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 emanate 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. An hour north of UCSB, just outside of Lompoc and 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.

We round the final curve of the narrow Jalama Road. The park is empty on this windy Sunday afternoon. Winds sometimes blow between 50 and 60 mph. A box with a slot allows users to pay the $5 day-use entry fee on the honor system.

“It’s only like that when it’s slow,” park ranger Sherman Hansen said. “But the honesty is really amazing. Sometimes there’ll be 23 tickets and we’ll count 25 cars in the parking lot.”

Sherman is one of the four Santa Barbara County Park Rangers who live permanently at Jalama Beach.

“If you want to live at your job, it’s a great place to do it,” Sherman said. “It takes some dedication and the right mentality, but I’m not tired of it.”

Every sunset still looks different, Sherman said, and he cannot help thinking about the great sunsets his wife has on film when he hears a visitor comment on the beautiful sky. After 13 years as a park ranger, Sherman said it is sometimes difficult to separate work from the rest of his life in order to relax.

“It’s hard to be off duty when I see, hey, there’s a dog off his leash – my wife has to tell me to sit down,” he said.

Expansion of the Secluded

Wedged between the privately owned Bixby Cattle Ranch to the south and east, and Vandenberg Air Force Base to the north, the park now covers 23.5 acres. Sherman said that no matter how it is to be expanded, Jalama Beach will always remain secluded.

However, Santa Barbara County is currently negotiating with adjacent ranch owners to secure land donations to the county.

Mark Chaconas, 3rd District Supervisor Gail Marshall’s assistant, said Bixby Ranch has agreed to donate 20 acres to the Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Dept. to alleviate trespassing problems caused by surfers traversing private land.

“This donation will allow the expansion of the park to provide safe [beach] access and to reconfigure the access road to add some additional camping opportunities,” Chaconas said.

A county economic review shows the current expansion plan will pay for itself due to the increased fee revenues from the additional number of campers and day users the park could sustain, Chaconas said. An environmental impact review is scheduled to begin soon.

“We hope to open up the plan for public comment in about six months,” Chaconas said.

Holds Back to Bring In

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.

Sherman said that 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-serve 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.

Sherman is buying groceries in the Jalama Beach Store and Restaurant, which is famous for its juicy Jalama hamburgers. 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.

Nancy, one of the store’s cashiers, said the Jalama Beach waves attract a distinctly local crowd, but conflicts between visiting surfers rarely ensue.

“Everybody’s very nice,” she said.

Jalama’s History

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.

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 Comp. (ARCO) donated the 23.5 acres that currently make up Jalama Beach to the county in 1943.

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.