Sunday, June 25, 2017

Campground Spotlight: Gold Bluffs Beach, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

The summer camping season is well underway, and what better way to escape the heat of California's Central Valley than to head for the north coast?  The northern "Redwood Coast" of California offers a cool, foggy, forested respite for those of us who reside in the warmer and drier parts of the state.  Redwood National and State Parks offer a selection of campgrounds and a network of hiking trails to suit all types of outdoorsy folk, from tent campers and backpackers to day hikers and sightseers.  If you're into rugged coastline, lush redwood forests, wildflower meadows and herds of roaming elk, then Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, located about an hour north of Eureka on Highway 101, is the place for you.

During a recent trip, Eric and I spent several days at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, hiking and observing the local flora and fauna.  We camped for two nights at Gold Bluffs Beach campground and two nights at Elk Prairie campground, both of which exceeded all expectations.

The small campground at Gold Bluffs Beach is nestled among dunes just a couple hundred yards from the breaking surf.  Above the campground are the "gold bluffs," which prospectors mined (with little success) during the late 19th and early 20th century.  The campground is accessed by Davison Road, 5 miles of steep, winding, rough unpaved track through the forest.  To add one extra element, the road was wet and muddy when we drove in, which greatly added to our adventure (and Eric's trepidation).  Even so, our little Corolla managed just fine, and we saw plenty of other small two-wheel drive cars at the campground.  (No trailers of any kind are allowed on the road, and vehicles must be no wider than 8 feet and no longer than 24 feet.  Trust me, this rule is in place for a reason!)  One mile from the campground is the trailhead to the popular Fern Canyon, so despite it all, the road is heavily trafficked.

The view from the Gold Bluffs Beach campground can't be beat.  Choose a site facing the ocean (reservations are required May through September) and you'll have an unobstructed view of the mighty Pacific all to yourself.  Provided the weather cooperates, the sunsets here are phenomenal.  (In the event that the weather does not cooperate, be prepared for heavy, misting fog that has the penetrating capability of a soaking rain.  Put the rain fly on your tent regardless of the weather, and bring a raincoat and waterproof footwear.  We were certainly glad we were prepared!) 

Rain, fog or shine, the sea is always magnificent, and falling asleep to the sound of breaking waves is an experience you'll not soon forget.

In the morning, don't be surprised if you find large (very large) elk tracks in the sand not too far from your tent!  Roosevelt Elk (Cervus canadensis roosevelti) roam the campground freely, browsing as they move across meadows between the forest and coastal strand.  They may look tame, but they are very much wild; like all other wild animals, do not approach the elk and never feed wildlife

Because California's redwood forests are home to the endangered Marbled Murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) Prairie Creek Redwoods and all other redwoods state and national parks have adopted a serious policy for protecting these special birds.  Marbled Murrelets are small sea birds; they belong to a group known as alcids, which includes puffins, murres and auklets.  While they spend most of their lives at sea, Marbled Murrelets nest high in old growth redwood trees (a curious habit that is unique among seabirds, and was not discovered by scientists until  1974) and both eggs and young are vulnerable to predation by corvids - that intrepid group of birds that includes crows, ravens and jays.  Predatory corvids are drawn to campgrounds and picnic areas by the food scraps and garbage that people leave behind.  With a virtually unlimited, unnaturally rich supply of food at their disposal, crow, raven and jay populations have experienced significant growth, resulting in artificially high numbers of these individuals.  This translates to an artificially high number of murrelet predators, and a decrease in the already threatened murrelet population. 

To combat this problem, parks require that visitors watch a short video on keeping campsites "crumb clean," as well as sign a statement acknowledging that you understand the rules and will be responsible in keeping your campsite free of garbage, food scraps, unattended food and anything else that might attract corvids, down to the very last crumb!  It may sound extreme, but it's really common sense and good practice to follow anytime you are anywhere in nature, in keeping with the "Leave No Trace" ethic.  The campgrounds also require that you store your food and other scented items (like toothpaste, deodorant, etc.) in the bear-proof lockers provided, or out of sight in your vehicle. 

The campsites at Gold Bluffs Beach are equipped with picnic tables, fire rings and bear-proof lockers.  The campground has potable water spigots, flush toilets and hot showers (a real luxury!)  And of course, don't forget the incredible views!

For more information, visit Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park's website:

Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Flora of California's North Coast: Beyond the Redwoods

The magnetic draw of California's North Coast has a lot to do with its stunning forests of towering Coast Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens).  But as is always the case, there is more to this ecosystem than a cursory glance would indicate.  High rainfall and fog-drip allow a lush understory of ferns and forest wildflowers to thrive among the redwoods.  May and June are good months to visit the redwoods and experience the spring wildflower show.  The following collection of photographs are wildflowers of the redwood forests, found in Prairie Creek Redwoods, Grizzly Creek Redwoods and Patrick's Point State Parks on our recent trip north.

Western Azalea (Rhododendron occidentale)
These shrubs are absolutely stunning in full bloom, along with the similar Coast Rhododendron, pictured below. 
Western Azaleas are also found in the Sierra Nevada.
Coast Rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum)

Columbian Windflower (Anemone deltoidea)
These beautiful white Anemones brighten up the forest floor and are one of my favorites!

Columbian Windflower (Anemone deltoidea)

Pacific Starflower (Lysimachia latifolia)
These small flowers grow close to the ground and may be easily over-looked.  A few moments to look more closely is
time well-spent.

Andrew's Clintonia (Clintonia andrewsiana)

Douglas Iris (Iris douglasiana)

Buttercup (Ranunculus sp.)
In damp, creek-side locations, look for the shiny, glowing flowers of Buttercups.

Western Wakerobin (Trillium ovatum)
Unfortunately, the lovely white blooms had already dropped from the Trilliums by late May. 

False Lily of the Valley (Maianthemum racemosum)

Claspleaf Twistedstalk (Streptopus amplexifolius)
A quick glance down at this plant won't reveal its flowers; peek underneath the leaves to
find the delicate bells.

Salal (Gaultheria shallon)
A member of Ericaceae, the same family as heath, heather and our familiar Manzanitas (Arctostaphylos sp.), Salal
is synonymous with the Pacific Northwest. 

Redwood Sorrel (Oxalis oregana)
This photo doesn't do this plant justice: a green, "clovery" carpet of Redwood Sorrel in bloom beneath towering
redwoods is a beautiful sight indeed!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Pacific Giant Salamander at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Recently, Eric and I spent several days camping and hiking in the redwood forests of Northern California, visiting Prairie Creek Redwoods, Grizzly Creek Redwoods and Patrick's Point State Parks.  In four days, we hiked just over thirty miles of absolutely stunning terrain, always alert for interesting flora and fauna.  The temperatures were cool and ideal for hiking, the forest wildflowers were in bloom, and the birds were not entirely uncooperative: in the depths of night, a pair of Barred Owls caterwauled for a solid 45 minutes from the redwoods above our tent, and many other diurnal species enchanted us with their songs.  Very few birds actually showed themselves, though, instead remaining hidden in the dense verdant undergrowth and high above in the redwood canopy.  Quick glimpses of thrushes and warblers were all we were allowed.  The gulls at Gold Bluffs Beach were obliging, as they typically are, and I was excited to spot a very far-off flock of Pacific Loons rafting beyond the surf.  The Roosevelt Elk, for which Prairie Creek Redwoods is famous, were bold and unconcerned by the presence of gawking tourists. 

But the most exciting discovery I made during our explorations was that of a humble salamander.

But this is not just any salamander: this is the Pacific Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon tenebrosus), the largest terrestrial salamander in North America.  One may wonder why finding a salamander was so exciting for me, as a naturalist whose interests more commonly lie in plants, birds and mammals.   At the most basic level, I was excited because not everyone who visits the redwoods gets to see a salamander.  The redwoods are a given sight for anyone driving highway 101; the wildflowers bloom in predictable seasons.  The elk are almost guaranteed to be seen at Elk Meadow and Elk Prairie.  And the birds of the redwoods, while elusive, make themselves known through song.  But it's not every day one gets the privilege of observing a salamander!

Pacific Giant Salamanders measure from 7 to 11 inches long, their bodies mottled browns and grays to perfectly blend in with the damp forest floor.  Salamanders are amphibians, and as such their reproduction depends on water.  Adults are terrestrial, though never far from rivers and their tributaries.  Terrestrial adults spend their days hidden in damp retreats beneath logs, rocks and leaf litter on the forest floor.  They emerge to forage most commonly during rainy nights, though the overcast and foggy days which grace California's northwest coast favor some diurnal activity. 

Pacific Giant Salamanders, recently earning distinct species-hood after being separated from the similar California Giant Salamander (D. ensatus), inhabit cool, humid forests of California's North Coast Range, north of the Gualala River in Mendocino County.  Their range extends north to the border of Washington and British Columbia.   (California Salamanders are found in similar habitat from approximately the northern border of Sonoma county south through Santa Cruz county.) 

After spring breeding has occurred in clear streams, larvae of the Pacific Giant Salamander hatch in late fall or winter.  Larvae metamorphose into adult salamanders during the second summer after hatching.  Pacific Giant Salamanders feed on insects and other invertebrates (like Banana Slugs) as well as small snakes, lizards, other salamanders and rodents.  Prey is hunted by the sit-and-wait approach, the salamander sitting quietly before lunging out to capture whatever happens by.  They are not particular, provided the prey item can fit in the salamander's mouth! 

Pacific Giant Salamanders rely on clear, shallow water for reproduction.  Clear-cut logging and the erosion that follows severely degrades this habitat by allowing previously clear streams to become silted, or filled with sediment.  Though there is no official protection for this salamander, it luckily shares habitat with Steelhead Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and Coho Salmon (O. kisutch), two species of considerable concern.  The creeks in which these two endangered fish species breed are protected, and as a result, salamander habitat is also preserved.