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Walks on the Wild Side

walk
Robert Scheer

Walkabout: Not quite the year-long rite of passage practiced by the Aborigines of Australia, but a tour of Pogonip nonetheless offers a chance to be with folks--and some wildlife--of a certain outdoorsy stripe.

Watching plants and critters get down with their bad natural selves is great summer fun.

By Tom Marshall


Life's wild side is staring Santa Cruz in the face every day of the year, but summer is an especially good time to get out there and see how the other half lives. Spending a little time, and maybe a few bucks on park fees or nature guides or equipment, can bring rewards that last a lifetime. These walks offer places to check out sunny beach coves, dramatic waterfalls, hanging fern gardens and quiet meadows where coyotes love to hunt.

West Cliff

ONE OF THE BEST nature paths in Santa Cruz actually runs along West Cliff Drive. The paved way from Lighthouse Point to Natural Bridges is full of natural wonders. This path is great for those who want or need a smooth or level trail. The grade is gentle and the way is open, except for some periodic competition from bikes and skaters. The view is stunning.

Swallows nest under the eaves of the old lighthouse that houses the Surfing Museum, and they can be easily observed with the naked eye and ear. Their lisping song is a gentle pleasure. Binoculars will let you watch them more closely--when they're flying, you'll have to keep up with their crazy swoops and darts as they play or feed on airborne insects. Binoculars also can help as they feed the bugs to their babies leaning out at the mouths of the mud nests.

A strong pair of binoculars also should capture the big-eyed-baby facial expressions of nearby sea lions. The swimming play of Zalophus californianus is even more fascinating. Watch the sea lions sporting around Seal Rock, and you'll see that they're as fast as an anchovy. These circus clowns of the sea also loll about with one fin in the air sometimes, as though they might be humming the theme from Jaws and teasing themselves about real dangers.

Another quick-swimming charmer in the Lighthouse Point area kelp beds is the sea otter. A less crowded spot to see these playful all-day working divers is at the end of Almar or Merced streets further down the path. You can watch them bring up crabs, urchins and other shellfish, and if you look and listen carefully, you may observe their interesting use of tools. They crack their food open on rocks placed on their bellies while floating face up. Watch for those little arms raised over the head, and listen for the smack and crack of dinner being opened. You may also observe pups being transported on their mothers' bellies and being left on a bed of kelp while parents dive for food. Otters also use kelp beds for sleeping at night, anchoring themselves against drifting by wrapping a seaweed seat belt around their bodies at twilight. Enhydra lutris nereis is as endearing as any Nereid sea nymph in the classic Greek fables.

Dolphins and whales can be spotted along West Cliff on lucky days. Gray whales and dolphins appear all along these cliffs, but one good vantage spot is under the trees at the foot of Almar Street.

As you cruise onward toward Natural Bridges, there are several good spots for birding. Be sure to notice the cormorants and pelicans at Columbia Street. At Woodrow Street, I've seen gulls nesting and nurturing their young. At the end of Fair Avenue, you can look for turnstones. On the cliffs off the end of Stockton Street, pigeon guillemots often can be found. The parking lot at the entrance to Natural Bridges State Park is a fine place to see several species of sea birds, shore birds and a few land birds.

The park itself, of course, sports the eucalyptus grove that hosts monarch butterflies each winter. Here the going is a little less mild, though there are paved roads and wooden ramps around the grove. If you're ready for a little hiking, you can try a nice loop walk to include Antonelli's Pond across the road behind the park and come back down to the beach through the stream meadow on the park's far side. The pond offers ducks, herons, hawks and more. Along the stream in the meadow, I've seen foxes and smaller mammals, too, so tread softly and keep an eye out.

Natural Bridges also is a perfect place to take delight in tidepooling. The rocks above the beach provide a special view of a different world at the edge of our own. Study the shimmering colors in the small tidepool cosmos: Limpets, chitons, snails and winkles slowly haul their shells of simple colors and fantastic patterns between weedy strands of brown or red vegetation. Red and green crabs scuttle and crawl through and between the pools. Sea stars provide further brilliance in a wide array of tints: orange, red, purple, ochre, rose, gray-blue, olive, yellow, brown, white. Anemones, those tentacled flower-like creatures that tighten up at a touch, often carry an armor of shell and pebble bits that sparkles weirdly. Spiny urchins sometimes add a little red or purple in a gnarly package.

But the most eye-grabbing of all are the little sea slugs called nudibranchs. Named for the plume of "naked gills" fanning the water near their hind ends, these hermaphroditic sea slugs use poisonous stings and foul taste to ward off predation. Their remarkable colors may serve as a warning, or they may simply be something these critters can get away with because they are so indigestible. They are actually successfully eaten by other sea slugs and by sea hares. A few silly fish eat them once.

Some humans, too, are predatory upon the community of nudibranchs because of their attractive colors. Please, observe them only in their tide pools--they die away from home. Our local population peaks between April and July. It includes species like the clown (white with orange spots and gill-plume), the lemon (yellow with brown blotches) and the rose (which is covered in brilliant rose-pink flexible projections).

Wilder Ranch
Robert Scheer

Just Kidding Around: Wilder Ranch State Park visitor and animal-lover Susan Steinberg offers a scratch to one of the coastal treasure's farmyard denizens, a friendly goat named Teacup II.

Wilder Ranch

A COUPLE OF MILES north of town up Highway 1 perches Wilder Ranch State Park, another local favorite with hidden treasures. A visit to the old dairy ranch buildings restored as a cultural preserve can be enjoyable for folks of all ages and mobilities. Right there, not far from the parking lot and the entry kiosk, you can see both native and cultivated flowers and have a little fun looking at the farm animals.

From the parking lot, you can head directly along a dirt path out to the coastal bluffs if you like. You'll pass plant-restoration flags among the hemlock and horehound stalks as you swing around above a marshy meadow, where northern harriers and kestrels hunting for rodents can be spotted. Look for the tiny scoop-shaped maroon flowers of the California figwort and the bees they attract. You can watch red-winged blackbirds and listen to their metallic whistlings.

Out toward the cliffs, you'll pass above Wilder Beach, which should be entered only by looking down through binoculars. That will let you see its relatively undisturbed shorebirds in feeding action. In the spring, the snowy plovers nest here, and you'll see the protective screens built to help them keep their population going. The beach is completely off limits to people, but the birds also need a little protection from other predators.

The wind may feel like a predator out along these cliffs, so dress appropriately and don't stand too close to the edge. As you swing around and up the coast, you can watch for birds and sea mammals offshore. You can also enjoy the wildflowers tucked in along the cliff-top. There are violet seaside daisies, glowing lavender sea fig, golden hop clover and one called seathrift that looks like a wild onion. These waggle in the wind where an open rock ledge invites the daring to let their own hair shake free. It's a blustery walk, but the exhilaration is usually worth it.

When you come to a post marked "7," look over the edge at a couple of rocky islets occasionally used as "haul-outs" by harbor seals. Then swing inland among song sparrows and cottontail rabbits to the top of the beach cove harboring the Fern Grotto.

There's a little path there with a wooden bridge over a tiny streambed. Pick your way through a pastel bedspread of wild radish flowers over another (unbridged) streamlet, and there you'll find a little water flowing with white watercress and yellow silverweed flowers beside it. You may also notice red and yellow Dudleya flowers sprouting from their succulent leaf rosettes on the rock wall there.

The beach is warm and mostly sheltered from the wind. To the right, you'll find the dripping Fern Grotto. It's always a cool and shady retreat. Framing the wide entrance to the cave are seep-spring monkey flowers. If you can get a close look at one of the blossoms, you can see the red spots in their "throats." Try imagining the flower face as a wide-jowled, round-eared, broad-grinned monkey and you'll see how it got its name. It has relatives all over the state, including the orange sticky monkey-flower bush in parts of our county.

The Fern Grotto and its beach offer an excellent place for picnicking or just relaxing. You can watch the swallows glide in and out of their mud nests beside the cave. You can listen to the blackbirds cackle and whistle. You may hear finches sing a more melodious song. You may see a curious seal swim into the shallows to check you out or, at evening, a great horned owl winging over. But you probably shouldn't stay that late because the park closes at sunset, and it's a 30- to 60-minute trip back to the parking lot, depending on how much stuff you've got to carry. Pack all your trash.

UCSC Campus

This is a rich hunk of land with great diversity of terrain and inhabitant species. Mountain lion families have been sighted there. Many of us have seen bobcats, coyotes and deer only yards away from classrooms.

Strange--and strangely delicious-- mushrooms pop up here and there in spots that are surprisingly easy to get to, but if you don't know your mushrooms, leave them alone. Summertime specialties on the campus are the epipactis orchids and the calochortus mariposa "lilies."

Find your way to the Baskin Arts Studios near the center of campus. On the hill in front of them, you can usually find Calochortus luteus in the early summer. If they have mowed this hillock, you'll have to look downhill from the freestanding oak along the trail leading down the east side of the Great Meadow below the Student Center nearby. "Calochortus" means beautiful grass, and that name applies to the green parts of several related flowers on the campus. The flower called "luteus" is golden yellow with reddish spots on its three bright petals. A very different one called "alba" has soft white petals hanging down from a larger grassy stem that close upon themselves like a lantern globe. It is sometimes called "fairy lantern" or "globe lily." The "luteus" is termed "gold nuggets" in the Sierra foothills and "golden mariposa lily" or "tulip" around here.

Behind the Baskin Art Studios, you can find the other easy treasure. Epipactis helleborine pops up there in late spring. It grows a stack of flower buds on a thin stalk bent with their weight and then erects and opens them. They unfold one or two at a time to show inch-wide laughing greenish pink faces with dark purple tongues. They are as lovely in shape as store-bought orchids, but certainly weirdly colored. They are Eurasian natives now naturalized here. They show up in redwood groves throughout the county here and there, but UCSC is a fully accessible place to see them. Those with limited mobility should park at the parking meters below the library and use the paved path up toward the back of Baskin. These eerily delicious orchids grow right beside that pathway and a little ways away from it. Enjoy them in situ and do not disturb them--they are delicate and rare.

Pogonip

ON THE OTHER SIDE of the UCSC hill, there's a city ark called Pogonip--a native people's term for the land-fog we get around here. City Parks & Rec prints a descriptive brochure with a nice map you can get from the rangers in the park. Entrances to the Pogonip are off the end of Spring Street (above High), down at the end of Golf Club Drive (off Highway 9), up Highway 9 near the railroad trestle and off Coolidge Drive on the UCSC campus.

Rincon Trail, coming down from the campus, meets Spring Trail and forms, with the Brayshaw paved trail up from Golf Club Drive, a network of broad fire trails through the park. Spring Trail is very level and provides the easy cross-axis from which to take most of the smaller hiking trails through the woodsier areas.

Pogonip has a variety of highlights for hikers. These include a spring catch basin along one short steep trail connecting Rincon and Spring. The stream filling this basin flows curiously over and under the ground downhill along the redwood- and fern-lined path. Another highlight is the small columbine and woodland star garden on one limestone outcrop along the Spring Trail.

The big meadow off the Brayshaw Trail provides the Old Stables Trail with expansive views of the city and the bay. I once stood in the rain with a friend and watched a coyote hunt that meadow by running from gopher hole to gopher hole, sniffing anxiously. Another time, as we sat quietly sunning ourselves, a coyote trotted by and glanced over briefly without a pause or a quickening of pace. Bobcats hunt that meadow, too, at twilight. They're too shy to let you watch them from a stone's throw away, but you can see their little tufted ears with your binoculars sometimes if you sit still and wait patiently.

If you stay only on the broad fire trails and open meadows, you may never discover that there's a beautiful year-round running stream called Pogonip Creek in the park. You can find it by taking Lookout Trail down from Spring Trail or by going off the Old Stables Trail back toward UCSC up the dry draw to Pogonip Creek Trail. Between those two ends, you'll find several types of terrain, from dry grass fields to lush stands of flowering mint to shadowy redwood forest and the babbling brook with its musky monkey-flowers.

There are dozens of wildflower species in the park. On a quick walk along the Spring Trail at the end of March, I counted over 40 species in bloom. In summer, you can look for pennyroyal and spearmint and the coral-root orchids on the shady slopes between Spring Trail and Pogonip Creek.

Nisene Marks

NAMED FOR A MEMBER of the family that donated the property to the California Park System, the Forest of Nisene Marks is approached most simply from Aptos Village. Maps are available as you come in along that road. Day-use fees are collected at a kiosk there, too. Nisene Marks Park has over 30 miles of trails and roads, short and long, steep and somewhat level, with plenty to do and see along them. There are three pleasant picnic areas, one of which (Porter) sits on a lovely shady bend in Aptos Creek.

A good short trail called the Buggy Trail--not from insects but from the old-time travel mode--runs from the sunnier George's Picnic Area back along the hillside above Aptos Creek Road. This little jaunt sports wildflowers in the spring and summer and mushrooms in the fall and winter. The surprisingly beautiful and dramatically colorful Clintonia plant blooms just across the road from George's spot in the summer.

If you ride on up to the Porter picnic area, a steep mile and a half in, you can look for a variety of flowers right there by the parking area and fire-road gate. From spring through summer, look for yerba de selva, wild strawberry, trillium, Solomon's seal, milkmaids, fairy bells, blue-blossom, forget-me-not in blue, Spanish lotus, Pacific starflower, fresh redwood sorrel and even the greenish blossoms of poison oak. They are all a stone's throw from the big metal gate that has room on either side for a bike or a wheelchair.

Further up the road, you can find harebells and wild roses along the way. Down by the new rail-car bridge grow moist yellow monkey-flowers. Beyond the creek are scattered springtime columbines and summer eupatorium.

A quick swing back can be negotiated by crossing the older small bridge on your left and winding your way up to the periwinkle patch at the old Porter House Site. This brings you to the Loma Prieta Grade Trail, which is off limits to bikes (riders often abuse the rules, so watch out). You'll also have to watch out for the poison oak that likes this sunny spot. Around it nestle the white flowers of bedstraw, miner's lettuce, blackberry, mouse ear and nemophila.

If you head back to Aptos Creek Road going to your left, you'll see many more species. Blue witch, manroot, wild ginger, hedge nettle, trail plant, two kinds of violets and at least one orchid pop up along Loma Prieta Grade's lower section. Garter snakes and banana slugs show up, too. Wild ginger flowers near the old railroad ties embedded in the trail. Look for its long-tailed maroon petals hidden beneath the heart-shaped veiny leaves.

If you have the stamina to go uphill from the Porter House Site, there are many more delights awaiting you--including waterfalls. You can watch for birds like the winter wren, a tiny brown-streaked chirper with a cocked tail. Brown creepers also haunt this woodland, spiraling around trees as they creep up the bark gleaning insects and larvae from the crevices.

Look for striped coral-roots and their little orchids on foot-high reddish stalks. They are saprophytes feeding off the roots of trees, so they need no green parts. A hand lens will show you the summer magic of the stripes or spots on their tiny tongues. You can look up a side-stream bed at the foot of a small summer-dry waterfall and see gentle five-finger ferns and the saxifrage flowers of boykinia plants.

If you head up the trail from that nice rest spot, you can eventually come to a full-sized flowing waterfall at the end of the trail behind the Bridge Creek Historic Site sign.

About a mile up this sometimes very rough trail, you'll come to your reward. This trip is recommended only for the hardy. The trail crisscrosses the creekbed and is often thin or faint. There are places where a little climbing is required. There are slippery rocks and fallen trees to make your way over and past. Along the way, you'll be rewarded temporarily with musky monkey-flowers where the trail first almost goes into the stream bed under a cut stump on the right. There's also a small waterfall seep-garden at one point where you've got to hop along rocks and climb a short cascade.

There's a tough scramble over trees and rocks and sandy breakaway banks in the last eighth of a mile. But it's all worth it when you emerge at Maple Falls. It's 30 feet or so high, and it's stunning (though summer is low-flow time). When you stick your head under water falling that far, you only need a little to get the full effect. It's a mind- and body-clearing blast. Time your arrival for a midday sun-dry, or take a towel and let the water's music wake your soul deep in the Forest of Nisene Marks.

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From the May 29-June 4, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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