Camping inbetween the ocean and sand dunes – Pismo Beach, CA

Endless sand dunes, tailgate partys, bonfires, camping at the beach, swimming in the ocean! All of this is possible at Pismo Beach!

Can you imagine what a dream it was to literally sleep on the beach, watching the stars and listening to the waves from the biggest ocean in the world while making smores over the bonfire? Waking up the next morning, you can directly take off to explore the endless sand dunes right behind the actual beach. All of this is possible at Pismo Beach!

I don’t know why everybody connects the campground and the beach with Pismo Beach but the real thing we are talking about is called Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. It is located south of the town called Oceano.  It consists of six miles of beach open for vehicle use and a large area of the sand dunes open for off-highway vehicle use. It is the only state park in California where vehicles can be driven on the beach. Also it is allowed to camp at the beach itself.
In summer it can get extremely crowded at the beach which is why it is smart to either come early or make reservations before hand. If you did not do either of those two options and the campsite is full there is an alternative campsite nearby. Pismo State Beach – North Beach Campground is located at the northernmost part of the dunes. Coming from San Francisco you will drive by this camp.
We went to the beach in the beginning of May and it wasn’t crowded at all. We weren’t alone either but around this time you really do not have to worry about finding a camping spot. We still found a spot without anybody else surrounding us.

The dunes are formed by material carried down to the ocean by different rivers and creeks, deposited by ocean currents and afterwards shaped by the wind into the dunes. The wind that blows from the ocean pushes the sand particles up into wave-like crests in north-south direction. On the west or windward side is smooth and gentle while the east or leeward side is quite steep. Occasionally the crests get that high that some sand grains blow over the crest and thin tongues of sand slide down. This is the reason why leeward side is also called “slipside” and how sand dunes slowly “move” and change over time.

The first people to actually travel through the dunes were the European explorers and members of DonGaspar de Portola’s overland expedition of 1769.
A group of free thinking people called the “Dunites” made the Dunes their home. They were mystics, nudist, artists, writers and hermits. Among other activities, the group published a magazine called “The Dune Forum”. They believed that Oceano Dunes was one of the centers of creative energy in California.

You can notice a huge variety of different shorebirds on the beach. During the March 1 and September 30 breeding season, small fenced enclosures  are constructed around the nests to protect these birds and their offspring from the surrounding recreational use. So if you are riding and OHV pay attention and keep distance from these fenced enclosures to help support the nesting program. For people interested in fishing it could be interesting that there are many clams in the area. The population fluctuates dramatically each year due to a variety of natural influences. To protect this valuable resource, the following regulations apply:
– Clammers must have a fishing license and an accurate measuring device in possession
– Only Pismo clams at least 4 1/2″ (11.5cm) may be possessed
– undersized clams must be immediately reburied in the area where dug
– bag limit is 10 clams
– hours of clamming are 1/2 hours before sunrise to 1/2 hours after sunset

Before we took off for Oceano we packed all our necessary camping gear since our plan was to arrive Saturday afternoon, camp on the beach and ride on the dunes the next day. The drive is very easy and takes around 4 hours. The only road you have to take is Highway 101 for approximately 249mi (400km). Exit the Highway in Pismo Beach at Grand Avenue West. On our way we stopped in King City to get groceries, drinks and fire wood at Safeway. But there is really no need to worry because even around Oceano are many convenient stores you can stop at before entering the park. Since you will only drive one Highway the entire time there is not a lot of sightseeing on the way but if you want to, you can make a quick stop in San Louis Obispo . Arrived in Oceano you will drive through its cute little downtown. Once you are at the pay station you are asked to pay a day use parking fee of $5 or if you want to camp it is a fee of $10 per night. After that you are pretty much free. At the beach you can camp south of Post 2 on the beach. Just set up your camp and it’s your spot. Every approximately 150ft (50m) you can find vault toilets and chemical toilets. There s no running water.
It is highly recommended to only come here with a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Otherwise you might get stuck. If you want to drive your vehicle on the dunes you should definitely bring a 4-wheel drive vehicle and even let some air out of your tires. If you do not have one yet you have to buy a red flag from one of the stores at the entrance of the beach for $10. Every vehicle going onto the dunes needs to have a red flag attached at the vehicle that is clearly visible at all times.

When we arrived on Saturday we payed the entrance fee and made our way along the shoreline, driving on the beach towards the area where it is allowed to camp. Once we found the spot we liked, in between the dunes and the ocean, close to a bathroom without many people around, we set up our camp and made a bonfire. Yes. It is indeed allowed to even have a bonfire at the beach. We played music, made Hot Dogs for dinner and Smores as dessert. Since nobody was around us we played music until 1am when a park ranger came and asked us friendly to turn off the music which was totally fine since we wanted to wake up early(er)  anyways to go explore the dunes. The next day we cleaned up our site and packed our stuff so we can go buy a flag at the store and conquer those dunes. BTW: Do Not Forget To Bring Garbage Bags to clean up after your party night.
Access to the dunes is very easy. You literally just drive east from the beach toward the sand dunes and you can start offroading. We came with a Honda Ridgeline and it was totally fine to drive over the dunes.
After we were done and left the park we had to pump up the tires with air which was no problem because there were tons of gas stations nearby. Don’t get fooled by all the ads for pumping air in your tires at the beach and close to the entrance. They take money while it is totally free to pump up your tires at a close-by gas station. Also we were all trying to get rid of the sand in our clothes which was kinda impossible ;). Overall it was super fun and I am definitely going to come back again!

In Pismo itself we found an Outlet Mall which I would definitely recommend to go to. They have stores like Converse, Vans and Aeropostale with amazing sales! Also they have a California Visitor Center with many brochures about things to do in the area.

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