Is it the scattered scrub and sand verbena that pack them in? The shorebirds? The waves? Nah. You could argue that it's the dunes, which roll for thousands of acres, rising west of Guadalupe, subsiding south of Pismo Beach — but that's not quite it, either. The magic of Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area is this: In the 1,100 or so miles that make up California's coastline, this is the last public land where you can not only camp on the beach but drive on it. In fact, you have to drive on it.
Once you've paid at the kiosk, you drop off the blacktop, veer south and splash through Arroyo Grande Creek as it trickles to sea. For 3 1/2 miles, the broad, hard-packed beach is a wide-open territory. So long as you steer clear of the webbing fences along the edge of the dunes, you can drive where you dare on soft or wet sand, bearing in mind that rangers have been enforcing the 15-mph beach speed limit more often lately.
At Oceano, Sierra Clubbers, off-roaders and state agencies have been tussling over how much space to leave for the threatened western snowy plover and the endangered California least tern. As it stands, the off-roaders have 3,600 acres of dunes and beach to play on, with up to 1,720 off-road toys at a time. From March 1 through Sept. 30, rangers close some nesting areas.
The ironical part is that the least terns' favorite meal is snowy plover eggs and little snowy plovers. They won't let you past the kiosk with dogs in the car during the season.
One day in 10 or 20 years, the state or some judge will probably banish motorized vehicles from this beach, and the planet will be better off. But California culture, whatever that is, will be a little poorer.
I hope I'm dead and gone by then. If you crave silence and remoteness, just go into the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes entrance to the south. No vehicles are allowed on the beach there, and Vandenberg Air Force Base abuts the dunes just south of Point Sal (Sal is Spanish for "get out"!).
My wife is from Arroyo Grande, a couple of miles inland from Oceano, so I spend quite a bit of time in the area when we visit her family. Guadalupe is a historical little farm community in the Santa Maria Valley and has more Mexican restaurants than you can shake a stick at. Oceano has The Great American Melodrama which always has a good family-type stage show. Pismo Beach has surfing, great sea food, a bitchin' pier, and Harry's Bar for the drinkin', dopin', an' fightin' crowd. Tough cops, too.
A mile north of Pismo is Avila Beach, one of the last stereotypical California beach towns, which got torn down a couple of years ago to clean up a Unocal plume under the town and beach that had been building up for eighty years. California is a "Union" state. Union Oil and Union Pacific. They rebuilt the town, but it lost its old-time seaside charm and will never be the same again.
Right next to Avila are Port San Luis with a neat pier and Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. Leave it to Whitey, smarter and more practical than the ignorant natives, to build a nuke on top of an earthquake fault where the Chumash Indians wouldn't go and the Spanish named "Devil's Canyon".
If you get the notion that I like the Central Coast, you're awake. Now that I've linked my ass off for you to enjoy, go there and see what I made all the fuss about. I barely scratched the surface. Go explore.