Artist Denny Dyke creates pathways where you can walk your troubles away at Face Rock Wayside near Bandon Beach
Denny Dyke started creating labyrinths on the sand during low tide at Face Rock Wayside beach, near Bandon, Oregon, back in 2002. The artistic beauty of his elaborate swirling pathways began drawing onlookers who would watch him create his “circles in the sand,” walk the labyrinth upon its completion, and then witness the ocean reclaim the ephemeral art when the tide came in.
He loved the impermanence of using sand as a canvas; the fact that his designs didn’t have to be perfect because the rising water would inevitably erase them. He could try again the following day.
Dyke, 73, never dreamed his beach art and the meditative experience of walking it would grow into a phenomenon that draws thousands of labyrinth pilgrims every summer from as far away as New Zealand and South Africa. To satisfy demand, Dyke turned his hobby into a business, Circles in the Sand, in 2015. He now works with five sand artists, a lead groomer, and three ambassadors who are on hand to answer questions during the draw. He also relies on volunteers to help rake his fantastic designs.
The continuous pathways range in style from ocean themes to zen gardens to cosmic motifs and take a little over two hours to complete. Dyke even posts a schedule during Circles in the Sand season, which runs from late April through August 2021 on the beach below Face Rock State Scenic Viewpoint. There’s no charge to walk or photograph the labyrinths.
Since we could all use a little Zen right now—and some inspiration for where to travel as the pandemic ebbs—check out some of the best of Dyke’s designs. You’ll want to add your sandy footprints to Dyke’s whimsical pathways and see the gorgeous sea stacks and impossibly wide beaches that define the Oregon coast, ASAP.
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Sand labyrinth artist Denny Dyke and his Circles in the Sand team create 30 or more labyrinths a season. “I’m known as that crazy guy with a rake,” says Dyke with a chuckle, referring to the tool he uses to etch spirals and squiggles onto hard-packed sand as the tide recedes. It takes him about 90 minutes to complete the path —often working around the insanely scenic rock outcrops that litter the beach—and then another hour for staff to add artistic details while volunteer “groomers” rake in the dark spots.
There’s a reason this design resembles an octopus’s garden in the shade. Circles in the Sand often chooses an ocean theme for its labyrinths, and Dyke’s detail artists add elements such as waves at the entrance, jellyfish, mermaids, starfish, and turtles. Other themes include Zen, love, and outer space.
Though the team picks themes in advance, “We have no preconceived idea of what we’re going to do,” says Dyke. He surveys the sand from the Face Rock State Scenic Viewpoint to decide where he’s going to draw. Then, “I just walk and drag the rake behind me. Half the time I don’t even have to look.”
They’re stunning to view from above, but the purpose of Dyke’s designs is more function than form: they’re meant to be walked. The one-way continuous pathways invite beach-goers into what Dyke calls a “walking meditation” that, for many, becomes unexpectedly moving or spiritual.
“It’s the only way I can calm myself down,” explains Dyke. “Especially when you get out on the sand. A lot of people like to walk them barefooted—they have a direct connection to the ground.”
One of the first things Bethe Patrick did when she arrived in Bandon was to walk one of Dyke’s designs. “I was overcome by tears,” says Patrick, who is now one of the principal artists for Circles in the Sand. “We see that happening all the time with people walking a labyrinth.”
After Dyke creates the bones of the labyrinth, detail artists come in and add flourishes, like these glass floats that fishermen historically used to hold their nets (and that occasionally still wash up along the Pacific coast after bobbing across the ocean from Japan).
While these sea-foam green orbs belong to a team member, Circles in the Sand also uses found items that are already on the beach—driftwood, seaweed, crab shells, and more. Natural and manmade embellishments help to define the day’s theme; in this case, Zen.
Dyke begins his labyrinth designs on hard-packed sand and defines the pathway by raking on either side of it so the sand outside the trail appears pebbly. Once the labyrinth is complete, volunteer groomers rake in the spaces in between the winding path. Detailed designs that appear in the middle of raked areas—turtles or suns or hearts, for example—are completed using a golf club shaft with a chopstick affixed to the end.
Each labyrinth includes a dedication circle (in this photo, it’s to the left of the entrance), where visitors can sign their name with a chopstick, or dedicate their walk to a loved one.
Dogs are allowed to walk the labyrinth, and children are welcome, too. Dyke says parents try to control how the kids pass through, but he says to just let them walk (or run) at their own speed. “A lot of times the kids will go back and walk it slowly,” he says. What’s more, they’ll stop and notice the details, from mermaids and starfish etched into the sand, to inspirational messages scrawled along the path’s edges.
Dyke is adamant about distinguishing his designs as labyrinths—not mazes. A maze has dead ends and wrong turns and the objective is to find your way out, whereas a labyrinth is a single path with no dead ends or wrong turns, he says. A labyrinth either leads into a center and out again or, like Dyke’s, it’s one way, with an entrance and a separate exit (this style works well during the pandemic because then walkers aren’t passing others in close proximity). Another important distinction: a maze offers no opportunity for meditation because you’re paying attention to every misstep. A labyrinth, on the other hand, frees you up to focus on the walking experience.
Dyke’s elaborate sand labyrinths are beautiful to behold, but they only last a few hours. Inevitably, the tide rushes back in and erases every last sunburst and spiral. “It’s called job security,” Dyke jokes; meaning, he can return the following day and create a new one. But that ephemeral nature is by design—Dyke invites walkers to metaphorically leave their “baggage” behind on the sand so it can get washed away or, alternatively, to manifest something positive during the walk and let the ocean carry those good vibes out into the world.
Most of Dyke’s sand draws happen in the morning or early afternoon, so those times when the labyrinth’s completion coincides with sunset are special and make for powerful walking experiences. Says Dyke: “To do something like this and then watch it go away with the sun is just phenomenal.”