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Point Sal State Beach and a Trail Less Traveled

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Closed for more than a year, trail access is reopened after Santa Barbara County, Vandenberg Air Force Base reach accord.

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Closed to hikers and beachgoers since January 2007, one of Santa Barbara County’s best, most rugged trails is open again.

Fourth District Supervisor Joni Gray said the remote, 12.5-mile out-and-back hike leading to Point Sal State Beach is ready for hikers looking for a little solitude.

Located just south of the little town of Guadalupe in the northwest region of the county — the trail crosses over the northern fringe of Vandenberg Air Force Base. Sixteen months ago, Vandenberg officials shut down the trail because hikers approaching the beach were getting too close to underground missile silos.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s open,” Gray said.  “The Air Force says it isn’t open until they sign off on it, but they’ve openly agreed to it.”

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Vandenberg officials and the Board of Supervisors reached a verbal agreement several weeks ago on access to one of the Central Coast’s most scenic vistas.  Although access is there, Vandenberg can close the trail to hikers and clear the area during missile launches.  The county has agreed to erect signs warning hikers to stay on the trail, which is open from sunrise to sunset.  New fencing to keep hikers off the base and private property is also in the works.

The dirt road heading out to the trail is old and heavily rutted.  The paved section to the beach on base property was ravaged during the 1998 El Niño.  Huge sinkholes persist, and tall stocks of fennel protrude out of cracks in the asphalt.

“That road has been there since the 1800s,” said Gray, who helped persuade Vandenberg officials to reopen the trail.  “The county of Santa Barbara has a roadway easement.  You used to be able to drive down to the beach before Vandenberg was there.”

Gray said the county has 400 acres surrounding the trail and the state has beachfront access to one of the most pristine white sand beaches on the Central Coast.

Where the dirt road and the asphalt meet, a spectacular ocean view awaits.  It’s here where the single track begins heading west, rolling over a steep ridgeline. Purple sage, silver lupine and clusters of Indian paintbrush hugged the windblown rib out to the coast and Lion Rock.  Appropriately named, sea lions hauled out and bellowed from the guano-covered rock outcropping.  A lone coyote studied a small herd of mule deer browsing a green meadow. Where the surf crashed along the craggy coastline, thick stocks of wild lilies hugged the edges of eroding bluffs.

The beach on the north side of Point Sal was protected from the wind.  A healthy flotsam of driftwood and bull kelp was piled along the back end of the beach beneath the bluffs.  Western snowy plovers were the only shorebirds feeding along the tideline, and the only footprints were mine along the deserted shore.

Ascending back up the ridgeline, I was surprised to see two hikers descending to the coast.  Clad in down suits appearing ready to climb a Himalayan peak, their trekking poles clicked in stride through coreopsis and bright yellow dune poppies.

“Good day for a walk,” I yelled to them in the howling wind.  They smiled in response, their red hoods and dark sunglasses concealing bearded faces, solitude reigning supreme on a reopened coastal trail.

If you go: Take Highway 101 to Los Alamos and Highway 135. Turn left on Brown Road. Turn right on Point Sal Road and park.  Don’t block the locked gate.

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