Magazine article Sunset

Walk This Way

Magazine article Sunset

Walk This Way

Article excerpt

I'm so glad I doubted Tom Courtney.

Otherwise, I wouldn't be standing with him on the bluffs of Dana Point Headlands Preserve under a perfect blue sky, looking north at a double curve of seashore all the way to Laguna Beach. This vista and the subtle perfume--the strong tang of sage, the iodine snap of the Pacific--transported me back several decades to the days when the Orange County oceanfront was my favorite place to be. Amazingly, the beaches below still look pretty much the way they did when I was a kid. Just as amazing to me was the fact that I'd hiked 19 miles for this view. We were two-thirds through a three-day, 27-mile inn-to-inn coastal walk that I hadn't been sure was possible. And which proved much richer and more revelatory than I could have imagined.

Courtney is the author of the new book Walkabout Malibu to Mexico: Hiking Inn to Inn on the Southern California Coast. It promises to give readers 200 miles of self-guided hiking, much of it along unspoiled shoreline. I was skeptical. I was familiar with Courtney's terrific website, Walkabout California. And friends had raved about the carefully vetted itineraries in his first book, Walkabout Northern California: Hiking Inn to Inn.

But in densely populated, ardently auto-centric SoCal, much of the beachfront is highly developed and highway adjacent. It was already headed that way when I was growing up there. Could Courtney really have found seaside access by foot from northern L.A. County to the border, and wilderness west of the Pacific Coast Highway?

In my role as investigative traveler, I called Courtney and politely expressed incredulity. He understood. "When I got the idea, on a visit to Leo Carrillo State Beach in Malibu, I wasn't sure I'd be able to walk all the way to Mexico," he told me. "Then I started mapping the hikes and found that I could--and that much of the way is wild and unchanged. But let me convince you," he said. "Come with me on my favorite part of the southern route--the Newport Beach to San Clemente leg. You'll see what I'm talking about."

I was pleased to accept. Growing up in Whittier, I'd spent many a weekend with my family tidepooling at Corona del Mar, racing into the waves at Doheny, or camping at San Clemente. On various strands, my high school friends and I basted ourselves with baby oil and tanned competitively. In college, my boyfriend and I body-surfed Newport Beach. Then I moved north for grad school and east for work. I hadn't seen this stretch of Pacific since then, except to catch a few glimpses from the freeway.

So on a cloudless Monday morning, Courtney and I hoisted our daypacks--all we'd need for the entire trek--and headed south from Newport Pier at 7 a.m. in order to hit low tide (which Courtney checked online). For about a mile, we followed a paved promenade along the wide beach, empty except for surfers. Then we hopped a small ferry for a five-minute ride across Newport Bay to Balboa Island, created in the early 1900s when developers dredged the estuary. The last time I visited Balboa, I was 9. Passing the lovely (and now pricey) bayside cottages separated by tiny but exuberant gardens, I suddenly remembered the highlight of that trip--seeing my first live seastar, clinging to a dock piling. I'd forgotten until now how utterly thrilled I was by the nearness and realness of that little creature; the world shimmered with new possibilities.

We crossed the bridge connecting Balboa to the mainland, walking up steep streets in a tony rliffside neighborhood with killer views and two yacht clubs, then down one of the many public stairways connecting bluffs and beaches. As we skirted the surf along Corona del Mar State Beach, I made a snarky crack about wilderness hiking within sight of one-percenter mansions. Courtney laughed. He's a twinkle-in-the-eye kind of guy, elfin at 66 (but picture a tall, strong elf). "Yes, we have to go through civilization sometimes to get back to nature," he said. …

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