Explore Geology
geology fieldnotes title

Santa Monica Mountains

National Recreation Area


cover of park brochure

park geology subheading
photo of coastline
Santa Monica Mountains, National Recreation Area

Mountains in the City: A Laboratory for Learning
". . . our good fortune can't possibly last any longer than our natural resources". —Will Rogers

  • To Will Rogers, the Santa Monica Mountains were home—a place where the cowboy-philosopher created a comfortable ranch in the midst of Hollywood glitter.

  • To visionary Los Angeles water engineer William Mulholland, the Santa Monicas formed a natural park, “. . . 55 miles of scenic splendor for the... people of Los Angeles".
  • For the Chumash and Gabrielenos, the mountains provided a place for inland and coastal villages and a base for trade and fishing expeditions to the Channel Islands.

  • For the movie moguls of the thirties, the Santa Monicas provided a dynamic landscape which could be transformed from the wild west to colonial Massachusets to China.

  • And to ten million residents of today’s Los Angeles urban area, the Santa Monica Mountains are a place for education, recreation and rejuvenation.
For here, in the heart of the West's largest city, a unique partnership of government, commercial and private interests is coming together to create a new part of the National Park System.

In 1978, 15 years of effort to establish parklands and preserve open space in the mountains was culminated with the creation of Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. As envisioned by Congress, this would be a cooperative project combining Federal, state, county and community parks with private camps, homeowners and land planning agencies in an effort to preserve, protect and wisely use 150,000 acres of mountains and seashore.

The mountains and seashore have always been a special place for recreation. Private camps have long provided camping and outdoor experiences. The equestrian tradition can be traced back to the Rancho Period. The famous Malibu and Santa Monica beaches are visited by over 27 million people a year.

With inflation and high travel expenses, both visitors and residents are now provided opportunities to enjoy the ever shrinking open space and mountain area—a vast laboratory for learning about our relationship with the earth and with each other.

The Santa Monica Mountains stretch almost fifty miles westward from Griffith Park to Point Mugu—a rare combination of major mountain range, seashore and urban area.

The land itself—this coastal mountain range—forms a remarkable resource. Created by movements of the earth's crust, the mountains may be part of the same geologic uplift which created the Channel Islands to the west. Rugged slopes and valleys reflect eons of changes in the earth's surface. Ancient seabeds and marine fossils are found on high ridgelines.

The recreation area constitutes a sizeable national preserve for Southern California's Mediterranean ecosystem limited in the world to four other western coasts. Miles of mountains are covered with chaparral and sage. Between these mountains lie woodlands and grasslands, increasingly rare environments in Southern California. Steep, rocky canyons in the Santa Monicas plunge seaward, sheltering waterfalls and streamside groves of oak and sycamore. The seashore offers salt and fresh water marshes as well as rock reefs and offshore kelp beds.

Southern California's native wildlife still survives in the mountains. Footprints of mountain lion, coyote, mule, deer and bobcats can be found. Golden eagles nest in mountain cliffs overlooking streams which still harbor spawning steelhead trout. Massive migrations of birds traveling along the Pacific Flyway between Alaska and South America are visible at Malibu and Mugu Lagoons.

The Mediterranean climate varies—accounting for the diversity in native plants and animals. Winter brings cool, foggy weather and as much as 25 inches of rain to the interior canyons. Spring blossoms forth with a golden dazzle of poppies, mustard, and coreopsis (a shrubby sunflower), green meadows, and a blue haze of ceanothus on the hillside.

Summer and fall dries the inland grassland to brown and gold, leaving lands dangerously susceptible to wildfires. At this driest time of year, the hot Santa Ana winds, blowing toward the coast, can fan the smallest spark into flame. Fires sweep through the chaparral, reducing it to burned skeletons, yet triggering the life cycle to begin again. Unfortunately for residents of the mountains, wildfires leave bare slopes which are prone to flooding and landslides when rains return in winter.

People have long dealt with the cycle of fire in the Santa Monicas. They have lived here for more than 7,000 years, attracted by the water, open land, sunshine, and a warm climate equally healthy for crops and humans.

The Chumash and Gabrielenos left behind beautiful rock paintings, tracings of villages, and burial sites. The Chumash, noted astronomers, are known for their advanced monetary system. Surveys have identified trails and settlements and have unearthed hundreds of archeological sites although few have been preserved. Presently, thousands of their descendents live in the Southern California area.

In the 1700's, Spanish, then Mexican settlers came. They brought with them horses and cattle to make this a land of ranchos and vaqueros. Western settlers in the 1800's added dry farming and railroads to the landscape.

Early in the 20th Century the addition of water from the Owens Valley helped the area's population to boom. The oil, movie and aerospace industries brought even more people and more changes to the land.

Today's Los Angeles continues a human story which stretches unbroken from nomadic hunters to an ethnically and economically varied metropolitan area.

These mountains provide us with important perspectives. Commuters travel the major freeways while hikers pause a mile away, watching a red tail hawk bank in the wind. From the air at night, the lights of city streets surround and bisect the mountain area. Mountain lions roam the dark canyons. Whales migrate off the Malibu shoreline.

People, land and sea interact here to create a distinctive place. The healthy future of the land and sea depends on people—on our capacity for respect, vision, compromise and care.

To hike and wade along mountain creeks, to sleep beneath glittering stars under a great oak tree, and to look to a horizon free of roads, billboards and buildings—these are powerful experiences. Such escapes free us from our everyday demands, release our imaginations, and assist us in appreciating the open spaces and exhilarating natural landscapes which intermingle here in urban Southern California.

The efforts to protect and carefully use the Santa Monica Mountains will teach us much about each other. But our goal is also to preserve wild places close to home and save a piece of our heritage that will hold "answers to questions we don't yet know how to ask".

park maps subheading

The General park map handed out at the visitor center is available on the park's map webpage.

For information about topographic maps, geologic maps, and geologic data sets, please see the geologic maps page.

photo album subheading

A geology photo album for this park can be found here.

For information on other photo collections featuring National Park geology, please see the Image Sources page.

books, videos, cds subheading

Currently, we do not have a listing for a park-specific geoscience book. The park's geology may be described in regional or state geology texts.

Please visit the Geology Books and Media webpage for additional sources such as text books, theme books, CD ROMs, and technical reports.

Parks and Plates: The Geology of Our National Parks, Monuments & Seashores.
Lillie, Robert J., 2005.
W.W. Norton and Company.
ISBN 0-393-92407-6
9" x 10.75", paperback, 550 pages, full color throughout

The spectacular geology in our national parks provides the answers to many questions about the Earth. The answers can be appreciated through plate tectonics, an exciting way to understand the ongoing natural processes that sculpt our landscape. Parks and Plates is a visual and scientific voyage of discovery!

Ordering from your National Park Cooperative Associations' bookstores helps to support programs in the parks. Please visit the bookstore locator for park books and much more.

geologic research subheading

Information about the park's research program is available on the park's research webpage.

For information about permits that are required for conducting geologic research activities in National Parks, see the Permits Information page.

The NPS maintains a searchable data base of research needs that have been identified by parks.

A bibliography of geologic references is being prepared for each park through the Geologic Resources Evaluation Program (GRE). Please see the GRE website for more information and contacts.

selected links subheading

NPS Geology and Soils Partners

NRCS logoAssociation of American State Geologists
NRCS logoGeological Society of America
NRCS logoNatural Resource Conservation Service - Soils
USGS logo U.S. Geological Survey

teacher feature subheading

General information about the park's education and intrepretive programs is available on the park's education webpage.

For resources and information on teaching geology using National Park examples, see the Students & Teachers pages.
updated on 01/04/2005  I   http://www.nature.nps.gov/geology/parks/samo/index.cfm   I  Email: Webmaster
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