Oceano is known for its dunes, among the highest and whitest in California, and for its beach, where vehicles are allowed. Its lagoon, on the other hand, is a sleepy backwater that attracts more waterfowl than people.
Luckily for the day hiker, a nature trail encircles Oceano Lagoon and offers an educational tour explaining local history and plant life. The freshwater lagoon also forms a peaceful backdrop for campers staying overnight at Pismo State Beach's Oceano Campground.
The lagoon's tranquillity is even more apparent in contrast to the nearby beach, Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. This shoreline is often jammed with cars and trucks. Beach hikers, myself included, hope that Oceano eventually models itself after one of California's 200 other carless beaches.
A bit of history will help the hiker fully appreciate this route. At the beginning of the 20th century, Oceano boasted beach cottages, a wharf and mammoth La Grande Beach Pavilion. But the developer's dream of turning Oceano into a tourist mecca did not materialize, and pavilion, wharf and cottage ruins were buried beneath advancing sand dunes.
The leisurely loop trail around the lagoon today offers a good introduction to a freshwater marshland.
Harold Guiton, for whom the trail was named, donated the lagoon to the state park system in 1935 and worked for the formation of Pismo State Beach. The nature trail, with a dozen stops, highlights diverse plant life. It also explains how the native Chumash used marshland plants for food and medicine.
Directions to trail head: From U.S. 101 in Arroyo Grande, exit on Grand Avenue and follow it west to California Highway 1. Head south a mile to the community of Oceano, just south of the city of Grover Beach, and turn west on Pier Avenue. On your right you'll spot Oceano Campground, for campers only (no day use). Park along Pier Avenue and walk toward the park's tiny nature center. If the center is open, check out the plant and wildlife exhibits and obtain a nature trail pamphlet (by no means necessary to enjoy the trail).
The hike: From the nature center, join signed Guiton Trail heading north. The first part of the path is paved (wheelchair accessible). As the path loops near the campground, it passes a California native plant garden. Species are grouped in coastal scrub, riparian, chaparral and woodland environments.
The path heads south, then north, around a Monterey pine-shaded peninsula. Benches are positioned so hikers can contemplate the lagoon. Watch the edges of the lagoon for small, brown muskrats swimming in the shallows.
Scout the skies for the red-winged blackbird and the belted kingfisher. Keep an eye out for a eucalyptus known as the "Cormorant Tree" because it is a popular roost and wing-drying hangout for the double-breasted cormorant.
Leaving the campground behind, the path reaches the northern end of the lagoon, where Guiton Trail turns south to travel along the opposite bank.
Walk among the willows back to Pier Avenue where your excursion began.
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Where: Oceano Lagoon, Pismo State Beach.
Distance: 1.5 miles round trip.
Terrain: Freshwater lagoon.
Highlights: Interpreted nature trail.
Degree of difficulty: Easy.
For more information: Pismo State Beach; tel. (805) 489-1869.