Dan and Hannah Hike the Bluff Trail at Sea Ranch, California

Sea map 2Traveling from Santa Rosa, some 50 miles north of San Francisco, we head west to the Pacific Ocean. On this Friday in mid-January, we wake to another, not boring at all, California day on its way to 65 and sunny. At Bodega Bay we head north on the winding Pacific Coast Highway of hairpins that takes us two hours to travel 60 miles.

Something Beach at the start of the bluff trail

Beach at the start of the bluff trail

Our mid-day hiking destination is the exclusive Sea Ranch community, created in the 1960s, along a ten mile stretch of the Sonoma County coast. The first residents of Sea Ranch were not software engineers or trust fund babies, but the Pomos, who gathered kelp and shellfish from the beaches for centuries.  Nowadays, residents gather rays and stock options. In the early 1970s, the California state legislature passed a law that required new coastal communities, like Sea Ranch, to grant the public access to the Pacific Ocean.  They were thinking of the Dan and Hannahs of the world.

Sea Ranch houses in the distance

Sea Ranch houses in the distance

Most houses are designed to fit into the natural setting of coastal plain and inland forests. There are no sidewalks or mailboxes. To promote their “living lightly on the land,” you rarely see manicured lawns, flower gardens, fences along property boundaries, or brightly painted houses.

Common VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owners) rentals are $200 to $500 per night. The community of Sea Ranch straddles the Pacific Coast Highway with an ocean side and a forest mountain side.  This 5,200-acre settlement is dotted with 1,800 houses, perhaps a third of them occupied year-round, and a handful of commercial and community buildings.  The ocean side homes can go for $1 to $2 million on trulia.com

Surf below the Sea Ranch bluff trail

Surf below the Sea Ranch bluff trail

It’s a posh and exclusive and private; and I’m not sure how they feel about the likes of Dan and Hannah hiking their bluff trail. Listening to our instincts, we don’t ask at the Sea Ranch Lodge for directions to the trail, but saddle up in our boots and fanny packs, not hiding our hiking intentions at all. Lunching in the Adirondack chairs at the Lodge looking out to the Pacific, we see a trail to the promontory just out from the lodge.

Northern California coast in Sonoma County

Northern California coast in Sonoma County

With ten miles of sea front, we opt to hike north past the barn on the bluff trails. Soon we chat up two home owners who tell us that, though the trail is private, just plead ignorance if anyone asks.  I have to say there are “private” signs. But this all begs the bigger question – who owns the coast? Is it like Oregon where the entire coastline is open to the public or like Maine where the landed gentry are looking to keep out the riff raff and their ilk?

Sea 2C more shorelineHere’s my reasoning why we hiked on these “private” trails today. Our responsibility while hiking is to respect the trail and the environment by not drawing attention to ourselves, littering, or walking off the trails. If challenged, we will explain what we are doing. We are hardly a detriment to the trail.

Renegade on the trail

Renegade on the trail

As we begin our hike, we see Sea Ranchers sitting on their lawns facing the ocean. We wonder if they are members of the unofficial Sea Ranch police keeping interlopers and intruders away from “their” trail. They say nothing. We stay on the trail. In time, my paranoia abates.  The residents are not the issue.  We owe the earth our respect.

Bluff trail itself at Sea Ranch

Bluff trail itself at Sea Ranch

The majority of the 1800 or so homes at Sea Ranch are smaller second homes (i.e., if your first home is a mansion). Though there are about 300 full-time residents, nearly half the homes are weekend rentals. We catch a sweet hiking rhythm as the terrain is level and easy to hike at 3 mph pace. A few are out on the bluff trail walking dogs (I guess they could be rule breakers like us, but they have $75 haircuts, boat shoes, and the latest styles), and all are friendly.

Sea 1C more surfWe talk about Arthur Aron’s question #25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “we are both in this room feeling…” As reminders of what we have in common, we each find 20 we can say. People say opposites attract. I get that. Do they stay together?  Despite a belief in magnets, I also believe “likes” attract.  I think you need lots in common for a successful marriage. If you marry young, like we did at 24, you also need to grow together as you inevitably develop and change.

We are done with Arthur’s questions and see if we can make up some of our own. And we do.

What adjectives would you like used to describe you?

What five bits of wisdom would you like to leave to your grandchildren?

As you can imagine, the tangents and details add richness to our hiking afternoon along the Pacific. The trail weaves along the coast and then through neighborhoods. Here at Sea Ranch, lighting is baffled to minimize nighttime light pollution; there are no street lights and the night sky is dazzling.

Sea 2F more surfRetracing our steps after 90 minutes, we have “evaded” any Sea Ranch police.  Once back at the lodge and ready to drive north, we are on a mission as we travel the Pacific Coast Highway through Gualala, past Point Arena for our overnight stay with Tree and Scott.

VCU's Treavon Graham and Briante Weber

VCU’s Treavon Graham and Briante Weber

Our mission: Virginia Commonwealth University plays St. Louis University at 4P Pacific Time. Though Tree and Scott are out counting whales at Point Arena, they have set up the TV for the CBS Sports Channel for us. After 11 days on the California road, we’ll have a beer with the game, dinner with old friends, and top it off with a soak in their bubbling Jacuzzi. Life is good – all the time.

The current Saturday Evening Post (March/April 2015) has a featured article on Beach Wars: Who owns America’s coastline?  How much access does the public deserve?  Communities from California to Maine are struggling with these issues, which are rooted in almost 1500 years of legal history.

Repeated cover for the March/April 2015 issue

Repeated cover for the March/April 2015 issue

It seems the law in California is that the public has the right to walk the beaches to the high water mark.  The challenge is how to get to the beaches when land owners restrict access.  Exorbitant and limited “parking” fees can reduce the public’s access to the ocean.



4 thoughts on “Dan and Hannah Hike the Bluff Trail at Sea Ranch, California

  1. Hi ya Dan. Excellent run down on the Ranch. The folks on their decks were likely weekend renters thinking you and Hann lived there. I’m in bed reading this blog on a glorious Saturday morning and looking out at the Pacific. Your favorite hot tub is right outside on the deck. Your blogs remind us of the good times when you were here. Even longer courtesy of winter storm Juno!

  2. Having just finished reading an article on “Beach Wars” about access to the coastline, I have included an addendum to today’s blog about bluff hiking on the California coast.

  3. I’m so enjoying hiking along with you and Hannah! Your photos are a welcome antidote to the snow falling outside my window and you even included some food for thought. Thanks for a welcome respite on this dismal March day.

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