Pismo State Beach is an area of one of the largest areas for wintering Monarch Butterflies in the United states, varying from 20,000 to 200,000 per year. Wow! Wouldn’t that be something to see? These orange and black butterflies will form large hanging clusters in the Eucalyptus trees in the grove, and when it is warm and sunny, they will become more active, flying through out the area looking for nectar and drinking water. These clusters help to keep the butterfly warm on cool, gray days, and the weight of the cluster prevents it from blowing around too badly in the wind. The butterflies mate before they leave the area, then fly north looking for milkweed, the only plant on which they lay their eggs. These Monarchs then die, leaving their off spring to continue the trip north, mating, and laying more eggs, each time dying, and leaving the new generation to continue north. Each new generation flies farther and farther north, until they reach as far north as they can go, sometimes as far as central Canada, before the weather becomes colder and the days shorter. Here they lay eggs and die. After hatching, the next generation migrates all the way back south to their wintering grounds. It is one of life’s mysteries as to how this generation knows where the wintering area is located. Generally they are in Pismo from early November to sometime in February. Unfortunately, we were there during the first two weeks of March. Even so, although there were no clusters, on a warm sunny day there were more butterflies flying around the area, than I have ever seen, including in both campgrounds. By the time we left, however, they were almost completely gone.
Pismo is the only beach in California where the area along the water’s edge is firm enough to support travel by ordinary street vehicles. At the southern end of the State Beach is the 2800 acre Ocean Dunes SVRA, State Vehical Recreation Area, for off highway vehicles. This is a 5 and half mile stretch of beach which is open to street vehicles and off road vehicles. Passenger cars can easily drive on the northern portion of the State Beach, but four wheel drive vehicles are recommended for driving to the camping area and the off highway vehicle use areas in the SVRA Park. There are even areas of sand dunes where you may drive an ATVs (All Terrain Vehicles). You can even drive in and camp on the beach. It is recommended, however, that you only do this if you are using a four wheel drive vehicle to pull your RV, as you will have to cross a creek to get to the camping area. The depth of this creek varies, so you may drive across it when it seems small, then when you want to leave, discover it is much deeper and wider. Also note that high tides, heavy rains, and blowing sand may determine how safe it is for you to drive down the beach without getting stuck. Besides the official web page listed below, visit Duneguide for photos taken during prime time and flood season, and additional information.
To view a video of the portion of the State Beach where vehicle travel is permitted, visit my video, Driving on Pismo Beach.
The Meadow Creek Trail is an attractive, short walk that connects the area near the Le Sage Day Use access ramp to the beach, and the North Beach Campground and Monarch Butterfly area. The trail starts at the western end of the Le Sage Drive and leads north, ending near the campground and grove of eucalyptus trees, or you can park at the Monarch Butterfly area and begin by following the trail south along Meadow Creek. Much of this trail is a boardwalk, which runs over low dunes and follows the beach, winding past the golf course. At the end closest to the Le Sage Day Use Area, you will find a viewing platform, of coastal views. From this trail you may walk to the Grover Beach parking area and have a snack at the restaurant, or stop at the beach. Be aware that cars are allowed on the beach in this area.
Pismo State Beach has very few violent crimes, but at times there are thefts of private property. It is recommended that you do not leave valuables in your car out in plain view, and that you always lock your car. If you are camping, be sure to stow valuables and lock bikes when away from your campsite. If you see any suspicious activities, report what you saw to a park ranger.
There are no lifeguards on the beach, so be careful when swimming or wading, as water conditions can be dangerous due to rip currents and heavy surf.
The word Pismo comes from the Chumash Indian word meaning tar. Sometimes tar like deposits wash up on the beach from the natural offshore oil seepages. The Indians used this tar to waterproof their baskets and calulk the insides of their canoes. If there are any deposits while you are visiting, they look just like black tar, and feel like tar. Do not walk in these patches when you see them, as they are hard to remove from shoes and bare feet. There were none on Pismo while we were there, but I accidentally stepped in some at another California beach. I found that cooking oil worked well to remove it from the bottom of my wading shoes.
Before we visited Pismo, I had heard that the area was known for their clams and their butterflies. At one time Pismo was famous for it’s clams, but that is not so today. Historically Pismo clams were an important food source for the Chumash Indians. Even in modern times, digging for clams was a popular past time in the area. Unfortunately the clam population has seriously declined. For a time there was a partial recovery, but now there are even less clams than ever before. It is believed that over-clamming, and sea otters may have led to the demise of the Pismo clam. Still, some clamming is still allowed, although you may find it difficult to find any, and I don’t understand why it goes on since they are so scarce
Unique Suggestions: If you have heard that clamming is popular here, and still want to give it a try, check at the park information station for clamming rules and regulations.
Fun Alternatives: Or, you could just leave what is left to the otters, and hope that their population will increase for your grandchildren. Try fishing instead, or just take a book, kite, Frisbee, or boomerang to the beach. There are a lot of great things to do on a beach, besides digging up the clams.
But you love to eat clams? Go to the Splash Café and have clam strips or their wonderful clam chowder.