At the southern end of San Luis Obispo County, the Oso Flaco Lake Natural Area offers a quiet preserve for flora and fauna. With a river, freshwater lake, dunes, and sweeping ocean views, this harmonious natural area is part of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA).
The name “Oso Flaco” originates with a story about the expedition of Gaspar de Portola in 1769. As Portola travelled up the Pacific coastline, his ship stopped in the area now known as Oso Flaco. A group of Portola’s men hunted a skinny bear here and ate what little meat they could glean from it. In Spanish, oso flaco means “skinny bear.”
Interestingly, several of those men died that night from eating the bear’s meat. The Chumash people, indigenous to the Central Coast, often left diseased meat out to minimize competition for food. The bear was likely skinny for having eaten their tainted meat, the illness traveling from it to the Spaniards.
Explore Oso Flaco Lake
Oso Flaco Natural Reserve
As part of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge, Oso Flaco offers visitors a serene place to watch wildlife and explore native plants. Bird watchers enjoy seeing terns, swallows, ducks, double-crested cormorants, pelicans, herons, and the western snowy plover. Other wildlife include several species of fish in the freshwater lake, as well as frogs, snakes, lizards, and both the desert cottontail and black-tailed jackrabbit. Indigenous plants like lupine, deer weed, coyote bush, and dunes paintbrush.
The landscape along the Oso Flaco trail is incredibly diverse, with features from a wooded creek to coastal dunes. These habitats support a diverse array of life, including hanging Spanish moss and songbirds on tree branches. Enjoy the textural variations from the beginning of the trail to the crashing waves at its end.
Oso Flaco Lake
This shallow freshwater lake is an oasis in the dunes: an ever-changing landscape of windswept sand hills and vegetation. Covering an area of 75 acres, the lake serves as a refuge for local and migrating birds. Neon green-colored algae collects on the surface of the lake, while tules and cattails line its edge.
Oso Flaco Trail
At 2 miles, round-trip, the Oso Flaco Trail isn’t long, but it is well-designed and comfortable. From Oceano, head south on Highway 1 for 6.5 miles. At Oso Flaco Lake Road, turn right and follow until the road dead ends at the trailhead. (Parking is $5 per car.)
Leave the parking lot through the white gate and follow the dirt path through quiet woodlands along a creek bank. At the footbridge, turn west to walk the boardwalk over the lake, with views of the dunes. Once across, a viewing platform offers hikers panoramic views of San Luis Bay, from the Point San Luis Lighthouse to Mussel Rock to the south.
Oso Flaco Fishing
Surf fishing past Oso Flaco Lake is popular with locals and visitors. Waves are strong here, so come prepared. Bring a fishing license (required), a surfwater fishing rod and reel, bait, knife, and a bucket. The park opens at 7 A.M., perfect for those trying to make an early start. Experienced surf fishers can expect to catch surf perch, a favorite haul at this uncrowded fishing spot.
Nearby Oso Flaco
This majestic complex of dunes is one of the largest in the United States. No wonder Cecil B. DeMille used it as a location for his 1923 silent film The Ten Commandments! Find artifacts from that film set, as well as art and conservation education at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center. Docents are also available to lead ecological hikes into the dunes.
Village of Arroyo Grande
The quaint, historic streets of Arroyo Grande bustle with boutique shopping, wine tasting, and an array of dining options. Don’t miss the Swinging Bridge that connects the two banks of the Arroyo Grande Creek, or the wild gang of roosters that strut through town.
The Great American Melodrama
This longtime Central Coast treasure has served up belly laughs and family fun since 1975. Standing on Oceano’s stretch of Highway 1, the Melodrama is a professional theater company that encourages audience participation. Boo the villain! Cheer the hero! And enjoy the wild comedic ride.
Authentic Santa Maria-Style BBQ is at the center of this steakhouse, which has had a cult following for decades. Cattle brands line the walls, and cowboy hats loom large at the low-lit bar. Don’t miss a visit to the barbecue pit, out the back door, where a pitmaster fires premium steaks over red oak coals.