Wednesday, October 14, 2009

California's mysterious sand dunes (and its lost city)

"Sand dunes are made of light," the photographer tells me, and good light is early light, which is why we're out here at dawn. An art director (Dennis) and I are saddling up to ride through the picture frame, across an arching dune (Don wants some action in his shot). It's the late 1980s and we are at Guadalupe-Nipomo sand dunes on California's central coast, shooting my first big story for Sunset Magazine that we hope will make the cover. Soon a warm, lemony sun lights up the sand like mounds of shining crystals. Just as the morning sunlight strikes the face of the dunes, we spur our horses to crest a sand peak, casting long, elegant shadows down the opposite slopes of sand. Snap!

As the camera shutter clicks away in rapid-fire, I imagine I'm starring in some 'blood and sand' picture of the silent movie era, galloping away from the approaching hordes. Not surprising I feel that way, since we're near the site where a legendary Cecile B. DeMille movie was, indeed, filmed.

I've always been fascinated by sand dunes—their sinuous sweep of clean, white sand glistening in the sun, seeming to shape-shift with every angle of light. It's the reason that, long after that old photo shoot, I still find romance and mystery in the curve of a towering dune. So I'm thrilled to learn that the 18-mile-long Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Complex, on the Santa Barbara/ San Luis Obispo county coastline, is more accessible than ever.

Open to visitors, The Dunes Center in Guadalupe, California, (in the Santa Maria Valley) has just launched a new web site, new tour map, and enhanced educational exhibits to help visitors get the most out of their experience at the Dunes Complex. That's good, because though the dunes are easily accessible from Highway 1 in the Santa Maria Valley, this place is so big, you need good intel to get the most out of it.

This is one of the most ecologically significant and largest intact coastal dune ecosystems on the West Coast. A major portion of the nearly 22,000 acres of dunes is under public management and open for recreation; more than 1,400 species of animals call the dunes home.

The dunes are also where famed director Cecil B. DeMille filmed his 1923 silent epic The Ten Commandments (right); recent movies have filmed here, too, including The Pirates of the Caribbean starring Johnny Depp. DeMille’s massive “City of The Pharaoh” became a lost city after it was abandoned and ultimately buried by the crew and, later, by the shifting sands. A documentary about the modern search for the lost sets of The Ten Commandments—including five-ton sphinxes and giant statues—will debut next summer.

Oh, and our 1980s shot did make the cover, by the way. I saved the picture and glance at it whenever I open that box in the attic; I see a very young girl on horseback, loping across a graceful peak that glistens like sugar—and I remember learning what sand dunes are really made of.

Details: The Dunes Center offers ongoing guided walks and hikes, plus children’s activities, all on the new web site. This month, the center debuts its free new map to help visitors find their way around the dunes; a $2 charitable donation is requested when visiting. The Dunes Center is at 1055 Guadalupe Street (Highway 1) in Guadalupe, California; 805/ 343-2455. For lodging, dining, and recreation information on the Santa Maria Valley, please click here.

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