Posted by: James Wapotich | August 21, 2011

Trail Quest: Guadalupe Dunes

If you’re looking for someplace different to hike, then the Guadalupe Dunes with its unique scenery and history may be the answer. Located west of Guadalupe in the northern part of Santa Barbara Country, the dunes include the highest active sand dunes in the western United States.

The dunes are part of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes complex that stretches from Pismo Beach south to Point Sal and is home to a diverse range of plants and animals. The Dunes complex is the second largest in the state and covers roughly 22,000 acres and ranges from 2-5 miles wide along the coast.

Guadalupe Dunes


Formed over thousands of years the dunes are part of the large, ongoing cycle of rocks and sediment from the mountains being eroded over time and carried to the sea and eventually becoming sand. And then from the coast being pushed back up on shore by the surf and inland by the wind. The dunes are in many ways a reflection of how small simple actions built up over an extended period of time can create amazing features in the landscape. An aerial view of the dunes quickly reveals the prevalent direction of the wind.

The hike begins at the Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve, continues south towards Mussel Point and makes a loop inland through the dunes, roughly 7.5 miles round trip. There are no trails, just open space and one of the blessings of the dunes being right along the coast is that unlike most beach hikes one does not need to time their hike with the tides.

Shore Birds Guadalupe Dunes Pacific Ocean Hike

To get to the trail head from Guadalupe follow West Main St., State Route 166, west until it dead ends into the park. You’ll pass the park gate which is open from 7:00AM-7:30PM. The Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve is administered by the Santa Barbara County Parks Department and is open to the public year round. There is no entrance fee and parking is free. In December of 2010 winter storms washed out part of the road and so parking is along the road where it’s now blocked off.

From there it’s three quarters of a mile to the old parking area along the trail made by the parks department. Because we are currently in the nesting season for the Western Snowy Plover and California Least Tern the trail is marked with signs and ropes to protect the sensitive nesting area, please stay on the trail at all times.

At the old parking area there are picnic tables and restrooms and access to the beach. From here a short walk up the coast brings one to the mouth of the Santa Maria River. As a fan of the backcountry standing here where the Santa Maria River meets the ocean I couldn’t help thinking about all of the places the river had been on its journey. Between its two main tributaries, the Cuyama and the Sisquoc, the Santa Maria River encompasses over 1,700 square miles, much of it in the Los Padres National Forest and reaches as far inland as Ventura and Kern Counties. The estuary also makes for some great bird watching.

Mussel Point Guadalupe Dunes Hike

View south towards Mussel Point

The main hike continues south towards Mussel Point. For the first mile and a half the dunes are roped off along the coast to protect sensitive nesting area, but that then gives way to open dunes. From here you can make a large loop through the dunes, either starting or ending at Mussel Point. The hike to Mussel Point along the beach from the old parking area is about 5 miles round trip.
Guadalupe Dunes Hike


The dunes are definitely the highlight of the trip with highest dunes found directly behind Mussel Point reaching 400-500 feet. Impressive would be a word well suited to describe the dunes both in terms of size and variety. Amongst the dunes you will find both open sand and coastal chaparral as well as plants uniquely suited to anchoring the dunes and creating little islands of life. And if you have time, a visit to the eastern edge of the dunes offers a nice contrast in scenery and can add to the sense of how extensive the dunes are.
Coyote Tracks Guadalupe Dunes Hike

Coyote Tracks

Because few people seem to explore the dunes you will also find a wide variety of animal tracks that often stretch for hundreds of feet including those of coyote, bobcat, rabbit and even the occasional mountain lion. And although walking on sand is generally more strenuous, more than half of it is hard packed enough to make for easy walking. The dunes at Mussel Point are also high enough to offer some great views of the surrounding area including Point Sal to the south and the Santa Maria River estuary to the north.
Point Sal Mussel Point Guadalupe Dunes Hike

View towards Point Sal from Mussel Point

For some these dunes are best known as the location of Cecil B. DeMille’s “lost city”. In 1923 Cecil B. DeMille came to the dunes and built an Egyptian “City of the Pharaoh” complete with temple and statues for his epic film The Ten Commandments. And then because the set was too large to move he ordered that it be dismantled and buried in the dunes so that rival filmmakers couldn’t use it. The location remained hidden until its rediscovery in 1983 by a group of determined film buffs, plans still remain to excavate the site. More recently the dunes have starred in films such as Hidalgo and the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, At World’s End.

Regardless of how far you hike you will get to see a unique stretch of the California coast.

This article originally appeared in section A of the August 21st, 2011 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

Guadalupe Dunes Mussel Point Hike


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