Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Other California: There's More Out There Than The The Tar Tar Pits (and The Doing of a Good Thing at the Carpinteria Bluffs)


The first thing to know in this post is that this was once my home. My small growing family spent three years in the cramped condominiums across Highway 101 from this spot on the Santa Barbara coast near Carpinteria. It was the 1980s shortly after I finished my degree and I was working as a lab teacher at Santa Barbara City College. They were good years, and many may wonder why I moved to a dusty farm town in the Central Valley for my 30 year career. It's a fair question, but I've never regretted it.

Be that as it may, Carpinteria turned out to be a nice place to visit 30 years on, and I was pleased that while some things have changed, others have not. When we lived there, it was a pleasant 1/4 mile walk to the Carpinteria Bluffs, a roughly 60-acre tract that had somehow escaped development over the years. Given the level of the land utilization along the coastal terraces from Goleta to Ventura, this stood as some kind of minor miracle. It's also a minor geological miracle that the flatland even exists at all. The Santa Barbara coastline is a prime example of a "geologically active" place.

The Santa Barbara coast really stands out on a map of California. While most of the state's coasts are oriented towards the north-northwest, the stretch from Point Conception to Ventura is distinctly east-west, paralleling the orientation of the Channel Islands, several tens of miles offshore. Geologists call this region the Transverse Ranges for this reason. This strange structural knot in southern California extends eastward to the San Bernardino Mountains and Joshua Tree National Park.

The origin of the structural twist is wild...when the San Andreas fault originated, it mostly carried crust to the northwest, but the part of the crust that is now the Transverse Ranges was twisted nearly 90 degrees to the east-west orientation that it has today (you can see a great animation and explanation of the process at this link). Getting caught in the machinery of the fault was not gentle either. Compressional forces pushed the crust upwards into mountains more than 10,000 feet high, and caused the crust to sink in other places. The Ventura and Santa Barbara basins contain tens of thousands of feet of marine sediments deposited in just a few million years. The region contains some of the thickest Cenozoic-aged sediments known from anywhere in the world. And the sediment contains prodigious amounts of petroleum and natural gas, with some consequences that will be noted later in this post.
The fact is that most of coastal Central California is mountainous, and in many places the mountains rise directly from the sea, leaving little or no flat surfaces for either settlement or transportation routes. Flat terraces are prime real estate, and most of these were developed early on. Carpinteria was only the latest of settlements over the last several thousand years. The Chumash had a village noted by Cabrillo in 1541 called Mishopshnow. They were canoe-builders, and the woodworking that was going on there is the reason for the name Carpinteria ("carpentry shop").

The terraces were also the result of active geological processes. Thousands of years of waves washing back and forth flattened the beach areas forming a wave-cut bench. These benches were lifted out of the water by continued tectonic uplift (no doubt accompanied by occasional severe earthquakes).
I'll never quite know why the Carpinteria Bluffs escaped industrial development during the last century. When we lived there in the 1980s, we heard of ambitious plans for the "barren" terrace, and it seemed a sure thing that this pleasant stretch of coast would disappear soon after we moved away, yet when we returned last month for a visit, I was thrilled to see it remained much as it was. I learned that the 1990s was a contentious period during which the people of Carpinteria fought a pitched battle to keep the bluffs as open space. In 1998, the volunteers managed to raise just short of 4 million dollars to purchase the land to form a permanent nature preserve. 
The Santa Ynez Mountains rise dramatically above Carpinteria. They are composed of sandstone, siltstone, and shale layers that were on the bottom of the sea only a few million years ago.
The preserve can hardly be described as a wilderness, given its location between the 101 Freeway and the busy railroad tracks, but a short series of walks reveal incredible views of the coastline, beaches, and the Channel Islands far offshore. During particularly heavy storms I can remember hearing the concussion of the huge waves that pounded the cliffs from a quarter mile away in our condo.
A section of the beach has been seasonally closed to provide a safe haven for Harbor Seals who use the beach for birthing their pups. Around a hundred of them utilize the area.
When we first moved there, we found another reason that one might avoid walking on this particular beach. At the conclusion of our walks we would find that there was a considerable amount of tar covering our shoes, or worse, our feet. It was hard to get off, and seemed omnipresent. It was easy to blame the offshore oil rigs or the onshore petroleum processing facility just to the west, but the truth was the tar was natural. Which brings us to the other subject of the day concerning Carpinteria: the tar!
The Spanish Language is beautiful. It's been said that reading a grocery list in French sounds sexy, but Spanish is muy bonita. The place names in California attest to this fact. For example in my area alone we have poetic place names like Merced, Madera, Manteca, Los Banos, and Escalon. Merced translates into the equally poetic name "Mercy", but the others are in order "Wood", "Lard", "The Bathrooms", and "Step".

And sometimes we kind of mix up our translations into unnecessary repetition. Most specifically, the La Brea Tar Pits. The most literal translation is "The The Tar Tar Pits". The La Brea Tar Pits in the Hancock Park area of Los Angeles are justly famous for the fossil collections that have come from one of what are said to be only five natural tar pits in the world (I can't confirm this claim, but I'm going with it).'s not the place I'm talking about in this post. It turns out that two of the other four tar pits are in California, and they are obviously far less known. One is in McKittrick near Bakersfield, and the other is in, of all places, Carpinteria.
File:Layers of stone and tar at Carpinteria, CA.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Tar results when petroleum escapes to the surface and loses some of its volatile components, becoming a sticky gooey mess. In the coastal cliffs at Carpinteria, the near vertical layers of the Monterey Shale give way to the horizontal layers of the coastal terraces. The Monterey is the source of much of the oil that is pumped from the ground in California, but at Carpinteria, it is emerging from the rocks like a very, very slow spring. The tar deposits are present over dozens of acres in the area, but are mainly exposed in the sea cliffs and on the beach just west of the Carpinteria Bluffs, and within the lands of Carpinteria State Beach. 
Tar Pits Park (Carpinteria) - 2021 All You Need to Know BEFORE You Go (with Photos) - Tripadvisor
The tar was utilized by the Chumash people for centuries, and as such can be described as the first petroleum enterprise in North America. The tar was traded for use as an adhesive, caulking, and waterproofing. The Chumash made use of the material in their construction of their plank canoes. 

European colonizers and invaders also made use of the tar deposits, and in the late 1800s and early 1900s it was used to pave roads in the area. Eventually the pits were abandoned and utilized as a garbage dump. 

Some paleontologists came to realize that the tar was an important fossil resource. Excavations between 1926 and 1928 revealed 25 plant species, 55 species of birds and 26 species of mammals according to the Carpinteria Valley History Society. The animals are similar to those found at La Brea, including Mammoths or Mastodons, Saber tooth Cats, Dire Wolves, Giant Ground Sloths, horses, and camels. The birds are even more diverse, due to being a coastal habitat, unlike the plains at La Brea. The plant fossils include eight conifer species showing that the during the ice ages the coastal environment was cooler and more moist, much like the Monterey Coast to the north.
Source: California State Parks

When I worked at SBCC there was no internet, and I was only vaguely aware that there had been tarpits somewhere in the area. So it was that I never realized the value of the irritating pollutant on the beach that ruined a number of pairs of my shoes. If you visit and mess up your own shoes, just remember, it's important history!

The Other California is my long-running series of places to see in our state when you've seen all the places on the postcards!


UCSB Grad said...

Spent 2 years at SBCC then moved to UCSB and completed my BA and MA in Geology over the next 5 years at UCSB leaving the area in 1978 (yep way long time ago).

Living in IV one was well aware of the tar on the beach. Salad oil worked reasonably well as I recall to help clean it off feet without resorting to harsher stuff like gasoline!

I used to run religiously on the beach at low tide. I would time the runs to the tide. I kept a specific pair of beach running shoes. The tar would build up mostly in the instep area creating a"natural" foot arch support.

Loce your Blog, Garry, keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Soiled many feet as a kid on those beaches. I remember staying away from the tar stacks, maybe a prompting from the parents. It was inevitable though. Feet had tar spots. I know many people who cherished camping on that beach.