The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area is home to a truly unique and enormous collection of sand. In fact, this is the largest area of coastal dunes on the continent. Time and the elements diligently work to heap, scour, and remodel nearly 32,000 acres of dunes that stretch lengthwise for 40 miles between Florence and Coos Bay.
One of the best ways to appreciate the size of this area is to get right into the middle of it. The vast majority of the National Recreation Area is open to Off-Highway Vehicle use, so finding areas that are safe for hikers can be a little tricky. The section known as the Umpqua Dunes is a great area to explore for this reason. Here you can easily walk out into the middle of this gigantic sandbox and feel like your footprints are the only human evidence for miles. The John Dellenback Trail (named for Oregon’s U.S. Representative who was instrumental in getting the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area established in 1972) is a fantastic way to get into this area. While it may look like a 2.5-mile walk to the beach on paper, the reality is much more challenging and fascinating.
The trail begins simply enough from a dedicated parking lot just south of Eel Creek Campground. The first half-mile of the trail leads through a typical coastal collection of shore pine, kinnikinnik, salal, rhododendron, and many more species. Rather suddenly, however, this vegetation stops, and the trail plunges straight into a dry sea. Some of the dunes in this area are several hundred feet above sea level, and a hike up to a tall one is highly recommended. As you proceed, you’ll need to find and keep track of the posts that mark the intended trail, as the size and similarity of the dunes can be disorienting. When you are approximately half-way to the beach, you’ll notice a “tree island” that rises prominently from the sandy expanse. The trail stays north of this island and quickly enters into another strange world, this one a dense section of coastal forest that seems to absorb light and sound. The remarkable juxtaposition between these two environments is a real highlight of the trail. You’ll move from the exposed, open dune and sky space that feels ant-like and wonder-filled into a tight, close forest tunnel that is more like an intimate, miniature corridor. Forge ahead, and shortly you will crest the final dune and reach the Pacific Ocean. To the north in the distance you may see the Umpqua River’s south jetty, and to the south you may see the bulge of land near Coos Bay that accommodates Sunset Bay State Park, Shore Acres State Park, and Cape Arago State Park. Note that dogs are not allowed on the beach to protect the snowy plover.
While wayfinding along the John Dellenbeck Trail is easy in good conditions, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to stick to the route using only the trial markers when the notorious coastal fog rolls in. Be sure to pack a compass or a GPS with your extra layers. Walking on the sand will, of course, take extra time and effort. A quick clip may get the one way done in an hour, but allocate more time to really lose yourself in this strange and wonderful place.