Oso Flaco Lake near Pismo Beach

Oso Flaco Lake is an enchanting nature area located just south of Pismo Beach along the Central Coast of California.  The Oso Flaco Lake Natural Area is part of the popular Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area and the lake itself is surrounded by one of the largest coastal dune ecosystems on the west coast of the U.S.

Oso Flaco Lake near Pismo Beach
Oso Flaco Lake near Pismo Beach

The Trail

Thanks to the well-maintained trail and boardwalk at Oso Flaco Lake, it’s easy to access this unique coastal ecosystem and experience it up close.  After parking your vehicle and paying a nominal fee, pass through the gate and walk a level quarter mile to the boardwalk that crosses over Oso Flaco Lake.  Along this short, tree-lined walk, notice all of the moss growing here.

Step onto the boardwalk and as you stroll across the lake, take your time.  The waters are teeming with birdlife.  We’ve taken this scenic stroll several times and we always run across bird watchers or photographers who are happy to share their knowledge of the area and the wildlife.  The last time we were there, these people pointed out several unique bird species that we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.  One group of birds were swimming in circles, using teamwork, to stir up small tidbits of food that were stuck in the muddy bottom of the lake below.

After crossing the lake, the boardwalk continues through a lush habitat of plants that are typical for costal dunes.  A few kiosks along the way point out the different plant species that grow here and, just like at the lake, there’s plenty of birdlife to see so keep your eyes open.

The boardwalk then climbs over a high dune which gives you a good 360° view of the entire area.  In all directions, there are views of the beach and surrounding sand dunes.  To the north, you may hear/see dune buggies climbing the famous Pismo dunes and, providing there is no fog, far to the north you can see the towns of Pismo Beach and Avila Beach.  To the south is where we are going today. 

The boardwalk ends at the beach, about a mile from the parking lot, where the fresh water of Oso Flaco Creek empties into the ocean.  Turn left (south) and head down the beach.  Do your best to cross the creek without getting your feet wet.  Or, if it’s a warm day, take off your shoes and just wade through it!



Below are some pictures of what you will see along the way.

  • Oso Flaco Lake near Pismo Beach
    Moss-covered trees between the parking lot and boardwalk
  • Oso Flaco Lake near Pismo Beach
    The boardwalk crosses Oso Flaco Lake
  • Oso Flaco Lake near Pismo Beach
    Sunset over Oso Flaco Lake
  • Oso Flaco Lake near Pismo Beach
    Oso Flaco Creek empties into the sea
  • Oso Flaco Lake near Pismo Beach
    The sand dunes south of Oso Flaco Lake
  • Oso Flaco Lake near Pismo Beach
    The footprints of critters in the sand

Wind sculptured sand dunes

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Into the Sand Dunes

After crossing the creek, follow it back upstream towards Oso Flaco Lake.  This gives you views of the creek as it meanders through the low dunes.  Once you’re done looking at the interesting habitat along the creek, turn south again and head into the heart of the sand dunes.  This is where you’ll find unusual terrains and textures that are reshaped by the wind every day.  Small critters leave their footprints which add even more interest and shape to the nature-made, artistic patterns in the sand.

Although walking in the sand dunes takes a little more effort, you don’t have to go far into them before you get the feeling of being isolated from civilization.  Sand does a great job of absorbing sound and you can’t hear a thing – not even the sound of the breakers less than a quarter mile away.  The smattering of sand dune mounds all around are also high enough that you can’t see very far either.

Wandering around the dunes was where we found exactly what we were looking for – long stretches of undisturbed sand dunes.  The wind forms intricate shapes and creates large ripples in flat areas of the sand.  All around, small dune mounds were formed and blocked the inland flow of sand, leaving trails of different colored sand behind them, and marking the direction of the blowing wind.

After exploring the labyrinth of mini sand dunes south of the creek, get your bearings by walking towards the ocean and then turn right at the breakers.  Head back up the beach to the boardwalk and return to the parking lot by retracing your route.

The Dunes Center

Before visiting Oso Flaco Lake, be sure to check out the Dunes Center in the nearby town of Guadalupe.  The mission of the Dunes Center is to educate and preserve the delicate sand dune habitat in this area and Oso Flaco Lake is their flagship preserve.  The Center is located 2.7 miles south of the junction of Hwy 1 and Oso Flaco Lake Road.  Please visit their website at dunescenter.org for more information.

To get to Oso Flaco Lake from downtown Pismo Beach, drive south on Hwy 1 for 13 miles and turn right (west) onto Oso Flaco Lake Road.  The road ends at the parking area, 3 miles from Hwy 1.

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