Elizabeth and I stayed close to home this weekend—the Sierra Nevada was warm enough a week ago for us to break a sweat at 9,000 feet on our Vogelsang backpack, but this weekend it’s getting hit with wind and snow. These are conditions we’d rather avoid, so we went out to the Santa Cruz Mountains for a hike in El Corte de Madera Creek Open Space Preserve instead.
We started at 9 a.m. from Skyline Boulevard, a winding two-lane road that travels the crest of the mountain range. The overnight fog was clearing up and sunlight was starting to filter through the tall conifers next to the road. We put on our jackets and gloves against the chilly air.
This weather was typical for the summer. On an ocean-facing mountainside just a few miles from the coast, El Corte de Madera’s climate is dominated by the Pacific. The ocean’s temperature hovers in the mid-50s, producing a foggy marine layer that overtakes the mountains at night and keeps them cool during the day. Indeed, I checked my thermometer several times today, and it was always 56 in the shade.
We walked for a few miles through the preserve’s extensive secondary forests. They were thick with young but tall redwoods and Douglas-fir. Next to them were much shorter madrone and tanoak. Some huckleberry filled the understory. Among all of these were huge redwood stumps. Essentially every part of the park had been logged within the last 150 years.
On the Manzanita Trail, the trees got shorter and the forest opened up. The soil was sandier. Chaparral shrubs choked out the trees. There was, aptly, plenty of manzanita (Arctostaphylos). Mixed with it were buckbrush and chamise. There were also a few leather oaks, which have adapted to grow, not as trees, but as curious evergreen shrubs. On the borders of the manzanita patches were groves of giant chinquapin. These were small trees, some 20 feet high, with narrow leaves that were dark green above and a distinctive dark yellow below.
I was looking for the Kings Mountain manzanita (Arctostaphylos regismontana). Its wild population is for the most part restricted to a few spots on the Santa Cruz Mountains. Despite its rarity, it prefers to live in the sun and thus grows right next to a few trails in El Corte de Madera. My park brochure assured me it grew along the Manzanita Trail, so blithely I assumed that all the Arctostaphylos I saw were regismontana. Wrong. I got home to find out that almost all the Arctostaphylos I photographed were just tomentosa, the attractive but common woolyleaf manzanita. A learning experience for me.
We saw a lot of people at the preserve today, but only a handful of them were hiking. Everyone else was riding mountain bikes. The preserve is hugely popular with cyclists, and I believe that the endless secondary forests might be experienced more enjoyably at high speed. Indeed, about 5 hours into our hike, after navigating countless trail intersections, Elizabeth asked if we’d actually been going up and down the same hill the entire time.
There were some stand-out sections of trail, however. The Giant Salamander Trail, recently re-opened after extensive trail work, was a winding single-track with good views of big, old Douglas-fir. The Fir Trail was another favorite, passing through the same elevations as the Manzanita Trail, and thus the same vegetation.
We finished at 4, exactly 7 hours after we started, having enjoyed a good day in the woods.