A dilemma: you want to see rockets explode in space. How to do, as a simple civilian?
To start, you’ll want to head to Lompoc, where you’ll join a handful of cosmophiles and space enthusiasts in incredible viewing areas around town. Located about an hour north of Santa Barbara on the Pacific Coast Highway, this modest hamlet is home to a stealthy military complex: Vandenberg Space Force Base. Throughout the year, NASA, SpaceX and others test unmanned rockets at various launch sites around the base. It’s not so easy to take part in space action: Vanderberg is operated by the Ministry of Defense, and access to the site is difficult for anyone who is not military. This is where we come in.
The public roads and vistas of Lompoc are a rocket-watcher’s dream, thanks to the region’s dramatic valleys, seaside beauty and scenic hills. Below you will find everything you need to pursue this awesome activity. Mark your calendars: there’s an upcoming launch in mid-June and several more in July and August. Note that missile launch days and times may change due to weather, so be sure to check the website or call a few days in advance for details (805-606-9263).
Perched on an empty rural stretch of Highway 1, Hawk’s Nest is one of Lompoc’s best viewing areas due to its high elevation. There are plenty of off-road parking spots at the intersection of Cabrillo Highway and Azalea Lane. Arrive at least 30 minutes before your scheduled launch time and be prepared to hang around, as launches can be delayed by fog and security checks on the complex circuits. (It’s rocket science, after all.) It’s a good idea to bring snacks, water, comfy folding chairs, and a deck or two of cards to pass the time. It’s the closest vantage point to the base, so you’ll feel the sonic boom as the missile emerges. Even if you’re not a space enthusiast, the dramatic spectacle is well worth sacrificing a few hours.
West Ocean Avenue
Allow a little extra time to park along West Ocean Avenue, the main road through downtown Lompoc. The best viewing areas are a few minutes west of town at the intersections of Renwich Avenue, Floradale Avenue, and the intersection of 13th and Arguello Blvd. (the place closest to the action). For greater safety on this active roadway, park in the small side streets to avoid obstructing traffic. Don’t forget to bring binoculars or a small telescope for a closer view.
Santa Lucia Canyon Route
This time-tested spot, located at the intersection of Santa Lucia Canyon Road and Victory Road, is a popular observation perch for Space Launch Complex 3 (SLC-3), used by an Atlas V rocket to carry satellites into orbit . Atlas V is one of the most reliable and spectacular spacecraft in the world, and launches often draw crowds, so arrive early to secure a prime parking spot. You can also get a partial view of a SpaceX mission from the SLC-4 launch pad if you’re lucky.
While not the most scenic spot, the sprawling parking lot at the Walmart Supercenter (701 W. Central) is easily one of the best vantage points in Lompoc, according to the folks at Vandenberg Air Force Base. What it lacks in natural beauty, it makes up for in easy parking and proximity to the quaint and trendy old town of Lompoc. To get the most out of your space adventure, why not turn your day trip into a long weekend? After the rocket-rocking action, head to H Street for classic small-town delights, where historic buildings and alleyways are adorned with more than 40 murals, and locals congregate at the Farmer’s Market. Friday. Family stores, restaurants and art galleries abound in this mile-long pedestrian zone. Outside of town, you’ll find wine tasting in the vast vineyards of the surrounding countryside, and miles of pristine beaches are a short drive away. Don’t miss the beautifully restored Mission at La Purisíma State Historic Park, considered the most intact of California’s 21 missions. Call the Vandenberg Visitor Center at 805-606-7662 or visit the Lompoc Tourism website to plan your space odyssey.
This article was published in the InsideHook LA newsletter. Register now to learn more about the Southland.