Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Sunset Cliffs: A Fleeting Beauty

Will and I took a trip down to San Diego this past July 4th holiday weekend to spend some time with family. In my humble opinion, San Diego probably has some of the most beautiful and unique coastlines in the world (of course I am completely biased and not an expert in beaches and coastlines by any means...). "Beautiful beaches" usually inspires imagery of white sand, swaying palm trees, and clear turquoise waters, but San Diego beaches are picturesque in a very different way-- dramatic sea cliffs, coastal chaparral and wildflowers, graceful arches, and mysterious caves.

We took a family excursion to Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, about ten miles south of some of my usual beach favorites (La Jolla Cove and Torrey Pines State Reserve), to explore a lesser known side of the San Diego shoreline. We studied a very faded park map near the entrance and found that we were close to two scenic points, the "Badlands" and "Garbage Beach". Hm, no thank you. I'm sure they are probably quite lovely sights but whoever named them sure was a real grouch. Luckily, we found that the park was actually divided into two areas, the larger "hillside section" on the south side where we had parked (featuring the badlands and garbage beach), and a long and narrow "linear section" that extends 1.5 miles to the north adjacent to the ocean. The linear section of the park is covered with stunning geological formations waiting to be explored!

The weather was perfect, cloudy but warm with a constant breeze. We followed the cliff side "trail" that can be considered run-down at best-- the makeshift trail has no railings, one is literally strolling along the edge of the cliff along the narrowest region of the park while other portions of the trail abruptly end, directing walkers onto the roadside bike lane of sunset cliffs blvd. for a few hundred feet before reverting back onto the unpaved park path.

Haphazard as it may be, the panoramic ocean view as we meandered along the cliffs was unobstructed and spectacular. Along the way we observed sea bluffs, caves, arches, and tide pools all intricately sculpted from the sandstone by erosion. In fact, some areas of the park were so eroded that they were fenced off for safety (in particular we found a large doughnut-like hole formation in the ground that had a tiny hidden beach tucked underneath it); yet, we noticed even the fence itself was rusting and eroding from the relentless wind and waves.

In addition to the derelict condition of the trail, along our walk we also spotted quite a few curious remnants of what appeared to be the eroded foundations of some sort of structure. Later, I found this fascinating article on the rather hapless history of Sunset Cliffs. In 1915, Albert Spaulding spent 2 million dollars to landscape Sunset Cliffs which included rustic railings, pebbled stairways, arched bridges, and even a saltwater swimming pool carved into the natural rock. Sounds pretty amazing, especially considering the delicate landscape!

The article follows the ill-fated cycle of construction and refurbishment of the park by a series of generous individuals, gifting of the park to the city, subsequent neglect and decline of the park before being retaken by another private patron, further neglect by the city and so forth until finally the park had deteriorated so much, most features were considered unsafe and removed. A series of unfortunate events indeed.

Sunset cliffs was on this list of the top 5 disappearing natural formations in the U.S. (along with the Everglades and Glacier National Park) as urban runoff and pollution has greatly exacerbated the erosion of this fragile environment. A dramatic arch called Ye 'ol Needle's Eye pictured above in an old photograph of Sunset Cliffs, is just one example of a beautiful formation that has since collapsed due to erosion, wind, and surf.

It was a wonderful afternoon enjoying the majestic scenery of Sunset Cliffs with pelicans gliding overhead, exploring all the secret crevices of the park, and finally finding our way to Sandstone Arch, a popular scenic point where we spotted a group of adventurous locals cliff jumping (reminded me of Waimea Bay in Hawaii!). After learning about the long and intriguing history of Sunset Cliffs, I have an even deeper appreciation for the fleeting beauty and uniqueness of this remarkable scenic treasure.

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
1253 Sunset Cliffs Blvd
(between Adair St & Osprey St)
San Diego, CA 92107


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