Outdoor enthusiasts take their all-terrain vehicles to a granular level.

Hey, Dune

Only a few beaches  in the United States  welcome ATV riders.  One of them is Oceano Dunes,  north of Los Angeles.
Only a few beaches in the United States welcome ATV riders. One of them is Oceano Dunes, north of Los Angeles. (California State Parks, Off-highway Motor Vehicle Division)

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By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 12, 2007

The moment we reluctantly finish riding the dunes on the only California beach that allows vehicles, 15-year-old Emily announces she just has to call her younger brother in Bethesda.

"He'll be soooo jealous," she says. On the call Emily tells her mother, "You have to take Seth; it will be a highlight of his life."

Not that riding all-terrain vehicles along a scenic beach and over Sahara-like dunes is just for boys. Here's one middle-aged woman for whom the ride was the highlight of at least the year. Judging from the number of pink ATVs on the beach, the vehicles have caught on with females in general.

No pink for me, my daughter or her friend Emily, though. We each take off on a bright-red Honda Recon 250 EX, which the rental agent says can go up to 55 mph.

Admittedly, we three neophyte riders are quite timid for the first half-hour or so. In fact, as we take off from BJ's ATV Rentals, we poke along the beach like three seniors on those scooters that late-night TV ads promise will be covered by Medicare. The Recons don't have speedometers, but I'm guessing we aren't exceeding 5 mph.

Besides the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area -- about a three-hour drive north of Los Angeles -- only a handful of beaches in the United States allow ATV riders. In fact, only one other beachfront park, in Oregon, has both a significant riding area and ATV rentals. About a half-dozen other locations in the United States have rentals and places to ride on dunes, but they're inland. Oceano Dunes is further distinguished by its beauty. Miles of bright blue waves crash on a shore that curves around a cove sheltered by rumpled green hills. A broad, flat beach extending about 100 yards from the surf line serves as a camping area, with tents, trailers and RVs. The sand then suddenly curves upward into rolling hills with wavelike crests. The undulating dunes are up to 80 feet high from base to crest.

From the tops of the first rows of dunes, you see the ocean in one direction and, in the other, nothing but more towering dunes, some with sheer vertical drops.

Fifteen hundred acres of dunes in the 3,600-acre park are set aside for riding. (Vehicles lose 300 of those acres each year between March and September, when a section is fenced off for the nesting season of the endangered California least tern and the threatened western snowy plover.) The park is within the 15,000-acre Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes complex, one of the most pristine and extensive coastal dune areas in the country. An array of government and nonprofit entities owns various sections of the complex, which stretches along 18 miles of shoreline.

If you've ever seen Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 epic "The Ten Commandments," you've seen these dunes. They are close enough to what you'd expect to see in the Middle East that they've been used by Hollywood as a backdrop for "Sahara" and "Hidalgo," among other movies. Most recently, a beach near the park was used for filming the last two of Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies.

Unfortunately, we didn't have time to visit the next beach down, site of what is jokingly called "the only Egyptian dig in North America," which contains the pyramids, statues and other props DeMille ordered buried after filming "The Ten Commandments." In his autobiography, DeMille left a glaring clue of what he'd done instead of hauling away his sets.

"If 1,000 years from now someone happens to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe, I hope they don't rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization extended all the way to the Pacific Coast of North America," he wrote.

Archaeologist John Parker and documentary filmmaker Peter Brosnan in fact received grants in the 1980s for preliminary digs, even though they knew that what they unearthed were not real Egyptian artifacts. Some of what they found is on display at the Dunes Center, a museum near the beach in the town of Guadalupe. Parker and Brosnan never had the money to complete the dig, but tourists hoping to get lucky sometimes kick around the site.

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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