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Riding the Dunes

A force of nature to be reckoned with — it invites the curious to explore and entices the thrill-seeker to conquer the roaring tides, the sweeping sand dunes, and the wind-swept, wave-shaped rock formations.

The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area (ODNRA) stretches 50 coastal miles from Heceta Head to Coos Bay. Swirling ocean currents and whirling winds have created a unique region that features wind-sculpted dunes, some more than 500 feet above sea level.

Covering over 32,000 acres, the ODNRA offers endless recreational opportunities while protecting a variety of wildlife habitats. The Siuslaw National Forest Service oversees an area that encompasses rugged dense forest, rocky cliffs, steep sandstones and gentle wide-open sandy beaches. In between are marshes, streams and lakes.

Here, off-highway vehicle (OHV) enthusiasts ride the dunes that dominate the region. Whether astride a four-wheeled sand buggy or a four-legged steed, riders conquer the dunes winter, spring, summer and fall. There are 14 trails for hikers and horseback riders, and three large dune-riding areas for all-terrain vehicles.

Jeff Chastin, owner of C&M Stables north of Florence, prefers to ride the dunes on horseback. He guides clients on a two-hour ride along Baker-Sutton Beach Trail. The path snakes west through the dunes and down to the beach, or north through a forested landscape where the ocean is viewed from afar.

The horses walk through beach grass-lined trails where wild, colorful rhododendrons and plump coastal strawberries grow just above the high-tide mark.

The forest trail winds around Lily Lake, one of 21 nearby freshwater lakes, where riders may encounter Roosevelt elk, Canada geese or tundra swans. "This is a diverse area; there is no other area like it," says Chastin, who has been in business here for 27 years.

To some, the dunes look like lots of wind-blown sand. To Chastin, they are alive. "They are a living, breathing entity," he says. "They are moving and changing all the time."

His favorite time to ride, though, is in the winter, when the air is fresh and crisp. "A storm comes through and leaves it beautiful," he says. "And, in the winter, the wind isn't howling or piling up sand."

In the fall, the sand shrinks and winter rains help compact it. "The hard-packed sand is better for the horses," he adds.

Chastin also recommends equestrians saunter up 22 miles of trails that wind around Cape Mountain high above the dunes. Horses need to be "trailer-ed up" to the trailhead, which lies three miles east of Highway 101.

"If you don't, the horses will be spent before you get there," but he says that the trek is worth it. "There are spectacular ocean views, and you will traipse through elk habitat. It is wonderful."

Sitting astride a horse on of those mountain trails, you can see what looks like hundreds of ants scurrying up and down anthills. They are, in fact, riders on adrenaline-pumping all-terrain vehicles.

The dune experience can go from mild to wild, or zero to 60, if you choose such a ride.

And if you don't own your own ATV, don't worry. Rentals are available in all the cities along Highway 101.

Tonya Burkholder, who with husband, Rich, owns and operates Spinreel Dune Buggy and ATV Rentals in North Bend, says there are literally "hundreds of miles of possibilities" for riders.

There are 180-foot (or taller) Sahara Desert-like dunes filled with beach grass and twisted, gnarly shore pines. Here the steering is a little tricky, with steep motocross-like climbs. A dune can have a sheer drop-off on the inland side. But out on the beach, where it is flat, a rider can go full-throttle.

Safety is forefront in Burkholder's mind. Helmets are required and safety flags need to fly high from the rear of all vehicles. The flags keep riders in view all the time.

Misty fog and flying sand can cloud visibility. Therefore, Burkholder cautions riders to stay on marked trails. "There are boundaries which keep riders from getting lost," she says. "They also keep riders from entering protected wildlife habitats."

If riders stay on the trails, they will see elk, deer, and the occasional bear, she says. "And, osprey, and, of course, seagulls fly overhead."

Along the shoreline, she says, "it's not uncommon to see a whale blow or sea lions bobbing in the waves." Not long ago, riders saw a sea lion giving birth, she says. "And, just today, they reported a shark washed up on the beach."

Chris Hague operates Sandland Adventures, one mile south of Florence, for those who prefer to leave the dune driving to someone else. You can join 26 others on a giant dune buggy tour or a four- to-10-passenger dune buggy excursion. They also offer bumper boats, a go-kart track, miniature golf or a ride on the Cloverline Railroad.

No matter how many times you've been, the ride will always be different. "The wind can sweep across the sand, cutting strange funnels or holes in the dunes, Hague says. "There are no two days alike, because of the unpredictability of the sands."

The Oregon Dunes are a kaleidoscope of shifting sands and colorful adventures, just waiting to be explored.

The Plight of the Snowy Plover

Throughout the Oregon Dunes, riders and hikers will see signs warning them to stay away from the nesting areas of the Western Snowy Plover.

This tiny, elusive coastal bird is native to Washington, California and Oregon. Its favorite habitat is open sand, which is abundant in the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.

In 1993, the Snowy Plover was designated as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act, and steps have been taken to protect its habitat, especially during breeding season. There are at least five critical breeding areas in the Oregon Dunes, especially near estuaries.

Wildlife biologists say that Snowy Plovers are not like gulls. They do not interact well with humans, so people need to keep their distance, particularly during breeding season.

Riding the Dunes