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Opinion

Op-Ed: Where’s the closest public beach? There’s an app for that

Escondido Beach access on the YourCoast App.
Escondido Beach access on the YourCoast App.
(Los Angeles Times)

California’s best beach is a secret that I’ve never told. It took me years of exploring the Golden State’s nearly 1,000 miles of Pacific coastline before I first descended to its tide line.

If I wrote about it, I might not have the place mostly to myself. And yet, a part of me has wanted to tell you. What better to do with a marvel than share it.

The California Coastal Commission is less guarded with its knowledge. Last month, it released YourCoast, a smartphone app that maps almost every publicly accessible beach between Mexico and Oregon. Another feature enables users to search for spots with disabled access, tide pools, a bike path, an area where dogs can run around, volleyball courts, fishing and bluff-top trails, among other amenities.

The app will help a lot of people to enjoy more of California’s coast. Still, when I first heard that the coastline would formally enter the smartphone era, I thought again about that very best beach: Was it better kept from, or shared with, the masses?

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What YourCoast offers is information about more than 1,500 seaside spots. What it lacks is any judgment about which beaches are best.

Those competing impulses are as old as this state. Imagine the fortunes that the first men to strike gold would have amassed had they kept quiet just half a year longer! Instead, word traveled so far and wide as to trigger a mass migration of wealth-seekers.

Their descendants and the neighbors who joined them would inhabit a state that kept getting more and more crowded, decade after decade, until every surf break, fishing spot and relatively affordable neighborhood was worth keeping quiet.

The internet has added a new wrinkle, giving rise to a generation that mapped paradise and flagged all the Instagram spots. Even the most picturesque vista loses something when one is surrounded by people with selfie sticks, their backs to the view, trying to share everything except the moment.

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“Tourists are destroying the places they love,” the publication Spiegel recently declared, highlighting a bookstore in Portugal so crowded with sightseers that no one buys books there anymore.

“I found the best burger place in America,” food critic Kevin Alexander wrote, “and then I killed it.” The crowds had changed it irrevocably. I never wrote about California’s best beach for fear of making it among the worst.

Hence my trepidation when I first opened YourCoast. Imagine finding out that your favorite neighborhood restaurant is listed first in an upcoming edition of Lonely Planet Los Angeles. I braced for a blow of that sort as I opened up the app, not knowing its contents.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. What YourCoast offers is information about more than 1,500 seaside spots. What it lacks is any judgment about which beaches are best, like Trip Advisor, or any function allowing users to rate California’s various beaches, as on Yelp. May it stay forever thus.

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This is an app that will help anyone intent on visiting a particular beach, or embarking on a quest to visit every publicly accessible beach in California, in a state where some private landowners are still intent on thwarting visitors to particular stretches of sand that front their private property. YourCoast won’t change them, but might cause fewer people to be fooled by their bluffs.

“It reinforces people’s sense that the coast belongs to them,” a spokesperson from the Surfrider Foundation told the San Jose Mercury News. “A lot of times you might not see the access ways or know if something is public or private. The app arms people with more information and confidence.”

But it isn’t an app that will send hordes of the most malleable tourists to a given destination, impelled less by what they love than a “fear of missing out” on what someone else loved, even though its notoriety has long since made it impossible to share the original experience.

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Ours is a hyper-connected era. On many future occasions, Californians will struggle with how best to share something wonderful about this state without ruining its charm.

For now, YourCoast has hit the sweet spot, even if one of its many listings is the beach I’d prefer the masses never find.

Conor Friedersdorf is a contributing writer to Opinion, a staff writer at the Atlantic and founding editor of the Best of Journalism, a newsletter that curates exceptional nonfiction.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion or Facebook


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