The freight train known as Budget California is barreling down legislative tracks toward innocent bystanders. One facing a nearly certain amputation: the California state park system. The conductors have ample stopping distance, but they are on a quest to trim a deficit projected by the Governor’s office to be $23 billion by Fiscal Year 2012. By refusing to apply the brakes to their plans for flattening the park system, they can save the staggering sum of $33 million over two years. Whoopee.
Outdoor recreation enthusiasts could express outrage, and many have. An alternative, or additional, course calls for summoning a heightened sense of urgency centered on experiencing at least some of the 70 natural jewels now slated for mothballing. And what better place to begin than a day trip to an often overlooked park that packs 2 miles of coastal access, Big Sur views and a sampling of the Santa Lucia Mountains’ diverse natural habitats into its 3,000 acres.
Located only 7 miles south of Carmel at mileage marker 68.5 on California State Route 1, Garrapata State Park offers stellar hiking, mountain biking on its Rocky Ridge Trail, wildlife viewing and photography opportunities. Bordering the Pacific Ocean and extending eastward to the Santa Lucia Mountains, the Park is comprised of very diverse terrain, permitting visitors to enjoy not only gorgeous marine habitat, but also low and higher elevation plant communities that include scrub, chaparral, grassland, coniferous forest, stream bank woodland and mixed evergreen.
Garrapata’s plant life shelters equally diverse wildlife species that share their Park with visitors, including endangered Smith’s blue butterflies, California horned lizards, black-shouldered kites, peregrine falcons, merlins, American kestrels, Beechey ground squirrels, Brewer’s blackbirds, spotted owls, Pacific giant salamanders, gray squirrels, Merriam chipmunks, song sparrows, and small burrowing rodents. Whales pass Garrapata’s shoreline during winter migrations, and lucky visitors can view them from Soberanes Point.
Calling the Big Sur area beautiful is like a Giants fan calling the World Series win nice. It is beautiful, but the word can hardly conjure the feeling of standing amidst late winter and early spring wildflower purples, yellows and blues against the backdrop of a forested valley or the stunning Pacific coastline. Photographs and a video included with this article attempt to do the Park justice.
Trails to these vistas will satisfy both the well-conditioned hiker and casual stroller. The Rocky Ridge and Soberanes Canyon Trails combine to form a strenuous 4-1/2 mile loop hike that rewards with views of the coast from elevations between 1400 and 1800 feet. The less aggressive walker can enjoy beauty more easily accessed on the Soberanes Canyon Trail and by enjoying the Park’s 2 miles of coastal access via the Soberanes Point Trail. Mountain bikers can enjoy the Rocky Ridge portion of the loop trail.
Behind the area’s scenic beauty lies a long and somewhat dark history that may also interest visitors. In 1770, the native peoples in the Monterey Bay area lived in approximately 50 separate and politically autonomous nations or tribelets. Though archaeologists differ on exact dates, their examinations of ancient shell mounds and other artifacts left at feast sites suggest that native people had settled the area by at least 500 AD and perhaps much earlier. In the early 1700’s the native population peaked at around 10,000.
Their culture began to unravel around 1769, when Spanish soldiers and missionaries arrived from southern California to Christianize the people and colonize the region. The Spanish lumped all of the native groups together under a single new name, Costanoan, meaning “coast people.” They built seven missions and forced consolidation of the formerly autonomous tribelets based on proximity to the seven missions.
The loss of native lands, introduction of foreign diseases, disruption of village networks and lack of access to traditional food sources exacted a cataclysmic toll. By 1830, their numbers had dropped to approximately 2000. In 1834, the Mexican government secularized the California missions, seized control of all mission land and property and began redistributing the property primarily through land grants. Few natives received property rights, and many became laborers and cowboys on Mexican-owned ranches.
Between 1839 and the 1960’s, the Ezequiel Soberanes and Francis Doud families ranched property now comprising most of the Park. The state acquired the first of the Park’s parcels in 1980 and then formed the Park in 1985, naming it Garrapata, the Spanish word for the arachnid the English speaking call a Tick. Park literature warns visitors of Ticks along the Garrapata trails. To the subjugated native population decimated by the Spanish, the State’s selection of the eponymous parasite must seem sadly metaphoric.
A rose by any name remains a rose. The Governor’s office has stated that final park closings will likely not occur until July 1, 2012. Detailed plans for individual parks remain uncertain, but it is safe to say that Garrapata’s clock is ticking. Why bank on the hope of continuing to recreate in a park deemed officially closed by the state government? Hikers, bikers, photographers and nature lovers of all kinds had best enjoy Garrapata’s beauty while they still have an unabridged right of access.
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