With our toes going numb and the waves biting at our ankles, we watch a white gull unceremoniously rip apart its breakfast. The beach is littered with the shells of recently discarded crab and the shrill cry of seagulls echo in our ears as the wind whips at our backs. In our hands rest the delicate fruits of our morning adventure, 15 beautiful sand dollars.
We’re searching for sand dollars on Clatsop Beach in Fort Stevens. The Fort is located in the northern-most part of Oregon, a few minutes drive from Astoria. It’s home to the Wreck of the Peter Iredale and can become quite busy in the summer.
Strangers reveal the best local secrets
The day before our early morning adventure we meet a dad and his young son who share the secret of finding sand dollars on Clatsop Beach.
The Wreck of the Peter Iredale, a famous shipwreck on the beach, stands proudly in the background as I watch the small family climb the sandy hill, arms bursting with gorgeous sand dollars. I’ve never found a full sand dollar before so I overcome my fear of talking to strangers and approach them. Only a mile up the beach, the smiling dad tells us, there is a jackpot of sand dollars just sitting there for the taking. He stresses going at low tide because the waves wash them away at high. His son is beaming beside him, ecstatic from their adventure.
After thanking them we return to brushing wet sand off our feet and watch the setting sun fade slowly behind the overcast clouds. We check the tide schedule for Clatsop Beach before heading in for the night.
Finding sand dollars in the early morning
The salty ocean air and the vast expanse of blue-gray sky greet us as we navigate the potholes of the long road leading to the parking lot. With an overcast sky and the heat of the day still too shy to appear, we layer on a jacket and abandon our shoes in the car. The feel of the soft, cool sand squishing between our toes in the early morning is refreshing.
The first to the beach, we enjoy a solitary moment gazing towards the calm ocean and steel skeleton of the 100-year-old shipwreck. The tide is far from the shipwreck and we inspect it up close without being ankle deep in water. Afterwards, we wander down to the water, hoping that perhaps a sand dollar has washed ashore. We find a few broken dollars and crab carcasses amidst the jellies and seaweed, but no elusive full sand dollars so we continue down the beach.
A long walk down the beach
The tide has just reached its lowest point and we stumble upon many small pools of cold water. With the keen interest of a small child, I peer into the first few pools hoping to find small marine wildlife. A shrimp or small razor clam would make me ecstatic. The pools are only full of sand and cold water, though, which slightly dampens my mood. Instead, I begin jumping between the pools, trying to avoid splashing the cold water onto myself. I’m not entirely successful, but we’re having such a great time in the brisk morning air that neither of us care.
We navigate the 18-mile beach, making our way a mile north of the shipwreck. We’re interrupted only once by a full-sized pickup truck that speeds past us, heading south towards the shipwreck. I cringe at the thought of how many beautiful sand dollars are shattered as its tires beat relentlessly against the wet sand. All because the occupants prefer to sit lazily in their vehicle than exercise their lungs and breathe in the fresh, crisp air that the morning air offers all beach-strollers.
The elusive sand dollar
We find our first dollar half buried in the sand. As my fingers gingerly brush away the cold, wet sand I feel the excitement mounting in my chest – I’ve found my first sand dollar! Jacob is slightly dejected, having only found broken dollars so far. It doesn’t last long, however; no sooner have I dried mine than Jacob proudly holds his newly found sand dollar up for inspection. It’s a perfect circle, beautifully white-grey with a few small marks.
We spend the next half hour gleefully running across the beach, bounding into shallow water when we spot the telltale white edge sticking out of the sand. Before long our toes are numb but our hands are full of treasure. Our smiles stretch across our faces as we marvel at our discoveries.
What are sand dollars?
The sea urchins that create sand dollars are interesting creatures. Alive, they range in colour from blue, green, or purple and live just below the mean water line or surface of muddy areas. Its velvety underbelly, which allows it to slowly move, also contains grooves that bring food to its mouth opening, the center of the star-shaped pattern on its underside. When the sea urchin dies its skeleton washes ashore and is known as a sand dollar.
A relaxing end to a morning adventure
We wash the dollars in the small pools and creeks that snake their way along the water. After putting the newly cleaned sand dollars carefully in our pockets, we retrace our footprints back to the shipwreck. It’s still blissfully empty of the tourists that flock to it during the day and we check for any dollars we may have missed.
Finding no more dollars, we climb the sandy hill back to the parking lot and lay our dollars to dry. We sit with our toes buried in the sand and enjoy the empty beach before heading back to our campsite.
Information & Trailhead Location
To view more photos of Fort Stevens and area, visit our SmugMug gallery.
Distance: ~3.2 km (2 miles)
Duration: ~2 hrs
Notes: Bring a jacket, as it’s cool on the beach in the early morning