The Longest Trail

  The following is a guest post by Jonathan Horwitz. It originally appeared on USC StorySpace.

In 1972, California voters mandated the creation of a coastal trail from Oregon all the way to Mexico, but it still isn’t complete.

Humboldt County’s 25-mile Lost Coast is known for its stunning beauty. Where the King Range meets the sea, jagged cliffs rise from the ocean like castle walls — a fortress between the beach and the rest of the world.

The Lost Coast is also known for its life-threatening high tides, which are hard to predict and quick to sweep hikers away to sea.

Once the tides hit the bluffs, there is nowhere to run. The beachhead is totally submerged and won’t appear again for hours.

california coastal trail

It was on one of these remote sandy shorelines that the first group of eight hikers attempting to complete a walk along the California Coast from Oregon all the way to the border with Mexico was in serious danger of drowning only a few days into their 1,150-mile journey in the summer of 1996.

The team was made up of volunteers from Coastwalk California, a non-profit organization focused on coastal access and dedicated to the completion of the California Coastal Trail. The aim of their expedition a quarter-century ago was not to pull off an extraordinary athletic feat; it was to raise awareness about the trail that they loved.

The group ranged from 44 to 68 years of age, including one woman who described herself as “not a hiker at all.”

The volunteers feared for their lives as the fog cleared overhead and the tide rolled up to their hiking boot-laden feet.

First, to the ankles, then, to the shins, finally, up to their chests and rising fast — powerful high tide waves threatened to suck the hikers to sea or submerge them completely.

Desperate to get off their receding perch on the sand, the eight hikers surveyed the coastline for escape routes.

The oldest among them, Bill Kortum, spotted a gap in the ridgeline where a small creek trickled into the ocean. If they could climb over the gap, he reckoned they would be safe from the rising tide.

Kortum, an experienced hiker and decades-long coastal advocate regarded as the father of the Sonoma County environmental movement, donned his heavy raincoat, tossed his backpack over the ravine, and stretched his body over the breach in the rock wall. He laid like a plank for several minutes — a human bridge for each of his friends to walk over to get to safety.

“Walk across me, and you can get to the next headland where there’s a trail,” Kortum reportedly said as he laid across a thicket of wild blackberry vines, every inch of his lanky frame bridging the void between drowning and safety.

One by one, the other seven hikers stepped on and across him. Each pair of muddy boot prints on his coat marked an additional survivor.

Each hiker made it across Kortum before he lifted himself up and leapt to safety over the blackberry bramble.

As they waited for the tide to lower, the frazzled group hunkered down for four hours in a tiny cove sheltered from the waves by the rock face they had just climbed.

“There the drenched, demoralized hikers huddled by a smoky fire and wondered if their luck had run out barely a tenth of the way through their ambitious trek. But the group escaped to become closer and more determined,” wrote Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols in their 2003 trail book “Hiking the California Coast.” Both authors hiked part of the 1996 expedition and Nichols was present during the close call at the Lost Coast.

A couple months later, the expedition reached the border with Mexico, becoming the first known group to complete the California Coastal Trail.

In the intervening years, only a handful of hikers have attempted to hike the entire California coastline.

High tides make walking along the beach a precarious endeavor in Torrey Pines and elsewhere. (Source: Jonathan Horwitz)

It’s not that the bold and the outdoorsy are discouraged by the danger or the distance. The Pacific Crest Trail further inland is longer and more challenging, and it’s one of the most beloved thru-hikes in the world.

It’s just that the California Coastal Trail doesn’t entirely exist.

Jocelyn Enevoldsen, a Coastwalk volunteer who hiked the coast in 2016 to raise awareness about the trail’s incompletion 20 years after the organization’s first expedition, described the CCT as “a super rad dream and a partial reality.”

At times, there’s a beautiful, dusty trail winding through coastal redwoods or lush seaside greenery. Sometimes, it’s safe to walk on the beach. And, in urban areas such as the Venice boardwalk or even the Port of Long Beach, the trail is paved.

But, a lot of the time, the CCT is Highway 1 itself. Hikers must walk on the shoulder of high-speed traffic to connect to existing trail sections. Along the way, they will encounter multi-day stretches with no sanctioned campsites and few places to fill up on fresh water or restock food.

california coastal trail

The Sea-to-Sky trail leads to Cone Peak. At 5,155, it is the highest mountain to offer a view of the ocean in Big Sur. (Source: Jonathan Horwitz).

The 1996 expedition relied on vehicle support for much of their journey. Most nights, the group was shuttled to hotels and restaurants before resuming their hike in the mornings. They wore reflective yellow vests as they walked single file along the Pacific Coast Highway. Some days, support vans drove them past coastal stretches where they would otherwise have had to trespass through federal military bases or take inland detours on the highway around them.

In places, the California Coastal Trail abruptly stops at federal military bases that do not allow civilian access. Other times, it weaves precariously close to trespassing on private beachfront property.

Nate Olive, who hiked the Pacific Coast from Canada to Mexico in 2004, reported in his trail blog at the time that he spent nights in California “stealth camping” on the side of the Pacific Coast Highway or hiding in coves on the beach.

Once, he thought a police chopper was coming after him and his partner for violating the law as they walked on the shoreline alongside exclusive Malibu mansions. Under California law, the coast becomes public land at the mean high tide line. A foot further inland and Olive would have been trespassing.

Olive, who tried to walk on the beach as much as possible, compares the experience to “dancing with the tideline” while balancing between two risks: trespassing and killer high tides.

Lorentzen, the author who hiked part of the 1996 expedition, says he feared for his life as he tiptoed across the sand outside private homes in Point Arena, 130 miles north of San Francisco.

“We walked close to the bluff because the residents in the house up above had been known to shoot at anyone who came through,” Lorentzen recalls.

“We didn’t get shot at,” he says with a laugh and continues. “So, yeah, there were a lot of issues like that, but we just overcame them and kept on walking.”

The California Coastal Trail is a super rad dream and a partial reality.”

—Jocelyn Enevoldsen, 2016 Thru-Hiker

The dream of a California Coastal Trail took a leap forward with the 1972 passage of Proposition 20, which provided that “a hiking, bicycle, and equestrian trails system shall be established along or near the coast” and that “ideally the trails system should be continuous and located near the shoreline.”

Sunset Cliffs in San Diego (Source: Jonathan Horwitz).

Four years later, the long-distance trail became a real possibility when the Coastal Act of 1976 required local government agencies to plan trail sections and to consider their alignment with those nearby.

In 1999, the White House selected the California Coastal Trail as one of the nation’s 52 long-distance visionary trails that reflect defining aspects of America’s history and culture as part of America’s legacy for the new millennium.

Other millennium trails include the likes of the Underground Railroad Trail and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. These are iconic routes that absolutely shaped American history.

The California Coastal Trail? Not so much.

Yet, the unfinished trail continued to win acclaim even as its construction floundered and the activism for it waned.

In 2008, the California Legislature proclaimed October 11 as California Coastal Trail Day.

However, the trail’s incompletion due to obstacles such as bureaucracy, private land ownership and urban development reveal that even in the state that gave birth to modern American environmentalism our relationship with nature is extremely complex.

As the nation grapples with existential climate policy questions. California can’t even build a continuous hiking trail near the coastline.

What is going on with the CCT?

Timeline

1972 | Californian voters pass Proposition 20, the Coastal Zone Conservation Act, which provides that “a hiking, bicycle, and equestrian trails system shall be established along or near the coast” and that “ideally the trails system should be continuous and located near the shoreline.”

1976 | The California Coast Act requires local jurisdictions to identify plans for the California Coastal Trail.

1983 | Coastwalk California, a nonprofit organization, is founded by grassroots supporters of coastal public access, coastal preservation and a statewide California Coastal Trail.

california coastal trail

Coastwalk volunteers celebrate their thru hike from Oregon to the border with Mexico in the summer of 1996 (Source: Hiking the California Coastal Trail by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols).

1996 | Coastwalk California volunteers hike from Oregon to Mexico.

1999 | Governor Gray Davis designates the CCT as California’s Millennium Legacy Trail. Subsequently, the White House encourages the federal government to assist in its development.

2001| California legislation names the CCT an official state trail and urges the Coastal Commission and the Coastal Conservancy to work collaboratively to complete it.

2003 | State agencies release “Completing the California Coastal Trail,” an official 60-page strategic blueprint for how to finish the trail.

2004 | Nate Olive and Sarah Janes walk the Pacific Coast from Washington to Mexico, making history when they gain access to Camp Pendleton.

2008 | The California Legislature proclaims October 11 to be California Coastal Trail Day.

2016 | Morgan Vissali and Jocelyn Enevoldsen walk from Oregon to Mexico to raise awareness for Coastwalk on the 20th anniversary of the organization’s first expedition.

2021 | The California Coastal Commission releases the first digital GPS file of the trail — the only detailed map available to the public that shows where the trail exists and where it does not for the entire state.

Linda Locklin has been working at the California Coastal Commission since 1977.

As public access program manager, she is supposed to coordinate the completion of the coastal trail with 72 coastal city and county governments throughout the state.

“I’m responsible, but the plans and permits fall to local planners,” Locklin said.

According to the California Coast Act, each local government must draw up plans for the trail within its jurisdiction.

In L.A. County, the trail looks familiar. It includes the Venice Boardwalk and Santa Monica bike path. Up the coast in Del Norte County, where the CCT winds through groves of coastal redwoods, it might appear more like how someone would envision a nature trail.

While the Coastal Commission is tasked with suggesting how the trail can be completed, it is strictly an advisory agency and does not have any jurisdiction over land-use decisions.

california coastal trail

California Coastal Trail signs mark the trail up and down the state. (Source: Jonathan Horwitz).

Locklin says it’s not reasonable that her agency has authority over the entire trail given geography, numerous political jurisdictions, and the sheer distance of the hike.

However, decentralized efforts to build the trail have left its establishment in limbo in many places.

One city councilwoman of a Central Coast town said in a recent interview that she was unaware her job description included planning and maintaining the coastal trail.

In addition to local governments, State Parks owns about 25 percent of the coastline; CalTrans manages the highways and vehicle access to trails; and, federal agencies including the Department of the Interior, the Air Force, and the Marines own federal parks, forests, and military bases.

Plus, multimillionaire beachfront property owners still work hard to discourage public beach access. At Hollister Ranch north of Santa Barbara, California’s coastal elite, including self-proclaimed environmentalists Hollywood director James Cameron, musician Jackson Browne, and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard severely restrict public access to 14,500 acres of coastal property using a legal exemption to coastal public access that dates back to the state’s Coastal Act in 1976.

In 2018, the Coastal Commission brokered a deal with the Hollister Ranch Owners Association to allow limited public access via guided tour or paddling in from Gaviota State Beach two miles away.

Locklin calls the area a “flash point” in the fight for public access to the beach and says a career goal of hers is to expand access to Hollister Ranch.

In terms of the California Coastal Trail through Hollister Ranch? Locklin says it’s non-existent. “You’ll see 40 miles of nothing.”

For thru-hikers that means dozens of additional miles walking on the highway.

Former Coastal Commission executive director Charles Lester says that once you factor in private land ownership and all the government agencies with coastal jurisdiction, no one’s sure how much of the coast is truly accessible to the public. “I don’t know if anyone’s ever added that up,” he said.

“One measure is about one-quarter to one-third of the shoreline is state park land, so you could consider all of that to be public shoreline, which is pretty good,” Lester said. “Then, there are large chunks that are unavailable like Vandenberg Air Force Base. There are points of access at the base, but, in general, it’s off-limits.”

When Olive and his trail partner Sarah Janes hiked the American Pacific Coast in 2004, they walked on the shoulder of Highway 1 to get around the 35 miles of coastline occupied by Vandenberg. In his journal, Olive calls the base “the largest chunk of inaccessible West Coast in America.”

He reports sleeping in a “ditch on the side of the highway” that night after he and Janes walked on the shoulder of traffic to get around the base.

Further south, Olive, then 28 years of age, and Janes, 23, had better luck with the Marines.

In advance of their arrival at Pendleton, Coastal access advocate Al LePage spent hours on the phone with Marine leaders arranging access their access through the base.

Eventually, LePage and the Marines struck a deal. Olive and Janes would walk through Pendleton with two Marine escorts armed not with guns but with Nikon cameras. In exchange, they would sit for an interview with military journalists from The Scout, Camp Pendleton’s weekly paper, and would agree to be photographed on their 15-mile trek through from San Onofre to Oceanside.

In 2004, Nate Olive and Sarah Janes walked the Pacific Coast from Washington to the border with Mexico, making history when they gained access to Camp Pendleton. (Source: Nate Olive).

Even the L.A. Times sent a reporter to cover Olive and Janes’ access to Pendleton. But Olive writes, “after the interview ended, the news crew bailed out as we led them over a difficult cobble-mounded beach made our way up to the bluffs later to the small checkpoint station guarded by very serious-looking young erect soldiers in Military Police camouflage.”

With the non-military press gone, Olive says the Marines nearly reneged on their end of the bargain. The MP on duty tried to turn Olive and Janes back to San Onofre before a ranking officer with connections to LePage gave the order to let the hikers proceed.

In nearly 20 years since, bicyclists have been granted permission to cross the military base, but hikers have not.

Pendleton remains an inaccessible part of the California Coast to most civilians.

But even where the coast is accessible, hiking long distances is a big logistical challenge because lengthy sections of the coast lack places to fill up on fresh water or resupply food.

When food ran low, Olive says he relied on harvesting seaweed from shallow waters, which he would then boil in a soup with miso paste he carried in his backpack. He doesn’t remember how he kept up his supply of fresh water, but he seldom mentions thirst in his trail journal, suggesting that dehydration was neither a life-threatening nor persistent issue.

Fifty years after voters decided to make it a reality, the California Coastal Trail is plagued by legal, bureaucratic, and logistical questions.

How far away from the coast can a “coastal trail” be? If a hiker in the mountains of Big Sur can see the ocean, should that count as a coastal trail?

What can be done about the long stretches where there is only highway and no actual trail? What about the private land and the military bases?

What agencies should be responsible for campsites? Bathrooms? Trash? Water? Permits?

The Coastal Commission has formally raised these questions, but they remain unanswered.

Nevertheless, Locklin insists that progress on the trail continues.

As of spring 2021, she says 875 miles of coastal trail have been completed. But that doesn’t mean the trail is that long.

“It’s a braided trail network, not a single line,” she explains. “So, that means you have parallel segments in some areas.”

For instance, a beach trail, a hiking trail, and a sidewalk might all go the same distance of one linear mile.

If you count on a computer, it says three miles of trail, but it’s not really,” Locklin says. “I mean, it’s three miles of coastal trail, but the segment is only a mile long.”

In early May, the Coastal Commission released its first digital map of all 875 miles of coastal trails in the state. The map is the first official trail update since 2003, when a six-page low-resolution PDF showed that most of the coast lacked any trail.

For the first time, the new map will highlight where there is and is not trail at a scale that is detailed enough for hikers to plan local trips. The map will not give long-distance hikers any guidance on how to navigate tracts where the trail has not been built.

“The purpose of our map is not a guide of how to walk the whole coast of California,” Locklin says. She adds, the purpose of the digital map is “to show in a graphic form everybody’s got a role to play in completing the coastal trail.”

And, so, the state continues to take baby steps toward completing its giant nature trail.

Perhaps, one day, the California Coastal Trail will live up to its label as one of America’s greatest long-distance hikes. Or else it might continue to be what hikers in the desert know very well — a mirage.

california coastal trail

Sunset Cliffs in San Diego (Source: Jonathan Horwitz).

About the Author

Jonathan Horwitz is an independent environmental journalist based out of California and a contributing writer to National Parks Traveler. He is an Annenberg Graduate Fellow in journalism at the University of Southern California and a former Fulbright grantee in Mexico.

Featured image: The sun sets over Blacks Beach from Torrey Pines Gliderport in La Jolla. (Source: Jonathan Horwitz). Photo courtesy of Jonathan Horwitz.

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