Rocket Tourism

Vandenberg Launch Viewing: How to See a Rocket Launch in California

Is seeing a rocket launch on your space tourism bucket list? While Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Base are the most popular launch facilities in the U.S., people are increasingly traveling to a small town in California to try and see rockets take flight.

Vandenberg Space Force Base is the primary spaceport on the West Coast, and it’s easily accessible from Los Angeles and San Francisco. If you want to enjoy a Vandenberg launch viewing in person, this article breaks down everything you need to know to plan a trip.

Vandenberg Launch Viewing - Glenn Beltz via Flickr 3
Featured photo credit: Glenn Beltz via Flickr

I’ll be honest: there’s not a ton else to do in the area near Vandenberg – a Central Coast California community called Lompoc (pronounced “lom-poke”), as there is in Central Florida. Additionally, as Vandenberg is an active military base, visitors aren’t allowed to watch launches from prime locations like the causeway at Kennedy/Canaveral.

Don’t let that discourage you though: if you’ll be in the area during a scheduled launch at Vandenberg, it’s still well worth trying to see this mastery of human technology. Below you’ll find all you need to know to see a launch at Vandenberg including the best places for viewing a Vandenberg launch.

In this post, I promote traveling to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Chumash and ‘Amuwu peoples, among many others. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

This post was originally published in March 2019, and was updated most recently in August 2023.

Where is Vandenberg Space Force Base?

Vandenberg Launch Viewing

Vandenberg Space Force Base is located on California’s Central Coast, north of Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. Parts of the space force base, especially where rockets are launched, are located in the Lompoc Hills as they rise up from the Santa Maria Valley floor at the coastal edge of the continent. 

The nearest town is Lompoc (“lom-poke”), which stretches along the valley floor at the foot of the Lompoc Hills. If you’re planning a visit to Vandenberg Space Force Base to see a rocket launch, Lompoc is the town you can use as your primary base for exploring the region and hopefully seeing a launch.

Can You Tour Vandenberg AFB?

While it used to be possible to tour Vandenberg Space Force Base, I can’t find any details about tours currently offered as of mid-2023. There is a “Visitor Control Center” that’s open to visitors daily except federal holidays.

Can You Watch a Launch at Vandenberg?

In short, no, it’s not possible to do a Vandenberg launch viewing for most people. As an active space force base, only pre-approved personnel are allowed on the base at any time. This means that unless you are a member of the military on a mission or media, you’ll get turned away at the base gates.

Below, you’ll find some great viewing launch spots that aren’t located on the VAFB grounds. Some past viewers claim the view is actually better at some of these spots than you’ll get on base!

Best Places for a Vandenberg Launch Viewing

Vandenberg Launch Viewing - Glenn Beltz via Flickr
Photo credit: Glenn Beltz via Flickr

If you want to view a launch at Vandenberg, we’ve put together a map – as well as a list that breaks down each of the locations and details on what you can see. 

Vandenberg Launch Viewing Map
Click to interact with the map.

Here are some of the top viewing sites from around Lompoc and near Vandenberg. This list is a collection of the top spots endorsed by locals and rocket launch chasers.

Surf Beach

Surf Beach can be a great viewing spot, but it depends on a few things. First, Surf Beach has to be open – sometimes security will close the beach depending on the launch trajectory. Second, you’ll only be able to see launches when the marine layer stays out over the Pacific Ocean; if you see any fog near the coast, this won’t be a good viewing spot.

Along West Ocean Avenue

Along West Ocean Avenue is a great spot to view, depending on the launch SLC and weather. Be aware that you’ll be parking along an active roadway. You need to be sure to remove your car from traffic, but also don’t pull into any of the private property or farmland along the road.

  • 13th Street/Arguello Boulevard This is the closest spot you can view a SpaceX launch at SLC-4. It’s also typically foggy during the summer months, and closest to the police blockade if they close West Ocean Avenue.
  • Renwick Avenue – Another intersection close to 13th/Arguello, you can park along Renwick Avenue as well and get a good view on a clear launch day.
  • Floradale Avenue – Google Maps reports the intersection of Floradale and Ocean as the “Viewing Site for SLC-6,” which makes it pretty darn official. There are plenty of intersections in the area for you to pull off the main road.
Vandenberg Launch Viewing - Kevin Gill via Flickr
Photo credit: Kevin Gill via Flickr

Santa Lucia Canyon Road & Victory Road

The intersection of Santa Lucia Canyon Road and Victoria Road is a known viewing spot because it has a partial view of SLC-4 and a full view of SLC-3. Crowds can form here if the launch is from one of those SLCs and some of the views are obscured by vegetation, so show up early!

Harris Grade Road

At its peak, Harris Grade Road rises about 600 feet above the surrounding area, giving you good elevation to see a launch from most of the SLCs. Harris Grade is farthest from the launch pads themselves, but the elevation and distance help reduce the chances you’ll be fogged out if the marine layer rolls in.

Vandenberg Launch Viewing - Glenn Beltz via Flickr
Photo credit: Glenn Beltz via Flickr

Firefighter Road

Firefighter Road can be hit or miss as a viewing area for a couple of reasons. One, depending on the launch and payload, MPs may be present to turn people away. Two, there is a radiation hazard due to the high-powered equipment in the area. 

Hawk’s Nest (CLOSED)

For a long time, Hawk’s Nest was the unofficial official viewing spot in the Lompoc area. You can find it on the map as “Azalea Lane” or “Camellia Lane” and at roughly 500 feet in elevation, it offered a pretty good view of most of the SLCs. This abandoned subdivision was a great viewing area as there are several roads where you can park and plenty of open space to stand and view. 

As of late 2022, one STG reader (thanks, gaplant!) said that this area is now closed with a security gate and guard. I’ve confirmed this with Google Street View.

Marshallia Ranch Road (CLOSED)

This is a former viewing spot that used to have a great view of SLC-2. Unfortunately, as of late 2022, there’s a sign that reads WARNING! U.S. AIR FORCE INSTALLATION. OFF LIMITS TO UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL, etc.

I have verified this via Google Street View and removed it from the map. (Thanks for the tip, Bob!)

Online Vandenberg Launch Live Feed

There’s no primary launch feed for Vandenberg launches. However, most of the launch providers do live webcasts:

You can usually log on 10-20 minutes before launch to see the webcast of the launch as it happens, even if you can’t travel to Lompoc or don’t have a great view.

Vandenberg Launch Schedule: What Launches at VAFB

Vandenberg Launch Viewing - NASA Kennedy via Flickr
Photo credit: NASA Kennedy via Flickr

If you’ve ever heard of launches from Vandenberg before the last few years, it’s probably for missiles. VAFB is run through the Department of Defense, and operates as a space and missile testing base. In the past few years, payloads launched at Vandenberg have remained – for the most part – top secret, classified, or highly technical. At this point, there are no plans to launch astronauts at Vandenberg, but that doesn’t make the launches at VAFB boring!

A variety of different rockets launch from Vandenberg. SpaceX launches the Falcon 9 (and in the future the Falcon Heavy). ULA Launches several different rockets: the Delta II, Atlas V, and Delta IV (and Delta IV Medium and Heavy). Northrup Grumman launches Taurus and the Minotaur rockets. Launches typically occur every 2-3 months. 

Vandenberg Launch Alerts & Calendars

There are no official launch alerts or calendars for Vandenberg launches, but that doesn’t mean there’s no warning. Here are a couple of ways to know when a launch is happening at Vandenberg:

  1. If you know who the launch provider is, you can follow them on Twitter for updates. For example, both ULA and SpaceX are active on Twitter.
  2. You can also follow the company responsible for the payload on Twitter for updates. For example, NASA is very active on Twitter, and government organizations like the NRO will also post updates about upcoming launches.
  3. Watch for clear skies and altered flight paths. Savvy rocket launch chasers will keep an eye on the FAA including their TFR (Temporary Flight Restriction) list, which often confirms that a launch is planned and the airspace needs to be clear. 

Together, you can use these options to piece together a good sense of when launches are actually happening at Vandenberg.

Launch Facilities on Vandenberg AFB

Vandenberg Launch Viewing - Robert Sullivan via Flickr
Photo credit: Robert Sullivan via Flickr

Now that you have a better sense about what launches at Vandenberg, it’s time to get oriented. There are six active launch facilities at VAFB; the three most popular are detailed below.  Note: If you’re new to the whole rocket launch thing, “SLC” is pronounced “slick.” The following SLCs would therefore be pronounced “slick 4 east,” “slick 6,” and “slick 10.” Now you sound like a pro!

Space Launch Complex 4-East (SLC-4East)

SLC-4 has gained a lot of attention in the past few months, as anything Elon Musk touches is automatically interesting to people. SpaceX launches from both of the launch pads at SLC-4: SLC-4W and SLC-4E. This launch complex was previously used to launch Atlas and Titan rockets until 2005; SpaceX leased the complex for Falcon 9 rocket launches at SLC-4E beginning in 2013. 

Space Launch Complex 6 (SLC-6)

SLC-6 had a troubled start, as it was originally built for Titan III, Manned Orbiting Laboratory, and even west coast Space Shuttle launches. Unfortunately, none of these launches ever happened from SLC-6, and by 2006 it was refitted for the Delta IV rocket family, operated by United Launch Alliance (ULA). ULA also operates SLC-2 and SLC-3East.

Space Launch Complex 10 (SLC-10)

SLC-10 is no longer active: the last launch here was in 1980 and the facility was named a National Historic Landmark in 1986. In its heyday, SLC-10 was used to test ballistic missiles and Thor boosters for over twenty years. Today SLC-10 is the Space and Missile Heritage Center and base museum. (If you arrange the quarterly tour option at Vandenberg, you’ll get to visit SLC-10!)

Lompoc Travel Guide

Vandenberg Launch Viewing - Phil via Flickr
Photo credit: Phil via Flickr

In addition to seeing a rocket launch, you might wonder what else you can do in Lompoc. Here are the details to plan the rest of your trip and spend your time in the area.

Where to Stay in Launch in Lompoc

Lompoc has several chain hotels, many of which can get quite busy when a launch is happening. These include the Embassy Suites, Hilton Garden Inn, and Holiday Inn Express. There are also some good Airbnb options, including this 3-bedroom house and this 4-bedroom home with a pool.

What to Do in Lompoc

Aside from attending a Vandenberg launch viewing, what else can you do in Lompoc? Turns out, there’s a fair amount!

  • Beachcombing & Surfing – Both Surf Beach and Jalama Beach are a great way to pass the morning while you wait for the launch. Just be aware if they’re planning to close the beaches for an upcoming launch.
  • Foodie Experiences – Lompoc has some delicious options if you love to eat. Add Jalama Beach Burger, Valle Eatery, South Side Coffee, and Hangar 7 to your must-try list. 
  • Wine Tasting – Located in the Santa Maria Valley appellation, there are some amazing wineries in the Lompoc area. That also means there are tasting rooms – especially in the Wine Ghetto area where most of the tasting rooms are located. Try Flying Goat Cellars, as their logo is the most space-y of any in town.

Space Experiences in Lompoc & the Santa Maria Valley

Vandenberg Launch Viewing - Glenn Beltz via Flickr
Photo credit: Glenn Beltz via Flickr

Aside from Vandenberg launch viewing, Lompoc is a great area for a few other space experiences.

  • Stargazing – Because Lompoc is a pretty small town (about 45,000) surrounded by farmlands and vineyards, there are some good areas where you can find a dark sky. 
  • Santa Maria Discovery Museum – Located in nearby Santa Maria, the Discovery Museum is great for family travelers and has multiple exhibits about space science and launches that are aimed at all ages.
  • Tour Vandenberg – The details are up above, but if you can time your trip to learn about the history of the base and launches, it’s a great unique experience.

Have other questions about Vandenberg launch viewing in Lompoc? Let me know in the comments!

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Valerie is the founder and editor of Space Tourism Guide. She grew up in Alaska, has lived across the U.S., and traveled around the world to enjoy the night sky from many different perspectives. Join her on this journey to explore space right here on earth.


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        Valerie Stimac

        It depends on the launch and weather as to which spot will be the best – I can’t say that one is always going to be the best! I’d arrive at least an hour early; Vandenberg launches are increasingly popular and the lack of formal viewing areas means people who want the best view will show up early/set up cameras well in advance.

  • William

    Hi Valerie,

    Great content, I think I’m going to follow some your tips for this upcoming launch! Do you know if we can witness the whole process at the surf beach site? I equally want to see both the launching and landing process of the rocket in person!

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      Valerie Stimac

      Thanks for reading, William. Not sure if you figured out yet, but they will close the beach if the launch range requires it. If the military police don’t kick you out, you can stay!

    • Avatar photo

      Valerie Stimac

      Most of these locations are far enough away that you shouldn’t need any ear protection – but it never hurts to have some ready in case it’s still scary for your little one!

  • Nigel Mahood

    There has been a lot of changes since you wrote this great article. May of 2021 the name was changed to Vandenberg Space Force Base, and there are alerts and schedule calenders for the public to view.

  • Chris Patterson

    What time should we leave Santa Barbara to ensure we don’t get bogged down in traffic getting to a viewing area for an afternoon 2:00PM to 4PM launch?

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      Valerie Stimac

      On a launch day? 10am at latest. I wouldn’t just worry about traffic – there’s also closures in certain areas depending on the launch, and parking/space availability depending on where you want to watch.

  • Bob Higaki

    Prior to the Delta IV Heavy launch on 09/24, I was scouting out Marshallia Ranch Road for a possible Firefly Alpha photo shoot. There is a sign at the beginning of the road: WARNING
    According to your website, it is implied that Marshallia Ranch Road is outside of Vandenberg; not inside.

    How many hours do you recommend for anyone to show up at Ocean and Renwick to get a decent parking spot?

    Do you know anything about Skyscreen and Corral intersection to shoot the Firefly Alpha?

  • gaplant

    Hawks Nest is closed and gated with security. Security guard said “You need a pass from NASA” and that it would never be publicly open. (10pm wednesday dec 15 22). Don’t show up expecting to park or watch from here.

  • Kenneth Frey

    Which SLC are most of the Falcon 9 launches from? Is there any way to see the booster landings if they’re going to come back to Vandenberg?

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      Valerie Stimac

      SpaceX primarily uses SLC-4, but has recently leased SLC-6 for future use. For landings, I’m not totally sure. I see some people reporting LZ-1, others reporting it’s called LZ-4; there is an LZ-4 on Google Maps satellite view, and it’s right next to SLC-4 – so if you can see the launch at SLC-4 and they’re landing back at LZ-4, it will come “right back” (more or less!).

      • Wickie

        Spacex Falcon 9 VSFB launches are from SLC 4. If the 1st stage returns to VSFB, its landing is quite close to its original launch position. The return takes ‘about’ 8 min from launch to landing. The landing is accompanied by 1 or 2 good sonic booms.
        Of late, Security has been shuttng down West Ocean at its intersection with Union Sugar. SLC 4 is on the beach side of the Coastal Range. Good view from the Lompoc Valley floor as the launch rises up over the ridge and south.
        SLC 2 is now being used by Firefly Aerospace rather than ULA.

  • Jerry

    I’m surprised someone local hasn’t set up a website that offers a good glimpse as to the activities surrounding launches.

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