Exploring the old town of Guadalupe, California
I find the town of Guadalupe to be a relaxing and charming place. Situated on the Pacific Coast Highway on the border of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties with the sand dunes rising behind in the distance, it enjoys a uniquely beautiful geographic position. I love the fields spreading out around it and the mountains of the Santa Maria Valley providing a backdrop to the railroad passing through.
I suggest taking a day — or more! — to enjoy everything it has to offer. Especially considering that it’s on the cusp of going from a sleepy, relatively unknown place to a bustling town like Los Alamos or Los Olivos. It’s interesting to have a point of reference for comparison to the change coming.
Start with a visit to the Dunes Center on Highway 1, aka Guadalupe Street, in the blue craftsman-style house at the north end of town. Learn about Cecil B. DeMilles’ The Ten Commandments that was filmed in the Guadalupe Dunes. They buried the huge movie set upon completion and the Dunes Center showcases pieces that have been dug up, like a sphinx. It also provides history about the area, like information on The Dunites and local hero Kathleen Goddard Jones.
The Dunes Center has a wall where it lists all the movies filmed in Guadalupe. Highlights include Rudolph Valentino’s The Shiek, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Hidalgo, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, G.I. Jane, and The Odd Couple II. Guadalupe has been a Hollywood favorite for almost 100 years.
At the end of the block in the Veterans’ Memorial Building, you’ll find the Rancho de Guadalupe Historical Museum. It’s open on weekends from 1–3pm, and there’s typically a tasty BBQ going on in the parking lot on Saturdays. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the old fire truck peeking out of the garage. Make sure to ask about the explosion that occurred across the street in the 90s. It’s quite the tale.
Just a few blocks down, enjoy a unique shopping experience at Flappers Flip. It has a little something for everyone, including antique tools, automobilia, and vintage toys. Its main attraction is farmhouse-style and shabby chic home decor and furniture. Don’t miss the locally made art, jewelry, clothes, and food.
A few blocks farther down, past the historic pink building that was once the famous Far Western steakhouse that’s said to be haunted by a friendly ghost who would pinch patron’s rear ends, is Nardo’s, the best Mexican food in town. It’s a cozy, authentic restaurant run by a family. You’ll find mom in the kitchen cooking everything, including the delicious corn tortillas. Her family runs the front of the house, and they are warm people who make you feel right at home.
Across from Nardo’s, next to the old theater that is not in operation but often displays town information on its marquee, you’ll see an altar. It’s for the town’s patron saint, La Virgen de Guadalupe. If you’re up for a little walk, go north from there until you reach 9th street where the yellow building for Two Guy’s Pizza is. (Yes, it really is run by two guys and it’s great pizza.) Make sure to take note of the murals on the sides of the buildings as you walk. The one on the yellow building that reads Santa Florita Hotel is from the movie The Odd Couple II. The building was actually renamed to accommodate the sign!
Make a right onto 9th Street. A couple blocks down on the left, you’ll see a small white building. That’s the old town jail. It’s open the last Sunday of each month if you’d like to take a look inside.
Continue to the top of the bridge for a great view of the town, and the surrounding area. You can see all the way out to the sand dunes. On the other side of the bridge, one block down and across the street, is City Hall. It’s a neat historic building with beautiful murals about local history and culture. The town offers free entertainment in the auditorium in the City Hall almost monthly, and it’s very good. My favorite was a concert by Latin Grammy Award winner Gaby Moreno. It was amazing to see free refreshments brought out after the locals danced their hearts out.
If you’d like to see the most impressive house in town, come back over the bridge and up 9th Street. Make a right at Olivera Street. One block up on the right at 10th Street, you’ll find a large old yellow house. It belongs to a long-time Guadalupe family, the Masatani’s who own Masatani’s Market in town, and even includes a widow’s walk at the top.
On the next block of Olivera Street, you’ll find the Japanese Buddhist Temple, which has a fascinating and rich history. East of that is Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. My parents were married there!
If you’re feeling like a bite to eat, try La Esperanza Market right in the middle of town on Highway 1 that has excellent burritos in its casual eatery. The employees are enthusiastic and kind, and always make me smile. Another good option is King Falafel, also in the middle of town, run by a husband and wife team who couldn’t be nicer. Grab a burger, fries, and cherry Coke, sit in the front window, and marvel at how it feels like you’ve taken a step back in time.
Head back to your car so you can see the Guadalupe Dunes. Drive south on Highway 1 and make a right at Main Street, where the Guadalupe Cemetery is. I encourage you to stop and look at the headstones. The ones right on the corner are quite old and awe-inspiring. There’s a lot of town history there, and a variety of cultures evident in the last names. My grandparents are actually buried there!
Head through the fields and you’ll find that Main Street ends at the ocean. Don’t be deterred by the kiosk as you enter the beach area. There is no charge to go in but remember, they do not allow dogs. This area has some of the biggest sand dunes in the world. When you crest the hill that gives you your first view of the ocean, look left. The debris you see on the sand dune is the old set of The Ten Commandments.
There’s a parking lot down at the water with a couple of bathrooms. There’s also a beach wheelchair available there. If you wanted to, you could head south and hike all the way out to Point Sal. My dad does this sometimes, and takes pictures of his footsteps in the sand behind him. It looks like he’s alone in the Sahara Desert. Keep an eye out for dolphins.
You can also take a leisurely walk north and let the dunes and the sand unfold around you. You can see the mountains stretch out to Avila Beach. But you will have to stop when you get to the fence that prevents you from entering the off-road vehicle area.
This is one way to reach the other great beach option in Guadalupe, but it’s easiest to take a car. Go back through town, take the bridge over the Santa Maria River, which is typically bone dry, under the bridge for the railroad tracks, make a left on Oso Flaco Road, and take it to the end to reach Oso Flaco, which means skinny bear in Spanish. Parking is $5 cash (otherwise you can park along the road) and dogs are not allowed. It’s an easy walk to take the boardwalk over the lake, and you can see all kinds of birds and wildlife. If you’re feeling more ambitious, take the boardwalk all the way to the ocean and see where the Santa Maria River ends. It’s a very laid back beach where you can find families and fisherman enjoying the day.
If you’re up for more adventure, park your car at the Amtrak station at the south end of town and catch the train for a day trip to San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbara. I find this to be another great way to take in the local area and get a new perspective on its beauty. And there’s a photo op available with the old gold caboose from the Santa Maria Valley Railroad.
I hope you enjoy Guadalupe as much as I do, and that you’ll come back again and again as it experiences a metamorphosis in the coming years.