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Old Indian Trail at Malaga Cove


A short path along the top of an ocean bluff ridge on the southwestern coast of Santa Monica Bay could be one of the oldest continuously used beach access routes in North America. Several cultures of people (perhaps 5) have used this trail to transport themselves and their material to the beach and back. The earliest culture is known to have lived on the bluff top there some 6,800 years ago. The path is still used today as it was then.

Located between the beach-side bluff face and the ravine which empties out into the ocean, is a ridge, some 650 feet in length, sloping from the top of the bluff to the beach. The ridge is used as a convenient foot path for people to move between the bluff top north of the ravine and the beach - and people have been living on top of the bluff there for a very long time. This project identifies this trail to the beach as not only used by the Indians known to live on the top of the bluff at the time the Spanish made first contact, but the trail was also used by even earlier cultures of Indians living there.

Archaeological excavations on the top of the bluff have shown a sequence of four cultures of prehistoric people occupying the site. There is a current scholarly debate about the anatomy of the site, but since the ridge sloping to the beach from the bluff existed before the oldest culture living there, it's logical to suppose that the ridge was used as a path to the beach by the oldest culture.

The 1936 archaeological excavation by Edwin F. Walker of the Southwest Museum identified four levels of cultural material at the site. The lowest level the oldest is dated at 6,800 years ago. Walker's archaeological excavation site is known as CA-LAN-138 (Malaga Cove).

For the people of the oldest culture, the ridge may have been the only practical route to and from the beach. Although today there is a deformation of the terrace directly west of CA-LAN-138 which allows a steep path to the beach, the geological evidence is, as pointed out in the classic 1946 U. S. Geological Survey Professional Paper of the area, the deformation of the terrace likely occurred after the first culture lived at the site.

1888, "High Bluffs at Redondo, Cal.", Photographer: William H. Fletcher, (1838-1924), California State Library, (labeling added)

Now - photo below taken recently of same view of bluffs as the 1888 photo above.

Note: (1) at the time the photo below was taken, the tide was too high to get to the exact same spot the photographer took the 1888 photo, (2) there is a beach club facility now in front of the ravine, (3) and in the foreground of this recent photo it shows that spray-on cement was recently applied to the base of the bluff.

1946 - Geology and Paleontology of Palos Verdes hills, California, Issue 207
U.S. Geological Survey, 1946; Professional Paper 207
Geology and Paleontology of Palos Verdes Hills, California
Woodring, Bramlette, Kew - 145 Pages

_____ (transcribed from page 107) _____


The strip of dune sand extending along the coast southward from Playa Del Rey 12 miles north of Malaga Cove overlaps the northwest end of the Palos Verdes Hills. The limits of the dune sand in the Palos Verdes Hills are uncertain, as it grades into the first terrace nonmarine cover, which underlies it, and furnished presumably some, or most of, the material for it. The dune sand has a cover of vegetation, even in areas where the natural vegetation is not greatly disturbed, and is no longer actively moving except near the edge of the sea cliff, where vegetation is scanty. E.F. Walker, of the Southwest Museum, has found three human culture levels in the dune sand at Malaga Cove and a fourth level in the uppermost 3 feet of the underlying nonmarine terrrace cover. (92). At that locality the nonmarine cover of the first terrace, 25 feet thick, lies directly on Miocene and Pliocene formations and is overlain by 25 to 30 feet of dune sand (fig 7). The uppermost 3 feet of the nonmarine terrace cover containing the oldest culture is contaminated with black organic material. The first terrace is of late Pleistocene age, and the cover on it at this locality, at a considerable distance from the highlands to the south that furnished the debris, is also late Pleistocene. As shown in figure 7 and plate 26, the terrace is arched over the strongly deformed Tertiary formations and slopes toward the highland source of the nonmarine cover. The deposition of the cover antedates, of course, deformation of the terrace and its cover. If the human inhabitants responsible for the lowest culture level lived during the deposition of the 3 feet of the cover, that culture represents a antiquity - late Pleistocene according to the age classification adopted in the present report. If, on the contrary, the lowest culture represents human occupancy after deposition of the cover but before deposition of dune sand, its antiquity is correspondingly less. During a field conference at the site in the spring of Mr. Walker and Dr. Hildegarde Howard, of the Los Angeles Museum, reported that the material from this culture level includes mineralized bones of extinct diving goose Chendytes lawi, which occurs in Palos Verdes sand in San Pedro, and nonmineralized bones of species of birds and other animals now. Whether the remains of the extinct goose at Malaga Cove represent an animal that was a contemporary of the human inhabitants or represent older material concentrated at the culture site by natural or agencies is not known. In view of the occurrence nonmineralized remains of species of animals living however the extinct goose is probably older the human inhabitants.

The other three culture levels are in the dune sand. Glass trade beads were found at the top of the uppermost level, about 5 feet below the top of the sand.

The dune sand is considered of Recent age. All except the uppermost part antedates the historic period. The age of the remainder is a matter of inference based the succession of geologic events and the uncertain dating of the Pleistocene record. The present inactivity of the dunes suggests that they were formed during period when the present protective cover of vegetation was lacking. Whether the change from actively moving dunes to inactive dunes is to be correlated with unknown changes resulting in cutting off of the supply of sand is a matter that deserves consideration in any attempt to work out a succession of events in the post Pleistocene history of the Pacific coast and its human inhabitants. The three culture levels in the dune sand at Malaga Cove indicate a considerable time span.

Plate 1 (detail)

1925 - Photo of old foot path on ridge taken from the other side of the ravine, Palos Verdes Local History

2012 - Hiking the trail from the beach to the top of the bluff.