Nicolaos “Nick” Haritatos’ career as a pilot showed as he prepared for the final leg of his journey.

He had mapped out his route, checked the tides and kept tabs on his fellow California Coast Walkers by phone and walkie talkie.

On a gray Saturday morning, 17 years after Haritatos started his trek at the Mexican border, the California Coast Walkers left Ship Ashore Resort at 9:30 — 7 minutes before low tide — skirted the Smith River estuary and headed north, scrambling over rocks and tidepools and fording creeks.

Nearly five miles of packed sand later, the California Coast Walkers joined hands with Caroline “Cea” Higgins, executive director of the California Coastal Trail Association, and “Hiking the California Coastal Trail” authors Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols and crossed into Oregon. They were joined by Del Norte County Supervisors Chris Howard, Roger Gitlin and Bob Berkowitz.

“It was a long dream,” Haritatos said. “I’m happy. Very happy.”

One of a bunch of “crazy San Diegans” who met every Sunday to go hiking for about five to seven years, Haritatos, who originally hails from Greece, said they wanted to try something new. When one of his friends told him about the California Coastal Trail, which stretches from the Mexican to the Oregon border and when finished will span about 1,200 miles, Haritatos said “that was the dream, born.”

The dream was born in May 2001 and since then Haritatos and the California Coast Walkers have slowly counted off the miles until they had just 70 to go this year. Along the way, friends were nearly swept out to sea, losing their phones and getting bruised in the process, he said. The Coast Walkers encountered bears on the Lost Coast, but successfully avoided them.

Haritatos said the Coast Walkers had originally planned to finish their 17-long odyssey last year, but due to the sudden death of his wife, Anne, they postponed their plans. He said his ultimate goal is to raise awareness for the California Coastal Trail, which he calls the third best trail on the planet.

“I’m upset that people are not using it so much because they don’t know about it,” Haritatos said. “Everybody thinks of the Pacific Crest Trail, which is the one that goes into the desert. That trail can’t even come close to this one because here we got inland, we got coast, we got forests, we got different roads. We have cities we go through, waterfronts, it is so diverse.”

Mandated by the passing of Proposition 20 in 1972, the California Coastal Trail was designed to provide a hiking, bicycle and equestrian trails system along or near the coast, according to the California Coastal Trail Association (CCTA) website. This trail system would ideally be continuous and located near the shoreline. According to the CCTA, the Coastal Act of 1976 required local jurisdictions to identify an alignment for the coastal trail in their Local Coastal Programs.

According to Higgins, the association’s goal, through its 35-year-old public outreach program Coastwalk, is to raise awareness and complete the trail. Spanning 1,200 miles the California Coastal Trail passes through 126 different jurisdictions, including military bases, she said.

Restoring the trail takes developing partnerships with those jurisdictions and requires funding, agreements and permits, Higgins said.

“What we do is we facilitate that relationship, so we get all of the jurisdictions to become a member,” she said, adding that they also work to promote the trail in a given area. “We bring people in that area and then we coordinate with our Coastwalk branch to coordinate a Coastwalk there and turn people on to it.”

The CCTA coordinates Coastwalks throughout the state, offering guided experiences, including camping and hotels, food and gear, Higgins said. Coastwalk also has a youth education program that brings a wilderness experience to youngsters who have never had wilderness experiences, she said.

Higgins also noted that the California Coastal Trail isn’t just an economic drivers for the communities it passes through, it’s important to wildlife as well.

“We see it as this sort of ribbon of protection up and down the coast,” she said. “Animals use it as a corridor. It preserves the natural resources around it.”

Nichols, who hiked the entire trail from north to south in 1996, said over the past 22 years some jurisdictions have helped develop new sections of trail while other sections were allowed to go derelict. Endeavors by people like the California Coast Walkers to hike the entire trail help bring publicity and build awareness, he said. This is what Coastwalk did, Nichols said.

“It still does with advocacy,” he said. “(We’re) not so much trail builders as we are advocates, supporting it and trying to get these government agencies to pay attention, make it happen.”

The Mendocino coastal town of Fort Bragg just finished its trail using an old lumber mill site, Nichols said.

“That’s a big deal to me ‘cause that was closed for a century to the public,” he said.

Some areas like the now-denuclearized San Onofre and Diablo Canyon power plants as well as large tracts of land hinder development of the trail, Higgins said. In the case of the San Onofre and Diablo Canyon power plants, Higgins said one of the challenges is figuring out how to get a trail section open as they go through the denuclearization process.

In the case of large ranch lands, Higgins said the CCTA will speak with the California Coastal Conservancy, which helps support and fund the association, to purchase that land at fair market value. One example of this, Higgins said, is Richardson Ranch in northern Sonoma County.

“In Richard (Nichols) book back when he wrote it in 2001, he’s like oh, Richardson Ranch, forget it, it’ll never happen and then here we go, we have trail there,” Higgins said. “It is just incrementally kind of keeping your eye on the prize and when you get other areas that talk about how cool it is to have trail there for their community and for their businesses and for the health of their wildlife, that helps too.”

Haritatos thanked Nichols and Lorentzen for writing the guidebook that set him off on his journey. He also thanked the county supervisors for coming along on the final trek of his journey and said he hoped they would work with Higgins to help complete the trail.

Haritatos also thanked Higgins for taking on the role of CCTA executive director and would let her know where signage on the trail could be improved and encouraged her to get more people involved.

“Personally, I would like people to know this beautiful trail because the more people that can walk, the less maintenance the trail will need,” he said. “They cannot find any better trail than the California Coastal Trail.”

Finally, with his son Panny and his daughter Athena, Haritatos remembered his wife Anne. Following a toast to her, the California Coast Walkers broke out the pizza, wine, music and began dancing at the trail’s end with the Pacific Ocean roaring in the background.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com .

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