Before 1972, Trestles was an even more thrilling beach to surf than it is now. The waves were great, sure, but there was the added fillip that came from having to sneak down to the beach with your board, out of sight of the Marines who controlled the land.
Pat Nixon changed all that. Fond of the stretch of beach below the home that she and former President Nixon bought on the bluffs above--the Western White House, known as Casa Pacifica--she lobbied for the beach and the adjacent wetlands to be opened to the public. And in 1972, it was: Surfers were allowed officially to take the 1 1/2-mile walk up from San Onofre State Beach.
So the surfers could quit sneaking around. However, that didn't mean they liked the surfing any less, for Trestles is one of the most widely known surfing beaches on the California coast.
Trestles, just southwest of the Orange-San Diego county line, has top-notch surf for the same reason it has terrible wading: a rocky bottom. At low tide, along much of the 1.5-mile stretch of beach, surfers must pick their way into the water over a wide bed of smooth but slippery rocks that line the sand.
"At low tide, getting into the water involves what was called, in the old surfer lingo, rock dancing," said Steve Long, lifeguard supervisor for the Pendleton Coast District, of which Trestles is a part.
"That cobblestone type of bottom, that's what makes the surf exceptional. The rocks form reefs, but they don't move very easily, so the waves break consistently. And that's what surfers are looking for: a consistent, predictable break.
"You're also getting wind protection from the offshore kelp beds, and that makes the waves stay glassy, which is another feature that surfers look for. It's really like surfing in a natural environment that you would have found here 100 or 200 years ago. For the most part, it's considered a world-class surfing spot. Traveling surfers, when they hit California, make sure to get to Trestles."
The name Trestles, while not official, has come into common usage through its consistent use by surfers, who named the beach after the wooden train trestles that rise above the sand inland from the waves. Santa Fe and Amtrak trains still cross the trestles frequently.
Reaching Trestles isn't easy, particularly for surfers burdened with boards. There is a parking lot for 100 cars at the extreme south end of El Camino Real in San Clemente, Long said, but from there visitors to the beach are obliged to cross the Cristianitos Road overpass and walk down a 1.5-mile trail to the beach. There is no direct auto access.
The walk, lifeguard Jon Drucker said, is worth it, and not just for the waves. The wetlands immediately inland from Trestles, particularly along San Mateo Creek, "is all pristine land now, chock full of wildlife."
In this state wildlife preserve, visitors can see many varieties of birds--including osprey and golden eagles--and such mammals as bobcats and deer. The preserve is open year-round, Long said, and there are 2.5 miles of trails for hiking, as well as a bicycle trail that runs through the area.
Both Long and Drucker cautioned against straying from the trails, however, because of abundant poison oak.
For those who simply like to watch surfing, Trestles is one of the busiest spots in the area, Long said: "There usually are surfers out there from daylight until after the sun goes down."
TRESTLES BEACH AT A GLANCE
What: One of the state's best-known surfing beach, popular with surfers from around the world.
Where: Southernmost tip of the county, on the Orange-San Diego county line in San Clemente.
Access: Parking for 100 cars at extreme south end of El Camino Real in San Clemente. (The parking lot will be closed for three weeks after Memorial Day. Alternate access from San Onofre surf beach.) Beach is reached from 1.5-mile trail that begins at west side of Cristianitos Road overpass.
Hours: All hours, 365 days a year.
Surf: Average about 2 feet. Good shape throughout the year. Can reach heights of 10-12 feet in storm seasons.
Lifeguards: No lifeguard stations. Covered by regular beach patrols. Emergency lifeguard services only.