Castles in the Sand

A trip down the road less traveled reveals one of Santa Barbara County’s hidden treasures


Words and photos by Chuck Graham



An interesting thing happened to me while driving along the central California coast north of Santa Barbara. I decided to get off the beaten path and took Highway 135 through Los Alamos, following it past scenic ranches until I reached old Highway 1, the coastal route to Guadalupe, where the largest intact coastal dune ecosystem on the West Coast offered a world-class wilderness experience in an unexpected location.


A U.S. National Wildlife Refuge, the dunes begin in Pismo Beach and gradually grow more spectacular as they meander southward for 18 miles to Guadalupe. Some of these waves of sand tower 500 feet over the shoreline, and hidden within them are 11 freshwater lakes offering safe haven to numerous bird species.


Since that first visit I’ve explored the dunes many times, and every trip has revealed something I didn’t notice before: like perfectly sculpted dune crests created by the relentless northwest wind, or secretive critters that have adapted to life in this unique ecosystem. Once, a bobcat leaped in front of me, springing from a coreopsis bush. Another time, a California horned lizard scampered across the dunes kicking up tiny granules of sand in its wake. One of my most memorable sightings was a red-tailed hawk perched on the crest of a dune. When it took flight, it sent a small landslide cascading down the dune and into a trough. Even when I haven’t seen much wildlife, the diversity of animal tracks—and prevalence of animal spoor—serves as a constant reminder that life exists in this breathtaking landscape.


The dunes are a natural work of art. Long shadows creep in at sunset and retreat at dawn. The wind leaves ruler-edged lines and finely manicured crests, some shaped like fishhooks, throughout the ecosystem. Silver lupine, giant coreopsis, sand verbena, Indian paintbrush, and other vibrant flora have adapted to the harsh conditions, adding a splash of color and much-needed stabilization to the windblown landscape.


One of the best times to explore the area is at sunset while a storm is passing through. The rain compacts the sand, and while the sun sinks the dunes transform to waves of gold and pinkish hues. The scene is even more dramatic with dark, ominous clouds sweeping overhead toward Morro Bay and beyond.




Getting there: From Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 north to the Guadalupe exit. You can also take the 101 to Highway 154 (San Marcos Pass) and travel through the wine-rich Santa Ynez Valley, reconnecting with the 101 shortly after Los Olivos. Proceed north on the 101 to Guadalupe. Or, to enjoy a more scenic route, exit the 101 at Highway 135 in Los Alamos and continue north to old Highway 1: the coastal route to Guadalupe.


When to go: The gate opens at dawn and closes just after sunset. The best time to visit the dunes is late-September through the winter when the winds are calm.


Learn more: Visit the Dunes Center at 1055 Guadalupe St. Guided walks are available. For information, call 805-343-2455 or visit


Local tip: Take a step back in time with dinner and drinks at the 1912 Far Western Tavern, located on Highway 1 in Guadalupe; 805-343-2211,





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