An unspoiled stretch of sand curves into the northern horizon, bending beneath rolling coastal hills turned light brown by the approaching summer. Dark gray cliffs stand in sharp contrast to the sun-lit beach and run parallel to the ocean’s green edge of breaking wind-whipped waves. The cliff walls lean slightly away from the water, almost balking at the sheer eroding force applied by wind and waves that originate from an unseen Pacific source.
As we stare from a turnout on the last stretch of a 14-mile winding drive off Highway 1, Jalama Beach seems to be a stepping-stone on a path to the edge of the world. Just outside of Lompoc and near the southern boundary of Vandenberg Air Force Base, the windswept Santa Barbara County park has increased in popularity over the years but is still secluded enough to be passed over by all but the most avid wind-surfers, campers and hikers.
Jalama Creek, swollen from recent rains, flows along the park’s northern border into the ocean. The 10 to 15-feet-wide creek, though shallow, is a significant natural obstacle for visitors wishing to stay dry as they cross to explore Jalama’s northern stretch of beach.
Preceded by the mountainous drive, crossing the creek further convinces the visitor that nature’s hand is intentionally making progress up the beach difficult. Blowing sand even conspires against photography by threatening lens damage.
Despite the day’s lack of visitors, the park’s 110 campsites and recreational vehicle parking places are consistently filled to capacity between June and Labor Day. Jalama’s campsites operate on a first-come, first-served basis, which often leaves campers facing a three to four-day wait for space on a 100-person waiting list during the peak summer season.
Buying groceries in the Jalama Beach Store and Restaurant, which is famous for its juicy Jalama hamburgers is an experience never to be forgotten. The concession shop has changed hands a number of times since its construction in the early 1960s, but the same family has held the lease from the county for the past several years.
With the exception of a set of railroad tracks, several lines of barbed wire cattle fences and a lone strip of power lines that span the landscape, Jalama Beach appears largely untouched by civilization. As we walk north, headlong into the wind, the blowing sand erases our footprints as quickly as they are imprinted.
We walk the same sand that Chumash Indians traversed for centuries before Spanish explorers and settlers moved them to La Purisima Mission. A Chumash settlement called Shilimazshtush used to occupy land near Jalama Creek and if you are slightly superstitious, you can feel movement about you while in this sacred area of the beach. A sign positioned at the mouth of the creek tells of an Indian stealing a knife from a visiting Spanish galleon crewman and how the entire group of Indians made him return it peacefully. The camp was renamed to signify the incident.
In 1923, less than 15 miles north of Jalama Beach, seven United States Navy destroyers ran aground in darkness and heavy fog on Sept. 8 at Point Honda, which is now part of Vandenberg Air Force Base. According to the Lompoc Valley Historical Society, 23 sailors were killed in what is considered the largest peacetime accident in Navy history. Newspaper clippings and photos on the wall of the Jalama Beach Restaurant document the disaster, which a later investigation blamed on a series of navigational errors while the battle group was traveling too fast under radio silence.
The Richfield Oil Corp. (ARCO) donated the 23.5 acres that currently make up Jalama Beach to the county in 1943 for lack of petroleum underground or nearby.
We reach an impassable rocky outcropping where the waves break directly against the cliff wall. The wind is blowing harder than ever and the sun is setting, so we turn around and head back south along the beach. The Jalama winds seem all too happy to push us back toward the parking lot, but I will be all too happy to return again.
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