Coastal Prairie

Lush green, deep-rooted bunchgrasses of Idaho fescue and blue wildrye, mixed with red fescue mats and native wildflowers carpet the ground thickly. This coastal prairie relict is totally ungrazed by cattle, and would be trampled and destroyed if cows came here. These are the "ice cream" plants that have been grazed out ove most of the Pastoral Zone on ranches in Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

The California coastal prairie community is a native perennial grassland on moister, cooler coastal hills, bluffs, terraces, and valleys that are influenced by Pacific coastal climates: summer fog and heavy winter rains. Many diverse wildflowers and some shrubs also inhabit this zone.


Classically, this plant community was defined as running along the coast of California from northern Los Angeles County into Oregon, although a form of coastal prairie probably occupied the prehistoric southern California coast. Inland in Marin County, drier, native grasslands are found in relict patches—the “valley grassland” of older texts. The transition to coastal prairie, however, is irregular, patchy, and discontinuous among species. Formerly abundant in an emerald carpet on the sea bluffs and coastal hills and valleys, only relicts of coastal prairie remain in parks and places where the bulldozers and cattle herds cannot reach.

There is a beautiful relict native coastal prairie along the dirt L Ranch Road close to the trailhead for Marshall Beach. This is apparently too distant from the dairy operation so the cows do not get this far out, and a native grassland has persisted in a relatively pristine state. This represents part of a natural community that may have been widespread across uplands of Point Reyes National Seashore before livestock operations.

This ungrazed coastal prairie consisted of these native species observed during field trips in 2018 and 2019:


Annual lupine


Checker (Sidalcea calycosa)


Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana) and California buttercups (Ranunculus californicus)


Red fescue (Festuca rubra)


Wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca)


Sun cup (Taraxia ovata)

Tolmie star-tulip (Calochortus tolmiei), a beautiful find in April 2019!

Coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis), a native north coastal scrub species, grows with the coastal prairie, but we did not see it taking over.

This is evidence that ungrazed prairies have a high diversity of wildflowers and do not need livestock grazing to increase native forb diversity. This site should be completely protected from grazing so it can provide a local seed source for future restoration efforts across the Seashore, and be used as a reference site.

Compare this relatively pristine coastal prairie with the cattle-grazed pastures in the park.

This is your public lands and your park. What do you think? Comment here to tell the National Park Service how you would like the Seashore and tule elk to be managed. 

April 2019 field trip with botanists to the coastal Prairie relict near Marshall Beach.

Lotus formosissima2

Harlequin lotus (Hosackia gracilis)


Harlequin lotus


Prairie lupine (Lupinus variicolor)


Native thistle


California buttercups (Ranunculus californicus)


Seablush (Plectritis sp.)


Johnny tuck (Triphysaria eriantha var. rosea)

Look how dense this ungrazed stand of native bunchgrasses are, in the relict patch near Marshall Beach. Idaho fescue has deep roots, and the grassland knits together to hold the soil together. No erosion happens here. The coastal prairie is a sponge to rainwater.

Native Coast clover (Trifolium wormskioldii)

A California oatgrass (Danthonia californica) native bunchgrass, startulip, and wild iris.

Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium sp.), not a grass at all but a forb in the iris family.

Rich ground cover of buttercups , blue-eyed grass, startulip, and native coastal prairie grasses. Cattle grazing is not needed to maintain the wildflower show--in fact, the native diversity is much higher here.

Even in August, when the coastal prairie dries out into golden colors, the soil is protected by a thick carpet of leaves and roots. Here, at a field sketching art and natural history trip I hosted at the Point Reyes National Seashore costal prairie relict site, sketchers enjoy the day in their national park.

Coastal prairie and coyote brush on ridge in ungrazed corner of L Ranch, looking southwest along Tomales Bay. More of Point Reyes National Seashore could be like this with restoration.

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