Weekend Trip: Camping in the Sand at Jalama Beach

Photo: tunaboat/Flickr/Creative Commons License

If you've ever had even a passing interest in camping along California's Central Coast, you've probably heard the rumors about Jalama Beach. The different gossipy variations tend to focus on one or more of the following: it's a beach camping oasis, it's the one of the last approachable strips of isolated beachfront in the region, it's so packed with summertime campers that you can't even scrounge up a site, it is seriously windy along the shore, and their camp store serves up one of the tastiest hamburgers you'll find. And each one is absolutely true. Jalama Beach (that's with a soft J, to be pronounced like an H) is all of those things, but it's also so much greater than those limitations. More than anything, Jalama Beach is a fantastic weekend trip.

Planning Your Trip

If you're thinking about making the trek north from Los Angeles, there's really not much stopping you. Anyone who's ever spent an afternoon wine tasting around Lompoc, wild ale drinking in Buellton, or even taken a morning trip to Solvang for their quirky Danish breakfasts, knows the drive is a simple, breezy under three-hour cruise. Just head north on the 101, past Santa Barbara, and look for the exit to Vandenberg Air Force Base / Lompoc via Highway 1. Exit and turn left at the stop sign, then continue on for 14 miles until you reach Jalama Road on the left-hand side. Follow Jalama Road to the very end, and you'll be at Jalama Beach park before you know it.

Truly adventurous types may even choose to bicycle, should you feel like taking the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner run up to Lompoc and pedaling from there. Being a "hidden coastal gem" just means there's not much else around, not that the camping is hard to find.

It is important to keep in mind the time of year you're considering visiting Jalama Beach, as the rates will fluctuate seasonally. The offseason begins on October 1st and runs through March 31st, which can offer $5 discounts for anyone willing to brave the chilly nights. You may even be able to sneak in a few perfect days in early October, before the rains and blustery winds that can rock the Central Coast come calling.

High season flips on beginning April 1 and runs through the last day of September, where basic tent camping (non-beachfront) will run you $28 per night. For a spot in the sand and right by the surf, expect to pay a premium: $43 for basic tent camp sites. For RV trekkers, offseason rates with electrical hookups run $38 and jump to $43 during the high season, no matter where you are in the park.

If you're just looking to stroll the beach for an afternoon, there's a $10 day use pass that will get you access to everything except a place to sleep. Want to bring your dog? That'll be $3 more, and they have to stay leashed at all times. If you're looking to do some group camping with between 20 and 40 people, Jalama Beach offers two reservable sites for a nightly fee of $200.

For seasoned Southern California campers, the prices at Jalama Beach may seem a bit steep, and that's because they are. Adventure Passes for access to national forests throughout California go for $5 a day or $30 annually, which is less than the price you'll pay for one night of beachfront snoozing at Jalama Beach. But there's certainly something about the beach, the serenity and the services available that keep campers coming back, year after year.

Photo: enderzero/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Reservations

For decades, Jalama Beach had a strict no-reservations policy, which would often leave unassuming summer visitors without a place to bed down. Time was, you'd have to show up to the ranger station around 6 a.m. on the day you were hoping to camp, then enter your name onto a wait list. Based on current availability and camper checkouts, the rangers would begin going down the list by 3 p.m., calling off names until they had reached capacity again. Anyone left on the list would be jumped to the top of the next day's list, but with many campers staying for days at a time (and hopefuls from the previous days' stakeout rolling over their names as well), the odds of actually getting a site on the day you drove up were somewhat dicey.

Now, that's -- mostly -- all changed. There are still premium first-come sites that operate outside of the county's reservation system, but they're few and far between. Beginning at beachfront site 53, there are five first-come sites that sit along the water, with 15 more dotted throughout the rest of the park, including the particularly scenic 10A, which sits along the northern edge of the park, overlooking the rolling hillsides and a small stream that lets out into the sea. All of these sites fall under the same wait list guidelines mentioned above. It's also important to note that, while checkout is at 2 p.m. every day, those wishing to extend their first-come site for another night or two will need to make their arrangements at the ranger station by 11 a.m. Otherwise, their site is considered up for grabs and will be turned over to the hordes of waiting campers who have been up since 6 a.m.

If you want to avoid all of that nonsense, head to the Santa Barbara County reservation page for a shot at getting a summertime opening at Jalama Beach. The reservations open five months in advance (to the day), so visitors with an interest in doing some summer camping are advised to reserve in early spring for the best results. RV sites, tent sites and the seven cabins can all be easily reserved using this system -- just be quick, or you might miss summer altogether.

Types of Campsites

There are a few different types of campsites available at Jalama Beach, although each of the 109 spots comes with a picnic table and fire ring with grate for outdoor cooking. The most common are tent sites without electrical hookups. These are basic sites, often close together, that offer a decent amount of walking around space, if not seclusion. These are good for small groups of eight or less campers in one or two tents. Each site is allowed two cars, with an additional car fee of $10 thereafter. As a note: RVs are considered two vehicles, so plan accordingly.

Most of these sites are also RV accessible, even if they lack electrical hookups, although some of the sites on the southern edge of the park can be a bit tight. Camper vans or smaller RVs of a similar size shouldn't have any problems, but the large house-on-wheels type of campers may need some help maneuvering in and out.

There are 31 campsites that offer electrical hookups, for a slightly higher fee. While these can technically be snatched up by tent campers who can't fathom the idea of not charging their smartphone, these sites are generally left to the RVs and camper vans that need them. Most of these sites are situated up the hill that overlooks the park, back away from the beach and with easy paved road access. It's a short walk down to the bathrooms, general store, and beachfront, but the views are still pretty fantastic.

Jalama Beach also offers two group camping sites, as mentioned above, that go for $200 per night. The first -- Abalone Point -- is the smaller of the two, situated in the far south corner of the park. It's also the more preferable of the two spots, given its waterfront location, although it can only sleep 20 people per night. The second camping area, Starfish Cove, is more ideal for group RV camping, with two dedicated RV spots, seven picnic tables, two food prep tables, a sink and one large pit barbecue. Starfish Cove sleeps up to 40 campers per night.

For anyone looking to take in the Jalama Beach vistas without the sand-sleeping, consider one of the seven newly built cabins. Each is designed to hold between four and six people, in different assortments. There are bunk beds, one queen bed and a pullout couch in the living space, which also comes equipped with a dining table, television, two-burner stove, sink, refrigerator and microwave. One of the cabins is also ADA accessible, with a wheelchair ramp and wider berth inside the living quarters. However, that cabin only sleeps four.

The cabins are also fully appointed, which means you won't have to worry about sheets and pillows, just show up with your cooler and enjoy the front porch. Of course, a barbecue and fire pit are also provided for the cabins as well. But be advised: since there are only seven cabins, they tend to be snapped up quickly via the reservation system, even at their elevated price point. As with the tent and RV sites, peak season begins April 1 and runs through September 30, with a going weekday rate of $160 per night and a weekend / holiday option that costs $210. Consider trying for an early fall cabin opening at the reduced $110 weeknight / $185 weekend rates. Since you're buffered from the wind and nightly cold, Jalama Beach should still be a pleasant experience, even in October.

Photo: jdrephotography/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Amenities

With as much isolation as you'll find at Jalama Beach, there are a surprising amount of services available within the park. Sure, you can't get any cell reception, but that's not the sort of thing you should be worried about here.

Beyond the picnic tables, fire rings and grills, you'll find flush toilets and running water at several bathroom sites located throughout the park. There are also hot showers available for the low, low price of $0.25 per minute. That's not a bad price for warm water and a refreshing cleanse after a sandy day at the beach.

For RV'ers, there are dump stations available, which in itself is sort of a miracle. They are a bit precariously placed, right in the middle of all the action (near campsites and the day use parking), so be advised that it may not be easy to navigate with lots of other comers and goers nearby.

But the real gem of the park is the general store and grill, which is well-appointed with all of your campsite basics. From dry goods to extra stakes (useful during the windy season), firewood and camping chairs, the brick shack at the northern corner of the park is absolutely stocked. And if that weren't enough, you should carve out a few hours at the horseshoe pit next door to the store. Each pit comes complete with backstops to make sure you don't injure kids on the nearby playground, but you'll want to bring your own horseshoes.

Of course, if you're looking for that famous Jalama Beach burger, you'll find it here alongside 50+ other hot menu items. There are breakfast sandwiches, burgers, hotdogs and a variety of other common camping goodies, all made on site from a trusty grill in the back. Grab a seat in the slightly elevated dining room area for views of the ocean and the northern edges of the park, or pore over the stuffed kit foxes, crusty sea maps and old photographs of nearby shipwrecks that line the walls. There's a lot of history to take in, and your reward for all of that knowledge is a juicy, well-griddled cheeseburger topped with a homemade Thousand Island dressing and a side of crispy onion rings.

Photo: djfrantic/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Things To Do

This is camping, after all, which means you should come prepared with board games, a deck of cards and a good book to wile away the windswept hours. Still, there are a few natural activities to discover, and at least one seriously tasty man-made experience found at the general store.

Because of its location directly on the coastline, Jalama Beach is flush with sandy real estate. You can walk for miles in either direction without stumbling on any other buildings or packs of people, exploring tide pools along the way. Head north along the coast and pretty quickly you run into Vandenberg Air Force Base land, much of which is still open along the shore. Rocky outcroppings abound and eventually you'll begin to make out the shape of the Cal Space launch complex, which launches many of the nation's unmanned mapping and guidance satellites.

Head south along the beach for even more tide pool and cliffside viewing. And, for more adventurous hikers, it's possible to hike the sandy seaside all the way to Point Conception, which is home to an old lighthouse and Coast Guard station. The trip is simple enough: just follow along the coastline for about four miles, then duck into the canyon on your left-hand side, turning south again at on old paved road that leads to the Coast Guard station at the point. Unfortunately, it's not possible to access all of the grounds at Point Conception (and it's not recommended you try to slip past the No Trespassing signs, lest you be fined by the on-site game warden), but the vistas and stunning lighthouse offer views you aren't likely to find anywhere else nearby. Be sure to watch the tides; if they're high, it might be a watery hike.

Many people head to Jalama Beach just to watch the waves come in, especially from February to April when the water is full of migrating whales. Dolphins are also a common sight, although the notorious Central Coast fog can sometimes obstruct the view. Of course, you could always bring your own kayak and brave the waves for a closer look.

Actually, braving the waves at Jalama Beach is something of a local pastime. For years, surfers from Lompoc and beyond have been hitting up the shoreline for decent waves all season long. Of course, you might have more success with windsurfing, especially in the blustery offseason. Or you can sit with a fishing pole along the shoreline and see what gets you a nibble. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

If you're itching for a bit of the regular life, the small wine-country town of Lompoc is only about 30 minutes away by car. Head back out Jalama Road and turn left onto Highway 1, which drops you off at the eastern edge of town. From there, you can catch breakfast at the Jalama Beach cafe or tuck into one of the wine bars in town for an early evening sampler of a few of the local varietals.

It's not hard to see why locals and out-of-towners alike favor Jalama Beach as their Central Coast camping destination. With plenty of open space, a windswept view of undisturbed coastline, basic amenities included in the price tag, a new reservation system and that tasty Jalama Beach cheeseburger, perhaps it should be on your summer destination list as well.

About the Author

Farley Elliott is a freelance food writer and comedian. He currently writes for KCET.org, SeriousEats.com, LAist.com, and L.A. Weekly. You can catch Farley doing comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Hollywood.
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