Point Reyes Walkabout

Twenty miles of Point Reyes

November 20, 2012

This is part of a year-long effort to hike every trail at Point Reyes National Seashore, which turned 50 in 2012. Learn more.

Two 10-mile loops: Lake Ranch-Ridge Trail (10/29/12) and Fire Lane-Woodward (11/2/12).

Both of these rather long and moderately strenuous hikes ascend the west-facing slope of Inverness Ridge and traverse long sections its fir-forested spine. My friend Terry and I took the loop from Palomarin along the Coast Trail (2.2 miles), up the Lake Ranch Trail (3 miles) and then south along the Ridge Trail (4.8 miles) on October 29 under ideal conditions—crystalline skies and nary a breeze. I visited the Woodward Trail November 2 with my friend Joanie under remarkably similar conditions. On both treks, the salubrious effects of two early and gentle rains, the first in many months, were readily apparent in the softness of the soil underfoot and the freshly washed foliage. Although mushrooms had not yet pushed through the forest duff, salamanders had emerged from their subterranean summer haunts and were migrating to recently freshened ponds and creeks. The brittleness of the landscape, so distinctive at the end of the dry months, had largely vanished. Memorable moments of each hike are presented here.

Inconspicuous tendrils of Yerba Buena (Satureja douglasii), “the good herb,” trim the edges of the trail as it leaves the maritime chaparral and enters the Douglas-fir forest. Crushing the leaves releases as savory a scent as any other native mint. Before it was named “San Francisco,” the city by the bay bore the name “Yerba Buena.”

Several newts were crossing the forested portions of the trail. We have two similar species here, both of the genus Taricha—the rough-skinned Newt (T. granulose) and the California (or “Coast Range”) newt (T. torosa). Both breathe through their lungs and both breed in aquatic habitat streams, pools, and fresh water marshes. Oddly, the roughed-skinned newts we saw were desiccated carcasses, dead in the trail, but the Californias were still alive, plodding toward a pond to fulfill their ancestral obligations. Later in the rainy season, a visit to a still forest pond may be rewarded with the vision of a “knot of newts,” a tangled ball of males and females tumbling in the water, an anaplexus orgy. Quite a sight to see.

The garter snake (Thanophis spp.) is one of the only predators that has a high resistance to the newt’s deadly tetrodotoxin, which is potent enough to kill a human.
California newt (Taricha torosa) rousted by the first rains from summer habitat under woody debris or an animal burrow to aquatic breeding pond . The orange coloration signals its poisonous skin secretion, a tetrodotoxin that is highly toxic to predators, and protects the species from predators. After arriving in aquatic habitat, the males will develop smooth skin, a flattened tail to aid with swimming, a swollen sex organ (cloaca), and rough nuptial pads on the undersides of the feet to aid in holding onto females during intercourse (amplexus).

When we stop for our first peak at Mud Lake, near the junction with the Ridge Trail, we notice a gaggle of wood ducks in the far reaches of the pond, a welcome complement to this peaceful place. We linger awhile.

Inelegantly named, “Mud Lake” appears along the Lake Ranch Trail, a likely destination for newts seeking out breeding habitat. This “sag pond” is remote enough and quiet enough to provide refuge for normally skittish Wood Ducks as well as Virginia and Sora rails, pond turtles, yellowthroats, marsh wren and other lucustrine critters.
Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) is always a welcome find on the peninsula. Males (pictured here) are among the spiffiest North American waterfowl. Mud Lake, protected by forest and overhanging branches along its shores, provides typical habitat for this species. Wood ducks nest in cavities, such as those excavated by Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus), or nest boxes provided by charitable humans.
Junction of the Ridge Trail and the Texeira Trail
Junction of the Ridge Trail and the Texeira Trail, a mid-point on the Palomarin loop. The vegetation changes here, slightly above the fog zone; broadleaf trees—live-oaks, bays, and a few madrones—intermix with the conifers.
understory of California blackberry
The understory of the fir forest along the southern extent of the Ridge Trail is dominated by our native California blackberry (Rubus ursinus), a much kinder and gentler shrubby vine than the more abundant and more familiar escaped cultivar, Himalayan blackberry (Rubus discolor).
McKinnon Gulch, Bolinas Lagoon
Before descending toward Palomarin, the Ridge Trail passes the headwaters of McKinnon Gulch, a tributary of Pine Gulch Creek and Bolinas Lagoon, visible in the distance. This remote and inaccessible canyon hosts an anomalous grove of coast redwoods, otherwise absent from the peninsula.
Point Reyes weasel
We catch quick glimpse of a small, short-legged mammal scampering across the trail, tail held erect. Although our views are fleeting, I think it was a weasel, perhaps the rarer and smaller of the two species that occur on the peninsula. Long-tailed weasel (Mustela freneta) is fairly common grassland species; the smaller Short-tailed Weasel (M. ermina) is more likely in dense undergrowth of the forest.

The habitat that complements the Woodward Trail loop (from Sky Trail via Fire Lane and Coast Trail) is similar to that of the Lake Ranch Trail, but passes through the southern reach of the scar from the October 1995 “Mount Vision Fire.”

Trail sign
Woodward Valley Trail sign at the Intersection with the Ridge Trail, south of Sky Camp.
Woodward Valley Trail view
As it climbs the west slope of Inverness Ridge, the Woodward Valley Trail offers sweeping views of the outer peninsula, Drake’s Bay, and Limantour spit and estero.
Point Reyes fire scars
Seventeen years after the Mount Vision Fire, dead snags remain the dominant feature of the landscape, a resource for wood-boring insects (decomposers) and, consequently, woodpeckers.
Woodpecker-marked tree
The assiduous work of the Pileated Woodpecker is hard to miss when encountered. As large as a crow, 15-19 inches long, with a chisel-like weapon for a bill, pileateds excavate distinctive borings in the bark and sapwood of dead and dying conifers.
Spider and web
Autumn is the season of the spider. An open field near the junction of the Woodward and Ridge trails is festooned with dewey webs of pumpkin spiders  reflecting the afternoon sun.
About the Author

Naturalist and writer Jules Evens has lived near Point Reyes for over 30 years. He is the founder of Avocet Research Associates and the author of The Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula and An Introduction to California Birdlife (both UC Press).

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