Pyla dune—the highest sand dune in Europe

The last three posts touched on how the landscape of Bordeaux affects wine characteristics. But there are landscape features that are just fun for their own sake. Billed as the highest dune in Europe, we had to visit Pyla Dune, a geologic feature along the Atlantic coast south of Arcachon, a popular seaside that is an easy 52-minute train ride from Bordeaux. Bike paths are prevalent, so we rented bikes to ride along the coast of Arcachon Bay to Pyla Dune, a pile of loose sand that continues to be pushed inland by the wind. On the map, loose sand is a light tan color; it appears as a beach along the sand spit north of the entrance to the bay, as sand bars near the entrance to the bay, and as a large rectangular block just south of the bay’s entrance (the Pyla Dune).


Currently, the dune is migrating eastward an average of 3–5 meters/year. Because of changing positions of the bay’s entrance and sand bars, the dune is eroding on the western (seaward) side. This erosion has exposed 4 paleosols (ancient soils) that show a dune has been at this location for at least 3500 years. Soils have been dated by radiocarbon analysis of organic components and by human artifacts—one paleosol contains Bronze Age tools and another contains 16th century coins. (The web site——has more details about the site.) A pine forest was planted in the 19th century to stabilize the dune, but this forest is being slowly buried as the dune migrates east—this east side of the dune is shown on the photo below.


The dune provides a popular site for people to visit and climb. Although the dune achieves a height of about 107 meters (350 feet), most people can manage to make the climb. From the top there is a fabulous view of the bay and Atlantic coast.


The sand is mostly fine and made of quartz; there is also a small percentage of dark-colored heavy minerals like magnetite that make interesting patterns. This view is looking north from the dune along the east shore of Arcachon Bay to the forested town of Pyla-Sur-Mer.


Pyla-Sur-Mer is a residential town located between the dune and Arcachon. Its seaside location, upscale homes, and pine forest reminded us a great deal of Monterey and Carmel in California. Hopefully, this town will not be buried by the dune. At current rates, the road and campground directly east of the dune will be buried in 40 years.


Arcachon is famous for its fresh oysters, so we had to sample them in a Pyla-Sur-Mer restaurant, which also served us excellent moules frites (mussels and fries) and fish.


This was an interesting outing from Bordeaux, to which we returned for a day exploring the city. Here is Jay with Lynn, our Ashland friend who, together with her husband Mark, are studying wines in Bordeaux for several years. (Mark was working in the harvest that day.)  We then got on our bikes and traveled to Toulouse, the journey’s end.



2 comments on “Pyla dune—the highest sand dune in Europe

  1. What a great trip you’re having! And, yes, that did look like Monterey. Salut!

  2. lgowdy says:

    So much fun with you two, and lots of great info. Hope you’ll come back for more exploration (and possible cooking!).

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