California Parks

Spring Flowers in a Mountain Forest, May 2019

Skyline Trail in May is a dreamscape. Despite the absence of patched medieval castles, squat thatched-roof villages and stolid Norman churches that I acquaint with fairytales and fantasy, the trail was magical. What wonderful stories the Native Americans of this region must have told of the flowers that bloom in these tall, moist, canopied forests in the springtime!

Taking our cue from blogger David Baselt, who describes patches of old-growth redwoods along Skyline Trail in his blog, Redwood Hikes, we explored the southern section of the trail, having already explored the northern section. The southern section is tricky to find because the trail head is not marked. We had a few false starts as we drove along Skyline Blvd (State Route 35).

In the 1920s, the road’s chief engineer described Skyline Blvd as a highway that “combines the beauties of the mountains, the sunsets of the desert, the fogs of the ocean, and the panorama of the bay.” For about half an hour, we looked for openings in the wire fence that blocks access to the trail from the road, until we found an entrance near Swett Road.

There wasn’t another soul on the trail, although we did wonder if the little fellow who dug these ⬆️ mole-sized holes wasn’t nearby. The holes connected to a ridge that followed the trail for miles, a service road for four-footed friends.

We think Hairy woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus) made these holes. The National Audubon Society says that, “In its feeding Hairy woodpeckers do more pounding and excavating in trees than most smaller woodpeckers, consuming large numbers of wood-boring insects.”

Some industrious, winged blokes occasionally broke the silence.

But otherwise the forest was quiet.

Seeing this new-growth redwood growing beside a second-growth redwood caused us to recall that trees are 95 percent carbon dioxide.

Time slowed down. Instead of minutes, we measured its passing in the moments between discovery and contemplation.

Pastel-colored baby redwood needles.

Victorian author George Eliot wrote that “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart-beat, and we should all die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

California wild rose (Rosa californica)

On the other hand, biologist T.H. Huxley said that “To a person uninstructed in Natural History, his country or seaside stroll is a walk through a gallery filled with wonderful works of art, nine-tenths of which have their faces turned to the wall.” Skyline Trail is a gallery well worth studying.

California wild rose (Rosa californica)

California wild rose (Rosa californica). They were everywhere!

Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana) learning to crawl

Et voila, Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana) has found its feet!

Mature California blackberry (Rubus ursinus)

Wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca)

California blackberry (Rubus ursinus)

Margined white (Pieris marginalis)? I wish I knew the name of the flower it was sipping on.

Fork-toothed ookow (Dichelostemma congestum)?

Crimson columbine (Aquilegia formosa)

Starflower (Trientalis latifolia)

Broadleaved forget-me-nots (Myosotis latifolia)

Resources Consulted:
Douglas Iris, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy
Hairy Woodpecker, Audubon Guide to North American Birds
Margined White Pieris marginalis Scudder 1861, Butterflies and Moths of North America
Rubus Ursinus California Blackberry, The American Southwest
Second-Growth Forests and Restoration Thinning, Redwood, National and State Parks California
The Making of Skyline Boulevard, Mobile Ranger
Where Do Trees Get Their Mass?, Veritasium (March 2012)
Wild Plants of Redwood Regional Park Common Name Version A Photographic Guide, East Bay Regional Park District – this pdf is an awesome resource

March Rains in San Mateo – Thornwood Open Space Preserve, 2019

March brought rain to San Mateo County, and the rain transformed the landscape. Colors became more vivid, new scents filled the air, quiet streams grew noisy with churning water, rivulets appeared from out of nowhere, and puddles, which are habitats for frogs and salamanders, formed everywhere. Being a shy introvert, frogs and salamanders are my favorite kind of company, so out into the rain we went!

Isn’t he beautiful!? Could it be an oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)?

Witch’s butter (Exidia glandulosa)?

An innocent-looking death cap (Amanita phalloides)?

Lipstick powder horn lichen (Cladonia macilenta)?

Can you spot the Turret spider burrow?

Lots of turret spider burrows!

Do you think it was staring back at me?

Terrible photo (the little guy wasn’t in the mood to pose for pictures), but what an interesting spider. Can you see it? It’s shiny and black with at least five white, chevron stripes on its abdomen, and was maybe the size of a quarter (about 25 mm diameter).

Xystocheir dissecta. This guy has a secret… he glows under black light!

Periwinkle (Vinca major)? It’s always dismaying to find out that a pretty flower is invasive. The California Invasive Plant Council lists the Vinca major as invasive.

Resources Consulted
California Fungi—Pleurotus ostreatus, www.mykoweb.com
Cladonia macilenta, CalPhotos photo database
“Glowing Millipedes Accidentally Found on Alcatraz,” by Douglas Main for Live Science (27 March 2013)
“Mushroom Hunting for Beginners,” powerpoint presentation by Drew Drozynski (3 March 2018)
Thornwood Preserve, Midpeninsula Regional Open Space
Vinca major, California Invasive Plant Council

A Wintry Ride on Old Haul Road, Jan 2019

It was a quiet ride along Pescadero Road (a minor road that follows the serpentine path of Pescadero Creek) to Old Haul Road. We passed working farms, cow pastures and cottages. As we passed the last farm before entering the thick, shady redwood forest surrounding Loma Mar (population 113), the temperature dropped abruptly, an interesting characteristic of this region, which is made up of hundreds of micro-climates.

After a while, we turned off Pescadero Creek Road onto Wurr Road…

and crossed Pescadero Creek.

Pescadero Creek

Wurr Road has a steel stringer bridge with a timber deck, built in 1962, around the time the State started buying back land from farmers and lumber companies.

Wurr Road Bridge

We stopped on the bridge for a little while and took in our surroundings. A cloud of smoke escaped from the chimney pipe of a nearby timber frame cabin and blew towards the coast, a fisher held his rod over the creek in search of trout and salmon as fishers must have done for centuries (pescadero means “fishing place”), and Pescadero Creek moved slowly over prehistoric river rocks, fallen trees, fish and fishermen’s feet on its journey back to the ocean.

Pescadero Creek County Park is San Mateo County’s largest park at 5,700 acres. It is one of three parks in the Pescadero Creek Park Complex, which also includes Sam McDonald County Park and Memorial County Park. Click here to be directed to a Parks Department brochure and map.

Wurr Road

Pescadero Creek County Park has miles of trails. Old Haul Road is one of them. The County website describes it as a multi-use route for hikers, bicyclists and equestrians that intersects with many of the other trails within the park.

Wurr Road

The website advises that visitors should be aware that Old Haul Road is the main access road for maintenance crews, and should expect to meet the occasional heavy truck and tractors along the way.

The website also explains that much of the road follows the route of a narrow gauge railroad line that hauled logs to the various mills that once flourished in the Santa Cruz Mountains. “Even today you can find rusty choker cables used to skid and lift logs on to flatcars,” it says.

An information board at the trail head (just past a small parking lot) offers the following information: “Pescadero Creek County Park shares its eastern border with Portola Redwoods State Park; trails also connect to Big Basin Redwoods State park. The ranger station in Memorial County Park serves as headquarters for all three parks. The park sits atop a deposit of natural gas and crude oil, which pools in Tarwater Creek and seeps into Jones Gulch Creek. Trees in the park include coast redwood, Santa Cruz cypress, tanoak, and knobcone pine. Visitors may see black-tailed deer and occasional coyote and mountain lions.”

As a beginner mountain biker, the 5.7 mile (9.2 km) trail was an absolute blast to ride. Having finally figured out how to use my gears effectively, the intermittent humps, none higher than 369 feet (112 m) and cumulatively totaling about 1350 feet (411 m), were a thrill to ride over.

The only other people we saw were a group of boys accompanied by an adult, all on mountain bikes, and a ranger in a pickup truck. One of the young mountain bikers made me laugh when he yelled at the top of his lungs, “I-can’t-ride-any-more!” I thought to myself, “If his little lungs can create sounds that are capable of reaching that decibel, he’ll be alright.”

Gliophorus psittacinus (parrot mushroom)?

Galerina Marginata (Autumn Galerina)?

A terrible photo, but an exciting find: a turret spider’s burrow! We find them easily now. When spiderlings leave their mother’s burrow, they don’t venture far (because they’re small and dehydrate easily), so it’s common to find a large turret surrounded by several smaller ones. We’ve seen up to a dozen!

The banana slug… not a relative of the banana spider. They grow up to 10 inches (25 cm) long! The hole in the side of its body (they’re hermaphrodites) is called a Pneumostome. Also called a breathing pore, it allows air to enter the animal’s single lung,

Donkeys!

Resources Consulted:
California banana slugs: Fun Facts About Our Vibrant, Terrestrial Molluscs, Golden Gates Natural Parks Conservancy
California Fungi—Gliophorus psittacinus, MykoWeb
“Five Common Mushrooms that can Poison Your Pet,” by By Dr. Tina Wismer for VetStreet
Old Haul Road, Bay Area Mountain Bike Rides
Old Haul Road, County of San Mateo Parks Department
Pescadero Creek (Wikipedia)
Turret Spider, Friends of Edgewood
“Turret Spiders Launch Surprise Attacks From Tiny Towers,” by Josh Cassidy for KQED Science
Wurr Road Bridge, Bridgehunter.com Historic and Notable Bridges of the U.S.

Skyline Trail, Oct 2018

Skyline Trail, which is a part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail, was our introduction to Bay Area hiking. Here’s the trail map: Wunderlich to Huddart County Park via Skyline Trail. It was a quiet trail and an easy hike. Blogger, David Baselt, mentions in his gorgeous and incredibly informative website, Redwood Hikes, that the trail includes some little-known patches of old-growth redwoods, although unfortunately we didn’t find them. Baselt’s site also offers detailed, highly readable trail maps, and San Mateo County’s website offers a succinct description of the trail and it’s connectivity to surrounding trails.

Sun-rays slanted through tall pines, painting pine needles gold and creating panels of light that intersected the trail and were so thin that you could almost step through them.

I think the hollow in this sandstone is called a “tafoni.” There’s a great explanation of what tafone are in this article: https://baynature.org/article/the-rock-in-the-redwoods/.

Fallen conifers look so funny without their needles! Is this a spruce?

This was our first encounter with a Madrone tree (Arbutus menziesii). They reminded us of South Florida’s gumbo limbo trees, also known as tourist trees because they are red and peeling, like this guy.

Acorns of the Tanoak, which are in fact related genetically to both chestnuts and oaks. Tanoaks are native to the region and play a significant role in its history.

Resources consulted:
Bay Area Ridge Trail
“Geological Outings Around the Bay: Las Trampas Regional Wilderness,” by Andrew Alden in KQED Science (10 Jan 2013)
Lewis’s Five Firs, Discovering Lewis and Clark
“Madrone / Stunning evergreen tough to tame,” by Pete Veilleux in SFGate (28 Dec 2005)
“Mechanical Weathering Through Physical Processes,” by Andrew Alden in ThoughtCo (2 March 2019)
Skyline Trail, County of San Mateo Parks Department
Redwood Hikes Press Trail Maps
“The Rock in the Redwoods,” by Carolyn Strange in Bay Nature Magazine (1 Jan 2007)
Tanoak, Calscape (includes map of plant range)
The Skyline Trail: San Mateo County Parks, Redwood Hikes
“The Tanoak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus), A Significant Santa Cruz Native Plant,” by Melissa Ott in Sierra Club Santa Cruz Group (7 Dec 2014)
Wunderlich to Huddart County Park via Skyline Trail Trail Pap, Bay Area Ridge Trail.

Kayaking Baylands Preserve, Sept 2018

Baylands Nature Preserve is a little piece of the San Francisco Peninsula that was a yacht club, then a landfill, and is now a two-thousand acre tract of pickleweed marshland protected from development and owned by the City of Palo Alto, with fifteen miles of trails and a kayak launch.


It’s adjacent to San Francisquito Creek and the Palo Alto Flood Basin.


We kayaked there a couple weekends in September.


The water’s pretty shallow, and the winds, blowing northeast, were a chore. We talked to a wind surfer who said a 15 mph northeast wind is pretty typical there.


It was very scenic though.

We saw gulls,


great egret

some beady-eyed vultures

the cutest least sandpipers


and some metal birds (Palo Alto Airport is a stone’s throw away).

And on one occasion, we were serenaded by a talented saxophonist

as we packed up to go.

Resources Consulted:
How to Identify White Herons—Excerpt from “Better Birding” Book, The Cornell Lab or Ornithology
Least Sandpiper, Audubon Guide to North American Birds
Map of The Baylands, City of Palo Alto
Officials unveil first phase of San Francisquito Creek flood protection, Palo Alto Online
Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve (Wikipedia)
Palo Alto Baylands Preserve, San Francisco Bay Trail (lots of great information and photos in here)
San Francisquito Creek Baylands Map, Guide to San Francisco Bay Area Creeks
Shorebird Identification, Pacific Flyway Shorebird Survey

Sea Lions and Otters and Whales oh my! Jul-Aug 2018

Santa Cruz was one of the first places we explored upon settling down in San Mateo County. Why? Well, it’s surrounded by redwood forests, it has a magnificent wharf, it’s the birthplace of Santa Cruz Skateboards (the screaming hand logo is awesome), and it has an amazing outdoors scene.

Santa Cruz Harbor is on the Monteray Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which is part of the migratory route of many whale species, and the site of massive kelp forests that are home to sea otters, seals and sea lions. We went there to kayak almost every weekend in July and August.

South Harbor Launch Ramp charged $8/day for parking in 2018 (according to their website, the fees change so regularly that it’s not worth listing them), but did not charge a launch fee for kayaks. Although the parking lot is large and we always managed to find a spot, it did get packed on days when the weather was perfect.

Harbor staff were very friendly and very helpful, which is amazing given the demands of their job: they’re under the hot sun, directing parking, and coordinating the movement of boats – big and small, commercial and personal, from water taxis to tugboats – and even liaising with ambulances.

One day a murmur moved through the crowd of pedestrians threading their way along the South Harbor sidewalk to restaurants, bathrooms and the beach, that a boater had burned his hand at sea while maintaining his engine. As we inflated our kayak with a yellow hand pump, I heard snippets of conversation over harbor staff walkie-talkies that seemed to confirm the rumor. Sure enough, an ambulance pulled up and, just as we were about to launch, a tugboat pulled into view. As we pushed off of the pier and paddled away, harbor and ambulance staff, who had been saving their energy and keeping cool under whatever shade they could find, jumped into action.

Our first paddle in Monteray Bay was absolutely amazing. The water was still as oil (“comme l’huile” they say in France), and there was so much to see: pelicans and cormorants diving into the water, people old and young fishing along the harbor walls leading to Walton Lighthouse,

surfers queuing up and catching waves in Steamer Lane,

otters frolicking in the kelp forests,

seals making a ruckus inside the labyrinth of beams that hold up Santa Cruz Wharf, onlookers on the Wharf craning their bodies over railings to see what the ruckus was all about,

dolphins playing the way only dolphins can (sorry, no photos), birds having a good gossip over their morning tea,

sleepy sea lions reclining on Seal Rock,

flocks of common murre floating peacefully, boaters sailing slowly out to sea, and here and there clusters of colorful rental kayaks that seemed to extend the colors of the canvas created by Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Amusement Park out onto the water.

One time we saw a blue whale. Heading out to the bay, I caught what sounded like the word “whale” over a megaphone as we moved over to let an O’Neill Charter Yacht pass us. Intrigued, we decided to paddle in the direction of the yacht. Only moments later, we saw a huge plume of water shoot out of the bay about 200 feet away, followed by the sudden appearance of a gigantic tail! The megaphone informed us that it was a blue whale. Every minute or so huge plumes shot out of the water as the giant, watery shadow of the whale moved northward.

On another occasion, a gang of seals (or “sea dogs” as Ollie likes to call them; the expression on his face when they disappear under the water is priceless) surrounded us. We were paddling slowly over the kelp, puzzling over what type of bird it was that was making a sound like “adam,” when we saw a herd of seals ahead of us. We followed the National Marine Sanctuaries guidelines for ocean etiquette and began back paddling away from them, only to discover another herd behind us. So we stopped paddling and waited for them to pass. But instead of passing us, they began to pop their heads up out of the water, one after another, and look at us. It became a game to try to predict where the next head would pop up. We weren’t too worried about Ollie, safely ensconced in my spouse’s lap. But I was worried that they’d decide to take a closer examination of the kayak. Luckily only one seal was interested enough to make a close perusal, swimming slowly along the surface of the water, two feet away. Then suddenly the heads stopped popping up out of the water and they were gone.

Perhaps the experience that got our adrenaline up the highest was the time we paddled out to the Santa Cruz lighted whistle buoy (“Mile Buoy”), a mile out to sea. We’d been enjoying the thrill of the rise and fall of gentle ocean swells, when we heard the plaintive sound of Mile Buoy’s whistle. It seemed so close that we decided to paddle out to it. For thirty minutes the swells seemed to get longer and steeper. It was very quiet. We could no longer hear the pelicans, cormorants or gulls, and with no boats around, the only noise was the steady pulse of Mile Buoy and the sound of our paddles stroking the water. It was an eerie sensation, being out there all alone in a kayak with sixty feet of frigid ocean water beneath us, our vision focused on Mile Buoy, raised high and lowered down by the swells, like us, but out of sync, and the horizon hidden by fog. Finally, when we were close enough to Mile Buoy to see sea lions lounging on its base, we turned around and returned to the bustle and safety of shore.

There’s another thing to recommend Santa Cruz: it’s microbreweries. Few things in life are as exquisite as a day of paddling Santa Cruz Harbor followed by beers at Humble Sea Brewing Co. or Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing.

Resources consulted:
“30 Years of the ‘Screaming Hand’ — An Icon of Santa Cruz Skate Culture,” NBC Bay Area
gpsnauticalcharts.com online chart viewer
Humble Sea Brewing Company
“Kelp Forests,” SIMoN: Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network
“King of the Buoy – Sea Lion Fight in Santa Cruz” (YouTube)
“Lighted Whistle Buoy set to hold anchor,” by Yvonne Falk, Santa Cruz Waves
“Ocean Etiquette,” NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries
O’Neill Yacht Charters
Monteray Bay National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA
Monteray Bay Whale Watch, LLC
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
“Santa Cruz Breakwater (Walton), CA,” lighthousefriends.com
“Santa Cruz Harbor (South Harbor Launch Ramp),” California State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways
Santa Cruz Harbor: Gateway to the Monteray Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing
Santa Cruz Skateboards
“Santa Cruz Surf Spots,” SantaCruz.com
“Santa Cruz Wharf,” City of Santa Cruz
“Swell (Ocean)” (Wikipedia)
“The Ultimate Nor Cal Brewery Map,” San Francisco Chronicle
“Whistling Buoy,” Dictionary.com