Posted by: James Wapotich | September 2, 2011

Trail Quest: Point Sal

If you are looking for a quiet sandy beach that few people visit then Point Sal may be the answer. Located west of Santa Maria, Point Sal State Beach is home to a diverse amount of wildlife, including seals, sea lions and otters. The hike to Point Sal State Beach is about 11 miles round trip.

To get there from Highway 101 take Clark Avenue west through Orcutt to State Route 1, turn right and continue north towards Guadalupe to Brown Road. The drive takes you through the farm country west of Santa Maria. At Brown Road turn left and follow it until it ends at the trailhead, about 4 miles. Parking is free.

Point Sal Santa Maria Hike Pacific Ocean

At one time you could drive all the way to the parking area for the state beach, just shy of the ocean, but in 1998 heavy winters rains damaged parts of the road and it has been closed since. In 2008 an agreement was reached with Vandenberg Air Force Base to allow access along the road to the state park as portions of the road pass through the northernmost part of the base. The base reserves the right to close or restrict access at any time, for example when there is a scheduled missile launch. To check the current status of the trail go to http://www.vandenberg.af.mil/Home/Point-Sal-Access, which shows whether the trail is open or closed to access. The park and the trail are open from dawn to dusk.

From the trailhead the trail climbs out of Corralitos Canyon along a dirt road through light chaparral and wild grasses and offers some nice views of the small valley. At about the 1.75 mile mark the trail crests the top of the Casmalia Hills having gained about 600 feet. A quarter mile later the trail arrives at a high metal fence with a gate. This marks the entrance to Vandenberg Air Force Base. From here the trail follows the old paved road that used to go the state beach. A short ways past the gate one arrives at Point Sal Ridge and is rewarded with some impressive views of the coast. The hike to the ridge and back is about 4 miles round trip and can make for a shorter hike.

Corralitos Canyon Point Sal Santa Maria Hike

View of Corralitos Canyon from the trail

From the ridge the trail descends roughly 1200 feet down to the beach over the next 3 miles, so make sure to pace yourself for the hike out. You’ll also want to bring plenty of water as there is none along the trail and there are no amenities at the beach and little shade. It’s through this section you will also start to notice a fair amount of wildlife including hawks circling above and rabbits racing across the trail.

The trail then arrives at another gate and continues to the right. Here the trail becomes narrower and arrives at the bluffs above the beach. In the spring this section includes the opportunity to see giant coreopsis in bloom. From here it’s sort of a scramble down to the beach along one of the many homemade trails, but the beach is worth the effort as it stretches out for almost a half mile. And although swimming is not recommended because of the strong riptides, the beach itself reminded me of Hawaii with its clear water, pristine shore and steep cliffs.

From the far end of the beach one can continue on to Point Sal, and although there is no official trail a route can be found. The hike to the point is roughly another 5 miles round trip and requires a little planning, you will want to get an early start to allow plenty of time and you will also want to check the tides to know what to expect.

Point Sal Santa Maria Hike Pacific Ocean

View towards Point Sal from the trail

The trail is not for the feint of heart or those with a fear of heights but does offer some great opportunities for viewing wildlife. From the beach you’ll notice that the coast out towards the point is almost two-tiered, with a layer of rocky outcroppings along the water where the mountains meet the ocean forming a line of sorts. The trail essentially travels along that contour line. At the far end of the beach you will find a rope that will assist you in climbing up onto the rocks and then from there look for the trail as it does its best to follow the contour line between the rocks and the mountains. Along the way you find a number of mini beaches that you can explore depending on the tides.

About a mile and half later the trail gives out and requires scrambling over rocks to get through this next section at which point the trail then does pick up again. With this last section to Point Sal and beyond looking convincingly like a trail. It’s also through here that one can find some of the best wildlife viewing. Off the coast there is the aptly named Lion Rock. I was amazed by not only how many sea lions there were resting and arguing on this dome shaped rock, but also by how far up it they were able to get.

Seals Point Sal Pacific Ocean Santa Maria Hike

Nearby, along the coast there is also a rocky pullout where harbor or leopard seals come to rest. Throughout the hike along this stretch of the coast I would see sea lions in the water curious about what I was doing and even saw several sea otters. In fact seeing so much activity I was reminded just how rich the waters are offshore and how that contributed to the prosperity of the Chumash people. From Point Sal the coast opens up onto Paradise Beach and continues north to the Guadalupe Dunes.

Regardless of how far you go you will get see a unique little corner of Santa Barbara County.

This article originally appeared in section A of the September 2nd, 2011 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


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