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Oceano Dunes State Recreation Area

Oceano Dunes Preserve Trail

2 or more miles round trip

Pismo Beach has a little something for everyone. Digging for the famed Pismo clam (now scarce) has long been a popular pastime. Two campgrounds at the state beach are favorites of families looking for weekend getaways. Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area is a sandy playground for street vehicles and off-highway vehicles.

For walkers, the attraction is Oceano Dunes Preserve, a region of tall sand hills where vehicles are prohibited, and you can wander for miles. Often referred to as the Nipomo Dunes these days, they extend 18 miles from the northern end of Oceano Dunes to Pt. Sal State Beach.

This walk explores the dune preserve inland from Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.

A few hundred yards inland from this shoreline, it’s quiet, even lonely. Virtually no one bothers to walk into the dune preserve to see Nature’s handiwork.

Directions to trailhead: From Highway 101 in Arroyo Grande, exit on Grand Avenue and follow it westward to Highway 1. Head south a mile to the community of Oceano, just south of Grover Beach, and turn west on Pier Avenue. Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area entrance station is a short distance ahead. If you have a four-wheel drive or high-clearance vehicle, you can pay a fee here and drive onto the beach. (Pismo boosters claim their beach is the only one in California where the sand is firm enough to support travel by standard automobiles, even low-slung family cars, but I have my doubts; I’ve seen a lot of cars stuck in the sand.)

If you’re driving, head south about a half mile.

The beach is signed with numbered markers. Park near the first marker you see—Marker #1.

If you’re not keen on driving the beach, park along Pier Avenue short of the entrance kiosk. You may then (1) walk a half mile south along water’s edge (not as treacherous as it looks from the distance with all those vehicles on the beach) to the dune entrance; or (2) walk a quarter mile or so along Strand Way, a residential street paralleling the beach, then continue south along the banks of Arroyo Grande Creek, which near its mouth also parallels the beach, to the dune preserve entrance.

(If you park on Pier Avenue, add about another mile to your walk.)

The hike: Head inland to the fence that marks the boundary of the Oceano Dunes Natural Preserve. Take any of the meandering southbound trails that cross the dunes. A ridgeline of sand shields walkers from the sights and sounds of the busy beach below.

Continue southward along the shrub-dotted base of the dunes for a mile or so, then ascend out of the foredunes toward the crest of the great dunes to the east. You can then return north via the crest of the large dunes.

When you reach Arroyo Grande Creek, the northern boundary of the preserve, return to the beach. At this point, you’re a couple hundred yards north of Marker #1, so head south back to the trailhead.

© 2012 The Trailmaster, Inc.
From John McKinney’s
Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks
Trail descriptions and maps have been reproduced with the permission of the author.  To learn more about The Trailmaster and other related publications please visit their website at