A tap of the brake brings my Yamaha ATV to a stop atop a huge, pristine dune. The funny thing about sand is it always seems clean. The same never-ending breeze that has blown for 20,000 years and sculpted these dunes in the first place quickly now works to erase my tracks one grain at a time as if I’ve spoiled its great, undulating canvas. To the left is the deep green of a Pacific Northwest rainforest and at the foot of nature’s giants an impossibly blue lake shimmers under an impossibly blue sky. To my right is the Pacific Ocean, its waves crashing into a white, boiling froth just off the beach and as far as I can see the dunes go on ahead of me. I quickly take off my helmet to breath in the Ocean scented air, to feel the sand peck at my face, and to sear the image, only before seen in dreams, into my memory. Does it get any better than this?
The Oregon Trail
Few areas of the planet offer the natural, wild beauty of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. US Highway 101 runs the length of the state and we’ve driven every foot of it, some along the beach, some through the giant pine forests, but always never far from the Pacific. Giant dunes also flow down through the trees and spill out onto the road in places calling to off-road lovers to come explore. The riding is excellent wherever you go and Coos Bay is the most famous dune riding area of the state, but it is the Winchester Dunes near Reedsport that offer the most challenge with some of the tallest dunes on the entire West Coast.
Giant sand hills have always provided riders a challenge, and at Winchester Bay they’ve got plenty of steep hills, deep bowls, and constantly shifting dunes for even the most experienced dunatic, but we were also happy to see plenty of families out as well. It was common to find new riders of all levels and of all ages. Junior pilots were motoring their mini-quads around the biggest sand box they had ever seen, Mom and Dad were following closely on their 400EX and Raptor 700, and the Grandparents were tooling around in a Side x Side, reminiscing about younger days when Gramps had run without helmet, fear, or sense of time up and down the beach on his BSA just like Steve McQueen.
While Gramps and his riding buddies had their hands full even keeping their machines running, much less doing any serious hill climbing, today riders challenge themselves in a sort of vertical drag race up the steepest hills at Winchester. Like every dune area in the country, there is one named Banshee Hill, but this one has a twist. As expected the hill is steep and tall, but it also includes a harrowing climb through the trees. After watching a couple other riders make the climb, I spun my Yamaha in the opposite direction, made a wide sweeping turn as I clicked up through the gears to gain speed, and hammered the bottom of the hill with the YFZ engine pulling strong. It was going to be one of those “make it or break it” climbs and I was determined to see the top. Within seconds I was approaching the trees and I picked a line with the least turns and kept the throttle wicked open. A downshift or two kept the engine from bogging as I cleared the trees and a couple seconds later I was safely at the top! There’s no rush like reaching the top of a big dune for the first time!
The Winchester dunes offer much more than one large hill, however, and another unique feature is called the “Five Fingers”. The five fingers are really 5 huge dunes all capped with trees and trails that wind their way up, down, and around each. As much as we like climbing huge sand hills and railing around bowls, it was a blast to ride the tight trails between each hill. At the top of the last finger, you can see a beautiful lake far down below, but in any direction the views are awesome. The Winchester dunes offer natural beauty few other places can match.
The dune system Winchester is a part of actually runs for over 40 miles down the coast although not all of it is legal to ride on. At every ride area, the constantly blowing winds that have crossed an ocean continually reshape the sand, reform the peaks, and create hundreds of awesome natural jumps you can’t help but get some air over. The smooth sand can be a little tricky at times, however, especially when the sun is high overhead in the afternoon. With no wheel tracks on the sand, there are no shadows to focus on and it’s very easy to race across what you thought to be a constant surface only to find a drop off or unexpected lip. For afternoon riding, we recommend tinted goggles which help you pick out any obstacles before you’re flying over them. You won’t need paddles at Winchester either. Unlike Glamis and dune systems in the desert, coastal dunes like Winchester or the dunes off Lake Michigan (Silver Lake) pick up just enough moisture from the air to keep from turning into dust and the moisture helps provide traction.
In an odd twist of fate, ATVs and Side x Sides are also helping to preserve the dunes at Winchester as well. Unfortunately, early in the last century somebody had the brilliant idea to plant a tough ground cover along the shore, hoping to turn the lower sand into farmland. We’re not sure how they thought that would work, but the non-native plant now runs rampant and biologists estimate that if left unchecked, within 70 years the plant would completely take over every bit of the dunes. Despite every attempt to spray, burn, uproot or remove it, the only thing that keeps it in check is riding over it. It’s nice to know we can help out.
Reedsport: Stay and Play
Riding also plays a huge part in the local economy as well and they are very ATV friendly in Oregon. Just outside the entrance to the dunes, there are several places to camp, pick up any supplies or snacks you might need, or find parts for your machine. Despite being a relatively small town, it seems every 3rd store in Reedsport caters to dune riders. All up and down the coast throughout the dune region, there are dozens of places to stay, camp, shop, get parts, or even rent an ATV or Side x Side if needed. It’s an off-roading paradise and it’s open 24-7, every day of the year.
Back on Top
Sitting atop the huge Winchester dunes I am reminded why I love riding in the first place. It’s a challenge, a chance to explore, and a way to experience nature like few ever will. Even though there is plenty of riding left today, I already can’t wait to come back.