Richard Wiens, The Triplicate

Playland of dunes and cliffs

Visitors may feel like they're getting away with something when they traipse across the dunes and rocky outcroppings of Indian Sands.

Once they leave Oregon's Coast Trail after a quarter-mile descent from a parking lot off U.S. Highway 101, there's little semblance of established walkways. Instead, you're free to choose your own routes through this wonderland of sandscapes, grass and rocks perched high above several ocean coves 12 miles north of Brookings.

The natural inclination is to step lightly. When Laura and I first visited on a misty day last July, wildflowers graced the grasslands. We returned on a sunnier day earlier this month and chose entirely different areas to explore. Both times we had the sense of stepping onto a moonscape when we cleared the forest descent and entered the sandy expanse. Grasslands aren't the only fragile part of the terrain andndash; if we didn't take care, the rock itself crumbled beneath our feet in spots.

A sign at the entrance warns of the dangers: "High steep cliffs above deep water with strong currents; cliff edges may collapse due to soil type or undercutting; high velocity wind gusts can blow you off rocks and cliffs."

Nowhere, however, is there a sign warning visitors to take care to preserve what almost seems the stuff of an off-limits wildland preserve. I guess that's up to us.

The sense of being let loose in a special place is even greater if you know the history of Indian Sands, which holds cultural as well as natural treasures. In 2002, Oregon State University researchers announced they had found traces of a human presence here dating to more than 10,000 years ago. The discovery, which dates to the end of the last Ice Age, lends weight to the theory that early inhabitants of what is now the United States might have arrived by sea, rather than by land as previously thought.

The early arrivals weren't looking for ocean views but rather inland quarry materials, according to the researchers who determined that the Indian Sands site was about a mile or so inland 10,000 years ago. The coastline didn't establish its modern location until about 6,000 years ago.

Excavators also found tools made of local materials and charcoal during the research, which was done in collaboration with the Confederated Tribes of Siletz and the Coquille Indian Tribe.

Step lightly.

And there were so many directions to step once we arrived at a slanted sandstone monolith near the end of the forest trail. Briefly slogging north, we gazed across a sandy vista all the way to a distant shore and the 345-foot-tall Thomas Creek Bridge on the highway. Just how far we could have trudged on that dune remains a mystery, because we've been lured toward closer destinations on our two visits.

To the south, after a sandy stretch, is a precipice where visitors can gaze down on a rocky seascape featuring an arched tunnel. This is the place we discovered in the mist last July.

On our January trip, however, we headed west across a sloping dune still striped with rivulets from recent rains. As the slope steepened, every step we took resulted in a 3-foot slide.

I'm used to sand dunes at sea level. Here, they blanket high outcroppings where coastal forests typically give way only to the stony edges of cliff. Eventually we scrambled up sharp rocks affording views at least three coves. The sea was far below, but the spray of crashing waves fell just short of reaching us.

Every rock seemed to afford a perch worthy of a daylong stay. But that's the wonder of Indian Sands andndash; visitors are pulled in so many rewarding directions.

Eventually we sand-climbed back to the forest trail and its quarter-mile of switchbacks to the parking lot.

At the end of a hike I typically think of what new destination we'll head for the next time around.

Leaving Indian Sands, I could only think of when we'd return here.

Trail Notes

THE HIKE: From the parking lot trailhead, it's not more than a quarter-mile to Indian Sands. At that point the trail ends and you choose your own routes.

HIGHLIGHTS: Unique expanse of high-altitude sand dunes and rocky outcroppings affording great views of ocean coves.

SWEAT LEVEL: It's a strenuous-but-short ascent back up through the woods when you're done exploring.

GETTING THERE: Watch for the Indian Sands sign leading to a parking lot off of U.S. Highway 101 about 12 miles north of Brookings. Follow Coast Trail into the woods, then veer right.