Surfer|Volume 61, Issue 3 / Winter 2020
After decades of exclusive access to Hollister Ranch, the most coveted stretch of California coast is finally going public

Twelve-thousand years ago, people stood on the shores of the California coast just south of Point Conception and north of present-day Gaviota and marveled at their good fortune. Mild weather. A south-facing coastline protected from the shrieking winds to the north. Bountiful seafood, plenty of game in the hills and spring-fed creeks spilling down from low-lying coastal mountains. In the winter, as they launched canoes from sandy creek mouths tucked into the lees of points, they would have paddled wide of waves peeling like pinwheels over cobblestone and reef-dotted bottoms; perhaps the paddlers looked into the almond eyes of green tubes spiraling empty toward the clean yellow sand, an oar raised in appreciation and awe. History has long forgotten if it ever knew, the names of the original inhabitants of that idyllic stretch of coast. After who knows how many generations, the people living there came to call themselves the Chumash—a word that roughly translates as “shell collectors.”

When the Spanish arrived in Southern California in the 1700s, the Chumash had developed into a bustling society of fisherman, hunters, artisans and shaman. Their culture was complex and sophisticated, and their food supply so rich it afforded ample free time to enjoy the golden coast. The Chumash lived a lifestyle unrivaled anywhere else in pre-historic North America. Soon after the first Spanish arrived, though, the Chumash were mostly gone, victims first of exotic European diseases, then the predatory mission system and finally the cultural bulldozer that was the relentless advance of the American West. The point-studded coastline, however, remained mostly as it was. The emerald green waves still peeled, the golden grasses waved, the wind still rushed through wild canyons, smelling of live oak and sage, the very essence of coastal California.

That smell still lingers in those same canyons today, and, in fact, might be the first thing someone notices when visiting what’s now known as Hollister Ranch. To get there, it’s a lovely 35-mile drive north from Santa Barbara over a coastal plateau broken by canyons leading to fickle cobblestone points and reef-strewn beaches, the whole area mostly undeveloped save for some orchards, a ranch here and there and a smattering of industrial buildings serving the oil platforms looming offshore. From the north, the drive winds inland through rugged and empty hills carpeted with grasses and oaks, before shooting through a tunnel blasted through bedrock that emerges smack into the blue Pacific. It’s beautiful country, delightfully unspoiled considering it’s only 100 miles or so north of Los Angeles’ ever-encroaching sprawl.

A short drive along a twisting road from Gaviota State Beach and you arrive at the fabled Hollister Ranch guardhouse. If your name is on the list, or if you have the proper window sticker, you’re waved through. With the window still rolled down, there’s that wonderful smell of sage and grass and earth. All of Southern California once smelled like this, you might think, as you putter forward, perhaps forgetting for a moment that you’re on hallowed-but-bitterly-contested ground.

That contest has been going on for more than 5 decades. To access the Ranch, you must own property there or be the invited guest of someone who does, or be a school kid on an official visit to poke around tide pools and perhaps visit an abandoned Chumash site. Until fairly recently, not even state workers looking to take official surveys of the land were allowed in.

Accessing the surf, however, was always possible, even if you weren’t allowed on land. Boating in has been the time-honored, legal way to surf the Ranch without the official invite. Walking into some of the breaks during low tide is another. Hiking in at night— illegal trespassing—has long been a favored tactic of the thrill-seeking. Part of the Ranch’s magic is that it’s right there—beckoning, doable, but difficult for the 99.9 percent of the public who aren’t owners.

That’s all likely to change soon. In October 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 1680 which specifically directs the state to secure public access to Hollister Ranch by 2022. California’s landmark Coastal Act, passed in 1976, guarantees that all beaches in the state are open to the public with “maximum access”. As you can imagine, what constitutes maximum access is a sticking point with private property owners. AB 1680 is meant to clarify that public access must be granted to Hollister Ranch by making it illegal to “impede, delay, or otherwise obstruct the implementation of ” that access. With the stroke of a pen, Newsom and the legislators who wrote the bill effectively razed the barrier keeping the public from the private oceanfront property at Hollister Ranch.

For those who advocate public access above all else, this was a major victory over landowners guarding the last significant, privately held coastline in the state. For most surfers without access, it was a just and welcome kneecapping of legal localism. But for many ranch owners, land-holding surfers and casual visitors who have hiked the Ranch’s empty hills, strolled the uncrowded beaches and entered the pristine waters, there is internal conflict. What will happen to this coast once public access is allowed? Whatever the answer may be, things are about to drastically change at one of surfing’s most closely-guarded vaults.

Hollister Ranch has never been a place that gets many visitors, even long before it was called Hollister Ranch.

In the late 1700s, the Spanish government routinely doled out land grants to retired soldiers, just as the Mexican government would do in the coming decades. In 1794, a Spanish soldier who’d spent a career exploring and mining in Baja and Alta California named José Francisco Ortega was granted a 26,529-acre piece of land covering what is now Hollister Ranch, as well as some area south of the current boundary. Ortega retired to the Ranch, built a home in Refugio Canyon near where Refugio State Beach is today, and looked after a small cattle ranching operation, setting the tone for what the area would look like for the next 200 years.

Just after the Civil War ended, a man named William Welles Hollister bought the 14,500 acres the Ortega family still owned; they’d begun selling chunks of land offa decade or so earlier. For the next century, the Hollister family operated the land as a working cattle ranch and made it available occasionally for recreational use. In the 1950s, the Sportsman Hunting Club won permission to hunt on the property, a crucial development for the Santa Barbara surf scene; some of the hunters were surfers.


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Volume 61, Issue 3 / Winter 2020