Elfin Forest Walk at Henry Cowell

The Watershed Walks series sponsored by San Lorenzo Valley Water District is taking us to some pretty fabulous places in the coming months. On April 9, they'll visit an elfin forest.

by Carol Carson

You have to travel nameless trails to find the elfin forests of Henry Cowell State Park. Tim Hyland, environmental scientist for State Parks, will guide the way on April 9 for a free walk through the backdoor of the Park, to an area that most residents of Santa Cruz County have never trodden.

We will enter the Campgrounds on Graham Hill Road and explore the mobile interpretation center, the amphitheater campground center, and make our way through Ponderosa pine and the merlot-colored branches of the silver leaf Manzanitas, recognized by the California Native Plant Society as among the most rare and endangered plant species in the state due to habitat urbanization.

Walking to the top of the hill, we will pass through natural gardens of bonny blue lupine in bloom, to our reward: the Observation Deck with a 360 degree view of Monterey Bay and the Santa Cruz Mountains. We are on a “biological island” — the Ponderosa pine parkland. (I always remember the Ponderosas as the “mosaic” tree, because of their uniquely plated bark.)

One of the mysteries of our many ecosystems at the Park: How did the Ponderosa develop here at less than 800 feet, when they usually grow in the Sierra Nevada at 3,000 feet?

One of the most unusual aspects of this region of seven ecosystems is the rare elfin forest, featuring miniature trees of cypress and pine, as if a bonsai gardener had pruned and tortured their limbs, stunting their growth at three to four feet.

But these bizarre forms were not caused by an Edward Scissorhands, but by marine terraces and our climate of winter rains and summer droughts. The terraces are ancient sea floors that were flattened by waves and uplifted by tectonic forces, with each terrace approximately 100,000 years older than the one below it.

Each terrace was colonized by unique groups of opportunistic soils, microbes, plants and animals. Plant communities growing on the prehistoric terraces have reacted to limited root mobility and acidic soil by evolving stunted forms.

Although most of the terraces have been destroyed for development and logging, I saw one of the last remnants at Younger Lagoon by Seymour Marine Center at the northern edge of Santa Cruz as I looked across Highway 1. Steep bluffs, once sea cliffs that served as retaining walls for the green terraces, emerged like chiseled stairways up a foothill of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

During modern times the deep pearl sands, remnants of the ocean floor endowed with fossils, have been assaulted by renegade cyclists who cut eroding channels in trails, siphoning off the meager rainfall which sustains the flora and fauna, like the deer and harvest mouse, the kangaroo rat, lizards, and scorpions. Hyland says State Parks cannot afford enough rangers to stop the desecration of the elfin forests.

Every five years this fragile area is burned. Hyland will tell us why and discuss the history of fire in California. Don’t miss the opportunity to explore this secret part of Santa Cruz.

THE ELFIN FOREST WALK WITH TIM HYLAND is Saturday, April 9, 10:30am-12:30pm. Meet at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park Campgrounds on Graham Hill Road close to cross street Sims Road. The walk is free through an environmental grant from the San Lorenzo Valley Water District, but the price to park per vehicle is $10 or $9 for seniors. The walk is open to all ages, but space is limited. To register and receive more information, please contact Carol Carson, Grant Director and Certified California State Naturalist, at


Sat, May 7: Bonny Doon
Today Val Hailey, Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve caretaker and botanist, will lead us along trails through Ponderosa pine and sandstone outcroppings, also known as “moon rocks,” which sit like giant Buddha statues on the geoscape. The last time our watershed walkers came here was after the 2008 Martin fire, when we saw stately burned-out manzanitas—one had a molten metal chair under it that looked like a Dali painting. We marveled at the profusion of colorful blooms along the sand path and “fire followers”—plants, encouraged by fire, that appear where they have never been seen before. This time we’ll journey back to see how the blooms look after four years of drought and our wet winter. We don’t expect to see the Super-Bloom of California deserts this year, but who knows?

Sat, May 28: Henry Cowell, The Movie
On May 28, Fred McPherson—biologist, educator, naturalist, and videographer—will show his video, “The Natural Wonders of Henry Cowell State Park” in the Henry Cowell Nature Center. Due to his patience and craft, Fred has recorded such inhabitants of the Park as great blue herons, fish, deer, squirrels, and native plants through the seasons. We will walk to some of his favorite sites to shoot, like Merganser Point, and check out how the riparian and forest ecosystems have changed since the rains.