Nude Beaches in Southern California Cannot Be Taken for Granted

By Gary Mussell

June, 2007


Readers of the Bulletin from other parts of the country may not realize the fragile coalition that exists in California and other Western States between nudists and law enforcement to allow any of our public land venues to exist.  Many court cases have been won (and some lost) that give everyone the rules by which we can enjoy our body freedom in places other than behind the walls of gated nudist clubs and resorts.  In California, for example, we had what was called the Cahill policy, named after Russell Cahill, who was Director of the State Department of Parks and Recreation Department in 1979. Cahill decreed that nudists could use the state park system unless someone (other than a ranger or law officer) objected. The nudist would have to get dressed, but he/she could return to the same spot the next day and be nude again unless someone again objected.  Several other states have similar policies, but not all.  The net effect was to allow those beaches, lakes, and hiking trails then used by nudists on state park land to survive in relative peace with the textiled world around them.  Unfortunately, the policy went into effect too late to save perhaps a dozen popular nudist beaches along the Southern California coast – specifically in and around Los Angeles – as lawmakers and other opponents aggressively closed many of these venues to nudists during the mid-1970’s.  For the last twenty years, the only beaches in Southern California where nudity is tolerated are Black’s Beach (actually Torre Pines State Park) outside San Diego, and Pirate’s Cove at Avila Beach outside San Luis Obispo, about 200 miles to the north.


A traditional nude beach on Santa Barbara county land near Carpenteria called Bates Beach (actually North Rincon Beach) was closed in 2000 after local homeowners complained to local authorities and funds were allocated to aggressively ticket the nudists there.  More about Bates later in this article.

There are two important elements to the survival of a nude beach:


First is to establish a good working relationship between beach advocates and local authorities, be it park rangers, lifeguards, or deputy sheriffs.  I have seen many beaches lost over the years because the nudists practiced a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, afraid to interact with local authorities for fear of being “found out” and losing the beach. Believe me, the local authorities know we are there.  Unless there is a local politician trying to make a name for him/herself, most officials consider us a very low priority on the law enforcement list unless someone complains or some other illegal activity occurs on the site.

The second is “feet on the ground.”  Without nudists actually using the beach, continuously, year in and year out, the location can be quickly lost because outsiders will interpret our lack of participation as abdication.  No matter how much work AANR or another organization might devote to obtaining official approval and/or signage for a specific beach, park, or lake, if nudists do not use that location all the time, all seasons, and in sizeable numbers, opponents will push back and say the nudists really don’t deserve special treatment there.


Keeping feet on the ground requires an action that many anonymity-preferring nudists are loathe to do: give someone in charge their name, telephone number, and email address, so that a list of dedicated users can be collected to be sure the beach stays in use and to rally supporters when a letter-writing effort is needed.  That is why it is far easier to organize nudists already using a beach – and who do not want to lose it – than it is to create a new beach in a new location from scratch.  Also, people in their 20’s – singles, couples, or with young families – are far less inclined to commit themselves than they were forty years ago to a specific cause or campaign.  Nobody wants to be the first one to be nude on a beach, but most will gladly show up occasionally when they know a hundred others will also be there.

Yet such mailing lists often prove critical when a local beach is threatened, as was the case in October at Avila Beach (aka Pirate’s Cove), near San Luis Obispo.  That beach has a forty-year tradition as a privately-owned clothing-optional beach and county park officials have benignly accepted its status for many years. Tickets are only issued there for lewd conduct. However, SLO County last month announced it is working on a deal to purchase the beach along with other undeveloped land along the shoreline and turn it into a county park. The deal could put the nude status of the beach in jeopardy.


In response to the probable sale of the land, the San Luis Obispo Tribune newspaper ran an on-line poll a few weeks ago asking its readers to vote, "Should Pirate's Cove remain a nude beach?”  In response to that request, SCNA and several other local naturist clubs and organizations sent an email to their members asking those who have visited Pirate’s Cove and who wish to keep it clothing-optional to go on-line and vote.  The response was overwhelmingly in favor (95% Yes) for keeping the beach nude. That kind of result could not have happened were the naturist not organized throughout Southern California so that a rapid response could be put into operation.


During the 1960s and 70s, when many of the nude beach locations currently in use were first established, the authorities were forced to react to the fait accompli of hundreds of weekend nudists already on a stretch of sand or at a specific secluded corner of a lake.  By our actions, nudists proved we were not sex-crazy libertines out to corrupt the morals of society because we kept our adopted areas clean and the questionable looky-loos at bay.  We were seen as a positive influence on the community and an unofficial adjunct to law enforcement, and so we were usually welcomed and some accommodation was made to nudists that the beach area sought would be either officially or unofficially sanctions, so long as we maintain the area.


Maintaining a nude area on public land or beach almost always requires there be a small but dedicated group of leaders – often referred to as “Mayors” who visit the beach constantly, distribute leaflets that described user behavior guidelines, organize periodic cleanups, and work with local authorities when illegal activity took place on the bluffs above the designated nudist area.  Many beach “mayors” hoist yellow flags or banners, or wear specific colored hats to signify who the “go-to” people are in case a beachgoer has a question or problem. Some examples:


In south Florida a number of years ago, Free Beaches created a nude beach from a high crime area called “Haulover.” The presence of naturist families has enhanced and stabilized the social structure of the beach. That beach has established its Beach Ambassadors, a high-profile network of beach assistance, information and monitoring that has become a prototype for other programs across the country.

This year, a new ranger-in-charge at Black’s Beach in San Diego decided to post signs on the beach declaring “Nudity is Illegal.” Because of the ten-year relationship between the two “Mayors” there, Lloyd and Dave, they were able to immediately contact local officials to confirm no policy had changed and to begin negotiations for the sign’s removal.


Trouble only ensues when, after a number of years, the “Mayor” moved on and leaves no one “in charge” there, or when there was a change in law enforcement personnel and the new officer did not understand the existing arrangement with the beachgoers.  In the early 1990’s, San Onofre Beach was almost lost this way as the existing “mayor” became ill and could no longer police the area and complaints started being filed about sexual activity there.  Marianne Handler, a beach activist recently transplanted from New York, then adopted the beach as her own, re-established communication with officials, and could be found on the sand almost every day handing out flyers and scolding away people attempting to practice bad behavior.  Within a year, the beach again was thriving as a nudist destination in Southern California.


At Bates Beach, outside Carpinteria, California, nudists are attempting something that is rarely achieved: the RE-establishment of a nude beach.  Our national experience concludes that one a beach is lost it is gone forever. However, there are some unique circumstances in Carpinteria which gives us some hope.


First, the local public appears to want the beach back.  Members of SCNA have spent this past summer walking the business districts, asking the opinion of shop owners if a nude beach would improve their business.  Our unscientific poll shows very little opposition, and that people either think it will help local restaurants and the tourist trade or at the very least won’t hurt it.  Several conversations with local law enforcement leads us to believe their opposition has to do with the looky-loos on the cliffs above the beach and not with the nudists themselves.  In fact, since the nudists were chased away six years ago, the beach is hardly used at all and its very remoteness actually encourages it as a place for illegal drug sales and sexual activity. The main opposition to re-establishing the beach remains a few feisty homeowners in a gated community of 50 homes at Rincon Point about a mile from where the proposed beach would be located.  We have spoken to many of the homeowners there, who seem to either support us or else don’t care, but these few opponents remain loud enough to keep the ear of local political officials.  Our task during the next year is to show the local city and county officials that a nude beach is in their best interest, but improving local business and chasing away the criminals now making the under-utilized beach unsafe for everyone.


SCNA has formed a sub-group, the Friends of Bates Beach with its own web site to promote the cause:  FOBB is selling T-shirts to finance the web site and its campaign to re-establish the beach.  We have found new friends among the local newspapers and some park officials.  FOBB plans to march in some local city parades next year wearing our T-shirts and we will wage a polite but firm effort to get our message out.  Ultimately it will take “feet on the ground” to prove we deserve a second chance.  We continue to collect names as well.


As far as AANR goes, it is our opinion that public acceptance of – or at least non-opposition to – nudity in traditional or otherwise expected venues should be a key goal of our mission.  AANR has not yet embraced the idea that such activities as the annual World Nude Bike Ride, the San Francisco Bare to Breaker’s 10k Run. AANR needs to understand that support for such causes as public breastfeeding by new mothers, or campus streaking, or the right to sunbathe nude with your family in your own backyard are all ancillary causes that help push the nudist agenda forward.  Walking in public parades with banners held high, and writing supportive letters to the editor, are things AANR should be doing all the time.


This cannot be a battle for the glory of one nudist organization over another.  The fight to gain public acceptance for more nudist opportunities on public land, beaches, lakes, and other locales, places that exist outside the gates of existing club resort and parks, is everyone’s fight.  Those who try to organize free-spirited skinny-dippers will be disappointed because they basically are not joiners…until they get a little older and their bodies evolve so that climbing beach cliffs and hiking to a secluded lake is no longer a physical option.  If we do our jobs – investing our energies in providing opportunities to this younger generation to enjoy the body freedom which is the essence of naturism – then organized nudist clubs will reap the benefits later.  Any then everyone can claim the credit for a job well done.



Author’s Note: Some parts of this article are now outdated:

  • The Cahill Policy was rescinded by the California Department of Parks and Recreation in 2009. After they attempted to close the clothing-optional section (aka “Trail 6”) at San Onofre Beach, nudists went to court and won. But the Parks Department appealed, and the victory was reversed on a technicality (Mr. Cahill forgot to file his “policy” as an official state regulation with the proper administrative department).
  • Pirates Cove in San Luis Obispo became an official county park with approved clothing-optional status.
  • Bates Beach in Santa Barbara County has received a verbal okay to be clothing-optional again but the county’s nudity law still needs to amended for it to be officially “legal.”

The American Association for Nude Recreation - Western Region

The American Association for Nude Recreation

Western Region

23679 Calabasas Road, Suite 966

Calabasas, CA 91302

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