At first glance, Glass Beach is just a small piece of coastline sitting along the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean. Rock cliffs sit at both sides, and at high tide it is impossible to walk from here to any other part of the coast without getting wet. And then, caught by a glimmer or a colorful sparkle, you look down. What you’re walking on isn’t sand, but tiny pieces of sea glass. Brown, red, green, blue, white… the entire rainbow glints in the sun. And you sit, mesmerized, staring at the beauty.
Glass Beach is one of the most unique beaches in California, if not the world. But its creation teaches a story of ugliness, not of the beauty that visitors find today, and its preservation is at best in doubt, and at worst doomed.
Fort Bragg is a city of approximately 8,000 in Mendocino County on California’s Northern Coast. It was founded as a military garrison, and named after Confederate general Braxton Bragg. However, its founding – and naming – was in 1857, before the Civil War, when Bragg was simply an American officer who had recently served in the Mexican-American War. (This stands in stark contrast to Fort Bragg, NC, which was built in 1918, although for my money, I’d see the town renamed anyway.) Name aside, Fort Bragg is a cute town, stretching along Highway 1, staring at the ocean.
From 1949 to 1967, the residents of Fort Bragg used the area of what is now Glass Beach as a dump. (This came after 43 years of filling other beach dump sites to capacity. Yes, you read that right. This tiny town used its stunningly beautiful beaches as garbage dumps for 61 years.) In 1967, the dump was closed. Metal was sold for scrap, what could degrade was left to do so, and glass was slowly pounded by the waves into small pieces of smooth, jewelry-quality sea glass. It is those pieces that bring visitors here, hundreds per day, not realizing that the beauty they are marveling at is not naturally occurring, but rather the remnants of a beachfront trash heap.
Sea glass is one of humanity’s additions to the natural world, and is a pretty name for an otherwise ugly concept: human glass waste left in or alongside bodies of water. But there is no doubt that the end result can be one of beauty, even if the intermittent decades would not be.
So what do humans do with something as beautiful as Glass Beach? Well, of course, they destroy it all over again. For decades, visitors have been coming here, and leaving with souvenir bits of glass scavenged from the beach to take home with them. As a result, the glass that remains is the small bits, the largest being about the size of a tiny pebble. And since – thankfully – the area is no longer a dump, the sea glass will not naturally replenish. This means that Glass Beach will probably just be Ordinary Beach in a decade or so.
Fortunately, Fort Bragg is a cute enough town to be worth exploring even without the sea glass to anchor it. Of course, the highlight is the ocean, and the town has made up for its past by protecting much of the coastline as parkland. Pomo Bluffs Park offers the best view, in my humble opinion. Dramatic cliffs, sea caves, and the entrance to Fort Bragg’s harbor inside the Noyo River are available in your 270 degree vistas from various benches. Grab a basket of fish and chips or a bowl of chowder from Sea Pal Cove (trust me on this), and bring it up here for a truly majestic dinner. Or swing by Cowlick’s Ice Cream for their mushroom ice cream. Made with local candy cap mushrooms, it tastes like maple syrup!
Human history is filled with ugliness. In the case of Glass Beach in Fort Bragg, California, that ugliness led to incredible beauty. Visit and enjoy, but please, leave the glass behind.
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