Tuesday, July 28, 2020

John Dellenback Dunes Trail

Sunrise on the Oregon Dunes
3 miles round trip, 300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate, some navigation skills required
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

The Oregon Coast is best known for its rocky headlands and sea stacks topped with the Northwest's signature coniferous forests, but one of the most fascinating landscapes along that coast is actually a series of massive sand dunes, the tallest coastal sand dunes in North America. The Oregon Dunes stretch between Coos Bay and Florence midway down the Oregon Coast, with vast expanses of sand many miles long and more than two miles wide holding dunes that rise well over 200 feet in height. Many stretches of the dunes, which are preserved in Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, are heavily used by off road vehicle enthusiasts and thus may be suboptimal for hiking. The John Dellenback Dunes Trail accesses a wild part of the Umpqua Dunes that has been left untouched for hikers, making this the premier hike of the Oregon Dunes. The unique dune landscape makes this a perfect place for exploration: while there is a semi-defined route, many hikers come here to simply wander the dunes. The long drive to population centers in Portland and the Willamette Valley means that this trail usually isn't too crowded.

The John Dellenback Dunes Trail starts from a trailhead off US 101, leads to the dunes themselves, and then leads across the dunefield to what's known as the deflation zone, a vegetated area separating the main dunefield from the ocean. Here, there is a formal trail again that crosses the deflation zone and leads to the beach: however, this trail is flooded at times and the main attractions here are the sand dunes rather than the beach, so I'm describing a hike that makes a loop through some of the most spectacular stretches of the dunes.

I hiked the John Dellenback Dunes Trail during a road trip from California to Seattle. The trailhead is a short drive north of Coos Bay, Oregon: from Coos Bay, take US 101 north to Lakeside and turn left when you see the sign for the John Dellenback Dunes Trailhead. I camped at the nearby Eel Creek Campground and accessed the trail from there instead, but day use hikers will have to use the John Dellenback Trailhead.

From the Dellenback Trailhead, head out on the Dellenback Trail and then make a right when the trail forks. This trail passes through the Eel Creek Campground, then ascends slightly as it passes through forest at the edge of the dunes. The trail soon passes another junction with a trail that leads to the northern part of the Eel Creek Campground, then arrives at the dunes about a half mile from the trailhead. Here, the formal trail disappears as the route leads into a vast, sandy wilderness. Hikers who are uninterested in exploring the dunes themselves can complete a loop to return to the trailhead, but by far the more interesting option is to go out and explore the dunes. Hikers wishing to take an official route should follow the directions at trail signs for the beach and then follow a series of wooden posts that lead across the sand dunes; however, this is a great place for some free exploration. I made an initial trip up here to see the sunset the evening of my arrival before returning again for a more extended hike through the dunes the next morning for sunrise.

Sunset on the Oregon Dunes
On my sunrise hike, I made a loop through the dunes along the crest of a series of dunes just south of the official route; I then followed the official route back. While the trail continues all the way out to the deflation zone and a beach, I turned around after hiking through the tallest of the dunes to a tree island in the heart of the dunes.

After emerging onto the sand from the John Dellenback Trail, I headed south and picked up the crest of the nearest sand dunes. The dunes were about 200 feet in elevation but took a bit of effort to get up as I slid a half step back for every step that I climbed up the dunes. Before long, I had arrived at the peak of the first dune about 20 minutes before sunrise.

Dawn lighting on the Dunes
Around me was a vast expanse of sand. While the forests of the Oregon Coast Mountains lay just inland, sand stretched to the horizon in both the north and south and to the west a wide stretch of sand was bound by the forest of the deflation zone and the Pacific Ocean.

I continued hiking along the crest of the sand dunes, heading west. This high vantage point afforded me constant views across the dunefield to both the north and the south and was an excellent spot to watch the sun rise from behind the Coast Mountains.

Sunrise over the Oregon Dunes
As the sun rose, I approached a tree island in the heart of the dunefield. This pocket of Northwest vegetation grew on a stabilized portion of the dunes; the favorable climate for plant growth makes the Oregon Dunes far greener than desert sand dunes in the Southwest.

Oregon Dunes and a tree island
The John Dellenback Dunes Trail visits the Umpqua Dunes, which are the widest expanse in the 40-mile coastal stretch of the Oregon Dunes. The sand of the dunes originates in sediments eroded from the Oregon Coast Mountains by the Coos, Umpqua, and Siuslaw Rivers; steady winds on the central Oregon Coast then pile these sands into the great dunes that you see here today. The dunes are responsible for the many lakes found a few miles from the coast here: moving sand dams existing creeks to form new lakes.

As I hiked through the dunes, I found the contrast between coniferous forests, grassland, and open sand to be particularly striking in the morning hours as fog enveloped the forest further inland.

Dawn on the dunefield
Frank Herbert derived initial inspiration to write his science fiction classic Dune after traveling to the Oregon Dunes for a magazine assignment as a journalist. Herbert's Oregon Dunes-influenced works in turn inspired the look of extraplanetary worlds such as Tatooine in the popular culture staple Star Wars. After traveling through the lush Northwest, the stark landscape of the dunes is almost an otherworldly shock. 

The introduction of European beachgrass in the early 20th century to stabilize the dunes is having its intended effect and is contributing to the shrinking size of the dunefield as well: beachgrass is leading to stabilization of a deflation zone between the dunes and the ocean that grows as the dunefield diminishes.

Sand, grass, and forest: the Oregon Dunes
I ended my westward progress along the dune crest once I approached the large tree island in the dunefield. I was already approaching the other side of the dunes: the forest of the deflation zone and the Pacific Ocean behind it were visible from my perch atop a dune. After enjoying the views here, I descended to one of the trail markers for the John Dellenback Trail in the sand valley below and began to follow those wooden markers back towards the trailhead.

Dunes, forest, and ocean
While the crest of the dunes here were largely clear of vegetation, the troughs between the dunes were marked by pockets of bunchgrass and other plants as well as occasional trees.

Returning along a valley in the dunes
After returning to the eastern edge of the dunefield, I followed the John Dellenback Trail back to where I started.

This excellent hike is one of the best ways to explore the unique Oregon Dunes. Come at sunrise and sunset for some unbelievable lighting; if you're traveling the Oregon Coast, I highly recommend stopping for this hike.


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