California’s Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail

Posted 05/12/17 by Laura Stark in America's Trails, Trail Use

Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail | Photo by Elizabeth Bean Photography

Trail of the Month: May 2017

“It makes us feel connected to our community and the natural beauty. It reminds us of why we live here and why we love it."

Summer excursions don’t come much better than this: 18 miles of smooth, paved trail ringside to California’s stunning Monterey Bay, in some places so close to water’s edge that waves occasionally wash over it. The Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail is truly immersed in its seaside environment, providing access to sandy beaches, fishing piers and marinas bustling with small boats bright white against the deep blue water. Don’t be surprised to see kayak crossings in the pathway, whales splashing in the distance or sea lions basking on the rocky shoreline. This rail-trail is what California dreams are made of.

Courtesy City of Monterey

“That expansive view of the coastline was really striking,” says Barry Bergman, trail development manager for RTC’s Western Regional Office, who toured the trail last month as part of the California Trails and Greenways conference. “Then, as you get into town, it really integrates into the community with businesses fronting onto it, and it gets you right down into the attractions.”

Traversing Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf, the trail abuts restaurants and shops. | Courtesy Fred Watson

Most will start their adventure on the trail’s southern end, in the communities of Pacific Grove and Monterey. In the span of just a few short miles, travelers will find popular shops and restaurants lining Fisherman’s Wharf, the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium and the historical Cannery Row, where the fishing and canning industries thrived in the early 1900s. The former Southern Pacific Railroad on which the rail-trail is built once carried canned fish from here north to markets in the San Francisco Bay area.

“I love the trail, but I’m not alone in loving the trail,” chuckles Virginia Murillo, a transportation planner for the Transportation Agency for Monterey County. “It gets pretty crowded.”

On a weekend, upwards of 2,000 people a day will use the trail—so many that the City of Monterey’s updated parks and recreation master plan, published just last year, outlines upcoming efforts to widen the pathway in its busiest spots.

Bike ride at the California Trails and Greenways Conference 2017 | Courtesy RTC's Western Regional Office

“The trail is our most used recreational amenity,” says Kim Bui Burton, Community Services Director for the City of Monterey. During the development of the city’s master plan, residents were surveyed on their recreational activities, and a whopping 70 percent indicated that they use the trail at least once a week.

North of this tourist hotspot, the trail veers inland, traversing sand dunes and a eucalyptus grove before skirting the boundary of Fort Ord Dunes State Park, a former military base that now offers miles of shoreline and pristine natural areas. The trail traffic is lessened here as the trail rolls through the smaller communities of Seaside, Sand City, Marina and Castroville.

This caboose offers a nod to the trail's rail history | Photo by Barry Bergman, courtesy RTC's Western Regional Office

Thrumming with life today, it’s hard to envision the railroad corridor that had become empty, overgrown and rundown by the 1970s. Back then, the canneries were derelict buildings and the aquarium, now an anchor in the community, had not yet made its debut (and would not until 1984). The cities of Monterey and Pacific Grove, working with the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District, began acquiring pieces of the corridor in 1976, and the trail’s first section opened in 1980. From there, the pathway grew slowly north through the 1990s and 2000s.    

Now a well-regarded, well-loved success, the trail serves as a catalyst for the region’s next generation of trails. Farther north, the existing Monterey Bay trail is planned to connect with a proposed 32-mile pathway that will continue along the bay in neighboring Santa Cruz County. Together, the two trails will provide 50 seamless, paved miles of scenic coastal trail.

Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail | Courtesy City of Monterey

Another project underway is the Fort Ord Rec Trail and Greenway, a grassroots effort spearheaded by two local professors. With the Monterey Bay trail as its coastal spine, the FORTAG network will add paved looping pathways to connect the coast to inland communities. The movement to create this 30-mile trail system received a boost last November when a sales tax measure to provide $20 million in funding for the project was approved by Monterey County voters.

It’s no doubt the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail is considered an asset not only on this grand, regional scale, but on a personal level for residents, too. Kim Bui Burton, who lives in Pacific Grove, enjoys walking the trail into Monterey with her husband every week. “It makes us feel connected to our community and the natural beauty,” she says. “It reminds us of why we live here and why we love it.”

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