(This arti­cle may or may not con­tain affil­i­ate links. What does that mean?)

We’d seen pic­tures of all-ter­rain vehi­cles blast­ing through sand dunes in Pis­mo Beach, like Mad Max search­ing for an adven­ture in a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic future. It does­n’t seem too far of a stretch based on what’s hap­pen­ing in the world today but last Spring Break, it was just a fan­ta­sy that we thought would be fun to expe­ri­ence. And then go back to our safe, lit­tle homes when we were done.






The Hotel: Cliffs Hotel and Spa


Cliffs Hotel and Spa Pismo Beach

A Room With A View © Rina Nehdar



We joined our friends, the Millers, at the Cliffs Hotel and Spa. The hotel was ren­o­vat­ed in 2017 with upgrades to the spa that includes a cou­ple’s mas­sage room. Over­look­ing the Pacif­ic Ocean, our bal­cony opened to a view of the wide water, bor­dered on the right by a line of hills that drew away from the shore and dropped sud­den­ly into the ocean.  Inside, our room sport­ed a retro beach vibe dec­o­rat­ed in earth tones. White Ital­ian mar­ble traced the bath­room walls and counter. A whirlpool bath­tub gazed upon an unob­struct­ed view of the ocean. Sprin­kles of sun bounced off the water. We had seen a few of the Millers as we checked into our room and my two boys did­n’t stay to appre­ci­ate the sun or the view after putting on their bathing suit. Instead, they told us to meet them at the pool where the three Miller boys waited.



Cliffs Hotel and Spa Pismo Beach

Boys Will Be Boys



Pro­Tip: Vaca­tions with friends are bet­ter because it keeps your kids from focus­ing (fight­ing) on each other. 


We dis­cov­ered the Cliffs Hotel and Spa loves chil­dren and wel­comes dogs. You know how in some hotels you have to pre­tend your kids aren’t real­ly kids and just minia­ture adults wait­ing for their growth spurt? Not here. As we walked along the path­ways, kids appeared every­where, some with par­ents, some with their pack. Screams of hap­pi­ness car­ried in the breeze as they played games on the lawn around the hotel. Dogs led their own­ers on paths perched atop its name­sake cliffs. Rooms man­ag­er, Travis Domingues lat­er told me that the first floor of the hotel is open to guests with dogs. Though, after the Thomas Fire, the Cliffs Hotel and Spa allowed dogs to occu­py all the rooms in the hotel when their fam­i­lies had to evac­u­ate their homes. Domingues said it was chaot­ic but heartwarming. 



Cliffs Hotel and Spa Pismo Beach

A slice of Cal­i­for­nia Coastal heav­en. © Rina Nehdar



We enjoyed the pool­side ser­vice of cock­tails and snacks while our boys invent­ed games by the hot tub and pool. Being in the cen­tral part of the state, I expect­ed clouds and cool con­di­tions but the sun shone bright and seag­ulls drift­ed in the salty air of blue skies. I lat­er learned there are 315 sun­ny days in Pis­mo Beach every year. Sil­ly me.



Cliffs Hotel and Spa Pismo Beach

Boys Love to Play Games © Rina Nehdar



The hotel pro­vides an evening wine-tast­ing and snack expe­ri­ence, free for guests, in the lob­by. The night we attend­ed, they poured a local favorite of ours, a caber­net sauvi­gnon from Rab­ble Wines. We had the good for­tune of dis­cov­er­ing the Rab­ble Wines tast­ing room called Tooth and Nail, the last time we vis­it­ed the area.



Downtown Pismo Beach


Downtown Pismo Beach

Easy Suns © Rina Nehdar



We gath­ered our group to explore down­town Pis­mo Beach, which was a net­work of streets with aging,  sin­gle-sto­ry build­ings occu­pied by restau­rants and spe­cial­ty shops. At the crown of the town is the recent­ly for­ti­fied and recon­struct­ed pier and cob­web of board­walks ris­ing above the beach. We chose to eat din­ner at Wooly’s which offered casu­al deck seat­ing look­ing over the ocean, the slow-set­ting sun and the length of the pier. Dogs, kids and laid-back peo­ple enjoyed cre­ative Amer­i­can fare with afford­able price tags. We paid $60 for drinks and food for the four of us. We felt our city ten­sion melt­ing into the sea and our smiles eas­ing into our faces.



Wooly's Pismo Beach

Easy — What Else Do You Need For Din­ner? © Rina Nehdar



The Dunes: Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area


sand dunes of Pismo Beach

It’s a mad mad world! © Rina Nehdar



The next morn­ing, we set out ear­ly to find the myth­i­cal sand dunes of Pis­mo Beach, a com­pli­cat­ed lat­tice­work of desert that dipped and rose across the hori­zon, spilling onto the waves of the Pacif­ic Ocean. There are 23-miles of coast­line in Pis­mo Beach, and, com­bined with the dunes, that’s 3,500 acres of off-road vehi­cle fun. It’s the only beach in Cal­i­for­nia that allows peo­ple to dri­ve on it. Our friends had made reser­va­tions at Steve’s ATV so we tagged along to their office, about a half-block from the ocean. One thing we noticed imme­di­ate­ly was the free beach park­ing. Com­ing from Los Ange­les, we’d nev­er heard of such a thing. It appeared as if our group arrived at Steve’s ATVs at the exact same time as every­one else but Tam­mi, at the front counter, was very tal­ent­ed and patient at jug­gling every­one and made sure all were in the right vehi­cles for their size and expe­ri­ence lev­el. Every­one in our group rent­ed either an ATV bike or dune bug­gy to ride the Sahara-like sand dunes of Oceano Dunes State Vehic­u­lar Recre­ation Area or SVRA.



Steve's ATV Pismo Beach

Lisa and Cam­den Miller   © Rina Nehdar



Next, a short yel­low school bus took us deep­er into Oceano Dunes SVRA, where the staff at Steve’s ATV set up a shop in a mobile unit and told us we must watch a video before we rode off to warn us away from being fool­hardy. That was when I real­ized I had for­got­ten my ID in my car, so I had to take the short school bus back and thought I had missed the screen­ing. When I returned, my youngest son who is eight, took my hand and told me it was a good thing I missed the video because it was “kin­da scary.” How­ev­er, I had no such luck. It turns out, it is a pre­req­ui­site to ride at Oceano Dunes SVRA to watch that video. So, I watched it by myself. And I total­ly under­stood why Knox had got­ten spooked by it. They showed vis­i­tors who thought there was noth­ing to fear bar­rel­ing over dunes, fly­ing in a way that they lost con­trol of their vehi­cles and suf­fered a num­ber of bro­ken body parts as a result. After the video, I was­n’t as keen to ride either but I told myself I was in com­plete con­trol of how fast I was going and I had noth­ing to prove, which is some­thing, I think, with which peo­ple some­times grap­ple. How­ev­er, the video did scare off the youngest mem­ber of our group, sev­en-year-old Cam­den decid­ed the risks weren’t worth the rewards. The rest of the group set off.



Steve's ATV Pismo Beach

Dad­dy Dunes. © Rina Nehdar



The first part of our ride con­sist­ed of a brief les­son of how to actu­al­ly con­trol the bikes. Steve’s ATV designed a track to get new rid­ers com­fort­able with using the bikes. This was wel­come after the hor­ror the video had put into our heads of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of get­ting hurt. The prac­tice course made us all more comfortable.



Steve's ATV Pismo Beach

Can We Go Now? © Rina Nehdar



I’m not going to lie. There were many stops for boys who hit their accel­er­a­tors too slow­ly dur­ing take-off that sunk their back tires deep into the sand. There were many times I had to get off my bike to exe­cute the lit­tle lift, the video also taught, to extract those bikes from the clutch­es of said sand. Many, many stops. But hon­est­ly, after see­ing an ambu­lance off in the dis­tance res­cu­ing anoth­er rid­er and lat­er, a boy at the hotel wear­ing a new arm cast, I was glad they were being cau­tious. We rode along the var­i­ous areas that seemed safe for our skill lev­el, ascend­ing upon tall dunes and rid­ing along closed off hills.   At one point, I lost the group. For a few, too brief, moments, I sailed across the beach, ocean water danc­ing to my right, the qui­et dunes to my left. RVs and tents sat along the water in makeshift camp­sites. I felt the breeze graze my arms and spir­it. It’s nice to ride free on occa­sion. Lat­er, the boys declared the ride was their favorite part of the trip.




The Food


The Family at Pismo Beach

All Smiles © Rina Nehdar



On our last night, we decid­ed to split up and have fam­i­ly din­ners on our own. Our fam­i­ly chose ocean-front Ven­tana Grill which had many per­son­al­i­ties. The upscale oys­ter bar is a great option for date night or a girl’s night out but since this was nei­ther, we enjoyed the per­fect­ly crust­ed cala­mari and clam chow­der, which was so fresh we could taste the fla­vor of every indi­vid­ual ingre­di­ent. It was­n’t over-cooked like many of these creamy sea soups. The drinks were won­der­ful­ly mixed and fes­tive. My gar­lic black-tiger shrimp had the right blend of gar­lic and pep­per, a savory din­ner with a delight­ful crunch. 



Ventana Grill

Cheers!  © Rina Nehdar



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More Downtown


Pismo Beach

Just Two Boys Find­ing Their Path. © Rina Nehdar



We could­n’t say good-bye to Pis­mo Beach the next day with­out spend­ing more time in the town. After break­fast at Pen­ny’s All-Amer­i­can Cafe, which had great ser­vice and is ide­al for those want­i­ng a tra­di­tion­al Amer­i­can break­fast (my hus­band walked down the street to find an organ­ic smooth­ie place), we wan­dered toward the ocean. We passed a store­front called Mike’s Ide­al Bar­ber Shop and the boys decid­ed they want­ed hair­cuts. This was­n’t the strip-mall, dis­count hair shop that they were used to. This was an expe­ri­ence. Zack and Zeak styled them with a sharp flour­ish and left them feel­ing dap­per.    We con­tin­ued our way toward the pier and although it was a Thurs­day, it felt like a Sun­day with so many mean­der­ing fam­i­lies explor­ing the shops, eat­ing can­died apples and lin­ing up to sam­ple the “Best Clam Chow­der In the World” in var­i­ous loca­tions. We walked along the raised board­walk, watched the dogs play­ing in the sand and enjoyed feel­ing apart from the reg­u­lar rush of our lives.


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Pismo Beach

You have the sweet­est apples. © Rina Nehdar


We did­n’t hur­ry home. After dri­ving for about an hour, we stopped at Bob’s Well Bread in Los Olivos for a late lunch because we had heard how incred­i­ble this place is. We had heard right. The cashier told us they close when they run out of food and by about 2pm that after­noon, it looked like they were close. The boys real­ly enjoyed the exot­ic breads and sand­wich­es which is not a lit­tle deal. High­ly rec­om­mend find­ing this place if you’re dri­ving in the area. The town looks like what would hap­pen to any thriv­ing town in the wake of an apoc­a­lypse with this mod­ern bak­ery serv­ing as the tem­plate to build again and build well.


We want to thank the Cliffs Hotel and Spa, Steve’s ATV and Vis­it Pis­mo for host­ing por­tions of our adventure. 


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Getting There



Pis­mo Beach is about a three-hour dri­ve along the US 101- N from both Los Ange­les, where we had come from, and also from San Fran­cis­co, just in the South­bound direction. 


Where To Stay


We loved our stay at the Clif­f’s Hotel and Spa and if you use Tri­pAd­vis­er when book­ing you could search for the best deal from all the online book­ing sites at once. You could also read about the ameni­ties each hotel offers plus feed­back from pre­vi­ous fam­i­ly’s stays. If an AirBnB is more your style or the Cliffs are sold out, try this inter­ac­tive map to see prices and avail­abil­i­ty of oth­er accom­mo­da­tions in the area.




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