Hit Or Miss, Or A Bit Of Both? Dune Du Pilat, France
When we first looked at visiting Les Landes I asked around some Facebook motorhome groups for recommendations, and one place that came up over and again was Dune du Pilat.
It’s an iconic part of the area, the tallest sand dune in Western Europe and pretty much a “must see” in the region. But the fact that it’s a big tourist attraction also made me a bit leery. For the most part we tend to avoid anywhere with big crowds in favor of less-traveled routes. Plus the campgrounds in the area all had very mixed reviews.
So we put it on our list and then, like all such things, we hemmed and hawed over actually going. Should we just do a drive-by visit (park and walk the sand for a few hours) and then move on? Or stay within biking distance? Or chance one of the campgrounds and stay the night right there?
The morning we left the Aire in Biscarosse we finally decided on the latter. We’d spend one night right by the dune, and if it wasn’t our thing we’d move on. That would give us a sunset too, which would up the chances of a positive encounter. Golden hour has a way of making everything look magical, even big piles of sand.
Camping Is A Mixed Bag
For our base-camp we chose the spot with the best overall reviews and location in the area, Panorama du Pyla, a 4-star Yelloh! campground located right on the south side of the dune. It’s pricey in summer (upwards of €50/night), but has the advantage of very reasonable rates (€18/night with 10% ASCI discount) in the off-season . Plus a few of the sites do have views over the water, if you can snag them.
It’s a wooded campground, located high above the beach (a steep trail goes down to the shoreline), and IMO it’s a total mixed bag of a place. The pitches are set on a slope and are oddly-shaped and very varied in size. A few of of them quite large and lovely, but many are either soft/sandy, overly cramped or ridiculously unlevel.
Plus it’s a mixed bag on the amenity side too. There’s some really upscale stuff; a super nice pool (great for kids), a nice (but incredibly pricey) restaurant-with-a-view, and a rather fancy on-site grocery store. And then there’s some really downscale stuff; paid WiFi that’s only guaranteed to work by the pool (at the entrance) and not at your site (what???), old & dirty bathrooms with no toilet seats (!) or paper (really? At a 4-star place??), and rubbish bins that are nowhere near the campsites.
No wonder this place gets such mixed reviews!!
We arrived early morning and the place was already packed with a queue of people & motorhomes waiting to check-in. Once inside camp all of the best pitches were already occupied, so we settled on a spot with a slice of a view near the top of the hill. It was OK, but very cramped and we barely managed to level with all our blocks.
We quickly decided we would only spend the one night. We’d get our laundry and showers done (both very-much needed items), visit the dune, and then we’d move on.
Other Options -> There are 3-4 other campgrounds along the stretch of the dune (Plya Camping, Camping Les Flots Bleus, Camping La Forêt), although they all get rather mixed reviews. Another option is to park in the north parking lot (€8 for 2 hours) and just walk around for a bit (but then you miss the sunset!!!).
Dune Du Pilat Is An Active Sand Dune
For a bit of background Dune du Pilat (also called Grande Dune du Pilat) is the tallest sand dune in Europe.
It’s made up of mostly 0.3mm quartz sand, the result of thousands of years of erosion from the nearest mountain ranges, (Pyrenees, Massif Central) combined with the effects of rivers, the ocean and wind that have transported the grains inland.
Size-wise it’s ~2.6 km long, ~620 m wide, contains ~55 million cubic meters of sand and is ~100-115 meters high, depending on the year. Plus it’s constantly moving at a range of about 1 to 5 m per year, one of the few sand dunes in Europe that is still in motion.
It’s not the biggest sand dune we’ve ever seen, but it’s an impressive contender, and we couldn’t have picked a better location to visit it.
From our pitch it’s a quick 10 minute walk to the dune, accessed directly out the north side of the campsite. You end up near the top of the dune too (no uphill sand walking necessary!), with panoramic views down towards the beach and each side. It’s a long, steep downhill trail to the beach, but as far as ease of visiting the dune itself goes, it doesn’t get much better than this.
It’s A Bit “Meh” During the Daytime (Unless You Paraglide)
With that said, our first impressions of the dune were admittedly so-so.
There’s no doubt that Dune du Pilat is a big hunk of sand, and if you’ve never been on one it’s an impressive experience. It’s like being on a mountain but your feet sink in, and you can jump up in the air and slide down the side without ending up in the company of your long-deceased ancestors. Plus consistent winds & updrafts make for excellent paragliding, without the danger of a hard landing. It’s basically a massive sandbox playground for adults. Plus you do get nice open views of the water and Bay of Arachon.
But the dune is also fairly crowded (more than a million people visit each year!) and the sand heats up rapidly, especially during the middle of the day in the warmer seasons. You’ve got to be really careful with your kids & paws, if you bring them with you.
When we got to the sand, it was busy and hot, and the colors were flat and dull. Lots of folks around, a few paragliders, but otherwise not much to write home about. It was, dare I say it, a bit “meh”? We lingered a few minutes to people-watch, but rather quickly decided to retreat back into LMB for the rest of the afternoon.
But Sunset is the JAM!!
A few hours later as the sun started to kiss the horizon, we decided to tempt another visit. And there, in that moment, is when we found the charm.
The crowds had thinned significantly and the dune had turned from a dull tan to a rich golden-yellow. The sand was cool and comfortable, perfect for paws and bare feet, and the sky was alight in swirls of pink, the water a reflective mirror of the colors above.
Polly bounded around in joy, heading straight down the sleep slope towards the beach, gliding with four-by-four-paw power like a natural sand dog. And by the time we reached the water we were totally alone. Nothing but waves, sunset colors and the mass of sand above us. We played around the beach, in and out of the water until the last colors of the sky were fading, when we finally, reluctantly took the long (and much harder) hike back up to camp. Sunset is most definitely the jam!
We Move On The Next Day
Our evening was magical, but the next morning the campground was awake and noisy again, and we were longing for some peace . We’d done the “must see” and we’d found its secret (come at sunset folks!), but it was time to move on. We had a day to kill (maybe another Aire?), and then we had an important DATE, a place that I’ve wanted to see ever since we came to Europe. We’d booked it many weeks ago just to be sure we were able to get in, and it was going to be EPIC. This was not just another sightseeing spot, but our own proper jam, the kind of thing we live for. Any guesses? Well, you’ve have to wait to read the next blog to find out….