Secret sand

Three Santa Barbara beaches with big scenery and no crowds
Matthew Jaffe

The surfer dude with a retro 'fro lets out a call that channels a combination of a sea lion's bark and a bloodhound's howl as he gets his first look at the surf hammering Jalama Beach: "AAAARH-OOOOOGH!"

The big storms have passed, but southwest swells are still pumping. The waves rise high enough to blot out the horizon and plunge onto the beach with a sound that booms like a cannon and cracks like a whip. A kind of liquid thunder.

I stay back toward the sandstone bluffs. Tilted beds of shale, mottled with swirling patterns and blotted with tar seeps, shimmer with ocean spray. And to the north, a long, green ridgeline climbs from Point Arguello to 2,170-foot Tranquillon Mountain. The peak looks like some gargantuan, terrestrial wave ready to break back against the ocean.

Big as it is, the surf is sloppy too. One surfer, towed out by a jet ski, finally nails a long ride that earns another yowl. That primal hosanna is a perfectly rational response: a wild sound for a wild beach on a wild day.

Jalama, Ocean Beach, and Rancho Guadalupe Dunes make up northern Santa Barbara County's trio of wild beaches that have remained local secrets.

The road to Jalama

Getting to Jalama Beach is a ritual unto itself. In northern Santa Barbara County, "Pacific Coast Highway" would pretty much be a misnomer, lacking as it does both Pacific and coast and, thanks to a storm taking a chunk out of the road this past winter, a bit less highway too. And Jalama Beach is about as far off State Highway 1 as you can go without hitting Tokyo. As it slithers west on its 14-mile run to the sea, Jalama Road twists its way up and down the western Santa Ynez Mountains, passing old barns, ducking through dense oak forests, and dipping into arroyos.

Finally you reach Jalama Beach, home to a campground, streamlined sea green restrooms resembling submersibles out of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and the Jalama Beach Store & Grill. The grill is the purveyor of World-Famous Jalama Burgers, a surfside meal that for decades has fueled days of surfing and long beach walks that nearly reach Point Conception.

Point Conception plays an important part in the mystique of these northern Santa Barbara County beaches. It's where California's Pacific Coast switches from a north-south to a west-east orientation. That means that while the county's southern beaches are protected like sailboats tucked away in an anchorage, its northern beaches bear the ocean's full impact. Dubbed "the graveyard of the Pacific," this coast has seen its share of fabled shipwrecks. In 1923, the U.S. Navy suffered its greatest navigational disaster when seven destroyers went off course in thick fog and struck the rocks at Point Pedernales, killing 23 men.

Ocean Beach and Rancho Guadalupe Dunes

I first discovered this coast when I arrived in Lompoc for a summer job 20 years ago. After a barbecue with my boss, Dan, and his family, we piled into the car and headed to the literally named Ocean Beach. We walked under the railroad trestle and emerged onto a wide, lonely beach with churning surf and a coastline empty except for Vandenberg Air Force Base's rocket-launch towers. The dried blue remains of by-the-wind-sailors jellyfish fluttered down the beach, and the kids raced one another to see who would be first to pop the bulbs in the tangled piles of kelp.

Coming back here is a homecoming of sorts, but as timeless and dreamlike as the beach remains, some things have changed. Vandenberg's Space Shuttle program was scrubbed long ago, and terraces cut into the roadsides to accommodate the orbiter's wings while towing it to the launch site have almost eroded away. The wooden depot at Surf Station, the last vestige of a railroad community that dates back to 1897, is gone too, replaced by a modern passenger platform that is almost certainly the most remote train stop anywhere on the California coast.

Ocean Beach is isolated, but it's hardly been immune to controversy ― all because of an energetic little bird named the Western snowy plover. Listed as a threatened species, the plover builds its nest in shallow indentations in the sand, leaving it vulnerable to disturbance. As a result, the federal government has closed much of this beach during the bird's nesting season, from March through September. Since the program began, the plover population has increased dramatically. But locals object to the lack of beach access.

Restrictions are also in effect at Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve, near Guadalupe, but there's plenty of room to roam. The beach sits at the southern end of the vast 18-mile-long dune field that begins near Pismo Beach. The Rancho Guadalupe Dunes are notable as the backdrop for Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 production of The Ten Commandments, for which he built massive sets and brought a cast of literally thousands to this sea of sand. Once filming finished, DeMille buried the sets in the dunes (you can see remnants of them at the Dunes Center in Guadalupe).

Epic, too, is the trek south toward 450-foot Mussel Rock, the West Coast's highest sand dune. The walk follows the shoreline, but eventually the beach runs out and the slog up the dune begins.

In stretches, the sand is fairly compacted; in others, the route crosses steep sheets of soft, shifting sand. In addition to one heckuva workout, there are other rewards: splashes of Indian paintbrush, lupine, and poppy, and a commanding north view, where miles of white, foaming breakers marble the Pacific blue before surging onto a golden shore. The view can be summed up in one word: "AAAARH-OOOOOGH!"

Hit the beach

For general information, contact the Santa Barbara County visitors bureau (www.santabarbaraca.com or 805/966-9222). Lompoc is the most convenient base for lodging; for hotels here, contact the Lompoc Valley visitors bureau ( www.lompoc.com or 805/736-4567).

Storms washed out a section of State 1 between U.S. 101 and Lompoc; one lane is open at a time on the road to Jalama Beach, with a temporary signal controlling the traffic flow. Another way to Jalama Beach is to take U.S. 101 to State 246 and go west; at State 1, go south (the road is open to local traffic) and continue to Jalama Road.

Jalama Beach County Park. A big-time surfing and windsurfing spot with nearly 6 miles of sand. Check tide tables before heading out; there are a few rocky points. A small wetland area crossed by a railroad trestle makes for ideal trainspotting. No trip is complete without a Jalama Burger at the Jalama Beach Store & Grill ($; 805/736-5027). $6 per vehicle; 98 first-come, first-served campsites from $18. 9999 Jalama Rd.; www.sbparks.org or 805/736-6316.

Ocean Beach County Park/Surf Station (locally known as Surf Beach). Due to nesting Western snowy plovers, access is limited to a 1/2-mile stretch at Surf Station during nesting season, from March 1 through September 30 (open 8 a.m.-6 p.m.). Beach access is closed at Ocean Beach, but parking is open for picnics and bird-watching. 13 miles west of Lompoc on State 246/Ocean Ave.; www.sbparks.org or 805/934-6123.

Rancho Guadalupe Dunes. The dunes nearest the parking lot are subject to Western snowy plover nesting closures, but long beach stretches are open. Walk 1 mile south for the 0.5-mile climb up Mussel Rock dune, or head north roughly 2 miles for other open dune areas (use caution when crossing the Santa Maria River). Sunrise-sunset daily; $3 donation suggested. From State 1 in Guadalupe, go west at Main St. (State 166) and continue 5 miles to parking lot at end of the road; www.cnlm.org or 805/343-2354.

While in Guadalupe, stop at the Dunes Center, an interpretive facility in a restored 1910 Craftsman house, to learn about area history. Exhibits include remnants from The Ten Commandments sets. The center also offers free guided hikes. 10-4 Tue-Sun. 1055 Guadalupe St.; www.dunescenter.org or 805/343-2455.

Also in Guadalupe, try the Far Western Tavern ($$$; 899 Guadalupe St.; 805/343-2211), a classic Central Coast steakhouse.