Dana Point Headlands, San Juan Capistrano

Dana Point Headlands, San Juan Capistrano

by | May 4, 2022

Dana Point is a prominent headland situated between Dana Point Harbor to the south and Strand Beach to the north, protected from further development by the Dana Point Headlands Conservation Area, about 50 miles (80 km) southeast of Los Angeles and 4 miles (6 km) southwest of San Juan Capistrano, California. The neighboring community of Dana Point is bordered by San Juan Capistrano to the northeast, San Clemente to the southeast, Laguna Beach to the northwest, and Laguna Niguel to the north. Dana Point was named after Richard Henry Dana Jr. who was an American lawyer and politician from Massachusetts who is most well known as the author of the classic seafaring memoir Two Years Before the Mast. The headland is part of the western portion of a geologic coastal plain underlain by a thick sequence of sedimentary rocks that formed with intermittent deposition in paralic reservoirs from the Late Cretaceous through the Pleistocene on the geological time scale. Paralic reservoirs develop landward of the open coast and include river deltas, estuaries, and nearshore shelf and shoreline depositional environments. The sediments at Dana Point were eroded from the Peninsular Ranges and deposited on igneous and metavolcanic rocks from the Jurassic and Early Cretaceous periods. The Peninsular Ranges extend for 930 miles (1,500 km) from the Transverse Ranges in the north to the southern tip of Baja California. They are part of the Pacific Coast Ranges which extend from Alaska to Mexico. The coastal plain is characterized by a series of 21 stair-stepped marine terraces which are progressively younger from east to west. At Dana Point, the sediments are poorly sorted, moderately permeable, reddish-brown strandline, beach, estuarine and colluvial deposits composed of siltstone, sandstone, and conglomerate. These deposits rest on the now emergent wave-cut platforms preserved by regional uplift.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the Acjachemen people lived in this area for over 10,000 years and that prior to European settlement, about 550 indigenous Acjachemen lived in this area. They resided in permanent, well-defined villages and seasonal camps. Village populations ranged from between 35 and 300 inhabitants, consisting of a family lineage in the smaller villages, and of a dominant clan joined with other families in the larger settlements. They built cone-shaped huts made of willow branches covered with brush or mats made of tule leaves. In 1542, the Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo documented the coastal villages he encountered along the southern California coast and the massive headland at Dana Point which became an important landmark for subsequent navigators. In 1769, Juan Crespí, a Franciscan missionary and a member of the Spanish Portolà expedition, authored the first written account of the interaction between Europeans and the Acjachemen, who were called Juaneño by the Spanish, when the explorers camped on San Juan Creek. In early 1775, Don Antonio María de Bucareli y Ursúa, Viceroy of New Spain, authorized the establishment of a mission at the site already known as San Juan Capistrano after John of Capistrano a Franciscan friar and Catholic priest from the Italian town of Capestrano, Abruzzo. In the early 1800s, the headland was used primarily as grazing land by the Spaniards and soon became a popular stop for ships involved in the hide trade with nearby Mission San Juan Capistrano. In 1821, the Mexican War of Independence ended with the ceding of Alta California to Mexico. In 1833, Governor José Figueroa initially attempted to keep the mission system intact, but the Mexican Congress passed Decree for the Secularization of the Missions of California. The decree also provided for the colonization of both Alta and Baja California, with the expenses to be borne by the proceeds gained from the sale of the mission property to private interests. In 1834, Richard Henry Dana departed from Boston aboard the small brig Pilgrim, bound for Alta California. Dana was an undergraduate at Harvard College when he contracted measles, which in his case led to ophthalmia. A worsening vision inspired him to enlist as a merchant seaman. This voyage brought Dana to a number of coastal settlements and missions in California including Monterey, San Buenaventura, San Pedro, San Juan Capistrano, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, and San Francisco. Dana spent much of his time in California at San Diego’s Point Loma curing cowhides and loading them onto the ship. In 1835, Pilgrim visited the Mission San Juan Capistrano to collect hides and tallow for shipment to Boston in exchange for merchandise needed by the mission and surrounding ranchos. Five years later, Dana described the high promontory with its natural harbor and told of tossing cowhides acquired from the mission off the cliff, from which they sailed like kites to the small beach below. They were then loaded onto small boats and rowed through the surf to the anchored brig. Dana provided one of the few existing narratives describing the life of mostly illiterate ordinary sailors in the 19th century since most of what we know today comes from the perspective of ship officers. The Franciscans eventually abandoned the mission and in 1844, the property was auctioned off to John Forster who was Governor Pío Pico‘s brother-in-law, and his partner James McKinley.

In 1923, Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler, Moses H. Sherman, director of the Pacific Electric Railway Company, and Sidney H. Woodruff, already a prominent Los Angeles homebuilder, created the Dana Point Syndicate. They invited other company presidents, movie producers, and real estate investors to join them in purchasing 1,388 acres (562 ha) of land that included the present-day headland. The developers promised tree-lined and paved streets, electricity, telephones, sidewalks, water mains, storm drains, sewers, and other amenities, and they eventually built 35 homes and a number of commercial buildings. The economic downturn of the Great Depression caused construction to halt and the project was abandoned in 1939. The construction of Dana Point Harbor started in the late 1960s with the building of the breakwater jetties and the marina was opened in 1971. In 2005, under increasing pressure from real estate developers, the Center for Natural Lands Management acquired 29.4 acres (12 ha) of the headlands with a donation from the Harry and Grace Steele Foundation. Today, the Dana Point Headlands Conservation Area encompasses approximately 60 acres (24 ha) including the Harbor Point Conservation Park with a trail that overlooks the Dana Point Harbor and includes the Nature Interpretive Center, the Hilltop Conservation Park pro­viding trails with scenic panoramas of the City of Dana Point, the South Strand Conservation Park with a trail winding down the hillside overlooking the Strand Beach & Pacific Ocean, and the Dana Point Preserve owned and managed by the Center for Natural Lands Management for the protection of rare and endangered species. The endangered species found here are the Pacific pocket mouse and the coastal California gnatcatcher. The plant communities protected by the preserve provide examples of native southern California wilderness. The coastal sage scrub plant community is sometimes referred to as soft chaparral because the plants are mostly low-growing, flexible, and have soft leaves. Coastal sage scrub plants are adapted to cool wet winters and warm dry summers, thrive on fog and ocean humidity, and support a diverse number of organisms. Dominant plants are the coastal sagebrush and flat-topped buckwheat. A second plant community found on-site is coastal bluff scrub. This community is located along the unstable slopes of the cliffs, and the dominant plants are cliff spurge and California boxthorn. Read more here and here. Explore more of Dana Point here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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