Looking for a new hike? Coastal trails open to public in Solana Beach


Harbaugh Seaside Trails, the product of decades of community activism, opened Saturday, Feb. 22, as a public park for dog walking, sunset watching and quiet contemplation.

Many a battle was fought between developers and preservationists over the 3.4-acre chunk of real estate, home to a gas station in the 1950s and ‘60s. Sandwiched between Coast Highway 101 and the railroad tracks, it overlooks the San Elijo Lagoon and the Pacific Ocean.

“I think I was just the loudest voice in the room,” said Gerri Retman-Opper, a long-time Solana Beach resident and a key figure in the effort to save the land. “I talked about this forever, with every member that was ever on the (Solana Beach City) Council.

The catalyst of the preservation was the nonprofit San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, now called the Nature Collective. It worked with residents to raise enough money to buy the property for $3.75 million in 2011 and safeguard its future within the coastal trail system.

“The local community, they are the real heroes,” said Doug Gibson, executive director of the Nature Collective.

In recent months the collective’s volunteers have installed 8,000 native plants that are just beginning to take root. The vegetation is arranged in four distinct types of coastal Southern California habitats. More than a mile of trail winds wave-like among the small bushes.

“This will grow solid ... and support several endangered species,” Gibson said. “We’ll have gnatcatchers in here.”

The California gnatcatcher is a 4-inch long bird that lives in coastal sage scrub. It eats insects and its call sounds like a kitten’s meow. Between 70 percent and 90 percent of its native habitat has been lost to development.

The newly preserved space is on the southern edge of the San Elijo Lagoon, which is in the midst of a $120-million restoration.

For years the site was called the “gateway property” because of its location at the northern gateway into Solana Beach. The conservancy named it Harbaugh Seaside Trails in 2015 after a $1.15 million donation from the charitable foundation of the late George and Betty Harbaugh, lifelong San Diego residents who loved nature and wildlife.

“I’m very happy,” foundation director Joe Balla said Saturday, Feb. 22. “What a great day to celebrate.”

The Harbaugh gift was matched with donations from more than 1,200 individuals, about 225 of whom are recognized on a monument wall at the center of the property. Two large grants from TransNet, the sales tax voters approved for transportation-related projects, also helped pay for the property and the construction of a pedestrian underpass beneath the railroad tracks at the northern end.

Coastal residents defeated a series of development proposals for the property, including an eight-story, 171-room hotel in the 1980s.

Solana Beach became a city in 1986 in part because the locals wanted to wrest control from San Diego County, which had approved the hotel for the gateway site. Subsequent development proposals also failed, including a plan for a 98-room hotel, condominiums and a restaurant there around 2006.

Saturday’s ceremony included the dedication of a time capsule to be opened in 2050.

The park is a link in the Coastal Rail Trail that will eventually follow the tracks from San Diego to Oceanside. The nearest public parking is at Seaside State Beach, west of Coast Highway.

— Phil Diehl is a reporter for The San Digo Union-Tribune

Photos by McKenzie Images