The Pastoral Zone
First time visitors to the Point Reyes Lighthouse often puzzle over what they see on their approach. Crossing over the Inverness Ridge and heading towards the Point Reyes headlands, the motorist leaves behind the evergreen forests and enters an area of treeless coastal grasslands that make up the park’s pastoral zone. Cows, barns, and signage marking the historic “alphabet” ranches may seem incongruent to a national park, but they are an important and beloved legacy of the people who helped found the park in the 1960s. The pastoral zone is both a historic cultural and working agricultural landscape that today includes 18,000 acres (20%) of the Point Reyes National Seashore and 10,000 acres of the North District of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Twenty-four families hold lease/special use permits for cattle and dairy operations.
Ranching on the Point Reyes Peninsula dates back more than 150 years, with a rich history of successive land ownership. While the current land owner is the federal government, the land is managed through agricultural leases/special use permits to individual ranchers. Point Reyes ranches were protected from urban development in the 1960s when the National Park Service purchased the land to establish the only National Seashore on the west coast. The park was created with the support of ranching families who sold their land to the park and then leased it back. Today’s ranching families continue the legacy of fifth and sixth generations of land stewards. Many of the geographic names and trails within the park derive from the park’s ranching history.
Ranchers in the park pay an adjusted fair market value rent to the National Park Service that takes into account the regulations required to operate within a National Park. All follow prescribed practices that protect the wildlife and ecosystems within the pastoral zone.The park employs a range ecologist to work with ranchers on compliance and provides other assistance, such as carpentry work on historic buildings and support with weed eradication. Many of the ranches over the last decade have converted their operations to organic dairy and grass-fed beef to capture niche markets that are more financially viable. The National Park Service is proud of its 50-year partnership with the ranchers and looks forward to continuing the legacy with the next generation of ranching families.
Approach With Care
Despite the “Historic Ranch” signs, please respect that these are working ranches. While hiking is allowed on most ranch pastures, visitors should not disturb workers or livestock. Park trails that lead through pasture include the Estero Trail, Bull Point Trail, Rift Zone Trail and the Bolinas Ridge Trail. If you are hiking and approach a herd of cows, move slowly and detour around as best as possible. Cows are typically curious, but gentle. Do not chase cows or make noise. Take extra care when in the presence of mothers with calves, and bulls. Use trail gates and do not climb over barbed wire fences or on gates.
- Read about ranching history on the park’s website
- Visit interpretive displays at Bear Valley Visitor Center
- Purchase a copy of Discovering Historic Ranches at Point Reyes, by Dewey Livingston (available at bookstores at the Bear Valley Visitor Center and Point Reyes Lighthouse)
- Explore Pierce Point Ranch (historic structure and interpretive site)
- Historic Ranch Map
- Current Ranch Map