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California's newest public beach is glorious, but you have to paddle to get there — and the trip is treacherous

California's newest public beach is glorious, but you have to paddle to get there — and the trip is treacherous
Tamlorn Chase paddles his kayak around rocky headland cliffs from Gaviota State Park toward Hollister Ranch. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

My plan was to kayak from Gaviota State Park to Hollister Ranch.

Beautiful coast, lovely time of year.

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What could go wrong?

For me, and for many others, this is the only way to get to one of California’s most off-limits beaches under a tentative agreement in a long, nasty feud that pits a small group of celebrity and wealthy land owners against all the rest of us.

Sure, the Hollister land barons said, come on in. Out of the goodness of their hearts, they’ve finally invited us to the party after years of keeping us at bay with fences and guards.

But is that kayak trip an easy trek most of us will be able to make, or a ticket to a perfect storm of everything that can go wrong when you take to the sea?

Curato Beach and the Hollister Ranch coastline is probably California’s most pristine section of coastal habitat, and a surfer's paradise.
Curato Beach and the Hollister Ranch coastline is probably California’s most pristine section of coastal habitat, and a surfer's paradise. (Tamlorn Chase / For The Times)

Let’s begin with the deal that’s been struck, as reported May 22 by my coast-covering colleague Rosanna Xia. The California Coastal Commission and the California Coastal Conservancy agreed to give up their decades-long legal fight for beach access by land at Hollister Ranch on the Gaviota coast, where the barons include musician Jackson Browne and movie mogul James Cameron. The latter, it’s only fair to point out, made a fortune with a little film called “Titanic,” in which 1,500 people were lost at sea.

In fairness to Hollister residents, their land is private, the terrain is tough, and limited access has protected what’s probably California’s most pristine section of coastal habitat. Critics point out, though, that there’s a helipad at the ranch, and residents have been known to drive vehicles on the beach, which sounds just a tad hypocritical if you ask me.

Besides, in California, the beaches are owned not by anyone, but by everyone, and the state had fought to move forward with planned public access on what had been YMCA property. But now the state has given up on that in return for a couple of homeowner concessions that don’t add up to a heck of a lot. The homeowners are going to make permanent an after-school tide pool program and expand access by disabled veterans and others, up to about 400 individuals a year.

And then there’s the grab-a-paddle part of the deal.

Intrepid sailors will be allowed access to a three-quarter-mile stretch of Hollister Ranch’s 8½ miles of beaches if they arrive by surfboard, paddle board, raft or kayak. They always had a right to the beach, because water and wet sand are in the public realm. But our Hollister hosts are now going to allow us to use a bit of dry sand.

I was all set to kayak up there and have a look, but then I bumped into a former Times reporter named Adrian Maher. Maher, a surfer familiar with that part of the Central Coast, was the first to tell me I should think twice about my journey. That area is known for fierce winds that can come out of nowhere, he said, and send you careening off course in shark-infested waters. I wouldn’t be the first to be rescued at sea or land in a watery grave.

I was familiar with all of that, but I’ve done more than a bit of ocean kayaking, and figured I could handle a two-mile trip if the conditions were right. But it’s four miles round-trip, and others warned me that I might be able to paddle up the coast, no problem, then get hammered with a head wind on the way back. Add the possibility of swells, wind waves and powerful currents, and I could end up as chum, or I might be dining with Gilligan.

I decided it might be wiser to charter a boat to have a look at the Hollister beaches, so I called Capt. Dave Bacon of WindWalker Charters in Santa Barbara. He said he could run me up there, but it would take about four hours in each direction, and it would cost me $1,140.

Tamlorn Chase, wilderness guide, filmmaker and environmental activist, talks about protecting California's coastal resources as he launches his kayak from Gaviota State Park for a paddle to Hollister Ranch

Maybe I could handle a kayak, after all. And that’s another problem that makes access for one and all a myth. I don’t own a kayak. The nearest rental place I could find was in Santa Barbara. Fraser Kersey, owner of Paddle Sports Center in Santa Barbara, said he wouldn’t rent to me before he checked the conditions on the day I wanted to go.

“It’s all about weather and forecasts and planning properly,” said Kersey, who told me he’s known of experienced paddlers who struggled. If I did go, he recommended traveling with a guide, and he hooked me up with one by the name of Tamlorn Chase.

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Chase told me a swell was coming through on Thursday, with wave heights up to four feet, morning fog and afternoon winds up to 15 miles an hour.

“It might get a little exciting, but it’s nothing we can’t get through,” he said. Surfers have made that trek for years, towing their boards behind their kayaks, to what is considered a surfer paradise.

But those are experienced adventurers who know the risks and know what they’re doing. Mere weekend recreation enthusiasts might not have any idea what they’re in for, and there’s no launch at Gaviota State Park beach next door, so we’d have to slash through the surf to begin our journey.

“The scariest thing that can happen is that offshore winds can blow above 40 knots. That’s when you get sent out to the islands,” Chase said, but he promised to steer us clear of any such adventures.

(Jon Schleuss / Los Angeles Times)

I checked with two of my photographer colleagues who worried about shooting from a kayak in the fog, and about losing or damaging their equipment while landing at Hollister and then pushing back through the surf on the return. So we decided to play it safe for the time being and wait for better conditions, but drive up to Gaviota anyway to see if the private land owners might lets us visit their precious playground and have a look.

“It was howling last night,” said Chase, when we arrived at the state beach. But at 10 a.m., the conditions didn’t look too bad.

Chase, by the way, is a member of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, which for years has argued for both public access and environmental preservation. Chase and a team spent five years producing and photographing a spectacular but still-unreleased documentary about the glory of the coast, from mountaintops to sea caves. You can see the trailer, and learn more about the tentative settlement, at gaviotacoastconservancy.org.

Chase decided to make the trip on his own, and Times photographer Al Seib and I decided to see if we could get permission to drive to his destination and document his arrival in Hollister.

Unsurprisingly, we were turned away at the guard shack. A lawyer for the Hollister Ranch Homeowner’s Assn. later called to tell me there would be no comment beyond the statement the group released in May heralding the tentative agreement.

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Chase had what I thought was a better compromise.

“There’s this paradox of protecting a place from being loved to death by the public, which I can see. But having this amazing stretch of coast for just those who can afford it, that’s not right, either,” he said. “I always thought what would strike middle ground would be walk-in access. I don’t want to see big parking lots or snack shops or anything like that at Hollister. I want to see as little development as possible. But I’d like to see people be able to walk in under their own power, and not be hassled by security.”

He suggested a trail that begins at the Gaviota State Park beach, where there’s plenty of parking. A two-mile hike would be a lot easier than a two-mile kayak trip along a dangerous rocky coast.

It’s an idea worth fighting for, because the gates to California’s greatest natural gifts shouldn’t be locked, available to the few who can afford the keys. As it is, a billionaire named Vinod Khosla is stubbornly insisting on keeping people off a beach near Half Moon Bay that’s been enjoyed by the public for decades, and he’s taking his battle all the way to the Supreme Court. And in the case of Hollister, the landed gentry got the best end of the tentative deal.

“We’re about public access for all, not just some,” said Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network.

If you want to weigh in, Jordan noted, it’s not too late. The Santa Barbara County judge who heard the case doesn’t appear to be entirely sold on the agreement, and the public will have a chance to raise hell at a California Coastal Commission hearing next month in Scott’s Valley near Santa Cruz. For more information, court documents and a history of the case, go to coastal.ca.gov/hollister-ranch. And you can make your feelings known before then by sending an email to hollister@coastal.ca.gov.

This fight isn’t over.

But don’t attack by sea, unless you know what you’re doing.

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