Travel: Pismo Beach


My Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (which, having survived college dorm life, five mortgages, the crystal wedding anniversary and two babies, is anything but new) defines sand thusly: A loose, granular material that results from the disintegration of rocks, consists of particles smaller than gravel but coarser than silt, and is used in mortar, glass, abrasives and foundry molds.

Apparently, this lexicographer has never been to Pismo Beach. If he had, the definition might be less industrial and more visceral. Something like, “Sand: a fickle substance with which it is impossible not to have a love-hate relationship.”

So, what’s love got to do with it? When occupants of Jeeps, four-wheel-drive pickups, ATVs, dune buggies or Humvees frolic across the crests and bowls of Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area just south of Pismo Beach, that’s love; you can see it in their gritty eyes.

But when this same landscape becomes a burial ground, reducing all but the most muscle-bound vehicles to pathetic dinosaurs flailing in tar pits, as it so often does—that’s grounds for pure, unadulterated hatred. So is venturing onto the sand in hard contact lenses when the wind is blowing. Or having a beach picnic and expecting your sandwich not to live up to its name. To which I say, Grrrrrrrr.

My family and I, along with our good friends Chris and Cathy and their two boys, got to experience both ends of sand’s emotional spectrum—albeit much more love than hate—during a three-day spring break trip to Pismo Beach and its sister communities of Grover Beach and Oceano in south San Luis Obispo County.
This area, located on the central coast halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is home to one of most righteous sandboxes this side of the Sahara—23 uninterrupted miles of beach, to be exact—and the only California state park where vehicles can be driven on the beach.

We left sunny Sacramento with enough Banana Boat SPF 30 to cover several square feet of hide, only to find Pismo Beach marinating in clouds. Worse, the clouds loitered like a shiftless teenager during our entire stay. Good thing we packed sweatshirts.

“Well, what are you going to do?” the locals shrugged. “You should have come in October.”

No matter. Sand is sand, sun or no sun. Our first encounter with the beach was the view from our rented house, which Coastal Vacation Rentals billed as a “Kinkade seaside cottage.” Thoroughly appointed in a salty motif, the cottage, which sleeps six (we were pushing it with eight; now I understand Dad’s good-old-days stories about lone bathrooms in crowded farmhouses), cost $1,337 for three nights. What really sold us on the place were website photos of its dining nook, in which we pictured ourselves having morning coffee and never getting up to do the dishes. The room’s windows and French doors offered floor-to-ceiling clifftop vistas of the Pacific, its curving coastline and the coastal mountain range levitating in the fog. The ocean was the exact gray of school portrait backgrounds, the kind you don’t have to pay extra for. And the sand—such a wide, clean canvas, perfect for scribbling messages big enough to see from a small airplane.

Our second sandy encounter—a much closer one this time—occurred when Chris proposed we take his family’s Honda Odyssey minivan for a drive on the beach to scope out a spot for the evening’s bonfire. We drove about three miles south on Highway 1 to Grover Beach’s Grand Avenue, which has an on-ramp to the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Area: eight miles of towering sand dunes and generous beaches tattooed with the hieroglyphics of every size tire imaginable. The entrance fee of $4 was a small price to pay for the entertainment to come.

Cruising at the 15-mph speed limit across three miles of the hard-packed wet sand of low tide, we gawked at what Chris referred to as “the carnival:” tents, RVs, picnic paraphernalia, ATVs, Jeeps, pickup trucks, dune buggies, dirt bikes and even some horses, as far as the eye could see. Dozens of men, and quite a few women and children, were unleashing their inner rebels in the form of Viking horns, Confederate flags and pirate banners attached to screaming machines. If this beach was the center of California’s creative energy—as a local 1930s- and ’40s-era colony of mystics, nudists, artists, writers and hermits called the Dunites believed it was—one would be hard-pressed to detect its still, small voice.

Surveying the scene before me, I could tell right away that these were people whose language I scarcely speak, who go around uttering things like “This Jeep is powered by a Chevy 350 and a highly modified Powerglide two-speed automatic with a trans-brake and a high-stall converter.” But kindness needs no interpreter, as we found out when we got stuck in the sand. We weren’t the only ones. Up and down the beach, we saw immobilized vehicles surrounded by motorheads in fine resuscitative form. Not that it’s much of a consolation; our hope of freeing the van diminished with each spin of the front tires, which soon disappeared into the hole they had dug for themselves. Our saviors turned out to be a pair of men’s men with a four-wheel-drive pickup truck, a 30-foot nylon tow strap—and hearts of gold. The lessons? “Air down” your tires when driving on the sand—it provides more traction. And appreciate a fine man no matter how dirty his fingernails are.

Our third encounter with sand was the highlight of our trip: an hour-long guided Humvee thrill ride over the dunes, courtesy of Pacific Adventure Tours. Adults pay $35, kids $15 to bump and shimmy into the desolate world of Indiana Jones. The kids couldn’t stop giggling as our six-seater Hummer gunned up crests and skittered, crablike, down hills, spraying plumes of sand in its wake. Larry Haas, owner of Pacific Adventure Tours and XTreme Hummer Adventures, told me these Hummers (“the same ones they’re using in Iraq right now”) are capable of fording almost three feet of water, traversing 40-percent side slopes and climbing 60-degree grades, day or night.

And what’s a thrill without a dose of education? Our guide pointed out fenced-off areas meant to protect certain plant and animal species, including the Western snowy plover, a brown and white shorebird that nests in the dunes. Also tucked among the dunes was a midden of clam shells, all that remains of a Chumash Indian settlement.

One can’t soak up the culture of the dunes without sensing an undercurrent of tension. The Oceano Dunes are a wishbone between the Sierra Club, which seeks to close off all the land in the name of species protection, and off-road enthusiasts whose websites weep with nostalgia for the 1960s and ’70s, when access to the dunes was virtually unlimited. Last year, a federal judge enforced a settlement between groups on both sides of the issue, keeping limited portions of the dunes open for off-highway vehicle use.

Of course, one always has the option of navigating the dunes on two feet. Who knows what treasures you’ll uncover? Said one explorer/scavenger, “The best thing you’ll find out there are tools. I have found many Craftsman and Snap-on tools in the dunes, and lots of ATV tool packs. All of my ATCs (dirt bikes) are equipped with tools I’ve found out there, and a lot of the money I make on eBay comes from rubber and plastic parts I find in the dunes.”

Although it seemed as if sand was the focal point of our trip, it really wasn’t. After our Hummer tour, there was time to explore the city of Pismo Beach and its 1,250-foot-long pier aboard a surrey for four from Beach Cycle Rentals. Pismo Beach is an unpretentious, delightfully cheesy beach town stereotypical of everything some Midwesterners believe California to be. (I speak only for my former Midwestern self and a few dozen friends and relatives, who by now should know better.) It’s all so cliché—or maybe classic is a better word: blond surfers, palm trees, fudge and taffy stands, and shops selling key rings, painted shells and shark-tooth necklaces or T-shirts emblazoned with messages like “One tequila . . . two tequila . . . three tequila . . . floor!” We wouldn’t want it any other way. Nothing screams “Let’s goof off!” like Pismo Beach.

When it was time to eat, there were several appealing alternatives to heading back to the beachhouse for a peanut-butter sandwich (which, traveling with kids, is pretty much a given, most of the time). Some locals recommended Steamers of Pismo Beach, and we were glad they did. If a sunset were visible across the horizon, Steamers, from its perch high above the water, would be the place to see it. The food’s good, too.

 Steamers specializes in seafood, pasta and prime rib, and word has it the fresh seasonal fish and steamed clams and mussels are fabulous. Not a fan of seafood, I ordered the 12-ounce New York strip encrusted with black pepper and topped with caramelized onions and blue cheese-and-bacon butter. Delicious, but it required the nullifying effect of a long run on the beach.

Breakfast is our favorite meal, and for that we hit Chele’s Food & Spirits by the pier. Chele’s appeals to all ages with extensive senior and kid menus. We especially loved the French toast with strawberries ($4.99) and the breakfast tostada with scrambled eggs, shredded lettuce, rice, black beans and cheese, topped with chili and tortilla crunchies ($7.99).

No trip to Pismo Beach is complete without a stop at Splash Cafe for its famous clam chowder, served in a sourdough bread bowl. Splash has received requests for this recipe from Gourmet and Bon Appetit magazines, whose editors apparently want to find out for themselves why 10,000 gallons of the stuff is served every year. Although Pismo Beach is famous for clams—the Pismo clam is one of the largest types of clams found on the California coast, capable of growing to 7 inches—Splash Cafe’s bivalves are imported.

 Resident clams aren’t sold commercially because of overharvesting in recent years. Clamming as a hobby, however, is permitted (with a license and several restrictions) and is greatly enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. Those who can’t get to Pismo Beach can still sample Splash’s clam chowder: Just order it online at for $8.99 a quart and fresh-frozen delivery.

It’s a wonderful way to get a taste of Pismo Beach . . . without a mouthful of sand.