The lease for San Onofre State Beach from Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton ends in 2021 and that could change the terms of public access to the surf

Prior to 1971, the general public was technically not allowed access to Trestles, since the premier southern California surf break was located within the U.S. Marine’s Camp Pendleton military base. But intrepid surfers, lured by the cobblestoned sanctuary of waves, would sneak through the marshland, despite patrolling servicemen who, reportedly, would fire rounds into the air to scare off trespassers.

But under the direction of President Richard Nixon, San Onofre and the surrounding waves to the north and south (Trails, Lowers, Uppers, Cotton’s, Church) officially became open to the public as the area was transformed into a State Park. That lease, however, which was signed with the Department of the Navy, is scheduled to expire on August 31, 2021. And in two years, that could alter the rules of public access, i.e. the notorious elbow-to-elbow crowd at Lowers could vanish.

Steve Long – founder of the San Onofre Parks Foundation, former lifeguard of the State Park for 36 years, and father of renowned watermen Rusty and Greg Long – is optimistic for the future of San Onofre and Trestles. “We’re are looking forward to joining with California State Parks and the Marine Corps in discussions that represent all of the stakeholders differing views on the benefits of renewing the lease,” Long told Surfline. “We have a valuable partnership with the Marines. Together, we’re preserving this area and at the same time allowing millions of people to enjoy it.”

Prior to 1971 and President Nixon’s establishment of the state park, the public was technically not allowed access to Lower Trestles. But intrepid surfers, lured by the waves, would sneak through the marshland despite patrolling servicemen. Photo: Leo Hetzel

Long sees the relationship between Camp Pendleton and the State Park as mutually beneficial. The Marines have nearly 160 square miles and 13 miles of beach for their training missions, while the State has access to five miles of San Onofre beaches and another 2,000 inland acres. The park creates a natural buffer zone between base operations and civilian residents. And from a surfing standpoint, the phenomena that makes the waves so good, conversely hinders the military from using the Trestles coastline for extensive training purposes– cobblestones are not conducive to most traditional amphibious landing practices.

When it comes down to it, the military owns the land, after purchasing it from private owners during WWII for $4.2 million. And they can choose to do with it what they please. As of now, there appears to be three possible outcomes: 1. The military does not renew the lease and choose to operate the parklands themselves with variable accessibility changes. 2. Modifications are made to the lease, altering or reducing the amount of designated civilian access. 3. The lease is renewed and California State Parks continues to operate as they have, allowing surfers and beachgoers to access the land freely. A fourth, and highly impractical alternative would be for the Marines to end the lease and restrict all public access, as they had done prior to 1971. After 50 years of public access and millions of visitors, keeping the public out would be a near impossible undertaking.

As one might envision, option #3 is the ideal result of the 2021 decision for surfers and civilians. And with two years until judgment day, officials at Camp Pendleton and the State Parks department have begun discussing what will happen. State Parks has sent a letter to the Marine Corps Installations West stating that “California State Parks is interested in continuing to operate the land and will engage in a positive dialogue with the U.S. Marine Corps, using the years leading up to the lease expiration productively, seeking to reach an agreement during that time.” (Surfline reached out to Camp Pendleton, though no comment was given). And while the outcome remains unknown, it’s speculated that the official result will loom in ambiguity for some time.

If the military chooses to ban access to San Onofre, it would serve as a huge loss to the surfing community. Since 2001, the World Tour added Lower Trestles as an official event, which, over the years, has become synonymous with high performance surfing. And aside from featuring world class waves, the demographics of San Onofre and the surrounding breaks are something special, resembling the rural, untouched feeling of bygone California yore, as compared to other overdeveloped surf spots in the area. Long calls San Onofre a “coastal wilderness at the edge of civilization.”

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Barbarian Days, William Finnegan writes: “San Onofre had been one of the early outposts of California surfing, and the dedicated beach bums who camped there to surf and fish and hunt abalone had somehow convinced the military to let them keep going in after the base was built…Many of them seemed to have PhDs in having fun…Bridge tournaments and volleyball gave way, after sundown, to bonfires and hootenannies, and martinis were legal tender…Then there were the waves…Many of the surfers who went on to modernize board design after World War II cut their teeth at San Onofre – it was the Waikiki of the West Coast, minus the hotels and hoopla.”

San Onofre and Trestles have been called the “Yosemite of Surfing” (meaning Lowers would be Half Dome, just sayin’). The history of the area, surfing or otherwise, is as rich as the waves that crumble on the cobblestones – from Al Capone allegedly attempting to buy a plot of land for rum-running, to cat-and-mouse games between surfers and servicemen, to surfing’s introduction to the sport’s G.O.A.T. with Kelly Slater in Black in White. And it’s hard to imagine that hallowed ground becoming inaccessible.

Original story Surfline: DASHEL PIERSON