Within five years, Sonoma County hikers may be able to walk within sight or scent of the ocean from Sea Ranch to Bodega Bay, along some 40 miles of the gradually emerging California Coastal Trail.
It may also be possible to walk along 20 miles of inland meadow and forest trails from the coast to Occidental before 2010.
It's happening now because of a recent spate of land acquisitions by the county Open Space District and pledges of funding to supplement local budgets from the state Coastal Conservancy.
The trails, designed primarily for hikers, will offer breathtaking views that can't be seen from the road, said Craig Anderson, executive director of LandPaths, a nonprofit that works with agencies and land owners on trail issues.
"There are views of Bodega Bay and Point Reyes and Tomales that only cows have seen for the last 100 years," Anderson said. "Soon you will be able to look out on the Pacific Ocean from the top of a windswept ridge, over a timeless Sonoma County landscape."
The idea of a continuous, 1,200-mile-long trail along the California coast was included in the state's 1972 Coastal Conservation Act, which sets a priority on public access to the coast.
But it wasn't until 2001 that the Legislature charged the state Coastal Conservancy with implementing a walking route from the Oregon state line to the Mexican border.
The coast trail serves several purposes: It prevents private beachfront owners from locking out the public; provides enjoyable exercise - one out of every three people nationwide hikes or walks; and allows people a taste of the diversity and grandeur of the California coastline.
"It is just a great, wonderful thing to do," said Richard Nichols, who has lobbied vigorously for a coastal trail as the head of Sebastopol-based CoastWalk, a nonprofit organization.
The cost of a trail stretching along Sonoma County's 62 miles of coastline has been estimated at $11 million. But much of the work has already been done, and Sonoma County is way ahead of the rest of the coastal counties, said Richard Retecki, project manager for the Coastal Conservancy.
"In Sonoma County, you have a number of groups who are really proactive and know how to do the work - nonprofits and public agencies," Retecki said. "I sit down with these people and it's marvelous what happens."
Hikers already have access to about 37 miles of north-south trails between Sea Ranch and Bodega Bay, the most popular part of the Sonoma Coast.
Another half-dozen miles along the coast and more than 20 miles inland could be completed within the next few years.
North of the Russian River, the state and county are working together to complete a 3-mile trail through meadows and Douglas fir forest to link Salt Point State Park with Stillwater Cove Regional Park.
Another short trail is proposed from Highway 1 to Ocean Cove, through a private campground.
Most of the new trails, however, are slated between the Russian River and Bodega Bay, where hundreds of bicyclists compete each year with drivers for space on the narrow roads.
"The commercial bike operators bring them out here by the hundreds," said Richard Charter, a Bodega Bay resident and marine conservation advocate with Environmental Defense, an environmental nonprofit group.