Florence, Oregon Dunes: An Outdoor Adventure Along the Wild Coast

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Florence, a hidden gem on Oregon’s central coast, is tucked between the Douglas fir forests along the Siuslaw River and the wild ocean beaches. Oregon has the biggest area of coastal sand dunes in North America. The wind-sculpted sand drifts, some as tall as 500 feet above sea level, were created from river sand. This ever-changing Sahara-like sandscape was to be the playground for our small group of touring journalists exploring the Oregon coast and ready for an outdoor adventure on the Florence, Oregon dunes.

Riding the Florence, Oregon Dunes

We drove down the winding highway lined with coastal shrubs and trees and pulled into a sandy parking lot. Trees obscured any view of the dunes so we weren’t quite sure what to expect. The sign said Sand Dunes Frontier and showed a speeding dune buggy sure to attract the attention of any thrill seeker. While I love adventure, I am not exactly what you’d call a thrill seeker so I was, to be honest, a little nervous.

Sand Dunes Frontier runs dune buggy tours, both fast and slow, along the Oregon National Dunes Recreation Area in Florence, a 40-mile stretch of rolling dunes with a few small lakes.

Florence, Oregon Dunes

Scott, our fearless dune buggy guide. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

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We were standing in the parking lot when we heard the roar of an engine in the woods. Soon the monster of a yellow-framed dune buggy emerged from the dark woods. The 6-seater buggy with rear-mounted engine had bucket seats with massive seat belts. Scott, our guide and expert driver, handed out tight-fitting goggles to keep spraying sand out of our eyes.

Florence, Oregon Dunes

We were strapped in and geared up for excitement. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Buckled in and holding on tight, we traveled through the woods on a sandy road and emerged to see a massive sand dune in front of us. Scott gunned the engine and we were off…. climbing the sand dune and looking out over the beautiful, mystical terrain of unending sand.

Florence, Oregon Dunes

The dunes towered over us as we emerged from the woods. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

For the next half hour or so we climbed dunes, sped across them at 55 miles an hour, and teetered over sandy cliffs before descending to the base with tires digging into the sand. We kicked up sand as we sped across the sides of steep dunes, balancing on who knows what… but we remained upright and had the time of our lives.

Florence, Oregon Dunes

At one point we got out to take photos of the rolling sand dunes. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

As we left the dunes, with sand in our teeth and ears, we all remarked that it was a smooth ride. It was safe and comfortable while providing an adrenaline-pumping experience. I loved it!

Surfing the Florence, Oregon Dunes

We now had a sense of both the beauty and the height of the ever-shifting sand dunes. The next stop on our day of coastal adventures was Sand Master Park off US 101. The park is the “World’s First Sandboard Park” with 40 acres of privately owned sculpted sand dunes surrounded by 200 acres of public dunes and forest. The park was established in 2000.

Monarc Duffel Bags

The staff is always busy preparing jumps, giving lessons, and leading tours of the area. Dune Riders International is the governing body for competitive sandboarding worldwide and sanctions three events each year at Sand Master Park.

We walked into the pro shop and were amazed at the range of beautiful equipment, most of it developed onsite. Different types of shining sandboards, gear galore, and even a sandboard bike were on display. I was drawn to the wall of bottled sand, the “Sandbrary,” where sands from around the world were labeled and carefully arranged. And, the pros had actually boarded at those places… Egypt, Mexico, Australia.

Florence, Oregon Dunes

The pros at Sand Master Park had sandboarded all over the world and had a “Sandbrary” to prove it. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

We were there for a lesson. Our instructor selected boards and we headed out to the dunes. It was explained that sandboarding is very different from surfing or snowboarding. You stand differently and use different muscles.

Florence, Oregon Dunes

First, you wax your board. And then, as our instructor showed us, you'll sandboard in bare feet. The straps are easy to put on. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

I opted to roam the dunes a bit on foot and watch two of our group take lessons. I have to say that the instruction was spot on and our students tipped their boards over the sandy cliff and enjoyed the ride down to the base on the first try.

Florence, Oregon Dunes

It's not what it looks like! This is our instructor just testing the sand to see if he could demonstrate a flip. Unfortunately, the sand was too wet. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

So, in not much time at all, we had learned about two sports, two ways to have an adventure on the Florence, Oregon dune. Both were doable for most ages and abilities. You can rent dune buggies or sandboards and go off on your own, but I recommend a buggy tour with a guide and taking lessons from the pros at Sand Master Park for sandboarding.

Relaxing in Florence with Cocktails and Fine Seafood

After all that excitement on the Florence, Oregon dunes, it was time to kick back and enjoy another side of Florence—the food scene. We headed for Florence's historic Old Town, a little neighborhood of boutiques, souvenir shops and restaurants on the banks of the Siuslaw River. Florence was established by those drawn to the area for bountiful fishing and timber resources. There is a pioneer museum in a 1905 schoolhouse where you can explore this history.

Florence, Oregon Dunes

Bridgewater Restaurant in Old Town Florence. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

It was in the restored two-story William Kyle and Sons building in Old Town that we discovered a place to relax… Bridgewater Ocean Fresh Fish House and Zebra Bar. It’s a place where you can sip elegant cocktails or have a local microbrew accompanied by local seafood, steaks and pasta. It’s a classy place with a surprising zebra stripe décor. But don’t worry, on the Oregon Coast, you can dress casually.

Florence, Oregon Dunes

Cocktails and wine were in order after a day outside on the Florence, Oregon Dunes. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

The service was excellent. We started out with the bar­be­cued oys­ters served on the half shell. They were fresh and locally sourced. The garlic butter and citrus BBQ sauce added a bit of spice. And the coconut prawns with mandarin jalapeño dipping sauce were a hit. I enjoyed a glass of Oregon wine with the appetizers. Others explored the offerings of the Zebra Bar.

Florence, Oregon Dunes

Oysters on the half shell. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

It was hard to decide on an entrée, but I was in the mood for good seafood and selected the Hazelnut Encrusted Halibut (they grow the hazelnuts in the area).

Florence, Oregon Dunes

Fresh halibut and seasonal vegetables. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

The dish consisted of wild-caught halibut filet browned and baked then served over organic garlic smashed Yukon gold potatoes, topped with honey orange bourbon sauce. It was as good as it sounds. Others in our group opted for pasta dishes. They looked great as well.

Florence, Oregon Dunes

Smoked salmon with pesto pasta. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

And, of course, we couldn't turn down a taste of Marionberry cobbler, a local specialty.

Marionberry Cobbler - Florence, Oregon Dunes

Desert with six spoons, please. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

After a relaxing evening we retreated to our ocean view hotel, the Driftwood Shores. Some went down to the beach to enjoy a bonfire. After a day on the dunes and an excellent meal, I drifted off to sleep lulled by the sound of the waves. It had been a great day and I looked forward to a walk on the beach in the morning.

Driftwood Shores Hotel - Florence, Oregon Dunes

Sleeping by the ocean. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

When You Go to the Florence, Oregon Dunes

The drive on Hwy 126 from Eugene, Oregon to Florence is winding and scenic. Weather is to be considered when visiting the coast. It is unpredictable. We visited in late April and were pelted by driving rain showers one moment followed by a rainbow and warm sun the next. Dress in layers and wear day hikers or boots with tread for your sandy adventures on the Florence, Oregon dunes.

RoamRight travel insurance
Pioneer Museum - Florence, Oregon Dunes

Florence wasn't always so sedate. Get a sense of their rugged pioneer history at the museum. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

You’ll find more information on the area on the Eugene Cascades and Coast website. Be sure to check out more great things to see and do in Oregon from our Wander writers.

An outdoor adventure awaits on the Florence, Oregon dunes, tucked between the Douglas fir forests along the Siuslaw River and the wild ocean beaches. #PNW #PacificNorthwest #Oregon #adventure #sanddunes

Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with tour, accommodations, and meals for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

Written by Elizabeth Rose

Elizabeth Rose is back again in the Phoenix area after more than a decade living in New Mexico and Washington state. She travels throughout the West and beyond writing about destinations, accommodations, festivals, and restaurants, especially farm to table cuisine. As an expert in cultural tourism, her writing reflects that passion. She has won awards for her photography and accompanies her articles with her own images. She also provides photos for magazine covers, web sites and magazine articles (both print and online).

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  1. Wendy Blumenstein

    I, too, am not a thrill seeker, so I can relate to your being nervous about this surfing the sand dunes. It was an option we had in our recent trip to Australia, and I did not give any consideration. I love adventure too and your dune buggy adventure sounds like great fun! I will tuck this info away for when we travel cross-country. Thanks for the description!

    • Elizabeth Rose

      Anyone would love the guided dune buggy experience. It’s amazingly smooth. They do have a slower option which is good for touring and taking photos!

  2. Donna Janke

    Those sand dunes are impressive. I can imagine having sand in my ears and teeth after the dune buggy ride, but it sounds like fun. I’ve never heard of sandboarding – don’t think that is for me. But I could certainly go for that meal you had. Yum!

  3. Carole Terwilliger Meyers

    You sure had some fun in the sand! I’ve been to Florence many times but never took out a buggy or sand surfed. Enjoyed doing it vicariously with you.

  4. Irene S. Levine

    The Oregon Dunes look amazing! Never knew about them until I read your exciting post!

    • Elizabeth Rose

      Thanks. It was a fun article to write.

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