Beachcombing for Sand Dollars at Fort Stevens State Park

Last updated January 22, 2020

As a kid, I loooved going to those shell shops that had a million different types of shells and beach treasures. It was so much fun to wander the aisles and find the perfect souvenir to bring home. These days, I tend to find my ocean treasures by beachcombing with my toes squishing between the sand. If you’re in Oregon and looking for a great place to find some beach treasures, Clatsop Beach at Fort Stevens State Park is perfect for hunting sand dollars!

We don’t often get the chance to try our hand at beachcombing, but when we do it’s always a ton of fun. Not only is it a great way to enjoy the morning, but it’s also a cheap way to find some great souvenirs. Your family will love knowing the gift you brought back has a story behind it!

Sam and Jacob hold 15 sand dollars with the ocean in the background.

Quick Facts

Before I get too far into showing you how much fun beachcombing at Fort Stevens is, here are some quick facts you’ll need to refer back to when you’re planning your adventure.

Distance~3.2 km / 2 mi
Duration~2 hrs
Tide Schedule View tides
NotesIt’s illegal to collect living sand dollars, so we’ve included more info below to make sure you’re staying on the straight and narrow.

Beachcombing on Clatsop Beach

One of my favourite parts of travel is embarking on unexpected adventures. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a huge planner, but I still love doing things that aren’t part of the original plan. Beachcombing for sand dollars at Fort Stevens fits that bill exactly!

The day before our unplanned beachcombing, we ran into a family with armloads full of sand dollars and they inspired our adventure. When I saw them, my curiosity got the best of me and I overcame my fear of talking to strangers and asked where they found so many. They excitedly shared their secret with us — just a mile up the beach from the Wreck of the Peter Iredale lurked a jackpot of sand dollars scattered along the sand!

I was so excited! We thanked them, brushed the wet sand off our feet, and checked the tide schedule before heading in for the night. Suddenly it was going to be a very early morning!

Close up of a sand dollar at Fort Stevens

Searching for Sand Dollars

The next morning, the salty ocean air greeted us as we navigated the potholes on the long road to Clatsop Beach. The heat of the day hadn’t yet appeared, so we threw on a jacket and abandoned our shoes in the car. The soft, cool sand squished between our toes.

We were the first people on the beach that morning and we enjoyed the solitude. As we gazed at the calm ocean, we wandered down to the 100-year-old steel skeleton of the Peter Iredale shipwreck stuck in the sand. We found a few broken dollars and crab carcasses amidst the jellies and seaweed, but no elusive full sand dollars so we continued down the beach.

Sam from Explore the Map holds a handful of sand dollars.
Sam from Explore the Map walks down Clatsop Beach.
Jacob holds two sand dollars.

A Walk Down Clatstop Beach

The tide had just reached its lowest point as we walked down the beach and a ton of small pools dotted the sand. I peered into them hoping to find marine wildlife. A shrimp or small razor clam would have made my day! Sadly, though, the pools were only full of sand and cold water. Instead, I ran between the pools and tried to avoid splashing the cold water all over myself. Or falling in, because that’s something I would definitely do. I wasn’t entirely successful, but we had such a great time in the brisk air that neither of us cared.

Clatsop Beach is an 18-mile stretch of sand near Fort Stevens, but thankfully we only had to walk a mile north of the shipwreck to find our sand dollars. We were interrupted once by a full-sized pickup truck as it sped past us, heading south towards the shipwreck.

Jacob from Explore the Map holds eight sand dollars on Clatsop Beach at Fort Stevens.

Finding the Elusive Sand Dollar

I’m sure you know how hard it is to find full sand dollars. They’re always broken. But not at Fort Stevens!

We found our first dollar half-buried in the sand and as I gingerly brushed away the cold, wet sand, I felt the excitement deep within my chest — I’d finally found an intact sand dollar! Meanwhile, Jacob had only found broken ones and was a little sad. That didn’t last long, however; no sooner had I dried mine than Jacob proudly held up his newly found sand dollar for inspection. It was a perfect circle, beautifully white with a few small marks.

We spent the next half hour gleefully running across the beach and bounding into shallow water when we spotted the telltale white edge sticking out of the sand. Before long our toes were numb but our hands were full of treasure. Our smiles stretched across our faces as we marveled at our discoveries.

We washed the dollars in the small pools and creeks that snaked their way along the beach. We retraced our footprints back to the shipwreck after putting the newly cleaned sand dollars carefully in our pockets. When we found no more dollars, we climbed the sandy hill back to the parking lot and laid our dollars to dry. With our toes buried in the sand, we relaxed on the empty beach before heading back to our campsite.

Jacob from Explore the Map washes a sand dollar in the ocean water.
A handful of sand dollars with the Wreck of the Peter Iredale in the background.
Clatsop Beach with tire treads.

What Are Sand Dollars?

With their fancy, albeit somewhat peculiar name and awesome design, have you ever wondered what sand dollars actually are? Well, I’ve got your back! They’re sea urchins.

I know, aren’t sea urchins those creepy, porcupine-like creatures that live on the ocean floor? Yes, that is a type of urchin, but just like dogs, they come in all shapes, sizes, and colours. Sand dollars are closely related to the sea cucumber and starfish — it seems like all the urchins in that family have an awesome name!

Selfie on the beach.

Is the Sand Dollar Alive or Dead?

Fun fact: You can tell how old a sand dollar is by counting the rings on its skeleton — just like a tree stump! Most usually live six to ten years. I had no idea they lived that long!

To make sure you’re not accidentally cutting your sand dollar’s life short with your beachcombing, here are a few ways to check it’s actually dead. Plus, it’s illegal to collect living sand dollars. So there’s that.

Check Its Colour

Surprise! Live sand dollars aren’t actually the white. The living creatures are quite colourful and range from brown to blue, green, or purple. Only when it dies and washes ashore where it’s bleached by the sun does a sand dollar turn white. One of the easiest ways to tell if the dollar is alive is by its colour.

Flip It Over

Another way to tell if your sand dollar is alive is by its underbelly. When the dollar is alive, it’s covered in tiny velvety bristles (which help it eat), but when it dies those eventually fade away. If you’re not sure, hold the sand dollar in your hand and carefully watch the bristles — if they move, it’s still alive. The signature star pattern also isn’t as obvious when it’s alive because it’s covered by those bristles.

Check Your Hands

As you’re collecting sand dollars, take a moment and look at your hands. Are they yellowish? Live sand dollars produce a harmless substance called echinochrome, which will stain your skin. An easy way to check if it’s still alive it to hold it, very gently, in your palm for about a minute and check the colour of your skin.

Sand dollars can’t survive out of the water for more than a few minutes, though, so if you do find a live one make sure to return it to the water right away.

Walking down Clatsop Beach on the search for sand dollars

What to Pack

If you’re on the hunt for sand dollars at Fort Stevens, there are a few things we recommend bringing along.

If you’d like to buy your gear from sustainable brands, we’ve put together an article about some of our favourite outdoor brands that do just that. Some of them donate time, money, or resources, whereas others support outdoor-related legislation, increased education, or eco-friendly resources.

  • Beach towel: The sand at Clatsop Beach can be a little chilly, so if you want to hang out for a few hours you’ll definitely need a beach towel to sit on. Anaskela makes beautiful, lightweight towels from recycled plastic bottles.
  • Hiking sandals: I’m personally a fan of not wearing shoes on the beach, but your feet can go numb pretty quickly in the morning. A good pair of hiking sandals are a great middle ground.
  • Bag: If you don’t want to carry your sand dollars in your arms (which is a little awkward!), a water-repellant bag or mesh bag is perfect.
  • Windproof jacket: It gets chilly and windy on the beach! Pack (and wear) a lightweight, windproof jacket to keep yourself warm.

This article contains some affiliate links, which means if you buy something my blog will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.  I’m very grateful every time you choose to support me, so I can continue to support you. Thank you!

Sam from Explore the Map holds a sand dollar on Clatsop Beach near Fort Stevens State Park.
Jacob from Explore the Map searches in the wet sand.

Final Notes

Every time we get the chance to go beachcombing, I love it! We thoroughly enjoyed finding full, intact sand dollars and I highly recommend giving it a try when you’re at Fort Stevens. After all, it’s not every day that you’ll get the chance to find a whole slew of dollars on the beach!

Just remember to check the tide schedule so that you visit at low tide and have the best chance at finding sand dollars. And only pick up dead dollars because it’s illegal to remove living creatures from the beach.

Happy treasure hunting!

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