Delightful Surprises Await at the Daniels Nature Center, Palo Alto
By Joyce Kiefer

Snickers is sure to charm you with her fascinating ways. She looks at you with small, bright eyes and darts her forked, black tongue to catch your scent. A special gland in her mouth introduces you through the scent molecules she captures on her tongue. You don’t have to love reptiles to want to stroke this friendly gopher snake when you visit the Daniels Nature Center at Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve in the hills west of Palo Alto.

Other creatures are waiting to meet you, some of them in a drop of water from Alpine pond just outside the Center. How about a transparent daphnia bursting with eggs or a one-eyed, fuzzy-legged Cyclops? The mayfly nymphs may look like sticks in a tub of water, but get them under magnification and they reveal graceful, plume-like tails. As nymphs still in the water or as adults out of the mud, the crayfish will remind you of miniature lobsters. Visitors can examine all these pond creatures with magnifying glasses and microscopes.


I’ve known and loved the Daniels Nature Center and the surrounding Skyline Ridge Preserve since I began volunteering as an Outdoor Education Leader a dozen years ago for the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD). We offer on-site programs for school children, called "Spaces and Species". But much of what we present is available to anyone who shows up on weekend afternoons. Volunteers in the nature center can help with the microscopes or open the cases to show you insects and other things you might find on a hike along the nearby trails. They can pull out the boards to show you models of various animal skulls to show how their teeth and jaws are suited to chewing the kind of food they eat. The jaws actually move. If you ask, a docent can get a fox, badger, or a bob cat off the shelf and let you pet it. A vehicle on the highway and then a taxidermist got to these animals first. You can cuddle a coyote skin or even a (de-scented) skunk pelt. All these animals met their end as road kill.

Less cuddly is the tarantula under a plastic dome. It’s on a table labeled "please touch", along with snake sheds, bird nests, and other natural found objects in the area.


After examining all the displays, it’s time to get out on the trail. Take the half-mile trail that circles the pond. Peer through the brush (yes, much of it is poison oak) to see the piles of sticks that the dusky-footed roof rats have built for their homes. Raccoons come to drink by the weir that dams the pond and leave their paw prints in the mud.

Willow trees surround the water. The Ohlones used their supple branches and twigs for baskets and houses. They also chewed on the leaves and bark whenever they felt a bit achy. Salicylic acid was identified as the magic ingredient. In 1899 this substance was processed and sold by the German Bayer Company as aspirin.
The Ohlones left a hidden treat behind a rock next to the road just below the pond levee. There you’ll find a flat sandstone rock filled with holes where acorns were ground into meal with a stone. Treat this treasure with care. Don’t mark or step on the grinding rock.

Consult the trail signs for paths that lead through the oak woodlands and into the grassy slopes where you might see deer, coyotes, hawks, and a view of the ocean. In spring poppies, lupine, larkspur, buttercups and numerous other flowers dot the hillsides. Count the varieties! And look around the orange sticky monkey flowers up the hill for the black and orange checker spot butterflies and their caterpillars. These butterflies are unique to the region.
Skyline Ridge lies within a few miles of a half dozen Open Space Preserves, two state parks, and the City of Palo Alto’s Foothills Park. You could add any of these interesting places to your outing, except for Foothills Park unless you’re a Palo Alto resident.


But I recommend Los Trancos Preserve for introduction to a basic fact of nature in the Bay Area – earthquakes. The San Andreas Fault splits the preserve. You can follow the fault zone by walking the 1.5 mile San Andreas Fault Trail. You will be walking along a 0.3 mile-wide belt where the Pacific plate grinds against the North American plate as it heads towards Alaska. Movement along the fault averages 3/4 inch per year. Do the math to see how much the ground under your feet has shifted since you were born.


With a trail guide in hand you can follow the numbered stations to examine changes in the landscape caused by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 – sag ponds, benches, shifts in vegetation, and a displaced fence. At Station 1 you’ll stand on the eastern edge of the Pacific plate. Loma Prieta Peak – near the epicenter of the quake of 1989 – sits on the horizon 23 miles away.
I highly recommend taking a docent-led earthquake walk. These are typically given on weekends and last about 2 1/2 hours. The leaders can show demonstrations and offer additional information that they’ve researched themselves. Although the MROSD lists these hikes on their website, I think the best way to learn about these and other programs is by subscribing to their free newsletter, "Open Space Views", which will be sent to you by U.S. mail.
Next time you find yourself choking on Silicon Valley congestion, look up to the hills and think: Less than ten miles from a major freeway you can experience nature from beneath the earth on up. Snickers is waiting.

Travel tips:

The most direct way to Los Trancos and Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserves is Page Mill Road in Palo Alto. Turn west from the 280 Freeway. Page Mill Road becomes narrow and curvy but has great views. Watch for bike riders. Los Trancos is 7 miles up the road on the right. If the parking lot is full, use the one across the road at Montebello Preserve. To reach the Daniels Nature Center at Skyline Ridge, continue another two miles to Skyline Blvd. (Highway 35), cross to Alpine Rd., and park at Russian Ridge Preserve parking lot. Then follow the trail signs and walk through the tunnel under Alpine and – voila – you’ll be in another world.

Daniels Nature Center:

The center, which is staffed by volunteers, is open Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5:00 p.m. April through September. October and November the hours are 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. It is closed December through March. Call (650) 691-1200 to verify. Admission is free to the Center and to all the preserves. There is no charge for parking. Facilities at the preserves are limited. Skyline Ridge has two picnic tables near Alpine Pond. Pack your garbage out.



For more information on Skyline Ridge Preserve, go to  
and for more on Los Trancos Preserve, go to  
For a general map of the south Skyline Region open space preserves, go to maps/ south _ skyline _map_07-04.pdf
To subscribe to the free "Open Space Views", go to  
To learn more about earthquakes, go to the U.S. Geological Survey site

Writer Joyce Kiefer lives in the South Bay. This is her second article for BAFT.

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