to the Guadalupe Dunes
Photo taken on a Fuji x100
Less than a few hours north of Santa Barbara, but seemingly on another planet, are the wild and wonderful Guadalupe Dunes.
Of course, our local deserts have dunes, and we’re familiar with the dunes that lie along the coast much further north in Oregon. But right here, so close to home, we’ve got our own dune ecosystem. A more popular series of dunes lies just north of this area in Pismo Beach. However, if you’re looking for something more off the beaten path, consider making a trip to Guadalupe.
The small town of Guadalupe is about 10 miles west of Santa Maria off Highway 101. At one point, before the 101 came to be, Highway 1 ran down Guadalupe’s main street. The town itself dates back to 1769 when missionaries passed through. Indeed, in the late 1700’s, the area that now forms the town was pastureland for the nearby Mission La Purisima. What was likely a once bustling downtown with hotels, restaurants, and shops is now mostly vacant. The Main Street is eerily quiet but relatively well maintained with some interesting storefronts and buildings here and there.
The landscape here is both surreal and lunar-like. You can go and go and not see a single footprint or another person
Called “The Gateway to the Dunes,” the town of Guadalupe is just a mile or so from the coast. It’s there that you’ll find the fantastic system of dunes and around 18 miles of unspoiled beaches. Unlike Pismo, these dunes are protected with no vehicles allowed on the beach. In fact, on our first visit out there, we weren’t allowed to leave the parking lot to walk on the dunes or the beach. The Western Snowy Plover, a threatened species of shorebird, lays its eggs in this area. As such, people are kept entirely off the dunes for a few months out of the year to protect the nesting areas. Nesting season runs from March 1 through October 1. We took note and ventured back at another time of year when access to the dunes was wide open.
On this section of the California coast, the wind is wild and sometimes unforgiving. We braced for the wind and headed out to wander the dunes. The landscape here is both surreal and lunar-like. You can go and go and not see a single footprint or another person. Get on top of a dune and see the ocean and the distant hills. Head down to the bottom of the dune, and you’re all of a sudden in a remote desert with nothing else in sight. You’ll have a great time just exploring the dunes and walking along this completely unspoiled stretch of coastline. With the development that lies just south, an entirely uninhabited and undeveloped stretch of coast like this is indeed a rare and beautiful find.
Hopping back in the car, we headed just a little further north to the other end of town to check out Oso Flaco Lake. There’s a small charge to head into this park, but if a nominal fee helps to care for a park that’s so beautiful, then we’re on board. From the parking area, head out a dirt road lined with a beautiful canopy of oak trees. Off in the distance, you can hear the sounds of some off-road vehicles. This park borders Pismo Beach ORV recreation area, and you might even catch a glimpse of a three-wheeler on the hilltop.
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Nearing the end of the dirt trail, make a left and enter a series of boardwalks that cross over the lake. They’ve built an amazing trail over the water, allowing you beautiful views of both the lake and the dunes in the distance. At the end of the boardwalk, you’re up on a viewing platform high above the dunes with more incredible views of this magnificent stretch of the coast. Where the Guadalupe Dunes and their shifting sands may not be comfortable to walk on, the boardwalk and walking path here makes a trip to these dunes accessible for one and all.
While we both knew that the dune system existed here, neither of us knew about Oso Flaco. All it took to find it was a little sense of adventure and a turn down a road just to see what was at the end.
Do yourself a favor and take the road less traveled. What lies at the end most certainly promises to be an adventure!
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