From its shoreline to its hilltops, China Camp State Park has an extraordinary and diverse variety of habitats. Each one has unique features that provide food and shelter for a variety of animals, making the park’s 1,500 acres a critical sanctuary at the edge of the San Francisco Bay. Here are a trio of China Camp’s most significant habitats, and what you can experience there.
Tidal Salt Marsh
The salt marshes ringing the shoreline of China Camp State Park, on the east side of North San Pedro Road, are some of the healthiest of their kind in the San Francisco Bay Estuary. Once common throughout the region, salt marshes have been decimated by development, making China Camp’s thriving marshlands even more environmentally valuable. Scientists have discovered that our salt marshes act as a natural filter as water flower from the Delta west to the Golden Gate and Pacific Ocean. Salt marshes also reduce runoff and erosion, and absorb excess nutrients that can use up available oxygen and great coastal “dead zones.” In this manner, they serve to sequester carbon deep within the mudflats, a critical step toward mitigating the causes of climate change.
China Camp’s salt marshes also provide critical habitat for wildlife, including two endangered species: the salt marsh harvest mouse (Reithrodontomys raviventris), listed on both federal and state endangered species lists, and Ridgway’s rail (Rallus longirostris obsoletus), a small nearly-flightless shorebird. Our tidal areas have their own unique collection of salt marsh plants, including cord, pickleweed (pictured here), and assorted wildflowers.
China Camp State Park is part of the San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Check out the organization’s extensive website for information on wetland ecosystems and water quality. Also find details about educational programs for science teachers and local school groups.
Of the 25 species of oak that are native to California, four of them grown in China Camp State Park. Most prevalent are deciduous valley oak (Quercus lobateata), with elegant specimens soaring above the grasses at Back Ranch and Miwok Meadows, and the evergreen coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), whose gnarled trunk and branches form an iconic presence on our hillsides. Walk Turtle Back Hill Nature Trail (pictured here) to see two more deciduous species, black oak (Quercus kelloggii) and blue oak (Quercus douglasii). For more on California’s oaks, visit California Oaks.
Of course, oaks aren’t our only trees. California bay laurel (shown here) thrives here; look for twining, multi-trunked trees with glossy, aromatic leaves and crowns of flowers in spring. Other shrubs and trees include big-leaf maple, toyon, madrone, and manzanita. Also look for umbrella-like California buckeye (Aesculus californica),found alongside streams throughout the park. In the fall, it’s one of the first plants to lose its leaves and dropping “horse chestnuts” on our trails. (Beware: these faux chestnuts, the largest seeds of any tree outside the tropics, are poisonous.) Along Bay View Trail, slip into hushed coast redwood groves in the deep canyons of San Pedro Mountain.
Severely disrupted over the centuries, the grasslands of China Camp State Park now have the potential to return to their native state. In the late 1700s, Spanish ranchers introduced nonnative annual grasses to provide feed for cattle. These exotic species quickly overtook the region’s native grasses. With ranchers gone and the land protected, native grasses are once again thriving in China Camp’s meadows. Look for purple needlegrass (Nassella pulchra), the official state grass of California. This hardy annual thrives in China Camp’s serpentine-rich soils. The grass’s seeds were a staple of the diet of the local Coast Miwok. Find more information at California Native Grasslands Association.