Pacific Coast Recreation Area Survey
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The Seashore

Coastal regions are among the most continually changing zones on the face of the earth. Geologically, the conflict between the land and sea has, in the coastal zone, been timeless. The area where this conflict takes place is commonly called the seashore. The force of the waves, the tides, and the winds has the effect of timelessly forming and reforming the shoreline.

There is ceaseless movement of the water as well as constant change in the land forms at the seashore. Sometimes it is a rugged and rocky scene, where the waves climb and thunder against the steep walls. Then again, the shoreline has gently sloping, smooth beaches, where the waves unwind themselves into nothingness as they chase each other up and across the unobstructed sandy surface.

Here, too, are found the plants and animals which have learned to live in the shallow waters close to the shore and on the lands near the sea. In many cases, they have adapted themselves to a combination of living in and out of the water, depending on the sea levels. These plants, the animals and many other things — the land, the water, the wind, the clouds, the rain, the streams that flow into the sea here and there along the coastline, we humans who live on earth because of all these things, and many, many more — compose the wonderful place called the seashore.

Another important influence which should be mentioned is man. Though he is a part of nature, man has shown an extraordinary capacity to effect changes in the natural condition of the seashore. Equally as important as man's capacity to effect change is his ability to utilize, (as demonstrated by early man), to enjoy (as proven by the attraction which the seashore has to countless people), and to appreciate the natural values of the seashore. This place which we call the Pacific seashore is a complicated association of resources. Here, man fishes the waters, reclaims the tidal areas, pollutes the waters, hunts the game, dredges the harbors, constructs roads and buildings, logs the timber, and grazes the fields. Yet he is relatively unaware of the full impact of all these activities on those resources.

Fortunately, interest in the scientific and cultural significance of this magnificent natural heritage is growing, though only hesitantly are the implications of man's increasing use of the seashore revealing themselves. History has proven that as man abuses nature, so does he abuse himself; therefore, today's decisions affecting the use of the natural resources of our seashore areas must be based on a knowledge and understanding of all related values.

Scenery and Recreation

The natural scenic qualities of the Pacific Coast are virtually unsurpassed. Ecological and geological settings provide inspirational rewards and features to stir the imagination. They include smooth sandy beaches, rugged and massive bluffs, pounding and surging surf, natural sea caves, numerous saltwater coves and inlets, offshore rocks and reefs, sand dunes, expansive grasslands, brush-covered slopes, displays of wild flowers and dense forests on coastal mountain ranges.

If one could scan the entire Pacific Coast from the south to the north in a quick glance, he would see a bold, curving coastline which stretches from the sunny beaches and chaparral hills of southern California northward to where the dark mantle of the coastal redwoods takes over. Before his glance moves on, he might pause and consider the way in which the natural scene of southern and central California is interrupted by an ever-spreading biological desert of roofs and pavements which have engulfed the salt marshes, grasslands, brushlands, forests and beaches.

The Pacific Coast possesses virtually unsurpassed scenic qualities.

To the northward are the wild promontories of north-central California and the fog country where the forest becomes more dense. These gradually give way to rainier, even denser forests with their alpine backdrop, and to the dune country of Oregon with its many-fingered sylvan lakes. Beyond is the bold coastline of central Oregon, where change upon change grows up to an ever-greater climax of wilderness forest, culminating in the extremely dense rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.

Even from such a quick glance, one would immediately be impressed with the wide diversity in the scenic, geologic, biologic and recreation resources of the Pacific seashore.

In general, all forms of seashore recreation can be found along the Pacific Coast. They include such passive forms of recreation as nature study, photography, sketching, painting, or an appreciation of historical places. In short, it can be said that every foot of shoreline has some recreation interest to someone, somewhere.

There is a direct correlation between the diversity of the recreation resources of the Pacific Coast, and the variety of recreation opportunities which it offers the countless people with their complexity of interests. These interests vary almost in direct proportion with the type of seashore available, ranging from the forested, rocky shoreline of northern Washington to the wide, sandy, warm watered beaches of southern California.

Climate, too, is a controlling factor in seashore recreation, just as it is a dominant influence in inland regions. The central portion of the Pacific Coast, for example, has an intermediate climate. Here, the respective recreation interests inherent to the northern and southern portions of the coast also overlap and intermingle. Most forms of seashore activities are found in this central section, but they are of limited extent because of prevailing land forms.

The southern portion of the coast, with its warmer water and air, plus nearby heavy concentrations of population, receives very intensive and concentrated recreation use. Major activities include swimming, sun-bathing, skin diving, camping, picnicking and boating.

The northern part of the Pacific Coast, on the other hand, has more and larger open spaces, together with a diversity of opportunities. It thus receives a more extensive type of recreation, with less concentration of people.

Intensive ocean swimming is limited to southern California where both air and water temperatures are conducive to this vigorous activity. However, ocean swimming is a common occurrence along all sections of the Pacific Coast, though in the northern portion it is somewhat limited to the more hardy individuals. Although swimming is normally associated with sandy beaches, more visitation time undoubtedly is spent on the beaches than in the water itself, and swimming is secondary to sun bathing along the ocean shore. Swimming and sun bathing attract more people to the seashore than any other activity. This is brought out by the fact that Huntington Beach State Park near Los Angeles has the highest visitation of any of the State parks in California. This two-mile section of sandy beach has an average visitation of over 100,000 persons monthly. Certain beaches farther north normally associated with weather too cool for much beach recreation do, however, have crowds on warm weekends. This can be illustrated by the fact that on one day in 1957 Stinson Beach State Park, north of San Francisco, received a visitation just short of 10,000. Annual attendance at the State of California seashore beaches and parks increased nearly 30 percent from 1956 to 1957, or 5 percent more than inland parks during the same period.

Swimming and sun bathing attract more people to the seashore than any other activity. —by Los Angeles City Recreation and Park Department

Skin diving, which includes exploration and spear fishing, is opening new horizons in the underwater world for more and more of the recreation-seeking public. Within the past decade there has been a tremendous increase in the number of the participants. Last year there were about half a million skin divers in the United States, of which 75,000 are using Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, popularly known as SCUBA. A majority of these participants live near warm water, as approximately 200,000 skin divers operate in southern California, where nearly 150 organized underwater clubs are located. At present, normal limits of the skin diver are approximately 60 feet and 150 feet for the SCUBA, although, along with the increase in number of skin divers, there is an increase in the average skill of the individual and in the efficiency of the equipment used.

Surf fishing, normally associated with steep sloping sandy beaches, is popular all along the Pacific Coast.

Fishing, ever-increasing in popularity, is an activity enjoyed by a multitude of people, young and old, of both sexes. It has been said that fishing, together with hunting, is the "American sport," as more persons participate (approximately 25 million in 1955) than any other sporting activity. Much of this fishing is of the saltwater variety, whether it be surf fishing, rock fishing or from offshore boats. It was estimated by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service that in 1955 over 1,100,000 persons participated in Pacific Coast saltwater fishing.

Camping and picnicking always have been popular family activities and used as a "tool of escape" from daily routine. The modern fast moving way of life, particularly in metropolitan areas, relies on this type of relief to keep in existence, whether it is in the backyard, the mountains or at the seashore. At the present time a large portion of vacations is centered around camping and related activities. Seashore picnics are frequent at the beach or possibly from an ocean vista point. The seashore has its share of camping opportunities although, in general, the demand is greater than the supply. This is particularly true in California. A most significant contributing factor to this situation is that some 70 percent of California's 14 million people live 30 miles or less from the ocean.

A large portion of vacations is centered around seashore camping.

Boating, which is normally associated with the seashore, is another of the fast growing activities, and many times referred to as the "family sport." The U. S. Coast Guard, as of June, 1958, has registered over 70,000 small craft on the Pacific Coast and there are undoubtedly thousands more not registered. These are all boats sixteen feet or more in length, therefore, a majority is capable of utilizing ocean waters. Boating is basically divided into two major groups, the day-use category, and the cruising or overnight classification. Looking at boating on a national basis, a recent statistical review indicated that during 1957, 35,000,000 Americans took part in recreation boating. Seven million pleasure craft were found to be in existence, the total including 437,000 numbered motor boats, 300,000 unnumbered inboard motor boats, 4,000 inboard cruisers, 3,360,000 outboard boats, 595,000 sailboats, and 2,375,000 rowboats and other small craft.

Horseback riding, hiking, beachcombing or just walking along an extensive open beach or undeveloped section of the seashore, is an invigorating experience and many times rewarding. The Pacific Coast offers excellent opportunities for these activities all along its shoreline where winds and surf have caused deposits of debris, including objects of interesting origin and shape, some from far-off lands or from the little-known depths of the ocean.

The aesthetic qualities of the Pacific seashore provide inspiring scenes of ocean, shoreline and uplands for both the amateur and professional artist. Nearly every exhibit of art on the Pacific Coast contains pictures of the sea or its shore. In providing more access to the ocean, the magnificence of the seashore and surrounding environment — its real worth — would be more appreciated and interpreted through this media than it is even today. With its pictorial qualities, color, vastness of ocean and sky and ever-changing moods, this coastal region fortunately can be permanently recorded by many people in addition to the painter, through the wonders of amateur photography so cherished by the modern tourist.

Boating, a seashore activity, is a fast growing "family sport." — by Marine Photography


In considering the high scenic, park and recreation values inherent in the hundreds of miles of our western seashore, we are dealing basically with geology and the causes as well as the effects of geological processes. The coast and seashore we see today are the result of long continued action of earth forces.

We are concerned here not with the vast Pacific border province of which the seashore is a part, but rather with a narrow, attenuated strip which embraces the contact of sea and land and areas immediately related to it — both landward and submerged along the continental shelf. It constitutes in a direct and literal sense the ocean front. This region in turn has been divided by the geologists into six "sections," having distinct characteristics. These cover the entire coast from the Olympic Peninsula to the Mexican border.

This breakdown, however, includes a great deal more than the seashore proper. It embraces the chain of coastal ranges which closely crowd the Pacific from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Mexico. These mountains separate narrow coastal plains in marked contrast to the extensive plain of the eastern seaboard. Here the mountains predominate, whether high and impressive as on the Olympic Peninsula and again in the Klamath section, including the Siskiyous, or along the less impressive portions of the other coast ranges.

A varied rock composition is found in this ocean-fronting province.

In the Olympics metamorphosed sediments — slates, argillites, sandstones and even schists — are seen. Extreme deformation which has occurred has hither to made it very difficult to unravel the history of this great mass. A thick sheath of basalt flows and tuffs, now much altered, clings to the core of this range. Of more direct interest to the seashore is the belt of younger shales, sandstones, and conglomerates lying between these mountains and the shore. Rugged sea cliffs near Cape Disappointment offer a display of lava flows. The great faulting and buckling has all occurred within the last million years. In fact, according to some authorities, most of Washington's scenic features were formed during the most recent one percent of known geologic time.

On the Oregon Coast, geologic formations range from old metamorphics, sandstones and shales through younger igneous rocks and sediments to very recent sands, gravels and peat-bogs.

Two distinct geologic regions are evident on the Oregon Coast. From the Coquille River north to the Columbia are relatively young rocks. South of the former stream, materials are generally older and usually highly altered. This basic difference between north and south explains in large measure seashore variations in type and character. To the south, the older materials are more weathered and so more readily disintegrated by wave action. These older, metamorphized intrusive rocks can be seen at Bandon associated with compacted sandstones. South of that city occur many outcrops of older rocks including conglomerate, sandstones and shales. Humbug Mountain, 1,750 feet, the highest mountain directly on the Oregon Coast, is entirely of firmly cemented conglomerate. The igneous rocks are mostly dark colored intrusives. There is a tremendous outcrop of very hard and heavy basalt at Yaquina Head. South of Bandon, on the other hand, such igneous rocks are very rare, if they occur at all. The same is true of the thick layers of shales which occur north of that point where, in places, a thin veneer of sandstone protects the softer shales. In some sections this is sufficient to survive as reefs parallel to the shore affording added protection.

Quite easily eroded sandstone mantles many of the above rocks in layers one or two feet to a hundred or more in depth. Only limited areas of such sandstones are found south of Bandon but, again, to the north they form miles of cliffs.

At the top of the stratigraphic list are very recent sands now making up the spectacular dunes of the northern seashore. Beginning north of Grays Harbor in Washington, they are significant north and south of the Columbia River and assume notable proportions on the central Oregon coast where exposures of older sands are especially evident. South of Cape Blanco the occurrence of the dunes rapidly diminishes, a fact attributable in large measure to the coastal geology discussed above. It is claimed that 45 percent of the ocean front in Oregon carries dune formations, while in Washington 31 percent of the front between Cape Flattery and the Columbia River is similarly affected.

Between the Siuslaw and Umpqua Rivers in Oregon these seacoast phenomena assume proportions which may prove to be of national significance.

From Cape Blanco to the Golden Gate at San Francisco, dune areas are comparatively small and widely separated. However, interesting dune areas are found north of Point St. George, at Humboldt Bay, Point Arena, and Bodega Head, all in California. On Monterey Bay, as at Morro Bay farther south, dune areas again assume importance. Greatest of the California dune regions occurs north and south of the Santa Maria River and Point Sal, extending upwards of twenty miles. (1)

(1) There is a great mass of scientific literature on sand dune phenomena, but in large measure it deals with dune conditions in Europe, especially Germany and the Netherlands. In those much smaller countries the impact of dune conditions on human occupation has been far more critical than in this country. For more extensive, scientific analysis of dune phenomena, including origins and behavior, see "Coastal Sand Dunes of Oregon and Washington," by William S. Cooper, The Geological Society of America, Memoir 72, 1958.

Southward along the California shore below the great Klamath-Siskiyou complex, there is considerable similarity of the coast range phenomena with that occurring north of that block of mountains. Compositions are of similar age, and the rocks are also heavily folded and faulted. They often rise abruptly from the ocean, where sea cliffs are prominent. The building of these coast ranges has been a complicated process. Rocks are largely resistant sediments, the most widespread being hardened sandstone, slate and other metamorphics. There are only relatively small areas of igneous rocks.

The many hundreds of miles of the California seashore offer opportunity for a display of geologic formations and their history in great variety. The following observations, of necessity, are generally broad and only touch on specific areas of somewhat unusual interest.

Southward the seashore continues to reflect the ocean-battered toe of typical California coast range materials, often with a rugged, rock-outcropping coast, much of it with only a narrow marine terrace. For long stretches, as above and below Cape Mendocino, even that is lacking altogether and great bluffs rise so abruptly from the sea that even trails are absent and highway construction, while not impossible, would be prohibitively costly.

Granite appears at Bodega Head, probably a continuation of Tomales Point formations. Intervening seashore areas are related to sandstones resting on jumbled metamorphic rocks. At Estero San Antonio there is soft yellow sandstone, in places as much as 250-300 feet thick.

Point Reyes is likewise of granite, but separated from the ridge of Tomales Point by a deep depression where sandstones occur. The extremity of Tomales Point again presents a mass of granite, but there it is soft and decomposed. Mount Tamalpais which dominates the seacoast for many miles, is all of hard, metamorphic sandstone.

San Francisco peninsula geology is a continuation of that in Marin County north of the Golden Gate. There is considerable exposure of fine-grained sandstone near Ano Nuevo Point and the bluish gray, very compact sandstones of this part of the peninsula are exposed at Pigeon Point.

South to the alluvial on Monterey Bay where the seashore terminates the broad fill of the Salinas Valley, the Santa Cruz Mountains closely crowd the coast. They comprise sediments of various kinds with intrusive granite masses. The range terminates at the Golden Gate where forces which helped open that passage are manifested by the most chaotic jumble of strata in the state. There are outcrops of rocks of fairly recent age on the seashore south of San Francisco extending nearly to Mussel Rock.

Highly scenic resistant rock exposures create the spectacular Monterey promontory. There, granite reaches the sea, in places abutting against bituminous slates which also just touch Monterey Bay.

It is at Point Lobos Reserve State Park just below Carmel Bay that a resistant granitic outcrop has created what has been described as the most spectacular meeting of land and sea in the world!

The seashore between Monterey and Morro Bay is extremely rugged, with rock outcrops and high cliffs predominating over sandy beaches. Marine terraces are narrow or lacking entirely at low levels.

The significance of the sand dune regions related to the Santa Maria River has already been noted.

The Santa Inez Range itself, from Point Conception to the region of Ventura, is composed entirely of sandstone. There is no evidence of volcanic rock and very little metamorphism has occurred. The seashore on this extensive east-west trend of coast reflects this condition.

Indicative of variations in the geology of the California seashore are stretches of the Ventura-Carpinteria coast fronting the Santa Inez Range. Here, too, is found a phenomenon of direct influence on southern California beaches. Bituminous slates are interstratified with fine-grained sandstones. Occasionally, tarry asphaltum occurs where outcrops strike the sea and drift along the coast to be deposited shoreward, along with similar ooze from the offshore bottoms. This does not add to beach recreation values.

The east-west trending Santa Monica Mountains originally extended seaward in the not too distant past, and small units, isolated by crustal movements now appear as the Channel Islands — Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel. Similar rocks, carrying Pleistocene elephant remains are found on the islands and in the landward mountains. The steep granite front of the mountains is much in evidence along this part of the seashore with magnificent sea cliffs. About midway on this stretch of coast Point Dume, composed of basaltic lava, extends seaward.

Four other islands — Catalina, San Clemente, San Nicolas and Santa Barbara — are not related to the above group but are included as members of the system of detached lands known as the Channel Islands. San Clemente, considered typical of the group, is a tilted fault block. The steep northern shore is reflected in deep channels offshore while the reverse is true of the gentle-sloping southside of the islands.

Southeasterly from the Santa Monica Mountains, across the wide reach of Santa Monica Bay and lying on the present edge of what is known as the "Los Angeles Ranges," the San Pedro (Palos Verdes) Hills form a prominent headland, rising to nearly 1,500 feet. These are similar in every way to the offshore islands south of the Santa Barbara Channel. This headland, too, was once an island but has been joined to the mainland by the deposit of sediments from the coast-paralleling ranges of the district farther inland. Alluvial plains from those mountains form the low lands above and below the headland. This accounts for sand hill formations, as in the region of El Segundo, or adjacent, coastal swamp districts, as at Playa del Rey or again, southeast of Long Beach, as in the region of Anaheim, Sunset and Bolsa Bays where marina development is feasible. It is interesting to note that the settling of large blocks of land at the base of the San Pedro Hills is attributed to movements along a slipping plane formed by a water-soaked bed of "tuff" or volcanic rock composed of small fragments of lava from explosive volcanic action.

Toward La Jolla the old, elevated, alluvial terraces back the narrow beaches with high, sea-eroded cliffs.

The Lower California Province which includes the southern coast in the San Diego country is composed chiefly of granites. These rocks are exposed on head lands at Point Loma and at La Jolla, with stretches of low estuaries filled with drifted sand and other deposits as in Mission Bay, and the enclosing sand spits there and along the Silver Strand which forms San Diego Bay.

Consideration of the geologic materials of which the coastline is composed does not alone explain the seashore in all its forms and variations. Tremendous geologic forces have come into play, most of them surprisingly recent as time schedules on that basis are considered.

The most immediate agent constantly at work, whether softly in times of calm or with terrific force in wilder moods, is of course the sea itself. It is in the struggle between sea and land that the seashore has its being. (1)

(1) The terrific force of sea action has been repeatedly evidenced. A storm of February 1914, with 84-mile winds broke Tillamook Light at 130 feet above the sea. Glass was broken at 160 feet above the sea at Yaquina Head Light.

Many factors enter into the effectiveness of the ocean assault on the land masses in creating coastal features. These include hardness of the exposed surfaces, joints, faults, folding, etc. The most potent factor in this group is the abundance of joints and also the inclination presented to sea forces. The Devils Washing Machine on the south side of Cape Sebastian, in Cape Sebastian State Park, is one of the most remarkable of the major features of the Oregon Coast. There the fracturing along parallel, vertical joints has operated so favorably for disintegration that an inlet 1,000 feet long, 300 feet high and 100 feet wide has been formed.

The well-known Sea Lion Caves on the same coast are yet another example of successful sea action under favorable conditions.

The constant sea action tends to wear away the more resistant headlands and to fill up the bays with that eroded material. This accounts for the gradual straightening of seacoasts.

Another factor which has affected sea action against the coast involves the important changes in ocean levels attributable to the more recent glacial stages which have occurred during the last 3 or 4 hundred thousand years.

It has been estimated that reduction of even today's polar ice sheets would raise ocean levels some hundred feet or more, and that formations of a glacial age reduced the sea some 300 feet below present levels.

But it has also been clearly established that land masses have not been static under these variations of sea level. The extent of the latter, obviously, cannot possibly account for the changes in the coast line that have been repeatedly established on our Pacific shores, as elsewhere in the world. Marine terraces at many levels are clearly discernible, often overlong stretches of mountain front. Evidences of the highest such terrace at 1,500 feet above the sea level of today are frequent, occurring in Washington in the north and on San Clemente Island in the south, with many intervening sections. It is even believed higher levels may have been involved, but of such age that positive establishment is open to question. (2)

(2) W. D. Smith, Pan-American geologist, Vol. 59, 1933.

Nor do such terraces appear only above sea level. Others lie on the continental shelf, or at least at the edge of it, many miles seaward from today's seashore.

Even more amazing than the occurrences of former seashores, is the frequency that terrestrial masses have undergone periods of submersion with deposition of materials and emergence with ensuing erosive action. The important thing about this is the extent and frequency with which they have occurred. It is likewise important that even along the northwest coasts submersion and emergence have not been uniform in either time or place. This has resulted in extensive warping of the masses involved, with corresponding shifts in seashore alignment and appearance.

It appears that faulting, which is extensive on the Pacific Coast, has played a comparatively minor roll in determining the character of the seashore. Perhaps the most conspicuous exception to such a generality is the long, attenuated Tomales Bay lying in a trough created by the great San Andreas Fault north of the Golden Gate.

It is perhaps even more surprising that the glacial ages had no direct effect on our Pacific seashore. The great block of glacier which pushed southward through the Georgia Strait between Vancouver Island and the mainland was split by the Olympic Mountains, part of it advancing up Puget Sound and another lobe extending westward through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It was that lobe which deposited foreign materials on the north slopes of the Olympic Mountains. Some of it, including granite boulders, lies today where it was dropped by the retreating glacier. It is possible that some of the smaller aggrading materials found along the coast south of Cape Flattery stem from similar origins. Elsewhere along the coast it is probable, too, that glacial debris from local inland mountains has contributed similarly to coastal aggradation.

From the foregoing it will be seen that our coasts are far from static and are, in fact, ever-changing, mobile, and composite, here receding by erosion, there advancing by deposition, in some places undergoing submergence, in others in an emergent stage to still further warp the involved terrestrial foundations and alter the physiography of the seashore. These changes, in terms of the human life span, are so slow that the U. S. Geological Survey has been unable, as yet, to determine either up or down movement of the coastline from natural causes at present. In fact, man-caused coast changes today, while generally limited and perhaps less permanent, are more noticeable. These involve highways, railroad embankments, causeways, groins, breakwaters, and dredging. The very serious settling taking place on the coast at Long Beach results from withdrawal of vast quantities of petroleum. On the other hand, "the mills of the Gods grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding fine."

Plant and Animal Communities

The rugged and rocky shoreline of the Pacific Coast and its alternating smooth, sandy beaches present an extremely varied pattern of both plant and animal communities. These communities are markedly different from those found along the nearly continuous, low, sandy beaches of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.

The lands above the tidal areas constitute the best known and understood component of the Pacific seashore. Ecologic analysis of the Pacific coastal region by life zones, however, is extremely difficult because of differences in soil, climate, topography and physiography — all of which show a wide variation, often within a relatively limited area.

This is especially true in California. For example, in one coastal county in that State, in which no portion of the county is more than seven miles from marine water, twelve different plant communities have been identified. These include dunes, saltwater marsh, freshwater marsh, streambank and lake shore thickets, tanbark oak-madrone woodland, Bishop pine forest, grassland, coastal brush, chaparral, Douglas fir forest, oak-buckeye woodland, and redwood forest.

Despite the complex inter-relationships of the plant and animal communities of the Pacific Coast, four definite ecological types are generally well defined. They are (1) the tidal and sub-tidal zone; (2) the sand community; (3) the shrub communities; and (4) the coastal forest communities.

The Tidal and Sub-Tidal Zone: This zone can be subdivided into rocky and soft (sandy and muddy) bottoms. The destructive forces, represented by waves, wind, and tidal action of the sea are clearly shown along the rocky seashore. The submerged and exposed rocky areas of the ocean constitute one of the most violent environments to which life has been able to adapt itself.

It is a place where one's senses come alive with the feel of the powerful waves battling the stubborn rocks, the smell of the salt spray, the sounds of barking sea lions and screeching sea gulls, the sight of gracefully gliding pelicans, and seals and sea lions slipping smoothly through the water. These, along with many other sights, smells, and sounds blend together to create a feeling of exhilaration in most people.

A wealth of plant and animal life is often found between the tidemarks. Here abalone, mussels, cockles, starfish, sea urchins, crabs, limpets, and sea anemones are but a part of a vast community of colorful and interesting invertebrate animals. Most of these animals are found attached to or utilizing the protection afforded by the rocks, all using their small suction cups or other special adaptations which are necessary for survival.

Marine algae, commonly referred to as seaweed, makes up the bulk of the plant life in this rocky aquatic zone of the coast. Kelp and fucas, both brown algae, are two of the most conspicuous groups of marine vegetation. Underwater forests of kelp are found scattered along the coast, with some species growing to a length exceeding 100 feet.

In addition to the invertebrate life, the marine fauna of this zone includes a complex association of birds, marine mammals and fishes. Cod, flounder, barracuda, sea bass, sea perch, yellow tail, tuna, and salmon are some of the principal coastal fish utilized by sports and commercial fishermen. Whales, porpoises, Steller sea lions, and the California sea lions, all of which are marine mammals, are often seen along the coast.

Sea otter were once abundant, but by the year 1900 fur hunters had nearly exterminated them. Today, thanks to intensive protective measures, this valuable and interesting marine fur bearer is staging a comeback. A well-established colony of sea otter is now found associated with the offshore kelp beds of Monterey County, California. In addition, other sea otter observations have been made in various locations along the coast. This animal is one of the few in the world that uses an implement (stone) for any purpose — in this case to smash its hard-shelled sea food.

The rocky tidal areas of the ocean constitute an unusually violent environment for plant and animal life.

Gulls, puffins, auklets, murres, scoters, terns, pelicans, and cormorants are but a few of the marine birds which are often seen skimming over the waves or resting on precipitous rocky perches just out of the reach of the thundering surf.

The soft-bottomed tidal areas are interspersed between the rocky stretches of seashore. They include marshes, bays, beaches, mudflats, and sloughs, all of which are important habitat types found in the inter-tidal zone. Here one can observe the forces of the sea and the coastal currents and tides that are engaged in a never ending process of sand and mud relocation.

The biologic components of the soft-bottomed tidal areas are generally distinct from those of the rocky shores in that the plant and animal life found here lack the clinging adaptations which are necessary on the rocky shores.

Invertebrates commonly found in this habitat type include the clams, oysters, and a variety of worms and crustaceans. Closely associated with these segments of the inter-tidal zone are vast populations of waterfowl and shorebirds. Aquatic plants and invertebrate animals are prime sources of food and, to a large degree, control bird life abundances. Eelgrass, glassworts, saltgrass, pickle-weed, arrowgrass, sedges and rushes are some of the important food plants found here. Swans, geese, diving ducks and surface-feeding ducks make up a major segment of the waterfowl. In many cases, they are dependent upon this particular type of habitat. Here too, are found multitudes of shorebirds, with their elongated bills and slender stilt-like legs.

The beaches on San Miguel Island provide resting places for marine mammals and the ridges for bird rookery sites.

Due to their limited means of locomotion, the terrestrial activity of the hair seal and the elephant seal is limited to smooth, gradually sloping beaches and a few offshore rocks. However, once in the water these animals are extremely agile and graceful. Hair seals are scattered along the entire coast, whereas the magnificent elephant seal is found in appreciable numbers only on San Miguel and San Nicolas Islands of the Channel Island group. Adult male elephant seals attain a length of six teen feet and a weight exceeding two tons.

The Sand Community: Though plant and animal life is generally sparse in these sandy areas, it often adds considerably both to their beauty and stability.

Sand dune communities are scattered along the coast. Two of the largest and most interesting of these are: (1) in southern California between Point Sal and Pismo Beach State Park, and (2) in central Oregon between the Siuslaw and Umpqua Rivers. The latter is by far the more extensive. These dunes are perpetually on the verge of overrunning and burying the adjacent forest and shrubland, but the vegetation clings to life at the edges of the advancing dunes with infinite stubbornness, thrusting up through them, throwing out roots to anchor the shifting sands and breaking the force of the sea winds so that they cannot carry their loads of sand farther inland.

Most of the grasses associated with the dunes are exotics; European beach grass has been planted extensively to stabilize many sandy beach areas. Other plant forms common in these sandy areas, but not necessarily found in each of the coastal states, are sand verbena, sand strawberry, seaside daisy, lupine, beach morning glory, seaside painted cup, the succulent sea fig, and coastal golden rod.

The Shrub Communities: The shrub communities of the Pacific coastal zone are widespread and display an interesting and often complicated interrelationship. Shrub communities, which include both brushland and chaparral, are interspersed with grassland and adorn much of the coastal upland. They add a great deal of color and texture to the smooth, rolling slopes.

Shrub communities, either brushland or chaparral, cover much of the coastal upland.

The coastal chaparral type is limited to the drier, more exposed areas. Plant forms commonly making up the chaparral community are ceanothus, manzanita, chamise, mountain mahogany, and other members of the rose, heather, pea, and buckthorn families.

The brush communities are usually found in the more moist aspects of the coastal uplands from central California northward. Vegetative composition shows a wide variation from California to Washington. Representative species of the coastal brushland type include sagebrush, lemonade sumac, salal, California blackberry, lupine, salmonberry, ceanothus, honeysuckle, coyote brush, bear brush, and ferns. Much of the brushland has been cleared for grazing, but where the native vegetation remains undisturbed it adds a great deal to the beauty and character of the coastal upland. Onshore winds often have a pruning influence which results in a carpet-like effect due to the upward and inland slant of the branches and foliage, and adds a picturesque quality to the vegetation.

A variety of exotic plant forms are well established on this Pacific coastal strand. These include many aggressive grasses and weeds. It has been estimated that less than 20 percent of the grasses found along the Pacific Coast are native species. Scotch-broom and gorse are two of the most conspicuous and colorful shrubs often referred to as "exotic weeds."

Evidence of deer, coyote, rabbit, bobcat, mice and fox can be seen when walking through the shrubland. More restricted in their distribution, but nevertheless present, are ringtailed cat, ground squirrel, badger, spotted skunk, and weasel. Wrens, hummingbirds, song sparrows, wren tits, and quail are but a few of the birds commonly seen in the shrubland area, as are a variety of snakes and lizards.

The Coastal Forest Communities: These are predominantly coniferous and are generally restricted to that portion of the coast lying north of San Luis Obispo County in southern California. South of this point, the forest communities are generally small in extent and are limited to coastal canyons and other protected locations. Natural tree growth here is almost entirely deciduous with sycamore, alder, willow and oak predominating.

Variations in the coniferous forest communities to the north are largely the result of differences in precipitation and available moisture. Several dominant forest types can be identified along this portion of the coast. These are the Sitka spruce-lowland fir association extending from Washington south to northern California; the western hemlock-giant cedar association ranging from Washington to Cape Mendocino, California; Douglas fir from Washington south to central California and the redwood extending from southern Oregon to southern California. The coastal redwood is one of the largest and most beautiful trees in the world. The groves are not continuous but are scattered and are rarely found on the exposed portions of the coast.

Although they do not constitute dominant forest types, a number of other tree species nevertheless are important components of the coastal forest communities. These include the picturesque Monterey cypress, the Bishop pine of the California coast, and lodgepole pine (often referred to as shore pine) which is most common in the sandy coastal soils of northern California, Oregon, and southern Washington. In addition one finds the alder, the colorful madrone with its smooth reddish-brown bark, and wax myrtle whose branches reach out for the rays of sunlight which penetrate the forest canopy. Berry, fern, lily, and fungi are but a few of the plant groups characteristic of the forest floor. Two of the most colorful of all the forest shrubs are azalea and rhododendron, with their large flower clusters of pink and white contrasted against a deep dark green foliage. Both are most conspicuous along the southern and central Oregon coast.

Portions of the coast support diverse and picturesque forest cover.

Associated with the plant life of the forest communities is an equally impressive variety of animal life which includes mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects and other lower organisms. In addition to certain songbirds, reptiles and amphibians, elk, bear, squirrels and grouse are but a few of the animals dependent upon the cover and food found only in the forests.

Exotic plant forms are not limited to ground cover. For example, the ever green eucalyptus tree, though indigenous to Australia and the Malayan regions, is commonly accepted as a part of the natural scene along the southern and central California coast.

The freshwater biotic communities such as Siltcoos and Woahink Lakes in Oregon, Lake Earl in northern California and Oso Flaco Lake in the southern part of the state, do not assume major importance in comparison with the marine communities. However, they add measurably to the biologic, aesthetic, and recreation values of the coastal areas of which they are a part.


For nearly 1500 miles the Pacific Ocean endlessly assaults the western coast of the United States. This awesome meeting of land and sea is largely a crashing of giant swells at the feet of mountains, although here and there, at great intervals, the land barrier is breached by estuaries and embayments. At such places — Puget Sound, the Columbia River, San Francisco Bay, Monterey Bay, San Diego Bay, and a handfull of others — the sea has been admitted hesitantly into the land. At these harbors the Pacific's great surges, violent tides, and destructive storms are tamed, somewhat, by the encircling arms of the continent. Here man can assert a dominion over the sea and can violate it endlessly for his pleasure and profit.

Elsewhere along the continent's edge, however, the shoreline is a thing to be approached with respect, both from the land and from the water. For mile after mile its landward edge is a wall of cliffs, at the foot of which the hungry surf pounds on a narrow strip of sand or on tumbled piles of boulders. Offshore, cruel reefs and needle rocks wait silently for unwary or helpless vessels. And where there are not cliffs or rocks, great breakers foam up onto the sands and are swept back by vicious undertows and rapid currents.

It is small wonder, then, that for more than two centuries this shoreline, made still more formidable by the fogs and mists which often shroud it and by the winds which scour it, repulsed the efforts of Europeans to learn its mysteries and to penetrate the continent beyond its foaming ramparts. Such a coast could not help but be a profound influence upon the lives of the men who lived upon it or who found their livelihoods upon the waters bordering it. Indeed, it was ever thus with all the shores of all the seas of all the world.

This influence was being felt long before the tough seaman Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first sighted what is now the western coast of the United States in 1542 while exploring for the Spanish crown. For countless generations the native Indians had lived on its shores, and for them the sea and its bays formed a rich storehouse of food and of shells used for ornament and as a medium of exchange. The record of these people and of their slowly changing cultures has been preserved in the shellmounds, great and small, and the kitchen middens which are found at many points along the shore.

But much as the Indians utilized the sea as a source of food, it meant little to most of them as a route of communication. The natives of the Puget Sound area and the Washington coast built large canoes by hollowing out the trunks of trees, and they were quite at home on the coastal waters both for hunting and for travel. A few bands on the extreme northern shore of Washington even hunted whales in these vessels. Several tribes along the northern coast of California, especially the Yurok at the mouth of the Klamath River, used their heavy dugout canoes for ocean fishing and hunting. And along the Santa Barbara Channel of Southern California, the Canalino Indians fashioned boats of lashed planks and in them frequently made voyages to the Channel Islands and coasted the ocean shore. But with these exceptions, the Indians of the West Coast remained imprisoned behind the surf line. They faced salt water all their lives without even riding upon it except now and then upon log or tule rafts to visit mussel and sea lion rocks offshore.

Not until the Spaniards had firmly established their rule in Mexico did the coastline of present California, Oregon, and Washington begin to assert its influence upon the course of written history. Seeking an "Otro Mejico," another rich land for conquest, and also the Strait of Anian, a fabled water passage through the North American continent, the Spaniards early turned their attention to the coast lying to the northward. Only after many painful and costly expeditions did the Spanish give up their dreams of finding quick riches along the West Coast and of discovering a way through the great land barrier. Although Spain had practically abandoned the search for the Strait of Anian by the end of the sixteenth century, explorers of England, France, and the United States continued to seek it even into the 1800's. Thus did the mystery of the Northwest Coast, always holding forth the hope that behind its protective barrier of fog might lie an entrance into the continent, act as a powerful stimulant for making known the configuration of the shore.

When Francis Drake visited the California Coast in 1579 he saw white cliffs which reminded him of his native England. Many historians believe these bluffs at Drakes Bay mark the spot where the explorer repaired his vessel.

A wooden cross, erected on Trinidad Head, California by Spanish explorers in 1775, has been replaced by this granite cross.

It was one of these searchers, Juan Cabrillo, who in 1542 touched land at San Diego Bay, thus becoming the "first authenticated visitor" to the present California. He also discovered the Channel Islands, at one of which he died early in the next year. Cabrillo National Monument commemorates his achievement.

Another powerful motive for Spanish northward exploration was the desire to find a port of refuge and refreshment for the Manila galleons, which for more than two centuries made their lonely way each year between the Philippines and Mexico. The trans-Pacific eastward route was pioneered by Fray Andres de Urdaneta in 1565. The first land he sighted after the long voyage across the north Pacific was one of the Channel Islands, probably San Miguel. Seeking a California port for the galleon, Cermeno in 1595 was wrecked at Drakes Bay, and the story of his return to Mexico in an open launch forms a saga of heroism and devotion to duty which is still inspiring. Another participant in this search, Vizcaino, discovered the port of Monterey in 1602. His glowing description of this port was, for the next century and a half, a major factor in keeping alive Spanish interest in the northern coast, since after his voyage the officialdom in Mexico City decided that a California port of call would not, after all, greatly benefit the galleons.

Meanwhile, the English freebooter, Francis Drake, had in 1579 spent a month repairing his ship on the California coast. Although his anchorage has never been identified with certainty, it undoubtedly was in or near the present Marin County.

The officers quarters at Fort Ross are a reminder of the days when Russian hunters scoured the California Coast in search of sea otters and fur seals.

The next great step in the exploration and settlement of the Pacific Coast was strongly influenced by a resource of the western shoreline — the sea otter. In the mid-eighteenth century the Russians established settlements in the Aleutian Islands to pursue this valuable fur-bearing animal. Partly to counter this "menace" to her northern frontiers, Spain occupied Upper California in 1769, and soon there after a new series of explorations along the Northwest Coast was undertaken. Perez, Heceta, and Bodega revealed to Spain many features of the coastline as far north as southeastern Alaska. With the settlement of San Diego, Monterey, San Francisco, and other places in California, the sea became an important route of communication and supply for the new province.

The sea otter trade did not exert its full force as a factor in the exploration and development of the Pacific Coast until after Captain James Cook's visit to the Northwest in 1778. The discovery by his men that otter skins commanded a high price at Canton led to a virtual rush of traders to the Northwest Coast. Beginning in 1785 and continuing for several decades, the merchant seamen of Great Britain, the United States, and several other nations poked into nearly every nook and cranny of the shore from Lower California to Alaska in search of the lustrous otter pelts. On one such voyage Captain Robert Gray of Boston made the effective discovery of the mouth of the Columbia River.

Alarmed by this activity, Spain renewed her interest in the north Pacific and founded short-lived posts at Nootka, on Vancouver Island, and at Neah Bay, in the present Washington. This exertion of authority brought her into conflict with British interests, and Spain was forced to retreat to California. One result of this controversy was the discovery and exploration of Puget Sound by Captain George Vancouver in 1792.

Meanwhile, Russia was extending her search for otters and seals eastward from the Aleutian Islands along the coast of Alaska. By 1804 she had firmly established an outpost at Sitka, and soon she was looking toward California, both as a place to obtain much-needed foodstuffs for her Alaskan settlements and as a source of furs. Fort Ross was established on the present Sonoma County coast of California in 1812, and for several years Russian ships and fleets of Aleut-manned bidarkas combed the California coast and its outlying islands for fur-bearing animals.

As the rule of Spain gave way to that of Mexico, the California coast became a haven for American whaling ships in the Pacific and a goal for trading vessels seeking hides and tallow. For more than two decades the hide and tallow trade constituted California's main contact with the outside world, and it was to no small extent responsible for increasing the interest of the United States in California. Coastal places like Dana Point and San Pedro, so well described in Two Years Before the Mast, were scenes of heavy toil when cargoes were being collected for the trade ships which helped make California "an outpost of New England."

Shortly after 1800 the main geographical features of the Pacific Coast had been discovered, named, and charted. Interest now shifted to finding approaches to this coast from the landward side; and with this shift the Pacific shore acquired a mew significance — as the western limit of the American frontier. The men of the Lewis and Clark expedition did not realize it, but they were foreshadowing the feelings of later waves of overland emigrants as they stood on the north bank of the Columbia River on November 7, 1805, and imagined they saw the surf of the Pacific ahead. "Great joy in camp we are in view of the Ocian," wrote William Clark in his journal. The sea was not actually visible to these explorers of 1805 as they stood near the present Altoona, Washington, but a short time later a number of them took the trouble to walk from Chinook Point to Cape Disappointment in order to see the Pacific combers crash on the shore. It was almost as if they sensed that there lay the goal of American expansion.

During the days of the hide and tallow trade, cowhides were thrown down these cliffs at Dana Point in southern California to be carried out to waiting ships.

Not long after these first overland pioneers, the fur trappers began to find their way down the Columbia to the sea, and soon they were crossing the deserts and mountains to the coast of California. Here they could go no farther. There was no more unknown country to take refuge in, no place to flee from encroaching neighbors. Many of them seem to have given up the search; they settled down and became farmers. Following the trappers came the frontier settlers, seeking unbroken land. Here they, too, came to the end of the road. It was no accident that members of the Boone family settled on the lonely shore of Yaquina Bay, in Oregon.

When the American hunger for the land clear to the Pacific helped to bring on the Mexican War, the coast of California became an important theatre of hostilities. The occupation of Monterey, San Francisco, and Los Angeles was effected by forces landed from naval vessels; and the command of the sea lanes assisted the rapid suppression of the Mexican-Californians when they later rose in resistance against American control.

The discovery of gold in California resulted in another important role for the Pacific shoreline. Here was one of the great gateways to the gold fields, and from around the globe swarmed thousands upon thousands of eager fortune hunters, leaving the Bay of San Francisco dark with their deserted ships. And until the transcontinental railway was completed in 1869, the bulk of California's rich yield of gold, so important in the economy of the United States and of the world, was shipped out from the coastal ports.

At least one locality, Gold Beach in Oregon, was the scene of mining conducted in the very sands of the shore. At other coastal places, such as the, town of Trinidad, in northern California, supplies were brought by sea for transhipment to mines farther inland.

With the growth of population in California and, later, in the Pacific Northwest, the shoreline became increasingly important in the development of the West. Burgeoning cities like San Francisco required great quantities of lumber. The coasts of northern California were covered with redwood, and the shores of Oregon and Washington with spruce and fir. In a day when land transportation along the coast was virtually nonexistent, the sea lanes provided the means by which the forest products of the Northwest were transported to market. All along the northern coast, lumber ports and "landings" came into being, and the saga of the lumber schooners became a colorful and important chapter in the maritime history of the West.

For decades the shipping lanes were also the chief means of transporting passengers between the cities and towns along the coast. Even after the coming of the railroads, the coastal passenger steamers for years continued to fill a real need. Similarly, many isolated ranches, mines, and rural communities depended on coastwise schooners, both sail and steam, to bring in supplies and to take their products to market.

Lighthouses began to dot the coast in the 1850's as aids to navigation. The abandoned Yaquina Bay Lighthouse, Oregon, is shown here.

As the years went by, the larger coastal cities increasingly became important as gateways for Oriental immigration into the United States. They were also the doors for trade and commerce with the Far East and the nations bordering the Pacific. They were bases for the few assays in "Manifest Destiny" conducted beyond our western sea frontier — the filibustering expeditions to Latin America, the conquest of the Philippines, the acquisition of Alaska.

All of this important maritime activity along the Pacific Coast early led the United States to take measures to protect shipping from the hazards of this dangerous shore. Beginning in the early 1850's, lighthouses began to dot the coast, and, later, lifesaving stations were established at strategic places. Despite these measures, shipwrecks were frequent; and tales of heroism and villainy still linger about the scenes of disaster all along the Pacific seashore.

As the United States gained possession of its present western coastline, it was realized that this new frontier also represented a possible route of invasion by a hostile power. Thus, the Pacific seashore served as a line of defense, and fortifications were erected to guard the entrances to the principal harbors. Some of these works, like Old Fort Winfield Scott on the Golden Gate, remain as reminders of the period when the defense of the United States was based on the strategic concept that our seaports could be made secure by a system of massive fixed fortifications.

Today the Pacific seacoast has not the same economic and human importance it once possessed. Except for transocean freight, the sea lanes play a lesser role as major routes of commerce and immigration. Highways, railways, and airways, not sea-ways, now link our coastal states. Modern aids to navigation have greatly reduced the terrors of the forbidding, fog-swathed shore. No longer is our coast a bulwark of defense, although we still glance seaward apprehensively in the direction where our greatest danger lies. But the shore still, even more effectively than in the past, marks, at least on this planet, the limit of our national geographical aspirations.

Even as a restorer of some men's souls, the seashore has less magic than it held until a few short years ago. Seldom nowadays can one seek and find solace and refreshment from a seaside wilderness — that desert of water, sand, and sky where the only sounds are the lazy pounding of a summer surf, the faint rustle of the wind in the dune grasses, and the occasional cry of a tern. No section of our shore is now free from the jeep and the airplane. It is difficult to become attuned to the ancient rhythm of the sea while assailed by rock-and-roll from a portable radio.

Yet the shore is coming to have a new role in our national life. The thin trickle of people who a century, a half-century, ago made its way to the seacoast for active recreation — bathing, fishing, gymnastics — has now become a flood. Here is a great national safety valve, a place to work off the tensions of modern living. Here there is little of solitude, but there is much of physical exercise, of rest, and of healing sun. In mass recreation lies much of the future significance of the Pacific seacoast.

And as long as there are cliffs for the sea to batter, as long as there is an undefined no-man's land between the beach tides, as long as the waves roll free on the sand, there will be reminders of the days when the sea was a dominating factor in the course of history. Every lighthouse, every shoal, every wrecked hull — and even every place name — will call to mind the brave succession of seamen and landsmen who have made this coastline a part of our historical heritage.

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Last Updated: 25-Jun-2007