Many Dunes Can Be Explored Along Our California Coast

Celebrate Coastweeks with a coast walk.

The California Coastal Commission has designated today through Oct. 10 as “Coastweeks” in California, part of a national celebration of America’s coasts and shorelines.

Marsh Day, Estuaries Day, beach clean-up parties and an Environmental Convergence on the Sonoma Coast are among the diverse activities scheduled to take place during the next three weeks. Coastal conservationists hope these activities will reinforce the theme of citizen stewardship of the coast.

National Landmark


One particularly tranquil place to visit during Coastweeks--or any other week--is Nipomo Dunes, one of the largest relatively undisturbed dune complexes in California. The dunes, which run from the northern end of Pismo State Beach to Pt. Sal just north of Vandenberg Air Force Base, were declared a national landmark by Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton in 1974.

Three distinct dune fields--or “dune sheets,” as they are sometimes called--make up the Nipomo Dunes. The Mussel Rock Dunes spread from the Santa Maria River south to Point Sal; the Guadalupe Dunes extend from Oso Flaco Lake south along the Santa Maria River drainage, and the Callender Dunes sprawl some distance inland from Arroyo Grande Creek south to Oso Flaco Lake.

The dunes are a dynamic ecosystem; they’ve been building up, shifting in response to the prevailing northwest winds, for the last 18,000 years or so. Some dunes continue to be formed today. The active, moving ones are those with little or no vegetation.

Flowers, plants and grasses are vital to the dune ecosystem because they stabilize the drifting sands. Brightening the dunes in the springtime are yellow and magenta sand verbena, coreopsis, daisies and white-fringed aster.


Hermits Lived Here

During the Great Depression, the dunes were home to the “Dunites,” a motley collection of writers, artists, hermits, nudists and astrologers, who lived in driftwood shacks and published their own magazine called “The Dune Forum.” The dunes were featured in the 1964 movie “The Great Race.”

Shifting sands buried the Dunite community, as they had earlier buried more elaborate developments. In 1904, Oceano boasted beach cottages, a wharf and mammoth La Grande Beach Pavilion. The developer’s grandiose plans of turning Oceano into a tourist mecca did not materialize, and pavilion, wharf and cottages were buried beneath advancing dunes.

This walk crosses the Nipomo Dunes and explores three more fascinating environments: Oso Flaco Lake, a 75-acre lake and marshland; Coreopsis Hill, where the giant “tree sunflower” thrives, and the mouth of the Santa Maria River.


Directions to the trail head: From U.S. 101 in Santa Maria, exit on Highway 166 (west), which is Main Street. Proceed west 9 miles to Highway 1. Turn north on Highway 1 and head 3 miles to Oso Flaco Lake Road; drive 3 1/2 miles to road’s end at a parking area near the dunes.

The hike: The wide path leads along Oso Flaco Creek, which is lined with goldenrod, watercress and rushes. After a quarter-mile, the path reaches Oso Flaco, largest of the dune lakes. Actually, Oso Flaco Lakes would be more accurate: both a “big” and “little” lake are situated here. Rails and grebes nest at water’s edge and sandpipers and a rather raucous duck population winter here.

The Portola Expedition camped at the lake in September, 1760. The soldiers killed a bear and feasted on it. Although Father Crespi, diarist and spiritual counselor for the expedition, wanted to call it “Lake of the Martyrs San Juan de Perucia and San Pedro de Sacro Terrato,” the soldiers’ more humble name of Oso Flaco (lean bear) stuck.

From the lake, you’ll walk oceanward along the creek, up and down the dunes to the water’s edge, and head south. Cross the creek, then cut eastward across the dunes. Conspicuous by its dark green appearance, Coreopsis Hill stands out among its plainer, dun-colored neighboring dunes. February through April it’s covered with Giant Coreopsis that sometimes reach 8 feet in height. A path leads up the western face of the dune.


Option: To Santa Maria River. From Coreopsis Hill, walk down the dunes to water’s edge and head south. Three miles of beach walking brings you to the Santa Maria River. Among the many native and migratory waterfowl residing in the wetland at the river mouth are the California least tern and the California brown pelican. Across the river is Rancho Guadalupe County Park, where you’ll find the highest sand dune on the West Coast, 450-foot-tall Mussel Rock.

Nipomo Dunes Trail

Oso Flaco Lake to Coriopsis Hill: 2 1/2 miles round trip.

Oso Flaco Lake to Santa Maria River: 8 miles round trip.