Category Archives: Parks

Drought bites at 11,050 feet

The Siberian Outpost, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

High up in the backcountry of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park and the Golden Trout Wilderness the drought is taking hold. I spent most of Memorial Day weekend above 10,000 feet.  The snow has largely gone, the wild flowers are almost non existent and the barren bones of the Sierra Nevada are laid bare.

The Big Whitney Meadow and the aptly named Siberian Outpost are starkly beautiful, even if they lack the flush of spring that normally visits the Sierra at this time of year.  It really brought home to me that we’re in the midst of a vicious drought. Not only have we lost the snow pack, but the water that is normally stored in these high alpine meadows is also dwindling. I was a visitor. But it’s going to be a long hot summer for the golden eye trout and marmots that call these meadows home.

Snow Marker 251 - Cottonwood Pass
Snow Marker 251 – Cottonwood Pass


Big Whitney Meadow, Golden Trout Wilderness
Big Whitney Meadow, Golden Trout Wilderness

California roll funds parks

Beware the MRCA stop sign camera
Beware the MRCA stop sign camera

Unbeknownst to me, I made my first donation ($100) to the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (“MRCA”) late last month.  And I won’t even be getting any membership benefits. Let me explain.

I stopped at the Topanga overlook for the first time on my way down into the valley. I remember wondering what the “photo enforcement program” sign referred to at the time. Now I know. There’s a stop sign as you leave. I guess I am enough of a Californian that sometimes my stops are “rolling stops” rather than the required “full stops.” Well the camera is monitoring that stop sign. Fair cop: I am guilty of a rolling stop and will be paying my dues.   The letter and online vidoe from the Arizona-based Redflex Traffic Systems attests to that.

A couple of years ago at my bus stop in the Bay Area I remember counting the number of drivers who came to a full stop at the four-way stop over a five minute period. If I recall, the answer was zero. In fact, having moved to LA I am now worried every time I slow down to stop as an amber light turns to red as I know someone will be running the light. Just last week, I slowed to stop and the person behind me practically side-swiped me in their rush to pull past and run the light.

To be clear, I do not object to fining folks who break the law. But I do feel it is short-sighted for an authority to write tickets for first-time offenders at spots like this, especially when they have outsourced the whole process to a private vendor in Arizona. I would love to know how much they collect on a busy weekend and how much is retained by MRCA. It’s clearly enough to provide free parking at the very least.  In my mind much better for a courtesy notice the first time around with fair-warning that that’s the only one.  Then they would deal with the safety issue and I would continue to think of them as my friendly park authority.

All that said, MRCA does a valuable job managing thousands of acres of park land in and around the Santa Monica Mountains and they get precious little public funding to do this. I just hope they focus as much energy on engaging with the public as they do fining them for minor traffic violations.  Over the long-haul, I am convinced that that is the smartest revenue strategy also.

National parks shut down — where should I go?

NPS closed for business
NPS closed for business

So the Federal Government has shut down as the lawmakers continue their spat.  And with it the doors have been shut on your National Parks. By some estimates, 715,000 people would have visited the parks every day during October. If you live here, you can always wait it out. But if you’re here on vacation, what should you do?

Fortunately here in California we have a wonderful state park system and if you’re here to see the redwoods and giant sequoia in the National Parks you have some great options.

Muir Woods National Monument is closed — consider heading a little further north to Samuel P. Taylor State Park. Or for a real treat, head south to Big Basin Redwoods State Park. It’s the oldest park in the state park system and home to the tallest tree south of Humboldt County!

Yosemite National Park is closed — it’s tough to find a stand-in for the valley or the vast backcountry wilderness, but if you came to see the Giant Sequoia groves you are in luck.  A little further north is Calaveras Big Trees State Park. This jewell of a park has two incredible sequoia groves. Not only will you see some amazing forest giants, but you’ll get to stand on the Discovery stump and learn how the destruction of the tree spurred the movement to save the redwoods.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park is closed — while nothing compares to walking the trails in Giant Forest, you could always head north to Calaveras Big Trees. Closer to the park is Mountain Home Demonstration State Forest with ancient sequoia, rock art, and a host of other significant cultural resources it’s well worth a visit.

Redwood National Park is closed — this one is complex. Given it’s partnership with the state park system, although the National Park is closed,  many of the best trails are actually in the state park much of it is likely still open. And fall is a wonderful time of year to get into Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park. For me, nothing beats Prairie Creek Redwoods — a rich, verdant forest, wild coast and of course the iconic elk.

Towering Redwoods in Redwood National and State Parks
Towering Redwoods in Redwood National and State Parks

It’s a bugs life

Elk may be beautiful, majestic animals, but if you’re a young boy they are beaten out by a tiny bug any day of the week. I know as I experienced it first-hand last week.

PtReyesBugs 083

Life on the trail
Life on the trail

I’d gone with friends up to Point Reyes for a few days. On a misty morning we took the trail out towards Tomales Point, hoping to see elk. We weren’t disappointed. The elk clustered along the road on the drive in and stood framed against the skyline as we started out on the trail.  But elk are distant and not very interactive. Of much keener interest to the four boys were the countless bugs we encountered on the trail, from potato beetles and ear wigs, to crickets and lady bugs (or lady birds as we call them in England for some strange reason).  They crowded over them. Picked them up. Moved them off the trail. Counted their spots. Looked for ones with different patters. Wondered where the eyeballs are on crickets. And generally crawled around on  the narrow  dirt trail that cuts through the coastal scrub.

We never made it out very far, but we had a wonderful time exploring the world close at hand.


Partnership brings Ardenwood alive

I spent an enjoyable day at Ardenwood Historic Farm,  down in Fremont. Lots to see and do for kids — from picking apples, to riding the horse-drawn train, to exploring the historic farm.

Chasing Chickens at Ardenwood
Chasing Chickens at Ardenwood

The horse wrangler / train driver told me something interesting thing. The park is owned by the City of Fremont, is managed under contract by the East Bay Regional Park District, and much of the programming is provided by volunteers from the cooperating association. It’s the blacksmith, horse drawn train, and animals that brings the place alive. And that’s the volunteer part!  Fortunately its seamless to the visitor and I bet most don’t have any idea that this three-way partnership is supporting their visit.

Seems like a great approach that plays to everyone’s strengths and could well be used many other places.  Mind you, the volunteer did joke it was hard working with two public agencies and it had taken 20 years to build a new tractor barn. I guess nothing is ever perfect.

What can parks learn from museums?

Over the last few weeks I have been fortunate enough to spend a week camping at Grover Hot Springs, travel by train to the California State Rail Road Museum, and visit the new Exploratorium on the waterfront in San Francisco. My excuse has been summer with my sons.  And a great summer it has been!

Exploring color
Exploring color

Anyone with kids knows it can be a challenge to keep them entertained. They can only take so much looking at nature, or big steam trains, before they have you running screaming for the door. I vaguely remember it as a kid also — I loved the museums in London. The Science Museum, Natural History Museum and Geology Museum. And if you could find a button to press and make something move you were mesmerized! But mostly it was traipsing around looking at “exhibits” as your parents read out words from the display panels.

Fortunately museums have moved on and become interactive. The Exploratorium, has taken it to a whole knew level. I managed to spend five hours in it with my six year old son enthralled by the countless exhibits. Learning about constellations. color, sound, termites, waves, fog and so much more.  The Exploratorium has been pioneering this kind of interactive learning for decades.

Digging in the dirt
Digging in the dirt

Contrast that to California State Parks that have changed little for decades. We had a wonderful time at Grover Hot Springs, don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place for creative play. But somehow you always feel you are breaking the rules. Wading around in creeks as you dam them up  (is it bad for the fish?), climbing rocks (are we off trail?), painting pine cones (will the paint despoil them?), and we simply daren’t make a tree fort even though there are countless downed sticks.  I know enough about habitat and endangered species to understand why this makes sense, in theory. But there has to be a way to find a better balance.

The California State Railroad Museum has made minor inroads. Hidden away in a corner of the second floor is a play area where kids can build and play with Thomas the Tank Engine model trains. It’s where you will find the smart parents and toddlers catching a break before they head back to the “don’t touch” exhibits downstairs.

I believe its time, way past time, to introduce more interactivity into our state parks. We need places where we encourage kids to dam streams, to dig for worms, to climb trees, to build forts, to pick plants and make collages, and to get thoroughly immersed in the park experience.  The best museums have figured this out. As State Parks considers its futures under the Parks Forward initiative, its time to catch up.


Free beach access: who should pay?

A battle is underway in Sonoma County over expanding charges for parking at Sonoma Coast State Beach. The battle is pitting two state mandates against one another and playing out in a community that strongly supports parks and open space.

First we have the coastal act, passed into law in 1976, that seeks to:

Maximize public access to and along the coast and maximize public recreational opportunities in the coastal zone consistent with sound resources, conservation principles and constitutionally protected rights of private property owners.

Many have interpreted this to mean providing free access to ensure its equitable.

Sonoma Coast State Beach suffered service reductions due to budget woes (Celticcsu / Flikr)

On the other side we have the Department of Parks and Recreation that manages more 280 miles of California’s coastline — that’s about 30% of the total.  In the last few decades the departments budget has failed to keep pace with either population growth or growth in the park system, finally leading to park closures and service reductions in the past few years. One of the parks that suffered service reductions was Sonoma Coast State Beach.

As part of a rescue package approved by the legislature, the Department has been asked to look at ways to become more self-sufficient. And that often means charging the users fees for things like park and day-use access. One of the parks it is looking at expanding fee collection for parking is Sonoma Coast State Beach. It makes sense that they look there — after all, it is one of the most visited parks in the system.  Fees collected there would support the local park, and help the system as a whole become more fiscally solvent.  One of the challenges is it’s hard to get to the beaches without jumping in your car.

To date, the proposal has been unanimously rejected by the Sonoma Zoning Board and the Board of Supervisors.  You can hardly blame the citizens in Sonoma — after all, they supported the 2010 failed effort to create a stable public funding source for state parks.  It’s now up to the Department to determine whether to appeal to the State Coastal Commission.

I certainly have sympathies for those advocating for free access — after all, who doesn’t like free? I do!  But unless California’s  are ready to provide additional funding for state parks through general taxation, the choice is really between no access and charging. And here the Department is proposing charging for parking not access per se.  For the foreseeable future I don’t see a scenario whereby parks gets a bigger share of the general fund. And I certainly don’t see a scenario whereby Californians vote to raise taxes to fund parks.

It’s time to get creative and accept that sometimes its worth paying for things we value. Once users start seeing the fees pumped back into the park to fix restrooms, mend broken beach staircases and spruce up signage hopefully they’ll become supporters.  This  doesn’t mean we should turn our back on the question of equitable access. No-one wants price to be a bar to entry. But rather than subsidizing those who can afford the $7 parking fee, lets find a way of targeting free day-use passes to those who really cannot afford to pay.  Or working with local groups to operate a park-and-ride, perhaps even subsidized by the parking fee. Over time I am convinced that investing in our parks will foster a stronger group of supporters who just might vote “yes” in the future for greater public support.

To me, one final irony in all this is that it pits the Department against the Sonoma County Board and potentially against the Coastal Commission. They all should be allies in this — after all, they all seek to promote safe and equitable access to the coast. The only question is who is going to pay.

Sonoma Coast State Beach turnout
Sonoma Coast State Beach welcomes over a million visitors a year (Grant Loy / Flick)

Can birds and people live together in California’s first state park?

After many years of work, countless hearings, and reams of analysis the California State Park and Recreation Commission approved the Big Basin General Plan on May 17, 2013.  I have followed this planning process on and off for 15 years (yes, 15 years).  It was always going to be controversial. After all, California’s first state park had never had a general plan before despite more than 100 years of public use. At various times the park has housed a swimming pool, dance hall, and cabins.  Most of these are now gone, but their memory persists for many people.  The question now was what level of use is appropriate for the 21st century?  It was no surprise then that on June 19th the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit against the state and the Big Basin General Plan for failing to protect an endangered sea bird: the marbled murrelet.

New Year's Eve marbled murrelet
The elusive marbled murrelet lives on the ocean and in the redwoods

The park is significant in the history of the marbled murrelet. It was in the park in 1974 that a group of biologists made a remarkable discovery. They found the elusive marbled murrelet nesting on the mossy limb of an ancient Douglas-fir. Until that time, no-one knew where this sea-bird made its nest. It was, I believe, the last bird in north America to hold on to its nesting secret. The murrelet hasn’t fared so well over the past century as much of its nesting habitat — the limbs of ancient redwoods and Douglas-fir — have been logged. It now makes its last stand in protected redwood groves.  Big Basin redwoods state park happens to be its southerly hold-out.

While the trees in the park are protected, the murrelet continues to decline. The exact factors are unknown, but most scientists believe that predation by jays and ravens plays a significant role. Jays and ravens are attracted to human food and can maintain high populations feeding off our picnic scraps and food waste. Once we leave, these voracious birds are known to seek out birds eggs — including those of the murrelet.

So what to do? Should we remove all human use from the park? Ban picnics? Stop people camping among the trees?  It can be easy to say, “yes.” And while the law suite filed by CBD doesn’t go quite that far, it does open the question of significantly reducing the level of human use and activity in the park.

I for one think that is short-sighted. If we exclude people from the parks we will erode support. It also sends a message that we can’t live with wildlife. I believe it is better to use parks as places to demonstrate how we can live with wildlife and send people home better able to do that in their daily lives.  After all, food waste and trash is not only an issue in a park — it’s an issue everywhere people live.

I am sure that State Parks can do more can be done to protect the bird, but excluding people will do little to build the community of supporters needed to protect both the park, and the bird, long-term.  It’s time to get back to the table and develop a solution for Big Basin that protects this iconic bird and leaves space for people.

Murrelets nest in the limbs of ancient redwoods like these
Murrelets nest in the limbs of ancient redwoods like these

California’s Arboreal Triangle

California is a wonder land for tree lovers: in fact about 45 per cent of the state is covered with forests. The diversity is remarkable and that alone might be enough to set California apart. But what really makes California unique is that it is home to three world record beaters. It’s home to the tallest (a 379′ coast redwood in Redwood National Park), the most massive (the 52,506 cubic foot General Sherman Giant Sequoia), and the oldest trees (a 5,063 year old Bristlecone Pine). Not only are these record-breaking trees, but they are really record breaking organisms.   Hang on, some will say, but what about that the aspen grove dated to 80,000 years, or the Creosote bush in the Mojave dated to 11,700 year? But I say, there’s something special about a single organism that has survived that long and grown unimpeded for centuries. This record-breaking Arboreal Triangle is truly an international treasure worthy of protection.

This past weekend I returned to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine forest high in the White Mountains of eastern California. Perched at 10,000 feet is the Methuselah Grove. In 1957 Edward Schulman and Tom Harlan couldn’t quite believe their eyes when the tree rings they were counting extended back to 4,789 years. This tree, whose location is a closely guarded secret, was the oldest know single trunk tree until scientists discovered a 5,063 year tree in the same grove earlier this year. It germinated in 3051 BC!

Ancient Bristlecones stand watch at 10,000 feet
Ancient Bristlecones stand watch at 10,000 feet

Walking with these ancient monarchs gives me goosebumps.  You can literally see where the rocky soil has eroded away over millennia leaving roots exposed.  Where else can you see geological time set against a living organism? It also makes me feel humbled and connected to the wider-world in much the same way as standing before the General Sherman in Sequoia National Park or walking amid the towering redwood groves of Redwood National and State Parks.  I feel fortunate to have visited both in the past year.

In a time of rapid climatic and environmental change, these trees have so much to share with us about past conditions. Understanding how they have fared under past climatic regimes will help us better understand how to protect both these remarkable trees, and ourselves, as we head into uncharted territory. Unlike us, these trees are rooted to the ground and have no place to go. These trees have survived for thousands of years: with our focused efforts and help lets hope they continue to thrive.

If you have some free time this summer, what better pilgrimage is there for a tree lover? I can think of none finer.

Towering Redwoods in Redwood National and State Parks
Towering Redwoods in Redwood National and State Parks
The General Sherman stands guard
The General Sherman stands guard















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The park as cultural center

Creek and Cotton at the Himalayan Fair
Creek and Cotton at the Himalayan Fair
Prayer Flags add color to the park
Prayer Flags add color to the park

This weekend Live Oak Park in Berkeley transformed itself into a small part of the Himalayas for the annual Himalayan Fair.  The redwoods were draped with colorful prayer flags, the smell of exotic spices wafted down the creek, and the music of the sub-continent hung in the air. The grassy green was transformed into a colorful bazar where Tibetan prayer bowls jostled with cotton scarves for space.

As one lady who passed me said, “I love this festival, it reminds me of Berkeley in the 60’s.”

It reminded me of the week I spent in India last year. True, Delhi and Jaipur had a greater press of humanity and the colors and smells were more intense. But it’s the closest you can get without the long plane ride over the poles.  Our boys sat happily munching Tibetan momo’s and then jigged along to the Indian dancers. This is what urban parks are all about — giving people spaces to come and enjoy the outdoors,  community, and just occasionally the taste and smell of a distant land. And for the Tibetan community in the Bay Area its one of their biggest fundraisers of the year — thousands of delicious momo’s get made fresh and eaten by the hungry visitors!

What other cultural festivals do you enjoy that take place in parks?