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Up The Road: North Coast Tour: Geology Tour of Land’s End

Bob Wick
US Bureau of Land Management



State parks along California’s North Coast offer great opportunities to explore—up close and personal—the long-ago processes that created the land beneath our feet. And that continue to power change, from continental drift and emerging landforms to volcanic explosions and earthquakes.


Lands associated with the Mendocino Triple Junction’s earthquake faults offer colorful surprises, such as polished jade in gravel bars along the Eel River’s South Fork, in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Outcroppings of jadeite and nephrite jade were squeezed up through miles of Franciscan Complex sediments then freed up by erosion.


The rare pink and purple beaches of Sinkyone Wilderness State Park are quite ephemeral. They happen only on black-sand beaches. During unusual tidal and wave conditions they suddenly sparkle with garnet sand, very visible by contrast, as waves steadily sift, sort, and remove less dense sands. High tide washes it away.


It’s easier to enjoy the agates at namesake Agate Beach at Patrick’s Point State Park, also known for its impressive sea stacks. These erosion resistant rock outcroppings seem to march onto shore from the sea, because on land these huge chunks of rock—Wedding Rock, Lookout Rock, and Ceremonial Rock—still rise above the bedrock shelf carved by relentless waves.



Credit John Rusk / Flickr Creative Commons
Flickr Creative Commons
Bolander pine, which grows in nature only in Mendocino County's pygmy forests.

The Yurok people who seasonally inhabited this area considered the seven offshore sea stacks to be the last earthly abode of the immortals. They also believed that the spirit of the porpoises came to live here just before people populated the world.

Anyway: A better place to explore marine terraces is farther south, in Mendocino County. At Jug Handle State Natural Reserve just north of Caspar, hike the uplifted marine terraces of the “ecological staircase.”


Each “step” of this staircase is about 100 feet higher than the last, and 100,000 years older as land. The fascination here is the change associated with each step, expressed by distinctive plants that also slowly change the environment.



The first terrace was originally a sand and gravel beach, and now hosts salt-tolerant and wind-resistant wildflowers. (An embryonic new terrace is forming just offshore.) A conifer forest of Sitka spruce, Bishop pine, grand fir, and hemlock dominates the second terrace, redwood and Douglas fir the third.


Jug Handle demonstrates Mendocino’s unusual ecological place in the scheme of things, by the way, because it’s essentially a biological borderline for many tree species. Metaphorically speaking, Alaska meets Mexico when Sitka spruce and Bishop pine grow side by side in nature.


The unique Mendocino pygmy forest starts on the third step, transitioning back into old-dune pine forests, then more pygmy forest on the fourth step. At the top of the stairs, a step a half-million years old, are more pygmy trees, these giving ground to redwoods.


Gain a deeper understanding of the land you stand upon, along the North Coast and elsewhere in California, by taking alongGeological Gems of California. This free digital guide was produced by California State Parks in conjunction with the California Geological Survey.


Up the Road Encourages Responsible, Safe Travel




Here are previous Up the Road episodes that explore why we should travel, how to do it responsibly, and how to travel responsibly now, in the shadow of COVID-19. Not everyone should be traveling now. But everyone who does travel needs to do so responsibly. Take a listen:


Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.