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Day Hike

Point Sal: Remote Beach on Central Coast

August 22, 1987|JOHN McKINNEY

When your eye travels down a map of the Central California coast, you pause on old and familiar friends--the state beaches at San Simeon, Morro Bay and Pismo Beach. Usually overlooked is another state beach--remote Point Sal, a nub of land north of Vandenberg Air Force Base and south of the Guadalupe Dunes.

Windy Point Sal is a wall of bluffs rising 50 to 100 feet above the rocky shore. The water is crystal clear and the bluff tops provide a fine spot to watch the boisterous seals and sea lions.

Point Sal was named by explorer George Vancouver in 1792 for Hermenegildo Sal, at that time commandant of San Francisco. The state purchased the land in the 1940s. There are no facilities whatsoever at the beach, so remember, if you pack it in, pack it out.

Marine, Land Life

This hike travels Point Sal State Beach, then takes to the bluffs above rocky reefs. At low tide you can pass around or over the reefs; at high tide the only passage is along the bluff trail. Marine and land life can be observed from the bluff trail. You'll pass a seal haul-out and tide pools; sight gulls and pelicans; and perhaps see deer, bobcat and coyote on the ocean-facing slopes of the Casmalia Hills.

The trail system in the Point Sal area is rough. The narrow bluff trails should not be undertaken by novice hikers, the weak-kneed or those afraid of heights. Families with young children and less experienced trekkers will enjoy beachcombing and tide-pool watching opportunities at Point Sal and the pleasure of discovering this out-of-the-way beach.

Directions to trailhead: From U.S. 101 in Santa Maria, exit on Betteravia Road. Proceed west past a commercial strip and then out into the sugar beet fields. Betteravia Road twists north. About eight miles from U.S. 101, turn left on Brown Road. Five miles of driving on Brown Road (watch for cows wandering along the road) brings you to a signed junction; at the left is a ranch road, but you bear right on Point Sal Road, partly paved, partly dirt washboard (impassable in wet weather). Follow this road five miles to its end at the parking area above Point Sal State Beach.

Be advised that Point Sal Road is sometimes closed during the rainy season, and the Air Force sometimes closes the road for short periods during its missile launches.

For more information about Point Sal State Beach call the California Department of Parks and Recreation: (805) 733-3713.

The hike: From the parking area, follow one of the short, steep trails down to the beautiful crescent-shaped beach. Hike up-coast along the wind-swept beach. In one-third of a mile, you'll reach the end of the beach at a rocky reef, difficult to negotiate at high tide.

Unless it's very low tide, you'll want to begin following the narrow bluff trail just above the reef. The trail arcs westward with the coast, occasionally dipping down to rocky and romantic pocket beaches sequestered between reefs.

About 1 1/2 miles from the trailhead, you'll descend close to shore and begin boulder hopping. After a few hundred yards of boulder-hopping, you'll begin to hear the bark of sea lions and get an aviator's view of Lion Rock, where the gregarious animals bask in the sun. Also be on the lookout for harbor seals, often called leopard seals because of their silver, white or yellow spots.

View of Dunes, Beaches

Your trek continues on a pretty decent bluff trail, which dips near a sea lion haul-out (please don't approach or disturb these creatures). You'll then ascend rocky Point Sal. From the point, you'll view the Guadalupe Dunes complex to the north and the sandy beaches of Vandenberg Air Force Base to the south. Before returning the same way, look for red-tailed hawks riding the updrafts and admire the ocean boiling up over the reefs.

Energetic hikers can follow a trail which passes behind Point Sal, joins a sandy road and descends to a splendid beach north of the point. Here you'll find a two-mile-long sandy beach to explore. This unnamed beach is almost always deserted except for a few fishermen and lots of pelicans.

Meanderings: "Trails of the Lost Coast," a large four-color map that depicts 60 miles of the wildest coast in California, is available from the California Coastal Trails Foundation.

Known as the "Lost Coast," the area mapped includes a magnificent stretch of coast and coastal mountains in northern Mendocino and southern Humboldt counties. Much of this wilderness is under the protection of Sinkyone Wilderness State Park and the Bureau of Land Management's King Range National Conservation Area.

The map shows all public roads and trails and highlights camping, fishing and hiking opportunities. An informative text relates the area's colorful history and describes the area's geology, flora and wildlife. One highlight for the hiker is the recently completed Lost Coast Trail, which runs the length of Sinkyone Wilderness State Park.

For a copy of the "Trails of the Lost Coast" recreation map, send your name, address and a check for $2.50 to the California Coastal Trails Foundation, Attn: Lost Coast Map, P.O. Box 20073, Santa Barbara 93120.

Point Sal Trail

Point Sal State Beach to Point Sal: five miles roundtrip.

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