Hey, want to know a military secret?
There's a five-mile-long beach in the middle of Vandenberg Air Force Base where no one goes.
The base, in Santa Barbara County, occupies more Southern California coastline than any other private landholder or government agency. It encompasses about 35 miles of coastline--roughly the same amount of shore that belongs to Orange County--and public access is severely restricted.
Happily, Santa Barbara County's Ocean Beach County Park puts a small part of Vandenberg's beach within reach. The park's facilities and picnic grounds have been upgraded, though the beach is as wind-swept and wild as ever.
Next to the county park is a large, shallow lagoon at the mouth of the Santa Ynez River. Most of the river's flow is captured high in the Santa Ynez Mountains by a series of dams and Cachuma Lake.
By the time drought-plagued Santa Barbara and Lompoc Valley farmers take their allotted river water, not much of the Santa Ynez makes it to the Pacific. Today, looking at the river mouth, it's hard to imagine that the Santa Ynez River supported the largest run of spawning steelhead trout in Southern California before Cachuma Lake Dam was built in the 1950s.
Still, there's enough freshwater, mixed with some Pacific saltwater, to form a 400-acre marsh behind the river mouth. Bird-watchers will want to explore the wetlands. Near the sand bar at the river mouth, birders will spot gulls and sandpipers and perhaps even a nesting colony of the endangered least tern.
Patrolling the estuary's cattail-lined tidal channels are mallards, and canvas back and ruddy ducks. On the mud-flat areas are such migrating shore birds as willets and long-billed curlews.
After you've visited the estuary, it's time to hit the beach. This day-hike heads south along Ocean Beach toward Pt. Arguello. However, before you reach the point, you'll be stopped by another--Pt. Pedernales, named by the 1769 Portola expedition when flints, or pedernales , were found there.
Pt. Pedernales marks the end of the public beach; the surf crashing against the point is nature's way of telling you to turn around.
Directions to trailhead: North of Santa Barbara, just past the Gaviota Pass tunnel, exit Highway 101 onto Highway 1 and proceed toward Lompoc. Join Highway 246 heading west toward Vandenberg and drive about eight miles out of Lompoc to Ocean Park Road, which is on your right.
Another sign reads: Ocean Park/Coastal Access. Turn right onto Ocean Park Road and drive a mile (don't be discouraged by the ugly approach) past some railroad sidings and freight cars to the Ocean Beach County Park parking lot.
Ocean Beach is often very windy, so dress accordingly. The beach is wide and passable at high or low tide; it's easier at low tide, however, so consult a tide table.
The hike: Walk over the low dunes, dotted with clumps of European beach grass, ice plant and Hottentot fig, toward the ocean. You'll pass a couple of pilings sticking out of the sand--the remains of an old fishing pier.
Continue over the sands, sprinkled with sea rocket and sand verbena, to the shore. You could walk a mile north on public beach (though sometimes the Santa Ynez River mouth is difficult to ford), but this day-hike heads south.
About a mile down-coast, the cliffs rise above you and add to a splendid feeling of isolation.
Vandenberg Air Force Base, occupying the cliffs above, was the Army's Camp Cooke until the Army turned it over to the Air Force in 1957 and it was renamed for Air Force Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg.
Atlas ICBMs, plus the first polar-orbited satellite and missiles of all kinds have been launched from the base in the last three decades.
Because this stretch of coast bends so far westward, it's ideal for launches into a polar orbit. There's nothing but empty ocean between here and the South Pole; if a launch fails, the debris will fall on water.
You can see some of the launch pads and towers as you continue down-coast. You'll also sight dramatic Pt. Arguello overlooking the treacherous waters that have doomed many a ship.
One of the worst accidents in U.S. Naval history occurred in 1923 when seven destroyers ran aground just north of the point. In the dense fog of the Santa Barbara Channel, the ships got off-course. Officers refused to heed the new radio equipment or Radio Directional Finder (RDF) stations onshore, and instead plotted their course by dead reckoning . . . which proved to be dead wrong.
One of the minor reefs of Pt. Pedernales will no doubt stop your forward progress. If you have a pair of binoculars, you might be able to spot some harbor seals sunning themselves on the rocks below the point.
Return the same way you came.
TODAY'S HIKE / Santa Barbara
Sea Rocket Trail
WHERE: Ocean Beach County Park to Pt. Pedernales.
LENGTH: 7 miles round trip.
TERRAIN: Isolated Santa Barbara beach, estuary.
HIGHLIGHTS: Abundance of bird life at mouth of Santa Ynez River, launch pads and towers visible from nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy stroll for the whole family.
PRECAUTIONS: Ocean Beach is often very windy. Easier walking at low tide; consult a tide table.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call the Santa Barbara County Parks Department at (805) 568-2461 (closed weekends).