Hike into the Pismo Beach sand dunes to find untouched sandy hills that stretch for miles. This guide tells you everything you need to know about visiting the Pismo Dunes (aka the Oceano Dunes), including where to park and access the dunes on foot.
Trek a few hills over into the Oceano Dunes, and you’ll see miles and miles of undulating golden hills. From the looks of it, you could be in the middle of a desert with no water for hundreds of miles – but the ocean is actually just a short hike away. The Oceano Dunes (also called the Pismo Beach Sand Dunes) are located along California’s central coast, a few minutes south of Pismo Beach.
This guide covers how you can best explore the Pismo Beach dunes on foot. It also shows how can currently access the dunes by car and notes the access changes that are being implemented over the next few years.
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What’s in a name?
It can be a bit confusing when you’re first looking these dunes up, because you’ll see them go by a few different names: the Pismo Dunes, the Pismo Beach Sand Dunes, the Pismo Dunes Natural Preserve, the Oceano Dunes Natural Preserve, and the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA). They are pretty much all one in the same; some of these names are referring to specific portions of the dunes, but it’s all generally referring to the sand dunes that span several miles of coastline around Pismo Beach and Oceano. But since Pismo Beach is more well known, I’ve heard them called the Pismo Beach sand dunes pretty often.
Currently, the Oceano Dunes SVRA is the dune area a few minutes drive south of the Pier Avenue Entrance. The Pismo Dunes Natural Preserve are the dunes between the SVRA area and the Pier Avenue entrance where no OHVs are allowed.
About the Oceano Dunes
The Oceano Dunes are part of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Complex, which spans 18 miles of coastline in Central California near San Luis Obispo. The Oceano Dunes have been one of the most popular off-roading spots in California for decades. The beach portion of the dunes is the only place in California where cars have been permitted to drive on the sand. However, big changes are coming over the next few years.
They are also important as a natural habitat for several native species, including the Western snowy plover and the California least tern. These threatened shorebirds use the dunes as nesting grounds.
Upcoming Changes to the Pismo Beach Sand Dunes
Because of the dune’s fragile ecosystem and the wildlife that relies on it, there has been a several decade’s long battle between those who want to continue allowing Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) use of the dunes, and those who want to restore it to its natural state.
As of 2021, the California Coastal Commission voted to phase out OHV use. Most car and off roading access to the beach and the dunes will be phased out by 2024. See below for scheduled changes of vehicle access to the beach and the dunes.
- OHV use phased out by 2024. OHV rentals no longer allowed as of March 2020
- No vehicles are permitted to cross Arroyo Grande Creek as of March 2021. This creek flows through the beach just south of the Pier Avenue vehicle entrance.
- The Pier Avenue Entrance will be closed to vehicles by July 2022
- By 2024, all Oceano Dunes car camping must be limited to the beach area between Grand and Pier avenues. Use will be limited to 500 campers.
- After Jan. 1, 2026, vehicles will only be permitted to access the Oceano Dunes on the one-mile beach stretch between Grand and Pier Avenues.
Map of the Oceano Dunes
The dunes cover a pretty wide area, so it’s helpful to have this map to understand what part of the dunes you can access. This map is made specifically for the state vehicular recreation area, but you’ll also note the Pismo Dunes Natural Preserve, which is most likely where you’ll be going if you’re trying to access the Pismo dunes by foot.
How to get to the Pismo Dunes on Foot
Even with the changes coming to the Pismo Dunes, you’ll still be able to explore them on foot – and this way, their beauty will be preserved.
1) The Pacific Dunes Ranch and RV Resort Entrance
The best way to access the Pismo Dunes Natural Preserve area (see the map above) is from the back side.
Where to Park: Pacific Dunes Ranch and RV Resort
1205 Silver Spur Place, Oceano
The best place to park is just outside of the Pacific Dunes Ranch and RV resort. You’ll have to drive through the town of Oceano and out past some farm land (don’t worry, you’re not lost!).
The resort is located where Silver Spur Place dead ends. There is a small concrete lot for visitors, but you can park on the other side of the wooden fence in the dirt lot for free. I double checked with the person at the resort check-in, and she said it was fine.
From there, walk up the hill through the RV resort until you reach the entrance to the dunes. From this entrance, you’ll be accessing the space designated as the Pismo Beach Natural Preserve. No OHVs are allowed on these dunes, so by hiking a few dunes in, you’ll be able to find some untouched dunes. From here, you’ll have plenty of place to play and explore!
We had a lot of fun hiking through the dunes and sliding down the hills. You’ll find some pretty steep hills good for sledding, so bring a disc sled if you want to give it a try!
How to get to Pismo Beach Dunes by Driving
There are two spots where you can drive your car onto the beach to get closer to the dunes.
2) Grand Avenue Entrance – North Entrance
Address: 105 Grand Ave, Grover Beach
You can park just outside the entrance and walk onto the beach or the nearby dunes, or pay $5 and drive onto the beach.
If you drive right (or north) after entering the beach, this is a popular spot for people to park, have a bonfire, and watch the sunset.
The dune trail starts across from the parking lot before entering the beach. Once you park, cross Grand Ave to find the sandy trail. This part of the Pismo Beach Dunes has a lot more vegetation. While it’s beautiful, it may not be the pure hills of sand you might expect (for that, see #1). Find more information about the Dune Trail here.
You can also enter at the Grand Avenue entrance and go south, passing the Pier Avenue entrance and continuing on down the beach.
3 ) Pier Avenue Entrance – South Entrance
Address: 100 Pier Ave, Oceano
This is the southern entrance to the beach. This is the entrance those with OHVs typically use as the OHV area is south of Pier Avenue. Because of the new 2021 restriction of not being allowed to cross the Arroyo Grande river when it’s flowing, you may not be able to get very far south.
This is also the entrance to use if you want to access the Pismo Dunes Natural Preserve area from the beach side. The preserve area is between the Pier Avenue entrance and the OHV area.
Do you need a 4×4 or AWD to drive onto Pismo Beach?
Most cars should be able to drive onto the beach from either location. When we visited, the path from the entrance to the harder packed sand closed to the water was hardened down from repeated car use. We saw someone who had the bright idea to cut through the soft sand and not take this main path….and they got stuck. If you stick to the path, you should be fine.
Once you’re on the beach, the speed limit is 15 mph.
Camping near Oceano Dunes
There are several designated camping areas near the Oceano Dunes, including camping on the beach!
Beach Camping at Oceano Dunes SVRA
Yes, you can go camping on the beach at Pismo Beach next to the sand dunes. Most people going off-roading drive their RV and OHVs onto the sand and set up camp. There are currently about 1000 reservation spots. This is set to go down to 500 in coming years. The area where you can camp on Pismo Beach will also be narrowed as well in coming years.
To making a reservation for camping at Oceano Dunes, head to ReserveCalifornia.com and look up Oceano Dunes SVRA.
Pismo State Beach – North Beach Campground
The North Beach Campground at Pismo Beach isn’t located directly on the sand, but It’s pretty close to it. This campground has over 100 grassy sites, with amenities including toilets and showers. It’s located next to the Monarch Butterfly Grove and there is a short access trail to the beach. From the Pismo North Beach Campground, it’s about a 4 mile drive to the dunes. Reservations are available on ReserveCalifornia.com.
Pismo State Beach – Oceano Campground
Oceano Camp at Pismo State Beach has 82 campsites near the dunes and next to a fresh water lagoon. The campground has water, flush toilets and showers, and half of them have electricity hookups if you’re traveling in an RV. Reservations are available on ReserveCalifornia.com under Pismo State Beach – Oceano Camp.
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