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  • Writer's pictureJyothi Vummiti

Southern California Sand Dunes - Oceano Dunes

Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area in Oceano, is the only California state park to allow Off-highway vehicles (OHV's) to drive on the beach. It is also the only stretch of coastline in Central California where cars are allowed on the beach. Five and a half miles of beach open for driving cars (all-wheels), a large area of sand dunes open for OHV's, legal beach camping and other recreational activities.

Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, California

Our Experience: It was the labour day weekend when we decided to visit the dunes on our Central California road-trip, and try out the most popular activity - "riding on the sand dunes". Looking into people's experiences I was quite doubtful about how I would fare and did not want to do this, but I was persuaded into it. There are some first timers who have thoroughly enjoyed this thrilling experience, and the others who have experienced everything that I fear; vehicle getting stuck in the sand, flipping over, sand allover you.

Awesome experience

Renting an OHV: We rented a 2 seater Rhino for an hour from BJ's ATV rentals. Their office where we did our paper work, was about a mile away from the beach entrance. They gave us each a helmet and made sure they fit snugly, and explained some rules for riding on the dunes. They also offered goggles, pads and other safety equipment for rent which were optional. And sunglasses were ok.

Picking up the OHV: We drove in our own car and parked by the side of the road near the beach entrance station and walked to the beach. We noticed that the parking lot near the entrance wasn't all full, but we never know. Just past the pay booth, we hopped on a BJ's shuttle and rode right next to the water, to their truck where the OHV's were handed over. At the truck, we got settled into our OHV, given some vehicle operating instructions, rules and tips on how and where to ride safely. ​

One of the truck areas where OHV's were picked up

Saw many birds on the beach / Our 2 seater Rhino from Bj's ATV Rentals

Riding on the Sand Dunes: First 10 mins we rode through the camping area (which looked packed) to the dunes entrance, in 15mph speed limit. Once we were on the dunes we could do whatever and go however far or fast we wanted. With the beach behind us we just kept going, avoiding steep drops. Some of the drops were nearly 20-30ft where we rode. Though it was scary, the landscape around was so beautiful, we could only see sand all around and nothing else. It was such a fun and thrilling ride. Thankfully we did not get stuck anywhere, while we definitely saw others struggling to get their tires out of the sand, and a couple of them even flipped over. Since we rented only for an hour, time just flew by. We could have extended our time but we had other things planned so we decided to head back. We returned our vehicles at the truck and took a shuttle back to the entrance station.

Fenced border for riding / Sand everywhere

Ripples on sand

Driving on the beach: We hung on to the helmets for a bit, got in our car and drove right back to the beach. After stopping to pay a minimal fee at the entrance we drove our car towards the south, right next to the water. This was so exciting as we never thought we would do something like this in our life. The beach was busy and chaotic as it was a holiday weekend. There were hundreds of parked RV's and trucks, hundreds of camper's tents, and many more OHV's. There were so many cars, trucks and terrain vehicles behind and ahead of us. There were people swimming and fishing in the water. It was overwhelming. As the sand was damp and packed we had no fear of getting stuck in it. Cheers to 4WD!

What a chilled ride

It was exciting / More OHV's on the beach

Area beyond a point was fenced off as conservation area, and just there was an entry point to the sand dunes for OHV's. We didn't risk going that way, instead we turned around and drove back. 

Riding back alongside trucks

The Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Complex is an 18 mile stretch of coastline on the Central Coast and second largest dunes system in California. Part of this dunes system are Oceano Dunes SVRA, Oso Flaco Lake Natural Area, Rancho Guadalupe Dunes County Park and Pismo Beach, and we checked them all out. I will write a separate post for Pismo Beach. 

​Oso Flaco Lake: After returning our helmets, we drove 15 miles south to Oso Flaco Lake. Even though it is part of Oceano Dunes Recreation Area, it has a separate entrance and a trail to the lake and beach. From the parking lot it was an easy walk through wooded area that lead to a boardwalk. It was a mile long boardwalk over and across the lake to the dunes and the ocean. 

Wooded trail / Boardwalk

Oso Flaco Lake

At the end the boardwalk split, one leading to the beach and the other to a lookout for beautiful views of the ocean and surrounding mountains. It was a nice fun walk while watching birds, raccoons, and fishes in the lake, and wildflowers at the dunes.

Beach view from lookout

To lookout and ocean / To the beach

Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve: Towards the end of our trip we payed a visit to these dunes as well. Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Park is a well preserved dunes area far south of Oceano, nearly 20 miles. West Main st. which leads to the dunes ran through vast farmlands of brussel sprouts and other green leafy vegetables. Towards the end of the road the landscape changed from farms to sand dunes. It was a marvelous drive, you must go see it to believe it. It was like driving in the middle of a dessert with only one road and nothing else for miles. Wind had blown some sand onto the road and caused sand ripples in the dunes.

Beautiful drive / Sand dunes

Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve, California

The street ended at a fenced parking lot with access to the beach. To the right there was a fenced bird nesting area where we saw many pretty birds. To the far right we saw a cloud of dust created by the OHV's on Oceano dunes. There were hardly anyone at the beach, no swimmers at all, just beach strollers and some people fishing. There were so many sand dollars and colorful shells washed up on the shore. It was such a beautiful and tranquil place to be.

Calm beach at the end

Fishing / Birds nesting area

Guadalupe-Nipomo dunes is overall a fantastic place and has been an unforgettable experience for us. Oceano dunes would have been even more great if it wasn't a holiday. We definitely want to plan a separate trip to the dunes, may be on a weekday next time. ​

Gear used: Fuji X-T20 with 18-55mm lens.

Useful Information:

Where to Stay: We stayed in Casa Grande Inn, Arroyo Grande. Check out accommodations in Pismo Beach. Check out accommodations near Oceano. Getting there: Whether you are driving north or south on Pacific Coast Hwy-1, take Grand Ave exit for north entrance or Pier Ave exit for south entrance (OHV area), and drive towards the coast. Hours: Beach and dunes are open for day use from 6am-11pm. Cost: Check for all fees/pass information including - day use entrance and camping on the Official Website. Cost for entering the beach in your own vehicle is $5 per day. OHV rental cost: We rented a 2 seater Rhino for $140 per hour. Check out BJ's ATV Rentals for other options and full information. What to bring/wear for riding: A small backpack with sunscreen, sunglasses/goggles, water, snacks, your phone (for emergency) and camera. Wear shoes and better dress in long pants/full sleeves. Things to do in the area: ​Pismo Beach, Avila Beach, Monarch Butterfly Grove, Dinosaur Caves Park.



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