Filled with colorful, frosted jelly-bean-like pieces of glass worn smooth by the tides, California's Glass Beach shows that one person's trash really can be another's treasure.
The beach was a dumping ground for decades beginning in the late 1940s, when residents of nearby Fort Bragg – located about 3 hours north of San Francisco – would throw their trash over the cliffs, everything from household garbage to kitchen appliances and old cars, as well as lots of glass.
Dumping was finally halted in the late 1960s and several cleanups followed. By the time the 38-acre beach was turned over to California's state parks system in the early 2000s, years of pounding surf had turned what were once jagged shards of glass into millions of rounded, polished jewels.
It can take anywhere from 10 to 30 years to make sea glass, the name for any piece of glass that finds its way to the ocean and tumbles around in the water long enough to frost and smooth its surface. The glass can come from anywhere – bottles, flasks, or even car windows, thrown into a dump or overboard from a boat.
Once it makes its way into the ocean, the glass is broken up into shards and tumbled around in the water, where sand and other rocks act like sandpaper to smooth out its rough edges. Salty seawater, especially water with a higher-than-average pH, also gives the glass a frosty, pitted sheen.
Back on the beach, sea glass can be found in common colors like green, brown and white, and inmuch rarer colors like amber, jade, pink, aqua, citron and purple – really any color in which glass is made. Those rare colors have made sea glass a collectors' item and inspired books and hobbyist websites (like Sea Glass Journal) that offer tips on where and how to find sea glass around the world.
At California's Glass Beach, locals say that before it became famous, the beach was covered in as much as a foot of sea glass so smooth that a person could walk along it with bare feet.
Today, you can still find sea glass in what's known officially as MacKerricher State Park – as well as the occasional rusted spark plug – but what is left is being rapidly depleted by tourists who collect pieces in plastic bags, buckets and even sometimes canisters as large as trash cans.
Budget cuts have limited the park system's ability to enforce laws against collecting sea glass, however, prompting park officials to try any and all avenues to spread the message that it should be enjoyed for its view and left alone.
"It has never been legal to remove the glass from Glass Beach since it became California State Park property," said Marilyn Murphy of the Mendocino Area State Parks, in an interview with MendocinoFun.com. "So much glass has already been taken that if it continues, there will be no more glass on Glass Beach."