The California coastline is a geologically sculpted masterpiece that jiggles and juts for 1,100 miles. It begins with the Tortilla Wall, which protrudes into the sea at the US-Mexico border, and angles northwest to what some call California’s loneliest beach, a wild stretch of yellow grassy dunes, hard sand, and driftwood at Pelican State Beach on the Oregon side of the Cascades.
Don’t bother attempting to define this diverse seaboard with a single stretch of shore. It has been divided into sections that reflect California’s diversity.
However, the Bay Area is an excellent starting point for exploring the landscape and wildlife. Towering, forested mountains, plunging brittle bluffs, and steep, chaparral-covered canyons teem with wildlife line the 100-mile stretch from Santa Cruz to Point Reyes National Seashore. It has rickety piers, historic lighthouses, and a marine sanctuary teeming with elephant seals, sea lions, and sharks.
When cottony fog obscures rocky coves, sandy beaches, and the narrow opening to San Francisco Bay, atmospheric moisture creates ghostly summer scenes.
On a recent overcast morning, Oakland author Obi Kaufmann visited Mussel Rock, a geologically significant Daly City beach. Kaufmann, 50, is an artist, poet, and one of the most effective communicators of what the state of California represents. “The Coasts of California” (Heyday, $55), his latest in a series of extraordinary field atlases, tells the multilayered story of the shoreline through visually striking watercolor paintings and maps, insightful conceptualizations, and doctoral-level proficiency in the natural sciences.
The Bay Area was described as having “inexpressible fertility” by one early explorer, according to Kaufmann. “Over a thousand species of animals still call this place home, which is as ecologically degraded as it is breathtakingly beautiful.” Although metropolitan industry has taken over most of the Bay, hundreds of thousands of birds still recognize it as an important landing spot on their annual migrations up and down the Pacific Flyway.”
Throughout decades of tramping on Bay Area coastal trails, beaches, and parks like San Bruno Mountain State and County Park, I’ve seen an abundance of plant and animal life. It has 2,416 acres of habitat for 662 plant species, 42 butterflies, 195 birds, five bumblebees, 30 ant species, 24 mammals, 13 reptiles, and six amphibians, according to the book.
The Half Moon Bay coast is home to an evolutionary significant unit of coho and steelhead salmon, as well as the tiny tidewater goby found in the brackish water of lagoons, estuaries, and marshes, and the red-legged frog. The redwood forests above the Pacific are potential habitats for the marbled murrelet, an old-growth nesting seabird, in its southernmost range.
Such field notes only scratch the surface of what thrives in the blustery littoral. When the artichoke, pumpkin, and berry fields of Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties appear on Highway 1 beneath riparian ridgelines of redwoods and eucalyptus trees, I’m overcome with awe. I enjoy ascending above Muir Woods National Monument’s old, moss-covered evergreens before dropping into Stinson Beach via the lush Dipsea Trail.
Then there’s Mussel Rock, a sea stack on the Daly City/Pacifica borderline where the San Andreas Fault first intersects with the ocean, where the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate meet for the first time. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake was virtually centered on Mussel Rock.
“What am I thinking at Mussel Rock?” Kaufmann responds to my question. “I’m thinking about how many times this place has changed. How it ended and began, then ended and began again. California has always been dangerous. Always on the lookout for a fundamental geological rebound. That reassembly will not stop.”
Mussel Rock, which stands three stories tall, has become a geologic timekeeper. Kaufmann predicted that the Pacific Plate would continue to push north at this intersection, ripping California in half in the next 5 to 10 million years.
While watching paragliders catch bubbles of rising air to soar from sea cliffs, perhaps not many visitors at the edge of land consider such weighty forecasts. Wind-whipped waves march toward shore, then fold into ephemeral foam, as if prepared at nearby Philz Coffee.
“The Coasts of California” affirms that life’s theater takes place on a stage of geology: “The restless, fractured earth between the continental and oceanic plates that constitutes California’s borderland of terrestrial and marine ecology influences biogeography, or the distribution of life, more than any other physical factor.”
Beyond Mussel Rock, there are significant coastal landmarks. Kaufmann points me to the point in Tomales Bay where the land divides along the San Andreas Fault. He claims that the flaw is “critical to understanding the evolutionary island that is California.”
The tectonic boundary that separates Point Reyes from the rest of North America separates two land masses. Tomales Bay has oceanic soil on one side and continental loam soil on the other.
“You have the Bishop pine forests looking across to the inland farmlands of West Marin,” says Kaufmann, whose next book will take a look at California’s deserts. “Throw land policy on top of that, and you get a very dramatic shift in policy within just a mile.”
The book outlines the historical arc of the coast using geology. The shoreline, according to Kaufmann, serves as “a laboratory of inquiry into the much larger question of our continued place, and rank, in the biosphere.”
It’s one of the broad ideas he and co-author Greg Sarris, chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, discuss in their video podcast “Place & Purpose,” which looks at how the ancient natural world connects to modern California.
Meanwhile, “The Coasts of California” provides granular information for every imaginable precinct. “Even in those seemingly violent landscapes where the relentless wave action pummels the shoreline, so, too, do we have life finding purchase in every crevasse,” Kaufmann said. “Even in grains of sand, ancient ecologies are at work.” A diverse range of biodiversity can access niche nutrients.”
Kaufmann, in an upbeat tone, claims that the California coast has a high rate of endemism – the state of a species found only in a single defined geographic location.
The Pacific Oceanfront is at the heart of the vibrant social, cultural, political, and economic fabrics that make California a global innovator and inspire authors and artists to weave a uniquely Californian story.
“I wonder if it is the coastline that is the state’s nervous system,” Kaufmann said. “In many ways, as we consider our attitudes toward self and society, between public and private, between rights and responsibilities, the California coast brings all of that into sharp focus.” It’s a landless piece of California’s most important land.”
Something about the endless horizon has always drawn me in. I used to ride the frothy whitewater of the Laguna Beach shorebreak on a belly board as a kid, exploring intertidal pools for science-fiction-looking creatures clinging to slippery rocks. Decades later, I surfed filo dough-like waves at the private Hollister Ranch north of Santa Barbara and once followed a whale hugging the storm-battered shoreline of Humboldt’s remote Lost Coast.
“We can’t help but feel like there is an inkling of the transcendent,” Kaufmann said. “It’s hardwired into us.” The sunset in California is one of the most romantic views in the world.”
A hike to Alamere Falls in Point Reyes National Seashore evokes the coast’s timeless quality. The 40-foot cascade draws crowds from the Bay Area metropolis because it is a rare sight: a tidefall that flows directly into the ocean.
There are only two such wonders in California. The other is the even more popular McWay Falls, which is located in the heart of Big Sur.
Alamere Falls is usually approached from the outskirts of Bolinas. It provides cinematic views of Drakes Bay as well as ecosystems such as lakes, prairies, and dunes.
Coast shrubs, golden poppies, Indian paintbrush, and Douglas firs cover the solid bedrock of granite that formed about 100 million years ago in the southern Sierra Nevada.
Bobcats, deer, foxes, quail, and other waterfowl are among the residents. Harbor seals breed and give birth in protected areas such as Pelican Lake and Double Point.
The 6-mile trail concludes in an open meadow, where Wildcat Campground is vulnerable to bracing sea gales. The Woodward Fire burned nearly 5,000 acres near Wildcat Beach, near where the waterfall splashes over rugged sandstone cliffs, in 2020.
As a time-saving alternative route to the falls, the National Park Service advises against climbing the vertical escarpments. According to Rangers, visitors are injured on a weekly basis. On the way back, I came into contact with poison oak. As a result, I prefer hiking the official trail to the untamed beach where migrating whales, dolphins, and a plethora of sea life can be found.
Point Reyes feels prehistoric. The grinding of overlapping plates in the convergent boundary then reminds me of the constant change beneath my feet.
I put such speculation aside to gulp salty air as spray from Alamere Falls catches sea breezes and showers me. It feels great.
For the time being, the California coast is priceless.
Surfing: Mastering Waves From Basic to Intermediate (Mountaineers Books, 2009) is Almond’s first book.