If you are heading up the Pacific Coast of California, you must make a stop at Pismo Beach Sand Dunes. Everyone knows about California’s array of famous national parks, but what some don’t realize is that there are also a ton of really great state parks that are well worth visiting. Pismo Beach Sand Dunes, also known as Oceano Sand Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, near Pismo Beach on the Central Coast of California is one of our favorites.
This park is perfect for a weekend getaway for those living in Southern California as well as those in the central valley areas of California. It provides outdoor loving families an amazing opportunity to experience a park like few other places in the US.
Essential Guide to Visiting Pismo Beach Sand Dunes
Oceano Dunes State Park, or the Dunes, as they are known, are most well known for being the last park in California to allow trucks and ATVs to drive on the beach and through the sand. While the vehicle off roading is what brings most visitors to the area, the park is also an amazing place to explore on foot.
Exploring Pismo Beach Sand Dunes on Foot
Our family loved this Pismo Beach Sand Dunes, even more so because our dogs were able to join us! It truly felt like you were on another planet. Windswept, beautifully carved ever changing sand creations invited us to play all day. In addition to the areas reserved for vehicle traffic, there is a large area closed to vehicles that the adventurous can explore on their own without fear of being run down!
This is where you choose your own adventure. There are steep dunes with challenging climbs, small dunes with easy hikes up and everything in between. Hiking up the sandy hills and rolling down with a sled was the best part. We brought sleds with us that worked great. I would recommend the higher quality saucer type as they slide the easiest, but you can also pick up cheap ones along the way. No worries, you can also slide down without a sled if you forget to bring one.
Through trial and error, we discovered that sledding worked best by having a grown up slide down to create a well worn sledding path. This helped with the ease and speed of the kids runs down the sand. They loved it. And went over and over and over again.
You can easily spend all day at the dunes frolicking up and down the hills. It is also the perfect place to watch the sunset over the ocean in the distance. Yes, you will be very sandy by the end of the day, but the sand is super fine so it easily passes through clothes with a good shake.
Rent Dune Buggies at Pismo Beach Sand Dunes
For families looking for even more adventure, hire your own dune buggy or ATV and explore on the vehicular side of the park. We spent a day exploring the dunes in dune buggies and had a blast! There are a variety of options for those with or without kids to check out. Kids as young as 5 can drive them, although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that. The park can be especially busy on weekends or during holiday breaks and the dune buggies are not the easiest to maneuver.
Check out how much fun we had driving through the dunes with an expert driver!
Earn Your Junior Ranger Badge at The Dunes
One of our family’s favorite things to do at national parks and state parks is to earn a junior ranger badge. While there aren’t too many visitor centers here, you can download a junior ranger booklet before you go. These booklets are a great way to learn more about the area you are visiting. Find a mobile ranger station before you leave to get their signature and see if they have any badges, stickers or patches!
Details for Visiting Pismo Beach Sand Dunes
Entrance to the Sand Dunes State Park is free. The easiest spot to access the non-vehicular dunes is in the parking area located within the Pacific Dunes Ranch RV Resort. They have parking available by the check in area as well as by the entrance to the dunes. From here, it is less than 100 feet to the dunes to begin exploring.
If you are planning to rent a dune buggy or ATV (we had a great time with Sun Buggy Rentals.), you will most likely have to park near their rental shops and then be transported to the area where you can ride. Unfortunately parking is often limited, so if you plan to spend a long time at the dunes, make sure to read the signs carefully to avoid any parking fines.
What to Bring to the Pismo Beach Sand Dunes
There is no shade at the dunes, so I would not recommend going if it is a very hot day, unless you are going to be riding ATVs or dune buggies. In general as is required in most of California, bring lots of layers as it can be windy and cool in the morning and evenings. Additionally, bring lots of water, sunscreen and a sun hat to protect yourself from the sun. It can often feel cool, but the sun is still intense at times.
If you have Keens or other sandals to hike in those are great, otherwise plan to go barefoot.
Don’t forget your sled or big pieces of cardboard to slide down the dunes. There are no bathrooms or restaurant facilities here, so plan accordingly!
Where to Stay at the Pismo Beach Sand Dunes
The Oceano Sand Dunes State Park is located 3 miles south of the town Pismo Beach, which means there are plenty of accommodation options. Camping is a popular option, providing close access to the vehicular side of the park, which can be instrumental during busy seasons. Otherwise, there are various hotels in Pismo Beach itself as well as a little further away in Arroyo Grande. Accommodation options range from motels to resorts with beautiful grounds and heated pools.
During our visit to the area, we stayed at the beautiful and luxurious Cliffs Resort in Pismo Beach. For guests wanting to experience the down and dirty side of the park with plush surroundings, this would be our top recommendation.
Otherwise, there are a ton of great options available to choose from. Check out the map below to see what is available for your visit.
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