The Turtle Back Hill Nature Trail in China Camp State Park offers the opportunity to explore the unique environment of the salt marshes that once were common around the shores of the entire San Francisco Bay estuary.
The trail is an easy three-quarters of a mile stroll around a forested peninsula that juts out into the salt marshes. Although it is not paved, the trail is still accessible to the disabled and has added features for the blind or vision impaired. In addition to interpretive panels with Braille imprints, there are also tactile displays that show the shapes and textures of plants and animals.
To aid in the learning process, the California Department of Parks and Recreation has prepared a series of audio MP3 files, called the Turtle Back Trail Interpretive Audio Tour. There are a total of six MP3 files which can be downloaded from the China Camp State Park section of the state parks website, and loaded onto an iPod or MP3 player. The audio tour provides an informative narration about Turtle Back Hill that complements the interpretive panels alongside the trail.
The trail starts off across the road from a small parking lot on North San Pedro Road, about a mile inside the state park. This is a good place to listen to the first audio file, which is an orientation to Turtle Back Hill. On the left side of the trail is Turtle Back Hill, which rises up above the tidal wetlands like a small island. To the right are the vast salt marshes that line the shores of San Pablo Bay all the way to the tip of the San Pedro Peninsula. The dirt trail becomes a wooden platform in front of each interpretive panel, signaling to your feet that this is a place to stop and listen to the next audio file.
The narration of the audio tour is useful, although it does not have to be the only way to experience Turtle Back Hill. There are short walks between each panel, and this is a good time to take the headphones off and use your ears to take in the beauty of this place. The songs of birds in the forest or egrets in the marshes ring out, while hawks screech overhead as they float on the updrafts looking for prey. The rustling of pickleweed in a gentle breeze adds to the orchestra, creating a welcome break from technology.
The forests and grasslands of Turtle Back Hill stand in stark contrast to the surrounding marshlands. The hill features coast live oak and California black oak, along with Manzanita, madrone, and the richly aromatic California bay laurel. Wildflowers abound in the grasslands, with sun cups, Ithuriel’s spear, California poppies, sticky monkeyflower, and shooting stars creating a tapestry of color throughout the spring.
The salt marshes have their own unique color palette, which changes with the seasons. Once regarded as useless swamps that needed to be drained, tidal wetlands and marshes are now understood to be a critical element in the environmental processes that allow plant and animal life to thrive. The salt marshes are often referred to as the kidneys of the Bay, as they filter out pollution and absorb excess nutrients that reduce oxygen levels and cause “dead zones.”
They also form a buffer against storm surges, easing the effects of erosion, and provide a source of nutrition for the many forms of life that depend on them. They provide shelter, nesting sites, and nesting materials for many species of birds and other animals. The salt marshes at China Camp are home to a number of endangered species, including the California clapper rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse.
China Camp is one of the California state parks that are threatened with permanent closure this year, due to the ongoing budget crisis within the state government. Friends of China Camp, a committee within the non-profit Marin State Parks Association, is working to reach out to the community and raise funds to keep the park open. One thing we can all do to support our state parks is to visit them often, and the Turtle Back Trail Interpretive Audio Tour is a great tool to help learn about the cherished environment that is in our back yard.