Lost in the Dunes

Photos © Paul Cotter Photography

On a biting cold morning in December, I set out to photograph Oceano Dunes -- a bewitching expanse of Sahara-style crests located off the California coast south of San Luis Obispo.

This is the place where legendary West Coast photographers produced some of their most groundbreaking images in the early part of the last century. This was my opportunity to follow in their sandy footsteps. And it turned out to be quite the adventure.

Untitled photo


When I visited the area the day before my photo shoot,  the young guy working at the entrance booth to the beach assured me, “It’s easy. You just walk past the houses there, and you’ll see the dunes.”

Well, it turned out that seeing the dunes was easy, but getting to them from the beach was a different story. A creek blocked the way across. And where the creek finally tapered down, the route was obstructed by a mass of tangled brush. It's not as easy as it looks in the photo above. So I kept walking along the beach ... and walking.

After a long trek, I finally found a path leading over a hill and to the dunes. I made a mental note of the location and planned to drive my car back to this spot on the beach the following morning so I could start the hike from here. The rest should be easy, right?

Untitled photo


Next morning, I arrived an hour before sunrise and drove slowly along the beach. (Yes, vehicles are allowed on this stretch of beach.) It was tough to see in the darkness, even with my headlights on. To my left, the ground appeared to be sloping upward and the sand looked softer and looser -- so I steered to the right where it looked flatter and safer to drive on.

Safer?  Uh, no.  I was driving on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, with my tires sinking in squishy sand and waves lapping at the wheels. This is NOT where I wanted to be.

Untitled photo


After backing out of the ocean and correcting my course, I parked my car near the spot where the path started.  I used my iPhone flashlight to guide my way as I carried my tripod and camera bag over the hill, across a little valley and to the dunes. It was unseasonably cold that morning, and the hot coffee I'd sipped in the car did nothing to ease the numbing temperatures before sunrise. The good news: No one else was crazy enough to be out there. I had the dunes to myself, and there were very few footprints in the sand to spoil the view.

Untitled photo


Oh, what a view it was. As the sun poked its head over the horizon, I sat on the dunes and marveled at the drama unfolding before me. The gently rolling slopes stretched out in all directions and the low light cast shadows that carved dazzling abstractions in the sand.

I would've stayed all day, but after an hour the magical light was gone and my fingers were freezing. I could barely press the buttons or move the dials on my camera. Very cold and very happy, I decided it was time to head back to my car – wherever that might be.

Untitled photo


Clearly, I would’ve made a lousy Boy Scout. I'd wandered quite a distance while taking pictures and now I couldn’t find the path back to the beach. I was lost in a labyrinth of bramble, shuffling up and down hills separating the dunes from the beach.

I finally found a path that took me back to the beach. (You can see a glimpse of my white car parked at the bottom of the photo below.)

Along with the cries of the gulls, I could hear my wife's voice echoing in my ears: "Honey, don't get lost out there." That was the last thing she'd said to me before I left. Yes, she knows me all too well. And, as usual, I didn't listen nearly well enough.

Untitled photo

A special thanks

A tip of the hiking hat goes to Barbara Bullock-Wilson for urging me to visit this sandy stretch of heaven. Barbara is the daughter of the famed photographer Wynn Bullock, and she knew I'd find great joy in photographing the dunes. She was right. Thank you, Barbara.

Want to see more dunes?

Click on this gallery to see more photos from Oceano Dunes and Avila Beach, the nearby beach town where we were staying.

Want to be on my email list?

If you're not already on the list, use the CONTACT page on this website to get in touch with me. That way, I can let you know when new blog articles have appeared.

I'd love to hear from you.

To leave a comment below, you'll be asked to sign in using your Facebook, Google+ or SmugMug account.

  • paulcotterphotography

    on March 2, 2016

    My friend Don Toothman, who's an excellent photographer and a globe-trotting traveler, pointed out that I should've had a handheld GPS with me. Then I could have "followed the breadcrumbs" back to the trail. Right you are, Don. I've got to get one of those to toss in my bag.

  • Siobhan Nehin

    on February 24, 2016

    Lovely! The shapes of the sand takes is so sensuous. I could see these blown up in jumbo print form, gracing the walls of a snazzy gallery. Coincidentally, I have been looking to visit this area. Your pics are inspiring me even more to visit south of San Francisco, when we return in the fall. We feel the call of San Luis Obispo all the way from Florida.

  • Jim Nichols

    on February 24, 2016

    Beautiful images, Paul...glad you survived the outing!

  • samuel scaduto

    on February 24, 2016

    Reminded me of pictures of vast desert landscape...nice photos Paul.

  • Jean Schweikhard

    on February 24, 2016

    Paul--these are fabulous. What an adventure getting to where you wanted to be--but isn't that just like life itself?
    BEAUTIFUL images. Thanks for sharing.

  • Bonnie Cotter

    on February 20, 2016

    Simply beautiful....though I must admit, I rather enjoyed my morning at the Spa instead of joining you on your adventure. You are a real trooper and dedicated artist and I continue to be amazed by your work!