Sunday, April 19, 2015

Dune de Pilat, France: Forest, Ocean, Sand

Sign of the region with some rare graffiti.
Leaving the uncomplicated life on the canal, it took only 12 kilometers to reach the security of another off-road cycle path.  This one was the former alignment of a railway, the rails removed and the path paved and now dedicated for bikes and pedestrians.  Railway grades don’t pull any surprises when it comes to ups and downs, and we were crossing the northern Parc naturel régional des Landes de Gascogne, the largest continuous pine forest in Europe.  The trees are tall and spindly and dense because they are not all that old.  This area was largely unpopulated and mostly marsh until the area was drained and pine forests planted for lumber and resin production in the nineteenth century.

Multiple generations of pine plantations on the rail trail we followed through the Landes.

A train depot that is now a residence on the rail trail.

The Dne du Pilat looming over our campground.
This rail trail took us 100 km to the Atlantic Ocean.  We were in search of sand, a single dune in particular, one named the Dune du Pilat.  It was a warm and sunny Sunday, and the citizens of all of Europe and some of the rest of the world, it seemed, were out for a drive.  But we were buffered from them on our little umbilical cord of a bike trail.

Stairway to heaven
Cycling muscles are the same as stair climbing muscles, we have found.
Now I know something about dunes.  Sand from some of the best have squeezed between my toes -- Kelso, Eureka, Algodones, Pismo Beach, Death Valley.  We approached the parking lot to access the dune and looked up to the horizon.  There was the bright exposure of sand peeking above the trees, and on the crest were sticks, lots of them.  Looking closer we could see they were silhouettes of people, a couple hundred of them, and more climbing up what looked to be a staircase on the dune.  What have we gotten ourselves into?  Did we make this diversion just to be lured into a tourist trap?
John had previously researched camping options, and found a campground in the vicinity.  Their website showed the campground right next to a mountain of sand.  So we decided to head there directly...we could climb the on the dune, maybe not at the highest point, but at least there would be less humanity.

When we arrived the setting was just as it was on the web -- lovely green sites, trees, and a mountain of sand.  And stairs.  We quickly set up our tent and headed for the dune.  This was one steep dune, 300 feet tall. The stairs were removable and made of interlocking sections that could be lifted and adjusted as sand accumulated on top.  Boy, were were glad they were there.  It made scaling the dune after cycling 80+ kilometers much easier.
Our view of the masses of people down the dune crest.

Barrier islands with boats passing through the channel.
The view from the top was breathtaking.  The Atlantic was pure blue in contrast to the white of the barrier islands.  In the other direction was the forest we crossed, dense and green and appearing impenetrable.  Boats were streaking white on the water and we could see oyster farms in the tidal bays of the barrier islands.  People were collected on the beach on the Atlantic (and less steep) side of the dune.  We walked a bit on the dune crest and saw that crowd of people, a mile or so away.  We were looking down on them from the highest point, accessible from our chosen campground.  It was such a wonderful surprise, such a beautiful spot, we decided to stay for two nights.
My favorite image from our morning ascent of the windswept dune.

John leaving his mark on the sand.

Looking south from the top of the dune.
This was a family resort campground, with a pool and activities for the kids.  The day we arrived there were lots of families that had made the pilgrimage, just like us, to the dune.  The kids were rolling like logs, unaware of the sand entering every orifice.  They were running up and down, multiple times, just like I used to do when my family visited those other great dunes of California.  The parents were standing or sitting, waiting patiently for the energy to dissipate.  Later that night the campground had special activities for the kids -- face painting and the French version of Simon Says led by a big yellow mouse.  Another way to dissipate energy, I suppose.   But years from now I think they will remember playing on that dune more than the games that night. 

The next morning the weekenders were gone. Since we could not get good cell data reception in camp, we scaled the dune after breakfast the next morning to do a bit of research for our route once we left the dune.  We were alone at the top and the  breeze that picked up overnight had blown clean the remnants of the weekend crowds.  We hunkered down out of the wind and just took it all in.  It was magical, just like the dunes of my youth.

Our sweet tent in a beautiful place..

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Monica Kaseman said...

I remember all those dunes too!

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