California Opens Up Public Access in a Big Way

The Takeaway: Adventurers now exploring 1,000-plus miles of land and waterway trails owe much to the three agencies of California’s coastal zone management program.

California tops all other states in its coastal population, with 26.5 million people living in coastal counties. Expanding public access is a mission at the heart of the California Coastal Management Program’s three agencies: the State Coastal Conservancy, California Coastal Commission, and San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. Initiatives completed or underway include the California Coastal Trail, San Francisco Bay Trail, and San Francisco Bay Water Trail. Below are a few highlights:

The California State Coastal Conservancy works with partners to expand public access to the coast and its watersheds, the ocean, and the San Francisco Bay area through technical assistance and funding, planning, siting, development, and acquiring lands and resources.

  • This agency leads development of the California Coastal Trail, which eventually will span 1,250 miles from Oregon to Mexico. About 60 percent of the trail is now open and used by thousands of hikers, bikers, and equestrians daily. Wherever possible, the trail is made accessible to people with disabilities.
  • The Explore the Coast program has distributed over $6 million in grants to provide coastal experiences for communities and students that deal with disabilities, face economic challenges, or reside in inland areas.
  • A conservancy grant made possible an all-terrain walker and 29 beach wheelchairs (manual and motorized) for distribution at 18 sites, at no cost to users, plus storage facilities and repair kits.
  • “Urban greening” efforts with other partners include the Santa Ana River Conservancy Program, which enhances open space and trails, drinking water, and flood protection in this economically diverse community.
  • Over its 40-year history, the conservancy has helped open more than 200 public accessways to the coast.

The California Coastal Commission helps protect and enhance the coast and ocean through careful planning and regulation of developments, including a permitting process that maximizes public access and natural resource protection.

  • The commission’s access page reveals a portal and “YourCoast” app offering guidance to more than 1,500 public access points and information on types of terrain, bathrooms, accessibility, dog-friendly venues, and more.
  • • The page lists the 108 locations of beach wheelchairs, which feature large, wide wheels that can roll across the sand without sinking.
  • The commission manages the Whale Tail grant program that supports marine and coastal education and education-based public access, with a special focus on communities that are poorly served. To date, the grants have funded more than 227,000 student field trips. The program awarded about $400,000 last year.

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission maximizes public access to the Bay shoreline through permit requirements, partnerships, and projects.

  • The Bay water trail project has completed 39 of 100-plus launch and landing sites for non-motorized vessels. This agency helped identify suitable sites and works closely with partners to ensure Americans with Disabilities Act compliance.
  • About 350 miles of the 500-mile Bay trail project are now complete, thanks in part to permit requirements and technical assistance from the Bay commission. The walking and cycling trail will wind through nine counties, connecting communities to parks, open spaces, schools, transit, and each other.
  • The Bay commission and Association of Bay Area Governments developed the mobile-friendly San Francisco Bay Shoreline Guide, which features opportunities for fishing, bird watching, dog walking, and more.

The State Coastal Conservancy provided some direct California Coastal Trail funding and analysis. This agency also provides ongoing funding for the San Francisco Bay Trail and San Francisco Bay Water Trail. (2020)

Partners: State Coastal Conservancy, California Coastal Commission, and San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission