Quail Hollow Ranch in Felton, California, is truly a gem in the Santa Cruz Mountains. When I moved up to Ben Lomond from Santa Cruz four years ago, it was one of the first new parks I explored, only a ten minute drive from my house. It has grown on me to become one of my favorite microcosms within the area; an often overlooked diamond in the ruff compared to more popular nearby parks like Henry Cowell and Wilder Ranch. It is a diverse, thriving, unique ecosystem, and a special gem of a park.
Quail Hollow is part of the Santa Cruz Sandhills habitat, a peculiar zone of ancient marine seabeds from up to fifteen million years ago. Over the millennia, the uplift of the San Andreas Fault (and its subfaults like the Zayante Fault) rose the sandy seafloor, creating a porous, nutrient-poor soil profile in which specific flora and faun adapted to thrive within. Ponderosa Pines also grow here, which are more commonly found in the Sierra Nevadas. It is a mix of Chaparral, Oak woodland, grassy meadows, and dwarf Redwood forest. Seven endemic species call it their home, including the Ben Lomond Spineflower.
Quail Hollow Ranch was settled in 1866 by Joseph Kenville, and later purchased by the Lane family of Sunset Magazine fame in 1938, where the main ranch house was used for a test kitchen and staging home for the magazine. In 1974, the main property, including still working horse stables and surrounding 300-acres, was purchased by the county. Check out Quail Hollow Ranch: A History, by Susan Collins Lehmann, for much more interesting information about its natural and anthropological history.
It changes beautifully throughout the year. Right now, it is bursting at the seams with gorgeous, vibrant wildflowers. Blankets of Lupine flowers, Vetch, and special yellow Poppies color the landscape like spilled paint. When you first drive into the park, the undulating hillside exploding with purple Lupine flowers will take your breath away. It’s not uncommon for people to stop midway down the road, get out of the car, and take a picture or four. It’s absolutely stunning – and fleeting. Knowing how quickly it goes, I savor these days when the wildflowers are in full bloom.
Fernald’s Iris, White Fairy Lanterns, and Sweet Pea arch gracefully toward the sky. Oak trees are blooming with their broccoli-like clusters, fluorescent with new life. It is magical here. Wildlife abounds. I once saw a family of Bobcats here – two cubs and both parents. It was one of the biggest gifts Nature has given me to witness their play and familial interaction, oblivious to my camouflage sentry point.
I also saw a Mountain Lion here, only a few days ago. I was hiking on the Chaparral Loop, at a nice, meandering pace; I was taking some pictures of wildflowers, and taking in a sort of “forest bathing” experience. Suddenly, a young spotted fawn emerged onto the trail, and bounded toward me. I moved out of its way, and recorded it as it ran off. I was mildly concerned that it was separate from its parent, but next I heard a curious sound: loud, rhythmic exhaling. Not quite a snort, but like someone was violently blowing their nose. I looked up the hillside to see an adult deer, the doe Mother of the fawn I’d just seen, quite presumably.
What is she doing? I pondered. It was pretty obvious there was some kind of threat. Within a few seconds, the movement of a large mountain lion turning to skulk up the hillside came into view. I scrambled to grab my phone to film it as it slowly crept away, its long tail going out of sight. The deer bound across the forest a few paces, and then stopped abruptly, facing uphill toward the puma. Twitching her tail and occasionally stamping her hoof, she continued to exhale rather loudly in about five-second intervals. I stood in awe, wondering if I was going to see a live kill. I was close to the ranch house and parking lot, so I knew I could scream if the very low probability of the cougar going after me were to ensue. Mountain lions are elusive and avoid humans, generally speaking, and clearly deer, its main staple, was on the menu tonight.
I stood there about ten minutes, watching the deer snort and stand off, before it ultimately bounded off near me. I swear it felt some relief seeing me standing there on the trail. Making its escape route next to me wasn’t a coincidence, I don’t think.
When I got home, I quickly Googled Deer exhaling loudly and came across deer-hunting websites explaining the behavior. It was certainly a defensive behavior to an established, clear threat of a predator. I had never seen this before, and found it super interesting to observe. Knowing it means a hunter is near, however, makes me wary of seeing it again in the future.
The second thing I Googled was Fawn separated from doe, which led me to an educational page from the Wildlife Center of Virginia . Its slogan was: Don’t be a Fawn-Napper! Apparently, every Spring and Summer, well-intentioned people find fawn alone in the forest, panic that it’s been abandoned, and try to rescue it by taking it to a local wildlife shelter. Though I hadn’t considered “rescuing” the fawn, I admit I didn’t know what I learned next: fawn and mothers stay apart during the daylight hours, reuniting at dusk. The mother will purposely stay away from the fawn to avoid drawing predators to their young. The next time I see a young fawn alone in the forest, I won’t be so concerned. Unless, of course, a mountain lion may have just been hunting it! Here’s a video of the whole encounter, Variable Checkerspot Butterfly and wildflowers to boot:
That was the third time I’ve ever seen a Mountain Lion. The first time was while running on the Zane Grey loop at Wilder Ranch, and the second time was mountain biking down Fenceline trail, also in Wilder. Both times it turned away from me; both times were in the Springtime, just like this time. Spring is one of the most active time for all animals, and every time I go for a hike or a bikeride, I remind myself that I am in their home, in their backyard. We share the landscape, and especially in Springtime, it’s important to be aware of our animal friends (snakes on the trail included).
By Summer, the hills will dry out, with perennials like Yerba Santa, Manzanita, and Silver Bush Lupine will be in their prime. Quail Hollow boasts the hottest average temperature anywhere in Santa Cruz County, and it certainly lives up to its name on the southwestern, sandier slopes on a mid-Summer’s day. Reptiles abound; it’s a wonderful place to spot all kinds of herps, rattlesnakes included.
With Autumn comes shorter days, changing leaf colors, and the onset of shedding Summer’s bounty. Deciduous trees start to lose their leaves, and the trails are about as dry as they’ll ever be. Some sections of the trail are as deep and loose as beach sand. By the time the late-Fall rains start, usually around November, mosses spring to life on the trees, and fungi start to emerge. It’s a welcome sight.
Winter is a special time of year here, with many mushrooms pushing out from under leafpiles, and gray fog clinging to the hillside like a blanket. There’s barely anyone here, and if you hike all the way up the Sunset Trail , you will get a nice peek of the Monterey Bay, reminding you of the upcoming nice weather of Spring and Summer. If you only have a short time frame, go for a quick but satisfying stroll on the Chaparral Loop. If you have about an hour or so, take the full five-mile Sunset Loop, which will also take you through a dazzling, dwarf Redwood forest, full of candy-like Trillium flowers in the Spring.
Which leads us back to right now – sweet, beautiful Springtime. Now is the best time to see Quail Hollow’s full palette of colors. Enjoy a slow saunter through the Oaks, and let the warm sun make you feel like you’re at the beach. You are, in fact, at the beach – just one that’s several million years old and about 1,000′ above sea-level.