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Coastal Trails in California and Massachusetts

Principles for Designing the Coastal Trail

From "Completing the California Coastal Trail," Coastal Conservancy, January 2003
Download the complete 55-page illustrated report (pdf 10.7 mb)

Coastal Access Program, California Coastal Commission

Map of PennsylvaniaTHE COASTAL COMMISSION and local communities have been working since 1972 to increase public access to the shoreline. Many, many opinions have been expressed regarding the appropriate design of public access facilities, and many proposals have been put forward for the establishment of a single set of standards for public trails along the California coast. These suggested standards generally address such topics as trail width, surfacing, setbacks from the edge of the coastal bluff, trail furniture, signing, and necessary accommodations for the needs of various user groups. The topic that seems to stimulate the most heartfelt and animated discussions, however, is the trail alignment, namely, just where should the trail go?

To answer this question in regard to the Coastal Trail we must know what user groups the trail will be designed to accommodate: hikers? bicyclists? mountain bikes or road bikes? people in wheelchairs? equestrians? We must also consider seasonal variations, such as beaches that are narrower in winter, nesting season for snowy plovers and least terns, and the elephant seal migration.

In the case of the Coastal Trail, existing development patterns or other constraints along some parts of the coast may dictate that more than one user mode will be obliged to share a single-trail alignment. But in areas that are subject to intensive use, experience has taught us that parallel tracks may be needed to accommodate different modes and to minimize conflicts. Experience has also shown us that if the trail is to be accepted and supported by our coastal communities, it must be adapted to local circumstances and sensibilities. One size does not fit all, nor would any single standardized model work for the entire Coastal Trail.

Therefore the Coastal Trail will be comprised of many differing segments, each with its own character, reflecting the great diversity and variety found among our coastal communities. The trail also needs to be adaptable to environmental constraints, which may vary immensely over the course of a year. The challenge is to provide an orderly alignment to the trail system while at the same time allowing for community individuality. Thus, to assure a consistent high level of quality and connectivity throughout the length of the state, common principles are needed.

To meet this need, and to provide a framework for the task of identifying the route of the trail, Coastal Commission staff has drafted a set of Coastal Trail alignment principles, based on shared values. These principles are: proximity to the sea, connectivity, integrity, respect, and feasibility. Each of these principles, explained below, is based on the following premise:

The Coastal Trail is not a single designated pathway spanning the length of California’s shoreline. It should be envisioned as a yarn comprised of several different but roughly parallel threads— here widely separated, there drawn together— with each thread being a particular trail alignment or trail improvement that responds to a specific need or accommodates a particular purpose.

One thread may be for beach walkers, another for bicyclists, another may be merely an interim or temporary alignment, or may be placed where it is because of topography, land ownership, or natural barrier. Some threads may be seasonal paths to detour around a snowy plover nesting site, circumvent a sprayed agricultural field, or bypass winter high water where a fast-flowing river cuts a barrier across the beach. Yet when we step back, we can see that all the threads form a coherent whole.

The following principles of alignment would apply to all of the different components of the California Coastal Trail:


Wherever feasible, the Coastal Trail should be within sight, sound, or at least the scent of the sea. The traveler should have a persisting awareness of the Pacific Ocean. It is the presence of the ocean that distinguishes the seaside trail from other visitor destinations.


The trail should effectively link starting points to destinations. Like pearls on a string, our parks, ports, communities, schools, trailheads, bus stops, visitor attractions, inns, campgrounds, restaurants, and other recreational assets are strung along the edge of our coast. They are already connected by roads, streets, and highways. Our challenge is to create alternative nonautomotive connections that are sufficiently appealing to draw travelers out of their automobiles.


The Coastal Trail should be continuous and separated from motor traffic. Continuity is vitally important: if a chain is missing a link, it is useless. Where such separation is absent, the safety, pleasure, and character of the trail are impaired. Appropriate separation can take many forms. Substantial horizontal distance is generally the most desirable, thus avoiding the sight, sound, and scent of the internal combustion engine. Separation is also possible through vertical displacements of gradient, underpasses, vegetative buffer strips, barrier rails, and other means.


The trail must be located and designed with a healthy regard for the protection of natural habitats, cultural and archaeological features, private property rights, neighborhoods, and agricultural operations along the way. Manmade features such as boardwalks, guidewires, and fencing can be used to protect wetlands, dunes, archaeological sites, and agricultural fields. Screening fences and vegetative barriers not only protect residential privacy but may also minimize disturbance of sensitive bird habitats.

Respect also requires understanding that this trail will exist in a context of other trail designations, including the Pacific Coast Bike Route, Humboldt Bay Trail, Lost Coast Trail, San Mateo Coastside Trail, Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail, Santa Monica Mountains Backbone Trail, Los Angeles South Bay Bicycle Trail, etc. Providing a clear identity for the Coastal Trail on maps, signs, and brochures should not compete with or displace these existing trail identities. Where the Coastal Trail alignment incorporates or is a component of these other trails, the Coastal Trail should be no more than a concurrent designation.


To achieve timely, tangible results with the resources that are available, both interim and longterm alignments of the Coastal Trail will need to be identified.

For further information and updates on the California Coastal Trail, see:

Download the complete 55-page illustrated report (pdf 10.7 mb)

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