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Why California’s Coastal Trail Is Taking So Long

Vinnee Tong
A bridge and trail currently under construction at Soberanes Point in Garrapata State Park. Right now this area is closed to the public, but the trail is a likely choice to become part of the California Coastal Trail.

California is famous for its beaches and outdoor living -- including breathtakingly beautiful hikes near the ocean. Yet, when it comes to hiking trails, more have likely heard of the Appalachian Trail than the California Coastal Trail. The proposed trail is decades in the making, but still unfinished.  


The California Coastal Trail is a walking trail that’s supposed to go from the Oregon border to Mexico, and be within the sight, sound, or smell of the sea.

It grew out of a voter initiative in 1973, designed to give everyone access to California’s nearly 12-hundred miles of coastline. But today it remains incomplete.

Butch Kronlund  is president of the Big Sur Coast Property Owners Association. He likes the idea of the trail but is working to protect property owners rights.

“The community process for aligning the trail has made it very clear that we are not going to allow condemnation of private property or coercion of private property owners, to run the trail over private property,” Kronlund says. “So it’s going to be a very complex and complicated alignment process, because there are so many stakeholders.”

Unlike like the Appalachian Trail on the East Coast and the Pacific Crest Trail going from Mexico to Canada, which mostly run through uninhabited areas, the California Coastal Trail winds through a large number of cities and towns. That makes it harder to build.

Una Glass is the Executive Director of Coastwalk California, a nonprofit that’s helping to build the trail.
“When you first think about it, you think, well what’s so hard about this?” she asks. “You think about it from the 30,000-foot perspective and you just draw a line, there’s the trail. Well, actually, it’s a little more complicated than that.”
Glass says the main obstacle, like in many things, is money.That’s because the state has no dedicated funding for the trail. Other obstacles are private property owners who don’t want the trail going through their land, and military bases near the water where there’s no access.

Glass says that out of 15 counties along the coastline, none have completed their section of trail. But still, there are pieces of the trail that are complete. 

“We’re very close to having a complete trail in San Luis Obispo, San Francisco and San Diego,” says Sam Schuchat, Executive Officer of the California Coastal Conservancy. That’s the state agency that funds the trail. 

He says overall, the trail’s about two-thirds done, including parts around the Monterey Bay, but there’s no official trail in Big Sur yet. There’s a reason for that.

“There are places where it’s pretty easy to put a trail, it’s right along the beach,” Schuchat says. “Big Sur is not one of them because the mountains come right down to the water.”
So with a rocky terrain, and a narrow Highway 1, Big Sur property owners understandably want to know where hikers will be headed on their way through the area.

That’s why Kronlund hopes to secure money to build a website where residents can look at maps, work with trail organizers and give input on how the trail will pass through Big Sur.
“From my perspective, the coastal trail could be anywhere from the mean high tide line and the main series of ridges that separate Big Sur from the Salinas Valley,” he says. “This is beautiful country. You can’t go wrong.”

Today, more than 40 years after voters first called for public access, trail organizers say they’ve made good progress, but still can’t say exactly when it’ll all be done.

Please Note: The trail at Soberanes Point (mentioned in the audio version of this story) is currently under construction and closed to the public.