The Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve is a treat to hike in any season, with its 9,000 acres of protected land that boasts several different ecosystems, including woodlands and wetlands. For a special – and fleeting – delight this month, visit the seasonal vernal pools in this distinctive park within the Santa Margarita Watershed. January’s heavy winter showers have filled the pools early this year, and with little rain forecast in February and March, they aren’t expected to last long.
Vernal (derived from the Latin word for Spring) pools form when the wetlands receive substantial rainfall and the acres of coastal sage scrub and bunchgrass are covered in water. Basalt rock under the new mini lakes, some no bigger than large puddles, prevents the water from seeping deeper into the ground. These pools last until they evaporate in drier and hotter temperatures, and offer ideal conditions for wildlife such as pond turtles, spadefoot toads, garter snakes and fairy shrimp.
Shortly after the first rainfall, crustaceans called fairy shrimp emerge from the soil where they have lain dormant through the hot months. As they grow over the next few weeks, they become more visible. These translucent creatures look like something out of a science fiction film, adding to the ephemeral magic of the vernal pools.
The best way to reach the vernal pools is the nearly flat Vernal Pool Trail, which is the most popular trail during this time of the year. At the pools, a boardwalk will allow closer inspection of the water and its fauna while protecting the wildlife.
So grab your family and friends for a visit to the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve for a chance to see the fairy shrimp up close. Then come back in March or April for the wildflowers that bloom as the water recedes.