The Pismo Dunes SVRA, renamed the Oceano Dunes SVRA because they’re actually in the town of Oceano, are recognized by scientists, conservationists, government agencies, and the public as the finest, most extensive coastal dunes remaining in California. With five-and-a-half miles of beach and thousands of acres of OHV-friendly sand, this OHV area is one of the most popular California State Parks. Permitted use of sand rails, buggies, ATVs, UTVs, and dirt bikes is popular, along with licensed off-road vehicles, and many even pull campers out onto the beach. This article breaks down some history of the area and includes any information you may need when visiting the Oceano Dunes SVRA.
Getting on the sand:
There are three beach entrances where you can purchase daily use and overnight camping permits. From south to north the first entrance is at the west end of Pier Avenue, just north of the Oceano County Airport; the second entrance is accessed through the Oceano Campground (also off Pier Avenue); and the third entrance is off West Grand Avenue, just south of the Pismo Beach Golf Course. Once on the beach you turn left and head south towards the dune area. One mile south of the Pier Avenue beach entrance is Post 2, a post on the beach that marks the beginning of the off-highway vehicle riding and camping area; this is where you’ll see OHV riders unloading their trailers and gearing up. Some areas on the beach or in the dunes are fenced off or signed as closed to vehicular use; these areas either contain sensitive plant and animal life or are private property.
To help you navigate the Oceano Dunes SVRA, California State Parks is piloting a new iOS mobile app in eight parks around the state, including the Oceano Dunes. It’s called OuterSpacial, and it’s available in the App Store. We gave it a try, and it allowed us to have an interactive map of the dunes handy at all times. Here’s the map provided in the app, available on CA.gov.
The first known settlers of the Oceano dunes area were Native Americans, spotted and documented by Spanish explorers sailing up the California coast. European explorers traveled through the dunes in 1769. Just after crossing the Santa Maria River, one of the men from Don Gaspar de Portola's expedition killed "un oso flaco"—a skinny bear. The lake at the south end of the park takes its name from this incident. In the 1930s and ’40s, the dunes were home to a group of free thinkers who identified themselves collectively as the "Dunites." This group consisted of mystics, nudists, artists, writers, and hermits. The Dunites published a magazine called The Dune Forum, and they believed the Oceano Dunes were a center of creative energy in California.
From March 1 to September 30 fenced enclosures are constructed around the nests of shorebirds living in the dunes to protect them and their offspring from surrounding human use. The nesting program is designed to protect birds such as the Audubon warbler, long-billed marsh wren, red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, the threatened snowy plover, and the endangered California least tern. With ongoing support from the OHV community, the nesting program has been successful in protecting local bird populations so far.
However, the only California State Park where vehicles may be driven on the beach has been the subject of a longstanding controversial battle between environmentally concerned members of local communities and off-road enthusiasts who frequent the park. The concern being that extensive use of motorized vehicles in the park leads to excessive pollution in the towns downwind of the beach. So it’s important when visiting Oceano Dunes SVRA to be kind to fellow beachgoers, whether in a 4x4, OHV, or on foot. We need to set a good example for our community and give everyone more reasons to keep public OHV areas open for our responsible enjoyment.
Camping is allowed south of Post 2 on the beach and in the open dune area, but remember to obey signs and fences indicating closed areas. While it’s possible to score a camping permit at the entrances to the beach, it’s best to reserve a space ahead of time, particularly during holidays and in the summer. To reserve a site or for more information you can call 1-800-444-7275. Campsites are available by reservation year-round and can be made from 48 hours up to six months in advance.
High tides, heavy rains, and blowing sand can affect the driving conditions on the beach and make it particularly easy to get stuck. The CA.gov site says, “Access to the OHV and camping area may be restricted periodically by Arroyo Grande Creek, which is subject to water releases at Lopez Dam and increased flow during winter storms.” Obviously beach camping is recommended for four-wheel-drive vehicles only. If you have questions or concerns regarding camping at the dunes you can email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Again, four-wheel drive is required to play in the dunes; sorry, prerunner fans. Also required is a whip and flag that reach at least eight feet high from the sand. A lot of people like to have fun in the dunes, and visibility is extremely important. Always keep your eyes peeled for other vehicles or flags, which may be the only thing you can see over a sand lip. You can order these for under $10 from many online outlets, or there are several motorsports shops in the town of Pismo Beach that will sell one to you if you forgot yours. The Oceano Dunes SVRA prohibits vehicle operations that are unsafe even if they do not rise to the level of reckless operation or child endangerment, so watch out for the rangers and keep your vehicle under control at all times.
Always carry a shovel or two, a tow strap, and a tire gauge. If you get stuck you can always air down and try to crawl out of the ditch, shovel yourself out, or ask a friend for a pull. If you do get stuck or into some trouble on the dunes that you can’t solve yourself, you can call the Oceano Ranger Station / Maintenance Shop at 805-473-7220. In an emergency, dial 911 for the Sherriff, or an emergency solar-powered call box is located at the entrance to Sand Highway at approximately Post 4-1/2. This should go without saying, but don’t drink and drive—even on the beach—and most importantly, have a blast! The dunes are a great place to push the limits of your 4x4 and your courage—responsibly, that is.