This week we head up the road to again explore the California coast—this time on foot, by bike and wheelchair, and on horseback. We Californians love our 1200 miles of Pacific Ocean coastline. Love of the coast has inspired fierce battles over the years about just what does, and what does not, belong there. Among the things most Californians would agree belong along the coast are trails—the reason the California Coastal Trail now exists. And also why the nonprofit group Coastwalk California exists.
Coastwalk California, also known as the California Coastal Trail Association, advocates for the completion of California’s coastal trail, organizes and sponsors group walks to introduce people to the coast and its wonders, and advocates for coastal protection and improved coastal access.
The California Coastal Trail was an idea whose time had definitely come in October 1999 when it was recognized at a special White House ceremony as one of 50 unique U.S. Millennium Legacy Trails.
But even today, in many places, the trail is still mostly just an idea. It doesn’t yet exist everywhere along the California coastline, due to the intersections of public and private lands, urban development and wilderness, freeways and deer paths. Changing that fact—creating a public trail that runs all the way from Mexico to Oregon—is the core purpose of Coastwalk.
In a sense it all really started with the passage of Proposition 20, the California Coastal Zone Conservation Act of 1972, which established the California Coastal Commission and greatly enhanced public coastal access and promoted conservation and open space.
A key battle prompting the passage of Prop 20 came at along the coast in northern Sonoma County, a 5,200-acre sheep ranch-cum-exclusive vacation home outpost. Sea Ranch architects got rave reviews for their simple, boxlike, high-priced condominiums and homes, which look much like weatherbeaten local barns but cost oh so much more. The cluster development design, much applauded, allowed “open space” for the aesthetic well-being of residents and passersby alike, but provided no way for the public to get to the 10 miles of state-owned coastline without trespassing. Which is why Sea Ranch become the frontline for California’s battles over guaranteed public access to the coast.
The passage of Prop 20 theoretically opened up beach access, but the reality of beach access through Sea Ranch was achieved only in late 1985, when four of the six public trails across the property were ceremoniously dedicated. But the public-access victory was only partial at that point; Sea Ranch charged a day-use fee.
Since its establishment Coastwalk’s mission has been to establish a border-to-border California Coastal Trail, preserve and expand coastal access, and protect the coastal environment.
Coastwalk members set out in June of 2003 to walk the entire length of California’s coastline—and its coastal trail-to-be—pointing out various “missing links” along the way, from Sea Ranch in Sonoma County to David Geffen’s beachfront Malibu estate.
But real progress is slow in coming. Today, roughly half of the California Coastal Trail is finished, either by signage added to existing trails or roadways or via new land purchases and easements. Some $5 million of the Parks Bond Act of 2000 was allocated for completing the trail.