How Beaches Work: Recreation & Preservation

"No individual, partnership, or corporation, claiming or possessing the frontage or tidal lands of a harbor, bay, inlet, estuary, or other navigable water in this State, shall be permitted to exclude the right of way to such water whenever it is required for any public purpose, not to destroy or obstruct the free navigation of such water; and the Legislature shall enact such laws as will give the most liberal construction to this provision so that access to the navigable waters of this State shall always be attainable for the people thereof."
--Article X, Sec. 4, Constitution of the State of California

access signA common belief among Californians is that the entire 1,100-mile coastline is public land. To a certain extent that is true. Four hundred and twenty public beaches lie along California's coastline, and 9,970 acres of coastal waters are designated as state parks. There are also hundreds of unmarked dry-sand easements all over California, given by private property owners to the state for public access. The state also owns the tide and all submerged land seaward of the "mean high tide line." In all, about 42 percent of the terrestrial coastline is publicly owned and accessible land. The other 58 percent is owned privately, or is held by federal, state or local governments. Although it is often difficult to distinguish between public and private land when you are walking on the beach, a general rule of thumb is that the public always has the right to walk on the wet sand.

But, for the average beachgoer, the coastline remains a complicated patchwork of park designations and restricted areas -- reserves, refuges, marine sanctuaries, wildlife areas and the like -- each overseen by a different government agency and each having its own distinct recreation and conservation priorities. Here are some of the designations you may run into as you work your way along the coast.

National Park
Four national parks or national recreation areas adjoin the California coast. National parks are easily accessible to the public. Their mandate is to conserve scenery, historic objects, wildlife, and the ecological, archeological, cultural and scientific values of the area while providing for the enjoyment of these resources by the public.

National Seashore
The purpose of a national seashore designation is to save and preserve portions of the diminishing undeveloped seashore of the United States for purposes of public recreation, benefit and inspiration. National seashores are run by? the National Park Service and are open to the public, but they often contain wildlife refuges or other restricted-access regions within their boundaries. Currently, Point Reyes National Seashore is the only such designated area in California.

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National Marine Sanctuaries
The purpose of these sanctuaries is to preserve and protect a unique marine habitat. Many species are endangered or threatened, so public access to sanctuaries is severely restricted. Fishing requires a special license and, in some areas, removal of any marine organism is forbidden. Some sanctuaries are accessible through guided tours and regulated visits, though much is off-limits for anything other than scientific study. There are four national sanctuaries in the state of California, operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

State Beach
The most accessible of all designated areas, state beaches are ocean-front lands selected, designed and managed to provide maximum recreational opportunities for the public. There is generally a nominal user fee and easy access to parking and basic services such as trash collection, showers and bathrooms. There are 35 state beaches in California.

State Recreation Area
These areas are designed for public use and selected for having terrain capable of withstanding extensive human impact. They are often located near large urban centers, major travel routes or proven recreational resources, such as artificial or natural bodies of water. There are currently five state recreation areas adjoining the coast in California.

State Park
State parks are generally large and very open to the public. Their purpose is to preserve California's indigenous aquatic and terrestrial plants and animals and the most significant examples of the state's unique ecosystems while providing for the enjoyment of these resources by the public. Most offer sightseeing, camping and quiet recreational pursuits, and many contain state beaches within their boundaries. There are 28 state parks on the California coast.

State Historic Park
These areas are created to protect the objects, buildings and sites important to California's heritage while providing for public enjoyment of such resources. The California coast has four state historic parks.

State Wildlife Area
The state acquires these lands to protect and enhance wildlife habitat and to provide the public with wildlife-related recreational opportunities. Wildlife areas provide habitat for a wide array of plants and animals, including threatened or endangered species. Camping, hiking, wildlife viewing, boating and other activities are allowed, including hunting and fishing.

State Seashore
State seashores preserve the outstanding natural, scenic, cultural and recreational values of the California coastline as an ecological region. State seashores consist of relatively spacious areas with frontage to the ocean or on bays open to the ocean. State reserves, parks or beaches may be located within and be part of a state seashore.

Ecological and State Preserves
These areas offer the highest level of protection for California's native plants, wildlife, aquatic organisms and specialized habitats. While some recreational use is permitted, reserves are kept in a natural condition for the benefit of scientific study or research, with minimal human intrusion. Access is typically limited to approved tours or restricted-use areas.

Refuges specifically protect invertebrates and plants for the purpose of propagating, feeding and protecting wildlife. The U.S. Fish and Game Commission manages refuges for six general categories: fish, game, waterfowl, quail, marine life and clams.

Natural or Cultural Preserves
These preserves can be found inside any of the parks. They contain endangered species of plants or wildlife, or other special features.

private propertyPrivate Property
The California constitution states that all property below the mean high tide line belongs to the state. However, some parts of the coast are blocked by large private ranches or homes that are built right to the waterline, making access to the Pacific possible only by swimming in from somewhere else or passing through someone's living room. Locked gates or security guards may obstruct entrance points to exclusive beaches, although the public has a right to access the wet sand of the beach by either walking along the coast or swimming or boating in. There are a number of ongoing battles over where that public/private line is drawn in the sands of California's beaches, with property owners battling citizen groups, and nearly everyone ending up in court.

In Malibu, the debate rages not only over whether the sand itself is public or private but also over the maintenance of public access ways, called "offers to dedicate" (OTDs). OTDs are legal easements that provide access to the coast across private property. In Malibu, these "dedicated" strips of land often run between densely packed multimillion-dollar beach homes along the Pacific Coast Highway. The California Coastal Conservancy works in partnership with local governments, other state agencies and nonprofit land trusts to acquire, develop and manage public passageways. However, many of these OTD easements remain undeveloped, making access to the shore spotty and difficult. Typically, an OTD expires 21 years after the date of recording. Should an OTD expire without ever being developed into a proper pathway, the opportunity to open the area to the public is jeopardized and often lost forever. In June 1999, an average of 70 OTDs per year were predicted to reach their expiration dates between 2001 and 2005.

Land Trusts
Land trusts are independent nonprofit organizations that work with landowners interested in preserving open space. These organizations obtain land by either purchasing it or receiving it as a donation. The nonprofit tax status of land trusts can benefit the landowner (for example, through income-, estate- or gift-tax savings). While land trusts are independent organizations, they often work in partnership with government agencies by acquiring or managing land, researching open space needs and priorities, or assisting in the development of open space plans. They also work to secure and monitor conservation easements on acquired open space land. A 2003 Land Trust Alliance census noted that California, along with New York and Montana, leads the nation in the amount of acreage protected by local and regional land trusts.

Together, the 115 California land trusts have protected 1,243,737 acres. In partnership with national organizations, they have successfully protected 2,326,737 acres.

men on beachMilitary Bases
The unique terrain of the California coast has been widely taken advantage of by the U.S. military, which allows only authorized personnel and visitors onto its properties. Urban development and public recreation areas dramatically break at the gates of the many military bases along California's coastline. The military owns significant portions of the coast, most notably a 17-mile stretch in northern San Diego County at Camp Pendleton and a 41-mile stretch at Vandenberg Air Force Base along the central coast. These expansive bases provide training grounds for U.S. troops preparing for military exercises and classified activities.

Access to military bases is restricted to military personnel and contractors, and, because military bases are federal land, they are not subject to the state's mean high tide line rule. The military owns access to all shoreline, which in some cases includes the water 3 miles out. Ironically, because these lands are the only largely undeveloped coastal areas in densely populated places such as Southern California, natural ecosystems, wildlife and their habitats often thrive undisturbed on these bases, even in the face of intensive military activity.

people walking on the coastCalifornia Coastal Trail
For more than two decades, citizens' groups, hiking advocates and outdoor enthusiasts have worked together to promote the creation of the California Coastal Trail (CCT). Currently, creative hikers can make their way along the entire California coast by seeking out trails in state, national and local parks, walking on the beaches, scrambling over rocks, and bravely skirting the edge of busy roadways. But in many areas, the route is blocked by fences, private property or government facilities, or else the coast is so inaccessible that a hiker must travel far inland before finding an adequate trail.

When completed, the envisioned California Coastal Trail will be a continuous 1,200-mile trail stretching from Mexico to Oregon, keeping as close to the ocean as possible.

In 2001, the California State Legislature passed a resolution declaring the CCT an official state trail and directed the state's coastal conservancy to determine what is needed to complete the trail. The ensuing report was completed in early 2003 and is now in final review.

Find out more about the California Coastal Trail or find accessible hiking trails along the coast in your area. (at