DISCLAIMER: As of May 21st, 2020 current public health directives prohibit gatherings of any size and driving to public outdoor spaces. Many parks and beaches across California are temporarily closed or have very limited access to protect us from the COVID-19 Pandemic. In the mean time, we can observe the critters that grace our daily walks. For the most update information visit www.parks.ca.gov/FlattenTheCurve.
Hello fellow humans! This guide is intended to inspire the adventurer in you. Natural historians observe and identify the organisms that make up the evolutionary story of life. With access to marine sanctuaries and redwoods, most northern Californians are no strangers to the great outdoors. From ancient marine terraces to coastal waterfalls, this list has something for every hiker and scientist. Pick a spot, grab your field journals, and start noticing the species that live among us!
1. Tomales Bay State Park
Tomales Bay State Park is a popular swimming and boating area nestled along the eastern Point Reyes National Seashore peninsula. The San Andreas Faultline, which separates Tomales Bay from the rest of the continent, slipped over 24 feet during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The gray displaced slab of the granite that the park rests upon contrasts the blueschist boulders that lie on the opposite side of the bay.
The large-branched Bishop Pine tree is one member of the plant community you won’t miss. These incredibly rare outcrops can be identified by their two paired long needles and cones in sets of one or five. If you make it all the way down to Tomales Point during Rut season, August to October, you may get to see the herds of endemic Tule Elk.
2. Alamere Falls
This 13.8-mile hike down the Coast Trail is not suitable for beginners; Alamere Falls is the site of many search and rescue missions each year. The midpoint of the hike is at a 30-foot waterfall that cascades down slippery shale rocks directly onto Wildcat Beach.
The pine forest surrounding the region is dominated by Douglas Fir. You can identify these giants by their long flat needles that completely encircle each branch.
Point Reyes National Seashore, where the park sits in, is home to nearly 500 species of birds. If you’re lucky, you might glimpse the breathtaking Northern spotted owl with its chocolate feathers, dark brown eyes, and white spotted heads.
3. Twin Peaks Recreational Park
This park is popular amongst San Franciscan dog-walkers. The 4-mile loop offers spectacular 360° views of the Bay Area.
The endangered mission blue butterfly is one critter to keep an eye out for. These butterflies with black-edged wings hang around the city to sip Silver lupine nectar, a native legume that also houses their eggs. The caterpillars hatch and continue to consume the plant which attracts a cute symbiotic relationship with the ants in the community. Ants stroke the larvae with their antennae to obtain a sugary secretion called honeydew. To secure the sweet food source they defend the caterpillars from predators.
4. Mount Diablo State Park
Standing at a height of 3,849 feet, Mount Diablo has the highest elevation on this list. The park gets over 300,000 campers a year. At its peak, the earth consists of rock from westward undersea volcanoes and the sediment below is laden with marine fossils. The wind tunnels carved through ancient sandstone are a popular attraction for visitors. The white and pink three-petaled clay mariposa lily is just one of many wildflowers that coat the mountainsides.
Both diamondback rattlesnakes and rare Alameda yellow striped racers can be found within the park. Some of the other permanent residents include great horned owls, gray foxes, and Bay Area Blond tarantulas.
5. Almaden Quicksilver County Park
This South San Jose park was once known as the second largest mercury mine. Historic sites line the moderate-level trails that summit a 3,477-foot peak. This Historic Trail Guide can help your navigate the stories behind each pit stop.
Bits of sandstone and quartz merge with serpentine, our state’s official gray-green rock. Scarlet Cinnabar, mercury ore, may also still linger in the park.
Catch and release fishing is permitted in the Almaden reservoir, but be cautious as naturally-occurring mercury contaminates much of the aquatic life in the area.
This wildflower guide created by Santa Clara County Parks can be saved onto a phone or printed out to help enhance any bay area hike.
6. Año Nuevo State Park
This park features an active dune field, an island natural preserve, prairies, shrubs, and wetland marshes. The coastal and inland terraces are remarkably biodiverse.
The California Red-legged frog that used to be found all over the coast now has a very limited geographical range. The red, black, and green striped San Francisco Garter Snake is another threatened species that inhabits the park. Both species compete with the nonnative Bullfrogs.
People travel from all over the world to observe the thousands of northern elephant seals that show up on beaches to mate during the winter. True proof of their resilience, these pinnipeds bounced back from being hunted to near extinction during the 1800s.
If you want to get up close and personal to some wildlife, park rangers host group tours December through March. Check out this video on Año Nuevo State Park Elephant Seal Guided Walks.
7. Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Big Basin Redwoods offers up 80 miles of hiking packed with waterfalls and wildlife. Berry Creek Falls Loop Trail is a moderate 13-mile trek that passes by three of the park’s cascades. The park is perfect for a day hike, yet vast enough to extend your visit into a 3-day backpacking trip along Skyline to the Sea.
The interconnected root system of the California redwood trees are thousands of years old; some trees are over 300 feet tall and 50 feet in diameter. Edible redwood Sorrel clovers grow at the tree base and can be identified by their pink flowers in the spring.
Turkey tail mushrooms hug decaying tree trunks, banana slugs slim their way around the forest floor, and lace lichen hangs from winding tan oak branches. Intricate-leafed bracken ferns and alien-looking California slender salamanders make the forest feel like a scene straight from the Jurassic period.
8. Wilder Ranch State Park
The 7,000 acres of coastal trails that make up Wilder Ranch are not only rich in natural history but cultural history as well. The world-famous wave-cut terraces have been home to native Ohlone tribes, Spanish cattle ranches, and a very successful creamery. Check out this USGS publication on California wave-cut terraces if you want to know more.
In 1974 the grasslands were declared a State Park and the area has since been restoring the vegetation devastated by centuries of cattle grazing.
Wetlands and riparian habitats hug the coast while the oak groves, cold madrone trees, and redwoods lead into the UCSC Upper Campus Natural Reserve.
The shrubs with red-colored peeling bark are called Glossy Leaf manzanita. The water they store in their trunks causes them to be cool to the touch. The trailside flower species called California Everlasting bloom and dry up in springtime to release their seeds. They smell sweet like maple syrup when you crush them in your hand.
9. The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park
Nisene Marks is a popular location for local mountain bikers and dog owners. The extensive trails crawl through steep ravines, old logging sites, and faultlines. Foregone river beds are embedded with seashell fossils.
The Loma Prieta, the earthquake named after the highest peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains, shook at a magnitude of 6.9 from within the park in 1989.
The coastal redwoods in the area often sprout up in fairy rings around chopped down stumps. Rumor has it that there are some albino redwoods in the park. These mutant white trees sacrifice themselves to help purify the soil, absorbing toxins from the surroundings. Check out KQED’s video Ghosts of the Forest: Science on the SPOT to find out more about these unique redwoods.
Fishing is not permitted in the park in order to protect sensitive fish populations. There are 11 different threatened or endangered populations of steelhead trout across California. The black-spotted silver and pink fish grow over 3 feet long and up to 55 pounds.
10. Point Lobos Natural Reserve
What was once an 1860’s whaling cove and a native American abalone harvesting area is now an ecological reserve and a popular diving spot. As part of a national marine sanctuary, Point Lobos is home to many different seabirds, mammals, plants, and algae. It is highly protected land by the state, so remember to take only memories and leave only footsteps.
The reserve was named for the noisy wolf-like barks of California sea lions. They share the waters with California gray whales, southern sea otters, and kelp forests. On land, you’ll find towering Monterey cypress trees with distinctive scale-like leaves and irregular flat treetops. Some other plants in the park include orange sticky monkey-flower and California sagebrush.
Point Lobos Foundation has developed an excellent Observation Checklist for the park that includes both flora and fauna.
11. Garrapata State Park
With stunning coastal views and endless rolling wildflower-covered hills, Garrapata is a gem. The Rocky Ridge trail will take you around a 4.5-mile loop. Tectonic plates continue to slowly crunch chert, sandstone, and volcanic rock together to create the rough shoreline and mountain range.
Coyote brush dominates the scrub plant community and European grasses have overtaken the native grasslands. The tiny endangered Smith’s blue butterfly lives off the coastal buckwheat that blooms pink all summer long.
Garrapata is known for its rocky and dangerous shoreline; wading, swimming, surfing, and diving are not recommended.
12. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
This 4-square mile Big Sur outcrop is a popular coastal stop due to the dramatic joining of land and sea that occurs here. Three ancient creeks cut through the park and combine into one, the McWay, ending in a spectacular 80-foot seashore waterfall. The park marks the southern tip of the Coastal redwood range which has dwindled down to 5% of its original extent. Evergreens mix with invasive blue gum eucalyptus and acacia. Peregrine falcons, bald eagles, California brown pelicans, and California condors are some of the threatened or endangered species that live in the park.
I hope this list has encouraged you to connect with the natural world on a deeper level. Perhaps next time you set out for an adventure you will recognize more of the species with which we share our planet.
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