It is a sight that takes the breath away and fills us with surprise!
It is a timeless coastal treasure a giant sandbox with plenty of elbowroom to stretch out and play.
The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area covers forty-two miles from Florence to Coos Bay and it is an Oregon landmark for outdoor recreation.
People come from all over to experience 32,000 acres of sand, forest, rivers and lakes.
Many plan vacation time at one of the oldest parklands in the state: Jessie Honeyman State Park, just south of Florence – where State Park Historian, Cal Lewis, says camping dates back nearly 80 years.
“It is a nostalgic feel for many and it calls back to those days when families would get together, have a big family picnic or reunion that would last for days. Honeyman was a place to do that. Folks could swim, fish, hike the dunes, sit and talk and visit around the campfire. Things haven’t changed.”
The Civilian Conservation Corps built Honeyman State Park in 1933.The corps was filled with unemployed young men from the cities in the east and they arrived in Oregon to build facilities that the public could use.
“The idea was to make parks available for the common man,” noted Lewis. "This huge labor force was available and so they went to work. There was virtually nothing here when they started. Just woods and brush!”
Nearly eight decades later, the park’s store (once the Cleawox Lake bathhouse) shows off the enduring craftsmanship of rock and timber construction.
The sandstone rocks were taken from a local quarry and each stone was hand carved and chiseled into place.
The park is a true destination campground according to park manager, Mike Rivers: “Honeyman State Park is like a bedroom for people who get out and explore the dunes. Between the lakes for fishing and boating, the trails into r the dunes can be hiked or take an ATV out – it is a true destination!”
Nearby, there’s another state parkland that’s also a unique botanical garden that is worth a visit.
Stroll the boardwalk through the small Darlingtonia State Natural Site and gaze across a collection of native carnivorous plants:
“They are amazing cobra lilies,” said Rivers. Each is a foot to two feet tall with gorgeous lanterns that have this great way of capturing and digesting insects. An easy to reach boardwalk attracts people from all over the world.It’s really one of the unique and beautiful attractions of the Honeyman area.”
There are other camping opportunities in the Oregon Dunes that include popular US Forest Service Campground sites.
In fact, the US Forest Service manages 500 campsites along this stretch of coastline including Carter Lake Campground.
Shane Gill, a USFS Ranger, called it a “real jewel” in the dunes with a gorgeous freshwater lake open for boating and fishing.
“This is so beautiful and I think that the dynamic nature of the place is what draws a lot of people to it. It is changing all the time - you’ve got the beauty of the forest – rhododendrons in high bloom – and yet it is just a stone’s throw into the dunes landscape.”
Don’t forget your hiking boots when you stroll the many trails to reach the dunes. If you happen to cross paths with local eco-touring guide, Marty Giles, you may learn something new too.
We joined Marty - who owns and operates Wavecrest Discoveries - along the “John Dellenback Trail” at the Eel Creek Campground.
She noted that many folks are surprised to learn that the sand didn’t come from the ocean, but from the mountains.
“The sand is really tiny bits of rock or crystals that are broken apart, brought from the mountains down to the ocean. The sand grains that we’re standing on came down the streams and rivers down the ocean when the sea level was lower and then were pushed back up as the sea level rose up.”
Hiking across the dunes really puts you in touch with a unique story of Oregon’s geography. Giles noted that some of the dunes reach 500 feet tall and are among the highest dunes in the world.
The Oregon Dunes story is interesting, complex and ever changing.
“Everybody likes the open sand,” noted Giles. “Everybody likes this type of habitat; everyone likes this sense of openness and dynamics of things changing. It feels wild with the wind blowing. It has a wonderful sense of place and everybody likes that.”