During our last visit to the Oregon coast, we spent one afternoon hiking around giant piles of wind-sculpted sand. The “trail” through the sand eventually ended on a pristine beach with the ocean lapping at the shore. It remains one of our favorite memories from that time. Of course, we had to go back!
The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area covers an area of about 40 miles from Coos Bay to Florence. It’s one of the largest expanses of temperate coastal sand dunes in the world. As someone who has made it their mission to visit as many sand dunes as possible, I can say with confidence that the collision of forest, desert, and ocean at the Oregon Dunes is nothing short of magical.
There are a number of forest service campgrounds offering opportunities to camp near the dunes. I scouted all the options before deciding on Bluebill Campground. It had the perfect combination of cell service (which was on the slow side, but still usable) and sites with open skies for solar power. It is also located near the southern end of the dunes, just outside the towns of North Bend and Coos Bay, which meant we could stay out near the dunes while having easy access to the conveniences of town.
When I made the reservation for this campground back in February, I could have chosen any of the 19 sites. After scouring the internet for campsite photos and studying the satellite view, I choose site 11 based solely on the fact that it looked like it was the best for solar power. While we do own a generator, the goal is to never have to use it. Not only do we hate the noise and hassle of getting it out and setting it up, but when we’re in a campground such as this with tenters and car campers, it seems especially obnoxious to disturb the peace.
Speaking of disturbing the peace, while we love to hike around the dunes and enjoy the quiet solitude of such an amazing feat of nature, others love to zoom around them on noisy, fume spewing machines. In fact, I would say that a LOT more people enjoy the dunes on noisy machines than they do on foot. I honestly don’t get it. I can’t imagine looking out at these sandy mountains and thinking, “You know what would make this better? A whole bunch of noise! Yeah, let’s make as much noise as possible in this serene place!” Nope, don’t get it and never will.
Fortunately, there are many areas in the dunes where those noise spewing machines are not allowed. The Horsfall Area (not a typo – there really is no “e”) where our campground was located had a clear delineation of ATVs on the north side of the road and hikers and horses on the south side. Same thing on the nearby beach. ATVs can go north but not south. This meant we could hear their noise from the campground during busy times, but were able to hike around without having to see them.
The campground was mostly empty during the week and only partially full on the weekend which made for a very pleasant stay. There’s a small lake here with a popular 1-mile trail around it. A portion of the trail went past our site and we got to watch lots of dog friends on their daily walks, which is always fun. We hiked the trail ourselves a few times in the evening enjoying the lake views and coastal forest.
Outside of the campground, we spent some time in town shopping in stores we hadn’t seen since leaving Palm Springs (we never pass up a Natural Grocers), visiting the farmer’s market, drinking beer on the patio at 7 Devil’s Brewing, and eating dinner at Front Street Provisions.
One afternoon we paddled around the nearby Tenmile Lakes. The ocean is a bit too rough and exposed for kayaking around here, but we’ve been pleased to discover plenty of lakes and rivers for kayaking. The only thing holding us back has been the near-constant wind, so when a rare calm day popped up in the middle of the week, we jumped at the chance to put our boats in the water.
North and south Tenmile lakes are part of a chain of lakes that drain into the Pacific ocean through Tenmile creek. They are popular lakes for fishing and other forms of recreation, although on a cool day in late May we didn’t see many other boaters. Our journey started at the public boat ramp on the South Lake. We paddled past the sandy beach and into the narrow canal that connects the two lakes.
We came out on the other side of the canal in North Tenmile Lake. Both lakes have many spidery fingers that reach out into the forest, making for some interesting scenery to paddle around. Much of the shore is lined with houses tucked back into the trees.
Our last adventure in the area was a long oceanside hike that started at Sunset Bay SP and ended at Cape Arago SP. This extremely scenic area of the coast (I mean, it’s all scenic, but this area is really special) features a series of three state parks connected by the Cape Arago Highway. You can drive the route, stopping at the viewpoints along the way and hike short sections. Or, you can park at Sunset Bay and hike the whole way to Cape Arago, which is about 8 miles out and back. Bet you can’t guess which option we chose!
The trail fairly closely follows the top of the bluffs as they twist and turn along the coast. Sometimes we left the coastal view and traveled through the forest, up and down hills, and past side trails that led to hidden beaches and wide panoramas.
At one point, we stumbled upon the back entrance to the Shore Acres Botanical Garden. Now a part of Shore Acres State Park, this garden dates back to the early 1900s when timber baron Loius J. Simpson lived here with his family in a grand estate that included an indoor swimming pool, tennis courts, and this large English style garden.
We saw the flowers before we knew the garden was there. Great big bunches of bright pink and orange flowers stood out like colored lights among the forest. There are plenty of wild rhododendrons around here, but as we got closer it became obvious that this was far more than a patch of wild shrubs. Sure enough, we turned the corner and there was a large wooden gate with a welcome sign reading Shore Acres Botanical Gardens. In my opinion, the only thing better than a botanical garden is a surprise botanical garden!
It was right around noon, so not a great time for taking photos of flowers, but we enjoyed a stroll around admiring all the blooming rhododendrons and azaleas.
Back on the trail, we continued hiking to the Sea Lion Reef and then past to Cape Arago. There’s a nice beach here on the north side accessed by a short trail down the cliff. It’s known for having interesting tide pools if you visit at the right time of day. Since we still had a long hike back, we skipped the beach knowing that we still had weeks of beaches and tide pools in our future.
Up the coast we go…