City of San Luis Obispo
By Donna Polizzi
Keys 2 the Coast has discovered another hidden gem to visit on the California Central Coast. The type of place that thrills you to see that we have protected, preserves and let us see nature at its finest? Visiting Oso Flaco Lake State Park in San Luis Obispo County is a must; it opens your eyes to some of the small things that we may not notice on a day to day basis. It is run by the California State Parks and is a favorite of Central Coast locals.
What sets this area apart from other natural areas, is the fact that it is a part of one of the unique habitats on the planet. The Guadalupe-Nipomo dune complex is one of the best-preserved dune habitats left. Did you know that throughout the 18-mile stretch of dune habitat, there are several pockets of small lakes? Oso Flaco Lake is the only one that allows you to see and feel the dune complex up close and personal, while the rest lie inside of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge. The Oso Flaco Natural Area is perfect for a family stroll or a docent-led hike and schools love to bring their students out for field trips, so they can learn about all of the different habitats and the importance of protecting these magical places. The fact that it is wheelchair accessible, makes it truly a great place to visit for people of all ages. Contact the Dunes Center or California State Parks at 805-343-2455, for more information.
You can easily meander through this area on its built-in boardwalk from start to finish. From the wildlife that thrives there, all the way to the history and culture of the dunes, you really get an array of different information out of Oso Flaco. Believe it or not, Oso Flaco Lake got its name from the Spanish who explored California, back in the mid-1700s. In their own language, the Spanish explorers named the lake, “Skinny Bear Lake”. Why do you ask? Make sure to stop at the local museum in Guadalupe, the Dunes Center, to learn the rest of the story.
After reaching a small dirt parking lot at the end of Oso Flaco Lake Road, the Oso Flaco Lake natural area starts its visitors off at the riparian habitat and works its way inward. This is the outer most habitat of the dune ecosystem, which is a buffer to the lake- it is eye-popping, in that it’s one, humongous, single, gorgeous corridor of tree canopies, towering over you, provided by the Arroyo Willow. As you pass through, it’s always fun to keep an eye out for Raptor nests, and other oddities that are a part of Oso Flaco’s niche. It provides shelter for many of the smaller animals that live there.
After the riparian zone is the lake itself…you can walk right over the lake on a boardwalk! This is where the hot spot is for all local birders to come see rare birds in flight, hunting for prey, or just catching some sun. Have you ever seen the majesty of a Great Blue Heron in plain sight? How about a giant Osprey swooping down to grab fish out of a nearby body of water? There are even turtles living in the lake!
If you keep strolling bypassing the lake, you will continue the boardwalk into the dune brush, where you will find information boards along the way with tidbits on the Chumash Indians, and plant life. This area is every wildflower searcher’s haven. The dunes are a home to over 50 endemic plant species…they live here and only here in the entire world!
Keep going, and you will hit a rest stop with a picnic table and restrooms nearby. After walking about three-quarters of a mile, you reach the breath-taking dunes, where you will find people fishing, picnicking, playing catch…maybe even some dune-diving. Some say the dunes have a spiritual attraction and can easily draw you in. But one thing is for sure, Oso Flaco is one of those places that you just need to experience for yourself and see how special it is from beginning to end. You’ll be glad you did.