Public Beach Access

By Danielle Edelman

As summer approaches, thousands of people will be flocking to the iconic beaches of the West Coast for some fun in the sun and the sound of the waves. From northern Washington to southern California, there are many popular public spaces people can use to access the Pacific Ocean. What few people consider as they work on their tans is the long struggle for public access to beaches all along the West Coast. The battle is ongoing, as private homeowners push for more restrictions and NGOs fight for public rights. At the heart of the issue is not whether the public has the right to access beaches along public property (they can, obviously), but rather whether they can cross private property to get to those beaches, and whether a new homeowner can take away those access privileges when they purchase beachfront property. Unfortunately, there is no single answer to these questions, and a road trip down Highway 101 would demonstrate to any beachgoer the vast array of measures states and cities have employed to provide public access to beaches.


Washington has perhaps the most unusual public beach access rules of any Western state. Where most states define the boundary of lands available for private ownership at the high tideline, Washington allows for private ownership of lands down to the low water mark. This is a holdover from the early days of the state, when loggers and shellfish farmers were allowed to purchase tidelands from the government. While the state no longer permits people to purchase tidelands, many areas of the beach have been passed down through generations and remain private property. Additionally, beachfront property owners are allowed to build private piers and other structures on public beaches. Be aware of property boundaries as you visit Washington beaches this summer, and look up a beach before you visit to ensure you won’t be encroaching on private property.


Oregon has public beach-access laws which are more typical of the U.S. in general. Oregon upholds the Public Trust Doctrine, which is a common law principle that dictates the responsibility of the state to protect and manage public lands. Private property on Oregon beaches begins at the high water mark, and “dry sand” is generally considered to be within private property boundaries. However, Oregon’s law allows for a perpetual easement, or public path, across dry sand between the high water mark and the vegetation line. Be respectful of beachfront property owners, but know your rights to passage across beaches.


California, with its lengthy and iconic coastline, has a long and contentious history of public beach access. While California law explicitly allows for the public’s right to access beaches, private property owners have used their considerable monetary resources to legally exclude the public from accessing beaches near their properties. Several notorious lawsuits have come through the courts in recent years, including Vinod Khosla closing off a private road which had long been used by the public to access Martin’s Beach, and David Geffen’s efforts in the early 2000’s to block the public from accessing the beach in front of his former Malibu home. Although many beaches are difficult or impossible to access, know that all beaches, from the high water mark down, are public property in California. Contact the California Coastal Commission if you suspect a homeowner is illegally blocking public access to the coast.