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Western Travel | SIDE TRIP

Ready to unwind? Towering coastal dunes beckon

April 09, 2006|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

Guadalupe, Calif. — A wind-carved wilderness stretches 18 miles along the coast just west of this dusty Central California town. The area, called the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve, is home to more than a dozen rare and endangered plants, 250 species of birds and a variety of mammals as diverse as bats and bobcats.

But humans often overlook this dramatic swath of sand dunes -- some of which soar 100 feet. Although most of California's 35 million residents live within a few hours' drive, only a few visit annually, allowing sections of the preserve to remain wild, scenic and secluded.

A stop between ... Los Angeles and Central California destinations, such as Morro Bay or San Luis Obispo. Or it's a pleasant break in the drive between L.A. and San Francisco. The preserve, south of Pismo State Beach, is an easy detour for travelers driving north or south on highways 1 or 101 between Southern and Central California.

The draw: The preserve has sandy beaches, isolated trails and shorelines and towering, rolling mountains of sand -- the highest dunes on the West Coast. It's easy to lose yourself in the solitude of the place.

"I've been up and down that shoreline many times and not seen a single person on the beach," said Kathie Matsuyama, a spokeswoman for the Dunes Center, a research and visitor center in Guadalupe.

Not all the preserve is as quiet. In the north, near Pismo Beach, is the 3 1/2 -mile Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, where more than 2 million people each year bring their off-road vehicles. I took my all-wheel-drive Subaru out, and I have to admit it was fun seeing waves and sand whipping by the windows of my car. But the stretch of beach seemed crowded and crazy.

Farther south, the people and noise disappear. Oso Flaco Lake Natural Area has a mile-long footbridge and planked boardwalk that crosses the lake and winds through dunes to a remote beach. The 2 1/2 -mile round-trip hike to the beach discourages some visitors, so the shoreline retains a feeling of wildness.

About six miles farther south -- still within the preserve -- is Guadalupe Beach, site of Rancho Guadalupe Dunes County Park, known for its miles of unspoiled shoreline sand dunes. "It's a hidden spot on the Central Coast," said Willie Richardson, preserve manager. "We don't do any advertising, so most of our visitors are folks from the Santa Maria Valley."

Although few people visit, many have seen the park: The dunes have been a favorite location for movie shoots, beginning in the 1920s, when Cecil. B. DeMille built one of the largest sets in film history for his 1923 silent epic "The Ten Commandments." The set was buried in the sand after the film crew left and pieces occasionally are unearthed. Moviemakers continue to use the dunes today; recent films such as "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Hidalgo" were shot here.

The delay: Allow two to three hours to visit any one area; more time if you plan to hike, picnic, use the off-road area or visit more than one site.

Guadalupe Beach is 14 miles west of U.S. 101 on California 166 and is a no-fee area; Oso Flaco Lake is three miles north of Guadalupe on Oso Flaco Lake Road and has a parking fee of $5. The Dunes Center, (805) 343-2455,

Oceano Dunes is three miles west of U.S. 101, exiting in Arroyo Grande on Grand Avenue. $5 per vehicle. (805) 473-7223,

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