Balboa Natural Area

Balboa Natural Area

This park features excellent views of the Pacific Ocean and has an elevated boardwalk providing access to one of the few remaining foredunes in San Francisco. From this park you can connect to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area at Ocean Beach, across the Great Highway, and at Land’s End, a few blocks to the north. Playland at the Beach occupied this site from the 1920s until 1972. Prior to restoration the area was used for construction staging for the Richmond Transport Project. The boardwalk and dune construction began in 2002; sand from the De Young Museum construction site was used to create dune mounds. Foredune vegetation was planted by GGNRA and Natural Areas Program staff and volunteers in 2003, 2004, and 2005.

Natural History

Until recently, most of western San Francisco was covered by a patchwork of windblown sand dunes, patches of flowering shrubs, and occasional oases of ponds edged by willow, wax myrtle, and oak. Some of these dunes were over 50 feet tall. The sand was originally deposited on the broad coastal plain of the Sacramento/San Joaquin River system, which extended from the Golden Gate to the Farallon Islands (some 20 miles away) during the last glacial period, when sea level was as much as 300 feet lower than present. As sea level rose rapidly between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, the rising ocean transported the sand from the coastal plain onto the rising shoreline; from there it blew in dunes across the city to what is now downtown.

Foredunes are the area in which plants and blowing sand mix. Closer to the ocean, wind and blowing sand are too strong for most plants to become established. Beyond the foredune, where winds are less strong, it is easier for plants to grow, and the sand is stabilized by carpets of vegetation. Plants that grow in this foredune area, like sand verbena, silver beach bur, and coast strawberry, are uniquely adapted to grow in low-nutrient sands buffeted by high winds, often buried by constantly shifting sands. It is truly amazing anything can grow here at all.

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