Pismo Dunes Natural Preserve: Riding the SLO County Trails

Bev and Crew on Pismo Beach

A Horse and a Beach: Two Things Most Horseback Riders Just Dream About

The wind was stinging my eyes, as my friend and I galloped her horses down the beach. Beverly is urging both horses on. I tried to check “Cody” back to be sure I had some control. There was none. The horses were at a flat-out run; they were racing each other. This was a bit out-of-control for my Dressage-trained brain, so my Eventer brain had to take over. We eventually and slowly pulled the horses up to a walk.

With their nostrils flaring taking in the cool ocean air, the horses shook their heads and snorted as they recovered. We were grinning from ear to ear as we wiped the tears spilling from our stinging eyes. Exhilarating? Of course. A little crazy? Perhaps, but that would depend on whom you asked that day. However Bev and I often revisit this shared special memory of galloping along the shore of the Pismo Dunes Natural Preserve.

Fast forward 20 years . . . Bev and I are celebrating our friend’s birthday with a trail ride at Pismo Dunes Natural Preserve. We are all moms, with family and life responsibilities, yet we take time out to share another ride together. Our horses are different, our sense of responsibility has mellowed us, yet the beach is unchanged from 20 years ago. The ocean still spills its waves on the shore compacting the sand to make it ideal for riding the horses, cars and trucks still share this beach pathway, piles of seaweed still dot the shore, the dune trails are still uncrowded and we continue to make memories here.

At the end of our Birthday ride, we ride along the shore towards the Grand Ave staging area. The three of us launch off into a controlled canter. We are riding three-abreast right on the shoreline where the footing is perfect for this. The horses don’t try to race they just comfortably canter along the wet sand. Nearing the beach onramp of Grand Ave., we pull up to an easy trot then walk. “Lovely, just lovely,” I express. Another memory to carry with me of my rides with my friend Bev.

How to Get to the Pismo Dunes Natural Preserve

The Pismo Dunes Natural Preserve is accessible from Grand Avenue in Grover Beach. Take the Grand Avenue Exit off the 101 Fwy and travel west toward the ocean. Grande Avenue will end at the beach. There is an informal yet large staging area on the east end of the parking lot on the north side of the end of Grand Avenue before you get to the gate. This staging area may shrink in size soon if the Grover Beach Lodge plan goes forward. However, that is another story for another day.

Where to Go Once You Get There

To fully take in all that a ride at Pismo Dunes Natural Preserve has to offer, you should plan to ride both on the beach and in the dunes. There is a loop trail that takes you from the staging area down towards the Oceano State Vehicle Recreation Area, then veers off over the dunes away from all the vehicle action and through the beautiful and uncrowded natural preserve and back again to the beach. Below is a map of the area. The trail is not particularly well-marked but there are a few landmarks to watch for that will help keep you on track.

Pismo Beach Map

First of all, there are two ways to get to the beach from the Grand Avenue staging area:

1. Go where the cars go. Ride past the entrance gate and ride right out to the shore and travel to the down the beach in the Southern direction.

OR
2. Take the dune trail that parallels the beach and comes out in Oceano. Ride across Grande Ave to the South side and pick up the dune trail. Follow it going in the southern direction and then turn west as it comes out of the dunes facing the ocean before Pier Avenue in Oceano.

Travel Toward the OSVR

Gateway to the beach

Once on the beach keep traveling south toward the Oceano State Vehicular Recreation area. Look for the orange fencing that begins the OSVR then be looking for a fairly narrow gateway in the fence line (pic) that is at the base of the dunes that rise up from the beach. The gateway is the location of the trail that will take you back over the dunes and loop back to the beach. Note: there are several Porta-Potties along the fence line within the OSVR. This would be your only chance to “go” if needed.

Look for the Gateway

Trail-out-to-the-dunes

As you follow the trail going through the gateway you will notice the wide expanse of dunes on the far side. Once the dune vegetation gives way to the expanse of sand, turn in the northern direction hugging the outskirts of the foliage area until you see a white shell pile to your upper right. At this landmark, take a trail that heads west back into the dune vegetation and follow that trail looking for a connector trail that heads north.

Ride Through the Foliage Tunnel

Pismo Dunes Foliage Tunnel

Continue traveling north. Eventually you will come across a unique Foliage Tunnel that seems to transport you to another land and another era. The canopy shade keeps this section quite cool, and often wet. Tree trunks are draped with Nasturtium flowers, wild blackberry bushes reach out to you, it smells moist and soil-rich in here . . . you think you will see a dwarf, or perhaps a Hobbit. This tunnel will spill you out on a road next to a creek. Look for a creek crossing over to Strand Way which is a wide dirt road that will lead back to the beach. Travel in a west direction on Strand Way back toward the ocean.

The-end-of-Strand-Way

The ocean breeze will hit your face as you come out of the “woods” on Strand Way and face the ocean. Keep traveling towards the shore then turn up the beach in a northern direction. You will now be on your way back to the staging area. The beach is flat and wide here and so inviting for a little gallop – as long as there are no cars to avoid. You can return to the staging area via the shoreline or back over the dunes. The shoreline would be easier on tired legs as the shore sand is compacted and easy to travel along.

Notes for a Perfect Day:

  1. The Pismo Dunes Natural Preserve loop round trip covers about 6 miles and you should allow 2-3 hrs for riding time.
  2. Dress in layers and carry water on your ride.
  3. Dogs on leash are allowed on the beach but not allowed on the dunes.
  4. Poison Oak is found among the dune vegetation.
  5. The beach is shared with moving vehicles. It will be very busy in the Summer months and during Holiday weekends.
  6. Plan to enjoy a picnic back at the staging area or drive (or walk) up Grand Avenue for a block and try out Rib Line by the Beach for some great grub.

Main image from Beverly Poorman
All other photos (unless otherwise noted) by Sharon Jantzen Photos


Get Going! Explore the wonder and beauty of the SLO County trails from the best place on earth, the back of a horse. To keep this info at your fingertips we have developed a FREE Hot Sheet that will direct you to a few these these stories. We’ll continue to add trail ride stories to our website. You can stay up-to-date by becoming a SLO Horse News herd member. Get your Riding the SLO County Trails Hot Sheet here >.

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Former Pony Clubber, Eventer and Dressage rider who balanced training and showing with getting a college degree (from Cal Poly SLO), becoming a wife and raising a family.

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