Field Trip: Salt Point State Park

Photo showing a gravel parking lot full of cars, across a paved road, with sign outside the parking lot stating "Salt Point State Park Stump Beach"

Yesterday my husband Grant and I drove up to Salt Point State Park in Sonoma County, California to photograph mushrooms.

This area of the Sonoma Coast was originally inhabited by the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians. Their name for themselves can be translated as "People From the Top of the Land." The tribe currently counts about 860 members, most of whom still live in the surrounding area.

Photo of a woman standing in a pine forest
(Photo by Grant Schofield)

The forest here is dominated by Bishop Pine (Pinus muricata) and Tanoak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus.) We were after Black Trumpets, which are associated with Tanoak, so first we had to hike up to the elevations they prefer.

A Tanoak leaf: a green, canoe-shaped leaf with lightly scalloped edges
(Pictured: Tanoak leaf)

But even at lower elevation, we started to find mushrooms under the pines.

The Candy Cap (Lactarius rubidus) mushroom is a delightful oddity that smells and tastes like maple syrup. The scent is vastly more pronounced once the mushrooms are dried, but in some places yesterday, we could smell the fresh fruitbodies before we spotted them.

Another helpful identifying feature of this mushroom is the milky latex it exudes when broken, visible in the photo above.

Also fruiting in abundance was the Toothed Jelly Fungus (Pseudohydnum gelatinosum,) an ascomycete that feeds on dead wood (saprotrophic.) The little "teeth" on the underside of the cap give it another common name: the Cat's Tongue Fungus.

While bland, these fruitbodies are technically edible. They can be candied or marinated for flavor.

Pictured above is the Elfin Saddle Helvella dryophilia, another edible ascomycete. These fungi are associated with oak trees, and they often pop up along the sides of paths.

This mushroom is known as Pig's Ear, or Violet Chanterelle (Gomphus clavatus.) In this photo, you can clearly see the so-called "false gills."

You can see the violet color more clearly in this older specimen (which has fallen victim to a mold.) These fruitbodies are also edible, but they aren't closely related to true Chanterelles; they're more closely related to Stinkhorns.

Now these are true Chanterelles: the highly-prized Black Trumpet, Craterellus calicornucopioides.

(Photo by Grant Schofield.)

As you can see in this image, Black Trumpets are exceptionally difficult to spot, because their caps blend in well with the forest floor. You can see these are surrounded by fallen Tanoak leaves; C. calicornucopioides associates with Tanoak.

There really is nothing else that looks like these, apart from other Craterellus species that are also edible and tasty. This makes them very popular with casual mushroom-hunters. Salt Point State Park was very busy yesterday.

This was one of the few intact Russula mushrooms we found yesterday, as the rest had been kicked to pieces by other mushroom-hunters. This particular species is Russula emetica, also known as The Sickener or The Vomiter due to the unfortunate gastrointestinal side-effects of consuming this mushroom raw. The toxin can reportedly be removed with careful preparation, but eating this mushroom is not recommended.

This is one of my favorites to come across in the woods: the Western Witch's Hat, Hygrocybe singeri. Like other Hygrocybe, this species is believed to associate with mosses. I was fortunate to find quite a few in successive stages of development and decay:

But the Find of the Day prize goes to my husband Grant, who spotted this beast:

Friends, meet the California Giant Salamander, Dicamptodon ensatus. I usually have to flip over logs to find salamanders during daylight hours, but this one was right out in the open.

I estimate its total length to be 24-25 cm (9.5-10 in) - by far the largest salamander I've ever seen in person.

We spent a good quarter-hour with this magnificent creature, and it never moved a muscle. Didn't even flinch when I pulled a twig off of its tail.

Never forget that when you're in the woods, you're a guest in someone else's home. Tread lightly, step with care, and leave no trace. It's just good manners.