By Mike Brown
Jalama County Park is not your typical county park. Wedged between the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve and Vandenburg Air Force Base on the Gaviota Coast, it’s a slice of rural California for day trippers, RV campers, and surf addicts. It’s moody–some days, particularly in late summer and early fall, there’s barely a breath of wind, while other days the wind is so relentless that you want to pack it up and head home.
One thing is certain, it takes some effort to get there. Jalama Rd, which connects the park and Highway 1 just south of Lompoc, is 14+ miles that take a minimum of 25 minutes assuming you’re not stuck behind a giant RV chugging down the double yellow line.
Heading north on the freeway out of Santa Barbara, the first glimpse of the ocean is about a half mile past Ferren Rd, the last north/south road in Goleta and a picturesque and pretty brutal bike ride that climbs up about 3 miles to the gate of a private community. The next glimpse comes after the El Capitan Ranch exit and a view of the point at El Cap with Refugio and the rest of the Eastern Gaviota Coast in the distance. The sight of whitewater is always a thrill. Occasional peeks at the ocean and a best guess as to the likely wind at Jalama are de rigueur before rounding the bend at Gaviota State Park, heading through the tunnel and veering off at Highway 1. A right turn and you’ll head towards the parking lot for the trailhead to Gaviota Peak, a truly great hike and view. Turn left and you’re heading through farms and ranches following the El Jaro Creek on the way to Lompoc. Rounding the final curve before the Jalama Rd turnoff, there’s always the sense of anticipation and wonder as to what you’ll find when you come to the end of the road.
I’ve driven the road countless times. More often than not, I’m driving without following anyone or anyone following me and it’s almost like I’m on autopilot. The bends and straightaways, the hill climbs and downhill S curves just seem to flow by; I automatically slow down and shift to a lower gear to minimize braking and cruise through curves that transport me back in time to being teenager when I roamed through the backroads of Santa Monica Mountains. In spring, the hills are incredible shades of green. In fall, the tans and browns make the oaks stand out. Every once in awhile, I’ve spotted a coyote ambling along. My favorite part of the drive is a middle portion that’s a wooded stretch often dotted with cows on pasture among oaks and brush. More up and down past the Jalama Ranch buildings and a brief glimpse of the ocean in the distance. Then, the climb up the final hill and the 180◦ bend where the ocean and surf reveals itself. Another 180◦ curve past the newly acquired parkland that the County has yet to develop, and it’s a straightaway to the Park kiosk. I usually make a quick stop on the ocean side of the road to check the surf at the “Crack” and Tarantulas and then it’s into the park. Door to door is an hour plus.
The Park is a mix of RV and tent campers, motorcyclists, bicyclists, families, couples, solo travelers and who knows what else. The surf crowd ranges from regulars living close enough that Jalama is their go to spot, those of us in Santa Barbara County who make the drive somewhat regularly, those who are going up or down the coast and make the detour hoping to catch it on a good day, and the campers who are among the first in the water and the last to get out. There’s the fishing crowd who are surf casting either for fun or for dinner; the latter are easy to spot as they tend to be more bundled up protecting themselves from sun, wind, and cold and are focused on the job at hand. The families out for a day at the beach hoping for sun, little wind, and small waves with boogie boards and Wavestorms at hand and often some of the few brave souls who’ll get wet without a wetsuit. And the longer-term campers who’ve snagged a campsite at the edge of the beach along the top of the dune with their beach chairs and beer at the ready,. It’s all a part of the scene.
For surfers, Jalama is a mystery, a revelation, a frustration, a sublime experience, and a terror depending on the day. It’s a big stretch of beach with distinct surf spots that come alive or go dormant depending on the swell direction, size, and tides. Plus, the wind is always a factor—early morning offshore is wonderful for the waves, but makes for a chilly transition when first paddling out. South winds can mess up what otherwise would be decent surf. And the usual afternoon northwesterlies can sometimes be smoothed out by the offshore kelp beds. I have to admit that we once chased our poorly staked out tent as it was blown over the dunes towards the water.
My usual thing is to park in southernmost part of the Park, sometimes getting into my wetsuit at the car, other times shouldering a backpack for the 15 minute hike south to the Crack or Tarantulas. In summertime, south swells break best just a little south of the Crack and a little north of the Jalama Store. In winter, west and northwest swells focus on Tarantulas, a reef that is surfable way bigger than I am willing to ride. Being north of Point Conception, the water temperatures are generally colder than the parts of Santa Barbara that face south towards the Channel Islands. Rubber is your best friend at Jalama year round.
I’ve had picture perfect days with just a few other people out and I’ve paddled out among a crowd thinking I’d be lucky to get a couple of waves. I’ve watched my kids play on the beach as youngsters, paddle out on small days as they gained confidence in their surfing, and then grow up to surf Jalama at its most challenging. Some of the scariest days of my surfing life have been at Jalama where I’ve bounced off the reef at Tarantulas, been held down way too long only to surface and face another giant wave and another hold down, endured a torn MCL and a long hike back to the parking lot, and swum out to a surfer slumped over to help get him to the beach where he couldn’t be revived. And yet, I’m magnetically drawn to the place.
Walk past Tarantulas at a dropping tide and you can walk a good chunk of the way to Point Conception and back (assuming your timing is good, it’s going to be a very low tide, and you walk pretty fast!). For much of that hike, you’ll likely be by yourself. It’s a slice of coastal California that you don’t get to experience very often. When you’re back in the Park, head over to the Jalama store and order a Jalama burger (or the chicken or vegetarian version). It’s the best, especially in the latter part of the afternoon (be sure to get there in time to order before the grill shuts down). While you’re waiting for your burger, wander through the dining area and check out the photos and the critters that inhabit this special part of the coast.
Somehow, the drive home always seems shorter than the drive into Jalama. Maybe it’s a feeling of rejuvenation, maybe it’s just feeling surfed out and satisfied. Either way, as I go around the bend at Gaviota State Park and once again glimpse the Channel Islands, I’ve usually got a smile on my face.