Elfin Forest hitting its 20th anniversary

Eric Mehiel jogs with his dog, Daisy, on the Elfin Forest boardwalk Oct. 20. The preserve in Los Osos, where trees grow sideways instead of upward, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Eric Mehiel jogs with his dog, Daisy, on the Elfin Forest boardwalk Oct. 20. The preserve in Los Osos, where trees grow sideways instead of upward, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The Elfin Forest in Los Osos has long distinguished itself for its rare stands of dwarfed oak trees that grow sideways instead of upward.

The forest is home to animals such as the spiky-bodied, coast horned lizard and the twig-gathering woodrat. And more than 200 species of plants populate the 90-acre site that overlooks Morro Bay National Estuary.

More than two decades ago, the forest might have been developed with plans for 132 new homes that would have joined the northern neighborhood of Los Osos with the estuary.

But a committed group of activists, starting in 1985, began pulling together their resources and raised $1.6 million for the purchase of the preserve in 1994.

Elfin forests are unusual, though others exist, including one in San Diego. However, they make for an ecotourism attraction that forest preservation advocates feel is invaluable.

The forest provides a home for a diversity of wildlife — 110 kinds of birds, 22 mammal species and 13 species of reptiles and amphibians. The habitat also acts as an important buffer between the neighborhood and the fragile estuary environment.

The preserve, officially called the El Moro Elfin Forest, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

The nonprofit Small Wilderness Area Preservation (SWAP) organized the original fundraising effort to purchase about 40 acres from the Otto family, which owned it at the time.

County Parks now owns the property and SWAP cares for it by organizing weeding and erosion abatement projects in addition to removing alien species that threaten native plants. SWAP also conducts nature walks for schools and the community.

The state owns an additional 50 acres that make up the rest of the forest.

Visitors can navigate the preserve and its spectacular estuary and ocean views along a 4,000-foot-long boardwalk loop.

A recent tour of the site with Ron Rasmussen, the chairman of SWAP, revealed the mysterious trees that grow sideways instead of vertically because of the prevailing northwesterly winds.

The trees are stunted by sandy soils and heavy breezes laden with salty air.

“The strong winds trim the tops of the trees and so the oaks grow sideways to get light,” Rasmussen said. “These trees are half the height or more than what they normally would be.”

While standing under a canopy of coastal live oaks in Rose’s Grove, Rasmussen recalled Rose Bowker, a former SWAP president committed to the preservation effort, who held small parties and musical performances to raise money for the purchase.

The grove is often the featured image in photos of the forest. The wooden boardwalk that winds through the preserve makes a detour to show it off.

Rose’s Grove takes walkers away from the scenic views and into an enclosure of trees with winding, twisting branches — an arboreal den that provides nature-lovers a sense of calm as they sit on benches under the canopy of trees.

Amid the trees and varieties of brush, the word “packrat” comes to mind because of the mounds of twiggy nests built by nocturnal woodrats that make the bushy area their home.

In drier corner of the preserve, red ants make for a tasty treat for the coast horned lizard that devours them. Turkey vultures circle overhead, waiting to swoop down for any carrion. 

Centuries ago, the Elfin Forest was one of the places along the coastline where the Chumash gathered to feast on shellfish, Rasmussen said, pointing to the bits and pieces of shells still scattered around the site. The shell remains have been documented by archaeologists, Rasmussen said.

“Along the coast, people have not only found shells but also obsidian, which comes from volcanoes,” Rasmussen said. “This area doesn’t have volcanoes so that shows that trading was taking place between coastal Indians and those inland.”

Every third Saturday SWAP volunteers lead community tours of the forest.

Visitors to the forest might encounter fleet-footed coyotes, California thrashers with thin, hooked beaks, or brilliant variable checkerspot butterflies.

Plant life includes chamise, an evergreen shrub; lichen that hangs from the forest’s trees like dripping green frost; and bright red and orange California peony.  

The kicker to the tour is the view from Bush Lupine Point, a prized location at the far west end of the preserve from which birders can survey the estuary habitat and beyond.

“Birders love to come here with binoculars and count different species of birds,” said Rasmussen, peering out over the expansive estuary at low tide. “They find dozens of them.”