Thursday, March 19, 2009
During Fort Ord’s active years, the area that just became Fort Ord Dunes State Park earlier this month would have been a beehive of military activity. From inside the 52,000-square-foot Stilwell Hall, the sounds of big band music or the jokes of comedian Bob Hope, who is said to have performed in the officer’s club, might have been heard as the sun sank into the massive Pacific out front. Mingling with those sounds would have been the pops of firing guns and the whiz of sailing bullets from the nearby firing range. There would also probably have been the yells of officers barking commands to their insubordinate subordinates struggling to rise above the nearby crash of ocean waves.
Today, Fort Ord Dunes State Park is both a quiet place to escape the rapidly moving world and a spot to contemplate the area’s unique military past. Though Stilwell Hall was torn down in 2003, there are many manmade features and buildings to explore on the new park’s grounds – from the remnants of firing ranges to a railroad turnaround, which has a stitch of railroad tracks curving on top of a dam-like rise of land.
One of Fort Ord Dunes State Park’s most interesting vestiges of its Army past is a low-lying area with 12 ammunition storage bunkers boring into the dunes. Tendrils of nonnative ice plant hang down the front of the bunkers like dreadlocks, and, inside the big metal doors of the bunkers that are still open, visitors will be surprised to find that the concrete structures go back about 40 feet.
The California State Parks have already erected eight educational panels at Ford Ord Dunes State Park’s main parking area and the adjacent Lookout Point, which offers sweeping views of Monterey Bay. California State Parks Monterey District Historian Matt Bischoff says that the area, which is the former site of Stilwell Hall, is the park’s greatest historical feature. The now demolished club once housed a 25-foot fireplace along with a bar that was said to be the longest in California. “It was a pretty active and vibrant place,” Bischoff says.
The historian adds that the state parks will install more interpretive panels on the old rifle range, and farther in the future, he hopes, by the ammunition bunkers. “I think it’s really great we have a new coastal park,” he says. “I just want to make sure that the history of Fort Ord remains.”
In the next few years the State Parks is also planning on opening a campground in the area around the bunkers near an oasis of cypress trees. “It’s going to be the only coastal campground between Big Sur and Santa Cruz,” Supervising State Park Ranger Mike McMenamy says.
Currently, the primary natural attractions at Fort Ord Dunes State Park are its four miles of open beach and its steep sand dunes, most of which are cloaked in carpets of ice plant. The dunes are home to many rare plants, including dune gilia and Monterey spineflower, while the land also harbors protected animal species like the black legless lizard and the small shore-loving snowy plover.
McMenamy says park officials are encouraging visitors to stay on Fort Ord Dune’s paved areas and designated trails to minimize the impact of humans on these endangered species. Right now, the park has dirt roads, trails and a five-mile paved road paralleling Highway 1 and the Rec Trail. Bikers and joggers can detour off the Rec Trail and into the park at two crossover points located at the far south and north ends of Fort Ord Dunes State Park.
Ryan Tibbs, manager of Monterey’s Joselyn’s Bicycles, frequently turns off the Rec Trail and into Fort Ord Dunes State Park while riding from his home in Marina to work. “I just like it as an alternative,” he says. “More than anything else, it seems a little quieter because it takes you away from the highway.”
McMenamy believes the beach is one of the new park’s greatest assets. He says he has found all sorts of interesting things wash up there, from military ordnances to dead sharks. “I gotta say the beach is pretty nice,” he says. “You can get down there and be totally alone for miles in either direction.”
As we stand on top of the initial wave of dunes rising above the beach about 100 feet, the sun begins to set and lights begin to speckle the nearby Monterey Peninsula. “During the tough economic times, people need places like these to come recreate,” McMenamy says. “For no cost.”
APPROACH | To visit Fort Ord Dunes State Park from Highway 1, take the Lightfighter Drive exit. Turn left onto 2nd Avenue then turn left at Divarty Street and right at 1st Avenue. Follow the signs into the parking area.
KEY STATS | Fort Ord Dunes State Park is open to the public from 8am to a half hour after sunset daily. Admission is free. For more information, call 649-2862 or 582-3686, or visit www.parks.ca.gov
SPECIAL INGREDIENTS | Old military station features, including lookout towers and ammunition bunkers; tall and steep shoreside dunes; panoramic views stretching from Pacific Grove to Santa Cruz; wide, clean beaches.