The Last Motoring Beach In California
What is Oceano Dunes worth to you?
For 2-million visitors each year, Oceano Dunes is worth their weekend, their summer vacation, and their hard-earned bucks.
It's the place to be together with family and friends, to escape the inland heat, and the only place on California's coast you can camp right on the beach.
Known to many as Pismo Dunes, or simply Pismo, its true location is the town of Oceano. In 1995 the name was officially changed to Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (ODSVRA).
Out of 278 California state parks, Oceano Dunes is the ninth most popular. Its uses include fishing, horse riding, kite boarding, and hiking...but, primarily sand duning!
Oceano Dunes became a part of California's very first highway on September 4, 1769, when the Spanish Portola expedition passed through, thus establishing the historic El Camino Real route, now moved inland and known as Pacific Coast Highway.
Sometime around 1905 automobiles appeared on the beach and were a natural fit. Autos provided access to the miles of scenic dune and ocean views, to picnicking on the beach, and more importantly to the coveted Pismo Clam. Soon, the long, flat beach gained a reputation as a good place to drive fast and race. But no one was driving off the beach and in the dunes yet, as tires and automobiles simply weren't up to it.
Hardly known is the fact that much of Oceano Dunes was subdivided in 1905 into hundreds and hundreds of parcels intended for homes. Known as the La Grande Beach Tract, many lots were sold to East Coast buyers not aware they were purchasing deep sand dunes.
The Great Depression put many lots into tax default, and because of this, the state ended up with much of the land that is now our park. Yet dozens of these tiny 100x30-foot lots remain privately owned by individuals all over the country and are spread out like a patch-work within the dunes where we play.
Alarmingly, 584 acres of La Grande Tract property that duners use is not owned by our park. This acreage is owned by the County of San Luis Obispo and has been leased since 1983. This is a great threat to our park as the county can terminate this lease with only 30 days notice. Oceano Dunes would lose one-third of its open riding area and nearly half of the camping space if that happened.
Earnest sand duning didn't begin until the mid 1950s. Among the very few yearning to climb dunes in automobiles were two friends, Jerry Miller and Roland Lanini, who are now in their 80s. I was lucky enough to meet Jerry and Roland in March.
Roland related a memorable jump: "We went over the top of a hill, and flew over a long way..."
Jerry laughed, "Two hats laying on the sand when we hit the bottom!"
The pair also recounted building a sand car for only $7 using a Model A Ford they found abandoned on the beach.
As Roland giggled, Jerry recounted: "We didn't make a battery box; we just tied it on with ropes. The ropes would break and he'd be driving down the beach and the battery would be bouncing along behind him."
Jerry is credited with building the first-ever sand rail. By shortening the drive shaft of his Model A pickup he moved the engine back nearly three feet to achieve drastically better weight distribution and traction. Soon everyone else was doing the same.
More and more people realized the fun that Jerry and Roland were having. Eventually an entirely new and wildly popular sport emerged-along with a unique culture.