SAN CLEMENTE — San Onofre State Park has its renowned surfing beaches, a nuclear power plant and bluff-top camping along old U.S. 101. And then there's Trail 6.
Swimsuits are optional at Trail 6, at the southern tip of the park. That in itself has never been a problem. But now the popular, secluded strip of sand at the foot of the trail is experiencing rocky times that threaten its tranquillity and perhaps its future, park officials warn.
The problem is that people are having sex there.
"In the last four or five years we have begun receiving numerous public complaints, in writing, about what they call 'lewd and lascivious behavior' going on down there," said Jack Roggenbuck, superintendent of the state park system's Orange Coast district. "We have a responsibility to make sure this doesn't go on . . . and we are going to enforce our rules much more strictly."
But John from San Clemente, a regular at Trail 6 for eight years who declined to give his last name, said only a few people are ruining a good thing for the many others who frequent the beach.
"The sexual stuff, that's pretty rare," he said. "We have 100 to 200 people here on the weekends. There are families. People play volleyball. But there is a real paranoia going on because we heard they were going to close it."
Officially, there is no such thing as a nude beach in the state park system, Roggenbuck explained. But there are many remote beaches up and down the California coast, including areas around Santa Barbara, the Palos Verdes Peninsula and Black's Beach in San Diego, where officials allow sunbathing in the buff.
The policy is more than a variation of "don't ask, don't tell." In 1979, park officials decided that rangers would not take any action against nude sunbathers at remote beaches except in response to complaints, said Mike Tope, the park's head ranger.
"We don't designate nude beaches in state parks," Tope said. "Any place in the system, like Trail 6, that is remote and out of the way, we aren't going to know about it unless somebody complains. But the message we want to get out is that nudity is officially prohibited and we will enforce the rules upon complaint."
There were fewer beaches in the state park system more remote than Trail 6 back in 1971 when then-President Richard Nixon described the area south of his Western White House as "a great sunning beach" and transferred five miles of coastline--at that time part of Camp Pendleton--from Marine Corps ownership to the state.
Today, San Onofre State Park, which sprawls around Southern California Edison's 27-year-old San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, includes one of the state's finest surfing areas, called Trestles, named after an ancient pair of wooden Amtrak bridges. It also includes a popular picnic and surfing spot called the San Onofre Surf Beach, and a camping area along old U.S. 101.
There are six dirt trails winding about half a mile from the old highway through the wildflowers and mustard-tinged bluffs to the beach, the southernmost one being Trail 6. But creeping development and mention in alternative lifestyle magazines have made the beach less remote every year, Tope said.
"It's getting more and more popular," he said. "It's a beautiful and primitive area. There aren't many places like it left in Southern California."
But it's not a place to go for "anything and everything," as suggested in an underground magazine, Tope said, adding that "we will make arrests if people abuse the freedoms."
Amber Borcherdt, 28, a massage therapist from Telluride, Colo., chanced upon Trail 6 last week while driving north along the coast toward Big Sur. Borcherdt and her friend asked a ranger where they could run their dogs, and he offered Trail 6, but also warned them that it was a "bathing suit optional" beach.
"That worked out fine for us, because we didn't bring bathing suits with us anyway," she said with a laugh.
But the new popularity has brought problems. Tope estimated that in the past year the park service has received about 80 complaints from visitors to Trail 6.
Then last year, during the summer season when lifeguards are present, a female lifeguard complained about harassment from some male visitors, prompting park officials to let it be known that they were going to crack down. Park rangers, who will step up their surveillance of the area from the bluff tops and on the beach in Jeeps, have the ability to cite and arrest those who abuse the freedom of the beach.
The penalty for lewd activity, which is a misdemeanor, is a $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail, park officials said. But no one really wants it to come to that, Tope said.
Certainly not the regular visitors. A letter-writing campaign organized by the "naturists" via the Internet has besieged the parks office, Tope said.
At the moment, nobody is saying that the nude bathing must cease, he said.
"We are not saying nudism or bathing in the buff is the cause of the other behavior, but it certainly brings in that element," Tope said. "Our mission is to keep the park safe and enjoyable for everybody. We don't really have time to go down there and count bathing suits."