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California's ultimate sea of sand.

Early-morning hikers in the Nipomo Dunes on California's central coast have long noticed some weird, tiny tracks. They are wormlike, elongated, slightly raised in the dawn's undisturbed sand. It would be nice to describe the tracks in poetic terms, but most people who see them think immediately of varicose veins.

Until recently, however, the cause of the tracks to nowhere remained a mystery. Then one day about a year ago, local entomologist Dennis Sheridan discovered a beetle, a water beetle to be exact, basically swimming through the sand, gobbling up microscopic bits of food between the grains.

Clearly this beetle's ancestors had millennia ago made a discovery about California's largest coastal dune system that humans continue to make: the sand here is like water. Running and tumbling on Nipomo's soft, forgiving, and warm dunes can feel like diving or swimming. The greatest risk to humans is, in fact, the water-turned-sand beetle's driving ambition: a mouthful of sand.

The beetle is probably too busy with its microscopic buffet to notice, but these dunes are waterlike in another way. Seen from the highest spot, the 500-foot-tall Mussel Rock Dunes, the sand flows like a terrestrial sea, 18 miles long and about 2 miles wide, toward Pismo Beach. Later, in the isolation of a deep trough, miles from any road, the feeling is of being on open water but surrounded by the swells.

It's no wonder that one of the dunes' stewards, The Nature Conservancy, has dubbed this stretch "one of the last great places in America." The dunes have drawn visual artists from Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, who shot one of his most famous photographs near Oceano, to Cecil B. De Mille, who built massive sets for the original Ten Commandments near Guadalupe--sets another Hollywood filmmaker is now trying to unearth from their sandy grave.

The dunes have been a private altar for locals and a cathedral for dreamers, like the Dunites, a group of intellectuals who created a dune utopia here in the 1930s. Today, the dunes still provide a place to walk--for an hour or a whole day--to simply lose yourself and find something more.


Geologically, the dunes are young. About 18,000 years ago, toward the end of the last ice age, severe storms caused erosion of the Santa Lucia Range, visible to the north. Streams carried the material to the ocean, and currents pushed it southward, where it piled up as sand along this curving coastline. Then the wind took over, spreading the sand inland. Sand still sometimes wisps down streets in Santa Maria, some 12 miles from the ocean.

The picture windows in Kathleen Goddard Jones's home in Arroyo Grande look out over farmland to the dunes south of Oceano. For many, the 85-year-old Jones and this landscape are inseparable. One day in the early 1960s, she noticed a newspaper item announcing that Pacific Gas & Electric had acquired some dune land for a nuclear power plant. That began a two-year round of meetings, field trips, and dinners as Jones led the effort to acquaint PG&E officials with why the dunes should be saved.

"None of them had seen the dunes, so I took them out there," she recalls. PG&E's eventual decision to build its plant in a little-known spot farther north, Diablo Canyon, led to criticism of Jones by both environmentalists (who opposed all nuclear power plants) and locals (who were angry about the loss of tax revenue and building contracts). But the process of saving the dunes had begun.

That effort to preserve what Jones describes as "this incomparable coast" now includes players from a wide philosophical and administrative spectrum; among them are The Nature Conservancy, oil companies, off-road-vehicle advocates, the U.S. Air Force, and local farmers.

The politics of compromise plays out in the way the dunes are used. North of Oso Flaco Lake, where revegetation efforts are under way to stabilize denuded dunes, off-road vehicles race through a fenced area. Along the beach, equestrians ride--harmlessly or heavily depending on whom you talk to. And in a scene worthy of Mad Max, an oil operation pumps away in the sands south of Main Street. Yet the bulk of the dunes has been set aside for use by hikers only.


The dunes are still their own best argument: introduce people to the land and they will understand its importance, says Jones, who still leads walks here.

The wind has created a complex world of ridges and valleys. In the bowls, take a few moments and your eyes begin to pick up lizard tracks, gentle contours, a tiny flower pushing its way through the sand. Rare plants and animals have found a haven in this remarkably diverse terrain, where three separate species of sand verbena can grow in distinct microclimates within yards of each other.

Climb a ridge, and the view of sculpted sand edges and deep parabolic bowls may linger as long in your memory as your first view of a great mountain range. But here, the land can shift 20 feet in a year. This is grandeur on the go.

Just about anyone, including dune veterans like Jones, gets happily lost on occasion. But it's an outing to a familiar area that brings her to tears.

"I brought a group of 25 kids up to Coreopsis Hill," she says. "It was a beautiful sight: the kids scrambling through the sand, the great golden flowers. We worked our way through the white sand to an old Chumash midden. I told the children that the shell mound was made by the people who came before us. The children all dropped to their knees. Spontaneously. Like they had a feeling of awe."

The dunes' mystical quality can hit visitors at any time. For some, the trigger might be the yips of coyotes over the crashing of waves. For others, it's the finely etched line of a dune scarp at dawn.

"I guess it goes back to the old belief in Gaea, Mother Earth," says San Luis Obispo firefighter Norm Hammond, who 20 years ago discovered a hermit who was the last of the Dunites. "It just seems like there are some places more open to get that feeling. I've backpacked in the Sierra and in the desert, but I was more on guard there. In the mountains, you can freeze to death; in the desert, you can die of thirst. In these dunes, I feel that nothing can hurt me. It's womblike."

The five best places to wander in the Nipomo Dunes

1. Pismo Dunes Preserve

This is a spot close to State 1 to wander tall dunes. From the free parking lot at the end of Pier Avenue in Oceano, walk south 1/2 mile past the mouth of Arroyo Grande Creek and start climbing.

2. Oso Flaco Lake area

Drive to the end of Oso Flaco Lake Road; pick up a map at The Nature Conservancy's kiosk, then park ($4). There's a short signed walk to freshwater Oso Flaco Lake, where you can watch ruddy ducks, mallards, herons, and (during the winter) white pelicans. From there, take the boardwalk 1.3 miles across dunes to the beach.

3. Coreopsis Hill

From the boardwalk's end, walk toward the ocean and cross Oso Flaco Creek. Then turn inland across vast dunes toward the distant green hill (covered in spring with yellow coreopsis blossoms). It's about a 5-mile round trip from your car.

4. Mobil Coastal Preserve

To get to this unmarked 2,500-acre area, follow directions (#2, above) from Oso Flaco Lake across the creek to the beach. Then go south along the beach about a mile to the state park boundary sign, and turn inland into the deep dune hollows. To avoid the chance of getting (pleasantly) lost in the preserve, take a guided all-day, 7-mile roundtrip hike (see below) to Hidden Willow Valley, a secluded spot with willow woodlands tucked between steep dunes.

5. Mussel Rock Dunes

It'll take energy and more than half a day, but the walk to Nipomo's largest dunes gets you great views of the wild coastline. From the free parking lot at the end of W. Main Street, walk south along the beach 2 1/2 miles to Mussel Rock. Be warned that the wind will likely be in your face for the return. And you'll be tired.

Basic dune advice. Wear comfortable shoes, like high-tops, that don't take in sand. For protection against the sun and wind, bring a broad-brimmed hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses, and consider long sleeves, long pants, and a windbreaker.

The best time to go is early morning, when the undisturbed dunes are shadowy, golden, and dotted with tracks. Late afternoon's shadows and rosy hue are lovely, too. While none are epic, the hikes can all be difficult, so bring enough water and food to maintain your energy.

If you want to run and tumble, avoid areas (usually marked) undergoing revegetation. In general, limit romping to unvegetated areas.

Dogs are not allowed.

Organized hikes. The Nature Conservancy. Along with People For The Nipomo Dunes and other local groups, the Conservancy offers occasional hikes to Coreopsis Hill, Hidden Willow Valley, Oso Flaco Lake, and other areas. During CoastWeeks (September 19 through October 12), more hikes are scheduled than usual. Call (805) 545-9925 for details.

Bill Denneen. A local naturalist and a dune institution himself, Denneen offers 10 to 15 hikes monthly. For information, call him at 929-3647.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; Nipomo Dunes
Author:Jaffe, Matthew
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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