We decided to spend part of the July 4th holiday doing something out of our regular routine. What better way to celebrate independence than ripping across the dunes, camping out with friends and family and scarfing down a deep-fried PBJ sandwich – all of which is common fare at the Oregon Coast during the 2011 Sandfest.
Sandfest is one of two major festivals on the Oregon Dunes each summer. This year it settled on the Fourth of July weekend and activities spread across five days from the end of June right up to the holiday. The Oregon Coast hosts miles of open riding, but this annual get-together is right next to the cities of Coos Bay and North Bend in what is known as the South Dunes, or Spinreel to Horsfall, within the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. This is one of our favorite ATV and side-by-side testing areas thanks to its wonderful scenery. Steel trusses of the McCullough Memorial Bridge pose in the backdrop and provide a view unlike any other. The 5300-foot icon can be seen in photos from articles such as the 2011 Polaris RZR 900 XP First Ride. The RZR was our weapon of choice as we headed for the moist sand for Friday and Saturday of the event.
One of the best things about the Oregon Dunes National Recreation area is that it allows plenty of camping opportunities. Sandfest is held at the Boxcar campground specifically to allow for more accessibility from camp sites. Driving in on Jordan Cove Road with water on both sides is always a welcome site and we were happy to find there’s no parking fees or gate fees for Sandfest itself. Visitors only need cover the standard day use fee ($5) for the dunes and associated camping fees for those who decided to stay on site. Plenty of enthusiasts pull their trailers right onto the sand, but they had to watch for deep pools thanks to a long, wet spring season. Plenty of hotels in North Bend and Coos Bay can accommodate non-campers and are only a few miles away along with restaurants and nightlife. We stayed at the Mill Casino and Hotel because it offers excellent parking for vehicles with trailers.
One of the first things to be seen is a helicopter sitting at the entrance to Boxcar. At first glance it might be for emergency flights, but the aircraft was too small and unmarked. A sign advertised rides for $35 from Konect Aviation. We never opted in, but there were several times out on the RZR that an aerial view would have been a nice change.
Parking was pretty full in the areas closest to Boxcar but as we continued down toward the beach there proved to be plenty of room. We unloaded at the Bull Run Staging Area and immediately popped out onto the beach to take in the sight and smell of the Pacific Ocean. Beach access is one of our favorite features of the South Dunes. There’s plenty of water inland as well and the dunes are filled with many lakes. With high water levels this year, getting over to Boxcar proved difficult. There are some areas of sand that are closed so we did a big loop to the northern end of the OHV area and then back to come into Sandfest headquarters.
A small vendor area served as the main hub for the festivities and included several food options, a kid’s track and a music stage. The Sand Bar was the only area with a place to sit so we grabbed a couple artery-clogging meals and stopped in for a cold drink. The Sand Bar also hosted fight night on Saturday with UFC 132 on a pair of flat-screen TVs, one of which was up for raffle. A bonfire lit up every night next to the mini track and music played constantly throughout the weekend. Instead of making the big loop again we pointed the RZR onto the paved access road and buzzed back to Bull Run. OHVs aren’t allowed on the road so we tried to avoid doing that anymore. There was a noticeable police presence, keeping an eye out for trouble and enforcing the alcohol policy which is a zero-tolerance anywhere on the sand.
Multiple 3-wheeler races were part of the fun as well as activities for the kids. Sand drags are always a main attraction.
Sand drags are one of the more popular events and this year the organizers set up lights for a nighttime showdown. There are plenty of tricked out ATVs and even the occasional drag Jeep. Riders line up grudge-match style and are timed through 300 feet with a 400-foot finish line. A light tree gives the start an official setting but results aren’t tallied and there are no dial-ins or qualifications. It’s a good way to practice and test race setup before Dune Fest which hosts official drag racing.
The sand car challenge was on Saturday and used a cool figure-eight track layout with head-to-head racing.
Saturday we enjoyed breakfast in town before heading back out. This time we posted up at Old Bark Road staging area which was much closer to the vendors and we were able to quickly access it by sand. The Northwest Sand Challenge was a big spectator draw that day as sand cars squared off in different classes based on engine size. The course was laid out in a figure-eight so fans could see each car as it wound back and forth. Everything from nondescript one-seaters to decked out, high-dollar four-seaters took turns tearing up the turns and jumps which quickly deteriorated under the constant abuse. After the racing, promoters brought out the bulldozer and built a jump and several of the cars as well as some random jeeps took part in an unofficial jump-off. There was also an ATV freestyle demo with a metal ramp set up right in the middle of the course.
With miles of open sand, we spent our time split between exploring the dunes and beach and watching the activities. With so many people on the dunes, we were definitely happy to have the protective cage of the Polaris. Close to the activities and around camp spots there was quite a bit of free-for-all action and it requires a slow pace and close eye. Once we were a few miles from Boxcar the riding was less hectic and we could use more of the RZR’s awesome
Night riding is allowed on the dunes and a freestyle demo was set up with the iconic bridge as a backdrop.
engine, but it’s not a good idea to ride full-tilt on such a busy weekend. We only had one close call on a worm trail, but there are tons of riders out there without helmets and we wanted no part of that.
Popping in and out of Boxcar all day let us stay in touch with the happenings and grab a bite to eat. The weather was perfect – cool enough to warrant a jacket while riding but the sun was bright. Poker runs, side-by-side racing, 3-wheeler Regatta and a show-n-shine are just a few of the activities spread out over the course of the weekend for families to enjoy (some require sign-ups and a moderate fee). The Zen Pro Girls Race Team put on an exhibition race Sunday that saw pairs of riders compete in a relay, switching every lap. There’s even a permanent sand boarding layout for some non-motorized fun.
Sandfest is the smaller of the two summer dune festivals but it offers some attractive features such as free entry and an emphasis on riding. For those just looking to get out and enjoy the sand it’s not quite as busy, though it definitely requires more caution than a regular weekend. We enjoyed that it doesn’t have a commercialized feel. The atmosphere is lively and family friendly with plenty going on to keep everyone busy. Camping is definitely the way to go at this event so next time we’ll make the trip with our own trailer and stay even longer.