"If bread is the first necessity of life, recreation is a close second"

-Edward Bellamy

The History of Pismo-Oceano Dunes

My parents started coming to Pismo to off-road on the dunes in 1963, two years after I was born.  Before that, they had kept to our local dunes at Marina Beach, in the Monterey Bay area.  See my Dune Buggy Page for more information and photos of that area.

This history of Pismo-Oceano Dunes takes a historical perspective, starting as far back as I can find history on, and is broken up into relevant periods.  The uses of the dunes have changed drastically in some parts, but remain the same in other parts.

Pre-1905    1905-1950   1950-1982     1982-Present


The dunes were inhabited by local Chumash Indians long before Europeans arrived.  In the dunes area now, there is evidence of Chumash presence in the form of "Middens," which are no more than old trash dumps piled high with clam and shellfish shells.  It's amazing how one civilization's trash becomes another's treasure.  After the Europeans arrived and chased the natives out of the area, "Pizmo," as it was called back then, became a playground for the new residents of California.  It was one of the very few places where the beach was flat and hard enough to get a horse and buggy along the seashore.  Most other beaches are too soft and steep to safely take a wheeled vehicle anywhere close to the water's edge.  But the flat sands of Pizmo were great for family outings, because the whole family could pile into the wagon and go to the water.  Below is a photo, from the early 1900's, of a family on such an outing.  Ladies didn't generally ride horses back then, so they would either have to walk across the soft sand dunes, or ride in a buggy to the seashore.

The next photo seems to be taken closer to Arroyo Grande Creek.  It is a family on an outing in the dunes.  Note the lack of foredunes.  Most people don't know this, but the foredunes that so many people claim as wonderful, natural environment, are not natural at all, but were the result of plantings by citizens, companies like the railroads, and government agencies over the years.  The native species of plants in this area don't resist wind and blowing sand very well, and in the early days, European Beach Grass and Highway Iceplant were planted all over to keep the sand from blowing inland.  These non-native plants take root in sand very well, and cause the sand to build up behind them.  This buildup causes the foredunes to get even bigger than they would with native vegetation.  So, the large foredunes often seen in old photos are not natural occurrences, but rather are the result of non-native plantings.


Nineteen-hundred five marked a point when people really began to make changes to Pismo and Oceano Beaches, and the point at which people began to use internal combustion to get down the beach and around the dunes.  There is a large hill right along the ocean that marks what my parents called the "Three Mile Limit," or the beginning of the Sand Highway.  This hill is called "Pavillion Hill" because in the early 1900's, a dance pavillion was built right on top of the large dune.  Below is a photo of that building.

Also, the flat sands of Pismo were the site of speed trials, just as the beach in Daytona, Florida, was used.  Not only were cars driven on the beach for pleasure, they were also raced.  Motorcycles were part of the mix as well.  Below is a photo of a race car, with driver and mechanic.

While the racers were using the wet, flat beaches, others were in the soft stuff, having fun!  Below is a photo of an early off-roader, having fun in the dunes.

As automobile ownership increased in the early part of the century, so did its use on Pismo and Oceano Beaches.  Below is a photo from approximately 1915, showing cars on the beach.

As was done just about anywhere in the country, people would take the bodies off old cars to make them lighter, and drive them off-road.  The Pismo-Oceano-Guadalupe Dunes area was no exception.  Some of the people who were around then have told about how they would drive around the dunes with their old Model-T's.  If there was a way to move around, innovators would figure out how to do it!

And, indeed, they DID bring their Model T's to the beach!

In great numbers!


Because they were invited!

Note that "Automobiling on the sand" is the FIRST activity mentioned in this brochure from the early 1900's, advertising "Pizmo" as a tourist destination.


After World War II, the introduction of the 4 wheel drive Jeep and its use in wartime by lots of troops created a rise in interest in off-roading.  People were using not only 4 wheel drive vehicles, but body-less cars were popular as well.  These vehicles were allowed access to all areas of the dunes and beach complex, from the north end of Pismo Beach, all the way to Mussel Rock, or "Devil's Slide," at the south end.  Pismo, Oceano, and Guadalupe all had multiple access points, and dune buggies and jeeps abounded in all the surrounding communities.  People enjoyed riding on the open dunes, which with no fences to contain the duners and their spirit, gave a feeling of freedom.

My parents started duning in 1957 at Marina Beach, in Monterey Bay.  I was born in 1961, and they started coming to a really neat, new place called "Pismo" in 1963.  They flat-towed (tow bar, no trailer) their dune buggies, and slept in tents on the beach.  Back then, it was a 4-5 hour drive from Salinas, because most of Highway 101 went right through the middle of all the little towns, and much of the drive was on two-lane roads.

Below is the cover of the October 1968 Four Wheeler Magazine.  As you can see, my mother wrote in where my dad was during this drag race competition.  Yeah, we were there!

Below is a copy of the December 1971 isssue of Four Wheeler, showing all the people at the drags.  You can see the campers in the area now closed.  There sure were a lot of people there!

Below is a photo of our campsite, probably in the mid 60's.  Ours was the yellow Ford pickup with the camper shell.  I remember the trips so well...we kids would ride in the camper shell, which had no pass-through...it was the days before sliding rear window glass...and we had little notecards with messages pre-written in case we needed to communicate with Mom in the front.  "Bathroom" and "Sick" were a couple I remember.

What a lot of people don't realize is how primitive camping was back then.  There was no state park, and therefore, no bathroom facilities.  If you didn't have a bathroom in your camper, you went out behind a dune to do your business.  Our club would bring a communal toilet to the dunes.  It consisted of a tubular framed toilet seat over a hole in the ground.  This was surrounded by an open-topped privacy enclosure.  Each time you put some solid waste into the hole, you would cover it with a little bit of sand.  Most people had dune buggies, which were beginning to use special tires, and thus required trailers.  If you towed a dune buggy, then you could not tow a travel trailer.  This meant that most people camped in tents, or if you had some money, a slide-in camper.  Not very many people had motorhomes in the 60's, so they were an extremely rare sight.

The photo below seems to be in the late 60's, judging by the dual tires on the water pumper dune buggy, and the proliferation of slide-in campers.  The lady in the foreground is Elaine Meade, currently of Lemoore, CA.

In the photo below, I'm not sure who all the people are, but it was a pretty typical sight on a three-day weekend.

Below is a photo from February 1970.  My late father is on the left, and my brother's dune buggy is in the background.  The woman is Ida Martin, the man in the black hat is Bill Door, and the nutcase in our mother's straw hat dressed in all black (about 20 years ahead of the fashion curve) on the right is my older brother, Fred. ;-)

If you're an astute viewer, you'll also notice the clamming fork in the lower right corner of the photo.

And, we even have been immortalized in Life magazine!  Below is the cover of the September 1971 Life Magazine, which covered the myriad ways in which Americans recreate outdoors.

Below is the first page of the article.  Yep, we got first page in Life Magazine!  The caption at the right reads:

"Just southeast of Pismo Beach, Calif., the constantly changing terrain of the Nipomo sand dunes (right) lures huge crowds of thrill-seeking buggyists who park their campers (far right), then move out."

The story text reads, from the beginning, "Escape, of course, is the whole idea.  Granted more and more long weekends to spend as we please, our urge and aim is to go where we can commune with, and maybe reckon with, the elements.  How?  As fast and as far as our legs and wheels and wits can carry us.  Where?  The options are dumbfounding.  We could join 100,000 other dune-buggy fanciers, like those shown gathered at far right, for a weekend's race over hills of sand."

The photo was taken from an airplane on the July 4, 1971 weekend.  We knew about where we parked, and found our camper in this photo.  Click the photo below for a large scan of the camp shot.  Were YOU there that weekend in 1971?

Below is a photo of our campground, Thanksgiving of 1972.  We had just purchased our very first ATC 90.  That is me on the left, and my older sister Cindy is at the controls.  At this point, we had been using the 63 Dodge pickup and the 65 El Dorado slide-in camper since about 1966-67.  Pop had his dune buggy on a trailer, and we would put the motorcycle and ATC inside the camper during the drive.

People today are always amazed when we point out the big hill south of Pismo, and tell them we used to ride up on "Devil's Slide."  Below is what it looked like from the top of Devil's Slide, looking back north to Guadalupe Dunes and Pismo.  It was not easy getting to the top of Devil's Slide, if you went up the far southern portion of it.  I rode the ATC shown above up Devil's Slide in about 1975.  I made it up the longer lower part ok, but the steeper upper part was too steep, and I had to push the ATC up around the southern end of it.  You had to be careful not to get stuck in this area, because if you slid down too far on the southern end, it was a sheer cliff of about 200 feet to the ocean.

And what follows is from the October 1971 issue of Four Wheeler.  The photo is taken from the bottom of Devil's Slide.  Big hill, isn't it!


The photo below is from September of 1976, and shows a little more variety in the campers being used by that time.  Four-wheel drives had started becoming popular, and with a Bronco to drive around with, you could tow your camp trailer to stay in.  Also, ATC's were getting more popular, and you could put them in your pickup bed, and still tow your camp trailer.  This photo shows a worm track built around some foredunes.  Notice that nobody has helmets or flags, and one pair of kids is riding double, all of which are forbidden today.


I just found this postcard at a thrift shop, and it's FANTASTIC!  What it shows are the thriving businesses at the Pier Avenue ramp back in the old days when you could drive your off-road vehicle right up to the gas pumps at what is now Angello's Towing and Rentals.  I believe this postcard to be from the late 60's.  If you look closely, there are tracks coming off the diagonal sand ramp in front of the rental properties on Strand Way, right about where the photographer is standing.  This access was a very heated point of contention from some of the rental property owners who felt the current diagonal ramp was not a traditional access point to the beach.  This photo proves them WRONG!!!!  I have fond memories of riding ATC 90's right up to Bill's, the orange building on the left, for an ice cream sandwich every day.  Can you imagine the amount of business that could be done here if off-roaders could ride right up to the gas pump or store on Pier Avenue?


And here is a photo of our good friends from the Five Cities area.

Dan and Evelyn Tallman were fixtures at the beach, and you could alway spot them by the purple clothes, the purple dune buggy, the purple pickup truck...

Anyhow, Dan and Evelyn are at the mouth of the Arroyo Grande Creek right after a storm when a lot of driftwood has been deposited on the sand.  I'd say the photo is from the early 70's.  Dan recently passed away, and Evelyn is a greeter at the local Wal-Mart Sunday through Wednesday in the mornings and early afternoon.  If you're ever there, tell her "Hello!" and that you saw her photo on my website.

Dan and Evelyn were members of the local dune buggy club, the Dune Riders.  Every Dune Rider would carry these cards, and when they met you or pulled you out of the river or got you unstuck, they'd hand you one of these cards.  Pretty neat that folks would do that for free!

Below is an aerial photo of Pier Avenue, from a long, long time ago, probably the 50's.  If you click the photo, a larger version will come up...it's big, but worth the wait for the download.

There are a few very interesting, very important things shown in this photograph.

First is the lack of vegetation in the dunes surrounding Pier Avenue.  This is a natural condition!  The vegetation that is there now is NOT NATURAL, AND SHOULD NOT BE THERE!!!!

If you will notice to the south of the street, just before the wooden ramp, there is a parking lot.  This shows that there has been vehicle access right in front of the Strand Way homes for many years, and that the current diagonal sand ramp is a traditional access.

It also appears that Strand Way is not even paved, nor does it even intersect with Pier Avenue.

If anyone notices things that are significantly different in this photo than they are today, I'd appreciate hearing from you!

Click here to email Gerard

Here is the another old aerial photo of the Strand area of Oceano.  Below is a far away shot.  Click the photo to see a big close-up of the Strand.  You will be amazed at how few homes there are on the Strand, yet there are CARS ON THE BEACH!

Very interesting, isn't it!  Makes you wonder why all the fuss over cars on the beach, versus homes on the Strand, when the cars were there LONG before the homes were.


In 1982, everything changed.  ATV's had become wildly popular, and people were riding them all over the place.  Just in the San Luis Obispo-Santa Barbara County area, you could ride at the Morro Bay Sand Spit, Pismo Beach from as far north as you could go, all the way to Devil's Slide in the south.  All of the Guadalupe Dunes were open, as were the beaches outside Lompoc.  There were more than 18,000 acres of sand available for riding in Pismo, Oceano, and Guadalupe.  Entrances were available at Pismo, Grover City's Grand Avenue, Oceano's Pier Avenue, Nipomo's Oso Flaco Lake, and Guadalupe's Main Street.  Some of it was private land, though, and occasionally, riders would sue landowners when they got hurt on those private lands.

In 1982, acting from pressure exerted by environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, California State Parks fenced off the portion they had purchased from PG&E, and made the Pismo Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, the very first official vehicular recreation area in the State of California.  State Parks owns 3,600 acres of land at this park, and has erected fencing all around the park to keep off-roaders limited to a 1,500 acre area.  A few years ago, the park was renamed Oceano Dunes SVRA, because of its proximity to the town of Oceano.  Pismo is actually a few miles north of where vehicles are now allowed to drive.

Below is an official map of the area, provided by State Parks. Click on the map for a larger version.  It's big, but is very detailed, and really gives you a lot of information.   It is very worthwhile to wait for the download of the larger image.

The riding area is in yellow, but State Parks owns a considerable amount of land which off-roaders have paid for with entrance fees and Green-Sticker money, but are unable to use, due to its being set aside as wildlife habitat.  Most notable of these areas is the Oso Flaco Lake area, which for a while was open to horses and sand skiers, but has since been taken over by the Dunes Conservancy, which built a boardwalk that you can't walk off of, and stopped horses, dogs, and sand skiers from using the land.

Here are some interesting statistics, from State Parks:

ODSVRA size: 3,650 acres
Area available to off-roaders: 1,500 acres
Area CLOSED to off-roaders, managed for wildlife habitat:  2,100 acres
ODSVRA has 6 miles of beach.  This is less than 0.5% of the length of California's coastline.

Attendance: Approximately 1,100,000 per year
51% from California's Central Valley
20% from Los Angeles area
12% from San Luis Obispo County
17% from all over the U.S. and the world

On average, visitors spend two days and one night in the area when visiting the park.

Visitors spend an average of $72 per day in San Luis Obispo County
Visitors generate nearly $110,000,000 in revenue each year for county businesses.

The beaches from Pismo to Oso Flaco Creek are divided up for various uses.  From Grand Avenue north, no vehicles are allowed.  From Grand Avenue to Pier Avenue and then past Arroyo Grande Creek, Mile Marker 2 designates the southern boundary of the street-legal vehicle beach.  Your vehicle must have street legal plates and equipment to operate from Grand Avenue to Marker 2.  Once south of Marker 2, all vehicles, street licenced and off-road-stickered, are allowed.  This riding area goes south to Marker 8, which is still quite a bit north of Oso Flaco Creek.  South of Marker 8, the beach is closed to all vehicles, but can be accessed by foot or horse.

The main way to access the SVRA is at the end of Pier Avenue in Oceano.  Years ago, there were wooden ramps at the end of Grand Avenue and Pier Avenue, to help motorists get from the pavement to the wet hard sand near the water.  In 1983, we had terrible storms, and the three photos below show what is left of the Pier Avenue ramp.  The concrete block bathroom is still there, at the north side of the parking lot.

Below is a photo I took in 1991.  It shows the Pier Avenue ramp with about three trucks on it.  The newer condos at Pier and Strand are under construction.  You can see some sort of walkway on the right, and some vegetation replanting in progress.  If you have been to this place lately, you will notice that there is considerably more sand here in this 1991 shot than there is currently.  This is likely due to heavy storms in the late 90's combined with normal sand depletion.

Speaking of heavy storms, here is a photo from the early 90's, showing Arroyo Grande Creek coming out much farther south than normal.  If you have been to Pismo, you will recognize Pole 2 as the northern boundary to the off-roading area, and you know that the creek is quite a bit farther north!  I was the last one across, and the water splashed up and over the hood of my 72 Ford F250!  It was worth it though, as the sand was smooth, and there was nobody out there!

The photo below is the same day, but after the tide went out.

This is what the off-road area looked like while the tide was still in.  Only three trucks made it across that morning!

Currently, our favorite recreation area is in peril of being closed by those who do not like responsible forms of recreation, specifically, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Center.  I have always been a champion of the local dunes, which are used by many different recreationists, from off-roaders to fishermen, to horse riders, all of which will be banned if the extreme environmentalists get their way.  Ever since moving here in the late 80's, I have responded to local editorials calling for the closure of the beach and dunes to vehicles.  I, like many users, falsely believed that the dunes would never be closed.  Now, these very strong and wealthy organizations have taken to using the Endangered Species Act to eliminate this popular form of recreation, simply because they do not like it.

Please take a minute to visit Friends of Oceano Dunes, a non-profit organization of people who promote equal access to these dunes for people to use.

Friends of Oceano Dunes

Thanks for visiting!

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IF you use the Oceano Dunes SVRA, you need to become involved in the fight to keep it open!


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