Finding Inspiration for Bonsai from the California Coast

Finding Inspiration for Bonsai from the California Coast

Bonsai inspiration California natives Hiking

“The power of imagination makes us infinite” - John Muir.

A few weeks ago we published an article, "Finding Bonsai Inspiration in the Central Sierra Nevada Mountains of California". Today's post is part of an ongoing series encouraging you to become a "tree tourist" and travel to places where you can witness and enjoy awe-inspiring trees, and use these examples to influence your bonsai practice. 

While there are many species along the California coast that can inspire and and encourage bonsai lovers, in this article we're going to focus on just three: Coast redwood, Monterey cypress, and Douglas fir. Each of these species has very different habits and habitats, and each provides a unique and valuable model for bonsai lovers. 

Coast Redwood

The Coast redwood is a tree that has pervaded U.S. popular culture to such an extent that anyone can easily find and access these beautiful giants. Cities have been named after it - Palo Alto, Redwood Shores, and Redwood City. Great redwoods are accessible from as far south as Big Basin State Park to the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt County and Redwood National Park. In large part because of this public and long-standing fascination, many of these Redwood groves can feel more like amusement-park tourist attractions rather than natural inspiration for bonsai study. 

You can find less-traveled and more tranquil places to study Redwoods without driving farther or hiking longer. Among the fascinating properties of Redwoods is their tendency to re-sprout from cut trees; the pendulous lower branches; and the multiple “reiterated” trunks that some develop in older age. Avoid the noise and crowds that descend upon the remaining stands of uncut “First Growth” trees that exist in Big Basin, Muir Woods, and other parks. Instead, visit the many beautiful examples of Redwoods that thrive along unassuming trails in the Bay Area and beyond. We recommend Bay Area Hiker for a full list of guided hikes that can bring you within footsteps of Redwoods. We recently enjoyed, and highly recommend, this view (below) while hiking the Steep Ravine trail in Mount Tamalpais (Mt. Tam).

Monterey Cypress

While not as widely known as Redwoods, the Monterey cypress (Cupressus or Hesperocyparis macrocarpa) is another iconic California tree. Add the drive south of Monterey along the ocean to your must-do list, as it highlights numerous examples of the natural beauty of the pattern of cypress growth. “The Lone Cypress” has been the subject of countless photos as it stands alone on a rock between 17-Mile Drive and the Pacific Ocean. It recently lost a large limb but remains as picturesque as ever. The “Old Veteran” tree at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve also recently succumbed to a storm and gravity and was reduced in grandeur when the northern half of the tree fell into the ocean. Nevertheless, it's still well worth a trip to Point Lobos to traverse the Cypress Grove trail. (beware of parking problems…)

Outside it’s natural habitat, the Monterey cypress has been planted widely in California with an abundance of trees along the San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Marin, Sonoma, and Mendocino coastlines. Many of the coastal trails in San Francisco are abundant with beautiful Cypress examples.

Douglas Fir

Unlike it's more famous regional roommates, the Douglas Fir has been overlooked in popular culture as anything but a timber tree. While many people appreciate their wood for boats and construction, they rarely stop and appreciate the overall splendor of these large evergreen trees. 

Douglas fir grow in the Rocky Mountains and along the coast of California, Oregon, and western Canada. The two populations are quite different genetically. The trees along the west coast can reach sizes approaching a coastal redwood, but there are few examples of that grandeur remaining in California. The main image from this article is a Douglas fir we came upon while on a recent hike in Mt. Tam.

In Northern California, head for Pt Reyes National Seashore and hike some of the trails in the southern part of the park. Due to the 2020 Woodward fire, the Bear Valley trailhead and adjacent areas are closed. The Fivebrooks and Palomarin trailheads are good alternatives. You will likely be inspired to make a great Douglas fir bonsai after your visit! 

More Suggested Hikes

Jane Huber, who also founded the Bay Area Hiker website, outlines may great Northern California hikes in her book “60 Hikes within 60 Miles of San Francisco”. Among our favorites for tree appreciation are the Loop trail starting at Pantoll ranger station in Mt. Tam State Park, descending through Steep Ravine, then across and back up the Matt Davis trail. This trail takes you from a Coast Live Oak woodland, descending through a ravine covered in Douglas fir, Redwood, and Bay trees, then across coastal scrub and back into another ravine covered in Buckeye, Bay, and more nice examples of Douglas fir.

Castle Rock State Park along Skyline Boulevard in Santa Clara County offers similar terrain. Take the Saratoga Gap trail to the falls overlook where you can find a stunning example of an unusual Douglas fir growing next to Castle Rock Falls. Exploring the park further you’ll find different tree cover in different areas, from Bay and deciduous oaks, to Coast Live Oak and open scrub. 

Pick a foggy morning to walk down Middle Drive West from Transverse Drive to near the polo fields in Golden Gate park. If you’ve never walked this way before (it’s wide, paved, and closed to vehicular traffic) you’ll enjoy the stately and architectural mature Monterey Cypress that tower above you.


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