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A Brief History of the California Coastal Trail

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A rally in support of Proposition 20 in Sonoma County. | Photo: Courtesy of California Coastal Conservancy

On June 2, 2003, the last documented attempt to thru-hike the 1,200-mile California coast began at the Oregon border. The 10 hikers who committed to the endeavor, devoting nearly four months and $3,000 out of their own pockets, did so for more than mere recreation. The goal of this trek, dubbed the Coastal Trail Expedition '03, was public service.

Access to the Golden Coast is a right to all citizens guaranteed by some of the strongest coastal protections on earth. And while this might come as a surprise, a coastal trail tracing every beach, cove, and headland from Mexico to Oregon is a public mandate, written into state law in 2001. Despite that, no continuous trail existed in 2003 -- nor does one today. Military bases, private ranches, and rugged geography all interrupt the would-be footpath. An unbroken border-to-border thread is a longtime dream for many -- and a mission for some public agencies.

CTE '03, as they went by, set out to see if the route could be done anyway, and to document just where foot travelers might hit fences, "No Trespassing" signs, be routed far inland, or be forced to walk along dangerous stretches of highway. With the help of a support van, the hikers made their way, stopping to talk to reporters to bring attention to their journey, and detailing the route. Determined to stick to the coast, they confronted scary sections of Highway 1 where no shoulders exist, and endured frustrating detours inland.

"It was one of the best things I've ever done in my life," said one of the hikers, Linda Hanes, a retired board member of Coastwalk, a nonprofit set up to complete the trail. Still, "we could not in good conscience recommend that anyone repeat our trip," she said. On Sept. 22, nine of the 10 hikers reached the Mexican border (one fractured a leg bone during the hike). In all, CTE '03 found that 500 miles of the coast weren't accessible within the legal requirement of the sight, sound, or smell of the ocean.

Gaps in the California Coastal Trail might be unfortunate. But Californians can count their blessings that around 700 miles of trail do exist, and, relative to almost anywhere in the world, they enjoy abundant public access to vast expanses of undeveloped coast.

Of course, it might have turned out differently. During the 1960s, private land acquisitions removed parts of the coast from public reach. And industry threatened to despoil yet more. This threat was underscored, in 1969, by the Santa Barbara oil spill, still among the largest in American history. Fortuitously, the spill coincided with the emergence of the environmental movement, and touched off a campaign to prevent similar disasters and reclaim the coast for the public. This being California, the newfound eco-awareness took shape as a ballot initiative, the successful 1972 Proposition 20, known as the California Coastal Zone Conservation Act.

A promotional sticker from the Proposition 20 campaign.
A promotional sticker from the Proposition 20 campaign. | Photo: Courtesy of Janet Bridgers.

"It really was an initiative of the people," said Sara Wan, a former longtime member of the California Coastal Commission. "People up and down the state rallied. It wasn't put together with huge funding."

Prop 20 created a regulatory body, the Coastal Commission, tasked with ensuring "permanent protection" of the coast. Far from a toothless measure, the proposition granted broad powers for the commission to deny governments -- even the federal government -- along with industry and private landowners, the ability to develop coastal land. At least partly, the commission owes its power to an expansive definition of "development" -- a term that may cover road building, the placement of cattle, or the color of a home.

Prop 20 was written to expire in just three years. But in 1976, lawmakers made the provisions permanent with the California Coastal Act, cementing the state's precedent-setting rules for good. "The commission is the most powerful land use regulatory body in the nation, perhaps the world," Wan said. "And from a perspective of protecting the environment, the Coastal Act is one of the best, if not the best, written laws in the world."

To achieve the state's goals through non-regulatory means, the Act also formed the Coastal Conservancy, whose mission is to protect and enhance the coast and ensure access. The conservancy is empowered to use "entrepreneurial techniques" like purchasing land. However, much of its duties consist of coordinating local governments, public agencies, and private landowners to work together to meet Coastal Act standards.

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Long dreamed of, the coastal trail -- a symbol of both commitment to a natural coastline and its (mostly) unhampered accessibility -- eventually became law, too. In 2001, legislators passed SB 908, writing the trail into the books and assigning the conservancy its overseer.

Much of the trail was already in place where provided by state parks, bike paths, or the like. Hikers can employ a variety of avenues, including horse trails and beaches, so long as they are within sight, sound, or smell of the sea. Opening those 500 remaining miles -- the stretch that CTE '03 was unable to tread -- falls to the conservancy and Coastwalk.

Apart from military bases such as Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and Vandenberg Air Force Base, private ranches constitute much of the trail's gaps. The Hollister Ranch in Santa Barbara County and the Sea Ranch in Sonoma County are the largest. Under the laws, access wouldn't come easy: none of the regulations work retroactively. In other words, entry to privately owned coastline is at the mercy of landowners. (The commission likewise has no power of eminent domain.)

Sea Ranch in Sonoma County is home to a privately owned stretch of coast where public access is limited.
Sea Ranch in Sonoma County is home to a privately owned stretch of coast where public access is limited. | Photo: Σπύρος Βάθης/Flickr/Creative Commons

The laws did open some doors, though, by way of the commission: If landowners seek to develop anything, they may be required to yield to certain conditions as a way of alleviating the burden placed on the public. Agreeing to a coastal trail might be a condition. Many people who want to see the trail completed agree with the commission's Linda Locklin. "It's a matter of time but it might be a long time," she said.

Public lands can be tricky as well. Unlike, say, the Pacific Crest Trail, which largely runs through national forest, the California Coastal Trail winds through more than 100 jurisdictions. In one recent example, the conservancy successfully negotiated with state parks, the city of Ventura, Ventura County, the Coastal Commission, and Surfrider Foundation. It took years, but the trail was eventually included in a re-design of part of the Ventura River mouth washed away by heavy surf.

Even though the trail is incomplete, the conservancy receives inquiries from hikers the world over seeking route advice. (At present, there is no detailed official map, though a rough map can be found here. There is also a two-volume hiker's guide, "Hiking the California Coastal Trail" by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols, though, published in 2000, they may not be up to date. A pilot program to map the trail using data from numerous agencies and the public is underway in Monterey County, said Una Glass, Coastwalk's executive director.)

Still, many people -- Californians among them -- may not know about the trail, a fact the conservancy is trying to change. "We want to make it as famous as the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail," Glass said.

Who knows, given enough time, the trail could be as well-known as its automotive brother, Highway 1.

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