Hiking: Pismo Beach : Doin' the Dunes

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:

* Pismo Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area is a sandy playground for street vehicles and off-highway vehicles.

* For walkers, the attraction is Pismo State Dunes Natural Preserve, a region of tall sand hills where vehicles are prohibited and you can wander for miles in a Sahara-by-the-sea.

The Pismo Dunes, often referred to as the Nipomo Dunes these days, are one of the largest, relatively undisturbed dune complexes in California. The dunes, which stretch 18 miles from the northern end of Pismo State Beach to Point Sal State Beach are a treasure.

One to three miles wide, 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.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, 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." Shifting sands buried the remains of the Dunite community, just like they had earlier buried more elaborate developments.

This walk explores the dune preserve inland from the Pismo Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. The shoreline itself is often a traffic jam of cars, trucks and off-highway vehicles.

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

A nice supplement to your dune walk is the half-mile loop trail around Oceano Lagoon. The trail begins just off Pier Avenue in Pismo State Beach's Oceano Campground. Ask park rangers for an interpretive pamphlet for Guiton Trail, pointing out the importance of this marshland environment.

Directions to trail head: From U.S. 101 in Arroyo Grande, exit on Grand Avenue and follow it westward to California 1. Head south a mile to the community of Oceano, just south of Grover Beach, and turn west on Pier Avenue. The Pismo Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area entrance station is a short distance ahead. If you have a four-wheel drive, pickup truck 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 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 half a 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 half a mile south along the water's edge (not as treacherous or awful as it looks from the distance, with all those vehicles on the beach) to the dune preserve 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 this hike.)

The state beach has begun broadcasting visitor information--tides, weather, surf conditions, rules and regulations, etc.--on the radio. Get the full scoop on FM 89.5, which can be heard anywhere within a one-mile radius of the Pier Avenue beach entrance in Oceano.

The hike: Head inland to the fence that marks the boundary of the Pismo State 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 dune 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 these 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 trail head.

Dune Preserve

Where: Pismo Dunes Natural Preserve, Pismo Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area Distance: 2 or more miles round trip.

Terrain: Wind-sculpted sand dunes.

Highlights: Largest set of coastal dunes in California

Degree of Difficulty: Easy-moderate

For More Information: Contact Pismo State Beach, 3220 S. Higuera St., Suite 311, San Luis Obispo, Calif. 93401 (805) 549-3312

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