Jalama Beach: Cheeseburgers in Paradise
Look at Jalama Beach on a map — it doesn’t look like much, does it? It’s just a tiny red dot, close to evil-sounding towns like Solvang and Lompoc. It’s on a sharp bend in the Californian coast, where the land had been moving west but suddenly decided to correct itself and proceed again to the north. To the north, Jalama Beach is bounded by a large air force base. To the east, the map is blank. Just white space with no roads, no notable landmarks. I wasn’t expecting much, and was pleasantly surprised.
First of all, the map isn’t blank because it’s a desolate wasteland. It’s blank because the area is covered with idyllic farms and ranches, rolling hills, and deep valleys. The hills and valleys are covered with lush vegetation — gnarled trees are covered with Spanish moss, oaks dot the landscape like trees from a pastoral fairy tale. Each one makes my heart feel like it could melt. The valley floors are carpeted with rich, dark soil visible in the plowed fields. Shiny, healthy-looking black cows graze on the terraced hillsides, providing the only real sense of scale.
The drive to Jalama Beach, along Jalama Beach Road, is famous on its own. It’s a mess of hairpin turns and dives through the valleys and up and over the rolling hillsides, 14 miles from the turn off Route 1. The surface of the road is a mess – a blacktop patchwork quilt. There’s a section where half of the road has washed out, but instead of repairing it, they’ve decided to just make that section a one lane road with stop signs at each end. You expect to see the ocean at the top of each hill, but you don’t. Instead, it’s just one more rich, fertile valley. Finally, you come to the top of a long, twisting descent into the beach and campground, and that’s when the ocean shows up for the party. You’re a few hundred feet above the sea, which stretches out teal and turquoise for 180 degrees – to the north, the air force base is unobtrusive, and instead of being distracted by it, you’re only dazzled by steep sandstone cliffs and undulating hills. Our first morning, they were filming a Lexus commercial on the road (the hour-long helicopter fly over – not so welcome at 8am). On Saturday, what must have been the local Porsche club was taking their Saturday drive on the road. It’s a special road.
This is only the third place in almost five months where neither of us had cell service for an extended period of time (the others were Death Valley and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, east of San Diego). We walked for miles on the beach, always dwarfed by the sandstone cliffs. At low tide, a series of tidepools and kelp gardens were exposed for slippery exploration. I was way too excited about finding a starfish, and Paul was fairly obsessed by the slimy anemones and mussels (could they become tacos? he wondered). We were lucky to be here when low tides were happening between 11am and 1pm, so we could spend the majority of the day walking the beach. At high tide, the waves almost lapped the beach-side campsites, limiting seaside exploration.
There’s also great wildlife viewing — aside from the sea creatures, we saw a bobcat bounding across the road one day and lots of brown pelicans, ugly condors, tiny sandpipers and lots of other birds. It’s amazing to watch pelicans feed. They fly in circles above the water, then suddenly dive in headfirst, hitting the water at a 90 degree angle, diving mostly below the surface, then bobbing back up with a fish, or not. Then it’s back up in the air to repeat the whole process. Each night, a raccoon would make a lap around the van, checking our sanitation measures.
Add to all this the Jalama Beach Store and Grill, where they make a mean burger and don’t gouge the prices like they could (it’s a very captive audience), and you’ve got a pretty sweet spot to spend a few days. The campground is popular with the locals, and most recommend showing up early if you want a good spot. You can reserve some campsite spots by calling in advance, but most people seem to show up and throw up a tent a day or two before they’re planning to be here. That’s right: they’ll pay for two extra days just to ensure they have their preferred spot on the beach.
So, is it all just a magnificent wonderland? Well, Jalama Beach is a windy place, and the wind can wear on you after a few days. It’s a well known spot for kitesurfers and windsurfers, and we saw some entertaining performances. During the windiest periods, we withdrew into the van for shelter, but the wind dies down each night like clockwork. And the showers are an experience (a bad one – I don’t think I’ve ever shivered so hard in my life). But camping at Jalama Beach was the most interesting, remote, peaceful oceanside camping we’ve experienced in California, and we’d recommend it in a second. And don’t miss the Jalama burger.