It was a gorgeous Memorial Day weekend when my son William and I made the day hike to secluded Point Sal State Beach in northern Santa Barbara County. The skies were blue, there was lots of sunshine, and a stiff ocean breeze was blowing.
The state beach is only accessible on foot. The trail follows an old access road through private property and Vandenberg Air Force Base from a large pull-out on a county road south of Guadalupe.
The access road is gated. The Santa Barbara County Parks sign at the entrance says the round-trip hike to the beach is 12 miles long. It’s actually 10 — five miles in and five miles out.
Until 1998, visitors could drive the road to the beach. Winter rains washed it out in places that year, and it was never reopened to vehicular traffic. The road is in good shape through private property, but within the Air Force Base, it has been abandoned and Mother Nature is in the process of turning it into trail.
In 2007 and early 2008, Vandenberg closed the route on its property to pedestrian access and cited hikers for trespassing. In April 2008, however, the Air Force and Santa Barbara County reached an agreement that re-opened the trail to public use except during satellite launches. By agreement with the military, only hiking is allowed, and numerous signs warn hikers to stay on the trail.
Since the footpath is graded, it’s an easy hike except for the last 100 yards. Erosion has completely destroyed the old roadbed there, so it’s a steep scramble down the crumbling slopes to the shoreline. The reward once you arrive is virtual solitude. On the Sunday afternoon my son and I visited, there were only three other people on the beach.
The elevation at the start is 660 feet. The trail rises to 1,260 feet at the top of Point Sal Ridge and then descends to sea-level at the shore. The walk out entails more elevation gain than the walk in, so keep that in mind when planning how long to stay at the beach.
The beach itself is a narrow crescent of sand about three-quarters of a mile long with the slopes of Point Sal Ridge rising steeply behind. William and I were there at the middle of the tide cycle. There was no more than 30 yards of sand at the beach’s widest point. At high tide, there would be no more than 15 yards. During a winter storm, probably none.
Although it was very warm the day we visited, the ocean water was freezing cold. To prove our manhood, William and I took two quick dunks. Our screams of shock were muffled by the wind and the surf. We then warmed ourselves on the sand, ate our lunch, and enjoyed the peaceful setting and a beautiful day.
At the north end of the beach, there is a steep unofficial trail that switchbacks up to the ridge. From there, an easier trail follows the ridgeline back to the access road. Both trails cross private property, however, and there are no trespassing signs where the ridge trail joins the road.
In addition to the beauty of the secluded beach, the views from Point Sal Ridge are amazing. We could see south to Point Arguello, north to Point Buchon, and west across the Santa Maria Valley to the San Rafael Mountains beyond.
William and I spent six hours on our hike — five hours walking and one hour at the shore. It would have been nice to have more time to sit on the beach, stare at the Pacific, and dream of the world beyond. I know you will enjoy the seclusion and tranquility if you make the trip.
(Andrew Carter is a member of the San Luis Obispo City Council. His first hikes were with his dad in Virginia in the 1960's.)