Park and Walk

A new trail at Garrapata State Park is expected to run about $2 million and replace the existing trail, which is severely eroded.

On a clear day, four men hopped a fence and hiked off trail at Garrapata State Park, ascending to a lookout. From their perch in Big Sur, they could see to the Santa Cruz Mountains.

They happen to be four leaders of local entities – nonprofit and governmental – that have the collective power to make their viewpoint accessible to all hikers with a new trail.

California State Parks, the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District, Big Sur Land Trust and Point Lobos Foundation signed a monumental memorandum of understanding (MOU) on April 9 thatsets the stage for contiguous trails connecting lands held by these different entities. Once complete, that network will traverse 10,000 acres of parkland.

“If we are successful in pulling this off, it could be a model not just in California, but it could be a global model for government agencies in coordinating their efforts,” says MPRPD General Manager Rafael Payan. “That makes it a really important model.”

That model, with the working title Lobos-Corona Parklands, allows the land-owning entities with similar conservation – and recreation-oriented missions to team up and let hikers cross seamlessly from one property to another. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, given the entities have different mandates and property lines, and a complicated history of land deals.

Garrapata was included in 1839 as part of Rancho San Jose y Sur Chiquito, a Mexican land grant, and became a state park in 1985. Since then, there’s been little improvement – the parking lot is just a dusty pull-off and the bathroom is a porta-potty. The popular loop, up through shady, redwood-lined Soberanes Canyon and across lupine-covered hills to a stunning panoramic view of the coast, is in terrible shape, with treacherously steep slopes and erosion so severe the trail is bare and gravelly in many spots.

State Parks is working to secure $2 million to reroute that path, “to make it more accessible to your average person,” says Mat Fuzie, superintendent of the Monterey District of State Parks.

They’re already at work on new trails across the highway, on the west side of the park to rocky outcroppings above the surf. And Joan Carpenter, a civil engineer with State Parks, is designing a pedestrian route up San Jose Creek, on the former A.M. Allan Ranch east of Point Lobos.

As a trail engineer, Carpenter starts out by viewing aerial photos before setting out to see the property up close. The anatomy of trails is different than that of roads, which Carpenter designed in Santa Cruz before joining State Parks in 2000.

“A designer is looking at how to fit the trail into the landscape. Unlike when you build a freeway, and often do huge cuts and fills to accommodate 75-mile-per-hour traffic,” she says. “With the trail, we really want people to walk through the landscape and interact with it. We’re trying to fit, we’re not trying to change the world.”

Her guide is a 3-inch binder produced by State Parks, full of campy sketches depicting smiling hikers. In one, a dotted line shows a hiker’s line of sight compared to trees; another shows a sweater-clad man on a fallen log used as a stream crossing. The art looks like it hasn’t been updated since the ’70s.

Carpenter and trail designers first take stock of “control points,” the river crossings or scenic viewpoints a trail needs to reach. Once those are mapped, she’ll draw a meandering line to connect them. “It should follow the contours of the land,” she says.

Then a team flags the route and starts walking it. They’re trying to account for human behavior in the design, like the unshakable tendency of hikers to cut switchbacks. Carpenter will look for shrubby plants, bends or rock outcroppings that keep the curves ahead hidden. “If the trail meanders, but you cannot see the destination, people tend to follow the trail,” she says.

Consistent with the MOU, her route up San Jose Creek is designed to link Point Lobos State Park with Palo Corona, the newest regional park. (Representatives of the Point Lobos Foundation also hope it will help alleviate weekend crowds at the state park.)

The parks representatives ultimately envision a route from the Carmel Mission all the way up and over to Garrapata, descending to the ocean through Soberanes Canyon.

“It’s a logical progression to where you could do the entire loop,” Fuzie says, “and there might be camping along the way.”

Funding is yet to be secured, but trail engineers like Carpenter stand ready to map the contours of these rugged Santa Lucia foothills.

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