Last Stand at San Onofre

San Onofre State Park Beach must be one of the most unprepossessing spots along the Southern California coast. Dusky, scrubby, narrow, it is a low-lying wetlands that runs along San Mateo Creek, a mostly hidden, sandy-bottomed stream that spills into a lagoon near the top of a three-mile-long beach beneath the Surfliner railroad tracks, and extends from the southern border of San Clemente to within paddling-out distance of the concrete containment domes of Southern California Edison’s albatross, the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant. The L-shaped park, with its upstream camping and downstream beach, is the last stop between Orange and San Diego counties, just above the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton. If you are hiking from the San Mateo campgrounds, inland about a mile and a half, to the San Onofre beach, you’ve got to cross under the towering span of Interstate 5 as it stretches across the creek and obliterates the pingpong calls of wrentits foraging the coastal sage and the thunder of the nearby surf pounding the shoreline. An open space, a pause, a vestigial void in the sprawl that is binding Los Angeles to San Diego: What better parcel to splice into a proposed four-lane toll road that would complete the lattice of pay-by-the-mile, ’burb-to-’burb roads that are the handiwork of Orange County’s relentless developers — public and private?

Add San Onofre State Beach Park to the list of most endangered places in Southern California, along with the Dana Point Headlands, whose 121 acres have been slated for development, and the Los Padres National Forest, which may soon be opened for oil exploration, endangering the California condor habitat. A little farther afield is the Sequoia National Monument, where the clear-cutting of giant redwoods will soon be permitted by the Bush administration under the guise of reducing the risk of fire.

At San Onofre, the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency (TCA), a quasi-public government body, wants to extend the existing 241 Toll Road, which connects the east county cities of Rancho Santa Margarita and Mission Viejo — formerly backcountry, now stucco hillsides — to Irvine. The pavement presently dead-ends at Oso Parkway, in the middle of Chiquita Canyon, an upland valley covered in coastal sage scrub. The 16.5-mile, $900 million addition would slice through Rancho Mission Viejo, the last unspoiled, but unprotected, 23,000 acres of rolling hills that once made up the 100,000-acre rancho assembled in the 1860s by Pio Pico. The project is undergoing environmental review, and has been snared in a funding shortfall, but if all goes according to plan, the road will open in four years.

Like its sister San Joaquin Hills Toll Road — the 16-mile debacle made possible by the Clinton administration, which sacrificed the habitat of the endangered gnatcatcher to the pecuniary interests of the Irvine Ranch company — the Foothill South will transform the landscape through which it passes. In the hills behind San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano, the owners of Rancho Mission Viejo want to build 14,000 new homes and 5 million square feet of commercial space, all leveraged on the prospect of the toll road. Fees levied against the development will make the private freeway possible; the freeway will make the private development possible. Without one, there cannot be the other.

To get at that swath of old California, the TCA plans to cut straight up the middle of San Onofre State Beach Park — right next to the last undammed, free-running coastal creek in Southern California. The new road would pass through a riparian habitat whose willows and sage and mariposa lily are a vital sanctuary to threatened and endangered species, among them the Pacific pocket mouse, the least Bell’s vireo, the California gnatcatcher, the Southwestern willow flycatcher, the California redlegged toad, the Arroyo Southwestern toad and the tidewater goby. It would bisect a wildlife corridor of grasslands and thistle used by mountain lions and bobcats, and slice into the nesting grounds for Cooper’s hawks, burrowing owls and garter snakes. It would come within 50 yards of the campground. Its flyover interchange would tower three stories above the beach. And its cement pilings would be sunk right into ponds and an estuary alive with steelhead trout, of which fewer than 500 survive in the world — a species long ago written off as extinct anywhere south of Malibu Creek.

Perhaps it is the deceptively prosaic quality, the tangle of willows, the dry, waxy leaves of the sage, the clandestine wildlife, that make San Onofre easy to overlook — to write off as empty — in no small way because we have so thoroughly domesticated ourselves that we can only conceive of wildness in the extreme, as towering redwoods, insurmountable granite rocks, white-water rapids. Nature is often misunderstood as a realm completely outside ourselves, and barely subject to human whim. But San Onofre is much more akin to our own, familiar back yard, a patch of green as dry as a Santa Ana and a lick of beach as plain as fog, studded with surfers and dotted with 276 campgrounds. This is a wilderness not readily apparent to the naked eye — neither outsize nor lustrous — and inhabited by humans, which may explain why San Onofre has been targeted by the road builders.

It would seem easy to chase the campers and surfers away, to another park and another beach elsewhere on the coast, until you spend some time at the San Mateo campground, walk the trail to the beach, hang around its most famous spot, “Trestles” — the birthplace, it is said, of modern surfing. Seen from the trailhead at San Mateo, the land rises indolently toward the Cleveland Mountains, off in the east, forming a vista of solitude — a Cooper’s hawk’s hunting ground. Out to the west, as the land falls away, the Pacific bends with the curvature of the Earth, and solitude gives way to amplitude. On the trail, the scrub comes to life with rustling birds, lizards and cottontail rabbits. Flocks of goldfinches, yellow as the flowering mustard grass that lines the trail, forage the branches of the willows and the twigs of the sage. A couple in their late 50s stop to compare notes. They believe they encountered a “gopher snake, out by marker 7,” the woman says. “I stood still, and the snake saw us watching him, and then he turned back into the brush.” After consulting the snake display, she revised her judgment. It was a garter snake, a harmless slitherer.

“We’ve seen bobcats, and early one morning we saw a mountain lion,” the man explains. “He vaulted a 7-foot-high fence with that wire strung across,” he says, gesturing with his hands to depict a gymnast topping a pommel horse made of concertina wire. “Up and over. It was like nothing . . .”

Passing under the I-5, the trail enters a different terrain. Known among surfers as “the jungle,” the path cuts through a tangle of sycamores and willows. The asphalt walkway is marred by graffiti. Faded, but still legible, one comment reads, “IF YOU DON’T LIVE HERE DON’T SURF HERE TURN BACK NOW.” The proprietary, and somewhat ominous, warning hasn’t scared anybody off. Nor has the official-looking adviso “Submerged Rocks, Uneven Rocks, Rip Current, No Lifeguard.”

Surfers made San Onofre beach. They named Trestles for the railroad bridge that crosses the lagoon, and they divided the rest of the surf breaks into Upper, Lower, Church, Cotton’s and San Onofre. They also transformed the sport, forever, at Trestles. According to Steve Pezman, the publisher of Surfer’s Journal and lifelong Trestles habitué, in the summer of 1951, two kids broke from a pack of older surfers at ’Nofre, and set out for a white-water point a mile north. They carried “their 40-pound balsa chips on their heads [and] . . . conducted a sort of impromptu, mano-a-mano, radical duel maneuver to constantly top each other in the snappy curls at Lowers. The two youngsters invented most of what is done on a modern surfboard during that summer.”

Throughout the late 1950s, Marine MPs in jeeps patrolled the sands, playing cat-and-mouse with trespassing surfers. “There are legendary stories of the surfers and Marines fighting, having rock fights. Surfers would drive in, hide their cars in the bush, go out and surf, then sneak the car back out. The Marines would take their surfboards. There are rumors of a whole warehouse of surfboards sitting there,” Mark Cousineau, the local head of the Surfrider Foundation, says.

The legend of Trestles is alive in the pilgrimage surfers still make to the shores of the last Southern California beach intact from the earliest days of putting sticks in the water. There are just two ways to Trestles, by foot and by bike. The very act of walking in, toting a board, or of riding in, surfboard clasped in one hand, handlebars guided by the other, in that slow weave that reflects the precarious balance of board and rider, where the bike looks as if it can’t stay upright and the front wheel is on the verge of hairpinning inward, is “the San Onofre experience,” says Cousineau. The closest parking to the beach is a half-mile away. “There is no parking lot, there are no cars. The beach is not a mall. The mall is inland. Not to slam my friends in Huntington Beach, but if you want to just park your car and go to surf with 20,000 other people, fine. But that’s not what San Onofre is,” he says.

The feeling of surfer at one with wave, and beachcomber at one with sand and sun — even with the nuclear reactor in sight — arises from the clear topaz water of the lagoon and the unimpeded view of the Cleveland Mountains, straight up the valley. The landscape is able to speak for itself, to present its own picture, and this permits one to indulge the surroundings as if they were a work of art — colors and sounds and shapes and movements that require no mediation, only the senses. And, so, as if right on cue, an Australian man, carrying his surfboard, walking in the direction of the official Trestles break, turns his long, narrow face, fixes an almost pirate-mad smile, showing his crooked teeth, and pronounces, “G’day. No worries,” and walks on. That, too, is the San Onofre experience. No worries. Just lost in this place and time.

Much, if not all, of the beach and park experience will be lost if the Foothill Toll Road is extended through San Onofre State Park Beach. San Mateo Creek is the cleanest river running into the Pacific in Southern California. Its sand and silt continually replenish the beach, and the cobblestones it has been discharging for eons keep up the bump in the ocean floor that gives Trestles its peculiar break. The road threatens to hurt the dynamic of free-running river and ocean.

With the toll road will also come massive uphill development. Surfrider and the Sierra Club, which are battling Foothill, point to the effects of the San Joaquin Toll Road, which cuts through the Laguna Hills, south of Irvine. Thirty years ago, Aliso Creek, which empties at Laguna Beach, had steelhead and rainbow trout. It now competes for status as one of the most polluted creeks in Southern California, due to runoff from housing tracts that sprang up along the toll-road alignment. Likewise, San Juan Creek, which empties at Dana Point, is today polluted and has been transformed into a concrete flood channel. Environmentalists believe that San Mateo Creek will meet the same fate — and as goes the creek, so goes the pristine surf at San Onofre.

There is also the fear that with a four-lane highway, more animals will lose their lives. In the 22 months from October 1998 to July 2000, 118 mammals were killed by drivers on the San Joaquin and 241 toll roads. Most disconcerting to wildlife biologists is the loss of mountain lions, whose population is dwindling precipitously — largely due to roadkill on highways cutting through their range.

The toll road will also stampede a fading way of life in Southern California. Besides the loss of those 276 campsites, and the possible closure of the fourth most popular campgrounds in the state, nearby San Clemente will be trounced under the weight of more bedroom communities, more Wal-Marts and more SUVs.

“We were really this small beach town, and then we got discovered. Now the ranch land is being developed, the hills and inland valleys are being mowed for Model 1, Model 2, Model 3 homes. We are struggling to preserve beach culture. It is a laid-back culture versus Irvine as an idea of living,” says Cousineau, who is dressed on this sunny spring morning in a Fiji tapa-cloth shirt, corduroy shorts and thongs. “Our small local community is being made over as a commuter town. The San Joaquin Toll Road opened us from the north, and now this new toll road would open us from the south.”

Saving San Onofre State Beach Park, in other words, is about saving a way of life — a dialogue between the wild and the cultured in which one depends upon the other for survival. Preserving the park is not a sentimental or nostalgic endeavor. It is hard-boiled realism. It is one part, at least, of a community fighting for its skin.

As Steve Pezman says, “I’m a refugee on the edge of extinction.”

How to get there: Follow the I-5 south three miles past San Clemente; exit at Basilone Road.
Where to stay: Camping is available at San Onofre State Bluffs (176 sites) and the San Mateo Campground (100 sites). Campgrounds have showers and RV hookups. Reservations are necessary and can be made online at or by calling the park at (949) 492-4872.
What to do: Surf, fish, hike, relax. San Onofre Bluffs also has a swimming beach.
For more information: Visit or call the park.


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