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Theme: Parks with a Past

A Brief History of Bay Area Parks and Open Space
   Pt. 1, 1840s-1950s

A Conservation Timeline
   Pt. 1, 1840s-1950s

Up and Down the Peninsula and South Bay

Names on the Land
   Pt. 1, San Mateo County

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Sudden Oak Death

Oak Mortality Syndrome

Grazing Through Huckleberry Heaven

Old-Fashioned Huckleberry Muffins

Wild Lit

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Blacksmith Fork and Fox - Megan E. Hansen

Down Harkins Fire Road (El Mar de la Purissima - Greg Dunn


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Fall 2000

Grazing through Huckleberry Heaven

By Geoffrey Skinner.

I consider the California huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) to be one of the great treats of autumn. I have fond memories of walking the Woodward Valley Trail in Point Reyes National Seashore one September when my hiking companion and I noticed thousands of succulent, dark red berries hanging from the bushes lining both sides of the trail under the towering Douglas firs. We grazed our way toward the coast, taking a couple of hours to travel less than two miles. Years later, I discovered new pleasures in visiting the Sierra Nevada in the fall when I discovered tasty berries on the California huckleberry's relatives, western blueberry (V. uliginosum ssp. occidentale) and dwarf bilberry (V. caespitosum).

California huckleberry illustration
Illustration by Joan Schwan.

      The huckleberry belongs to the Ericaceae (Heath) family - a family that also includes madrone and manzanita. It is a California native (though also found elsewhere in western North America) which prefers redwood, closed-cone pine and mixed evergreen forests between nine and 2600 feet in elevation. All of these habitats are abundant in the Santa Cruz Mountains and so are the California huckleberry and its close relative, the red huckleberry (V. parviflorium), particularly on the western slopes. While one finds a poison oak-filled understory on the eastern slopes, it is the huckleberries that often form an impenetrable thicket under the redwoods.
      My wife, Joan, and I hiked through the huckleberry region as we made a circuit of Sam McDonald and Pescadero Creek County Parks on our honeymoon. We began our trip at the Sierra Club Hikers' Hut located in Sam McDonald, after an easy walk from the Sam McDonald Ranger Station. We stayed at the Hut for two days, which allowed us to explore much of the park. On the first day, we had hiked down into the Pescadero Creek canyon on Brook Trail Loop and I was excited to discover a huckleberry bush with a few berries still attached. I offered them to Joan and she tried two or three, but she couldn't understand the attraction because they were so dried that they were nearly flavorless. I'd argued that my memory of earlier feasts was strong enough that the present specimens were still a treat. She was very skeptical.
      On our second day, we retraced our steps for about a mile, following Brook Trail Loop, then the upper portion of Bear Ridge Trail, paralleling Bravo Fire Road until the Canyon Trail junction.

A crazed huckleberry eater.
A crazed huckleberry eater.
Photo by Joan Schwan
We were happy to take the more scenic and gentle trail rather than the fire road, which drops steeply toward Pescadero Creek. We hiked down Canyon Trail, descending into deep second-growth redwood forest. Then, as we wandered along the unnamed tributary of Tarwater Creek at the bottom of the canyon, we entered paradise. Joan spotted the multitude of luscious berries first and we came to an abrupt halt. When she tasted her first berry, she was an immediate convert. We moved slowly down the trail, harvesting berries by the handful and devouring them with glee.

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