Ancient Oaks and Lace Lichen–step back in time

When we returned from our recent trip to Morro Bay I shared some photos from the Los Osos Oaks State Natural Reserve. Midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco this 85-acre woodland is home to centuries-old coast live oak trees.

Trail Marker

The oaks were once a part of a Mexican land grant eventually subdivided into farms and ranches. With steady demand for rich agricultural production it is quite remarkable these ancient trees have survived the encroachment of steady population growth.

But long before the Mexican era, the Chumash Indians lived along the coast and camped in this very spot. Remnants of a Chumash midden (trash mound), along with shell fragments and bits of charcoal provide evidence of Chumash life.


These oaks have been standing guard for 600 to 800  years. The young and old twist and turn into complex embraces, their thick canopies providing a natural sound barrier to the bustle of daily life taking place just beyond the forest’s edge, with the quiet only occasionally punctuated by the sound of birds and small animals.

Oak Branches

The most interesting feature of the trees was the heavy draping of Lace Lichen, or Ramalina menziesiia combination of fungus and algae covering the canopy of the trees. In the semidarkness of the overhead brush, the effect is eerily beautiful.

Lace Lichen

Historians have stated Chumash mothers used the lichen as wraps for their infants and wound dressing.

Close-up of Lace Lichen

Lace Lichen is extremely absorptive and serves to capture the summer fog, with the moisture falling to the roots,  preserving these fabulous trees through centuries of long rain-free seasons in California’s Mediterranean climate.

I’m quite certain there were many different species of lichen in the Park, but the Lace Lichen was the most recognizable.

Oak Trees

The reserve has been left to fend for itself. Downed trees remain on the forest floor, with new off-shoots growing in peculiar puzzles, searching for light.

There are no apparent signs of human interference with the exception of a few small trails maintained to help visitors avoid poison oak.

These are the Los Oso Oaks, and Los Osos, bears, in Spanish, refers to the Grizzlies that once populated the Central Coast. Diaries from Gaspar de Portola’s 1769 expedition tell the tale of hunting parties slaughtering grizzlies to send the meat back up the coast to the Monterey mission, rescuing the mission populace from starvation.

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I know more now than when I walked through these woods a month ago. When I return I might be even more in tune with the sense of time captured in these trees. I’m certain they hold memory.

Grizzlies are extinct in California, but the state got this one right. These amazing trees have been protected and preserved so we can caretake them for the future. What a privilege!

How is it that staring at a rock is so good for the soul?

One of my favorite movie scenes is from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  In this Spielberg classic, Richard Dreyfuss begins obsessively potato sculpting the 5,114 foot Devil’s Tower.

I read somewhere that one reason we are fascinated with rocks, large and small, is that they serve as the memory for our planet, holding the fossil records that tell us about the journey of time.

Maybe that’s why when walking around Morro Rock, a 24-million year old volcanic plug, I felt like speaking in hushed tones.

Morro Rock, Morrow Bay, CA

The prehistory of Morro Bay connects to the Opispeño Chumash settlements near the mouth of Morro Creek dating from as early as the Millingstone Horizon (6500 to 1500 B.C.).

Face in the Morro Rock

Morro Rock is one of  “Nine Sisters,” extinct volcanic peaks stretching in a nearly 12-mile straight line from Morro Bay to San Luis Obispo.

For centuries this has been the site of countless Native American sacred rituals, and although no longer as openly accessible to the Native Peoples, it is still considered important in the cultural lives of the local Chumash.

Ledge on Morro Rock

Morro Rock was designated a California Registered Landmark in 1968, and is now a bird sanctuary for the Peregrine Falcon. I didn’t happen to see a Falcon, but apparently the gulls feel an affinity for the 581-foot monolith–as do I!


Morro Bay sits approximately mid-point between Los Angeles and San Francisco, making it the perfect location for a weekend with my Bay Area cousin and her husband.

Wineries, wildlife sanctuaries and some of the most beautiful vista points along the rocky coastline–perfect for photo shoots and picnics–were investigated for a family reunion scheduled for June.

rocky face of Morro Bay Rock

Fresh water from the mouth of Los Osos Creek opens out into the saltwater creating an estuary that is both a national and state preserve, supporting the most significant wetland system on California’s Central Coast.

View of Morro Rock across wetlands

As much as we tried, we still weren’t able to view all 800  acres of wetland, nor identify the more than 250 species of land, sea, and shorebirds that call Morro Bay home.

And we only scratched the surface of  botanical wonders like the Los Osos Oaks State Reserve with 800 year-old Coast Live Oaks…

Oak at Los Osos Oaks State Reserve

But remember–we’re coming back in June. I’ve already scoped out the areas I want to revisit more closely!

Morro Bay is only about three hours from Los Angeles. It’s going to be my new de-stressify zone.  I think you can begin to see why!

Sunset over Morro Bay


I highly recommend reading THIS ARTICLE which includes a wealth of information about Indigenous Religious Traditions associated with the history of Morro Rock. It comes via a course taught in the Religion Department at Colorado College by Bruce Coriell, the College Chaplain. The accompanying detail is very easy to digest and provides wonderfully rich information for anyone interested in knowing more than I can share in a typical blog post. 

A few more notes about the Chumash and Nicoleño people…still following the mission trail.

I follow so many different Southern California trails that I am prone to hop, skip and jump from one story to the next. I decided it was time for me to wrap up a few loose ends.

Let’s head back up to Santa Barbara.

The 1786 “Queen” of the 21 Spanish missions is beautiful and full of interesting nooks and crannies. I can really only share just a few of the architectural details I found interesting, but you’ll certainly want to note the panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean and  Channel Islands.

If you hover over the photos you’ll find identification.

Real skull and crossbones were used to mark the entrance to Spanish cemeteries, so at the mission the stone carvings also mark the cemetery entrance. Gives a little pirate feel, doesn’t it?

The Lavanderia, or clothes washing basin, was built by the Chumash Indians of the Santa Barbara Mission in 1808 and was fed by water from a complex aqueduct system. The animal spout was also carved by a Chumash artisan. Not all missions had such designated spots for laundry, but the Chumash were known for their dedication to cleanliness.

This 120 year-old Australian Moreton Bay Fig is a beautiful cemetery centerpiece. I don’t know if it bears figs, but it is special.

Then just up the road from the Mission is this beautiful building.

We visited the Museum of Natural History so I could see the small exhibit dedicated to the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, and as interesting as that exhibit is, there was very little to learn about the Nicoleño people.

However, there is an entire room dedicated to the Chumash. The Chumash people thrived in California prehistory, with some settlements dating back at last 10,000 years. The Chumash came into contact with the European settlers in 1542 when Juan Cabrillo’s sailing vessels arrived on the coast of California. Cabrillo died on San Miguel Island, but his men brought back a diary containing names and population counts for many of the Chumash villages.

For those keeping score, some historians say that although Cabrillo died on San Miguel Island he was probably buried on Santa Catalina Island. I suppose record keeping wasn’t all that accurate in 1543.

During the Spanish mission years the Chumash were instrumental in building and working the coastal missions.

Although at one time the Chumash were a thriving culture numbering over 20,000 living along the California coastline, they succumbed to Spanish and American colonization. It’s a sad irony that the Chumash are now without their own land, as most Chumash bands, except for the Santa Ynez Samala Band, have not made the list of federally recognized tribes.

And to wrap up all I know for now about the Nicoleño people…all my lines of inquiry lead me back again to my own San Gabriel Mission.

There are nearly 6,000 Native Americans buried at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel. And it is probable that some of those buried are Nicoleño people.

Imagine my surprise when I read that as the Nicoleño people lost their home on the Channel Islands after repeated attack from otter hunting Aleuts from Russian Alaska, many of the surviving Nicoleño chose to live at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel.

It’s fascinating for me to learn that one more of the stories I’ve been so interested in following leads the line of inquiry back to my city.

As I studied about Juana Maria it never occurred to me that her people might have a tie, slim though it is, to the San Gabriel Mission. It’s facts like this that keep me coming back. Of course, now I have more to investigate. Who knows where this will lead?

Plaque of Juana Maria