Soak in the solitude at Butano State Park
Take a walk among the redwoods in this serene park in the Santa Cruz mountains.
Tue, May 07, 2013 at 06:36 PM
Tucked into the hills in the Santa Cruz mountains, butted up against the two neighboring (and more famous) state parks of Año Nuevo and Big Basin is a small and quiet gem. This is Butano State Park, and it is the epitome of what a state park aims to be — a little something special for everyone seeking refuge in the great outdoors.
Butano features six distinct habitats: redwood forest, coastal grassland, alder woodland, oak woodland, vernal wetland and chaparral brushland. Each is home to different types of wildlife and flourish at different times of the year.
But what most visitors come to enjoy is the solitude and stillness of the redwoods.
Butano State Park's landscape tells the story of human habitation over thousands of years. The Quiroste tribe, a large group of Native Americans, once managed the area through controlled burns to maintain meadows for better hunting and to improve future harvests of hazelnuts and acorns. And Europeans moved in, the area gave way to logging until the 1950s, and old growth redwood forest became second and third-growth forests. Today, the area is part of the California State Parks system, and nestled among the land that is very slowly returning to its former glory are well-maintained trails and small campsites for visitors to enjoy.
Upon entering the park, visitors are welcomed by a shaded picnic site, which includes barbecue grills and amenities. One of the tables features the inscription, "She lived life her way." It is a beautiful and inspirational reminder as you begin your adventure at Butano. Visitors can spend the day enjoying the shaded trails or exploring the many other habitats found within the park. Farther back are small campsites for families, and trail camping is also allowed with permits.
As for the trails, those among the redwoods are well marked and well maintained. Plan on spending a long time walking along them, as it is so easy to be distracted by the many different plants, fungi and animals you can spot along your walk.
Redwood forests are known for being a place of symbiosis, and nothing is more iconic of the web of life than the fungi that grow throughout the dirt and rotting logs of the forest floor, showing themselves only as they sprout up as mushrooms. Along the trails you will likely see several kinds of mushrooms, and it is a great idea to learn about the important role these organisms play in the decomposition and renewal of life in forests.
Another thing visitors are almost guaranteed to see along the trails are banana slugs — the second-largest species of terrestrial slug in the world. They can grow to be nearly 10 inches long and weigh 4 ounces. They're big, bright and beautiful in their own slimy way. And once your eyes are trained to notice their big yellow bodies, you will see dozens of them along the forest trails. Banana slugs are an important part of the forest ecosystem, turning the leaves, droppings and dead plant material they eat into fertile humus and helping to spread seeds and spores.
If you're lucky enough to visit Butano State Park in winter, watch your step! You'll be able to witness dozens, perhaps hundreds of newts making their way from logs and holes in the ground down to the water to mate and lay eggs. You won't forget to watch for them though — there are signs even on the road leading into the park to remind drivers to watch out for newts crossing the road, as well as signs on park trails.
Beautiful plants abound in Butano State Park, including trillium, a member of the lily family. You'll notice these standouts by their large three-leaf clumps with a single flower in the center. These plants have medicinal properties, though picking a trillium injures it so badly that it may take years for the plant to recover. Indeed, in some locations in North America it is even illegal to pick trillium. So look and enjoy, but don't touch.
The interior of Butano State Park features both redwoods and Douglas fir trees. These have been renewed over the years after logging ended over half a century ago. The Coast Redwoods grow along coastal California, and get as much as 30 percent of their moisture from the thick coastal fog. Changes to the climate, including warming weather that dries out the fog, is a serious threat to the redwoods. These unmistakable trees can grow to be hundreds of feet tall, but truly are a delicate species.
Visitors are able to drive a little way into the park, but besides the two fire roads accessible only by official vehicles, the way to get around the park is on foot. But this is how you would want to get around anyway — you don't want to miss out on every little plant, animal and the wonderful quiet of the park.
While Butano is a relatively small park, it is nestled up against several more amazing places. Other nearby state parks include Año Nuevo, Big Basin Redwoods — where you can find more trails among huge redwood trees to explore — Portola Redwoods State park, and Pigeon Point Light Station. So there is much to see and enjoy in this beautiful part of California's coastline.
There is much to learn and enjoy in Butano State Park at any time of the year, and during any season. Check out the park's website for more information on hours, activities and special features.
This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States. We'll be adding new parks all summer, so check back for more.
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Photos: Jaymi Heimbuch/MNN