Rain, Rain, and More Rain in Northwest California
Updated: Apr 11
The California Northwest is rich with salamanders and is the best place to see animals in winter. Sixteen species can be found along the coast, north of San Francisco. Due to relentless rain, winter-tent camping in the redwoods often requires two tents, one smaller tent, erected inside a larger tent. That has been my procedure in the past. However, since my kids have never explored the redwoods and camping in the rain is muggy and miserable for most people, we agreed—we'll rent an RV! With one stipulation, the RV must be small, since our desired routes required driving, and potentially turning around on, dirt logging roads.
After picking up the rented RV in San Francisco, we ventured north, reaching our first destination, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, in the dark. Rain was non-stop, yet the temperature was an okay, 50-degrees, producing the usual half-dozen or so Ensatina, and a male Wandering Salamander clinging to the trunk of a massive redwood in the campground. I've always appreciated the way Wandering Salamanders utilize the highest section of trees, a situation neglected by most other caudata. There are records of Wandering Salamanders over 300 ft. above the forest floor.
In 2001, we made our first trip to Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park and since then, we have been returning to this amazing park. An emerald-green river flows past huge redwoods, and pouring rains add mystique to this forest. It's difficult to imagine this park without rain, over 6 feet (1.8 m) falls on the park annually. The rain showers, redwoods, and thought of salamanders stimulate the imagination of a prehistoric time, long ago. Narrowly reaching this region are the Dunn's and Clouded salamanders. In addition, existing here are the primordial-looking Torrent Salamander and Coast Tailed Frog. On this trip, we wouldn't find those creatures, but we did see Ensatinas, Del Norte, Pacific Giant, Klamath Black, and California Slender salamanders.
Later, we drove south to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, and it was wet! Rainfall fell as if from a waterfall, rain jackets were useless and the water soaked through, down to a person's core. It was tough to even stand outside to watch the salmon swimming upstream, passing our campsite, to reach spawning sites farther upstream. With so much rain, salamanders didn't need to use logs or rocks as a retreat, for a single leaf could suffice. The torrential rains made finding them hard, and only a couple Wandering Salamanders were found, clinging to the outside-wall of the campground's restroom. It was at this time, my wife and kids had enough rain, so, in a joyful mutiny, they agreed, we would escape the redwoods and seek out sunshine by driving south.
Driving south meant Mendocino County, where there was at least a little glimmer of hope to see sunlight and the ocean. Van Damme State Park is one of the best salamander spot in California, with 9 species known to occupy the park. The trail that follows Little River is shaded by huge Douglas-firs and is home to many salamanders, including impressively large Pacific Giant and Northwestern salamanders. On this trip, Wandering Salamanders would dominate the tally, followed by Ensatinas and Northwestern salamanders. It's nice when something other than Ensatinas and California Slender Salamanders dominate discoveries.
A place that I had yet to visited was Salt Point State Park. It was a place that's been on my “to-do list” for some time, not for its strikingly beautiful coastline, but for having the northernmost California Giant Salamanders and southernmost Northwestern and Wandering salamanders. Arriving at night and having never been to this campground before, my night-walking led me into a dense, brush-filled ravine with no hope of finding anything but Ensatinas, California Slender, and Arboreal salamanders. It was not till morning that I spotted what should have been my focus the night before. While exiting the park, a wet ravine with flowing water was seen, as well as a sun-warmed log being used to delineate a campsite. It was one of those perfect-sized logs, not too large, yet not small. It was the perfect size to easily turn, and I'm happy that I did because that log concealed a half-dozen slender salamanders, another half-dozen Enstainas, and a massive California Giant Salamander. I had told my young son and daughter stories about the existence of Jurassic-looking giants, and upon the discovery they enthusiastically leaped from the camper to lay their eyes on a true giant!
Jokingly, as a self-proclaimed wine expert, my wife wanted to visit Napa Valley and without hesitation, I knew where to go, Bothe-Napa Valley State Park. This park is well maintained, wet, and beautifully adorned with layers of colorful fallen leaves, green moss-coated trees, and appears as a great place to see salamanders. However, freezing temperatures made finding salamanders tough, and I left happy with only finding a couple night-active Ensatinas, slowly crawling about in 34-degree temperature.
This year (2023), San Mateo County received a tremendous amount of rain, and conversations with the rangers at Half Moon Bay State Beach, exclaimed the severity of the rain and flooding that occurred just prior to our arrival at that campground. The now, sporadic rains at the campground, which is positioned on the coast, produced Arboreal and California Slender salamanders, Central Pacific Chorus Frogs, and sitting outside the campground's restroom a large, female, California Red-legged Frog. It was apparent that the abundance of moisture permitted the frog to venture away from natal waters and explore the sandy strand of beach.
In conclusion, rain is nice, even very nice, but too much rain made finding salamanders tough. Flooded streams forced those salamanders that typically existed by water to move inland, and turning logs (for the most part) proved ineffective, since salamanders could hide under any forest leaf and remain safe from desiccation. Night-walking didn't fair well either, there were nights and nights of rain, which turned favorable salamander-moving conditions into an ordinary, mundane occurrence. No longer did a rainy night provoke a salamander-party, with all the rains, salamanders were, frankly, partied out. In winter, when small animals are typically dormant in the cold mountains and deserts, there are some naturalists that know, there is still one place to go, to the California Northwest where the big salamanders grow.