Sunday, October 11, 2015

Mindego Gateway - A New Trailhead to Russian Ridge

A rainstorm at the Mindego Gateway parking lot   
There's a new kid in the neighborhood. Mindego Gateway is a new trailhead and parking lot in the Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve. In addition to connecting with ten miles of existing trails to popular locations like Borel Hill and the Ancient Oaksthe Gateway will provide access to a new trail in Spring 2016 that will climb Mindego HillFor those who like short walks with gorgeous views, there is also a path from the new parking lot to a tiered deck.

While building the parking lot, we discovered hidden plants and animals, and clues that many others have touched this land before us.

On a clear day, the view from the Mindego Gateway deck features Mindego Hill in the foreground with stacked ridges and a slice of the Pacific Ocean in the background. It's fun to look to the south (although it feels like the west) and notice where the forested mountains give way to the grassy coastal hills and guess which part of the jagged San Mateo shoreline is shining at the edge of the continent. On a foggy day, you can watch the ocean's moisture billowing towards you like a band of giant fluffy caterpillars isolating high points into green mountaintop islands. If you come with a group that has diverse interests, some can settle onto the deck to read, paint or practice yoga while the rest head out on the trails by foot or bike.

But the hiking part is not what I want to talk about. You can check hike details from Mindego Gateway at the links below. I want to talk about how my neighbor Mindego keeps whispering new tales about nature and history. 

For almost ten years, I have driven past this location many times a week as it is just up Alpine Road from the Dipper Ranch. Not too long ago, the site was a messy corporation yard operated by a local rancher. Piles of concrete, debris, rusty trucks and weeds were all I could see from the road. Sometimes when I drove by on winter evenings, the setting sun silhouetted deer browsing amongst the garbage.

I was surprised when the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) first proposed partnering with the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District to build an elaborate facility at this junky locationThonor Audrey C. Rust, their former President, POST wanted the new parking lot to include special amenities over and above our usual approach of a simple dirt lot surrounded by a split-rail fence with one trail sign. Their design for Mindego Gateway included a pebble-paved walkway named Audrey's Way to provide access for people with disabilities to the viewing deck. The end of the walkway would include several types of decorative seating and metal informational signs. One part of the deck was specifically designed for plein air painting since painting outside in natural light is a favorite hobby of Audrey's. Colorful native plants in a manicured landscape would surround the paved parking lot and wheel-chair accessible restroom.

I appreciated the inclusive and aesthetic elements to be funded by POST, but a weedy dump seemed a strange place to commemorate Audrey who helped preserve over 50,000 acres of natural lands in her 24 years at this regional land trust. I've occasionally run into Audrey on the trail and as the enthusiastic spokesperson at POST's annual Wallace Stegner lecture series, and I'm sure she usually gets her way, but I couldn't imagine that posh design at the former junkyard.

An alligator lizard enjoys the warmth and views at Audrey's Way   
Nevertheless, because I live so close by, I offered to be the Midpen staff person to provide biological monitoring while the parking lot was constructed. When we scrape the land and otherwise build structures in the preserves, we often take the extra step to have a biologist on-site during construction to avoid or retrieve any hidden animals.

I didn't expect any wildlife at the former rusty truck yard, but I showed up early on the first morning of construction just in case. I walked around the dusty construction barriers and for the first time stepped on the property beyond the edge of Alpine Road. Weaving between survey stakes and bright orange tape, I scanned and listened for any small signs of life, even peeking underneath the sleeping tractors. The rancher had cleared out the loose garbage, barrels, stacks of debris and busted farm equipment before he sold the property, but there were still edges of broken concrete and metal pieces sticking out of weedy mounds of dirt. A spotted towhee was singing on top of a clump of poison oak, but otherwise the site seemed abandoned.

View of Mindego Hill from Mindego Gateway with the Pacific Ocean shrouded in fog   
Within a few minutes of checking the site, I was already at the edge of the graded yard and realized, hidden behind all the roadside debris, there was a sudden dropoff with a fantastic view. I started to understand why there had been so much fuss about decks and curved concrete seating. We get spoiled by all the scenic views in our rural Skyline area, but this view was truly exceptional. The morning sun cast long shadows around the Douglas firs and gazing all the way out to the ocean, I sensed something special was hiding beneath my boots.

Soon the equipment operators arrived and after the usual safety training, the engines started up. I was delighted to realize that an archaeological monitor was also on the site. Mark Hylkema, California State Park Archaeologist, and his students at Foothill College had been studying the historic and archaeological resources on another part of Mindego Ranch. His trusty sidekick Bill was there too and we had some catching up to do. Construction monitoring includes a lot of leaning on your shovel with occasional quick sprints. As long as you keep your eyes focused on the equipment, it's a good time to talk.

Calisoga spiders are usually hidden under rocks or logs   
The excavator operator was especially skilled at pulling giant slabs of broken concrete, asphalt and twisted metal from the soil and swinging around to pile it for trucks to haul to a legal landfill and recycling facility. We quickly realized the voids between the half-buried debris harbored snakes and other creepy crawlies. When the excavator halted for me, I swooped in to recover the large Calisoga spiders that occasionally popped up in front of the vibrating tractor treads. We don't expect to save every little animal on a construction site, but these large spiders which look like shiny silver tarantulas were easy to catch. I scooped them up with my long-handled shovel and walked them past the marked edge of the grading zone. They were calm about the ride and when I dumped them on a woodrat stick nest, they tiptoed between the sheltering poison oak stems and disappeared. A southern alligator lizard dropped its tail as it scurried away from the noisy equipment, but I knew its tail would regrow and I moved it too.

From his raised seat, the operator was sharp-eyed and conscientious about signaling me and pointing whenever he saw something move. He would swing the bucket out of the way and I would dash over the jumbled surface to snag a snake with tongs before it disappeared. On that first day of construction when most of the major cleanup occurred, I pulled out three gopher snakes from the debrisUnfortunately, as the excavator was tipping up a slab of old asphalt, one gopher snake slid underneath the edge and was crushed before we spotted it. I tossed the long body into the brush where undoubtably a coyote would eat it for dinner.

A woodrat stick nest was one of several natural habitats at the edge of the former corporation yard   
I dropped each live snake that we rescued into a bucket and walked it over to the far edge of the site past the construction barriers where there was a small sunny grassy field with a brushy border next to a shady forest. Plenty of cover and microclimates for the snakes to choose from. I paused to watch each snake slip down a gopher hole or disappear into the vegetated tangle to make sure it was not heading back towards the construction zone. While waiting for each snake to get its bearings, I couldn't help botanizing the grassy field. It was surprisingly clean of the nasty invasive yellow starthistle that choked the rest of the former corporation yard. There was a healthy stand of native grasses. It looked like the grading and dumping that had occurred on the rest of the site had never spread to this undisturbed edge.

By my next trip to the grassy field to relocate the second gopher snake, I started recognizing more native plants: mariposa lilies, brodiaeas, and soap plants. Although none were blooming at the moment, I could identify them by their leaves or seedpods and it was interesting to see so many geophytes together - plants with swollen underground parts like bulbs, taproots, tubers, corms and rhizomes that store food to wait out the dry season and can survive more serious forms of stress like droughts, fires and heavy browsing.

By the third gopher snake release, I noticed that the field had one of the healthiest stands of yampah that I had ever seen. Yampah is a California native plant in the carrot family that has small white flowers clustered in an umbel, dissected leaves and small finger-like roots.  Suddenly, I realized that most of the native plants in the field were those collected by Native Peoples of California for food: bulbs and roots from the flowering perennials, and seed from the native grasses. I ran over and grabbed Mark and Bill and dragged them to the grassy field.

"Look," I said as I plucked narrow seeds from waving clumps and shook them in my hands like dice, "blue wildrye, California brome and purple needlegrass." They looked bemused at this crazy botanist fondling the native grasses.

"That brown three-sided thing is the seedpod of a mariposa lily. Do you see more over there? These narrow leaves draped on the ground are either blue dicks or ookow. And there's lots of soap plant everywhere." I could see the plant names starting to sink into their archeo brains.

The finely divided leaves of yampah   
Kneeling, I spread out the fine leaflets of a dark green plant. "This is yampah. You've heard of yampah, right, roots used by Native Americans? See how much of it is here? I've never seen so much of it in one place." A native name that had survived for a native plant (although from a tribe in a different state that also harvested this widespread and useful plant), yampah rung the bell for them. With the heavy equipment droning in the background, we detected something ancient and cultural about the field we were standing in.

Putting together our collective expertise, we were able to confirm that the grassy field at the edge of the future Mindego Gateway contained an unusually dense concentration of grass grains and bulb-type plants that were traditionally collected for food by the Ohlone, indigenous people of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Foothill College students helping with archaeological studies on Mindego Ranch   
Ridgelines in the Santa Cruz Mountains like those in Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve were travel routes of both the coastal plain and bayside tribes of the Ohlone people who seasonally moved to higher elevations to harvest acorns and other food, and trade and socialize with each other. The trips were multipurpose with many stops along the way to gather materials that were either processed on site, taken to their home village, or traded. Today, the most obvious signs of the presence of ancient Ohlone in the mountainous areas are the quarry sites where chips of special types of stone remain as hard evidence of their tool making. Evidence of their food collection is less obvious but some information is known from stories of tribal elders, journals of early Spanish explorers, and written accounts of the Spanish, Mexican and American residents of what became the State of California (Ballard et al., Hylkema).

Traveling from one traditional collection area to the next, native peoples of California used stout wooden sticks to dig up bulbs and other edible underground plant parts. These were not simple acts of gathering but included elements of cultivation. Some plants in a stand were collected and others were left to expand into the newly loosened soil so there would be a continuous supply of food for future trips. The bulblets or cormlets ("babies") that clung to the large roots were knocked off and, along with any seed, replanted into the grubbed bed. The digging stick was likewise used to weed competing plants. 

Because they were so frequently visited and tended, these traditional collection areas were colorful beds of flowers during the spring and early summer. Yet the native peoples would often wait to dig them until the beds were less obvious - dried and shriveled above ground - because they wanted the seed of the bulb plants to ripen before they collected any underground parts. In this way, their traditions further facilitated the productivity of these beds and along with burning, may have even influenced selection and genetic changes in populations of California geophytes (Andersen).

Peeling back the years, present day Alpine Road is at the former location of a route called the Old Spanish Trail which followed an Ohlone trail through the Santa Cruz Mountains from San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean. So it is likely that the Mindego Gateway area was visited by the ancient Ohlone.

The hills are covered with more grasses and less forests in the vicinity of the coast   
A few months after construction was finished, one of my co-workers took representatives of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band* and the University of California Santa Cruz Arboretum to the Mindego Gateway to see the bulb garden. The Amah Mutsun are working at the Arboretum to plant about 100 culturally important plants and reteach tribal members how to tend and collect them for food, medicine, basketry and other traditional uses. This Mindego Gateway meeting with people of such different backgrounds was a little awkward at first. As our botanist switched between scientific and common names for the plants, the tribal members tried to match them with their traditional names and oral and written history. As botanists, we know how to identify the plants and a little about their ecology, but know nothing about their uses. And, it will be awhile before young tribal members have a deep personal knowledge of these plants as did their ancestors who long ago collected and depended on them. With only loosely connected parts of the story, no-one is sure what traditional Ohlone bulb collection areas might look like in the wild especially after many, many years without tribal tending. 

So, we don't really know if this small grassy field to the side of Mindego Gateway is a tribal bulb garden. But its collection of native plants, particularly those that were traditionally important to the local tribes, is notable and worth protecting. Now we annually sweep through to pull the yellow starthistle that occurs sporadically in the stand, and a neighbor drops by several times during the summer to pull any remaining nonnative thistles on that side of the deck. She's making progress and reports that on bright mornings, a rattlesnake often slips out from under a clump of poison oak to warm itself in the sun. She's learned to move slowly and conscientiously as she works in this remarkable place.

Due to the ongoing drought, I haven't seen a big bloom of the native bulbs at the site but rain will return and it will be exciting to see the native color express itself on its own time.

Moisture sweeps in from the ocean at Mindego Hill at sunset   
I've worked as a biologist and in the field of natural lands management for many years. Sometimes I feel like I know a lot. But lessons learned during the building of this parking lot make me feel humble. There is so much more to a piece of land than what you see at one moment, the names you give to the current palette of plants, and the history or lore you've heard from the past few decades. It takes observation over a longer period of time, an open mind and listening to locals and other knowledgeable people to get a fuller sense of a place. Still, that land will continue to change as you work on the site and the world changes around you.

One day, people will know nothing about the rescued Calisoga spiders and gopher snakes, the visions of Audrey Rust, and our efforts to control the yellow starthistle at Mindego Gateway. But I hope that in good years, the mariposa lilies, yampah and ookow will put on a spectacular bloom and visitors will stop and wonder about what else lives and has lived on this land before they head out for a lovely hike.

On October 17, 2015, I will be leading a hike for the magazine Bay Nature to the Ancient Oaks in Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve including a visit to the Mindego Gateway. Reservations for the hike have already filled, however, you can read the article "A Midpeninsula Open Space for the Ages: Among the Ancient Oaks on Russian Ridge" by Kathleen Wong in the October-December 2015 issue of Bay Nature including a longer description about hiking to the Ancient Oaks and Mindego Gateway and an interview with me.

"The New World is in fact a very old world. . . Every day of every year for millennia, the indigenous people of California interacted with the native plants and animals that surrounded them. They transformed roots, berries, shoots, bones, shells and feathers into medicines, meals, bows, and baskets and achieved an intimacy with nature unmatched by the modern-day wilderness guide, trained field botanist, or applied ecologist."
- M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild 


*Ohlone is a term that has been used to refer to the many autonomous indigenous tribal groups that lived in the Monterey Bay and San Francisco Bay area at the time of first European contact. The traditional territory of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, centered in the Pajaro River Valley of Monterey Bay, "encompasses all or portions of the modern Counties of San Benito, Monterey, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Mateo" (source: The Amah Mutsun Land Trust is working with the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District to identify and inform management of culturally significant species on preserve lands, especially at Mt. Umunhum.

Ballard, Hannah, MA and Elena Reese, MA, Pacific Legacy, Inc., Berkely, CA, and Mark Hylkema, MA, RPA, Past Lifeways Archaeological Studies, Sunnyvale, CA, Cultural Resources Existing Conditions Report Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District Vision Plan, September 2014.

Hylkema, Mark G., MA, RPA Archaeologist, Positive Archaeological Survey Report (PASR) and a Finding of No Adverse Effect to Archeological Resources: Mindego Ranch Pond Rehabilitation Project, San Mateo County, California, Past Lifeways Archaeological Studies, Sunnyvale, CA, February 2013.

Anderson, M. Kat, Tending the Wild, University of California Press, 2015.

Hikes at Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve are described here:

Black-tailed deer, Odocoileus hemionus columbianus 
Calisoga spider, Calisoga genus
Southern alligator lizard, Elgaria multicarinata
Pacific gopher snake, Pituophis catenifer
Northern Pacific rattlesnake - Crotalus oreganus
Mariposa lily, Calochortus sp.
Soap plant, Chlorogalum pomeridianum 
Yampah, Perideridia sp.
Blue wildrye, Elymus glaucus
California brome, Bromus carinatus 
Purple needle grass, Stipa pulchra
Blue dicks, Dichelostemma capitatum 
Ookow, Dichelostemma congestum 
Yellow starthistle, Centaurea solstitialis


  1. Thank you for sharing this interesting story. Makes me want to head to California to see Mindego Gateway!

    1. The trails and decks will be there for a long time, and that junction of peoples and nature will be there . . . well, forever. But visiting in late winter might be nice for you.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your description of your role in the construction activities and of the native plants the you discovered. The next time I hike at Russian Ridge from the Mindego Gateway, I will make sure to stop and look for what I have been missing!
    Thank You!

  3. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing this, Cindy. I look forward to visiting Mindego Gateway again with this new perspective in mind.

  4. Wonderful post -- fascinating to read about your work there, and the native peoples and the plants they must have used. A gorgeous area for a new trail. Can't wait to visit -- thanks so much for the great read!

  5. Thanks for the terrific article, Cindy!

    I enjoyed using Mindego Gateway this summer as a launching point for hikes. It permits easy access to areas of the preserve that previously I had to hike many miles to see.

    I was impressed by the diversity of plant species, and hope the Open Space District makes an effort to preserve these native stands.

  6. Thanks so much for this wonderful article. My grandmother lives up on Skyline off Rapley Ranch Road, and I have been coming to visit her since I was a baby. The ecosystems and beauty of the Skyline area have a very special place in my senses and heart. Now that I live in California, I've been able to visit much more often, and have hiked out to Mindigo several times. It's wonderful to learn more about the process of how the observation area and parking lot were built, and to learn more about all of the wildlife (putting names to faces that I've seen and known for a long time). I really appreciate that there are folks out there tending to preserving the native plants and animals. Thank you!


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