When people hear the words “beach” and “California,” it’s not unusual to think of surfing, sand castles, and plenty of sun. Many places in the Golden State do offer such picturesque imagery, but none of them can hold a candle to the paradise that is Pismo Beach.
Why you ask? Because this is here where “hang loose” becomes “hangtime,” as thousands visit annually to enjoy the vast expanses of sand that form the Oceano Dunes SVRA. We recently made the trek to Oceano as part of the 2016 Toyota Dune Run, a small gathering of Facebook friends who love both the brand and the good times had while off-roading. This was the first time some of us had ever made it out there, and it goes without saying that we had a blast.
As part of our new column on off-road hotspots, Outdoor Overview, allow us to be your guide as we provide the lowdown on Oceano Dunes SVRA, including: what to bring, where to go, what to watch out for, and how to have fun while being responsible.
Geographically speaking, Oceano Dunes is a part of the larger dune system known as the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. It’s the second largest dune system in California, second to the Glamis Dunes in the southern end of the state.
In all, Oceano Dunes SVRA takes up about 3,650 acres of land, with 1,500 of those acres open to the public. More than one million people visit each year, making it a significant moneymaker for the county of San Luis Obispo – nearly $110 million, according to a website dedicated to the SVRA’s history. Many begrudge the fact that prior to 1982, the area was much more open to off-roaders, but this has done little to dissuade people from coming out and having a blast.
The SVRA has been host to popular off-road events in the past, chiefly Huckfest, which attracted over 10,000 visitors every time the show rolled into town. Holidays are also some of the biggest draws, as Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day bring out massive swaths of off-roaders and campers to enjoy an extended weekend. We’d recommend shying away from the dunes around this time, as they tend to get very crowded; but if you’re of the “more the merrier” ilk, then these would be the days to head out there.
Variety is not really the name of the game at Oceano Dunes SVRA. Sand is all there is to this place, but then again, it’s all you need. The dunes have been around for millions of years and aren’t going anywhere, but are instead creating some very interesting formations that can either be the source of never-ending fun or sudden regret.
The back portion of the SVRA is where you’ll want to be to get the full Pismo experience since the terrain can vary wildly and make for interesting places to test out your skill while having fun. As an aside, Pismo is a place where pretty much only four-wheel-drives can survive unless you have a dune buggy or sand rail; just don’t forget to bring a set of paddle tires along.
Dune formations include bowls — spots where the sand has taken a curving shape with steep drop-offs on the highest edges. These are fun to take on in something like a UTV or motorcycle since the lower center-of-gravity and lower weight of these makes them easier to navigate through.
One formation to watch out for is what one friend labeled the “double dune.” These are narrow slits that form between dunes where normally one might expect a smoother contour. There weren’t many that we came across during the Dune Run, but those we did find were definitely dangerous.
As nerve-wracking as those double dunes could be, they weren’t nearly as worrisome as a factor that we could never make heads or tails of – the haze. A constant stream of sand blows over the surface of Oceano’s entirety, and can create some problems for visibility and in determining whether something was a hard edge or merely a gentle descending contour.
It goes without saying that deflating your tires to a lower PSI is definitely the smart play for navigating Pismo, but that won’t stop you from getting stuck in the sand. We highly recommended that you bring along a shovel or set of traction platforms to stick under the tires when this happens. And for Pete’s sake, do not off-road alone. It’s all too possible that you could find yourself wheeling in some remote section of Pismo, only to get stuck and be stranded (cell phone signals are weak and unreliable in this area). Shortband or CB radios are a good thing to have out there as well.
A whip flag at least eight feet tall is mandatory, and must mount to your vehicle as other enthusiasts can’t always see over the edge of a dune to make quick course corrections. Rangers will issue a ticket in violation to those not flying one on their rig.
Do’s and Don’t’s
By and large, the atmosphere of Pismo is pretty relaxed. People are allowed to create campfires along the beach, and are encouraged to make it safer by digging a deep hole in the sand to cut down on embers floating away and causing uncontrolled flames. We had a few float up that sparked our camp chair and a hooded sweatshirt, which wasn’t fun, but hey, it happens.
As was mentioned back in our review of Hammertown, firewood is something you can never have enough of. Between a dozen or so people, all of us brought enough firewood to last through Friday and Saturday nights. A couple of people even brought portable grill/stove units to cook up beans, hot dogs, burgers, and steaks. Yum.
Supplies can be purchased at surrounding supermarkets and mini-marts. This is a nice thing about Pismo – if anything is needed, someone can likely scurry off for about 30 minutes and be back quickly with the necessities like firewood, snacks, and of course, cold beverages. Notice we didn’t mention toilet paper? That’s because there are plenty of portable bathroom stalls dotting the beach, and all of them stay well-stocked.
If you have a trailer, you’re pretty much all set. Tents, as we had during our stay, are a different situation. Severe ocean winds are a constant nuisance, so wherever you do plan on settling down, follow the example of others and try to park your vehicle in between your tent and the water. Your vehicle will act as a windbreaker and make it that much more difficult for gusts to wreck your stay.
You’ll still have sand that manages to seep in, even if you open and close the tent flap quickly, but the less you keep it open, the better. Also, if you have them, use sandbags to secure your tent, as stakes and sand do not go together very well.
With regard to activities to avoid: you’d be ill-advised to burn wood that contains metal, such as pallets. Since metal does not melt, doing this leaves nails and staples buried in the sand for others to find, whether with feet or tires. You should also refuse the urge to bring fireworks to Pismo; they’re fun to launch and explode, but are illegal as hell and will get you arrested.
Another couple of precautions refer to driving in the dunes. If you find yourself losing traction going up a dune, let off the gas, roll backward as straight as possible, and try again; it’s better to admit defeat than to get stuck. If you do get stuck, again, let off the gas. Continuing to apply throttle will only bury you ever deeper and make your recovery that much more difficult.
An Experience That Offers Fun In The Sun
Pismo’s advantages begin with how affordable it is to stay, costing just $10 per vehicle per night. From there, you have the ability to start a campfire, hang out with friends, play music, go cavorting in the dunes, rent a dune buggy, fly a kite, and so on. Bathrooms are provided and stocked all along the beach, and civilization isn’t so far away as to be practically unreachable.
Pismo’s disadvantages come in the form of the hazy, sight-blurring wisps of sand that lead to accidents, as well as vast sections of the SVRA having been closed off to the public. It is regretful that we can’t go back to the glory days of pre-1982, but what we have is still a joy to explore.
On the whole, Oceano Dunes SVRA is a treasure trove of off-road fun. We went during a less busy weekend in April, so we didn’t get to see the place at its potentially high capacity. Despite the decreased size, it still has plenty to offer first-timers and veterans of sandy four-wheeling alike.
Stay tuned for more of our Outdoor Overviews in the future. We plan on looking at more trails, deserts, mud bogs, and other hotspots in the Southwest USA as we carry on. Until next time, pick a good line and tread lightly out there.