The Absolutely Amazing
Pismo Beach Dunes

horses on Pismo Beach

You've never seen anything quite like the Pismo Beach Dunes. They stretch on and on - from Pismo State Beach all the way south to Point Sal in Santa Barbara county.

Sand dunes once covered vast areas of the California coast, but now they're found in only a few scattered locations.

The Pismo Beach dunes are the most extensive dunes left in coastal California, and they're impressive indeed. They can rise as high as 500 feet and support a wide variety of plant and animal life.

The landscape they produce is almost surreal. Back in the '30s and '40s the dunes attracted a lot of artists, writers and mystics seeking a spiritual experience. Once you've seen these dunes for yourself, you might just find that the "Dunites" had a point.

The Pismo Beach dunes are operated by a variety of different agencies and groups in an attempt to balance recreational uses and conservation. There are several different dunes preserves and recreational areas. You'll find the dunes going by different names, even though it's all one large dunes complex. I've used the term Pismo Beach dunes to refer to the entire area.

riding a motorcycle on the beach at Pismo Dunes

There are places set aside for vehicular recreation, where you can explore the dunes on ATVs or take a tour in a Hummer. And there are protected areas where you can take a walk and commune with nature.

You'll find a variety of recreational opportunities at Pismo Beach Dunes, including camping, hiking, fishing, clamming, surfing, horseback riding, and bird watching. Take a look at the listings below to find out what's available and where. We'll start in the north at Pismo Beach and head south.

Click here for information about Pismo Beaches.

Pismo Dunes Preserve

This preserve, just south of Arroyo Grande Creek, is an undeveloped natural area where you can hike amid the large Pismo Beach dunes and enjoy the wildflowers. The preserve is closed to vehicular use, and there are no facilities.

Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area
(Formerly Pismo Dunes SVRA)

ATV riding at Pismo Beach Dunes

This is the only California state park where you can drive (and even camp) on the beach. But the biggest attraction is ATV riding on the dunes. There are several different places near the park where you can rent an ATV or dune buggy. You can even take a tour of the dunes on a Hummer or in a biplane.

If you prefer a quieter experience, explore the dunes on horseback. You can rent a horse, or arrange for a guided horseback tour, in nearby Oceano.

However, before you get carried away, please be aware that the riding area is restricted. Much of the area is protected, so you'll need to know where you can and can't ride before you get going. But you'll have 1,500 acres and over 5 miles of beach for your vehicular playground.

And, of course, there are plenty of other things to do in the park, including swimming, surfing, surf fishing, clamming, picnicking, bird watching and hiking.

Camping is available south of Post 2, on the beach or in the open dunes. Vault and chemical toilets are available, but you'll have to bring your own water and pack out your own trash.

For more information see Oceano Dunes SVRA.

Oso Flaco Lake Natural Area

This 800 acre protected area lies at the southern end of Oceano Dunes. Oso Flaco Lake is a rare gem, a freshwater coastal lake and wetland. Take the boardwalk (just a little over a mile long) from the parking lot, across the lake, to the beach.

You'll find a wide variety of wildlife here, and the boardwalk makes bird-watching easy. Both the trail and the restrooms are wheelchair accessible. There is a parking fee.

The area also provides access to the Guadalupe-Nipomo National Wildlife Refuge to the south. The entrance kiosk is at the west end of Oso Flaco Lake Road, 3 miles west of Highway 1.

The Dunes Center

The Dunes Center offers a variety of educational programs, guided hikes and bird walks at Oso Flaco Lake and the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. Several walks are offered each week.

The visitor center is located in the town of Guadalupe, on Highway 1 (Guadalupe St.). It's housed in a refurbished 1910 Craftsman style house, which includes an observation deck, a research library and educational displays. Workshops and educational programs are offered at the visitor center.

See The Dunes Center website for details.

Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve

This 600 acre protected area is in the southernmost part of the Pismo Beach Dunes, in Santa Barbara county, just across the Santa Maria River. You'll find endangered birds, rare plant species and a variety of wildlife. Hiking, bird-watching, fishing, and surfing are favorite activities here.

Facilities include parking and restrooms. No dogs are allowed during spring and summer months to protect nesting birds.

The entry kiosk is on West Main Street, west of the town of Guadalupe (on Highway 1), and provides access to Guadalupe Dunes, Mussel Rock Dunes, and the Guadalupe-Nipomo National Wildlife Refuge. Open from sunrise to sunset year round.

For More Information on Pismo Beach Dunes

Nature Conservancy - Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes 

Photos: Courtesy of Pismo Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau.

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