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Secret sand: near Santa Barbara, the three best California beaches you've never heard of.

The surfer dude with a retro 'fro lets out a call that channels a combination of a sea lion's bark and a blood-hound's howl as he gets his first look at the surf hammering Jalama Beach:

"AAAARH-OOOOOGH!"

The big storms have passed, but southwest swells are still pumping. The waves rise high enough to blot out the horizon and plunge onto the beach with a sound that booms like a cannon and cracks like a whip.

The surfer's primal hosanna is a perfectly rational response: a wild sound for a wild beach on a wild day. Jalama, Ocean Beach, and Rancho Guadalupe Dunes make up northern Santa Barbara County's trio of wild beaches that have remained local secrets.

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The road to Jalama

About 45 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, Jalama Beach is about as far off State Highway 1 as you can travel without hitting Tokyo. As it slithers west on its 14-mile run to the sea, Jalama Road twists its way up and down the western Santa Ynez Mountains, ducking through dense oak forests and dipping into arroyos.

Finally you reach Jalama Beach, home to a campground, streamlined sea green restrooms resembling submersibles out of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and the Jalama Beach Store & Grill. The grill is the purveyor of World-Famous Jalama Burgers, a surfside meal that for decades has fueled days of surfing and long beach walks that nearly reach Point Conception.

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Farther north, the literally named Ocean Beach is an even lonelier refuge: a timeless and dreamlike beach completely surrounded by Vandenberg Air Force Base. The passenger platform at Surf Station, the last vestige of a railroad community that dates to 1897, is almost certainly the most remote train stop anywhere on the California coast.

Isolated as it is, this beach hasn't been immune to controversy--all because of an energetic little bird named the Western snowy plover. Listed as a threatened species, the plover builds its nest in shallow indentations in the sand, leaving it vulnerable to disturbance. As a result, the federal government has closed portions of this beach during the bird's nesting season, from March through September. The plover population has increased, but locals object to the lack of beach access.

Restrictions are also in effect at Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve, near Guadalupe, but there's plenty of room to roam. This beach sits at the southern end of the vast 18-mile-long dune field that begins near Pismo Beach. The Rancho Guadalupe Dunes are notable as the backdrop for Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 production of The Ten Commandments, for which the legendary director built massive sets and brought a cast of literally thousands to this sea of sand. Once filming finished, DeMille buried the sets in the dunes (you can see remnants of them at the Dunes Center in Guadalupe).

Epic, too, is the trek south toward 450-foot Mussel Rock, the West Coast's highest sand dune. The walk follows a shoreline manned by surf fishermen casting into the waves. But eventually the beach runs out and the slog up the dune begins. In addition to one heckuva workout, there are other rewards: splashes of Indian paintbrush, lupine, and poppy, and a commanding north view, where miles of white, foaming breakers marble the Pacific blue before surging onto a golden shore.

The view can be summed up in one word: "AAAARH-OOOOOGH!"

RELATED ARTICLE: Hit the beach

For general information, contact the Santa Barbara County visitors bureau (www.santabarbaraca.com or 805/966-9222). Lompoc is the most convenient base for lodging; for hotels here, contact the Lompoc Valley visitors bureau (www.lompoc.com or 805/736-4567).

Storms washed out a section of State 1 between U.S. 101 and Lompoc; one lane is open at a time on the road to Jalama Beach, with a temporary signal controlling the traffic flow. Another way to Jalama Beach is to take U.S. 101 to State 246 and go west; at State 1, go south (the road is open to local traffic) and continue to Jalama Road.

Jalama Beach County Park. A big-time surfing and wind-surfing spot with nearly 6 miles of sand. Check tide tables before heading out; there are a few rocky points. A small wetland area crossed by a railroad trestle makes for ideal trainspotting. No trip is complete without a Jalama Burger at the Jalama Beach Store & Grill ($; 805/736-5027). $6 per vehicle; 98 first-come, first-served campsites from $18. 9999 Jalama Rd.; www.sbparks.org or 805/736-6316.

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Ocean Beach County Park/Surf Station (locally known as Surf Beach). Due to nesting Western snowy plovers, access is limited to a 1/2-mile stretch at Surf Station during nesting season, from March 1 through September 30 (open 8 a.m.-6 p.m.). Beach access is closed at Ocean Beach, but parking is open for picnics and bird-watching. 13 miles west of Lompoc on State 246/Ocean Ave.; www.sbparks.org or 805/934-6123.

Rancho Guadalupe Dunes. The dunes nearest the parking lot are subject to Western snowy plover nesting closures, but long beach stretches are open. Walk 1 mile south for the 0.5-mile climb up Mussel Rock dune, or head north roughly 2 miles for other open dune areas (use caution when crossing the Santa Maria River). Sunrise-sunset daily; $3 donation suggested. From State 1 in Guadalupe, go west at Main St. (State 166) and continue 5 miles to parking lot at end of the road; www.cnlm.org or 805/343-2354.

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While in Guadalupe, stop at the Dunes Center, an interpretive facility in a restored 1910 Craftsman house, to learn about area history. Exhibits include remnants from The Ten Commandments sets. The center also offers free guided hikes. 10-4 Tue-Sun. 1055 Guadalupe St.; www.dunescenter.org or 805/343-2455.

Also in Guadalupe, try the Far Western Tavern ($$$; 899 Guadalupe St.; 805/343-2211), a classic Central Coast steakhouse.
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Title Annotation:OUTDOORS
Author:Jaffe, Matthew
Publication:Sunset
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:May 1, 2005
Words:984
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