Coastal Journey
to the Guadalupe Dunes

Photo taken on a Fuji x100



Day Trip
Central California

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.

View of the Guadalupe Dunes from the parking lot. ~ Photo taken on an iPhone.

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.

Road leading into the Guadalupe Dunes ~ Photo taken on an iPhone
Steve exploring the Guadalupe Dunes. ~ Photo taken on a Fuji x100
The vast expanse of the Guadalupe Dunes ~ Photo taken on an iPhone
Gabe taking photos on the Guadalupe Dunes ~ Photo taken on an iPhone
Shadow selfie ~ Photo taken on Fuji x100

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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Looking south across the Guadalupe Dunes. ~ Photo taken on a Fuji x100
Looking across the bridge at Oso Flaco Lake. ~ Photo taken on an iPhone 6
View from Oso Flaco Lake Trail. ~ Photo taken on an iPhone
Tree lined path at Oso Flaco Lake Trail. ~ Photo taken on an iPhone

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!


  1. Nicholas McGilvray

    Beautiful photographs! I was inspired to take a photo trip to these dunes because of your stunning images, and the dunes did not disappoint!

    • Steve Wilson

      That’s so great to hear Nicholas! We’ve been up there a few times but not lately … thinking we should plan a trip back soon! Hope you got some great photos on your visit.

  2. Alexandria

    Hi! Would you recommend only visiting the dunes during non-nesting season, or can you still enjoy the dunes and surrounding area at other times of the year (I’m making a trip to California end of April).


    • Steve Wilson

      Hi Alexandria – that’s a great question! We have been to the Guadalupe Dunes both in and out of nesting season … and while it’s beautiful all year-round, we would suggest to visit out of season. In order to protect their delicate habitat, when the birds are nesting, you aren’t allowed to go out on to the dunes at all. Having said that, the dunes out at Oso Flaco Lake are equally as beautiful, and the walk out to the dunes itself is really a lot of fun. If you are visiting at the end of April, you can certainly take a drive out to the Guadalupe Dunes, check it out from the parking lot, and then head a little farther north to visit Oso Flaco. You won’t be disappointed. Have a great trip and let us know what you think!

      • Alexandria

        Hi Steve,

        Thanks for the information! I have another question: would you recommend a visit to these dunes + Oso Flaco if you go during nesting season over the pismo beach dunes?


        • Steve Wilson

          Hey there. Pismo Beach is so close … you can literally visit all three in a day. I know because we’ve done it! The dunes at Pismo are just north of Oso Flaco. And at Pismo, the Dunes are wide open – with the right vehicle you can drive out on to the beach, or take a guided dune buggy tour!


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