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Isolation Location

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Diana Marcum is a freelance writer based in Palm Springs

On this camping trip we numbered six girls under the age of 5, four dogs, seven adults and their toys: surfboards, fishing poles and kites. Jalama Beach County Park was the perfect spot for all.

Especially kids and canines.

It’s one of the few California coastal campgrounds that allows leashed dogs on the beach.

Jalama (pronounced Ha-LA-ma) Beach, isolated on a little-known coastal stretch next to Vandenberg Air Force Base, an hour north of Santa Barbara, made a good meeting point for our group of longtime friends who are inconveniently scattered throughout the state. I persuaded everyone that I had unearthed a secret hideaway. But when we mentioned our plans to others, we were told “Good luck.” Because the campground doesn’t accept reservations and is popular despite its hidden location at the end of a 14-mile turnoff from California Highway 1, it’s a toss of the dice to get one of Jalama’s 110 sites.

My boyfriend, Rich, and I, both self-employed, had first decided to leave our home on a Friday and hold a spot for the others. But by the beginning of the week of our trip we were so nervous about not getting a site that we hurriedly left on Wednesday.

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We nabbed a great spot next to a grassy knoll and playground. Five minutes later we almost fell off the picnic table when Rich’s high-school chum, Brad, his wife, Vanessa, their three daughters and dog arrived from San Diego. They too had heard the dire warnings and drove up early.

Sites are $15 a night plus $2 per dog. Additional vehicles (two cars per site are allowed) are $8. For those who don’t have flexible schedules and a carefree work ethic, getting a site is tricky. I asked a ranger for tips and she said, “Come in October.”

I also asked a young mother who had been coming to Jalama since she was a child what her family’s strategy was. “We always have a backup plan, like a weekend in Solvang,” she replied, referring to the Danish town that is less than an hour’s drive from Jalama.

Or do as we did, and come when Vandenberg Air Force Base, which borders the park on the north, is launching a Titan rocket. During our weekend the campground was evacuated for several hours Saturday night because Jalama Beach is in a “debris zone” if something goes wrong with a rocket and there’s an unplanned bang. We later heard that the weather and surf hotline, (805) 736-6316, had posted a warning about the rocket launch, but we hadn’t called to check. Obviously other people had, though, and there were empty sites all weekend.

Despite the usual jockeying for campsites, there’s no sense of crowding at Jalama Beach. To the north the Air Force base keeps 42 miles of coastline undeveloped; to the south there’s a private ranch stretching almost to Point Conception. Pristine beach lies as far as you can see in both directions. Jalama is one of the few points of public access along this stretch of coastline, and the only way to get here is on a road that winds past lima bean farms and flower fields.

By Friday night the whole gang had arrived. We were new to group camping and weren’t sure how to organize the food and cooking, so we decided everyone would bring and make what they wanted. Our culinary efforts ran the gamut. Mark and Karman brought two homemade olallieberry cobblers and warmed them over the fire while they hand-whipped cream. Tami was so dedicated to her credo--no vacation cooking requiring cleanup--that Saturday morning she sat looking wan until the snack bar opened at 8 a.m. and she could get a cup of coffee.

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The weathered-wood snack bar served, among other things, crispy onion rings and huge burgers with vine-ripened tomatoes on grilled sesame-seed buns. One afternoon two surfers who had walked four miles down the beach arrived after the grill was closed and tried to buy the half-eaten burgers Rich and I were enjoying. We weren’t selling.

Friday night, we cut artichokes in half, marinated them in balsamic vinegar, grilled them face down on the fire-pit grills, then sprinkled them with Parmesan. We blackened bell peppers and rolled them in corn tortillas with melted cheese. There was roasted corn and, of course, s’mores for dessert.

A raccoon threw a wrench into the minuscule meal planning we had done by getting into our ice chest and eating two dozen eggs and an entire roasted chicken.

Saturday presented sunshine and puffy white marshmallow clouds.

With just a short walk, our group had an entire stretch of beach to ourselves. My friends’ daughters became obsessed with sand crabs, watching for the glistening dimples left in the sand when the waves rolled out, then running to scoop handfuls of wet sand and letting the grains slither away until they saw the tiny white crabs trying to burrow between their fingers. Thanks to the beach’s remoteness, they were free to dart and splash along the water’s edge without a grown-up worrying about losing sight of them in a crowd.

Brad egged Rich into surfing in water that topped out at about 62 degrees. Afterward they thawed out with warm showers, one of the rustic campsites’ few luxuries--three minutes for a quarter.

Our dogs were sand-churning lightning bolts. Mac and Henry, 1-year-old yellow Labs, hurdled waves to fetch water toys. Zack, a 12-year-old, bear-sized golden retriever accustomed to impersonating a floor rug, chased sea gulls. At Jalama Creek, a freshwater inlet, even my boyfriend’s usually water-disdaining border collie went for a dip. All this fun and no fear of fines.

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Tami had picked up a handful of $2 kites for the trip. Soon each girl, even the 2-year-olds, was controlling one of a squadron of bright-pink Mickey Mouse kites. But there were other aeronautical maneuvers afoot, and we had to leave the beach by 3 p.m. because of the rocket launch from Vandenberg. (We were allowed to leave our tents and gear.)

To pass the time, we drove into Lompoc, 20 minutes away, and explored La Purisima Mission, touted as the best-restored mission in the state. Its beautiful gardens and fountains offered a soothing, shady counterpoint to the beach sun.

On a tip from locals we met at the mission, we found the Amerasian Cafe, a tiny, pretty Thai restaurant hidden from a main road. Mark treated us all to savory prawns, curries, noodle dishes and, the favorite with the girls and me, fried rice served in a hollowed-out pineapple.

At 7:30 we joined a long line of displaced campers winding up Jalama Road. The low sun burnished the hills gold, and when we crested we could see an offshore breeze pushing waves into perfect white spirals on an indigo ocean.

With driftwood from the beach, we started a campfire and gathered around it. The girls slept. Brad plucked a guitar. And I wished for the hundredth time in my life that I knew the names of the stars.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Budget for Two

Gas: $33.25

Campsite, three nights,

two dogs: 57.00

Groceries: 107.39

Snack bar (lunch,

breakfast): 28.50

Mission admission: 10.00

FINAL TAB: 236.14

Jalama Beach County Park; tel. (805) 736-3504.

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