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Pescadero, California, United States

Pescadero State Beach Exploration

Scanning it's expanse, you can see ocean beach, streams, grasses, bushy scrub, and tall, ancient trees.

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Difficulty: Easy
Length: 1.3 miles / 2.1 km
Duration: 1-3 hours
Overview: Pescadero State Beach, a mile-long stretch just south of Half Moon Bay in Northern California is no simple place. If you look more closely you can spot some of the more than 250 species of birds that make their home here. The landscape, especially at the water, is never the same two days in a row.

This Exploration created in collaboration with the Exploratorium.

Tips: This park is a typical example of an estuary—an ecosystem both inviting and complex that thrives on change. Estuaries are coastal areas where fresh water from rivers mixes with salt water from the ocean. Estuaries usually contain a variety of habitats, and are constantly affected by the changing tides and ocean swells, as well as the seasonal ebb and flow of streams. Humans, too, exert their changes, shaping these environments.

The Bay Area, where many rivers meet the sea, is especially rich in this kind of coastal ecology. Once, an enormous amount of the Bay Area was estuary, including much of the Pacific coastline and most of the water’s edge in San Francisco and San Pablo Bays. Today, many of these natural areas have been filled in or paved over.

As a testament to its adaptable nature, much of what estuary remains in the Bay Area exists in tandem with power lines, highways, factories, bridges and airports. (Our Exploration of Elkhorn Slough looks at life in an estuary in the shadow of a power plant.)

The weather can be changeable; layered clothing is recommended.

Points of Interest


Begin your hike!

Welcome to Pescadero State Beach! As you pass through the park's many habitats, keep your eyes open for birds, bunnies, and maybe even a rare spotting of the San Francisico garter snake.

Stairs lead hikers from the parking lot to a short section of Highway 1 that passes over the park's ocean inlet.

A stroll along Highway 1 takes you over the lagoon that feeds the marsh. You can see the lagoon inlet on the left. Water that enters the lagoon here goes inland to the rest of the park on the right.

View of the beach

Where the water begins: once off the highway bridge, the walk starts at the open expanse of beach, dunes, and rock formations.

Wind shapes the beach landscape, constantly moving and shifting the sand. Its passing hand leaves behind sculptures, some as large as whole sand dunes, others as small as these ripples. Return next week, and you may find these logs buried in the sand that now surrounds them.

Lagoons like the one at Pescadero State Beach keep water at a certain salinity and help protect fish populations further inland. But these lagoons could be breached by visitors moving around swaths of sand, and the sudden alteration of water flow could have disastrous affects for fish. Thus, it is illegal to disturb the natural state of a lagoon.

The scenic-looking hole in this rock is most likely artificial, created over half a century ago by people who wanted to have some control over the seasonal fluctuations of water in the lagoon. It is a form of breaching the lagoon, and in these more environmentally-conscious times, would not be a welcome alteration to the landscape.

Not just water under the bridge

Most of the park lies east of the highway, and visitors cross under this bridge to access trails on the inland side of the lagoon. Because marsh areas often have an accessible landscape, proximity to water, and lots of plant life, they are desirable sites for development. It's not uncommon to find man made structures within them.

Most of these driftwood logs have had a long journey, floating downstream from distant forested areas or logging operations. They bobbed along until they got stranded by high storm waters, or swept out to sea and eventually tossed on shore during a storm. Some of these logs may have originally floated down rivers hundreds, even thousands of miles away.

Some of the old logs littering Pescadero's beach are gracefully carved by sand and waves, and riddled with holes. Is there a barnacle at sea that created these divets? Or an insect? No, these holes were more likely drilled by the acorn woodpecker, when the tree was still standing.

Looking more closely at the wood you may feel the wood is looking rather closely at you as well.

Dune Ecology

Dunes closest to the beach are constantly reshaped by wind and water, so the plants that live on them must be good at adapting to change. Plants are vital to the sand dune ecosystem, helping to hold the sand in place and give the landscape its shape.

At Pescadero State Beach, you can find two kinds of Dune Grass, a native species and a non- native one. Some biologists who study dune ecology believe the non-native species pictured here, European Dune Grass, may colonize the sand differently than the native, and become more of a monoculture.

Plants that make their homes in dunes tend to have deep roots and clever ways of spreading themselves out over the sand. A further-reaching plant will be better able to adapt to shifts in the sand. This example appears to be Cakile maritima, the European searocket, an invasive species well-suited to sandy habitats.

A closer look at a dune plant. Many dune plants are succulents, highly talented at absorbing and storing what water they can, to prevent drying out in the strong coastal winds. This example appears to be Cakile maritima, the European searocket, an invasive species well-suited to sandy habitats.

Sequoia Audubon Trail

Once past the beach, you'll find yourself at the beginning of the 2.5 mile Sequoia Audubon Trail.

Walking inland, the flora change from dune grasses to low-to-the-ground shrubs as we head toward the creek with its fresher water.

Pescadero Creek

The shallow shrubbery gives way to creekside grasses as you approach Pescadero Creek. This flow is one of two creeks--the other being Butano Creek--that feeds the estuary here. The marsh found at Pescadero State Park is the largest remaining coastal marsh between San Francisco and Santa Cruz.

Fresh water from upstream mixes with salt water from the ocean, inviting tall grasses, cattails, and aquatic life that favors brackish waters. The edge of this stream is shaped by the seasonal fluctuations in water flow, as well as the passing of animals and humans.

Runs and slides

Ruts and routes made by local animals streak from the trail to the water's edge. Hikers can find them in a variety of shapes and sizes, owing to the different animals that made them. This wide path may have been made by beaver.

Fleet-footed deer may be the ones who've left behind this thin, gentle trail in the grasses.

It's likely that this little tunnel is a back-and-forth route for nearby bunnies, as they come out to nibble on the tender plants along the path.

This tunnel underground is likely home to a local rodent, perhaps a gopher or a rabbit.

This pyramid of sticks is the dwelling of a wood rat (Neotoma fuscipes) family. The wood rat is sometimes called the "trader rat." These little rodents have been known to take shiny objects they find, like a coin, back to their dens, and in return bring back a stick. Their dens can be up to 8 feet high and house several generations.

Control issues

Once upon a time, the area that is Pescadero State Beach was a water source much used and controlled by humans, primarily for agriculture. Evidence of this is found in many sites in the park, all of them aging and rarely in use today for resource management.

A rusty, crusty pipe may have once helped carry water to crop fields.

Andorra, the weeping tree

Legend has it that this ancient eucalyptus, found along the North Marsh fork of the trail, carries the voices of two young Native American lovers who lost each other. They met in the forest, the story says, one an Ohlone and the other a Korosta, and fell in love. Soon after they were married, the woman fell into Pescadero creek and drowned. Her husband, in his grief, took his own life.

Legend has it that their spirits inhabit Andorra, as this tree is called. One might wonder why they took up residence in a non-Native tree, or why this tree was planted here in the first place.

But sure enough, when Ranger David Augustine shows us how to listen to the tree, we can hear the mournful voices creaking and moaning within it. This is a favorite stop for schoolkids on ranger-led hikes here.


Common Pescadero plants - Yellow Bush Lupine

Various species of lupine can be found throughout the preserve. Hard for us to tell given the lack of flowers, but this appears to be Yellow Bush Lupine, or Lupinus arboreus. Although native to coastal California, it has been widely cultivated for ornamental purposes-- and become a problematic invasive species in Europe and Australia.

What appears to be a Western Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) catches a few rays of sun as it peeks out from under a huge bough of Poison oak.

This poison oak can still give you the itch even though it's in a leafless phase. Don't be fooled by it's lovely silvery branches. Look closely (without touching) for black blotches or oozing sap, and keep clear!

The jury is still out on this particular plant, seen in several places along the trail, especially in disturbed areas. We're thinking it's a Hedge Nettle, Stachys ajugoides var rigida. We should have given it a sniff; this particular nettle has a strong odor and is sometimes called the "stinky stachys."

Twinberry Honeysuckle

Twinberry Honeysuckle (Lonicera involucrata) were abundant along the trail, staring at us with their yellow and green eyes.

Foliage and flowers of the Twinberry Honeysuckle (Lonicera involucrata)

Sun Cup (Camissonia ovata) provided the occasional welcome splash of yellow on the trail.

Sun Cup (Camissonia ovata). In passing one might mistake them for dandelions, but the petal arrangement is quite different.

Red flowering currant – Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum .

Red flowering currant – Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum .

Turtle Bend

A ways down the trail is a short offshoot that leads to this area, known as Turtle Bend. A lucky hiker might find turtles sunning themselves here, or spot a belted kingfisher flying by. Driftwood logs and soft stream banks make this an inviting place to rest.

Footprints left behind by a raccoon (Procyon lotor) who paid a visit to Turtle Bend.

Views from the end of the trail

A short climb at the end of the trail brings hikers to these benches and an aging sign with descriptions of local fauna.

From the benches, you get a sweeping view of some of the different habitats in the park; tall trees, short shrubs, gentle creekside grasses.

One of our guides, scientist Joanne Kerbavis, dons here California State Parks ranger cap. Pescadero State Beach is one of 220 state parks that may be closed after September 2009 due to the state budget crisis. We hope legislators in Sacramento can recognize the importance of our state's natural areas and find a way to keep Pescadero and other parks open for the public to enjoy and learn from.
Pictures in this guide taken by: craigrosa
Joost - let me know when you do. I'm eager to hear how works on a mobile device. What device will you be using?

by craigrosa on May 14, 2010
This is great! I have been at Pescadero several times enjoying the sunset and views, but never explored away from the beach. Will definitely follow this guide on my iPhone next time.

by joost on May 05, 2010

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Hi. I'm a Senior Interactive Producer for KQED in San Francisco, CA for KQED Science , which covers science,...

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