of wind swept dunes. A number of large tree islands dot the area, which make for great points of reference as you make your way through the dunes. Depending on the wind, many of these islands will develop large bowls around them that can reach a couple hundred feet high and are a blast to carve. Just don’t let off the gas as water has a tendency to pool in the bottom of the bowls and sometimes there’s not a lot of room around it.
Another great feature of the Florence dunes is that it offers beach access. Although the dunes don’t butt right up to it, a number of sand highways snake through the sea grass and empty out onto the beach.
The Florence Dunes offer access to the beach via sand highways through the sea grass.
Like the Glamis sand dunes, the Florence dunes have a tendency to change rather quickly. Because of the mostly open footprint, high winds can completely wipe away all evidence of off-road vehicles overnight, leaving fresh untracked sand just begging to be ridden. That also means sometimes the dunes will vary in size and shape. The area’s steepest climb, Competition Hill, varies in its shape and length depending on the time of year you visit. At the north end of the dunes is a less challenging climb known as South Jetty. Because it offers a day use parking area right at the bottom of the hill, this is generally a pretty busy area of the dunes.
About 35 miles further south is an area known as Winchester Bay. Probably best known for its annual Dunefest festival, Winchester Bay is the most visited area of the ODNRA. It features a relatively open landscape with more rolling sand hills than actual dunes. Along the eastern portion of the dunes are a number of fingers that stretch back into the woods and provide some fun trails and spectacular views of the dunes and nearby freshwater lakes. It’s the views like this that really set the Oregon Dunes apart from other duning locations around the country.
Winchester Bay offers the tallest dunes of any area on the Oregon coast, with some massive bowls and challenging climbs. The dunes start out relatively flat along the westernmost edge and gradually grow in size the farther inland that you go. Its landscape is much like that of the Florence Dunes, but with more vegetation scattered throughout. Although not quite as bad as Florence, high winds can develop sharp dunes or witches eyes that can swallow an ATV or UTV whole.
Winchester Bay boasts the tallest dunes in the ODNRA.
Over the years, we’ve seen a number of manufacturers hold press intros and even film commercials on some of the area’s steeper dunes. Dunefest attracts nearly 8,000 attendees to the area every year and offers a weeklong schedule of events to keep them busy.
Despite the throngs of people who attend the event, the area is large enough that you can still get out and enjoy the dunes without feeling claustrophobic. The event area, vendor row, main stage, and OEM row are all located at the northern most point of the dunes. That area remains highly trafficked throughout the week, but venture a little ways south and its pretty much like any typical day on the dunes.
Winchester Bay has a couple of iconic landmarks that are pretty much staples for anyone who visits. The first is Banshee Hill, which you really couldn’t miss if you tried. Whether you climb straight up it or loop around the back way, the view from the top is spectacular and you’ll find a steady gathering of people, both at the top and bottom of the hill, all week long at Dunesfest.
With views like this, it’s no wonder that desert duners just can’t seem to get over the scenery.
The other location is a popular viewpoint on the east side of the dunes overlooking Clear Lake, one of the many freshwater lakes in the area. Anyone who has been a dedicated fan of the ATV industry for any length of time has probably seen photos of this iconic location whether they realized it or not. It’s probably the single most photographed spot on the Oregon Dunes because it best illustrates the unique landscape and sheer beauty the area has to offer.
The southernmost portion of the ODNRA is commonly referred to as the Coos Bay sand dunes. This is the largest of the three areas, but it’s actually made of up two separate portions of dunes connected by a few sand highways. The Spinreel Dunes, named for the main campground at the northernmost portion of the dunes, provide the largest area of open sand and a decent climb known as Spinreel Hill.
Dotted with thick vegetation, this area of the ODNRA provides a great mixture of both open dunes and sandy trails that weave in and out of the trees. It’s not uncommon to spot deer running across the dunes or while riding down a trail. During the winter and spring months, rain water gathers, creating large freshwater pools that some brave riders will actually attempt to skim.
More often than not, the only way back out of a chute is straight back up.
On the south end, Horsefall and Horsefall Beach are the two primary campgrounds, thus most visitors refer to this southern section of sand as Horsefall Dunes. The area offers a few large bowls and more sandy trails with some deep chutes or tree holes along the outer edge of the dunes where the sand meets the tree line. These steep hills are commonly referred to as chutes or holes because often times you cannot see the bottom until you get there. Anyone that’s ever ventured into one will tell you it’s a comforting feeling to reach the bottom and have enough room to turn around and if you’re lucky, get a small run at the climb back up.
Probably the most popular gathering place at the Horsefall dunes is Boxcar hill. While the hill isn’t impressively steep, it’s long and you can almost always find a crowd of people taking turns drag racing up it as train cars full of lumber and other goods sit idly on the tracks at the bottom of the hill. The Coos Bay dunes also offer beach access stretching almost the entire length of the dunes from Horsefall Beach campground north towards Spinreel Campground.
This is an all too common site as riders try to dodge trees and make their way back out of the chutes.
Each of the three areas offers a similar landscape with lots of greenery and plenty of open riding to keep you entertained. Of course, whip flags are mandatory and every vehicle is required to have an off-road vehicle tag, either from the state of Oregon or the home state of the vehicle’s owner. Oregon is also one of the more strict states when it comes to sound restrictions and all areas have a 93-decible limitation. We’ve definitely heard ATVs on the dunes that are much louder than that, but it’s up to the individual to decide if it’s worth the risk.
If you’ve never been, we highly recommend visiting one or even all three areas. If you’re a Glamis regular and just can’t fathom riding an area that’s only a fraction of the size, we urge you to reconsider. We’ve been there plenty of times with Glamis regulars and it’s almost comical to see their reaction to riding sand dunes in cool temperatures and surrounded by greenery. It’s so far out of the norm its like being in a different world.
For more information contact the Oregon Dunes visitors center in Reedsport Oregon (541) 271-3611 or make plans to attend Dunefest 2015 July 29th through August 2nd.
Growing up in Oregon, most of Seth's involvement in the powersports world was limited to what he saw in magazines and videos. Following a brief stint in the corporate world, Seth took a flying leap (literally) and moved to California to pursue a career in freestyle motocross. Though short lived, the opportunity immersed him in the industry and is now a well-established off-road writer.
More by Seth Fargher