Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, contests and more!
Start Your Free Trial
Hotspots Near You

138. Oso Flaco Lake Natural Area, Guadalupe, California

The most intact coastal dune ecosystem on the West Coast. It’s where to find Least Tern, Osprey, pelicans, and many more species.

What first lured me to Oso Flaco Lake were the magnificent sand dunes that surround it. Hidden within a sea of sand, the lake is a safe haven for many bird species.

Oso Flaco Lake Natural Area is managed by California State Parks, and together with adjacent Guadalupe–Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge, the protected areas form the most intact coastal dune ecosystem on the entire West Coast.

At the west edge of the parking lot, enter through a white gate and take an easy quarter-mile walk through a grove of willows and wax myrtles. Within the Spanish moss hanging from the tree canopy, look for Song and Golden- and White-crowned Sparrows. At the end of the canopy, take the footbridge heading west across the lake. Scan the cattails surrounding the lake for American Bittern, Northern Shoveler, Ruddy Duck, and Sora. In the trees above the cattails, look for Belted Kingfisher, Osprey, and Red-tailed Hawk. About 50 American White Pelicans overwinter on the lake. In late June, look for endangered California Least Terns on the railings of the bridge teaching their chicks how to fish. — Chuck Graham

Chuck Graham is a writer and photographer who writes often about birds in California. He also wrote about Carpinteria Salt Marsh, Carpinteria, Hotspot Near You No. 116, Soda Lake, Bakersfield, No. 123, Cachuma Lake Recreation Area, Santa Barbara, No. 151, Elkhorn Slough, Moss Landing, No. 154, Mendocino Headlands State Park, Mendocino, No. 167, and Hearst San Simeon State Park, Cambria, No. 185.

138. Oso Flaco Lake Natural Area, Guadalupe, California


Oso Flaco Lake Natural Area protects coastal sand dunes, a lake, and wooded areas on the central California coast. From north- or southbound Hwy. 101, exit on Hwy. 166 in Santa Maria and go west nine miles. Turn right on Hwy. 1 and drive north 3.75 miles. Turn left on Oso Flaco Lake Rd. and continue three miles to the natural-area parking lot.

Downloadable Files

At a Glance

Click on the coordinates below to view location:
35°1’52.16″N 120°37’13.97″W


Riparian corridor, lake, creek, coastal sage scrub, sand dunes.


Mostly flat. Round-trip walk from parking lot is 2.5 miles. Boardwalk is wheelchair-accessible.


More than 200 species. American White and California Brown Pelicans, California Least Tern, Western Snowy Plover, Cinnamon and Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Ruddy Duck, Gadwall, Northern Pintail, Lesser Scaup, Surf Scoter, Heermann’s, Bonaparte’s, and Western Gulls, Pied-billed and Western Grebes, Belted Kingfisher, Tree Swallow, Cooper’s Hawk, Osprey, White-tailed Kite, Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue and Green Herons, Great and Snowy Egrets, American Bittern, Song and Golden- and White-crowned Sparrows, Dark-eyed Junco, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Marsh Wren, Red-winged Blackbird, Sora, American Coot.

When to go

October through June.


Two boardwalks (one over the lake, another through stabilized dunes) and a viewing platform that offers views of the ocean. The Dunes Center, located at 1055 Guadalupe St. in the town of Guadalupe, has exhibits, a gift shop, map, checklists, and restrooms.


State park. Open year-round. Admission $5 per vehicle. Dunes Center open year-round Thursday through Sunday from 10-4.


Bring a spotting scope to scan the dense cattails, tule reeds, and willows that surround lake. Dunes closest to the beach are prime nesting habitat for Western Snowy Plover. Heed all signage to avoid trampling sensitive habitats or stressing wildlife.

For more info

The Dunes Center, (805) 343-2455.
Central Coast Birding Trail

Sites nearby

Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes NWR
Accessible from Oso Flaco Lake Natural Area. Dunes rise 500 feet high at the edge of the ocean. Least Tern, Western Snowy Plover.

Shell Beach
About 10 miles north of Oso Flaco Lake, off Hwy. 101. Oceanside parks provide habitat for Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants, Pigeon Guillemot, and Black Oystercatcher.

← Back to Hotspots