When The Sea Ranch was first developed along the Sonoma Coast in the 1970s, view spots along its 10-mile coastline were reserved for residents of the exclusive community. All that changed in 1981 when the California Coastal Conservancy granted a 15-foot-wide pedestrian easement along the headlands.
Today, that bluff-top easement is part of a 7.5-mile coastal trail that stretches south from Gualala Point Regional Park, with five shorter trails that lead down to the ocean from Highway 1. The first piece — from Salal Creek to Walk On Beach — is a relatively easy six-mile round trip, with the option of a stopover at Walk On Beach, one of The Sea Ranch’s most popular beaches. Until August, visitors were banned from the quarter-mile trail that descends from a bluff-top staircase through a large Monterey cypress grove.
In 2003, the battering waves that are nibbling away at many sections of the Sonoma Coast took several large bits out of the bluff near Walk On Beach and caused some of the trail to fall into the sea. Outsiders, prohibited from using roads and trails in The Sea Ranch beyond those specifically designated for public use, could not reach the beach unless they trespassed.
Adding to the complexity was that the failed section of bluff top brought the continent’s edge ever closer to two houses at the end of a cul de sac called Sea Pine Reach. Homeowners reportedly welcomed the trail closure and the absence of strangers traipsing by and even onto their property.
After 11 years of study and negotiation, the realigned public trail was reopened and beach access was restored.
Visitors with more time and energy can return to their cars and, from Highway 1, stop at access points for:
Shell Beach Trail, 1.3 miles further south, which runs through pines and meadow to a wide, sandy beach with sea rocks, tide pools and small boat access via a beach ramp;
Stengel Beach Trail, 1.25 miles further south, with a wooden staircase, a small beach and seasonal waterfalls on the cliffs;
Pebble Beach Trail, 1.6 miles further south, which weaves through pines and meadow to a sandy cove reached by stairs; and,
Black Point Trail, 1.45 miles further south, which crosses the bluffs to a curving, quarter-mile beach reached by a steep, wooden staircase. Known to surfers, this beach is just north of Black Point, a cape that juts out about 250 yards from the shore.
Hours for the North Coast Access Trails are 8 a.m.-sunset in winter, 6 a.m.-sunset in summer. Bicycles are not allowed, nor are RVs and trailers in the parking lot.
Parking is $7. 785-2377, parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov.
–The Press Democrat Staff