Dana Point, Then and Now

This is a historial post from Hiking the California Trail, a 1998/2002 book set by Bob Lorentz and Richard Nichols. Where possible an update has been provided.

In 1835 the trading brig Pilgrim sailed around Cape Horn in search of Spanish cowhides for the Boston shoe industry. The Pilgrim put in at what was then known as San Juan to trade with the Spanish mission, San Juan Capistrano. During the 1830s and 1840s, cowhide trading became such big business that the hides were called “California banknotes.” Nineteen year-old Richard Henry Dana, out for adventure and writing material, described a California coast still untouched by the westward movement and lightly settled. 

In his book Two Years Before the Mast, he described Dana Point and the cove, “It is the only romantic spot in California. The country here for several miles is high table land, running boldly to the shore, and breaking off in a steep hill, at the foot of which the waters of the Pacific are constantly dashing. For several miles the water washes the very base of the hill, or breaks upon ledges and fragments of rocks which run out into the sea. Just where we landed was a small cove, or bight, which gave us, at high tide, a few square feet of sand beach between the sea and the bottom of the hill. This was our only landing place. Directly before us, rose the perpendicular height of four or five hundred feet.”

Today Dana would hardly recognize his namesake place. The dashing waters have disappeared. Any romantic visions Dana had of the wild and rugged shoreline are replaced by a large marina, extensive fill, and a breakwater that calmed the dashing waters and destroyed a great surfing break. The marina offers extensive boating facilities, fishing from the pier or breakwater, picnicking, swimming and a boardwalk of businesses and restaurants. The small bustling community of Dana Point sits atop the bluffs overlooking the harbor. Colorful street names such as Green Lantern and Silver Lantern were created by the first developer in 1926.

Sydney Woodruff wanted to dress up his ambitious plans for homes, playing fields and a harbor by lighting the streets with different colors, but his plans were halted by the depression. Dana Point Harbor, built in 1971, finally spurred the building boom. What remains of the natural landscape lies outside the breakwater on the rocky shoreline at the base of the point and on the headlands above. The shore and offshore rocks are protected by the Dana Point Marine Life Refuge. The tideline supports a variety of algae and invertebrates. Nearshore waters contain the colorful garabaldi, lobster, kelp bass and mackerel.

 The Orange County Marine Institute, located at the harbor, conducts a variety of award-winning educational programs for children and adults including classroom and lab programs, lecture series, wildlife cruises, snorkeling trips, whale watching, summer sea camps, and classroom field trips. Much of this activity takes place aboard the Pilgrim, a replica of the brig that brought Dana around the Horn, and the 70-foot research vessel Sea Explorer. 

The undeveloped Dana Point Headlands overlooking the harbor and the sea has for years been the site of controversial development proposals. The /20 undeveloped acres, one of three large parcels left on the Orange County coast, contains some of the last coastal sage scrub and open space in the intensely developed area. Opponents to city approvals for hotels and luxury homes overturned the plans by passing a ballot initiative. The owners, Times-Mirror Inc., sued the city over the overturned project. They are proposing 294 homes and a 100-200 room hotel. Activists and environmentalists propose no more than 90 homes, a 100-150 room hotel and an 84-acre natural park. The battle continues in court and at city council meetings over the fate of this nearly last piece of natural coastal land in Orange County.

Originally Published in Hiking the California Coastal Trail: Guide to Walking the Golden State's Beaches and Bluff from Border to Border - Volume Two: Monterey to Mexico by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols
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