Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Discovering A California Treasure: A Hike at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Inside a hollow redwood. May 13

Dates: May 13, 30, June 1
Place: Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Felton, California
Coordinates: 37.041551, -122.064539
Length: about 2.5 miles
Difficulty: easy
Do click on the images for a larger view.

Bay Area residents and visitors don't need to travel all the way to to Redwoods National Park to view giant redwood trees. Thanks to pioneer activism over a 100 years ago a few groves of old redwoods were saved from the intense logging that was taking place around the Bay Area at the time.
The best known one is Muir Woods National Monument, north of San Francisco.
A little less worldly famous is in the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, about 9 miles north of Santa Cruz.
May 13
I visited this park numerous times in the past. Having a very nice, and very family friendly campground, it was also the first place where I took the chikas camping on my own.
In the past spring I had the pleasure of hiking there several times within a month, both on my own and with groups. I bring here photos from three of these hikes.
My trail is labeled yellow. In red - the Big Trees Loop and Cable Car Beach
It was the same trail each time. First, a walk through the big trees loop, then along the river to Cable Car Beach, followed by a short forest loop up the hill, and finishing again with a river bank walk, this time all the way to the sandy beach that's behind the park's visitor center.

My first hike there last spring begun at 6:30 am. It was overcast and chilly, and in the forest it was so dark that hardly any of my photos I took there are worthy of posting.
The ferny forest floor. It is so dark under the big trees that the flash kicks in. 
Once outside of the old grove conditions were much more photo-favorable. By the time I made it to Cable Car Beach the sun had popped through the clouds.
Cable Car Beach, May 13
There is something absolutely magical about being alone (of course alone - how many people would go into the woods this early in the day?) in nature and watch the (sort of) sunrise. In warmer conditions this place is a great location for tired feet dipping in cool water.
The narrow Eagle Creek merges with the San Lorenzo River right at that beach.
May 13
I also took the time to explore what was blooming next to the creek.
Foamflower (Tiarella sp.) May 13
Next to Eagle Creek - a narrow trail that climbs uphill. Green ferns decorate the canyon walls. There are several fern species there, but the one that caught my eye was this one - the 'Five Finger Fern' (please don't count).
Five Finger Fern (Adiantum aleuticum), May 13
The dominant undergrowth there is the crimson sorrel, a non-native species that effectively carpets almost the entire forest floor over there.
Crimson Sorrel (Oxalis incarnata), May 30
I was very happy to see many irises in full bloom at my first May hike. By June 1, they were all done blooming.
Iris, May 13
In mid-May, it was also possible to see little brooks flowing through the forest on their way down to the river.
A forest brook, May 13
Uphill, I stopped and turned over some rotting logs to find what's underneath. This is always an interesting activity to do with children, taking the necessary precautions, of course, and returning all wildlife and logs back in place when done.
Yellow Spotted Millipede
I saw several interesting critters there, but my favorite was an amphibian that I've seen several times before but never got to learn about until this time. This is the California Slender (which is a salamander relative). It lives on other little critters that live under logs. Being amphibian, it needs to remain moist and does not like to be exposed. An interesting fact about it is that unlike many other amphibians, this species doesn't have a water phase. All of its life cycle takes place on land.
California Slender
 One fascinating animal of the redwood forests is the California native banana slug. It's huge, (for a slug), and is bright yellow. It is also unconcerned about slithering about in broad view of people and other would-be predators. As long as the area is moist enough, of course.
A Banana Slug on a redwood tree. June 1, 2014
 I find small wildlife encounters no less exciting than large ones. Keeping one's eyes on the ground (or in this case not he eroded hillside), all kinds of interesting things can be found. Like this one - the neatly meshed tunnel of a borrowing spider. The spider itself was well out of sight.
A Borrowing Spider tunnel. 
Upon completing the hill-forest loop went back along the River Trail. The light conditions had improved significantly, making it easier to take photos.
Rough Hedgenettle (Stachys rigida). 
The San Lorenzo River also presented nice views in the form of colorful wood ducks.
Wood Duck, breeding male, May 13
Raising my eyes back to the trail I noticed a tree sprouting from the air. I rubbed my yes and got closer. It was a tree alright, but a fallen one. It rested on another, living tree. Did M.C. Escher ever visit this place?

Rather than going back to the big trees loop, I continued along the river. There is river access in several places via unofficial little trails. I went down one of these to see what I can find. I liked the reflection I saw.
River reflection
Going back up I caught a flash of intense purple in the corner of my eye. I plowed through the nettle thicket and found this beauty:
Purple Foxglove (Digitais purpurea)
The foxglove, an important old-world medicinal plant, is an invasive species here. Too bad, because I really like it.
Right by the river bank there are boxelder trees. Usually I don't give them much attention. One of them, though, did get my attention for some time. It was infested with galls that completely deformed its leaves. Poor thing.
Gall-infested Boxelder.  
The river trail continues all the way to the large picnic area, but I stopped behind the Mountain Nature Store that's by the parking lot. There, behind the store, there is a river access to a beautiful sandy beach. That beach is the perfect place for a post-hike picnic and fun recreation.
San Lorenzo River, the lovely beach that's behind the parking lot. 
Near that beach, we were told, lives a pair of pileated woodpeckers. Papa Quail, who joined one of my later the group hikes, kept looking for them to no avail. What he did see were the commonplace acorn woodpeckers. They're cool too.
Acorn Woodpecker, female
The redwood forest is home to many bird species, most of which fall into the LBB (Little Brown Bird) category, and all of them are very challenging to photograph. Not surprisingly, Papa Quail was very pleased with this shot:
Brown Creeper
 At the end of May I walked that very same trail with a group of families. The hike started at a later hour and the lighting conditions were as good as could be. I was happy to complete my Coastal Redwood Big Trees Loop photo album.
But even with optimal lighting I couldn't get them to fit into the frame, even with my wide-angle lens.

The Big Trees Loop (labeled red in the map at the top of the page) offers a chance to get acquainted not only with the immense size of these old growth trees but also with their personalities. For example, you can see one that's branching. Coastal Redwoods don't normally do that, but this one does.
A branching Coastal Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), May 30
Albinism is a very rare phenomenon in plants for the simple reason that green pigmentation, i.e. chlorophyll, is essential to the plant's survival. There are, however, a few albino redwoods in existence. Mutants, who lack chlorophyll.  How is this possible?
The simple case is that of a chimeric plant that has the mutation expressed in only parts of the plant, giving it a variegated appearance. In this case, the green part of the plant supports the white part, in the same manner it supports any other non-photosynthesizing plant organs such as roots. A tree like that grows right by the Big Trees Loop Trail.
A partially albino redwood at the Big Trees Loop Trail, May 13
The more bewildering albinos are those who are completely white, without a single green leaf on them. Their growth is stunted, but they are alive. They certainly do not photosynthesize. What then, is keeping them alive?
The answer lies in the roots.
Coastal redwoods, just like their Sierra Nevada relatives, the Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), can fuse roots with one-another, thus creating an enormous underground network that shares water, hormones (yes, they do communicate with each other!), and also, as it turns out, the products of photosynthesis, i.e. sugar. The roots of the albino redwoods are fused to nearby green redwoods and live off them. Isn't it amazing?
Some albino redwoods live are in Humboldt County, way up north. Rumor has it that there are such trees also within Henry Cowell SP, but their location is kept secret, for their own protection. If I should ever come across one I would be very excited indeed, and keep it to my quiet self :-)

Burls are commonplace in coastal redwoods. Some, though, have considerably more burls than others.
A burly redwood, May 13 
Burls, or knots, are irregular wood growths bulging around the tree trunk, usually by the roots but sometimes higher. They give the tree a rugged or 'deformed' appearance. I thing it adds to their personality :-)
The burls are also full of meristematic tissue that have the potential to bud out and form a branch. The in most cases, the burl meristems are suppressed by the auxin hormone that's released at the main growth meristem all the way up there at the apex (the tree top).
But that apical control weakens as the main apex grows further up ...
A budding redwood burl, May 13
Here's a close-up of a burl-sprouts:
A Coastal Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) burl sprout, May 13
Burl wood is highly sought after by sculptures and artisan carpenters who craft the uniquely-shaped wood into statues and artistic carpentry. Hence, burl wood can be quite expensive, with redwood burls being on the higher end of price range. While there are plenty of legitimate redwood burl sources, there's also burl poaching going on, where old growth trees (that means they're millennia-old), are being dangerously violated, having large pieces of their trunk cut off, leaving the tree in danger of toppling over. This happens even withing the National Parks and Forests, and has already led to park road closures.
What can be done to stop this? Like with any other poaching: abolish the market for the poached goods. Anyone who considers buying a burl wood product should verify the legitimacy of its source, and any burl supplier should provide that information in a verifiable form.

Redwoods sprout new growth from their roots as well.
May 13
The burl and root sprouts can grow into a messy redwood greenery that surrounds the main trunk.
Root-sprouted redwood growth
The root-sprouted redwoods are, of course, genetic clones of the tree that sprouted them. If and when the primal tree dies, these root-sprouts grow into a ring of trees, surrounding the empty space where the primal tree used to be.
A Coastal Redwood clone ring
 I didn't see it on my first hike, but a few keen-eyed kids in a group I took there later have detected a strange-looking growth atop a tall redwood which, from a distance, looked like a burl. It didn't have the right color, though. I pulled out my binoculars for a better look. It was a hive, bustling with bees, flying in and out. The kids got really excited and we took a long while to continue on the trail because they all wanted to get a look at the bees through the binoculars.
Wild bee hive
 Redwoods are excellent lumber. There is an active redwood logging industry, and in some areas redwood forests are planted and grown for that purpose just like pines and other lumber conifers.
The California Gold Rush and the other settlers who came along discovered very quickly this quality of the coastal redwood, and within a short time have logged nearly all of the old growth trees in the Bay Area. The old growth redwood grove at Henry Cowell SP was spared by the various owners of that piece of land, and eventually became protected due to the advocacy of a Santa Cruz banker named W.T. Jether.
This grove is has some very impressive trees. It is very sad to see the remains of what used to be an entire forest of such impressive trees. Everywhere around the big trees area there are giant stumps, a poignant reminder of modern man's destructive ways.
A prematurely terminated redwood, one of many. May 30


  1. Redwoods are always impressive, but this spot has much more than just redwoods...
    The albino trees are very interesting

    1. Thank you Moti! I do want to see one day a fully albino redwood. It must be quite sight!

  2. Beautiful!!! your area is full of treasures :-)
    Thanks, and Shana Tova.

    1. Indeed it is :-) Thank you! And Shana ova to you and your family!

  3. amazing! lovely! oh, the redwoods! the albinism is very interesting.
    how big is the banana slug?
    oh, and the 5-finger ferns have actually 7 fingers.... ;-)

    1. Do you remember Muir Woods? It's very similar :-) The banana slug was about 4 inches long - very big!
      I think we can name a new species of fern after you now :-)