After Almost 40 Years, California Coastal Trail Still a Work in Progress

Stan Bluhm volunteers for Coastwalk California, a nonprofit that promotes the California Coastal Trail. He lead hikers in Marin County on a backpacking trip earlier this fall. (Vinnee Tong/KQED)

Think hiking in California. What comes to mind? Maybe the Pacific Crest Trail, thanks to the Cheryl Strayed memoir, “Wild,” and the upcoming movie starring Reese Witherspoon. But have you heard of the California Coastal Trail?

Your answer may be no, partly because it’s not yet complete. The problem is that it runs through many people’s backyards, and even though the public has a right to access it, it has taken almost 40 years to build. But earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law that could finally help finish the trail, and open it up to everyone.

The nonprofit Coastwalk California leads the effort to complete the trail. Each year Coastwalk volunteers take hikers into the wilderness to let them get closer to nature.

“That really is our goal, is to get people out to experience it firsthand and up close,” says Coastwalk volunteer Stan Bluhm. “And if you’ve experienced it, you’re much more likely to love it, and be willing to do what it takes to protect and preserve it.”

The California Coastal Trail was created as part of the 1976 Coastal Act. The law was designed to protect the coastline from environmental degradation and give all Californians the right to use the beach.

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But it’s been a huge, costly effort to try to connect nearly 1,200 miles of shoreline that runs through San Diego Bay, Venice Beach, Monterey, Mendocino and on up the coast. It gets even harder when you consider that the trail needs to be as close to the beach as possible, and that the ideal route runs through some of the state’s most populous areas on private land.

On top of the financial challenges, some property owners illegally post no-trespassing signs or padlock fences.

A San Mateo County Superior Court judge ruled that companies representing Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla have been violating the California Coastal Act by closing the gate on public access to Martins Beach, just south of Half Moon Bay. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)
A San Mateo County Superior Court judge ruled that companies representing Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla have been violating the California Coastal Act by closing the gate on public access to Martins Beach, just south of Half Moon Bay. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

“Californians have really come to expect that the beach belongs to everyone, which is true. It does,” says the California Coastal Commission’s legislative director, Sarah Christie. “But it doesn’t mean much to say the beach belongs to everyone if you can’t get to the beach.”

You may have heard of the controversy over Martins Beach, near Half Moon Bay. Property owner Vinod Khosla closed a gate to keep people out. The Surfrider Foundation sued for access and won, and the state Legislature passed a law to ensure the beach is open to everyone.

In July, Gov. Jerry Brown gave the commission the authority to fine violators who block public access. Fines can reach $11,000 a day. Christie says the agency hasn’t used its new authority yet, but that may change.

She says the commission is ramping up its program to fine violators.

The commission has about 2,000 complaints on its backlog of public access violations. Some of those violators have been blocking access to the California Coastal Trail. At Paradise Cove near Malibu, the property owner has been charging people to park near the beach and threatened surfers with trespassing charges.

If property owners near the beach cooperate, that would be a major step forward in completing the trail. And, of course, one of the biggest obstacles is funding, according to Coastwalk California Executive Director Una Glass. Her group organizes the fundraising hikes.

The state funds the trail through the Coastal Conservancy, but it’s not a dedicated funding source. The money is sporadic. So Glass says they need more money to buy easements and literally build the trail in some places. It’s about two-thirds complete.

And there’s been progress recently. Rancho Palos Verdes started construction, and Half Moon Bay added a new section of trail. And in San Diego County, the California Coastal Trail is just about done.