At the end of the 10 freeway, when your car banks through Santa Monica's McClure Tunnel, it can feel as if the energy of the entire city is funneled into that stretch of darkness, shoving you out the other side into the sunshine of the Pacific Coast Highway. This is the Southern California of The Beach Boys and Baywatch, a sandy stretch of endless possibility, a feeling the world is yours.
Surfers know this sentiment well, and they're also aware that the never-ending postwar population boom for Los Angeles — and their favorite pastime — has led to overcrowding on land and in our ocean. But drive a few hours north, up to the Central Coast, and the options for surfing solitude open back up. Add in some camping, and you can fall asleep to waves crashing without shelling out the typical cost of beachfront property.
Your first destination on this coastal camping getaway should be Jalama Beach in Santa Barbara County. You're probably already familiar with a good part of the drive: the historic El Camino Real bell-markers, the whoosh and clack of the Pacific Surfliner train, the rolling seaside hills between Santa Barbara and Gaviota, the cute little towns like Montecito along the way. But once you hang a left at Jalama Road, prepare yourself for 14 miles of magic.
Check the roadside sign to make sure the campground isn't full, and then ease your foot off the gas and enjoy the slow turns. Moss-draped oaks lean over the asphalt, rays of sun shining through like motivational messages. You know you're getting close when stickers for surf gear start appearing on road signs. At the top of the last hill, hang a sharp right and take a long look at the park below, an oasis of cabins and RVs. Nearby, the waves roll in.
These aren't territorial waters. There is no “locals-only” entitlement. All you'll find are good vibes — the waking version of your California dreamin' — and waves that are usually chill enough for beginners. Kids on bikes and skateboards populate the parking lot, which is also home to old-timers in classic cars, who made the drive to eat the burger at the Jalama Beach Store. Yes, the burger is a destination in itself, a thin slice of ground chuck on a pile of shredded lettuce, with a slice of tomato, a cut of onion, a slathering of Thousand Island on a toasted bun. Go ahead and toss some salty seasoning on your fries. You didn't come all this way to forgo flavor.
After a few good waves and a night camping under the stars, you'll understand how sandy vagabonds can do this for months. But if you want to continue your coastal camping adventure, get back in the car and take Jalama Road — it's the only way out, and definitely worth doubling back — to Highway 1, then turn north toward Pismo State Beach. There you'll find the Oceano Campground — which isn't as isolated as Jalama but boasts good fishing and clam-digging, plus thousands of monarch butterflies in the winter. Gulls and pelicans cruise right above the lagoon, and trails lead straight to the beach.
Next up is San Simeon State Park, down the hill from Hearst Castle. You share these waters with seals, so keep an eye out for sharks. But remember, you're more likely to get hurt back in the chockablock of Westside traffic than straddling your board in the Pacific. There are no showers here, so you might make this rugged stretch of coast your last stop. You're not really roughing it unless you drive back dirty, and after one last night under the stars, you can head home with sand on your floorboards and sun on your cheeks.
CENTRAL COAST SURF SPOTS
Getting there: You could shorten the drive to Jalama by taking the 101 to Ventura, but roll Highway 1 all the way and you can take a look at the breaks north of Malibu. After spending the night in Jalama, Highway 1 will get you to Pismo and San Simeon.
What to do: Check Surfline.com for optimal times to paddle out, then spend the rest of the day lounging, grilling, hiking and bird-watching.
Where to eat: The burger at Jalama Beach Store is required for anyone who eats meat. You'll understand why people drive or bike all the way there (and pay the $10 day-use fee) just for that stack of Americana. The seagulls love the burger, too, so watch your back.
Where to stay: Tent camping at Jalama, Pismo or San Simeon will run you between $25 and $35 a night, depending on the season.
Wild card: Many visitors to Hearst Castle take the Grand Rooms Tour and consider the estate checked off their list, but there are also specialized offerings — including an evening tour with guides in 1930s period costumes — that merit a second or third visit. Be sure to dig the sand out of your ears first.