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Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve

[Oso Flaco Lake]
Oso Flaco Lake in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes


Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Overview

Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve is part of the 18-mile stretch of coastal dunes on California's Central Coast. The Preserve is located between Pismo (Oceano) Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area in San Luis Obispo County and Point Sal State Beach in northern Santa Barbara County. The dunes complex has also been designated as part of a National Natural Landmark (NNL) by the Department of Interior (National Park Service).

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Dunes History

Chumash Indians lived and hunted in the dunes as early as 8,000 years ago. Their diet consisted largely of seafood and shellfish and their discarded piles of shells, termed "shell middens," can be seen on the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. The Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo was the first European to see the dunes in 1542. But it was not until 1769, when Gaspar de Portola's expedition hunted and camped in the dunes, that the dunes were actually explored by the white people. Portola's expedition began the Mission Era and the Christian indoctrination of the Indians. In the 1830s, the secularization of land brought an end to the Mission Period. A Mexican land grant established Rancho Guadalupe, which included the dunes. After the Civil War, Americans bought up the dunes and surrounding lands for ranching and farming. From 1923 to the 1950s, six films were set in the dunes, including Cecil B. Demille's version of the Ten Commandments. In the 1930s a group of artists and alternative thinkers called the Dunites inhabited the dunes just north of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve. During World II, poles were placed in bunkers along the dunes to resemble cannons and create a false defensive beach head to discourage a Japanese land invasion. These facilities were dismantled after the war and the area was again used for ranching and farming as well as sand harvesting and oil production.

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Geography of the Dunes

The Nipomo Dunes Complex is the second-largest stretch of dunes in California. The strip of coastline has the highest beach dunes in the western United States, with Mussel Rock Dune reaching a height of 500 feet. Dune-building began 18,000 years ago at the end of the last glacial period. The oldest dunes lie on the top of the Nipomo and Orcutt Mesas east of the preserve. These dunes are now stabilized and covered with plants. Between the mesas and the beach, younger dunes, created since the end of the of the Pleistocene Epoch, form a series of sparsely vegetated ridges and hollows. Wind-borne sand is carried inland from the beach and deposited into the characteristic parabola or bowl-shaped mounds.
[Mussel Rock]
Looking North from Mussel Rock
The Santa Maria River plays a major role in the creating and maintaining the preserve's dunes. The river brings sediment to the coast and deposits it on offshore sandbars during the winter season. In summer, this sediment is washed onto the beach and then blown inland by the northwesterly winds. This inland movement forms transverse-ridge and parabolic dunes. Plants stabilize the dunes; thus, when dunes are denuded of vegetation, the dunes are dispersed by the wind, and rapidly migrate inland. 
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Life Among the Dunes (Biota)

The Sharp-grained, moving sand of the dunes is extremely low in moisture and seemingly devoid of nutrients. Salt-laden wind skims over the dunes, sandblasting and desiccating those organisms that attempt to colonize. But a variety of life forms survive and thrive in this harsh environment. The Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes have a number of endemic plants and a wide variety of species due to the preserve's Central Coast location. The dunes contain vegetation at the northern and southern boundaries of the plants ranges. At least 18 species of rare and endangered or sparsely distributed plants are found in the dunes.

These include the La Graciosa thistle (Cirsium loncholepis), surf thistle (C. rhothophilum), beach spectacle pod (Dithyrea maritima), and crisp dune mint (Monardella crispa). The dominate plant community of the preserve is coastal dune scrub. Plants of the scrub community stabilize the sand by causing windblown sand to accumulate and prevent further sand movement.

More than 200 birds live in, or migrate through, the preserve. One of the last known nesting colonies of the federally endangered California least tern is located in the fore dunes south of the Santa Maria River. The birds nest from April to August. The California brown pelican is another federal and state protected bird that can be found in the dunes from July through November. Other birds include the snowy plover and the black-shouldered kite. Reptiles include the coast garter snake. A number of endemic and little studied insects also inhabit the dunes. 
[Point Sal]
Point Sal and Paradise Beach from Mussel Rock
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Management of the Dune Preserve

The Nature Conservancy has turned over management of Oso Flaco Lake to California State Parks, and a new organization called the Dunes Center is attempting to unite all major landowners in the Dunes Complex under one administrative body with the goal of preserving this open space and ecology of natural and endangered species in the dunes. Private, county, state, and corporate owners are represented within the preserve. An interpretive center is being built to aid in educating the public about the unique dune system; docent-led tours are also given to help educate the public about the dunes.

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How to Get There

There are two entrances to the Guadalupe Nipomo Dunes Preserve. The first is the West Main Street entrance just south of the town of Guadalupe. From State Highway 1, turn west onto West Main Street (Highway 166), drive five miles and pass through the entrance gate; continue to the preserve parking lot. The second entrance is the Oso Flaco Lake entrance, is north of the town of Guadalupe. Drive north on State Highway 1, through Guadalupe and turn west on Oso Flaco Lake Road. A cooperatively managed Nature Conservancy/State Park parking lot is three miles down this road. Park and follow the hiking trail to the information center.

The Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve is open from dawn to dusk. Shooting, camping, horses, dogs, and off-road vehicles are not allowed in the dune preserve.

The Oso Flaco Lake entrance is handicapped accessible and provides a mile long boardwalk to explore Oso Flaco Lake and the dune preserve.

Map of Dune Access Points

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Additional Information

For more information on the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve contact the agencies listed below. (back to table of contents)

[back]Back to Natural Wonders of California's Central Coast.

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Santa Lucia Chapter of the  Sierra Club
P.O. Box 15755
San Luis Obispo, CA 93406
Telephone 1-805-543-8717.

Sierra Club National
85 Second St., Second Floor
San Francisco, CA 94105-3441, USA.
Telephone 1-415-977-5500 (voice), 1-415-977-5799 (FAX).
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Explore, Enjoy and Protect - Santa Lucia Chapter hike in Machesna Wilderness
Machesna Wilderness hike
April 2002
Photo by Gary Felsman

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