Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve

Albino redwood.

Albino redwood.

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.

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Arctostaphylos nummularia

Arctostaphylos nummularia subsp. mendocinoensis

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.

Arctostaphylos nummularia

Arctostaphylos nummularia subsp. mendocinoensis by Allison Poklemba

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Choosing a Hike

How do you go about choosing a hike?

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.

Hiking in the King Range.

King Range hiking.

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.

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Owen Cheatham Redwood Grove

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.

redwood needles and cones

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.

In search of redwoods and film history in the Owen Cheatham grove.

In search of redwoods and film history in the Owen Cheatham Grove.

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The McNab Cypress of Walker Ridge

Original Publication DATE: 3/23/2014

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.

Walker-Ridge

Looking north toward Walker Ridge from the access road.

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The Ecological Staircases of Mendocino County

Original Publication DATE: 11/7/2012

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.

Mendocino Ecological Staircase

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Birding for Crowberry

Original Publication DATE: 5/16/2011

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.

Elk Head 040a

Gary explains that, until 2002, tufted puffins regularly bred on the sea stacks viewed from Elk Head. He comes back to look each year but they have not yet returned to this historic breeding ground.

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Sugar Pines of the King Range Wilderness

Original Publication DATE: 5/1/2011

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.

Untitled_Panorama11a

Panorama from King’s Peak where fire and life intertwine–where mixed-evergreen forest and coastal chaparral meet.

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South Fork Eel River Wilderness | Red Mountain Unit

Original Publication DATE: 11/7/2010

“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