Melea Burke, The Triplicate

Less than 10 minutes from downtown Crescent City's beaches and just a mile or two from the nearest redwood grove lies another of California's coastal gems, this one a bit more off the beaten path. Tolowa Dunes State Park contains the West Coast's largest lagoon outside of Alaska and the state's northernmost sand dunes, in addition to incredible diversity in plants and animals throughout its 11,000 acres.

"We all know about the redwood parks. People come from all over the world for the redwood parks, but this is an equally special place in its own way," explained Susan Calla, a volunteer with the Tolowa Dunes Stewards. "Ancient trees - these are ancient dunes."

Calla gave a short presentation on Tolowa's history and topography Sunday afternoon before a field trip to check out the park's summer wildflowers. The local conservation group Tolowa Dunes Stewards partnered with the Redwood Parks Association for the event, led by Redwood National and State Parks plant biologist Laura Morgan, a Gasquet native and Humboldt State graduate. Around 20 North Coast residents and one visitor from Virginia took a 2-mile round trip hike along the Sweetwater Creek Trail through grassy fields and lush forests to the seemingly barren dune landscape, stopping often along the way to identify blooming wildflowers and other interesting plants.

The dunes themselves are low in nutrients and moisture, often battered by high winds, and the unstable ground presents a challenge to any plant's survival. Of the park's 400-plus plant species, nine are listed as endangered, Calla noted. But a hardy few put down their roots in the sand, depending on specialized adaptations for survival.

For instance, the sea rocket, a non-native species, has seeds that float in a cork-like capsule until they're washed up on land. There the seeds wait to sprout until all the sea salt is washed away by winter rains.

"It's like the seed has a signal that tells it it's far enough away from the ocean to go ahead and germinate," Morgan explained. "How cool is that?"

Other plants, like the beach morning glory, secrete wax that coats their leaves to minimize water loss in the harsh, dry environment of the dunes. Various species work together, living in a sort of dune community where the toughest plants stabilize the ground for those not quite so pioneering.

Silvery phacelia and Pacific gilia are two of Tolowa's native plant species listed as "rare" by the state. Tolowa's coast is home to California's only population of silvery phacelia, a perennial herb with thick leaves coated in long silver hairs. Both plants, along with many other native species, are threatened by the ever-spreading, noxious European beachgrass, a non-native grass that chokes out everything growing around it.

Over the past decade, the Tolowa Dunes Stewards and other volunteers have pulled up 18 acres of the invasive grass, but Tolowa is still overrun. Native dune grass also struggles to grow beside the European invader, which was purposely introduced to the West Coast in the early 1900s to stabilize shifting coastline sand, according to a California State Parks brochure.

With 30 miles of trails through a varied landscape of fields, forests, wetlands, beach and dunes, Tolowa offers something for every nature-lover. While its shallow waters aren't ideal for boating, fishing is popular in Lake Earl, the larger portion of the coastal lagoon, and windsurfers also frequent the area. Once the mouth of the Smith River, Lake Earl is now fed by six freshwater streams as well as the Pacific, as the two bodies exchange water during the winter rainy season. That's when "the lagoon gets recharged," Calla said.

"The liquid landscape here is extraordinary. It's a pretty amazing place."

The summer field trip series continues each Sunday through Aug. 24, with a guest naturalist, biologist or botanist scheduled to lead each expedition. Field trips will focus on topics such as dune restoration and birdwatching, to name a couple. Next up, on Sunday, is geologist Tom Leroy with a presentation on coastal geology and tsunamis. The field trip is planned to last from 1andndash;4 p.m., and participants should meet at the Lake Earl Information Center, 2591 Old Mill Road in Crescent City.

For more information on summer field trips at Tolowa, call Sue Calla at 465-6191.

Reach Melea Burke at