The Amazing Nipomo Dunes

This is a historial post from Hiking the California Trail, a 1998/2002 book set by Bob Lorentz and Richard Nichols. Where possible an update has been provided.

The vast Nipomo Dunes sprawl over 18 square miles between Pismo Beach and Point Sal. They form the largest undeveloped coastal dune ecosystem in California, and the second largest, after the Oregon Dunes, on the west coast. Most of the dunes have been preserved by the efforts of the Nature Conservancy, with help from the state parks department and local groups. The dunes began forming 18,000 years ago during the last ice age, with the oldest dunes lying atop Nipomo and Orcutt mesas to the east now stabilized and covered with vegetation. Much of the sand was deposited here by the Santa Maria River, a stream that carried much more water and sandy sediment during the Ice Age than it does today. More recently, sand has accumulated here from the north due to the dunes’ position at the southern end of San Luis Obispo Bay, with sand drift to the south blocked by the ancient high rise of Point Sal. The Nipomo Dune Complex actually consists of three dune fields. Oso Flaco Creek forms the boundary between the Callender Dunes to the north and east and the Guadalupe Dunes to the south. The Mussel Rock Dunes lie south of the Santa Maria River in Santa Barbara County. Mussel Rock Dune, rising precipitously about 500 feet above sea level at the promontory called Mussel Rock, is the tallest single dune in North America.

The vast dunes, the most unique and fragile ecosystem in California, harbor a wealth of surprising and unusual features, both natural and manmade. A dozen lakes clustered east of the westernmost ridge of the Callender Dunes formed in troughs between the dunes roughly 16,000 years ago, fed by groundwater from the mesa to the east. They support yellow pond lily at the southern limit of its range and provide water for abundant wildflowers, including several endangered species, that surround them. Oso Flaco Lake, along the lower end of the creek of the same name, is the largest lake in the Nipomo Dunes. From a boardwalk that crosses the lake, one can see ducks and herons year round and huge white pelicans in winter. On Coreopsis Hill just south of that lake, the giant coreopsis of the sunflower family grows larger than anywhere else.

Manmade features in the shifting dunes are more elusive, but tantalize with their presence.A group of bohemians settled in the Callender Dunes beginning in the 1910s. They lived in driftwood shacks, often built under a full moon and ornamented with mystical symbols. Most Dunites practiced astrology and social nudism, while many believed in the lost continent of Lemuria, nature spirits, and Hindu sacred writings. Dunite culture reached its height in the establishment of Moy Mell (Pasture of Honey), a commune begun in 1931 by Gavin Arthur (grandson of U.S. President Chester A. Arthur) which lasted for eight years, located near today’s south boundary of the Pismo Dunes Natural Preserve. The community published six issues of an intellectual magazine called Dune Forum. The last Dunite in Nipomo Dunes died at his driftwood-and-grass shack in 1974.

Less idealistic but equally romantic are the other ruins hidden in the Nipomo Dunes. In 1923 Cecil B. DeMille filmed his silent movie classic The Ten Commandments in the dunes southwest of Guadalupe. The film’s set, 750 feet long with walls 109 feet high, was left in the dunes when filming was complete. The clay-and-plaster ruins had long been buried and were thought destroyed until | 984 when two men found a six-foot-wide horse head sculpted in ancient Egyptian style nestling in the Mussel Rock Dunes. Subsequent efforts to uncover the ruins have not been successful. Take a wander in the Nipomo Dunes—you just can’t tell what you might find.

Originally Published in Hiking the California Coastal Trail: Guide to Walking the Golden State's Beaches and Bluff from Border to Border - Volume Two: Monterey to Mexico by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols
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