– this is another reprint from my post to Bruce Bratton’s most insightful brattononline.com weekly.
The Chalks stretches from above Año Nuevo into Big Basin south through the Lockheed property and then down many tiny ridges above Scott Creek and the Swanton community. Even before the CZU Fire, the ridges appeared from afar curiously white, like chalk. The earliest Old World explorers wrote in their log books about that striking whiteness. The barren white ridges are on account of extremely poor soil, mostly fractured rock. that limits the ability for vegetation to thrive. The vegetation that can make it is a unique type of chaparral.
Most people see The Chalks on their drive south on Highway One just north of Año Nuevo, South of Franklin Point as they pass the Coastanoa Resort. Look inland and you’ll see lots of broken ridges: those are The Chalks.
Much of The Chalks is on private property. Some is on what is known as “Lockheed Martin Space Systems” at the very end of Empire Grade. That area also contains a 1000-acre private property called “Lehi Park” a recreational and camping spot owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For public visitation, you’ll have to wait until Big Basin opens again…it’s still closed due to the last big fire. Meanwhile, you must settle for viewing from afar.
At the top of the steep and erosive bluffs north of and above Waddell Creek, wind-blown, lichen strewn Monterey Pines form the chalks chaparral overstory, but their genes might make them something other than pure Monterey Pines. This is the home of one of only five native Monterey Pine stands. The others are on the Monterey Peninsula, around Cambria, and on two islands off of Baja – Cedros and Guadalupe. Monterey pines are the most planted forestry tree in the world, and the seeds of the ‘radiata pine’ created bred for those forestry plantings came from the Año Nuevo stand, where Monterey pine hybridizes with knobcone pine. Monterey pine occurs lower in elevation, and more deeply in frequent thick fog; Knobcone pine is found higher and hotter and dryer. In between, there are pines that look like both, and the globally planted forestry tree looks like one of those tweeners. As the birthplace of this confusing but useful forestry tree, The Chalks has its tree ambassador planted by the millions, all over the world. And yet, this tree isn’t the only famous bit of Chalks botany…there are also some world-famous manzanita species.
Chalks Chaparral includes 7 species of manzanitas, and there are two common, more widespread ones that dominate and two very rare species that only occur in this habitat. The most common species is brittle leaved manzanita, a widespread burl-forming species, and the subject of a previous essay. The other common species is the sensitive manzanita. Sensitive manzanita has small roundish shiny dark green leaves, making it look like the boxwood of the chaparral. Mixed in with these two species, there are two other manzanita species- two which exist nowhere else in the world: Ohlone manzanita and Schreiber’s manzanita. Each of these locally endemic manzanitas are very uncommon even in The Chalks and grow entirely on private property, so you can’t visit them outside of the UCSC Arboretum’s Conservation Garden. There might be as few as 100 Ohlone manzanita plants in the entire world!
You can, however, view photos of Shreiber’s manzanita from a 1939 expedition that led to its discovery. One photo archived by UC Berkeley shows a big manzanita surrounded by knobcone pines and chamise. Another photo has an overview of the habitat showing the large amount of bare ground with sparse manzanitas, pines and few oaks; that 1935 photo suggests a fire as recent as 14 years previously. The next fire was to be 8 years later in 1948.
You might be wondering about the other three manzanitas you can find on The Chalks. They are: Santa Cruz manzanita, silver leaf manzanita, and the crinite manzanita. On a rare California Native Plant Society field trip through the Lockheed property in the 1990s, we saw all 7 species within a short walk of one of our stops.
The Trails and Views
The best places to access The Chalks are in Big Basin State Park, now closed because of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire…but, put those trails on your list when it reopens. Whether from the coast or from inland, your destination are the ridges around Chalk Mountain. The trails wind on ridgelines with gorgeous views of the ocean overlooking Año Nuevo Island and a vast expanse of the ocean. On a clear day, you can see Point Reyes and the Farallon Islands to the north and Point Sur to the South.
Another place to aim for is Eagle Rock out of Little Basin. Eagle Rock is an isolated bit of sandstone on the eastern flank of The Chalks. The views from Eagle Rock expand eastward more than you might see from Chalk Mountain. The trail goes through a kind of chaparral closely allied to The Chalks, but with less rock showing than elsewhere.
Fires and Seeds
Both the 2009 and 2020 wildfires spread initially through The Chalks chaparral, same as the 1948 Pine Mountain fire. Those watching the 2009 fire said they saw what looked like fire tornados launching from one ridge and igniting the next ridge down wind. No one was watching for the more recent fire, which spread even more quickly. Both fires triggered fire-following seeds to germinate.
The most widespread and obvious fire following seedlings are bush poppies. Most of The Chalks will still be barren next summer (as before the fire), but patches of chest high blue-green bush poppy shrubs will be flowering with their bright yellow flowers next summer. I have tried everything to germinate those bush poppy seeds, including the recommended soak in white gasoline, presumably to break down its seed coat. But, after the fire…seedlings pop up all over.
The Chalks and the Rare Human Animal
Humans are rare in The Chalks. The Lockheed facility had, at its peak, hundreds of employees visiting this chaparral regularly, for work. But then much of it burned, and it is unclear if they will continue to operate the facility in the future. The Lehi property is also mostly ephemerally visited by people. The most common place to find humans in The Chalks had been out Last Chance Road where a culture all its own had homes sprinkled around patches of beautiful chaparral. That community, also, burned in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire.
Much of what we know about the natural history of places is gleaned by humans who make habits of visiting those places and looking carefully at what’s around them. Historically, few people have wandered into The Chalks with an eye to natural history. Shreiber’s 1930’s era Chalks visit mentioned above highlighted the area to natural history enthusiasts with the discovery of a new manzanita species (and those intriguing photographs!). Then there’s Jim West, a botanist extraordinaire endemic to the Swanton area, who has brought The Chalks to the attention of many other naturalists, in part because of his discovery of the other new manzanita species. His work has led to a kind of Chalks revival with a new focus on vegetation mapping bringing a host of new naturalists’ attention to that area. There is much more to be discovered in The Chalks – who will be the next person to find something amazing up there? Post fire recovery may have many surprises…