This weekend we did something rare and marvelous and free: We visited the Santa Cruz Sandhills.
I had heard about this tour of a sensitive eco-system at Quail Hollow Ranch that was off-limits to visitors except once a year. I didn’t know much more than that, but just the fact that so few people see it made it sound special enough for a visit! Once a year, in late February, a handful of lucky people (who remembered to put it on their calendars) sign up for an April tour. Then come April, you meet in a group at the farmhouse and go off-trail to see the tiny wonders of the sandhill.
Our guides were Sean, a local naturalist, and Lee, longtime Park Interpreter at Quail Hollow. They weren’t just leading us on an unusual hike — they were initiating us into a small group of avid preservationists who see the delicate eco-system as a precious resource, fast-disappearing.
I learned a lot even before we veered off the trail into a faint trail off-limits to daily visitors. The sand up in the hills above Santa Cruz didn’t come from the ocean. Long ago, it came down from the Sierras and took up a brief (in relative terms) residence in the Central Valley before the land buckled and sent it tumbling into the ocean. It stayed underwater just long enough to gather the skeletons of sea creatures before the land buckled up again and formed the Santa Cruz Mountains, trapping the sand high up above the redwoods and the beaches.
The resulting sand is rich with sea fossils and has distinctive features that made it the sand of choice to make the concrete used for the Golden Gate Bridge. Unlike true sea sand, its particles are not rounded by long abrasion. Their flat sides form a stronger and more durable concrete, which of course is what we all want. So much of the sandhill ecosystems up in the hills are now nearly empty quarries. Sean pointed out that they are saved by the fact that they are the mechanism which makes the wonderful aquifer water enjoyed by residents of SLV, so when the quarries go deep enough to
encounter rising water, they have to stop or lose the entire aquifer formed by that natural purification system. However, the Sandhills at Quail Hollow alone are untouched by human industry, except this new, less-lucrative industry of keeping this delicate ecosystem alive.
Along with the very rare plants found actually in the sandhills are some curiosities right there on the trail. Most notable is the Ponderosa Pine, which outside of our hills is found only at elevations above 3000 feet. The ones at Quail Hollow are adapted to the local ecosystem, and probably couldn’t survive anywhere else. You can identify them by their unique honeycomb pattern on the bark, and the fact that woodpeckers just love to use them for food storage.
As our hike took us up a hillside, through a grove of trees, and out into a scrubby landscape, there were some immediate differences. First of all, it really is a hill of sand. A weak topsoil creeps in along the edges, but the path was as sandy as the entrance to a beach. Second, the colorful cards that each of us held in our hands, detailing the
various aspects of the special Sandhill species, got one thing wrong: these plants are tiny, sometimes unnoticeable right under our feet. Outside of the looming pines, this is a miniature world of precious monkey-faced flowers and the haze of spring blooms hovering just over the sand.
Check out the website for longer descriptions of these plants, some of which are cousins to plants at lower elevations. We learned that these plants have evolved in a world of little competition, since so little will grow in sand. Over the years conservationists have realized that a hands-off approach isn’t what’s needed: they saw that as plant debris broke down to form a small layer of topsoil, ravenous grasses would move in and kill off the delicate little sand plants. So now they clear off the plant debris to keep things pleasant for the less aggressive, endangered species.
And they also keep the people off. As we entered the sandhill, both guides pointed out that the pink haze around us was spring-
blooming Ben Lomond Spineflower. This delicate little creeper just loves the trails, because no other plants are growing there so they will be left alone. So we had to step cautiously so as not to crush the little things as they eked out their tenuous survival.
Up at the top of the hill, we could see other patches of sand on neighboring hills, almost all of them victims of quarrying. But we stood in a marvelous little world, which was all the more special because it wasn’t ours. We can’t just tramp through there anytime we want. We were invited ambassadors, being primed to go out and treasure this magic from afar.
And then it was over. We’d seen the plants, many of them blooming, and talked about the creatures such as the Santa Cruz Kangaroo Rat, so named because it hops on its two powerful back paws like a kangaroo. We watched excited woodpeckers soar from pine to pine, flashing the white spots on their wings. And we descended back into the main part of the park, noticing the sudden drop in temperature as we once again walked on forest floor.
As we sat down to eat our picnic at the table next to the farmhouse, the seven-year-old sighed with a jaded air. “That wasn’t so special,” she said. Her father and I smiled at each other. Not so special now, but someday she too might treasure the experience of seeing something so small and fragile that humans need to be kept away except on a sunny day in April.
Note: Quail Hollow’s wonderful afterschool science program, which was a victim of county budget cuts, will be returning for a brief visit this spring. If you live nearby, check it out!