CHANGING OF THE GUARD
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 off a 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.
You can imagine how those surfers reacted when they saw the Ranch.
A handful of cobblestone pointbreaks, all righthanders, from Perkos on the far western side (technically a different ranch altogether, we’ll come back to that), to Razors, the most accessible break, not far at all from
Gaviota State Beach. Where there aren’t points, there are reefs, including Rights and Lefts, and Little Drakes, which is sort of California’s closest approximation to Indonesia’s Hollow Trees, on the rare occasions it rises to full form.
The earliest surfers would likely have focused on the breaks further west—perkos and Cojo, both of which break on summertime south swells, unlike most of the eastern sections of the Ranch, which start to fall under the swell shadow of the Channel Islands.
By 1960, the Santa Barbara Surf Club had officially formed. Santa Barbara surfing royalty like George Greenough, Renny Yater, John Bradbury and the Perko brothers— Bob and John—were early members. The group got along well with Clinton Hollister, then running the Ranch, and he allowed them to surf there whenever they liked. But word of the surf riches to be found north of Rincon, in an uncrowded pastoral paradise, quickly spread.
To pacify Hollister and keep their own Shangri-la intact, the Santa Barbara Surf Club began policing outsiders. Rules were established about how many surfers could enter and when. Suddenly, every surfer in Santa Barbara was clamoring to join the club so they could surf this stretch of coast everybody was talking about. The club decided to cap membership at 60; thus the first, albeit relatively informal, policy to keep access only for those with entrance privileges was born.
For a decade, the four-dozen-or-so club members had the place mostly to themselves. It was the Ranch’s golden era. Surf the eastern spots in the bracing fall and downright freezing winter, the western breaks in the mild summer, sharing the waves with only your club buds. Empty beaches, just some cowboys and cattle watching from bluffs, plenty of secluded coves to build a fire, pass around a jug of wine, spend the night before doing it all again. It was an exotic surf trip less than an hour’s drive from home.
These salad days are effectively what the current Ranch owners—those who surf, anyway—are attempting to protect. Nobody had grown up at the Ranch, there weren’t true locals there, per se. But the early club members who’d found the waves and worked hard to gain access and the trust of the Hollisters set a precedent. The surf at the Ranch was to be regulated. It was a revered place to be treasured and guarded, one where access would only be afforded to those who had the golden key, the secret password.
THE EARLY CLUB MEMBERS WHO'D FOUND THE WAVES AND WORKED HARD TO GAIN ACCESS AND THE TRUST OF T HE HOLLISTERS SET A PRECEDENT. THE SURF AT THE RANCH WAS TO BE REGULATED.
In the early 1970s, the Hollister family sold their interest. The Ranch was subdivided into 135 lots of 100 acres each, called parcels. Suddenly, the calculus of who could get one of the golden keys changed. No longer did you need to be invited to be part of the Santa Barbara Surf Club; the keys were for sale.
One of those keys—a key that would come to great importance decades later—was bought in 1970 by the YMCA, who acquired a piece of the Ranch in an area called Cuarta Canyon. Over the years, YMCA officials crafted a plan to allow the public access to the nearby beach, including a shuttle service that could transport some 50 people per day from the Ranch’s Gaviota entrance. In 1979, the YMCA applied for a permit to build a camp for children on their property. As part of the permitting process, the California Coastal Commission, the governing body for development and access on the state’s coast, required the YMCA to include an “Offer to Dedicate” (Otd)—essentially an official easement to the state to allow public access through private property.
As soon as the shovels started digging in preparation for the camp, the Hollister Ranch Owners Association (HROA), now representing property owners invested in an area without public access, sued the YMCA to stop construction. The parties eventually settled, and as part of the settlement, the HROA bought the YMCA’S property in 1984. But that OTD was still there, still granting the state of California rights to develop public access, something the state sat on at the time, but would revisit later.
In the meantime, throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s and most of the 2000s, life went on as it always had at the Ranch. Cattle were raised, waves were ridden, secrets and rumors of faint trails and hidden access points grew. And parcels continued to sell. They sold to the rich. They sold to the decidedly non-rich. They sold to the oh-my-god-i-can’t-believe-there-are-numbers-thatbig rich. The smallest unit of ownership one can have at the Ranch is 1/12th interest in a parcel. At the time of writing, the only 1/12th parcel available is selling for $435,000. But 30 or 40 years ago, they could be had for much less than that, with prices not entirely out of reach for working professionals.
Common areas called cabañas were built at several of the Ranch’s major headlands, complete with cooking areas, bathrooms, showers and grassy, park-like overlooks at the surf gently peeling below. Houses have been built sporadically over the decades, with building rights stratospherically expensive, and carefully allocated to keep the place as wild as possible. With few exceptions, the Ranch doesn’t look a whole lot different today than it did in 1950—or even 1850, for that matter. That’s how the HROA wants it.
Driving through the Ranch means slow-going over a narrow, twisting road, passing the occasional dirt path snaking off into the wild hills. Boar are frequently seen, as are deer, turkey and coyotes. Mountain lions prowl the canyons at night. Work trucks pass often, hay bales stacked neatly on flat beds, a cowboy-hatted head nodding along with a wave as you pass. You’re more likely to see a beat-up Ford F-150 puttering along the road than a sparkling new Audi SUV with a couple brand new Firewires and SUPS on the roof—though you still might see one or two of those.
The surf breaks aren’t necessarily obvious, though
THE RANCH DOESN'T LOOK A WHOLE LOT DIFFERENT TODAY THAN IT DID IN 1950-OR EVEN 1850, FOR THAT MATTER. THAT'S HOW THE HROA WANTS IT.
Big Drake’s, the region’s longest pointbreak, sticks out like a golden elbow far into the Pacific. Otherwise, you park at a cabaña fronting your preferred surf spot and walk down to the beach. Until recently, owners simply drove on the sand looking for the best conditions, but that practice was halted by the HROA in 2019.
On good days, a handful of boats anchor just beyond the lineup, with non-owners boating in to surf the spots where the locals frown less on such things. At some breaks, which will remain nameless here, and which can handle only a small amount of bodies competing for waves, the regulars are decidedly less friendly to boaters and visitors they don’t recognize.
But for the most part, surfing at the Ranch as a non-owner is, well, a non-issue. Few of the owners know every other owner, so there’s no real way to know whether you have a parcel or you’ve boated in and walked down the beach, hiked in illegally or are surfing while the owner who invited you is still waxing up on the beach. The place has a certain reputation for heavy localism, but it’s really of the legal kind. Once you’re in, you’re in, for the most part. Without owning a parcel or knowing a guy who does, however, getting in still takes a whole lot of effort, and the sparse crowds reflect that.
The uncrowded coast is, in essence, the very purpose of not only the HROA, but owning an interest in property there to begin with. It’s what attracted the owners. It’s what attracted the surfers. It’s what will likely attract the public once they gain access, even if that access may eventually change that very allure of the place.
Until fairly recently, California authorities were relatively content to let Hollister Ranch be, despite that OTD lingering. In the 1990s, Congress looked into turning the Gaviota coast northward into a national seashore, which would have opened up the Ranch for public use, but the HROA dipped into its political war chest to lobby against that designation. The National Park Service abandoned the plans as unfeasible—largely due to the HROA’S strident opposition—in 2004. For a decade, that’s where things stood.
In 2013, however, the California State Coastal Conservancy decided, after repeated legal challenges from the HROA, to accept the OTD. Immediately, the HROA sued again, claiming the OTD “constitute[d] a taking of plaintiffs’ property without just compen
sation,” according to documents from the California Coastal Commission (CCC).
After a few more years of legal wrangling, the parties settled in 2017, with an access plan agreed upon between the CCC and the HROA. Public outcry over secrecy of that settlement led to further legal proceedings that finally culminated in Governor Newsom’s signing of AB 1680, throwing out the previous settlement, instructing the Ranch and the CCC to establish, once and for all, a public access plan by 2022.
“If it were as simple and easy as some claim, it would already be done,” the HROA told SURFER in an email about designing an access plan. “The fact is that Hollister Ranch is a remote location far from population centers, without public roads or facilities, and characterized by rugged terrain, challenging weather conditions and unrivaled natural and cultural resources. With so many other urgent needs, it is not hard to understand why more convenient access to Hollister Ranch beaches has not been a priority [until now]. The question now is whether the State is really ready to confront these challenges and work cooperatively and collaboratively with the HROA toward a fair and feasible managed access plan.”
The Surfrider Foundation, which has been part of the negotiations to open the Ranch for years, celebrated the passage of AB1680. “Hollister Ranch must comply with its legally required obligation to create a public access plan,” a spokesperson for Surfrider told SURFER. “The Surfrider Foundation supports efforts toward that result, while remaining focused on the adjacent and critically threatened eastern Gaviota Coast, a place with abundant coastal and ecological resources, and with significant potential for public beach access.”
What that access plan will look like, however, is anybody’s guess.
“Since the passage of AB 1680, the [HROA] has been actively engaged in a collaborative effort with state agencies to create a landmark managed access plan for Hollister Ranch that will protect, preserve and share the unique resources of this wild coastline,” the HROA said. “The remote location, lack of infrastructure, sensitive resources, and rare experience of coastal solitude will need to be recognized and accommodated. We have one chance to protect something that, once lost, cannot be replaced. We are fully committed to ensuring a successful outcome that meets these standards.”
No further information was made available about access plans, but the mind reels about the possibilities. A permit-only system, similar to sensitive wilderness areas like Yosemite National Park’s backcountry? Access only to a few state beaches with small parking areas like you see north of Santa Cruz? A shuttle system? Rock, paper, scissors at the front gate with the guards?
Regardless of your feelings about the Ranch opening, it was simply a matter of time before the guards were relieved of duty. For nearly 50 years, surfers and owners at the Ranch did their best to preserve the unique character of the land there. To access the Ranch meant a bit of work, whether ponying up the cash, befriending an owner or figuring out a way in. For local surfers without access, it was a hushed-about fairy tale of perfect surf, no crowds and
dangerous points of hidden entry, beckoning young surfers with time on their hands, tubes on the brain, a backpack and enough food to last the miles-long walk in from Jalama.
The motivation for the state to open the Ranch to the public is also a bit murky. Sure, the Coastal Act requires access to the state’s beaches, but there are plenty of areas without access across the state the CCC could be trying to open; much of the Gaviota coast to the south is privately held, too, with very few legal access points.
Providing recreation and camping opportunities is a worthwhile goal, but again, look to the Gaviota coast.
A handful of campgrounds dot the coast, and while full at peak periods, the public isn’t exactly clamoring over itself to get there. The coast is far from overrun. While surfers and longtime watchers of the Hollister Ranch case will make the trek, it’s difficult to imagine regular beachgoers bypassing Gaviota’s state beaches to drive another 30 minutes to an hour to poke around the Ranch’s thin strips of sand.
It’s interesting, too, that the public’s attention when it comes to opening access-challenged beaches in this area is restricted to Hollister Ranch. The neighboring ranch to the west, formerly Bixby Ranch, is now the Dangermond Preserve, named after a wealthy family who purchased the property and donated it to the Nature Conservancy. Arguably more beautiful and wild than Hollister Ranch, the public doesn’t have access to Dangermond either. But there are no owners there holding a golden key to a surf paradise. It’s just wild land. It doesn’t have the same air of elitism Hollister Ranch can’t help but exude. There’s no owner versus outsiders, right versus wrong side to take there.
Former SURFER editor Sam George summed up what he saw when he attended a CCC meeting in 2019 about opening the Ranch.
“The Ranch didn’t stand a chance,” he told Surfline. “And no amount of thoughtful ethical examinations or
ELITIST OR NOT, THE HROA HAS DONE A MASTERFUL JOB OF PRESERVING A SLICE OF TIMELESS CALIFORNIA BEAUTY.
cultural and environmental sensitivity is going to change that. It may have taken 40 years, but the forces that have sought to tear down the Ranch gate were going to have their way.”
It’s not a morally easy case, regardless of whether the CCC has the Coastal Act and state law on its side. Elitist or not, the HROA has done a masterful job of preserving a slice of timeless California beauty. Little is to be gained, other than a lesson taught, by allowing public access to an area that is unique in terms of surf and lack of development, but not all that unique compared with the Gaviota coast to the south.
The real draw of the Ranch is that to surf there is to step back in time, to commune directly in some ways with the early Santa Barbara Surf Club, enjoying some of the state’s best waves along a pristine coast without much of a crowd. Is wanting that elitist? If so, every surfer is an elitist. Uncrowded waves are a surfer’s single greatest desire. Allowing more surfers into the Ranch, regardless of how public access looks at whichever point in the future it occurs, does nobody any real favors.
And really, that’s simply how history unfolds. Since the 1700s, from the Chumash to the Spanish to the Hollisters to the surfers, the Ranch guardianship has continuously changed hands, with more people entering the picture, little by little, in each new era. The state of California is simply the newest entity to man the gate to the fabled coast. Let’s hope they open it gently.