Many years back I discovered that there were little known biodiversity hotspots that had been described by a handful of ecologists. These places had been designated as Research Natural Areas for the primary purposes of maintaining biological diversity, providing baseline ecological information, and encouraging research and university natural-history education. These places are all relatively pristine and sometimes close to roads in non-wilderness areas.
It was in this way that I first learned about the Redwood Experimental Forest that also contains the Yurok RNA. But I had never visited this place despite the fact it has been on my list since the early 2000s. That all changed in June 2019.
Recently, it was announced that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife caught folks poaching Dudleya farinosa from coastal Mendocino and Humboldt counties. The tip came in from a Postmaster who noticed dirt spilling from a box being shipped to China. Conversations started, one post office talked to another, and they realized poachers were moving from post office to post office shipping boxes of the charismatic Dudleya farinosa. One of the postal workers then reported the suspicious activity on CalTip and this is now an active international poaching case.
Hot springs and tall trees, all hidden in a remote area of Mendocino County. This was the family destination for a pre-Thanksgiving celebration. Most or our time was spent at Orr Hotsprings but an day-hiking excursion treated us with a fabulous adventure in an isolated redwood grove at Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve.
The hike was punctuated with firsts: my son’s first multi-mile hike and my my first albino redwood. The park previously held the tallest recorded redwood — at 367.5-foot it was once declared the world’s tallest. While the Montgomery tree is still alive, the new record is in Humboldt County. Other exciting finds in the park included an excellent expanse of giant chain ferns in a lowland basin along the trail. Read more about Montgomery Woods from Save the Redwoods League.
The pygmy manzanita (Arctostaphylos nummularia) is a species endemic to Mendocino County, California where it is known from its occurrence in the pygmy forests along the coastline. I think this might just be the perfect northern coastal California shrub for a native plant garden. It has a perfectly rounded form, beautiful small leaves, and subtly hairy stems.
I have used various approaches which always involve careful map study, perusing the pages of hiking guides, and most importantly for me—studying field guides. As I get older, choosing a hiking destination is becoming more critical, with so much to see and even more to learn.
Over time, I have gone about choosing a hike based more as a destination for discovery before any other factor. I think I first caught the hiking-for-natural-discovery bug while selecting a backpacking route exclusively to see condors in the Sespe Wilderness of southern California. When I moved to Humboldt in 2002, I graduated from bird destinations to plant exploring as I began searching out rare and unusual conifer species in our local mountains. This regular wilderness sideline blossomed into a Master’s Degree from Humboldt State University when I published my first book Conifer Country: A natural history and hiking guide to the conifers of northwest California in 2012. For 10 years I hiked to find and understand trees. These trees, and the places they grow, helped me develop a deeper passion for place and an understanding of the unique natural history of northwest California.
Or…Why Star Wars fans should love conifers–especially redwoods
Return of the Jedi had a major influence on my experiences as a youth. I wanted to be able to use the force like Luke Skywalker, as do many children again in 2016. The Star Wars phenomenon has trickled down to our 3 year-old son from his Kindergarten classmates at Montessori as well, so we decided to seize the day and go for a hike that combined the legend of the force with the power of the redwoods, and explore where science fiction meets natural history.
Redwoods might just be the grandest species in the plant world—from top to bottom they are the epitome of grandeur. The tallest redwood is 379’ (and still growing), while one of the most massive redwoods is a mere 320’ but has a basal diameter of nearly twenty-six feet. Those are some impressive beings! The largest redwoods grow in northwest California, where they favor mountain slopes and river terraces close to the ocean while also being situated in the summer fog belt. Across the coastal landscape redwoods domineer a highly specific range—when soil, water, and exposure are optimal. The Owen Cheatham Redwood Grove is a great place to visit these giants.
Walker Ridge has been on my plant exploration list for many years. I had repeatedly heard about the rare plants, serpentine landscape, and epic wildflower displays that could be found along the ridge and in the adjacent Bear Valley. I also read about a proposal to designate the region as Serpentine National Park which, at the time, was a radical approach to try to halt a major wind turbine project slated for the ridgeline. I was excited to finally explore this place and to locate what has been called the largest stand of McNab cypress in the world. What I found was something entirely different.
“A sequence of five elevated marine terraces along Jug Handle Creek in coastal Mendocino County constitutes a nationally and internationally famous ecological staircase. So outstanding is the combination of canyons, terraces and ancient dunes, tall redwoods and firs, bishop pine forest and dwarfed pines and cypresses that…It has become a Mecca for naturalists, botanists, ecologists, pedologists (soil scientists), geographers and nature-oriented laymen. It is being praised as the best preserved ecological showplace of coastal landscape evolution anywhere in the northern hemisphere.”–Hans Jenny 1973
Throughout the Pleistocene, as the climate fluctuated, sea levels rose and fell in conjunction with the size of the polar ice caps thus allowing oceanic wave-action to cut coastal terraces around the world. Subsequent tectonic forces then slowly pushed these terraces upward. What we now witness in coastal Mendocino County is, as Jenny states, the best preserved ecological showplace of coastal landscape evolution in the Northern Hemisphere.
Gary Lester is an explorer. With each day’s journey he refines an understanding of the natural world that has been cultivated from an early age. Because of his keen sense of place he has made a multitude of significant ecological discoveries. Any one of these discoveries, considered alone, would be a lifetime’s achievement for some (like me) but seen together Gary’s findings are regionally paramount and set the bar high for naturalists everywhere. For example, in the fall of 2010, he and his wife Lauren identified a Brown Shike in coastal McKinleyville that created quite a stir for birders nationally (he has show this bird to people from across the North America all winter, including a man from Florida who gave him the slick Tampa Bay Rays hat he is sporting in the picture below). Clearly, Gary has a view of the world where the smallest details build the bigger picture. When a new element does not fit that picture a personal discovery is made.
The Lost Coast presents plant associations (or lack of associates) that have long puzzled botanists. From the perspective of the conifer lover the question is: Why are redwoods, grand fir, and sitka spruce absent in an area which annually receives 100+ inches of rain, has some summer fog, and is nourished by soils from that of the central belt of the Franciscan Complex? These same conditions exist only a few mile north where redwood, grand fir, and Sitka spruce forests thrive. In the heart of this wilderness, over 20+ miles of walking, I found only two conifers. After and mentally and physically taxing journey I was left with a sense of wonder at the fortitude of the species that were present; and not the absence of the conifers unable to reside.
“We need wilderness because we are wild animals. Every man needs a place where he can go to go crazy in peace. Every Boy Scout troop deserves a forest to get lost, miserable, and starving in. Even the maddest murderer of the sweetest wife should get a chance for a run to the sanctuary of the hills. If only for the sport of it. For the terror, freedom, and delirium…” – Edward Abbey,from The Journey Home
With the passing of the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Act in 2006 over 150,000 acres of new wilderness areas were added to the wilderness preservation system. Those new areas are: Yuki, Sanhedrin, Mount Lassic, King Range, Cedar Roughs, Cache Creek , and South Fork of the Eel River. Most of these areas are administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and there is not much information out there about these places–including how to access our public lands. In many ways this is exciting–the journey to go “crazy in peace” is an ominous and difficult one–in many ways what wilderness should be. With new wilderness on my mind I drove the 70 miles south of Eureka, just into Mendocino County, in an attempt to see this new wilderness and the rare plant communities fostered in the edaphic sky island found there. Though interested in all plants, I must admit the driving force behind this trip was to see the northern range extension of Sargent cypress. Continue reading “South Fork Eel River Wilderness | Red Mountain Unit”
Mount Linn–also called South Yolla Bolly Mountain–is the highest point in the Coast Range of northern California. It is located to the west of Corning but the area might as well be a world away from the population centers of the state; it is rarely noticed by travelers as they drive Interstate 5. Once off the interstate, scenic forest service roads still take nearly 2 hours to wind to the trailhead. Although this place has always been on my list of places to visit–the impetus for this visit was to collect some samples of the rare Sierra juniper (Juniperus grandis) for Robert Adams of Baylor University so that, through DNA testing, he might find out if these trees truly are what we think they are (see previous blog). After a 25 mile sojourn deep into the wilderness to collect those specimens it was time to search for the southern most stand of foxtail pine in northwest California–on Mount Linn.
When I visit the Lanphere Dunes I always feel like I have taken a trip to another part of the world. Hidden and relatively unknown, the redwood forest — as a local destination — can overshadow this unique ecosystem. The dune complex is surrounded by temperate coniferous rainforest, the Pacific Ocean, and Humboldt Bay — ecologically trapping and therefore fostering, for millenia, isolation of space and time. Species that survive here define their own vegetation type; from the common to the unexpected, to the seemingly out of place there is always something new to appreciate on a trip to the dunes. Although a visit requires a guide or written letter of permission, hikes are offered monthly — check the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge webpage for information regarding access.
Today, we were lucky to have a guide. Allison and I joined Dr. John Sawyer and his wife Jane on a walk through the dunes. John was a key member of a group of conservationist with a vision — that originally secured preservation for this area nearly 40 years ago. Since the establishment of the preserve, it has changed hands from the original steward, the Nature Conservancy, to the Fish and Wildlife Service who manages it today — with a mostly hands off approach, except toward the removal of non-native species, the place has maintained a primordial feel.
Lanphere dunes foster an amazing range of biota. From rare plants to common plants to plants that are far from their more common range — expect the unexpected when venturing into the dunes. Besides some terrific conifer specimens, including a subspecies of lodgepole pine called beach pine (Pinus contorta spp. contorta), the most intriguing inhabitants in the dunes are reindeer lichen (Cladonia rangiferina) and bear berry manzanita (Arcotstaphylos uva-ursi). The lichen is a common component of northern boreal forest floors where it grows circumpolar in the northern hemisphere — the Lanphere Dune population is a relict from a much colder time. Bear berry, or kinnikinnick, is a beautiful, prostrate manzanita that is found elsewhere in California in a few drainages on the east side of the High Sierra Nevada — dunes and high mountains, quite a contrast in habitats. One species that caught Allison’s eye was a population of twin flower (Linnea borealis); a plant we have grown to love on our summer forays into the Klamath Mountain high country. Dr. Sawyer informed us that the population Allison spotted was the only one discovered one in the dune complex — another relict of an epoch gone by.
The dynamic ecosystems of Lanphere Dunes makes for an exceptional hike. This is a place that embraces change, while at the same time offers refuge to species that were once common in the region during climatically different times. It is surely one of the best examples of a coastal dune ecosystem on the Pacific Coast.
AUTHOR: J Loomis
DATE: 5/2/2009 3:38:42 AM
Just returned from CA last Sunday. I was unable to tour the Lamphere Dunes not knowing it required a permit. Went to the nearby “Friends of the Dunes” Stamp D. area and was fortunate to find a single Wallflower….or what I thought was one. Anyone have any pictures?