Explore Santa Cruz Redwoods at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Santa Cruz, Ca – Home to four different ecosystems – redwood, riparian, sandhill chaparral, and grassland – Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is an exciting experience rich in biological diversity.

Species to Look Out For

About the Park

Santa Cruz, Ca – State Park

Science Spotlight: One Park, Four Ecosystems

We began our hike at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in a riparian habitat – a habitat characterized by being adjacent to a river or stream. As we passed by the San Lorenzo River, I couldn’t help but admire the clear water running over smooth, flat stones. Close to the water’s edge, a black phoebe perched on a low-hanging branch, ever-ready to snap up unsuspecting insect prey.

As we made our way uphill, more and more redwoods began to tower above us. Their shade created cool microclimates – refuge from the September sun’s heat. The coast redwood bark formed gnarled knots at the bases of the trees. The bark smoothed out as you craned your neck to follow the tree’s trunk upwards. The sounds of the river earlier on our walk were replaced with the sharp calls of Steller’s jays.

Over the course of our hike, we had the chance to witness just two of the four ecosystems present at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park: riparian and redwood habitat. The state park’s unique geologic history has shaped it to be the home to redwood forest, riparian areas, sandhill chaparral, and human-created grassland ecosystems.

The park is a mixture of different types of rock formations: to the north, the park is dominated by softer sandstone and mudstone. To the south, the park is comprised of harder rock formations such as granite and schist. The variable geology in the different regions of the park laid the foundation for the diversity of ecosystems that we are able to observe today. The diversity of ecosystems also begets diversity of species – making a visit to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park a rich and exciting experience.

Park History

The park’s area is deeply-rooted in California’s industrial history. The surrounding area was logged for lumber, and the park itself was once home to a busy lime industry. The area is rich in limestone, which when heated in a kiln, becomes lime – an important material for building. Much of the surrounding forest was cut and burned as fuel for the operating kilns. The lime kilns operated from 1865 to 1919.

The park was also the site of an important moment in Bay Area conservation history. Andrew P. Hill, a local photographer, visited the redwood grove in the area to photograph the towering coast redwood trees. After a confrontation with the owner of the grove’s operating resort, Hill formed the Sempervirens Club, whose mission is to protect redwoods so that they can be enjoyed by the public (see the related park history for Big Basin State Park).

In 1930, Santa Cruz County took control of the resort, resulting in the land’s dedication as a county park. In 1954, Samuel Cowell joined his family’s land to the county park, resulting in the naming of a new state park after his father, Henry.

Visit the Park

Please note that there is no entrance fee to enter the park. Dogs are allowed at select locations in the park. For more information on where dogs are and are not allowed, visit the California State Park site’s General Information for the park.

Here are some helpful resources to help plan your visit:

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Hike a Closed Section of Highway 1 at Devil’s Slide Trail

Pacifica, Ca – Once a troublesome segment of highway, Devil’s Slide Trail was converted into a recreational trail in 2014. Visit the area to see awesome seabirds and raptors, and to learn more about the Common Murre Restoration Project that’s active in the area.

Species to Look Out For

Common murre circle

Common Murre

About the Park

Pacifica, Ca – Segment of California Coastal Trail

Science Spotlight: Common Murre Restoration at Egg Rock

Common murres are gorgeous and vaguely penguin-looking seabirds. Common murres actively breed in colonies at Egg Rock, which is visible from Devil’s Slide Trail.

The Egg Rock colony was estimated to have 3,000 birds in the early 1980’s; however, disaster struck with the 1986 Apex Houston oil spill. The oil spill delivered a fatal blow to the common murre population, eliminating the birds at Egg Rock. Scientists, determined not to let the population of common murres vanish, formed the Common Murre Restoration Project. The project, run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, set out to restore the Egg Rock population that was wiped out during the oil spill. It also sought to increase the numbers of common murres and other seabirds across Central California.

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Egg Rock, visible just offshore of the Devil’s Slide Trail.

To restore murres, the project employed social attraction techniques. Social attraction, first developed by Project Puffin to restore breeding Atlantic puffin populations, works by tricking birds into thinking that other individuals of the same species are already present at a specific location. This incentivizes breeding birds to set up their nests at that location.

To trick the common murres at Egg Rock, scientists placed common murre decoys on the island, played common murre sounds from speakers, and placed mirrors at the site to create the illusion of movement to birds flying overhead. And the result? The murre breeding colony on Egg Rock has been restored, and has increased every year since the project’s implementation in 1996.

To read more about common murres and their restoration around Egg Rock at Devil’s Slide, check out the Bay Area Naturalist article “Social Attraction: The Story of California’s Common Murres“.

Park History

Devil’s Slide Trail is a segment that was formerly part of scenic Highway 1. Frequent landslides and closures made this a particularly troublesome segment of highway, prompting talk of opening an alternative route over Montara Mountain. Local public outcry strongly opposed the conversion of the mountain into a highway, and grassroots efforts worked to advocate for the opening of a tunnel instead. In a sweeping success, Tom Lantos Tunnels opened in 2013, protecting the mountain and allowing the scenic views of our coast to be preserved.

In 2014, the Devil’s Slide segment of Highway 1 was converted into a recreational trail for joggers, bikers, and hikers. The trail is also a part of the California Coastal Trail, which will extend 1,200 miles along the coast from Mexico to Oregon once completed.

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Sedimentary rock formation along the Devil’s Slide Trail.

Visit the Park

Please note that there is no entrance fee to enter the park. Dogs are allowed on leashes.

Here are some helpful resources to plan your visit:

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Explore Salt Ponds and Marsh at Alviso Marina County Park

Alviso, Ca – Connect with a site that’s a part of one of the largest tidal marsh restoration projects on the west coast. Alviso Marina County Park was formerly an industry-dominated site, but now serves as an amazing entrance to the greater Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

About the Park

Alviso, Ca – Santa Clara County Park 

Science Spotlight: Leopard Sharks at Alviso

When I first learned that there were actual sharks around Alviso, I was in total shock. To me, the idea of the perfect habitat for sharks had always been the open ocean. Thus, you can imagine my surprise when I learned that the area is home to leopard sharks.

Leopard sharks are the most common sharks in the San Francisco Bay estuary, with a range that extends from Oregon to Mexico. They can grow to lengths of up to 7 feet, and feed on invertebrates and fish. To feed, they make a daily migration to shallow areas during high tides.

The San Francisco Bay Area lost much of the tidal marsh and shallow areas utilized by the leopard sharks to development for harvesting salt. As these tidal marshes are restored, researchers are finding that the leopard sharks are returning.

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Leopard shark; Source: © Nathan Rupert, 2009, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Park History

Visiting Alviso truly feels like a blast into the past: on your way to the park, you pass by an old cannery site, the warehouses, and a Victorian-style home. The area that is now Alviso Marina County Park used to be receive drainage rich in mercury from the New Almaden Mining District. The site also used to be a heavily-trafficked port area supplying San Jose and a launching point for steamboat passage to San Francisco. When these operations shut down, the area was transformed into salt ponds for salt harvest, operated by the Cargill Salt Company.

The area is now rich with wildlife, providing a feeding and nesting area for many species of birds. Alviso Marina County Park has become a part of the nearby Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Today, the area is part of the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project (SBSPRP), one of the largest tidal marsh restoration projects on the west coast. Restoration offers new habitat for California wildlife and offers visitors the chance to see nature reclaiming a formerly industry-dominated area.

For more detailed information on the history of Alviso Marina County Park, check out this article by the Mercury News.

Visit the Park

Please note that there is no entrance fee to enter the park. Dogs are now allowed on trails or walkways. For more detailed information on where dogs are and aren’t allowed, check out the park map.

Alviso Marina County Park serves as the entrance to the greater Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. We encourage you to explore that area as well, time permitting.

Here are some helpful resources to plan your visit:

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See Spring Wildflowers at Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve

Redwood City, Ca – Visit Russian Ridge for the chance to see dazzling displays of wildflowers and hike through a grove of ancient oak trees.

About the Park

Redwood City, Ca – Open Space Preserve

Science Spotlight: Ancient Oaks at Russian Ridge

Russian Ridge offers opportunities to see beautiful views of the Bay Area and gorgeous displays of wildflowers. In addition to the sights, Russian Ridge also offers a piece of California natural history: the chance to see centuries-old oaks on the Ancient Oaks Trail.

The majority of ancient oaks are canyon live oaks, with massive trunks spanning 24 to 56 inches in diameter. Scientists have estimated that trees with 10 to 18-inch trunks are likely 150 years old, meaning that these giants could easily be hundreds of years old.

The spread of Sudden Oak Death throughout California has been cause for concern at Russian Ridge. The pathogen spreads through spores, and results in the sudden browning and consequent death of the infected tree.

Wanting to protect the grove of ancient oaks, any bay laurel trees within 15 feet of the ancient oaks have been removed. Bay laurels are known carriers of the pathogen, so their removal intends to help prevent the disease’s spread to this grove. Visitors are also discouraged from climbing the oaks, as their shoes could carry the pathogen’s spores.

Park History

The Russian Ridge area used to be a dairy farm and cattle grazing land from 1920 – 1950. The operation was run by a Russian immigrant, which resulted later in the naming of the area “Russian Ridge”.

The land began to be acquired in 1978. Today, it is a 3,137 acre preserve run by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space.

Visit the Park

Please note that there is no entrance fee to enter the park. Dogs are not allowed.

Here are some helpful resources to help plan your visit:

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Birdwatching Bonanza at Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve

Palo Alto, Ca – Some of the best birdwatching in the entire South Bay is right in your backyard. Learn more about bird diversity and plan your visit to the Palo Alto Baylands.

About the Park

Palo Alto, Ca – Nature Preserve

Science Spotlight: Bird Diversity at Baylands

The Palo Alto Baylands Park is a favorite of mine and Dan’s in the area. Considered one of the best places to go birding in the South Bay, the Baylands Nature Preserve offers tremendous bird diversity no matter the month. When visiting, we’ve found that the entrance near San Antonio Road is a great starting point.

As you enter the park, scan the tall vegetation around the creek to your left for a belted kingfisher in flight. As you continue, cliff and barn swallows can be found darting across the skies around the forebay just beyond the bathrooms to the right. In the spring and summer, be sure to look out for their mud nests on the linings of the small building near the San Antonio Road entrance. In the later stages of nesting, small fledglings can be seen waiting outside the nest for parents to swoop in with food.

Just beyond the swallow-dense area, you approach the Charleston Slough to your right. Here, we’ve seen tons of awesome shorebirds: long-billed curlews, American avocets, black-necked stilts, marbled godwits, willets, and many more in large numbers. To your left, scan the browning reeds for unusually-shaped clumps. These “clumps” are most likely black-crowned night herons.

Along your walk, check out the edges of the water for great egrets and snowy egrets. Various species of waterfowl can also be found here, depending on the season. In the distance, you may be lucky to see northern harriers – recognizable by the white patch on their rumps (just above their tail on the top side of the bird).

As if the amazing waterbirds and raptors weren’t enough, peek in the vegetation dotting the sides of the path for smaller songbirds. We’ve seen all kinds of sparrow species, house finches, and the occasional yellow-rumped warbler.

Grab your notebooks and binoculars – there’s a world of discovery at the Palo Alto Baylands!

Park History

At 1,940 acres, the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve is one of the largest protected marshland habitats in the San Francisco Bay Area. The area itself has a history in waste disposal, from landfill to recycling plant. In 2012, these operations were shut down.

Visit the Park

Please note that there is no entrance fee to enter the park. Dogs are allowed on leashes.

When visiting, we recommend starting at the entrance near San Antonio Road.

Here are some helpful resources to help plan your visit:

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Nature in the Heart of Silicon Valley: Pearson-Arastradero Preserve

Palo Alto, Ca – The Pearson-Arastradero Preserve offers grassy hills and miles of trails for hiking and dog walking, right in the heart of the Silicon Valley.

Species to Look Out For

About the Park

Palo Alto, Ca – Open Space

Science Spotlight: Restoring Native Californian Grasslands & Oak Habitat

With the settlement of the Spanish came the introduction of non-native grasses to the Bay Area. These non-native grasses, lacking natural predators in their introduced environments, were able to spread rapidly and out-compete native grasses and wildflowers. As a result, 90% of the native habitat has been lost to foreign invaders.

Native oak habitats have also suffered. Spanish settlers cleared large oaks to make the land available for cattle grazing, and the livestock in turn ate many of the oak saplings and acorns. This, along with depleted soil moisture from non-native plants, has contributed to the loss of much of the oak habitat.

Today, local organizations work with Pearson-Arastradero to restore the habitats that were lost. For more information on how you can get involved, check out the Grassroots Ecology volunteer page or the California Native Plant Society volunteer page.

Park History

The area that is now Pearson-Arastradero was once a working ranch. In 1976, the Palo Alto City Council purchased the land to protect it from developers. They have been acquiring more land for the preserve since, and it now has a total of 622 acres.

Visit the Park

Please note that there is no entrance fee to enter the park. Dogs are allowed on leashes.

When visiting, we recommend taking the Juan Bautista de Anza trail down to see Arastradero Lake. There, you can find a great assortment of waterfowl, song sparrows, and the occasional black phoebe. When walking along the grassy trails, be on the lookout for American kestrels, western bluebirds and lesser/American goldfinches.

Here are some helpful resources to help plan your visit:

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