Beaches in Pismo are exceptionally wide, making them some of the best in the state for sunning and playing. The beach north of Grand Avenue is popular with families and joggers. North of Wadsworth Street, the coast becomes dramatically rugged as it rambles northward to Shell Beach and Pirates Cove.
Pismo Beach was once one of the most famous places in America for clamming, but the famed "Pismo clam" reached near-extinction in the mid-1980s due to overharvesting. If you'd like to dig for bivalves, you'll need to obtain a license and follow strict guidelines. Or come for the annual Clam Festival: Held at the pier each October since 1946, the celebration features a chowder cook-off, sand-sculpture contest, and Miss Pismo Beach pageant.
If fishing is more your style, you'll be pleased to know that no license is required to fish from Pismo Beach Pier. Catches here are largely bottom fish such as red snapper and lingcod. There's a bait-and-tackle shop on the pier.
Pacific Dunes Riding Stables, 1205 Silver Spur Place (tel. 805/489-8100; www.pacificdunesridingstables.com), in Oceano (5 min. south of Pismo Beach), runs guided hour-long horseback rides along the beach and dunes for $40.
From late November to February, thousands of migrating monarch butterflies take up residence in the area's eucalyptus and Monterey-pine-tree groves. The butterflies form dense clusters on the trees, each hanging with its wings over the one below it, providing warmth and shelter for the entire group. During the monarchs' stay, naturalists at Pismo State Beach conduct 45-minute narrated walks every Saturday and Sunday at 11am and 2pm (call tel. 805/773-4382 for tour information). The Butterfly Grove is on Hwy. 1, between Pismo Beach and Grover Beach, to the south.
The Rare Golden Sand Dunes of Guadalupe
The California coast was once rich in dramatic, windswept sand dunes; sheltered valleys of wildflowers and willows; and lakes full of pond turtles, red-legged frogs, muskrats, and nesting birds. San Francisco's dunes are now covered in part by Golden Gate Park, while Los Angeles's dunes were leveled to create beach towns and the airport. But travelers cruising the central coast have the chance to visit what's now a rare sight at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve just north of the tiny agricultural hamlet of Guadalupe, about 20 minutes south of Pismo.
The preserve comprises 18 miles of the largest, most biodiverse coastal dune-lagoon ecosystem on the planet. They have been the subject of photographers such as Ansel Adams and Brett Weston; home to the Dunites, a utopian group of artists founded in 1931; and the setting for Cecil B. De Mille's spectacular 1923 film, The Ten Commandments. Designated by the Nature Conservancy as number one in its "Last Great Places on Earth" campaign, these dunes are now permanently protected for wildlife and passive recreation.
The Dunes Center interpretative facility (1055 Guadalupe St., Hwy. 1, Guadalupe; tel. 805/343-2455; www.dunescenter.org), in a restored 1910 Craftsman-style home, is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 10am to 4pm, and a schedule of guided walks is available on the website.
The Dunes are accessible at the southern end by driving on West Main Street (Hwy. 166) to a parking lot just below Mussel Rock Dunes, the highest coastal dunes in the world. The middle of the dunes is accessible off Hwy. 1, 3 miles north of Guadalupe. Turn west onto Oso Flaco Lake Road, pay a small parking fee, and walk along a rare riparian corridor to a bridge that crosses Oso Flaco Lake. A 1-mile boardwalk leads you to the ocean through one of the best examples of coastal dune scrub in the country.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.