Wild and lonely, on the Central Coast about 45 minutes southwest of Lompoc, Jalama Beach County Park is one of those places that puts the golden in the Golden State. Getting here over mounded hills and through moss-bearded oak thickets is glorious enough, and then you see the beach stretching for miles from Point Arguello to Point Conception. The 23.5-acre park, donated to Santa Barbara County in 1943 by the Atlantic Richfield Co., has a small restaurant and store, a handful of cabins and camping sites, but nothing more to break the spell of clashing coast and ocean. Swimming is allowed, but the surf is often rough, better for body and kite surfing, fishing and beachcombing. The tab: Two nights in a prime tent-camping spot, $86, plus a $6.50 reservation fee. A cooler full of beverages and snacks, $50. Two dinners and breakfasts for two at the grill, $75. Plus the cost of gasoline to get here.
Campsites 53 to 64 ($43 a night) are prime, directly overlooking the beach. There are seven cabins ($110-$210 a night) and 109 sites for tent campers and RVs ($23-$43), each with a grill and picnic table; 31 of the sites have electrical hookups ($38-$43). Reservations are accepted no more than six months in advance; there are minimum stays for weekends and holidays ( 736-3504).
Sure, you can cook out; that's what the fire pits are for. But for my money ($5.95), if I never eat another hamburger in my life, let my last be a "World Famous Jalama Burger," served at the Beach Store & Grill. McDonald's empire builder Ray Kroc once called it the best burger he'd ever eaten but was rebuffed when he asked for the top-secret sauce recipe. The grill also serves tasty fries, halibut burgers, homemade clam chowder and a variety of breakfast burritos. Open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
When the tide goes out, a Whoville of sea creatures is revealed among the rocks and reefs that punctuate the long stretches of empty beach. The fascinations are endless, including living sea urchins and stars, clam colonies, sand dollars and the occasional beached baby seal. Consult a tide chart first to make sure you don't get stranded by incoming waves.
The lesson learned
Spring is the windy season, drawing deliriously happy kite surfers. But camping, I had to pile boulders in my tent to keep it from blowing away; to sleep, ear plugs and a sedative were required. For reference: Summer is the busy high season, winter sometimes inclement. Best time to visit? September and October.