Column: So many lovely beaches in Malibu, if only you could get to them

Columnist Steve Lopez discusses access points to the beach in Malibu that are locked to the public.


Spectacular. Stunning. Breathtaking.

Driving south on the California coast, you quickly run out of superlatives to describe a view that has fired the imagination, inspired song and sparked romance.

Then you hit Malibu, and the show is over.

OK, so I’m exaggerating a little. You can still see white foam and blue surf here and there.

They pass these zoning ordinances … that say one thing. But if you’re developer X or billionaire Y… guess what?  … They get a zoning variance

— Former Malibu Mayor Jefferson Wagner


But much of the beach disappears behind walls, the view obliterated by miles of homes only an elite few can afford, and many of those houses often sit empty because the owners’ primary residences are elsewhere.

This is nothing new in Malibu.

When I first started writing about the coast more than a decade ago, it was because big tuna like entertainment mogul David Geffen not only blocked views, but they also blocked access to public beaches. They’d get permits to build up, or out, in return for surrendering easements to allow public access to the beach.

Then they’d renege on the deal.

It seemed only fitting, on my 1,100-mile trek along the coast from Oregon to Mexico, to revisit the Malibu story.

It’s been 40 years since the Coastal Act was established to limit development, protect the environment and allow greatest possible public access.

The record in Malibu is not good.

Despite the recent openings of three access points, there are still roughly 20 locations where you can’t get to the beach because an entry doesn’t exist or is blocked.


Lack of money to build and maintain stairs or trails.

Lack of will by bureaucrats and public officials who figure if one beach is blocked, there’s an accessible one just down the road.

And lots of interference from the entitled elitists who hold sway with public officials and sue to keep out working folks — even though in California, wet sand is public beach.

Dan Blocker Beach, named for the late “Bonanza” star and donated to the public decades ago by his co-stars, offers one of the most head-slapping examples of unreachable sand in all of Malibu.

Driving along Pacific Coast Highway, you might be lured by the beach sign, parking lot and public restrooms, which normally would make it a good place to spend a few hours body surfing or contemplating the glory of California sunsets.

But pull into the lot, where you have to feed the meter, and the first sign you see tells you there is no beach access.

Then what are you paying for?

The view, I guess. Or maybe the toilet. But the experience isn’t exactly ideal because 10 feet away, traffic roars by.

L.A. County is responsible for this beach, but there’s no trail or stairway to the water from the parking lot — and no current plan to build one.

“The whole thing is like a Marx Brothers routine,” said Jenny Price, creator of the Our Malibu Beaches app that helps you locate and get to hidden or blocked-off public beaches.

On Price’s advice, I visited Point Dume Natural Preserve last week to check out another absurdity. The state beach there may be the most beautiful public cove in all of California that you can’t get to.

Again, that’s a bit of exaggeration. You have to negotiate a long, steep staircase if you want to walk on the sand. But there’s a bigger obstacle:

There are only about 10 public parking spaces — and no parking after sunset, by the way. I watched streams of drivers come by hoping to get lucky, only to leave in disappointment.

So why not park on nearby residential streets? Because for blocks all around, every street has ”no parking” signs. There’s a long history of homeowners opposing more parking, and that battle continues to flare.

With some people in Malibu, “it’s all about me, me, me, me,” said former Mayor Jefferson Wagner, who thinks City Hall is often too happy to accommodate the high-and-mighty when they want to either restrict parking or build more walls.

“They pass these zoning ordinances … that say one thing. But if you’re developer X or billionaire Y… guess what? … They get a zoning variance,” Wagner said.

In the case of the Zonker Harris public access way at Carbon Beach, the gate has been locked for months because a storm washed out a landing. Wagner is ticked because he runs Zuma Jay’s, a PCH surf shop, and customers who rent kayaks or surf boards from him can’t get through that gate.

This is not far up the coast from a public access gate that has been locked since 2002, near the Moonshadows restaurant, with no current county plan to reopen it.

In many such cases, county officials argue that they have limited funds and can’t afford to spend millions on every engineering challenge. So they focus on beach projects that benefit the most people. That’s understandable, but going back in time, you have to wonder about some of the decision-making.

El Sol Beach is another jaw-dropping cove you can’t get to, or even see, unless you own a hang glider or know exactly where to pull off PCH and look through a chain-link fence. The county decided in 1974 to buy the secluded beach and open it to the public.

That was not a typo. I said 1974.

Residents fought plans for a stairway to the sand, and the beach remains out of reach — just beyond a locked gate and private road down to homes that have been owned by former Disney chief Michael Eisner, among others. Price calls it the happiest beach on Earth, visible only from “the Disney overlook.”

I sympathize with some homeowners who live on the beach and argue that more public access means more trash, with occasional disgusting and rowdy behavior. But I have nothing good to say about those who continue, after decades, to post unauthorized “no-parking” signs and misleading and illegal warnings about allegedly private beaches. Among those who lose out are the many Malibu residents who aren’t rich and don’t live on a beach to call their own.

The California Coastal Commission in the last year has stepped up a crackdown on offenders and is working with the county and other agencies on plans to open several more blocked access points. It wouldn’t be a bad idea, where possible, to continue the trend of partnering with the Mountains Recreation and Conservancy Agency to help open and manage those projects and let more people enjoy a public treasure.

Though we may not own castles on the sand, the beaches are yours, they’re mine, they’re ours.

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Weigh in at @JerryBrownGov #SaveYourCoast and (916 445-2841) or email

To read the story in Spanish, click here.


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