Riding your bike, ATV or UTV along the ocean is nearly too good to be true. Outside of Mexico, there are not many places you can do this legally. California’s Central Coast is an area very beautiful in many ways. The sand dunes are located south of the world-famous Hearst Castle and are a long drive for almost all that come to the area.

A Mother and Son Riding ATV's and Side by Sides at Pismo Beach
Family fun with the ocean in the background is always great.

Where is it?

The area is called the Five Cities (Arroyo Grande, Oceano, Grover Beach, Pismo Beach and Avila Beach), and they are just minutes from each other. The sand dunes did in fact used to be called Pismo Beach Sand Dunes. However, that name was dropped nearly twenty years ago to more accurately represent the actual town of Oceano where the dunes are located. The area is known for colleges, art, nature and a slower lifestyle. That might be why you can still ride off-road vehicles in these dunes.

 A Map of California Pinpointing the Oceano Dunes

How do you get there?

Hwy 101 in California from either the North or South would have you exit at Grand Avenue and go West towards the ocean and you will dead-end to the pay booth. The full address is 100 Pier Ave., Oceano CA 93445, and that will get you closest for those that like to map things out.

View Larger Map

What is its size?

Oceano Dunes is a 3600 acre state park that has 1500 acres open to the public for vehicular recreation. (That means shredding some sand.) In the summer, this drops to 1200 acres as 300 get closed from March 1st to Sept 30th for the breeding of the Snowy Plover bird (small birds with very quick legs that run up and down the entire beach area).

Angello's ATV Rental Shop at Pismo Beach
There are plenty of ATV rentals.

The dunes provide an area where off-roaders co-mingle with practically every type of recreationist. There are bird watchers, fishermen, clam diggers, surfers, horseback riders and tourists just looking for a break from the 101 drive. There are also sea lions and dolphins visible on most trips if you have a good eye.

A Couple Riding Horseback on the Beach
2.0 horse power in action.

When is it open?

It is open 365 days a year!

What does it cost?

The price is $5 a day for your entire vehicle with trailer. If you camp overnight, it is $10 a day.

Oceano Dunes Pay Station
Pulling into Pismo Dunes, you learn that the name is actually Oceano Dunes, and it is overcast most of the summer.

Is 1200 acres enough to be fun?

Well, that depends greatly on your definition of fun and what you’re after. Oceano/Pismo Dunes is not for the “hard-core duner.” By dune standards, it is very small, without the space of Glamis or the mountainous dunes of Dumont. Oceano Dunes is more for families and not really for those looking to shred for hours on end. You can cover the entire dunes in a day of exploring. Oceano Dunes is all about the destination. The fact that you are hanging out looking at the ocean and all of the wildlife just feet from the water is the sales pitch for this gem.

Dolphins Cresting a Wave
The dolphins were this close every day.

When is the best time of the year to go?

That just depends. If you want cleaner, windswept dunes that are not all beat up, then anytime other than summer is best. With the size of the dune area, if it goes a few days without some strong winds, the dunes get very beat up. In the fall and spring, the dunes can get more wind and less people on it, so there is much more fresh stuff to carve and jump.

Rolling Sand Dunes at Pismo Beach
With the summer weekend crowds, there is not much sand untouched.

For those that live in the southwest, the summertime temperatures of Pismo are a very welcome treat. It can stay overcast all day or break sometime in the afternoon. Bringing jackets in the summer is a shock to those packing up at home in 100 degree weather. The temperatures stay very consistent year-round at the dunes, and there are actually more sunny days in the winter. Of course, weekends are much more crowded year-around, so if you can pull off a mid-week trip, you will have much less traffic in the dunes.

ATV Roosting Sand on the Beach
The sun does shine!

Can I drive on the sand with my truck and trailer?

Of course. You will want to stay on the wetter sand closer to the water. When you enter at the pay booth, they can let you know the tide conditions and which way it is heading. Make sure you find this out before you set up camp so you’re not underwater the next morning. There are guys making a good living from just pulling stuck trucks out of the sand all day long. Don’t be a victim. The number one key to not getting stuck is to let the pressure out of your tires down to 10 lbs. – don’t be scared to let it down in the front and rear tires. This will keep the vehicle on top of the sand. As you leave the dunes, there is a trailer with air to fill your tires for only $1 each before you get back on the freeway.

Truck Pulling a SunBuggy
This is for those without a quad.

Where do I stay?

When in Rome, do as the Romans, they say – and the real Pismo-goers camp right on the beach in cars, tents, trucks or $200K+ motor homes. Of course, this is not for everyone. There are only outhouses, there isn’t any running water, and sand gets into everything. There are many good hotels close, and there are two very nice state beach campgrounds: Oceano Campground and Northbeach Campground.

With both hotels and off-site campgrounds, the large downside is that you have to haul your toys out to the beach every day and unload and load up again. There is the option with Luv 2 Camp that we used on this last trip of renting a trailer which gets parked for you. You don’t have to do anything but tell them where to leave it. This is a good option for those without a toy hauler and who don’t want to stay in a tent.

A Camp Rental Trailer from Luv 2 Camp
Unload, and you’re all set if you rent a trailer from Luv 2 Camp.

Where do I camp?

There are post markers, and right before post number three, there seems like a great spot which is not too crowded. Look at the waterline from the past high tide and other campers to gauge where to set up.

Campsite Set Up Behind a Trench
Be prepared if you park down by the water.

Where do I ride?

There are great maps available as you enter, and they will show a “sand highway” that has markers. They are much closer than a mile apart, so don’t look at them as mile markers. Use this sand highway to learn the area. The fog can be very thick, and if night hits, we have learned it can be very hard to find your way back without a compass.

ATV Riding Along the Beach
Avila Beach (before heading to Morro Bay) is in the background.

Where can I find more information on the dunes?

The State of California Off-Highway site and specifically the Oceano Dunes SVRA page are great resources.

Fishing in the Waves
The water is cold if you plan to wade in while fishing.

Are there rangers giving tickets?

Yes, of course. It is California after all. You need to know the rules and follow them. For access to a full list of State of California rules and safety regulations, follow the link. Know it, learn it and live it if you don’t want a ticket!

What are the big rules to not forget?

Keep a helmet on at all times in UTVs as well as bikes and ATVs. Whips should be on all vehicles with proper registration. (We have not been checked the last two trips, but it does happen.)

Quad with a Flag on the Dunes
This 12-year-old knows the dunes.

What are other fun things to do while at staying in Oceano?

Lake Lopez is only 20 minutes away and is great fun and much warmer than the dunes when overcast. Mustang Waterpark at Lake Lopez is a great waterpark that has been there for close to 40 years.

Hearst Castle is only 40 minutes north.

Boy Sliding out of a Waterslide at Mustang Waterpark
Lake Lopez and Mustang Waterpark are just 20 minutes away.
A UTV Riding Along the Beach at Sunset
The sunsets are amazing!

Planning a trip to Oceano? Already been there? Share your experience in the comments.

Go have fun and enjoy this gem while we still have it!

Riding Location Disclaimer

By Jay Clark