Posted by: James Wapotich | October 31, 2016

Trail Quest: Surf Beach

West of Lompoc, near the mouth of the Santa Ynez River, are two coastal access points that provide an opportunity to explore this section of the California coast. The first is at Ocean Beach Park, and the second, just a half-mile down the coast, is at Surf Beach.

Both access points lead to a nearly five-mile long stretch of wide open beach that lends itself well to long walks along the coast. From March 1st through September 30th most of the beach is closed to protect the nesting snowy plover, and so now is one of the better times to visit.

To reach the coast from Lompoc, continue west along West Ocean Avenue, a continuation of State Route 246 as it passes through town. The road leaves the city and travels through farmland, before arriving at Ocean Park Road, which is the turnoff for Ocean Beach Park. Ocean Park Road leads through marshland along the river and ends at the park. Past the turnoff to the park, West Ocean Avenue continues another mile and ends at the parking area for Surf Beach. Both sites are about 10 miles west of Lompoc.

Surf Beach tide pools Wall hike lompoc Ocean Park

Tide pools along the coast near Surf Beach

Ocean Beach Park is situated along the Santa Ynez River, near where the river meets the ocean. The park property was acquired in 1913, and is maintained and managed by Santa Barbara County Community Services Department Parks Division. The park is open from 8:00 a.m. to sunset and features 10 picnic sites, each with a table and barbecue grill, as well as a playground area and restrooms.

Near the parking area is a gazebo and walkway which features a series of interpretive signs describing the natural history of the area. Inside the gazebo is also a series of images and descriptions that highlights the variety of birds that can be seen along the river and at the estuary.

Gazing out across the broad, unmoving river, it’s interesting to consider just how far the water has traveled from its source, located far to the east in the mountains. The Santa Ynez River basin covers close to 900 square miles, gathering waters from both the Santa Ynez and San Rafael Mountains. The river starts modestly near Murietta Pond, a man-made catch basin near the top of a small canyon. From here, the water travels 92 miles passing through Jameson Lake, Gibraltar Reservoir, and Cachuma Lake, as well the towns of Santa Ynez, Solvang, Buellton, and Lompoc, before arriving at the Pacific Ocean.

From the parking area, a short cement path follows the river downstream, passing under the railroad bridge that crosses the river, and arrives at the coast providing access to the beach. During snowy plover season coastal access from Ocean Beach Park is closed.

When the river is low enough or the mouth is closed with sand as it is now, one can hike up the beach about 1.25 miles before the beach narrows and transitions into rocky cliffs.

The first part of the hike is along the broad sandy beach, which is bordered to the east by low dunes. The views sweep north towards Purisima Point. As one continues up the coast, the dunes give way to rocky bluffs, until the beach narrows, where exposed Monterey shale meets the water. Here, one can find a massive, free-standing outcropping of shale, which can make for a good return point. When the tides are low enough the exposed rocks past the outcropping can make for some great tide-pooling opportunities.

From the mouth of the Santa Ynez River it’s about a half-mile down the coast to Surf Beach.

Surf Beach is located at the end of West Ocean Avenue. The parking area at the end of the road provides parking for both beach visitors and the Amtrak commuter station located there.

The railroad first reached Surf Beach in 1896. In 1899, a rail extension was built to Lompoc and in 1900, in anticipation of the completion of the Coast Line, Southern Pacific built a train station at Surf. The Coast Line was completed the next year and provided rail service along the coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The little town of Surf grew up around the station to house the employees who maintained the tracks and trains and managed the station. In its heyday, the town had its own post office, as well as a general store owned and operated by the Morinini Family.

During World War II, the town and station saw an increase in activity as soldiers, prisoners, and equipment were moved to and from Camp Cooke. The base was built in 1941, near the station, when the army acquired the surrounding ranch land along the coast.

The army used Camp Cooke until 1953. Three years later, the northern portion of the base was transferred to the Air Force to serve as a missile base, becoming Cooke Air Force Base. In 1958, the southern portion of the original army base, was transferred to the Navy for its own missile base, becoming Point Arguello Naval Air Station. That same year, Cooke Air Force Base was renamed Vandenberg Air Force Base, in honor of General Vandenberg. In 1964, as part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s restructuring, the naval air station site was added to Vandenberg.

Meanwhile, the town of Surf went through its own changes. The population of Surf peaked at 40 residents. As trains modernized, the need for personnel declined, as did the town’s population. Eventually, instead of a station there was just a telegraph office used to pass messages to the trains. Southern Pacific would send information regarding orders or track conditions and the telegraph office would post them next to the track for the conductor or engineer to grab as the train went by. In 1985, the telegraph office was closed.

In 2000, Amtrak completed construction of the unstaffed commuter station that is found there today. The station is a series of covered cement benches. Amtrak makes two stops there a day.

To access the beach, continue through the station, crossing the railroad tracks. Here, a path leads through the dunes and down to the ocean. During snowy plover nesting season only a small portion of the beach is open, the rest is roped off.

The small shorebird builds its nest in the sand and because of its size often goes unnoticed. The bird is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. When disrupted, the birds will flee and leave the nest unprotected, exposing their eggs to predators and the elements. Human activity too close to the nests, dogs, and even kites flying overhead will cause the bird to flee and expend energy.

The beach also has the unfortunate distinction of being the site of two fatal shark attacks; one in 2010, and another in 2012. Both tragedies occurred in October.

From the access point at Surf, one can hike down the beach about three miles, further depending on the tides. As with the hike up the coast from the river, the beach here is fairly wide, bordered on the east by low dunes. Continuing down the coast, the dunes and beach narrow, until you eventually arrive at a large rock outcropping, which can make for a good return point. When the tide is low, it’s possible to continue further down the coast for more exploring.

Regardless of how far you walk you’ll get see a unique part of the California coast, which can be combined with a visit to the mouth of the Santa Ynez River.

This article originally appeared in Section A of the October 24th, 2016 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Bird track Surf Beach lompoc hike

Bird tracks line the shore at Surf Beach

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