Plant Communities

Point Reyes National Seashore is home to a broad spectrum of aquatic and terrestrial environments which support a diversity of plant life including 900 species of vascular plants (15% of California plants); 61 endemic plants (found nowhere else on the planet), and 51 rare, threatened, or endangered species. These plants do not exist in isolation, but rather as part of plant communities such as forests, grasslands, coastal scrub, intertidal zones and marshes, coastal dunes and wetlands. The kind of plant community in a given area depends on soil type, geologyfire, water availability, grazing, human use and development, and invasion by non-native plants.  Vegetation management in the park largely focuses on monitoring and mapping these plant communities with a special focus on rare plants and controlling invasive species. Check out a snapshot of each of the plant communities found at Point Reyes National Seashore below with a list of associated plants and animals and best places to view or read the Defining Habitats newspaper. Teachers can also download the Defining Habitats Curriculum Guide to plan activities around this theme. 


Douglas Fir Forest
Nearly 30,000 acres of the southern end of Point Reyes National Seashore’s wilderness is covered in a mixed evergreen forest predominated by the Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) tree. This coniferous tree is the third largest conifer next to the coastal Redwood and Sequoia trees and can live up to 500 years. The tree can reach diameters of 5-6 feet and heights above 250 feet, which provide habitat for the endangered spotted owl, and resident osprey, red-tail hawk, red-shouldered hawks and various other raptors, songbirds, and rodent families. Their seed bearing cones are distinctive and an important source of food for birds and other small rodents. People often note the woodpecker holes (acorn storage granaries), lichen that cover these trees, or large nests atop old snags before they notice the tree itself. Due to the lack of fires over the last century, there is concern over potential crown fires and/or the encroachment of Douglas-fir into meadows and coastal scrub, but this is monitored by the National Park Service who also prescribe controlled burns to help reduce fuel loads.  

Associated Plants and Animals
California bay, Coast live oak, California coffeeberry, California hazel, red elderberry, ceanothus, poison oak, blackberry, huckleberry, thimbleberry, fern, lupine, monkey flower and a variety of mushrooms; hundreds of birds species, most notably Great-horn, Barn and Northern spotted owls, Acorn and Pilated woodpeckers, Red-tailed and Red-shouldered hawks, ospreys and many song birds, Black-tail deer, bobcat, mountain lion, mountain beaver, Sonoma chipmunk, California ground squirrel, Western gray squirrel, Valley pocket gopher, Western harvest mouse, deer mouse, Dusky-footed woodrat, California vole, coyote, gray fox, raccoon, short and long-tail weasels, spotted and striped skunk, badger, Western fence and Alligator lizards, Pacific giant salamanders, and Red-bellied and California newts.

Places to View
The picnic area across from the Bear Valley Visitor Center is a great place to get a closer glimpse of the Douglas Fir. These trees are natural granaries for the Acorn woodpeckers and visitors can expect to see trees riddled with holes that act as storage for acorns. One can also encounter these majestic trees throughout the southern end of the park in the Phillip Burton Wilderness or along specific trails including the Woodpecker, Mount Wittenberg, Meadow, and Bear Valley trails.


Bishop Pine Forest
Bishop Pines are a coastal resident and most often found growing within sight of the sea. The northern Bishop pine (Pinus muricata) can be found primarily on the west side of Inverness Ridge along Limantour road north to Mount Vision. Today, this forest type covers nearly 4,000 acres within the park. Bishop pines are highly variable in shape and size, from twisted to straight, but generally reach mature heights of 30 to 80 feet depending on fire events. Needles are in bunches of two and are 4-6 inches long. The pine produces a bright yellow pollen and is fire-dependent, or serotinous, needing fire or extremely hot weather to open its resin-sealed cones and produce viable seedlings. The female cones are asymmetrically egg-shaped with sharp spines, are closed, and stay attached to the limb. Hiking through this forest type is akin to traversing a tunnel. The densely-packed, even-aged trees limit the forest canopy and produce a thick layer of fuels made up of dead pine needles and don’t allow much diversity under them. According to the 1994 park vegetation map, there were 3,570 acres of Bishop pine forest prior to the 1995 Vision Fire, which burned approximately 35% of the Bishop Pine forest.

Associated Plants and Animals
The understory of the Bishop Pine forest is less active than the Douglas-fir forest due to the amount of fuel build up, but one can see many of the same species mentioned above, including coffeeberry, huckleberry, salal, madone, manzanita, ceanothus, jays, finches, sparrows, pocket gopher, Dusky-footed wood rat, mountain beaver, badger, voles, moles, mice and more. 

Places to View
While the park maintains some controlled burning, the last major wildfire in the park was the 1995 Vision Fire, which resulted in the evenly-aged stand of Bishop pines best seen along Limantour Road. Stop by the Bayview parking lot off Limantour Road to learn more about this species and the 1995 Vision Fire. You can also view this forest type by foot along the Inverness Ridge, Bayview, Drakes, or Muddy Hollow trails off Limantour Road.


Coastal Grasslands
Point Reyes National Seashore is home to 20,000 acres of coastal grasslands made up of native and non-native species. Nearly 80% of the remaining grasslands in the park are non-native due to several factors including lack of fire, increased grazing and the introduction of non-natives. While Native Americans likely burned grasslands in order to improve harvests of grains, tubers, and bulbs, which would have prevented many grasslands from succeeding into coastal shrub or other forest communities, the impacts of cattle grazing and the introduction of non-native annual grasses have dramatically changed the landscape. Today, remnant coastal patches are made up of perennial bunchgrasses like purple needle grass, California fescue and California oatgrass. In the winter the short green grasses provide a lovely backdrop for photos, while the honey-colored hills of summer provide tall grasses and hiding places for various animals. Spring brings abundance of common and rare wildflowers to this community, where early bloomers like Douglas iris and another much smaller iris, blue-eyed grass, can be seen covering the landscape.

Associated Plants and Animals
Native coastal prairie is dominated perennial bunchgrasses including tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa), California oatgrass (Danthonia californica), meadow barley (Hordeum brachyantherum), California brome (Bromus carinatus) and Pacific reedgrass (Calamagrostis nutkaensis) among other species. Non-native grasslands are dominated by annual grasses, such as annual Italian wild rye (Lolium multiflorum), farmer’s foxtail (Hordeum murinum) and rattail fescue (Vulpia spp.). Non-native perennial species are also common and are of management concern. These species include purple velvet grass (Holcus lanatus) and Harding grass (Phalaris aquatica).

Places to View
Much of this community can be seen in the pastoral zone where cows can be seen grazing, but you can also hike in the Tule Elk Reserve, Abbotts Lagoon or along Coast trail to get a closer look.


Coastal Scrub
One of the most common plant communities found at Point Reyes National Seashore is coastal scrub, which stretches over 15,500 acres of the park. Plants in this community tolerate abrasive conditions including high winds, little rain, blowing salt spray and poor soils, which resulted in short and hardy plant species. These plants depend on the cool coastal fogs found at Point Reyes and have adapted to harsh conditions by growing long taproots to access water and provide stability, and with various leaf adaptations that allow them to grasp or retain water. Vast tracts of coyote bush indicate that you are in the coastal scrub.

Associated Plants and Animals
Coyote bush, huckleberry, blackberry, ceanothus, sagebrush, buckwheat, bush lupine, poison oak, wild cucumber, California poppy and various other wildflowers species. Nearly all Point Reyes animal species can be found in this habitat, but you often find the California quail, bush rabbit or long-tailed weasels in the underbrush, or towhees, jays and other bird species perched on top of the bushes.

Place to View
Take a walk at Limantour beach, Abbotts Lagoon, or along the Coast trail for best views.


Coastal Dunes
Point Reyes National Seashore has nearly 2,000 acres of coastal dune habitat. Native dune habitat in California is rare and is threatened both by development and by non-native species, which makes the park a special sanctuary for this plant community. Like coastal scrub, the plants in this area are hardy and have adapted to meet the harsh elements and lack of nutrients found in the sandy soil. The biggest threat to this community is the non-native ice plant and European beach grasses which were planted all along the coast in hopes of providing more stability to the shifting sands. Instead these plants developed a barrier between the dunes and the sea, cutting off habitat for the species like the Western snowy plover and reducing space for plants like the Tidestrom’s lupine, now a rare plant. The National Park Service has put an effort into restoring coastal dune systems in the park, best seen at Abbotts Lagoon.

Associated Plants and Animals
Dune sagebrush, coast buckwheat, dune lupine, goldenbush and non-native species including European beachgrass and iceplant. The dunes are breeding grounds for a number of birds, most notably the threatened Western snowy plover, but rodents, fox, raccoon, skunk, coyote, deer, elk, and other mammals and birds frequent the shores in search of food.

Places to View
Abbotts Lagoon, and North, South and Limantour beaches.


Intertidal Zone
Point Reyes National Seashore has over 80 miles of undeveloped coastlines that support life. Life is most notable on rocky outcroppings along park beaches or in the surf line also known as the intertidal zone. This is an area above water at low tide and under water at high tide. The boundary between surf and turf is under constant pressure from the sea and one can often see algae, bull kelp, sea grasses and other plant species washed up on the beach, where insects and other animals forage in their decaying matter. Plants are not alone in this zone, and often it is the sea creatures one finds more exciting, The main threats to these species include drying out, being eaten by predators, and being very susceptible to changes in climate or environmental quality.

Associated Plants and Animals
While most of the plants in this community are under the ocean, you may see them uprooted and along the beach. The most common species include bull kelp, sea grass, sea palm, Turkish towel and various other algae. Animals small and large frequent the area, and you may find mole crabs, kelp flies and other small species feeding off these decaying plants.

Places to View
Before we even mention where to view this community, please always remember to always be aware of your surroundings, especially near the ocean. The surf and tides at Point Reyes National Seashore are very dangerous and sneaker waves can pull you out to sea. With that said, you can see this type of community best along Tomales Bay or at Sculptured or McClures beaches. Another prime viewing location just outside the southern end of the park is at Duxbury Reef near Bolinas.


Coastal Wetlands
Point Reyes National Seashore’s most notable wetland, the Giacomini Wetland, can be found at the southern end of Tomales Bay. This 550-acre wetland was restored five years ago with help of Point Reyes National Seashore Association and makes up roughly 12% of Northern California’s coastal wetlands.  The area supports a diverse plant and animal community influenced by both salt and fresh water and tidal fluctuations. Wetlands play a number of roles in the environment, principally by providing wildlife habitat, water purification, floodwater retention, shoreline stability and recreational use. You can learn more about the restoration, hydrology, food webs, birdlife, water quality and more here, or check out this video by Doug McConnell. The Giacomini Wetland also serves as a natural study site for school groups through "Science at the Seashore," an exciting field science education program that also brings underserved youth to the Point Reyes to explore science in parks. 

Point Reyes National Seashore Association and the National Park Service are working with National Geographic to organize a BioBlitz on March 28-29, 2014 in the GIacomini Weltands, learn more here.

Associated Plants and Animals
Salt marsh grasses, willows, buckeye, pickleweed; river otters, ducks, salmon, leopard sharks, tide-water goby and so much more. 

Places to View
The best place to view coastal wetlands is in the southern end of Tomales Bay in the Giacomini Wetlands. The area is best explored by kayak or canoe with put-in points at White House Pool, but you can also view the area by foot just outside of Point Reyes Station. Locate 3rd and C Streets in Point Reyes Station and then follow the trail out to the old white barn overlooking the wetlands. Bring a scope or binoculars for optimal viewing.