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7 Steps Back from the Bluff, 1 Step Forward for the Beach

On Thursday, May 4, the Encinitas Planning Commission voted 4-0 (with one member absent) to approve the Beacon’s Beach Parking Lot Plan. The plan calls for removal and replacement of the current parking lot, with a new one built further back from the failure plane of the bluff at Beacon’s beach. Despite the unfortunate loss of 11 parking spaces due to a smaller available footprint, Surfrider supports this adaptation as an incremental step towards preserving access to Beacon’s Beach. We maintain that a longer term solution will be needed to provide access to the beach, and we hope to continue working with community members and the City of Encinitas to make progress towards that goal. 

The existing Beacon’s Beach access trail is loved by many, yet it suffers from the fatal flaw of being situated on top of an active landslide. The last partial landslide occurred in May 2022, closing the access trail for just under two months. Similar movement has occurred intermittently since El Niño storms and swell reactivated the landslide in 1982, destroying a staircase that provided access prior to the existing switchback trail. The instability of the bluff has been well-documented since then, with City geotechnical reports predicting eventual collapse since at least 2003. 

In 1972, a concrete staircase access descended from the north end of the parking lot.

Present day. Warning signs line the parking lot. 

Signs of slumping at the north end of the lot.

At least 10 additional signs are posted along the trail.

Drainage pipes help channel stormwater from further destabilizing the bluff.

Surfrider has been engaged in finding a long-term solution for access since 2001, and the City of Encinitas and many in the community have been working towards a solution even longer. Despite these efforts, a solution has yet to materialize with broad consensus across the board. The idea of moving the parking lot back was originally proposed over 10 years ago. More recently, in 2018, the City coupled the parking lot realignment plan into a larger proposal that also included a beach access staircase.

Unlike the original staircase destroyed in 1982, the new staircase design would have descended from the more stable, southern end of the bluff (as confirmed by geotechnical reports). The design intended to serve as an additional access while the existing trail remained open, and also as the alternative/backup access for when the landslide ultimately collapsed or became too dangerous for continued trail use. The staircase design came after initial proposals for seawalls in 2001, 2004, 2010, and 2017 were opposed not only by Surfrider, but also by Coastal Commission staff and CA State Parks due to their reliance on a seawall as part of the design. Seawalls wreck beaches, and are not legally permittable in this area1.  We love the trail, but not at the expense of the beach it leads to!  

Surfrider supported the staircase as the least environmentally damaging option to ensure continued safe access to the beach. However, it became extremely controversial in Leucadia, where the switchback trail is revered by many residents as a unique, beloved landmark. Due to strong local opposition, the staircase proposal ultimately failed at the Planning Commission. A December 2021 Outside magazine article entitled The Battle for Beacon’s Beach recounts the story in detail.

A rendering of a low profile, wooden staircase proposed for the south end of the trail in 2018A rendering of the failed 2018 staircase proposal. AECOM, City of Encinitas

In the meantime, the parking lot still presents a safety hazard in its current location. Because of this, the City decided to move forward with the parking lot realignment as its own project after the larger staircase proposal failed. Moving it back is an interim step that, at the very least, could buy the existing access trail some time while additional steps are considered. The City’s plan involves realigning the lot seven feet back from its current position, which would remove it from above the landslide plane and onto more stable ground. This will remove a significant amount of weight (the existing lot has 26 parking stalls) from the bluff’s edge. The tradeoff is that the redesigned lot would feature only 15 parking spaces, resulting in the loss of 11 spaces. That is a substantial sacrifice for a neighborhood beach where parking is already strained during the busy summer months, but it beats the alternative of potentially losing access altogether.

A 2018 rendering from AECOM, a city contracted infrastructure firm.

A rendering of the new parking lot design from City planning documents.


Regardless, it’s important to note that the Beacon’s parking lot relocation project is not considered a cure-all for what will remain an active landslide plane. Stormwater, groundwater, large swells coupled with high tides, and seismic activity are all elements that could trigger more movement. Ultimately, a landslide is only deemed inactive once the whole unstable portion collapses. Movement could continue to occur in slow increments over time, in large landslides like the one in 1982, or even all at once. Our hope is that the community can eventually agree on an alternative access solution before the bluff collapses and/or anyone gets hurt. It is possible that a landslide would result in a more relaxed slope on the bluff, allowing for a new trail to be built. But that outcome is not guaranteed. A sheer cliff face is also possible, and that could cause a total loss of public access for an indeterminate amount of time.

With the Planning Commission’s recent approval, the Beacon’s Beach Parking Lot Plan is now one step closer to breaking ground. A few hurdles remain, including an appeal to the City Council and a potential Coastal Commission hearing. But for the moment, things are finally starting to move forward - or landward, technically - at Beacon’s. 


1. Beacons is part of Leucadia State Beach within the State Park system but is maintained by the City of Encinitas under the State Park General Plan. The 1983 Leucadia State Beach (aka Beacon’s) General Plan states on page 14: "Bluff Fortification Policy: The state-owned cliff face at Leucadia State Beach shall not be fortified with retaining walls...... Seawalls shall not be constructed at the state beach ."