China Camp State Park has a diverse environment that is rich in wildlife. From the shores of San Pablo Bay to the heights of San Pedro Mountain, the park is teeming with life. The tidal salt marshes along the Bay and the oak woodlands that dot the hillsides each have their own unique combination of creatures that inhabit their specific niche in the ecosystem. In total, the state park has 26 species of mammals, 140 species of birds, 44 species of fish, and 15 species of reptiles and amphibians.
The Salt Marshes of China Camp represent the most intact wetlands remaining in the San Francisco Bay estuary. They are home to a number of endangered species, including California Ridgway’s rail (formerly California clapper rail). This almost flightless bird (Rallus longirostris obsoletus) winds its rail-thin body through the salt marsh plants to feed on mussels, clams, snails, and worms. The bird’s original name hinted at its mating call, which sounds like clapping. Numbers of Ridgway’s rails have plummeted in recent decades, due to destruction of marshland habitat by development and shoreline fill, making the protected marshlands critically important habitat for this unique bird.
The salt marsh harvest mouse (Reithrodontomys raviventris) is another endangered species found at China Camp, and it is endemic to the salt marshes of the San Francisco Bay estuary. This nocturnal rodent is difficult to spot, being mostly active at night, and dwelling within the thick vegetation of the salt marshes. Like the clapper rail, the salt marsh harvest mouse also faces the destruction of its habitat by the forces of urban and suburban growth.
Deer are among the most common and visible mammals in the forested hills of China Camp. Other mammals that make this area their home include raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, and a variety of rodents. Walking the trails of China Camp, the hiker will hear the gobbling of wild turkeys, as well as an orchestra of bird song. Scrub jays, sparrows, chickadees, acorn woodpeckers, and spotted towhees all add their distinctive sounds to the forest. Raptors such as turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, and peregrine falcons are circling in the skies overhead. Canada geese join seagulls and cormorants along the shore of the Bay.
The hillsides, forests, and wetlands of China Camp are lush palettes of colorful wildflowers throughout the year. Springtime is when most wildflowers are at their peak, but there is always something in bloom no matter the season. In addition to adding color to the landscape, many of these wildflowers provided food and medicine to the native Miwok people. Here is a small sampling of some of the wildflowers you will encounter as you hike around the park.
Spring: The largest variety of wildflowers and the most color can be found in spring, including California poppies, Blue-eyed grass, Shooting stars, Buttercups, Sun Cups, Blue Dicks, Harvest Brodiaea, Douglas iris, Ground iris, California Honeysuckle, Checker mallow, and a rare albino form of Royal Larkspur.
Summer: Summer offers a continuation of the spring wildflower show, with many flowers in bloom throughout the season. Sticky Monkey Flower is at its peak in the summertime, while many others continue to bloom from spring until well into late summer. These include Coast Mule Ears, Yellow Mariposa Lily, Ithuriel’s Spear, and Indian Paintbrush. The salt marshes also come into bloom at this time of year, with Gumplant, Alkali Heath, and Jaumea adding color to shoreline areas.
Fall: The quietest time of year for wildflowers, fall still has widespread Sticky Monkey Flower in the forests and grasslands. The salt marshes still retain a lot of color, with gumplant in bloom late into the season.
Winter: The first wildflowers of the season start to appear in late winter and are a prelude to the show of color that appears in spring. Some early bloomers are Footsteps of Spring, Star Lily, and Indian Warrior.
Below are of some of the many wildflowers that can be found in China Camp State Park. How many can you identify?
The Salt Marshes
The salt marshes of San Pablo Bay line the northern side of the San Pedro peninsula, providing a rich environment for fish and wildlife that is a protected area within China Camp State Park. These type of wetlands were once common all around the shores of San Francisco and San Pablo Bays, although they have diminished greatly after centuries of development and urban expansion. Once regarded as useless swamps, tidal wetlands are now understood to play an important role in the environmental processes that are critical to a healthy environment for plant and animal life. It is recognized that the salt marshes of China Camp carry out many important functions, acting as the “kidneys of the Bay” to form a natural filter for the waters that pass through from the Delta to the Golden Gate. They also create a buffer from stormy seas, easing the effects of erosion, and provide food, shelter, and nesting material that helps to sustain a variety of birds, fish, mammals, and invertebrates. One of the most important roles of the salt marshes is to absorb excess nutrients that reduce oxygen levels and cause “dead zones.” In this manner, they serve to sequester carbon deep within the mudflats, a critical step toward mitigating the causes of climate change.
The rich variety of Wildlife in the salt marshes of China Camp includes two endangered species. The salt marsh harvest mouse (Reithrodontomys raviventris) is a rodent species endemic to the San Francisco Bay Area salt marshes and listed on both federal and state endangered species lists. Also endangered is the California Ridgway’s rail (Rallus longirostris obsoletus), a small, almost flightless bird that gets its name from its rail-thin body that is capable of moving through the saltgrass and pickleweed with ease. The salt marshes have their own unique collection of wildflowers, including gumplant, alkali heath, and fleshy jaumea.
China Camp State Park is part of the San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, an organization that conducts research on wetland ecosystems, monitors water quality, and offers educational programs for science teachers and local school groups. The salt marshes of China Camp can be viewed alongside North San Pedro Road, from the entrance to the state park all the way to China Camp Point. Turtle Back Hill, Bullet Hill, and Chicken Coop Hill are small peninsulas that extend out into the marshes, offering great views of this unique landscape.
Strong swimmers and curious toddlers alike frequent China Camp Beach in the summer. Sometimes, though, swimmers arrive to find the water uncharacteristically cold and families ready to explore find the tide so high there is little beach left to search. Visitors can check both of these things – the water temperature and depth – before heading to the beach by creating a quick graph online at coast.noaa.gov/swmp. The website allows visitors to easily graph water quality data that are collected by NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserve System primarily to help scientists monitor and understand changes in the nation’s estuaries. The “China Camp” station records water depth, temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, murkiness, and more every 15 minutes from a fixed location near the beach. Besides checking conditions before your visit, the website is also a great way to incorporate science and math into your summer adventures. Why did the water seem to cool down during your visit? Make a quick graph of water temperature and another factor – like depth or salinity – to piece together an answer. Is the water less salty this year because we had more rain? Compare graphs from last summer and this one to find the answer. If you find an interesting trend, or are stumped by a science question, post your graph and questions on the San Francisco Bay NERR Facebook page so the scientists can check it out with you.
The Oak Woodlands
The forests of China Camp are rich in diversity, with oak woodlands dominated by elegant valley oaks and the classic coast live oak, whose signature gnarled trunk and branches form an iconic presence on the hillsides. Mixed in with the oak woodlands are California bay laurel, big leaf maple, toyon, madrone, and manzanita. Buckeye trees can be found alongside streams throughout the park, with their beautiful blossoms appearing in late spring. There are even three small groves of redwoods that can be found in the deep canyons on the slopes of San Pedro Mountain. Of the 25 different species of oak trees that are native to California, four of them can be found in the woodlands of China Camp State Park:
Valley oak (Quercus lobata): This graceful beauty has sweeping branches that often hang down like a weeping willow. It is found mainly in the lower elevations of the park, with several beautiful specimens right along North San Pedro Road. This type of oak is deciduous, with leaves that are deeply lobed and covered in a soft, velvety fuzz. The valley oak can grow to over 100 feet tall and live for as long as 600 years.
Coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia): The exquisitely twisted branches of the coast live oak make this California native easy to identify. It is called a live oak because it is evergreen; i.e. it does not lose its leaves in winter. The species nameagrifolia means “sharp-leaved.” It can grow to a height of more than 70 feet, and live for as long as 250 years.
California black oak (Quercus kelloggii): This deciduous oak grows mainly in the upper reaches of the woodlands of China Camp, although at least one specimen of it can be found along the Turtle Back Hill Nature Trail. The black oak has large deeply lobed leaves, about twice the size of the valley oak leaves. It also produces very large acorns.
Blue oak (Quercus douglasii): The blue oak is a deciduous oak that gets its name from the bluish tint of its leaves, which are oblong and shallowly lobed. It is smaller than the valley and black oaks, generally growing up to 50-75 feet tall. A good example of a blue oak can be found on the Turtle Back Hill Nature Trail.
The grasslands of China Camp State Park present an area that is in transition, an area that has been severely disrupted over the centuries, but now has the potential to return to its native state. The native grasslands provide an important habitat for wildlife, supplying nutritious seeds and forage, building materials for nests and burrows, and shelter from predators. When Europeans began to move into the area of China Camp State Park, it became home to a Mexicanrancho and later an American ranch. The hills of the San Pedro peninsula were planted extensively with non-native annual grasses to provide feed for cattle. Exotic annuals quickly overtook the native perennials and much of the early grassland habitat of China Camp was altered considerably.
The grasslands of China Camp are found just inland from the salt marshes and on the upper parts of promontories such as Turtleback, Bullet, and Chicken Coop Hills. Some of the introduced grasses include wild oats, Italian ryegrass, soft chess, and ripgut grass.
Among the native grasses found at China Camp is purple needlegrass (nassella pulchra), an annual grass that is the official state grass of California. This is a very appropriate designation, because purple needlegrass grows in many areas throughout the state. It can be found in a diverse range of habitats, including grasslands, chaparral, and oak woodlands. It is well suited for serpentine soils, which can be found in many areas of China Camp. Purple needlegrass produces large quantities of seeds and was a staple of the diet of the local Miwok people, as well as other Native Americans throughout the state.
The grasslands of China Camp can be enjoyed up close along the Shoreline Trail, in between the Back Ranch Meadows Campground and Miwok Meadows. The Turtle Back Hill Nature Trail is another good place to observe the grassland environment.