With soft golden sands and impossibly stunning views, Dune du Pilat is a natural phenomenon well worth visiting. Here is all you need to know to explore the highest sand dune in Europe.
Nestled on the edge of Arcachon Bay and 1-hour drive south from Bordeaux, Dune du Pilat is the largest sand dune in Europe. Half a kilometre wide, almost 3 kilometres long and rising to just over 100 metres, it is wedged between the pounding surf of the Atlantic Ocean and a glittering green pine forest.
The whole area of Dune du Pilat is a stunning place to explore.
From the summit, views stretch in all directions: up to Arcachon Bay, across to the isthmus of Cap Ferret, over glistening sandbanks, and all along the coast. Summit walks along the spine of the dune take you high above the pine forest on one side and the ocean on the other, before dipping down to glorious beaches just perfect for a post-walk dip.
Dune du Pilat is at its best at dawn and dusk when the temperature cools, the sun gives the dunes a glistening golden glow and the shadows cast patterns on the sand. There are few better ways to end the day than a picnic at the top as the sun sets over the Atlantic Ocean.
Find the best sunrise and sunset positions, stock up with a delicious picnic and enjoy this stunning area with our guide to visiting Dune du Pilat. For more information on this beautiful corner of France see our guide to Arcachon Bay.
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BEST TIME TO TAKE IN THE VIEWS FROM DUNE DU PILAT
Rising to over 100 metres on the coast south of Arcachon, Dune du Pilat is one of the best natural lookout points in the area. From April to November, portable stairs are in place to make the climb from the carpark easy for most people.
Once at the top, soak up the 360-degree scene with feet pressed in the softest sand. Views stretch up to Arcachon Bay, over to the narrow slither of Cap Ferret isthmus, across the Atlantic Ocean and over a pine forest at the base of the dune.
SUNSERISE AT DUNE DU PILAT
It’s a magical scene at any time, but dawn is particularly great for photography at Dune du Pilat. With the ocean to the east, the sun rises over the pine forest with its shadow slowly descending the dune as the morning progresses. With the dunes swept free of footprints by the overnight winds, you’ll be able to photograph the dunes in pristine condition with lovely early morning light.
SUNSET AT DUNE DU PILAT
At dusk, the dune flickers in the evening light as the sun sets over the Atlantic Ocean. In good conditions, a burnt orange glow brings the dunes and sky together. Much busier in the evenings, sunset is a great time to photograph people forming a silhouette against a magnificent sunset. Bring a picnic with you, find a spot in the sand, and join the other onlookers taking it all in. We have suggestions for assembling a delicious picnic from some artisanal suppliers in Arcachon further in this guide.
HIKING ON DUNE DU PILAT
The dune is 2.7 kilometres long and the crest that runs along the summit makes a great hiking trail with regular-changing vistas. Although the ridge only gently rises and falls, do not underestimate the challenge. Walking on sand is never easy, so if you intend to hike for a while, it’s best to do it in cooler conditions.
It takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes to walk all the way along the dune. You can either return along the ridge (the way you came) or descend the dune to the shore and walk back along the sea. From April to September, buses run along the road to the east of the dune, so you could walk one way and get the bus back to the car park. But you don’t have to walk all the way, just do however much you fancy and return the way you came.
Our map below highlights the walking routes and bus stop. The tourist office at the Dune du Pilat car park also provides walking maps.
SWIMMING AT DUNE DU PILAT
On a hot day the shimmering turquoise water of the Atlantic Ocean looks far too inviting to pass up. So, bring your swimming gear and enjoy a refreshing dip at the base of the dune.
At the northern end of the dune, Plage de la Corniche is the best place for safe swimming at Dune du Pilat (see the location on our map below). It’s supervised from 11am to 7pm (July to August) and it’s easy to get to by descending the dune or taking the stairs.
If you want to go a bit further, there is 15 kilometres of beautiful beaches heading south from the dune. Plage du Petit Nice has facilities and access is easy; Plage de la Lagune is the nudist beach; Plage de la Salie-Nord is excellent for surfing and Plage de la Salie-Sud allows dogs.
There’s a large sandbank just offshore from Dune du Pilat called Banc D’Arguin. It looks like an appealing place to swim out to; however, the currents here can be particularly strong so please don’t. From mid-June to the end of September you can get across to the sandbank using a boat shuttle that leaves from the southern end of the dune opposite Pyla Camping.
THE BEST PICNIC SUPPLIES FOR DUNE DU PILAT
Views this good deserve a good picnic. Fortunately, there are plenty of options in Arcachon to stock up on some delicious French delicacies to take up to the dune.
Merryl Fromagerie & Charcuterie has a wide selection of cheeses, many from Béarn, the Pyrenees region known for excellent, high pasture cheese. Make a selection, then pair it with jellies, jams, cured meats or more cheese. La Caves des Darons has a great selection of wines and just about any store in town will provide you with delicious French bread.
On a good day, you won’t exactly have the top of Dune du Pilat to yourself, so get there early to snare a good position.
SEEING DUNE DU PILAT FROM ABOVE
A great way to see the dune is from above where the full scale of this natural amphitheatre becomes obvious.
Pyla Parapente offer tandem paragliding jumps from the southern end of the dune enabling you to gently drift on the thermals between the sand and the sky. Choose between a gentle flight or something a little more challenging that attempts a few manoeuvres.
The other option is to take a scenic flight or helicopter ride over the dunes. Aéroclub du Bassin d’Arcachon can organise tailored flights in a small plane for 30 minutes over the dunes, Arcachon Bay and Cap Ferret. Helipass organise helicopter tours of the dunes, they’re not cheap but it will be a memorable 30 minutes.
BEST TIME TO VISIT DUNE DU PILAT
The dune is beautiful, but it can also be inhospitable. There is no shade and on hot summer days the temperatures can be stifling. Come on cooler days, or in the early morning and late afternoon, when the sun is low in the sky. In particular, the light at dawn and dusk on a clear (or even misty) day can be magical and is great for photography.
We’d also suggest you try to avoid windy days. The dune is exposed and close to the sea, so the wind can be ferocious whipping the sand into your eyes – and even worse your camera lens!
The stairs are in place from April to November which is a good time to visit for a much easier way up to the summit.
HOW TO GET TO DUNE DU PILAT
The top of the Dune de Pilat is a 15-minute walk from the Dune du Pilat car park or bus stop. The path passes through the edge of the forest and then climbs a set of temporary steps. The shifting sands mean they need to be erected fresh every year and are usually in place from April to mid-November. Otherwise, you must ascend the steep slope of sand to reach the summit. It’s a short slog but is over in just a few minutes.
DUNE DU PILAT BY CAR
The Dune du Pilat car park is a 15-minute drive from Arcachon or a 1-hour drive from Bordeaux. Parking costs €6 for 4 hours, €8 for 8 hours and €10 for 12 hours. Cash and card accepted. No parking is allowed between the hours of 2am and 5am. It can get very busy in peak months.
It is free to explore La Dune du Pilat with the cost of parking going towards preserving the dune and the surrounding forest.
DUNE DU PILAT BY BUS
The Ligne 1 bus shuttles back and forth between Arcachon station (going via Le Moulleau & Pyla-sur-Mer) and Dune du Pilat car park. It runs all year round taking 30 minutes each way. In the winter months of October to March it makes about 10 journeys a day but from April to September it not only increases to 20 times a day but the line is also extended to make stops along the eastern edge of the dune before heading further south to Plage de la Salie-Nord.
In the peak holiday months of July and August, more bus routes are added; Ligne 2 runs from La Teste-de-Buch; Ligne 6 from Le Teich; and the Dune Express adds a faster route from Arcachon.
Sadly, travelling by bus makes it almost impossible to be on the dune for dawn or dusk.
DUNE DU PILAT BY BIKE
There are lots of bike hire shops in Arcachon and it’s only a 30-minute cycle to the dune. It’s a great way to arrive.
WHERE TO STAY NEAR DUNE DU PILAT
There are several great hotel options around Dune du Pilat. Arcachon makes a great base if you are relying on public transport. Here’s a few suggestions from us. Please keep in mind, Arcachon can be a busy part of France during peak summer months, so if you plan on staying in July or August, book a long way in advance.
T BOUTIQUE HOTEL
Right next to the harbour in Arcachon, this good-value hotel has freshly renovated rooms in modern and clean stylings. The location is perfect for exploring without a car as the centre of town, train station and beach are all just a short walk away.
BOOKING.COM / HOTELS.COM
HÔTEL VILLE D’HIVER
Located in the centre of Arcachon yet somehow creating a secluded haven of luxury, Hôtel Ville d’Hiver is modern and totally unexpected. Transformed from a sewage works (the old water tank is now the pool) it’s only a ten-minute walk to the station or fifteen to the seafront.
HÔTEL LA CO(O)RNICHE
Addresses in Arcachon don’t come any posher than this. This chic hotel designed by Philippe Starck and backed by forest is a 5-star extravagance in white minimalism. The infinity pool offers panoramic views of the Dune du Pilat and the terrace peers over the Atlantic Ocean.
This cool hotel is bedecked in seventies memorabilia with vintage film posters and raunchy artwork. Bursting with red, the bar and restaurant has an American diner vibe. It’s a short walk over the road to a thin stretch of sand or 15 minutes to the pretty beach at Le Moulleau.
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TIPS FOR VISITING DUNE DU PILAT
1 – There are no facilities on the top of the dunes so if you take a picnic up, make sure you’re equipped to bring all your rubbish back down with you.
2 – The sand is amazingly soft, so flip flops or shoes you can quickly kick off and walk around in bare feet is the best way to go.
3 – Toilets are available in the car park and there is a small information office with maps. Work is currently underway to upgrade the visitor centre.
4 – Dogs are allowed on the dunes but must be on a leash at all times.
MAP OF DUNE DU PILAT
To save the map, make sure you are logged in to your Google account, then click on the star to the right of the title. To locate the map go to your Google Maps app, select saved, then maps.
If you’re interested in a jaunt to the Atlantic coast in France, here are some other guides you might find useful.
INTRIGUING CASTLES AND IDYLLIC RURAL LIFE IN THE BEAUTIFUL DORDOGNE
PARIS CAFÉ SCENE: FINDING THE BEST COFFEE IN PARIS
DISCOVER THE NATURE-RICH CHARMS AND SHEER BEAUTY OF ARCACHON BAY
3 OR 4 DAYS IN PARIS – AN ITINERARY FOR FIRST-TIME VISITORS
// This guide was produced in partnership with Atout France and Destination Nouvelle-Aquitaine.
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