The lake called “Skinny Bear”

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

Oso Flaco lake

The legend of Oso Flaco Lake

The small bear wandered through the brush and tules down to the edge of the lake that lay hidden on the east side of massive sand dunes that stretched up and down coast for miles. He stopped and sniffed the air before lowering his head to drink. Water seemed to take away the dull pain that rode through his body. He was thin to the point of emaciation. Obviously something was amiss with him. He didn’t sense the men that were peering at him through the brush and never knew what hit him when the bullets from their guns took his life. Perhaps it was better. He was now out of pain.


The men, who were from Gaspar de Portola’s expedition in 1769, were delighted with the kill although they would have preferred that there be a little more meat on this bear. Nonetheless, they skinned it and roasted the cuts of meat over their fire as they camped by this unusual freshwater pond located so close to the sea. “We should name this place after the bear,” one of the men said. And so they did, in Spanish, Oso Flaco.

Not far from the men’s camp a group of natives lurked observing their movements. They watched as the white soldiers killed the bear and with some satisfaction watched too as some of them sickened and died from eating the bear’s flesh. It had worked out just as they planned when they left poisoned meat out for the bear to eat. Not enough to kill him, but enough to taint his flesh and thereby kill these invaders to their land.

So goes the story of how this small but important fresh water lake just north of the town of Guadalupe got its name and its colorful history.

Jump to present day and no more bears, skinny or otherwise, visit the lake, but it is a favorite spot for bird watchers and nature lovers. Swallows and terns flit about landing on the tules and the railings of the boardwalk over the water. Many species of ducks paddle about, some upending themselves to feed on the lush vegetation on the bottom. Double-crested cormorants perch on driftwood in the middle of the lake and American white pelicans drift up and down while egrets and herons feed in the shallows.

How to get to Oso Flaco Natural Area

If you are coming to visit Nipomo, you won’t want to miss this beautiful natural area. The Oso Flaco Natural Area is part of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area and is a California State Park. To get to the site you turn west onto Oso Flaco Lake Road off of Highway 1 three miles north of Guadalupe and just south and west of Nipomo. The road dead ends and there is vehicle parking in the lot for $5.00 or you can park just outside of the lot on the side of the road for no fee and walk in.

The trailhead begins from the parking lot and extends for a length bordered by a wooded area of willows and wax myrtles draped with Spanish moss. Watch for small birds through here. The lake is fed by Oso Flaco Creek that also nourishes these woodlands.

At the end of the trail you will go to your left and enter onto the bridge and boardwalk that extends over the entire lake. Keep a sharp eye out for a family of raccoons that make the lake their home. The water is fairly clear and you will probably see fish and other amphibians in it. Keep your binoculars handy to look at the waterfowl. There are some benches along the way for you to sit and really take in everything. This is also a good spot for photographers to set up a tripod and get some nice shots of the birds.

At the end of the bridge you cross over onto the dunes and there is a viewing spot. On a clear day you should be able to see all the way up north to Point San Luis and south to Mussel Rock. You can continue out onto the dunes but be aware that in nesting season much of the dunes are restricted to safeguard the nesting western snowy plovers. Please take heed of the signage in this area.

You can learn more about Oso Flaco Lake and the dunes with a visit to the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center at 1065 Guadalupe Street, Guadalupe. This is a handicap accessible facility where you can see many interactive exhibits and watch short films about the area, including information about the film, The Ten Commandments that took place in the dunes in 1923. The film set was buried in the sand dunes and is still located there. It is now known as the “Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille.” The Center is open Saturday and Sunday from 10 A.M. to 4 P.M. or by appointment by calling (805) 343-2455.

— Ruth Ann Angus

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