“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” — John Muir
Muir’s observation from 1901 still rings true. Today’s “plugged-in” lifestyle and competitive, fast-paced society has left us stressed and exhausted. We are still “tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized,” just as Muir said.
The idea that nature is “home” and a “fountain of life” resonates with me on a profound level. Hiking through a moss-covered forest, smelling the salty ocean waves, or hearing the gurgling of a creek helps clear my mind and reenergizes me, and I’m sure many of you can relate. I always thought that these feelings towards nature could be attributed to theorist Edward O. Wilson’s concept of biophilia — the idea that there is an instinctive and primitive bond between humans and nature — but studies have shown that they are in fact strongly rooted in biology.
As it turns out, there is a growing body of research demonstrating that spending time outdoors can make us healthier; not just physically, but mentally as well. Here are a few ways how:
Open space can reduce stress
Nature’s role as a stress reducer has been widely studied: spending time in natural environments consistently decreases levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol and tends to decrease blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension at a faster rate than urban environments. Even a view of a forest from an office window can reduce work stress and improve job satisfaction. It gets even more basic than that: just looking at the color green has been shown to reduce stress levels. These studies highlight the importance of urban green space as a site of reflection and psychological relief.
Open space can improve cognitive functioning and foster creativity and concentration
One study has found that, after four technology-free days in nature, participants demonstrated 50 percent higher scores on a creativity test, scientifically backing artists’ longstanding affinity for nature. It’s not just creativity that nature can enhance: a simple wander through a forest can improve short-term memory by 20%, according to a study from the University of Michigan. Researchers have also found that children with ADHD concentrate better after a simple walk in the park. It seems like nature is just the thing to keep our brains sharp during work and school hours.
Open space can make you happier and nicer
Exposure to nature can also improve mental health by making you more optimistic about your future, improving self-esteem, battling depression (with the mood-enhancing ions found in and around water, for example), and increasing feelings of meditation. One study has shown that people exposed to natural environments tend to value intrinsic and pro-social aspirations over self-centered, extrinsic aspirations… meaning that, yes, nature can even make you nicer and more caring.
These and other scientifically recognized health benefits of nature — both physical and psychological — have very important implications when it comes to public initiatives and individual health choices. A fascinating article by Outside magazine discusses the long-standing Japanese tradition of shinrin-yoku, or forest therapy, which is viewed as a form of natural aromatherapy and widely used to combat all sorts of afflictions. In the U.S., the concept that nature is beneficial to health has been getting more and more traction: the National Park Service launched its Healthy Parks, Healthy People initiative in 2011 to raise awareness about the health benefits of nature, and some doctors are now even prescribing hikes to overweight children.
We are still a long way away from nationwide, federally-mandated, monthly employee hikes to improve work satisfaction and productivity, but one thing is for sure: a growing body of research has begun to prove what Muir noted over a century ago. So, next time you feel stressed or “tired, nerve-shaken, and over-civilized,” look to your open spaces. There’s a “fountain of life” out there, and that’s science.
Start taking advantage of this fountain of life and health by visiting our local open spaces: check out these hikes on POST-protected lands for some inspiration.
Manon von Kaenel
The health benefits of outdoor recreation are varied and numerous, the beauty of our open spaces unparalleled, the local wildlife diversity incredible, and the local weather nearly always sunny and pleasant — there’s really no reason not to go on a hike this weekend. We could spend days and days hiking our incredible POST-protected open spaces, and want to share that experience with you! To help you navigate the miles of trails out there, the staff has collected five of our favorite POST hikes here. Let us know in the comments: what are some of your favorite local hikes?
Hamms Gulch-Spring Ridge Loop at Windy Hill Open Space Preserve
Trail difficulty: moderate to difficult
Location: in Portola Valley, just west of Skyline Boulevard
Keep your eyes open for: wildflowers, chaparral wildlife, raptors, oak forests
This loop hike, a little over 7 miles long (depending on which trails you take), offers the very best of Windy Hill Open Space Preserve: open grassy ridges, forested valleys, seasonal creeks, and chaparral-covered hills. Head south from the parking lot on Portola Road towards the Hamms Gulch Trail, which leads you up gently towards the iconic Windy Hill and its spectacular views onto the surrounding valley and the Bay. Follow the Lost Trail towards the Spring Ridge Trail, a steep descent popular among bicyclists that will take you back down to your starting point through grassland and the occasional coast live oak. For more of a workout, consider reversing the loop and climbing up to Windy Hill via Spring Ridge and back down through Hamms Gulch.
“Trying to keep up with my 17-year old daughter on that trail causes me to breathe so hard she asks me to not hike right behind her as my panting is so loud it annoys her,” POST President Walter Moore laughs. “I don’t claim to being a fitness buff, but this trail has certainly not hurt my fitness level and has resulted in many great memories hiking with (or near!) my daughter!”
Windy Hill was the very first property POST protected back in 1981, and we later facilitated the protection and addition of two other properties to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District preserve. Most of the dog-friendly reserve is open for both hiking and equestrian uses, and contains a few popular bicycle routes as well. It is open year-round from dawn to dusk.
Trail difficulty: easy, one steep section over Purisima Creek
Location: just south of Half Moon Bay
Keep your eyes open for: harbor seals, wildflowers, sea birds
This 3.6-mile section of the California Coastal Trail leads you along the clifftop with surging ocean waves, impressive cliff faces, and picturesque pocket beaches on the western side and productive agricultural fields — many of them with POST-held conservation easements — on the east. Interpretive signs along the way provide information about the cultural and natural history of the region. If you park at the southern trailhead, located about 5 miles south of the intersection between Highway 1 and Route 92, your hike will start at a scenic blufftop overlook and end at the secluded gem that is Cowell State Beach.
The Cowell-Purisima Trail opened in 2011 as the culmination of 25 years of collaborative work from the Coastal Conservancy and POST, and has been a popular favorite amongst our staff ever since. The trail is open to both hikers and bikers, but closed to dogs and horses because of food-safety concerns regarding the neighboring farms. The trail is open on weekends and holidays, 8am to sunset.
Jean Lauer Trail at Pillar Point Bluff
Trail difficulty: easy
Location: near Moss Beach off Highway 1
Keep an eye out for: soaring sea birds, local joggers, world-famous Mavericks surf break
This short and easy segment of the California Coastal Trail meanders over the windswept coastal cliff top that is Pillar Point Bluff, offering joggers, hikers and dog-walkers an amazing view of the coastline’s eroding cliffs, sandy beaches, and the Pillar Point Air Force tracking station. The neighboring coastal waters and seasonal wetland — both of which provide important wildlife habitat — are protected with the San Mateo County Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. Lift your eyes to see soaring pelicans, cormorants, gulls and hawks.
POST protected Pillar Point Bluff from commercial development in 2004, and later transferred it to San Mateo County Parks. The trails are open from dawn to dusk.
Audrey’s Way at Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve
Trail difficulty: easy
Location: along Skyline Boulevard between Skyline Ridge OSP and Coal Creek OSP
Keep an eye out for: native wildflowers, raptors, mountain lions, panoramic views
Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve is characterized by wide-open views of the Bay and the coast (perfect for admiring a sunset), gently sloping grassy hills, abundant wildlife — including mountain lions — and a spectacular show of native wildflowers in the springtime. Audrey’s Way at Mindego Gateway, a commemorative site dedicated to POST’s former president Audrey Rust and her 24 years of conservation leadership, recently opened to the public and provides tiered viewing platforms for visitors to enjoy the breathtaking panoramic vistas. A lookout point rather than a hike, it is located a very short walk away from the parking located on Alpine Road about 1.2 miles west of the intersection with Skyline Boulevard. Follow the Mindego Hill Trail and Charquin Trail from the parking to connect to an 8-mile network of trails, which do not allow dogs.
Russian Ridge OSP also contains Mindego Hill, protected by POST in its 2007 GoMindego campaign. Public access to the summit of this natural landmark is expected in 2015. In the meantime, Audrey’s Way provides awe-inspiring views and a great connection to the rest of this equestrian-friendly park.
Montara Mountain at McNee Ranch State Park
Trail difficulty: difficult
Location: on the San Mateo Coast between Pacifica and Montara
Keep an eye out for: poison oak, spring wildflowers, fog, and panoramic views all the way to Mount Tamalpais in the north
There are a few ways to reach the summit of the 2,000-foot POST-protected Montara Mountain, which offers stunning panoramic views of the coast and the rugged, lush terrain of the northern stretch of the Santa Cruz Mountains on a clear day. To access the summit, follow the Montara Mountain Trail from San Pedro Valley Park to the North Peak Access Road in McNee Ranch State Park. You can also access the summit from the southwest by following the North Access Road — popular with local bikers — from its origin at a small parking lot a few miles south of the city of Pacifica on Highway 1, or from the more accessible parking lot at Gray Whale Cove State Beach. Either way, the hike is about 7 to 8 miles long and takes you along a moderate grade — with very occasional steep bits — through eucalyptus groves, chaparral and cypress and pine forests.
The landmark summit was protected by POST in 2001 as part of the 4,262-acre Rancho Corral de Tierra, now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The striking views and varied ecosystems and microclimates you’ll encounter along this trail make this hike a popular destination amongst our staff.
Manon von Kaenel
The photo could very easily be misconstrued as insignificant. There are some green shrubs and some oak trees in the background — this could be any forest, really. The bird in the foreground, with a slightly superior expression on his face and cloaked in what could be a fur-collared coat, almost resembles an English noble smugly surveying his estate, his gaze distant and lips tight and slightly downturned. The only sign of something unusual occurring in this frame is the giant “97” painted on the bird’s black plumage. But this isn’t any bird, and this isn’t any random place in the world: it’s a California condor, right here in San Mateo County.
This photo, taken in early June by a wildlife camera on a property near Pescadero, marked the first time this endangered bird had been spotted in San Mateo County in 110 years. The snapshot encapsulates many positive stories and lessons about land conservation and the efforts of dedicated individuals along the California coast, and offers a dose of perspective on the long-term value of open space.
It means that three-year old condor 597, affectionately called Lupine, discovered a route from Pinnacles National Monument to the San Mateo coastline — where POST has already protected thousands of acres of land. The discovery of that route, which must contain topography varied enough to provide condors sufficient lift in flight, represents a key breakthrough because it brings the scavenging condors in contact with a very viable food source: the 10,000 elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Reserve, located just six miles north of the sighting.
“That marine mammal component is why we’re so excited that condor 597 found a route to San Mateo County,” says Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society. The availability of food and nesting sites in redwood trees around Año Nuevo and in the Santa Cruz Mountains makes San Mateo County ready to host a thriving condor population — “we have what they need,” Kelly adds. But there’s a catch.
“There’s enough land, there’s enough nest sites, there’s enough food — but it’s all about the contaminants,” Kelly points out. “Still today, the biggest problem for condors is lead poisoning from eating carcasses of animals shot with lead bullets.”
In the end, this historic condor sighting, or the comeback stories of the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, gray wolf or another iconic once-endangered species can not be solely credited to the preservation of open space. Ecology is complex and, as Kelly reminds us, there exists a diversity of obstacles and corresponding solutions to every endangered species story. Nonetheless, it’s important to note that the common denominator among what enabled these listed species to make a breakthrough is open space.
Nicely paralleling the San Mateo condor sighting, a wild bald eagle pair just fledged the first chick in Santa Cruz County in decades. The historic moment can be attributed to the reintroduction efforts of the Ventana Wildlife Society as well as the protection of sloughs around Watsonville by the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County. The Santa Cruz bald eagle chick and the San Mateo condor can both credit their success stories to open space preservation and reintroduction programs.
“POST helped put together the landscape that these birds [condors] need to survive, and it’s exciting that they could survive in a place with such a dense human population,” Kelly says.
Lupine’s venture into San Mateo County reminds me that we are conserving our land for the future, not just for the present. After all, back in 1987, all 27 living California condors were held in captive breeding facilities in Los Angeles and San Diego, and their future didn’t look too bright. Now, there are 131 wild condors living in California — and more in Arizona and Baja California as well as those at various breeding facilities in the West.
It’s easy to get caught up on the immediate recreational or spiritual benefits open space provides or how our stewardship efforts restores habitat for those species that call our landscape home. More easily forgotten, but just as crucial, is the value of open space for species who don’t even live there but might just do so in the future — like the condor along the San Mateo coastline. Who knows what our local wildlife populations will look like in another 110 years?
Manon von Kaenel
Let’s start with a bit of autobiographical information. I like to consider myself a devout outdoors enthusiast, and a profound appreciation for nature sits at the very core of my identity. My awe of the great outdoors and what it has to offer has so far dictated my preferred recreational activities (which include hiking, sailing, and camping), my academic focus (I’m studying Environmental Science and Geography at UC Berkeley), and (hopefully) my future career. My family has always been very outdoor-oriented, and I was very fortunate as a child to enjoy my fair share of camping, hiking, and backpacking trips — a tradition that I’ve continued into adulthood. And perhaps most importantly: I am a true Bay Area native, having grown up in Palo Alto and now living in Berkeley.
So why am I telling you all this? Despite my history of living and playing in the Bay Area and my deep fondness for open spaces, I was shell-shocked when I learned about the sheer volume and expanse of lands protected by POST when I recently joined this organization as the Communications Intern. Surprisingly, I had no idea that so many of the parks I’d grown up with have a history with POST. As I scanned the POST projects map for the first time, I was overtaken with emotion — surprise, nostalgia, a bit of shame in my lack of local knowledge, and a radiating pride at working for such a successful land trust — as I recognized name after name from my favorite childhood outings, from back when I didn’t have a clue about conservation easements or land acquisitions or resource management. These property names came alive with memories: sights and experiences from my childhood — and beyond — that I’ll attempt to share with you here.
James Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, the destination of field trips both with my elementary school class and as a family to study the fascinating tidepools, contains POST-protected Pillar Point Bluff, which was officially transferred to the reserve just three years ago in 2011. I always spent the first fifteen minutes of every visit to the reserve racing my sister to be the first to spot a living crab (it had to be alive!).
Windy Hill Open Space Preserve, where my family drove on weekends to indulge in the sweeping views of both urban and natural Bay Area landscapes, was created after POST transferred 635 acres of the property to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District in 1981.
My very first banana slug kiss — a rite of passage, I was told, for a true Californian — occurred at the (partially POST-funded!) David C. Daniels Nature Center in Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve, itself associated with several POST-protected properties.
Pigeon Point lighthouse, which we would use to proudly show off our beautiful California coastline to my visiting European grandparents, sits right next to Whaler’s Cove, where POST halted plans for a motel in 2001 and later transferred the secluded beach and bluff top to California State Parks.
Pearson Arastradero Preserve, where I’d go on mountain-bike trips with my dad, contains a 13-acre island of land saved by — guess who — POST in 2002. My dad spent this precious father-daughter time trying to scare me (to no avail) with stories of rattlesnakes and mountain lion encounters, which, to my great disappointment, never materialized.
There are so many more memories I can ascribe to POST-protected lands. It’s the spirit of POST and the dedication of this community to preserving our beautiful local landscapes that has painted the background of so many of my happiest memories. It was my constant contact with these pristine open spaces as a child that fueled my love for nature and seeded in me a sense of responsibility towards protecting what has brought me and others so much joy. These memories and this sense of duty are an essential part of the legacy of POST, for me and for tens of thousands of other Silicon Valley residents.
My summer at POST so far has helped me evolve my love for nature into a grounded, evidence-based understanding of the value these open spaces have for both humans and wildlife of Silicon Valley and beyond. Needless to say, next time I witness someone’s first banana slug kiss — and I know there will be a plethora of chances — I will remember how POST helped make mine possible. So here’s to POST, an enlightening summer internship, and the re-discovery of my very own backyard!
Manon von Kaenel
Did you know that the favorite prey item of the iconic endangered San Francisco garter snake is the equally-iconic threatened California red-legged frog?
Or that 18 of the 70 mountain lions living in the Santa Cruz Mountains have GPS trackers?
Or that the grasshopper sparrow and savannah sparrow can be used as indicators of a healthy grassland, and their population numbers can help inform a holistic ranch management plan?
These fascinating factoids are all findings of ongoing scientific research taking place on or near POST-protected properties. Some of this research was presented to a group of our volunteers at a recent science-themed training event at POST-protected Cloverdale Coastal Ranches.
“It’s a great opportunity for the public and volunteers to get an understanding of what kind of science is being conducted on conserved open space,” POST volunteer and event attendee Doug Kalish says. “I think it’s important for everyone to recognize that this is valuable land that doesn’t have to just simply be set aside only for hiking. We can decide, on the basis of data and science, the appropriate uses of land that can help the ecosystem.”
If there’s just one golden nugget of wisdom to take away from the July 7 event, it’s that scientific research provides valuable insight for land management decisions, and can demonstrate how uses of the land, like properly managed grazing and agriculture, can support healthy working landscapes that benefit both wildlife and humans. All three researchers featured at the event made this point clear.
The diet of a San Francisco garter snake
Richard Kim, of the United States Geologic Survey and San Francisco State University, brought a live California garter snake to illustrate his research about the closely related and threatened San Francisco garter snake’s diet, which includes the endangered California red-legged frog and the toxic Pacific newt (!). Habitat protection for the San Francisco garter snake, via POST’s stewardship initiatives and a recent focus on strategic grazing, has long been a priority at Cloverdale, where an estimated 200 of the snakes live in the property’s unique wetlands and ponds.
“It lets us know why we’re doing what we’re doing,” says POST volunteer Kelly Runyon, who has helped restore habitat for the California red-legged frog on Cloverdale, about learning about endangered species like the San Francisco garter snake.
Mountain lions and other carnivores in a fragmented landscape
Justine Smith, a doctoral student at the University of California Santa Cruz with the Santa Cruz Puma Project, discussed how a fragmented landscape and more frequent mountain lion-human encounters (remember when a mountain lion spent more than nine hours hiding in a bush in Mountain View earlier this year?) can affect puma feeding behaviors and subsequently disrupt the food web. She and her fellow researchers study the Santa Cruz mountain lions by closely monitoring their movement and feeding activity via GPS trackers and camera traps. Their research suggests that increased contact with humans may cause mountain lions to feed on smaller more nocturnal prey such as opossums or raccoons, causing them to compete with mesopredators such as coyotes and foxes.
Grassland birds and holistic ranching
Carlie Henneman, from Point Blue Conservation Science, then explained the importance of grassland birds and native grasses on ranch land. She has helped TomKat Ranch, the grass-fed beef operation next to Cloverdale, develop a holistic management plan that incorporates grazing strategies aimed at conserving native perennial grasses that not only provide important habitat for local wildlife such as the grassland savannah sparrow and grasshopper sparrow, but are actually more resistant to drought and better adapted to grazing than more widespread invasive annual grasses.
“All of us that volunteer on POST land can be better stewards if we learn to recognize what we would otherwise miss on the land,” Kelly says. “Now, we might go to a new property to kill pampas grass, and come across a fair amount of native grasses on the slope. It would be important to let the rancher know about the natives so they don’t overgraze, for example.”
For more photos of the event, please visit our Flickr account.
Manon von Kaenel
Correction 7/23: The first version of this post mistakenly reported that Richard Kim had brought a live San Francisco garter snake to his presentation; instead, he had brought a Coast garter snake. The text has been changed to reflect this.
Origami is the art of paper-folding. Though it is most commonly associated with square-shaped paper, it can use any size or shape, and can even involve cutting or glue. It is an amazing art process where nothing is lost or gained, but simply transformed. When I was 12 years old, I found an origami book in my house and started folding from it, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
Shortly after folding from books, I started designing my own models. Almost all of my pieces are folded from a single uncut square. I enjoy hiking, birding and observing the natural world around me, so I am frequently drawn to nature and wildlife as my subjects.
My approach to creating these models is not to make them completely accurate or to capture every detail, but to make them so expressive that they almost come alive. For me, it’s a tough balancing act between retaining enough familiar details so the end result is recognizable, and deciding which characteristics to emphasize or over-exaggerate to give it personality. All this from a square sheet of paper with no cuts—it’s quite the process!
In 2013, I went on a camping trip to the Marin Headlands and was rudely awakened in the morning by a loud covey of California quail. Their bobbing plumes and cartoonish mannerisms made an impression on me, so I designed my quail to look almost like a cartoon character.
Another one of my recent pieces was inspired by birding, a little closer to home. I always see white-tailed kites while walking around the Stanford Dish Trail—they are fun to watch because they tend to hover in place for long periods of time in search of prey. I wanted to capture how they look almost angelic hovering in the sky in the distance.
To see more of my origami, visit my website at tdoart.weebly.com. I will be updating it regularly with whatever new creations I come up with while exploring the Bay Area’s many protected open spaces.
Five weeks into my summer internship with POST, a mountain adventure came calling. How could anyone say no to a trip—my first—to Yosemite? Twenty years and this native Californian was bound for the state’s crown jewel. The indigenous name for the Yosemite Valley is “Awahnee,” which loosely translates to “Place of a Gaping Mouth.” I’m not sure if the original tribes meant to describe the vastness of the gorgeous gorges, with waterfalls streaming down from the bluffs, or my own face as my eyes feasted on the view.
Everything from the colossal, auburn trunks so big you can’t even wrap your mind around them—let alone your arms—to the tiniest of creatures, like the ant we saw carrying home a bee across a giant boulder, all of it brought me pure happiness. On a clear day, you can make out the fine outline of our own Santa Cruz Mountains. Yosemite leaves nothing wanting. Its vistas put my iPhone panorama lens to shame, and its rich geologic and cultural legacy transports a history major like myself to a mental candy shop (or an ice cream parlor, better yet). Legends have traversed its fields and paved the way for millions of visitors year after year. John Muir is the most famous of Yosemite’s (European) forefathers but Abraham Lincoln also walked these grounds, even planting a signature tree among the hallmark redwood groves. It was our 16th president who gave Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the Golden State in the midst of the Civil War “upon express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort and recreation.” It was the first time the federal government had set aside land for preservation, setting the precedent for Yellowstone in Wyoming to become the first national park in 1872.
I will always remember my first moment in this sacred place, which I hope to continue exploring for years to come. It would have been a special moment for any visitor, but working for POST that summer, it felt even more significant. I could understand the ecological importance of not only Yosemite but of the other millions of acres California has had the foresight to protect. Every redwood and giant sequoia there is central to the local ecosystem—just as they are on many POST-protected properties. In just a few weeks, my perspective on open space shifted from an abstract understanding of its value to a deep appreciation and gratitude grounded in field observations and direct experience.
Along with a mosquito bite or two, I left Yosemite itching to be back in the shade of a redwood along the Merced River, with the sun streaming down around the sheer face of El Capitan. Fortunately, thanks to the work of POST, I don’t have to make the trek all the way to Yosemite to find splendor in nature. Open space defines the Bay Area. Sometimes it takes a dramatic example like Yosemite to help us remember that.