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Works starts to find trail route connecting canyons to the sea in Laguna Beach

For years, there’s been talk of connecting the 30 miles of trails that crisscross Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park to the beach. Now planning a route for the “Trail to Sea” has started.

Laguna Beach and the California Coastal Commission have agreed to start studying possible alignments for a 1- to a 2-mile trail connecting to the county wilderness park’s Aswut trailhead, which is close to Moulton Meadows Park in the city’s Arch Beach Heights neighborhood.

The City Council recently approved $30,000 of the $250,000 set aside for the trail, to be used by the Laguna Canyon Foundation to study the trail’s feasibility and possible alignments.

“There is a lot of enthusiasm about this long-awaited trail connection,” said Hallie Jones, CEO of the Laguna Canyon Foundation, adding that she and others at the foundation are pleased to be working with the city, various landowners, the environmental community and others to study where to connect the wilderness park with the beach. “While we are very early in that process, we’re confident that our professional trail-building team will be able to provide a robust and thorough analysis of potential routes.”

At present, three routes are being considered. One would track along the western slope of Aliso Canyon, another would end at Ocean Vista Drive, and a third connection could come down the canyon, cross some city property and end in a parking lot behind The Ranch Resort, which is nestled in Aliso Canyon.

The $250,000 for the trail and its study comes from The Ranch, which in 2015 was permitted by the Coastal Commission to renovate the 1962-era resort. The payment was part of the coastal development permit and the $250,000 was kept by the city for the purpose of planning and permitting the public trail.

“I’m very excited to see what it’ll turn into,” Councilman Alex Rounaghi said, “but I don’t really know what it’ll turn into because we’re just doing the study.”

A pathway from the Moulton Meadows Park leads in to the hills above Aliso and Wood Canyons in Laguna Beach, CA, on Friday, March 17, 2023. The route may be used as part of the proposed trail alignment that will go from Aliso and Wood Canyons wilderness Park to the ocean. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Mark Christy, who operates The Ranch, weighed in. He said he’s “very supportive of the trail,” but in no way favors a route near or through the resort’s golf course. The scenic course is among one of the busiest in the county, with 56,000 rounds played there annually, he said.

Christy said the resort has hosted several onsite meetings and has had dozens of communications with the Coastal Commission, the city, the foundation, OC Parks and others in an attempt to facilitate discussions on the trail.

“But, our (coastal development permit) specifically states that some entity, other than us, will need to lead the charge on the design and construction of the trail,” he said. “We know our guests would enjoy it, and it would also be welcomed by the surrounding communities.”

The resort has dedicated two “floating easements” for a future trail to use for access.

“We’d love to see an alignment that would be achievable in terms of resources, topography, environmental constraints and navigable for the public,” Christy said. “But, we will not be closing Laguna’s only golf course, and many separate groups, including the county, ALTA Design – who literally wrote the book on trails near golf courses – and even the Coastal Commissioners themselves, by their 9-1 vote, have independently concluded over the years that a trail through our golf course, in this narrow canyon, is completely infeasible.”

Others suggested a trail should not go over the canyons, but instead should run along the creek that flows through Aliso Canyon and next to the resort.

Among those was Michele Monda, who told the council that she regularly rides through the county park and has taken the path along Aliso Creek to Cooks Corner in Trabucco Canyon. She said she’d like to see the new trail paved and running through a flatter terrain.

“The entire route is maintained for road bikes,” she said. “What you’re proposing will make it inaccessible. It was supposed to be a pedestrian trail. If you take the trail up and over the mountains, it’ll eliminate me. I need it to be paved and accessible, not with crazy mountain bikers coming down. Unless it goes through the north end of The Ranch, it won’t work.”

Another speaker during the council meeting, who said he is a recent resident of Laguna Woods, argued that bicycle growth among the population is exceeding interest in the sport of golf.

“Traffic jams and parking are major issues for the city,” said Chris Keyes. “The trail should provide a safe path to the beach and open up a transportation corridor.”

The study will examine soil types, potential impacts on biological resources and topography in several alignments being considered, officials said. It is expected to be completed in June.

The council would then review the results in July or August and begin decisions on trail alignments. Public input will also be considered.

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