It was never easy to reach the dramatic cliffs, rare sea life, and exceptional views from two miles of the state-owned oceanfront at Point Sal State Beach, 25 miles east of Santa Maria in Santa Barbara County.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF DANITA RODRIGUEZ
- GETAWAY : Point Sal beach is a secluded two-mile stretch of coastline, and while its remoteness creates an appealing serenity, recent restrictions have closed off access altogether.
# Extremely dangerous rip currents, precipitously steep slopes, dilapidated pathways, the constant threat of landslides, and occasional shark sightings plus an absence of lifeguards or toilets made this 140-acre park no place for swimming or the amateur hiker.
Nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base occasionally closed incoming roads during missile-launching activities to prevent visitors from being showered with deadly debris.
The infamous rains of 1998's El Ni"o closed one road. Then came the war on terrorism, which made hiking through base property to reach a beach not only risky, but also a potential national security threat. The federally owned path to the beach also can lead to easier access to the base.
"We need to make sure that our security is heightened," Vandenberg Mission Support Commander Benjamin Huff said.
Today, there's officially no way in, and armed Air Force guards have been stationed along new barricades to punctuate the point already made by signs and existing fences.
None of these facts deter folks like one Santa Maria real estate agent, avid hiker, and fan of the beach's undisputed beauty.
Though he's been turned away by armed guards since Vandenberg officially restricted access in January to the beach through its roads, he said he still visits about once a month.
"Even if it stays closed, I'll still go out there," he said. "I climb over the barbed-wire fence."
It's worth the risk to him because of the beach's tide pools and views from its high ridges.
"You can see all the way to Pismo Beach and Avila," he said.
Bill Denneen, a Nipomo business owner and environmental activist who'd been leading tours to Point Sal since 1962, said the beach is home to a wealth of important wildlife, including sand crabs, sea stars, and red-tailed hawks. Denneen hasn't taken a group to the beach since an armed guard turned him and his group away in January.
- PHOTO BY JEANINE STEWART
- THE OLD BARRIER : The El Nino rains of 1998 destroyed the road that provided access to the beach, and "road closed" signs notified drivers that they could no longer access the beach. Starting Jan. 1 of this year, Vandenberg added quite a few more signs to Point Sal Road, closing off access to the trail to hikers as well.
# Frank Ensor, owner of Casmalia General Store near the beach, said he's had to break the disappointing news to 18 or 20 groups that the road now is closed to Point Sal.
'It's our road'
But even the local chapter of the Sierra Club concedes that Vandenberg has a point. Jerry Connor, chair of the Sierra Club's Arguello chapter, said that he, too, has enjoyed hiking to Point Sal to view the wildlife.
"But we have to accept the reality that we can't because of safety and security concerns," Connor said.
Ditto for sympathy from Theresa Armas, supervising manager for La Purisima Mission, a California State Parks division that includes Point Sal.
"People are hiking on [Vandenberg's] property, and if they get injured or lost, Vandenberg gets involved," Armas said.
The State of California issued a blanket statement: "Notice: California State Parks does not endorse or recommend any existing access route to Point Sal State Beach."
Still, local hikers and politicians are working with Vandenberg to open some path to the public again, since other routes through private property or land owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management would involve trespassing.
"I still think it's our road," said Santa Barbara County Supervisor Joni Gray, who said she's received numerous telephone calls asking that the roadways to Point Sal be re-opened. She, too, has visited the beach's trails, and wants others to be able to enjoy the scenery.
She and fellow Supervisor Brooks Firestone met with Vandenberg officials on July 6 to discuss a compromise, although the meeting ended with no action taken.
"It is a dramatic and beautiful beach, and if we could establish a hiking trail, I think it would be equal to the Grand Canyon in terms of a long hike to be able to hike down to the beach there," Firestone said. "My job is to try to make that available to the people of Santa Barbara County."
Vandenberg's Huff says lack of an easement agreement will make the process difficult, and that the safety issue is still of importance.
"This has been an exploration for all of us," Huff said. "We are working hand in hand with the county to come to some sort of resolution that would be in the interest of both parties."
But, he added, "we need to make sure that we're not going to have people hurting themselves if they want access to the beach."
Even activist Denneen concedes at least one advantage to the newest barricades to this pristine spot on the coast: "It's being protected," he said.
Jeanine Stewart is a staff writer for the Santa Maria Sun, New Times' sister paper. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.