Most travelers along Highway 1 might pass through the seaside town of Jenner unaware that hidden above them is the Jenner Headlands Preserve. It’s one of California’s most diverse and magnificent wild places, with spring superblooms and a forest wonderland that shelters rare species of native plants and animals.
On May 9 of this year, some of us were privileged to be led on a backroad tour by The Wildlands Conservancy’s Jill Adams and Liz Sanders, who work to keep this area both healthy and beautiful. Jill is a ranger for the conservancy’s Sonoma Coast Preserves, and Liz is the Trail Steward for the preserves. They know this wilderness well—5,600 rugged acres—and were enthusiastic, knowledgeable guides.
To cover as much ground as possible in a few hours, we rode in the preserve’s two four-wheel-drive vehicles, but the usual way to explore the preserve is on foot. Eight of us rode up the steep road out of Jenner to the Wildflower Loop Trail, a colorful short hike on a gently sloping bluff 700 feet above the sea below. It has breathtaking, panoramic views of the coast, as well as vistas into the mountains and forests that surround the meadow.
But the real treasure here is found by looking down all along the trail. Dozens of species of wildflowers and grasses grow in the open, treeless meadow, nearly all native to California. Jill Adams provided everyone with the preserve’s user-friendly, color-coded wildflower guide, making it easy to identify the multitude of species filling the bluff. Because the cool, wet spring had delayed the blooming season, we were visiting at the height of the bloom, and it was quite a show.
Standouts in the meadow were purple owl’s clover (Castilleja exserta), the popcorn-like yellowbeak owl’s clover (Triphysaria versiclolor), blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum), California buttercup (Ranunculus californicus), cream cups (Platystemon californicus), and goldfields (Lasthenia gracilis), which did exactly what its name says and covered the meadow with fields of gold. Above the flowers, the delicate tips of purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra) danced in the breeze. Jill and Liz pointed out other tiny flower species scattered like gems among the larger ones. It was a botanist’s dream field.
Farther up the access road we entered the coastal evergreen forest, which rose up like a wall on the upper edge of the meadow. Made up of second- and third-growth coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), there was also California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica), coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), and California hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica). Because the area was once heavily logged, most of the trees were relatively young and small. But one large old-growth redwood had survived the slaughter and was accessible from the road. This sturdy specimen is called the Cathedral Tree, and it was our next stop in the park.
When we stopped for the short hike to the tree, Jill noticed a newly hatched cicada, nearly invisible hanging from a slender branch. No one was able to identify the species, and since California has 80 native cicadas, it’s not surprising. But it was a worthwhile diversion, with its angelic, transparent lacy wings just opening in the sun, on the way to the Cathedral Tree. The hike down to the old redwood was short but steep. It stood out immediately with its multi-trunked, broad, gnarled base. Possibly 15 feet or more in diameter, its height was difficult to estimate with high branches and trunks disappearing into the sky. It really did feel like we were in an outdoor cathedral. Jill and Liz explained that this tree’s unique shape—unsuitable for harvest—saved it from the axe years ago. Old-growth trees like this are a rare find in the preserve, but employees, volunteers, and members of Forest Unlimited have planted thousands of redwood seedlings over the past several years as part of a plan to establish a stronger redwood forest.
We drove a little further along the road and came to a small clearing at the highest point in our journey. Under the trained eyes of our guides, little wonders were revealed here that could easily be overlooked by a casual hiker. They showed us a miniature grove of spotted coralroot orchids (Corallorhiza maculata) peeking out through grass and ferns, with their tiny red-and-white orchid flowers along a single red stem like a Christmas tree for elves. Coast rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum) was also here, though not yet flowering. Looking up and out from this clearing revealed a view of the canyon below and Pole Mountain beyond. It’s the highest point in the area, rising 2,200 feet. Ambitious hikers can access trails from Jenner and hike seven and a half miles to the peak, which is actually in its own adjacent preserve.
We continued down into the canyon leading to the East Branch of Russian Gulch and bottomed out in a redwood forest with walls of cascading redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana) and Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) framing a fern lover’s wonderland along the road. Western sword fern (Polystichum munitum) mixed with coastal wood fern (Dryopteris arguta), goldback fern (Pentagramma triangularis), and the dazzling five-finger fern (Adiantum aleuticum), which looks like it was made for florists to sell.
And on this forest floor there was also animal life, hiding under rocks and logs where only experienced eyes could locate it. Luckily, we had a pair. After lifting a small log, Ranger Jill Adams showed us a slender salamander, a small, narrow, brown salamander that looks like a snake with tiny legs. Next to it was a western forest scorpion, resting up for its nighttime hunting session. Both animals are native to the West, but the gentle forest scorpion’s range is limited to moist areas of coastal forests, mostly in the Bay Area.
Nearby, the East Branch of Russian Gulch was flowing cool and clear, but fish and other aquatic life were nowhere to be seen. We were a few months too late to see the hordes of red-bellied newts, according to Trail Steward Liz Sanders, and they had been quite a sight. By now, with mating season over, they had left the creek and moved on to higher ground.
After taking in the verdant streamside show, it was time to head back. For some reason the road seemed especially rugged on the return trip, putting the four-wheel drive to good use. Vehicles without this power would have stranded us. But we did make it back safely and realized that spending the day in this incredible setting was a treat. The preserve is a relatively young creation, acquired in 2009 after multiple agencies and nonprofits, including The Wildlands Conservancy, worked for four years to acquire the land. It is mostly wilderness except for the park headquarters and a small cattle ranch near the wildflower meadow. The trip was primarily a thank you to volunteers who had earlier in the year worked to remove invasive plants. At the end of the tour, Jill and Liz announced that more weeding opportunities await those who are interested. And for anyone with a desire to discover a local wilderness, the hiking trails are rugged but free to all.
So bring your weeding skills to Jill Adams and Liz Sanders in Jenner Headlands Preserve or your hiking boots to explore on your own. Believe me, you’ll be paid handsomely by helping to preserve this spectacular place or by simply enjoying its natural wonders.
—Randal DeLuchi, restoration volunteer at Point Isabel and Jenner Headlands Preserve.