“Really?” I exclaim, gawking at the sign. Park closed? This takes me by surprise. We drove all the way to the map-dot town of Guadalupe — a close to three hour trek from our neck of the woods — for a closed park. Anton shoots me a disapproving look over his shoulder. I know what it means. I should’ve checked. I should’ve called. But I could’ve never anticipated this. At the onset of the pandemic, the first places to open were our ecosystem of national and state parks, wilderness areas and nature preserves. On the other hand, restaurants, museums and stores all required special instructions for getting in. I got used to the idea of calling everywhere and anywhere before visiting, of making reservations and of double and triple-checking opening and closing hours. So, yes, I should’ve done a bit more research.
But the reason the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes is closed has nothing to do with Covid. The 2,553-acre stretch is a protected wildlife refuge that plays host to western snowy plovers, an endangered species of birds. The area closes during their nesting season, which happens to fall between March 1 and Oct. 1. I’d never heard of plovers until today, and let alone their nesting season. Lesson learned. “Should we go in?” I ask hesitantly. The entrance isn’t closed or blocked off, and we see another car drive through. Perhaps parts of it are still open? I can only hope.
We creep past the gate and down a windy road. There are undulating dunes and quirky looking shrubs on either side, a sudden and exotic topographic change from the miles and miles of farmland that we had just driven through. This is what drew me to the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. Also known as the second largest dune system in California, it’s a major geographical gem and a natural wonder. (Here is a fantastic video put together by the Dunes Center that shows you just how magnificent the place is.) Another major draw? The Egyptian relics that are buried under the sand.
In 1923, filmmakers looking to recreate the dunes of the Sahara desert found inspiration here. The search was for The Ten Commandments, a silent religious epic film meant to tell the story of the Exodus in one part and a modern story of living by those biblical principles in another part. This Californian desert was, by Hollywood magic, transformed into the City of the Pharaohs — boasting “towering statues of the Pharaoh Ramses, five-ton Sphinxes and city walls more than 120 feet high,” according to the NY Times. When it was all done, instead of moving the set, the folks behind the production decided on a different route: burying it.
Since then, several pieces of The Ten Commandments world were uncovered or “excavated,” but much of it is still hidden under the sand. When I first read this, I was fascinated. I grew up in Egypt after all. In fact, I lived a mere 20-minute drive away from the pyramids, and I’ve traipsed through every museum in Cairo and meandered through my fair share of ancient sites. I was excited to see parts of Egyptian Hollywood history, which I read is displayed at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center. But no luck on that either — it’s closed.
We park in the parking lot by the beach. There’s a good number of people here, definitely too many for a closed park and even more for a foggy day like today. Anton hops out of the car to track down a ranger. We want to know where we’re allowed to go and what’s closed off. It’s not too difficult to find caretakers of this preserve. There are a few just within my eyeshot, pacing back and forth with a stiff look on their faces, peering into their binoculars every now and then.
Anton comes back with information. Everything behind the rope that runs along the shore is off limits, he says. We can walk along the ocean, and a few minutes down, the rope will end. We’re allowed to walk around there. Break the rules, and the rangers will know. They’ve got those binoculars, and they’re not afraid to use them. “Good to know,” I tell Anton. I’m not a rule-breaker. I like being respectful at every location we explore — especially if said location is the breeding ground for cute little shorebirds with white-colored bellies.
As soon as I stumble out of the car, a sharp wind whips my hair and sends a chill creeping down my back. The architecture of these gusts are haphazard, blowing from this angle then that. I’m not sure I like it, and I do love that smell of salty air. It’s loud, too, the soundscape of the lapping waves permeating everything. I scan the environment. On the right, cold and angry waters — misty waves churning wildly against themselves. Panning to the left, stark white dunes that stretch as far as the eye can see. We meander toward the beach, past other visitors bundled up in puffer jackets. Two people are casting their rods by the shore. Fish, apparently, is fair game.
As we walk along the roped-off area, we try to spy for little plover eggs. Plover nests, we were told, usually hold three itty bitty eggs. Since they visually blend in with the sand, even trained eyes have a tough time spotting them. I take a deep breath, slightly demotivated. No Egyptian relics, no snowy plover eggs, no dunes to really explore. Should I even be writing a post about this? I ask Anton, who immediately nods. This is life. Sometimes things don’t work out. Sometimes you drive for three hours, only to realize that what you’re there to see isn’t accessible. Sometimes you learn a few lessons. Like, a lot about the breeding habits of snowy plovers and the importance of double-checking. And if you have a platform to share those observations with others, then why wouldn’t you?