Pismo State Beach offers all kinds of attractions like hiking, swimming, surf fishing, and digging for the famous Pismo clam. The southern end of Pismo Beach runs alongside sand dunes, where vacationers flock to ride ATVs and dune buggies, and Eucalyptus trees are very prominent, which attract thousands of migrating monarch butterflies every November through February. In fact, it boasts the largest over-wintering colony of Monarch butterflies in the United States.
Brian and I had been kicking around the idea of taking the kids on vacation to Pismo beach anyway, so when my in-laws told us they were going to join Brian’s aunt and uncle on their annual Pismo Beach Thanksgiving camping trip, we decided to join in the fun and go too!
We didn’t camp though. It’s way too cold to sleep in a tent in November, so we stayed in a hotel nearby, the Sandcastle Inn, just steps from the Pismo Beach Pier. While it definitely isn’t the nicest hotel we’ve stayed in, we chose it because it’s right on the beach next to the pier and close to all the little shops and restaurants along the water. Plus, it included a complimentary breakfast buffet each day, which as anyone with kids knows, is a big deal.
Once we booked the hotel, Brian and I started kicking around some ideas for kid-friendly activities in Pismo Beach, and well, we both really wanted to rent dune buggies and drive in the sand dunes. Brian hadn’t done it in years, and I had never done it, but every summer, we always see trailers loaded up with ATVs and dune buggies headed to Pismo beach, and we desperately wanted to try it. Natalie was 10 and Carter was 7 and we weren’t sure if they were old enough, but figured it was worth a shot.
Brian did a bunch of research online, looking into different Pismo Beach dune buggy rental companies, and finally settled on Sun Buggy Fun Rentals after speaking with them on the phone. We would be renting two, two-person dune buggies and we couldn’t wait!
Oceano Dunes SVRA
Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, formerly Pismo Dunes SVRA, is a sand dune complex that provides an impressive playground for off-highway enthusiasts.
The Oceano sand dune area is also recognized by scientists, conservationists, government agencies, and the public as the finest, most extensive coastal dunes remaining in California. Most of the material that forms these dunes has been carried down to the ocean by various rivers and creeks, deposited here by ocean currents, and then shaped by the wind into the dunes that we see today.
The prevailing winds that blow from the ocean push sand particles up into wave-like crests that run north-south. On the west or windward side the slope is gentle. On the east or leeward side the slope is steep. Sand grains, as they are blown over the dune crest tend to accumulate high on the leeward slope; then, periodically thin tongues of sand slide down. This is why the leeward slope is called a “slipface.”
But let’s get back to the part about it being a ATV and Dune Buggy playground…
Pismo Beach Dune Buggies
We arrived at the Sun Buggy facility in the morning and were greeted by their friendly staff. We signed all the paperwork needed, watched a safety video, and went through everything we needed to know about not only operating dune buggies, but where to go and not to go in the Ocean Dune SVRA — the hardest part of operating the dune buggy was getting the seat belts undone, which isn’t good when you need to stop for a restroom break! We also got fitted for our masks and helmets.
We then hopped in the transportation rig and headed to the dune entrance where we were assigned our dune buggies. Brian and our little daredevil Natalie rode together so they could go fast and “drive super crazy.” Carter and I rode together so we could ease into it. I had never driven anything like this and at the time didn’t like any “rides” that went really fast. He was really nervous and scared, so this let all of us enjoy the adventure in a way that made us each feel comfortable.
As soon as we all were in our dune buggies and seat belted in, we were off driving into the dunes. What’s crazy is that there is no expert with you, no one is watching you, no one is checking in on you. Once you drive into the vast stretch of rolling sand dunes, you’re basically on your own to do anything you want or go anywhere you want. Well, almost. They did us some guidelines of things not to do and places not to go, but you know what? When you’re in the middle of a sea of rolling sand dunes, with basically no signage, and no one pointing you in the right direction it’s easy to get lost!
At one point, Carter and I did accidentally venture into the not-for-beginners area and got stuck on the side of a sand mountain pointing upward for a long time until a couple friendly ATVers came to rescue us. At first I was embarrassed, but then they asked in we were with the other two, a guy and a girl, in a similar dune buggy. When I said yes, they laughed and said they just helped them get unstuck too on the other side of the same hill! Just a few minutes later Brian and Natalie showed up, Brian hopped out and the three men together got Carter and unstuck and on our way! Phew!
Driving the dune buggies was AMAZING! Brian and Natalie put the pedal to the metal immediately and took off, doing donuts and jumping small hills. Carter and I took it a bit slower. My goal was to first ease him into going fast on the flat open sand, do a few small jumps to get him comfortable, then hit him with a big jump out of the blue and hope he didn’t freak out and cry. My plan worked like a charm! We started out slow, gradually increased speed as we raced across the flat sand, and some of the fear faded away as Carter realized this is really fun!
We did some donuts, checked out the view, and then took our first very small jump. Carter yelled, “That was awesome!” We did a few more little hills and jump, following Natalie and Brian, and his courage only increased. Then out of nowhere I turned up a big hill and drove right off the side and caught some air. When we landed I held my breath, waiting for Carter to respond. Thank goodness he was giving me two thumbs up and was ready to do it again.
It was a gorgeous, clear, sunny day, and the four of us zig-zagged all over the sand dunes, laughing and shouting. Grandpa and Uncle Kenny even showed up part way through our rentals on their ATVs, which the kids loved, and we all drove around together. Later Carter said he thought Grandpa doing donuts on the ATV was one of his favorite parts, after the jumps of course.
We did get stuck a couple other times from being a little too ambitious about which sandy hills we decided to tackle, but were able to get unstuck fairly easily.
This adventure was incredible. It was actually, if I’m being totally honest, a life-changing moment for our family. Until then, our vacations were focused around more little-kid activities, like Disneyland, Legoland, Sea World, and Zoos. But in 2013, this adventure changed everything. This adventure proved our kids weren’t toddlers and littles anymore, but big kids ready for big adventures. If they could handle this like pros, they could do anything. Since then our vacations have shifted to more outdoor, adventurous experiences — and we’re having so much fun experiencing it all together.
But this was the first. This adventure was the catalyst that shaped the lifestyle we’re choosing to create today — and I’ll never forget it.
Know Before You Go
- Famous for it’s long stretch of white sand beaches and riding the sand dunes in a four-wheel ATV or dune buggy, the city of Pismo Beach is located halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles along Pacific Coast and 101 Highways.
- Pismo State Beach is the only beach in California where it is permitted to drive a standard highway vehicle along the shore.
- The Oceano Dunes SVRA ranger station is located at 928 Pacific Blvd., Oceano, California 93445. The south park entrance is located at the end of South Pier Avenue in Oceano. The north park entrance is located at the end of Grand Avenue in Grover Beach.
- While the park is open 24 hours for campers, day use is available from 6:00 am to 11:00 pm.
- We rented dune buggies through Sun Buggy Fun Rentals, which had comfortable gear in kid-sizes, friendly staff, and solid safety precautions.
- At Oceano Dunes SVRA, you can camp on the beach.
- Download the Oceano Dunes Map.
- Camping is available at the 172-site Pismo State Beach Oceano Campground located at 555 Pier Avenue, Oceano, California 93445. Download the campground map.
- Camping is also available at the 103-site Pismo State Beach North Beach Campground located at 399 S. Dolliver Street, Pismo Beach, California 93449. Download the campground map.
- The Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove is located at 400 S. Dolliver Street, Pismo Beach, California 93449 at the south end of the North Beach Campground. The grove is open from late October through the month of February from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, with docents providing daily talks at 11:00 am and 2:00 pm.