Redwood National and State Parks

Source: Redwood National & State Parks: Tales, Trails, & Auto Tours.
By: Jerry and Gisela Rohde, 1994, MountainHome Books, McKinleyville, CA

Plant and Wildlife Communities

A stand of trees that soar skyward on massive brown trunks; grassy hillslopes, speckled with summer wildflowers and dotted with browsing elk; wide beaches that are carpeted with low, spreading plants, their colors bright with spring; a pileated woodpecker flying through the forest, its feathers flashing in the half light…scene after varied scene can be found in the redwood parks.

But these preserves are more than mere laudable landscapes; they also protect a host of indigenous inhabitants—both plants and animals—that over time have combined to form communities of great compatibility. They do so through an omnipotent, ongoing process: fire and ice, plague and pestilence—such forces move through the ages, confronting each species with change, challenging every entity with the choice between adaptation and annihilation. The effects are ongoing, but their pace is slow; when we walk through the parklands of today we see a series of survivors who, for the most part, have long lived at their current address. They arrange themselves through some strange synthesis of inner program and outer prod, following, it seems, the demands of an ancient, unthinking wisdom. Without blueprint or map does nature thus design her neighborhoods.

North Coast parklands feature four commonly found communities:

Old-Growth Forest

If a stand of trees reaches middle-age maturity without undo disruption from human or natural causes, it becomes an “old-growth” forest. Such places have a presence that widens the eye and stills the voice—thick, weathered trunks that seem anchored in antiquity; a plenitude of standing dead trees—snags—which hosts birds and other wildlife; and a largess of logs that lay massively upon the forest floor, slowly returning their substance to the earth. Often the setting seems to glow in sort of half-light, the sun’s rays softly filtered by the trees’ thick canopy of foliage. Such forests are sometimes called “ancient,” but to enter one is to go not so much back in time as beyond it, for it is here that the cycle of birth, life, and decay is present in all its stages, repeating itself in an unending, perfect rhythm—a circle of being that beckons a new type of understanding, and with it, a new knowledge.

Within the parks, the most frequently found old-growth forests are those where coast redwoods dominate. Here sempervirens specimens 250 to 300 feet tall are common, with some reaching 350 feet or more in height; most of the trees are between 250 and 1,000 years old, although a few are even older. They grow to their largest size in the thick alluvial gravels of streamside terraces and benchlands, such as at the Tall Trees Grove on Redwood Creek, along the flats of Prairie Creek, on the benchlands above the Smith River, and in the bottomlands near Mill Creek. Stands on hillslopes and ridgetops contain somewhat smaller mature trees, although the higher-elevation giants at the Lady Bird Johnson Grove are still startlingly impressive.

Many redwood groves feature other evergreens in supporting roles: Douglas-fir, western hemlock, and Sitka spruce are the most common companion conifers; all three share space with redwoods along the James Irvine Trail near the headwaters of Godwood Creek. Tanoak, California hazel, vine maple, and cascara frequently form part of the lower level of plantlife, the understory. Closer to the ground, sword fern often occupies large areas, while wood fern sprouts from logs and deer fern inhabits certain bankside settings; leather fern sometimes grows on tree limbs far above the ground. Among the accompanying bushes are black and red huckleberry, salal, mock azalea, western burning bush, and—filling the hillsides with its huge blooms in June—rhododendron. Deep forest flowers include vanilla leaf, redwood sorrel, Hooker’s and Smith’s fairybells, redwood violet, trillium. Leopard lily and clintonia, a colorful pair, favor more open roadsides. Poison oak often entwines itself around redwood trunks, its leaves coloring pale yellow and scarlet in autumn.

When they fall, mature redwoods cut a giant swath through the forest, frequently toppling neighboring trees as they crash earthward. The resultant openings are quickly colonized by various light loving plants—berry bushes, cascara, and red alder among them. In time, these leafy oases will often be shaded out by the encroaching evergreens.

Wildlife is usually difficult to observe in the darkened, foliage-filled surroundings of old-growth redwoods, but a number of species live or visit there. Steller’s jay, chestnut-backed chickadee, and varied thrush are common resident birds, while Roosevelt elk, black bear, and Douglas squirrel comprise part of the mammal contingent. Northwestern garter snakes and banana slugs are among the close-to-the-ground critters.

In certain areas close to the coast, redwoods are restricted by the drying effects of salt air, so that Sitka spruce becomes the dominant old-growth tree species. On cutover lands, regenerating redwoods and other conifers usually form compacted contingents of thin trunked, scraggly limbed trees; only after enduring a decades-long purgatory of darkened density do the survivors begin to assume individual identities, their trunks, bark, and limbs at last developing a certain distinctiveness of color and form. All told, it can be a century or more before a specimen has the singularity to escape the stigma of being called “second growth.”

Streamsides and Ponds

The creeks that wind their way through the parks create countless corridor communities, riparian ribbons of broadleaf plants that contrast with their conifer dominated surroundings. Prairie Creek, Lost Man Creek, and Mill Creek are good examples of this moisture filled environment, but characteristic species can also be found along the Smith River and Redwood Creek, on many smaller streams, and sometimes even in spring-fed damp spots. Still water can create similar settings, as at alder fringed Marshall Pond, which teems with birdlife, including wood ducks, and also contains beavers.

Back from the creek and river banks, staid stands of conifers maintain an unyielding greenery, leaving it to the streamside plantlife to note the progression of the seasons. From the bleak bareness of winter, limbs sprout bright green in spring, the foliage often darkening in summer and then reaching a colorful climax in fall, when the delightfully deciduous leaves turn a dozen hues, from lemon yellow and pale bronze to reddish purple and deep gold.

Bigleaf maple, red alder, ninebark, and vine maple are major streamside tree species. Coast red elderberry, salmonberry, and thimbleberry seek openings near the creeks, as does lady fern; the delicate five-finger fern clings to shaded streambanks. Monkey flower, buttercup, and piggy-back plant are all common near creeks.

In the streams themselves swim silver and king salmon, steelhead, cutthroat and rainbow trout, and other fishes; the salmon, however, have declined drastically within the parks, and summer steelheads are in danger of extinction. Several avians, including the belted kingfisher, osprey, and bald eagle, glean their meals from the water. Other common birds are the Swainson’s thrush and Wilson’s warbler. Main mammals include black-tailed deer, raccoon, and brush rabbit. Among the waterside amphibians and reptiles are various salamanders, newts, frogs, and toads, along with garter and ring-necked snakes.

Beaches and Dunes, Marshes and Lagoons

A strand of sandy seashore stretches for miles along the coast, its ends lost in the morning mist; sanderlings and other small birds scurry across the beach, their legs stiff and sticklike. Above the surf, a series of dunes clump up, matted in places with such ground-clinging plants as sand verbena and sea rocket. Marshes and lagoons lie at canyon mouths close to the coast; they often trap the water of beach-bound creeks, creating congregations of alder, willow, rush, and sedge. Offshore, seals and sea lions share rocky seastacks with gulls, cormorants and oystercatchers, while gray whales and river otters ply the ocean itself. Every setting is distinct, yet each exists within a short distance of the others, representatives of the seaside’s several plant and wildlife habitats.

The coastal strand community features salt-tolerant flowers like beach silvertop, dune tansy, and seaside daisy, while aptly named stonecrop covers rocky outcroppings. Dead and decaying vegetation and animals continually wash ashore, as do driftwood and other debris; this fetid flotsam attracts numerous insects, who busily buzz above it. Several shorebirds come to feed on the bug and detritus melange, including sanderlings, killdeers, willets, and certain dowitchers; they are joined by various species of gulls. Reconnoitering ravens frequently fly overhead.

Most animal activity on the beach occurs at night, for the gray fox, skunk, and bobcat favor the darkness when perusing the area for food. Roosevelt elk will sometimes swim in the ocean, perhaps to rid themselves of ticks, perhaps to imitate Mark Spitz.

Dune areas feature a plant mix that often includes purple lupine, coyote brush, silk tassel, and various grasses. Several species of seed-eating sparrows frequent these locations, as do insect-ingesting birds like the tree swallow, violet-green swallow, and black phoebe. Red-tailed hawks and northern harriers (marsh hawks) search the dunes for rodents, competing with weasels, coyotes, and garter snakes; their main prey are the California vole and various mice, all of which nest in the scattered driftwood.

Beaches and dunes can be found at Freshwater Spit and the nearby area around the Redwood Information Center, along the Gold Bluffs in Redwood National Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, and at RNP’s Crescent Beach.

Lagoons are home to aquatic plants like bulrush, cattail, and yellow pondlily. Many birds populate these placid places, among them the great blue heron, green-backed heron, and red-winged blackbird. Amphibians such as the red-legged frog, Pacific tree frog, and rough-skinned newt are often on the menu of resident river otters, minks, and other predators; pond turtles are another interesting inhabitant. Several lagoons are located in the parks; they are: at Crescent Beach, south of the beach parking area; near the mouth of Lagoon Creek, just off Highway 101 north of Trees of Mystery; Espa Lagoon, at Gold Bluffs; and Freshwater Lagoon, at the southern entrance to the parks.

Marshlands feature the animals common to the lagoons, plus elk, beaver, and an occasional mountain lion. Here, too, are coastal cutthroat trout, which come up the creeks that drain the marshes. Common birds are both the Virginia and sora rails. In marshy sites, thickets of willow and red alder alternate with areas of horsetail, sedges, and rushes, combining to form outposts of lush vegetation that encroach upon the sandy expanses of dune and beach. Several of the stream mouths at Gold Bluffs have, over time, created marshes, including those at Squashan, Home, Boat, Butler, and Ossagon creeks.

Prairies and Oak Woodlands

For all their beauty, the undiminished intensity of old-growth forests can become a bit daunting. So it is that the parks’ prairies and oak woodlands provide a welcome change, offering airy openings, varied vegetation, and lots of wildlife. These are places where the vision expands, the air dries and brightens, and the verticality of tall trunks relaxes into the roundness of spreading oaks and rolling hills.

There are two types of prairies within the parks. Low-elevation grasslands are found along Prairie Creek and above the Gold Bluffs; these grassy areas are grazed regularly by the various herds of elk. Look for them at Elk Prairie, near the southern edge of Prairie Creek State Park; at Alexander Lincoln Prairie, above Fern Canyon; and on the hillside northeast of the mouth of Ossagon Creek.

Greater in extent are the ridgetop prairies found along the Little Bald Hills Trail and on Bald Hills Road. The latter area stretches for miles along the ridgeline, dropping at times far down the canyonside towards Redwood Creek. In earlier days the Tolowas (in the Little Bald Hills) and the Chilulas (in the Bald Hills) burned the upland prairies to keep them free of encroaching trees, for the grasslands provided browsing areas for deer and elk. Later, sheep ranchers like the Lyons family also ignited the hillslopes to maintain grazing lands for their flocks. Redwood National Park now has a controlled-burning program to ensure the perpetuation of the prairies, while Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park not only burns Elk Prairie but also cuts well-established trees that impinge on the grassland.

Both native and introduced grasses populate the upland prairies, to which numerous wildflowers add their seasonal coloration. Four members of the amaryllis family frequent these open expanses: harvest brodiaea, Ithuriel’s spear, firecracker flower, and blue dicks. Also prominent upon the prairielands are Henderson’s shooting star, woolly sunflower, blue eyed grass, blue-headed gilia, and Indian pink, while western hound’s tongue wags in nearby shady spots.

The lowland prairies and those of the Little Bald Hills are encircled by conifers, while in the Bald Hills the grasslands often form savannas with Oregon white oak, California black oak, and an occasional bigleaf maple.

Both elk and black-tailed deer forage on the Bald Hills prairies, as do voles, harvest mice, and gophers, while bobcats, coyotes, and mountain lions use the area to hunt. Turkey vultures, along with raptors like the kestrel, northern harrier, and red-tailed hawk, search for food from high above.

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California Native Plant Society - North Coast Chapter
P.O. Box 1067 Arcata, CA 95518-1067
Last updated February 4, 1997