Late fall along the Oregon coast is freezing cold, wet, windy, rainy and generally unpleasant. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to be. Instead, a group of friends and I were greeted by bluebird skies and t-shirt temperatures in the afternoons when we arrived at the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. It was the second consecutive Thanksgiving weekend we set out to explore just a fraction of the 30,000 acres of rolling sand that stretches nearly 40 miles from Florence to Coos Bay.
While the dune buggies, sandrails and other off-highway vehicles draw most of the visitor traffic to this portion of the state, fat bikes are popping up as a legitimate draw, especially in the off season. A few bike shops along the coast rent bikes and we saw a handful on the backs of cars headed up and down the coast. Word is getting out.
The condition of the sand can vary with wind, precipitation and season, but we had perhaps the best traction yet. (Well, perhaps not when airborne.) The new Maxxis Minion FBF and FBR 4.8 tires on my Salsa Mukluk certainly helped in the floatation department too. We also ventured out onto the beach where we found some Japanese tsunami debris, the half-eaten remains of a seal and a lot of driftwood to practice riding skinnies. This part of the coast doesn’t get many visitors so it has a much more wild feel than the touristy spots.
We’re already planning our next adventure so stay duned!
If you go
How to get there: The most popular starting point is near Lakeside, Oregon, about 3.5 hours from Portland or 2 hours from Eugene. See a map of the area.
Where to stay: We rented yurts at Tugman State Park. They sleep three to five people, have electricity and heaters and some are pet-friendly.
Where to ride: I recommend starting on the John Dellenbeck Dunes Trail, departing from the Eel Creek Campground, which is basically across the street from Tugman State Park.
Click on the magnifying glass to see full-size photos.
From Issue #37
A century ago, before the highway was built, there weren’t many options for traveling between the small port towns along the Oregon Coast. Stagecoaches and automobiles couldn’t navigate the treacherous wagon roads and footpaths or cross the countless inlets and river mouths that flow to the sea. The solution was to drive on the beach, and sometimes even into the water. The only way to access the community of Arch Cape was across a roadbed blasted into rock that was only exposed at low tide.
Meanwhile, property along the coast was being sold off to speculators and developers who had no intention of sharing their new private beaches. But in 1913 Governor Oswald West used some deft political maneuvering to designate the entire coast a state highway, which brought it under government control and preserved public access.
Now a century later, a new form of vehicle is reshaping the transportation landscape of the coast yet again. Over the dunes and through the sand, a new tourism boom is rolling in on four-inch tires.
Bringing more cyclists to the coast has long been a goal of Travel Oregon, the state’s official tourism commission, said Harry Dalgaard, a destination development specialist. There are few mountain bike trails and road riders must contend with traffic on the busy highway. But with hundreds of miles of beach available, fat bikes have plenty of room to roam.
“It was a way for us to look at our assets and what we had and monopolize new terrain that’s plentiful but wasn’t necessarily accessible beforehand,” Dalgaard said.
When the state invited tour guide operators on a weeklong scouting mission earlier this year, the social media exposure set off a tidal wave of interest, said Melanie Fisher of Cog Wild.
“With us posting everything, we had people begging to sign up,” she said. “We have four people, credit card in hand and ready, and we’ve had multiple other people contacting us as well.”
Cog Wild, the largest mountain bike guiding service in Oregon, is planning multi-day expeditions in 2016, but visitors today can rent a bike and get a taste of the coast right away. Daniella Crowder, the owner of Bike Newport, said she has to keep adding bikes to her rental fleet to keep up with demand.
“They’ve gone bananas. Everyone’s just crazy for fat bikes,” she said. She estimated that as many as a thousand individual rentals might be made by the end of the season. Groups and families of all ages are stopping in and heading out for a few hours of fun. It’s not just bike shops that benefit from the new visitors either. Fat bike riders are a hungry and thirsty lot, and Fisher said her tours always spend money in the communities they visit.
“We’re making sure all the meals are local in the area, it costs a little bit more for the tour, but I think it’s important,” she said.
While fat bikes usually leave little more than tire tracks in the sand, riders must still be conscious of their environmental impact. From March 15 to September 15, several sections of beach are closed to protect the nesting habitat of the Western Snowy Plover.
“This is a new activity on new terrain. I think it’s really up to us to set a good example and be good stewards of the land,” Dalgaard said. “With fat bike tires you can roll over everything, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily should.”
The state is working with tour guide operators and bike shops to educate riders on the do’s and don’ts. The guide companies must be certified and permitted by the state.
“What makes sense for us is to get with the retailers and rental companies and set expectations,” Dalgaard said. “What is good stewardship on a fat bike? What shouldn’t you do on the coastline?”
While some areas of the coast are protected, many are open to active recreation, with dune buggies and even regular cars driving on the beach in places. Putting together an unsupported tour may be possible if you don’t mind riding on the highway. There are few sections of coast with beaches longer than 10 or 15 miles before they are interrupted by mountains, rivers or other dead ends. Hiring a guide service that can shuttle you from end to end or simply exploring a smaller area on a day trip are your best bets.
From the wide, flat sands of Fort Stevens State Park, to the nooks and crannies of sea caves in Bandon, to the massive rolling hills of the Oregon Dunes, there are countless ways to explore the Oregon Coast on a fat bike.
“That’s our hope, to bring more people to the coast and have a rad, fun time.”
If you go
Earlier this year I joined Travel Oregon to explore the best spots for fat biking. We learned a lot (always ride with a tailwind!) And scouted some sections that we weren’t so sure about. These are some of the highlights:
Just Dune It
The Oregon Dunes extend 40 miles along the coast and tower 500 feet high in places, making them excellent terrain for fat bike riding. We took a few turns bombing down one of the largest hills, then found a natural bowl that we could roll into and shoot out the other side. It’s such a surreal landscape that a visit by science fiction author Frank Herbert in the 1950s inspired him to write the classic science fiction novel “Dune.”
There are nearly 200 breweries in Oregon and some of the best are located on the coast. Rogue in Newport is the biggest, with a selection of beers and spirits to suit anyone’s palate, including the Voodoo Donut Chocolate, Peanut Butter and Banana Ale. Pelican Pub and Brewery in Pacific City is another excellent stop to refresh after you’ve climbed up and over the massive dune at nearby Cape Kiwanda (highly recommended).
If you make it to Bandon you owe it to yourself to stop in the Face Rock Creamery for some of the best cheese anywhere. Made on-site from milk from its own nearby farm, the cheddar, Monterey Jack and cheese curds are an awesome treat while you’re exploring the rocks and sea caves on the nearby beach.
“It’s like a big tent”
Camping along the coast is great all year as the temperatures remain mostly moderate. One of the best ways to stay is in one of the yurts available in 15 of the state parks along the coast. They sleep four comfortably and have electricity and a built-in heater. You can reserve one ahead of time too at oregonstateparks.org.
On the central Oregon coast, about three hours south of Portland, you’ll find more than 30,000 acres of windswept sand towering in some spots to more than 500 feet above sea level. Author Frank Herbert found it in the 1950s and the experience inspired his seminal work of science fiction, Dune.
Long the bastion of high-octane motorsports, the areas off-limits to vehicles are largely untraveled, as most hikers through the area tend to stick to the marked course from the entrance to the beach. A fat bike is the perfect vehicle to explore the unending ebb and flow of the dunes’ natural evolution.
I recently joined a group from Portland for a weekend of exploring. Arriving late on Friday we first ventured out well after dark, and seeing the looming shapes and valleys lit only by natural light was intimidating. Like Herbert’s fictional planet of Arrakis, the experience was otherworldly.
As Saturday arrived and we got to see the expanse for the first time, the feeling was replaced with childlike glee as we sped down the valleys and carved sweeping turns into the hillsides. The hard rain the day before left the sand in optimal condition as the ultra-low air pressure in our tires barely left a track. We quickly learned the lighter shades of khaki were firmer, and better suited to climbing, while the areas surrounding vegetation were softer with less wind exposure to shape them.
As we made our way to the ocean we greeted by a double rainbow (what does it mean?!) and some debris washed up from the 2011 tsunami in Japan. While we sessioned the natural jump lines from the dunes down to the beach, a rogue wave led to a mishap that reminded us that nature was still in charge here, and not even huge tires can conquer all.
We also made some friends in nearby Lakeside, where the patrons of the Up the Creek Tavern are starting to get used to those funny looking bikes piled up out front. But please, no arm wresting.
Watch for more as we’re already planning another trip in search of melange—or at least a chance to dune it again.