The Southwesternmost Point of the United States

 
 
Above: After visiting the southwesternmost point(s) near Jalama Beach, I turned east, heading through Bakersfield, Tehachapi Pass, and the Mojave Desert. I pulled into the Furnace Creek campground at Death Valley late that night by the light of a full moon. Yep, another long drive.

I got up before sunrise this morning, and before just about everyone else, then I walked around the quiet Jalama Beach campground to check it out, took a shower, and went back to my campsite and had breakfast.  As I ate a muffin and banana, I thought about how incredibly beautiful – and yet virtually unknown – was this little enclave known as Jalama Beach County Park.  This was one of most scenic areas on the entire California coast, but apparently hardly anyone knew it existed.  And up until a few months ago, that included me, and I’m a virtual native of California.

I would’ve never come here had it not been for this “Geographic Extremes” road trip, just as I would’ve probably never visited the beautiful California Coastal National Monument near Point Arena a few days earlier and its west-southwesternmost point of America, nor the stunning Cape Flattery and the northwestern-most point.  So far my visits to these 16 extreme compass points had each been its own little adventure, and I was hoping that would continue during my journey around America.

After breakfast I chatted with the couple in the camper-van next to me, the folks who had camped in the southwesternmost campsite in America the previous night.  They were a bit older than me and were from Lancaster, California in the Mojave Desert, a few hours away, and like most normal folks I suppose, they had no idea that they were in America’s southwesternmost campsite.  They said they’d never been to Jalama Beach, either.  They’d driven by the cutoff road on Highway 1 about 30 years ago and wanted to take the dead-end road down to the beach but didn’t have time then, but this time they did.  Like me, they were really amazed by this little, tucked-away coastal gem.

 
 
Above: Except for the Jalama Road corridor, all land shown here is either privately-owned or on Vandenberg AFB.  The green line is the 135-degree bearing that indicates the southwesternmost point of the U.S.  That point is on Vandenberg AFB.  The blue line is the 135-degree bearing that indicates the southwesternmost point that's publicly accessible (at a sharp bend in the Jalama Road).  However, Jalama Beach is the closest you can get to the southwesternmost point.

After they said goodbye and drove off, I got out my hiking stick/monopod, crossed a little creek and scrambled up a bluff until I was stopped by a barbed wire fence and a sign with a simple message: “Do Not Enter.”  I knew this was the boundary of Vandenberg Air Force Base, even though there was nothing to indicate it.  Still, my policy as I search for these extreme points around America is to not trespass on private land or other areas that are off-limits to the public.  This point, about 200 yards from my campsite, was as close as anyone not affiliated with Vandenberg AFB can legally get to the southwesternmost point of the United States, so I figured it was worthy of a panorama picture and a video blurb. 

I walked back to the campground and stopped at the Jalama Beach Café, which overlooks the beach.  Months earlier in Qatar I’d read that this café makes outstanding “Jalama Burgers,” and sure enough as I was perusing through the collection of t-shirts in the eclectic gift shop, a woman who’d just finished eating walked through and told the cook, “That was the BEST burger I’ve ever had!”

My curiosity was piqued, but given that it was only 10 a.m. and that I was still full from breakfast, I decided to take her word for it.  Maybe I’d eat a Jalama Burger next time and see if they really ARE the best burgers in the world.  I picked out a Jalama Beach t-shirt and paid the woman behind the counter while mentioning to her that this was the southwesternmost area of the United States, hoping she’d be impressed with that fact and my astounding knowledge of geography.  However, she just shrugged her shoulders, not seeming to care too much (obviously not a geographer!)

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Above: This point, on the border of Vandenberg AFB, is the closest you can get to the southwesternmost point of the contiguous U.S. (1:57)
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I returned to my campsite and fired up my GPS to figure out the situation here.  As I noted before, Jalama Beach is not the southwesternmost point of the United States.  That distinction belongs to an unnamed point of land near Point Arguello, about 10 miles to the northwest of Jalama Beach, on Vandenberg Air Force Base.  But Jalama Beach is the closest the public can get to the southwesternmost point of America.  However, it’s not the southwesternmost point that’s publicly accessible.  That point, which is a bit more southwest than Jalama Beach, is at a sharp bend in the road heading into Jalama, which I’d driven on the previous evening.  

It was already 10:30 and I had a long way to drive to Death Valley, so I packed up the truck and said goodbye to this wonderful park.  A mile outside the park, I stopped at the point on the Jalama Road that I’d identified with my GPS -- the southwesternmost point of the United States that’s publicly-accessible -- and took a panorama picture and did another video blurb. 

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Above: This site, at a sharp bend in the Jalama Road, is the southwesternmost point of the contiguous U.S. that's publicly accessible. (1:27)
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Yeah, I know this issue about the southwesternmost point is confusing, so I created a map (above) to clarify the situation.  Hopefully it'll help.

After visiting the "southwesternmost point of the United States that’s publicly accessible" (boy, what a mouthful) and chalking up extreme point #6 of 16, I got back on Jalama Road and drove back to Highway 1, retracing the route I’d driven the previous evening.  I spent an hour in the nearby town of Lompoc, mostly chatting with my Portland neighbor, Dave, about the recent arrival of my belongings from Qatar. Dealing with the movers was a bit of mess, as Dave explained, but he got it straightened out and now everything I owned (outside of my truck) was sitting in a 10x30' storage unit in Portland.

Now, as I noted in an earlier entry, this town of Lompoc has the distinction of being one of the most mispronounced coastal towns in California.  No, it’s not “Lom-Pock.”  Instead, it’s “Lom-Poke.”   It was also, I decided, a pretty nice town – definitely a place to consider moving someday.  And not just because of its proximity to the southwesternmost point of the United States (though that certainly IS a plus).  And I wondered how many of these Lompocians would be proud to know that their town, not San Diego, was the southwesternmost city in America.  Probably very few.  But if they knew that geographic fact, I'm sure most of them would walk a bit taller and with a gleam in their eye.  Don’t you think?

Visiting Jalama Beach and the Southwesternmost Point in the U.S.

 

Turning East:  Bakersfield, the Mojave Desert and Death Valley

After getting gas in Lompoc and a 44-ounce Diet Pepsi – my mid-day routine – I got back on Highway 101, this time heading north through Santa Maria.  From there I turned east and passed by the Carrizo Plain National Monument, which I have to admit I had never heard of.  Like the California Coastal National Monument that I’d visited a few days earlier, this National Monument was managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the agency I’d worked for many years in the Colorado Rockies when I was in college, rather than the National Park Service.  I always visit any National Park, Monument or Historical Site that I pass by, so I turned off the highway and drove about 10 miles down a narrow, rutted road to check out this new National Monument (founded in 1988), then retraced my steps and got back onto Highway 166.  Late that afternoon, I drove through the Bakersfield area, skirting it to avoid the rush-hour traffic, then I continued east over the historic Tehachapi Pass, where California’s Mojave Desert meets the lush Central Valley. 

Two important things to know about Tehachapi Pass:  First, it’s usually windy here and consequently there are about a zillion wind turbines dotting the summit.  Yes, a zillion – I counted them.  Secondly, if you’ve ever read the John Steinbeck classic, “The Grapes of Wrath,” a novel about the Oklahoma migrants heading to California during the Dust Bowl days of the Great Depression, this is the spot where Ma and Pa Joad pulled over their rickety truck, after a long evening drive across the Mojave Desert, and beheld the glistening and promising orchards of the Central Valley below.  I’ve driven across Tehachapi Pass several times in my life, and each time I think about the so-called Okies who made it to the promised land of California during the 1930s and the ordeals they must have encountered along the way.

After reaching the top of the pass, I was now in the Mojave (pronounced “mo-HOV-ee”) Desert.  The Mojave is a high desert, with elevations ranging from about 4,000 feet here at the pass with a gradual decline down to about 2,000 feet many miles away.  But it is a desert nonetheless – or in other words, a place where there’s more evaporation than precipitation – and I was glad to see my desert friends greet me, namely the ubiquitous creosote bushes and, farther down the road, several large expanses of gangly Joshua Trees.

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Above: Heading across the Central Valley near Bakersfield and then across the the Mojave Desert on Highway 14. The Mojave Desert is one of the driest places in California but it was actually raining. (0:38)
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I headed north on California Highway 14 and then cut east, passing through the small town of Inyokern and the much larger town of Ridgecrest, at sunset.  I’ve never been to this area so I was stunned at how large Ridgecrest was.  It’s the main city for the nearby China Lake Naval Air Base and lots of military folks live here.  Think of the movie “Top Gun” and the hair-raising training flights they had over the desert mountains and you get the idea. 

It was dark an hour later as I crossed over Towne Pass at 4,956 feet, an incredibly steep climb, and then dropped down into Death Valley National Park, which is a must-see for any Extreme Geographer.  Death Valley is not only the lowest place in the Western Hemisphere (a site called Badwater here is 282 feet below sea level) but is also, consequently, the hottest place in the world.  Back in 1913, the Death Valley community of Furnace Creek recorded a blistering 134 degrees Fahrenheit (57 degrees Celsius), which is the highest temperature ever recorded anywhere.  In the world.  Ever.  There was a recording of 136 degrees in 1936 in Libya but it was unofficial and unsubstantiated, so it’s not generally recognized.  Being at such a low elevation, this is also the driest place in North America.  Oh, and Death Valley is also the largest National Park in the Lower 48.  Four extremes for the price of one – you can’t beat it.

I’d visited Death Valley only once before and that was back in 1982 during a weekend camping trip with my college buddies from the Geography Department at UC Riverside – back when there was a Geography Department at UCR.  About a dozen of us decided to spend a 3-day weekend in February camping at Death Valley and we had a blast.  I remember that adventure well, so Death Valley has always conjured up a lot of good feelings.  We camped at a place called Stovepipe Wells, which I passed that evening in the darkness at 8:30 p.m.  I tried to camp there but it was closed, so I continued on in the darkness to the Furnace Creek campground, pulling in an hour later.  Fortunately the Furnace Creek campground was only half-full and so I was able to find a good spot.  I wanted to camp near the entrance of the campground because the Furnace Creek campground is lowest inhabited place in America and the lowest spots are near the entrance.  There were a few folks closer to the entrance who were sleeping in tents, while I chose to sleep in my truck, elevated two feet above the surface.  So even though I probably wasn’t the lowest person in America that night (after being the southwesternmost person the night before), I was pretty darn close.

I set up my stove in the light of the full moon and the desert was absolutely quiet – not a peep.  A few minutes later, a woman with a flashlight – my neighbor, as it turned out – walked over and introduced herself and we started to talk, and shortly afterwards her husband, a man named Nigel, joined us.  Nigel and Mary were about my age and were from the UK, and they were traveling around California on vacation for a month.  Being pretty familiar with the state, I gave them lots of travel advice, strongly recommending that they visit two of my favorite places:  the Redwoods in northwestern California and Lassen Volcanic National Park in northeastern California.  They were pleasant, cheerful folks and I enjoyed talking to them, but after a half-hour, Nigel said, “We better let you finish setting up,” and they bade me a good evening. 

After they left, I made some chili brats (like chili dogs but even better, because they’re brats!) and savored them in the desert stillness with the full moon overhead.  It was wonderful.  Close to midnight, I hopped in the back of my truck and relished in the idea of being the lowest – well, one of the lowest – persons in the Western Hemisphere.  Simple man, simple pleasures.

The Central Valley and Mojave Desert