How better to celebrate the new year than with a trip to the coast, not all the way to the Pacific, but just a few miles from home in the town of Alameda? With beaches, lawned picnic and playing areas and a scene-setting visitor center, it would be a challenge not to enjoy a day at Crown Memorial State Beach and Crab Cove!
The site of today’s regional park in the quaint town of Alameda has a history as rich as its natural resources. From the 1880s to the outbreak of World War II, Crown Memorial was home to the largest amusement center on San Francisco Bay. People in the thousands flocked to spend the day on the beautiful sand beaches and sample the warm shallow waters. Known as “Coney Island of the West,” Neptune Beach lived up to its billing with huge saltwater bathing spas featuring sky-high diving platforms, dance pavilion, concerts, roller coaster, prizefights, baseball games, publicity stunts and the invention of the snow cone.
The war brought the festivities to an end. The land was purchased by the government for use as a training base for Merchant Marine commanders. Today’s visitor center occupies the former base infirmary. In 1959 it became a State Park and was transferred to Regional Park status in 1967.
I began my outing at the Crab Cove Visitor Center, brimming with exhibits that teach about the unique marine and estuarine environments and the need for their preservation. Outside, an Interpretive Panel identifies this area as California’s first marine reserve on an estuary.
The center’s exterior welcomes you at first sight. Constructed of driftwood-brown wood trimmed with brick-red and marine-blue and shaded by mature trees, this building would please any number of inhabitants. A spacious outdoor deck is decorated with marine motifs—a bat ray, shark, crab and sea snail—just teasers for the delightful surprises that await you.
Inside you’ll feel you’ve stepped into an underwater environment, worthy of a Visitor Center Award. Walls are painted blue, illustrated and hung with life-size marine models. The ceiling is lowered with narrow cloth panels in watery shades of blue, shaped to resemble waves. Interactive stations and freestanding exhibits make learning fun. One exhibit focuses on invertebrates, in one display comparing crab “innards” to those of humans. Another exhibit compares life at low and high tides, describing mud flats as underground cities.
Multiple aquariums, one holding 800 gallons, teem with the bay’s creatures: perch, sculpin, sand dabs, goby, shark and flounder. An eerily lighted display case reminiscent of Art Deco holds the bay’s alien invaders in sealed jars. Green and mitten crabs, striped bass and a New Zealand sea slug are some of the plants and animals that have made their way into the bay.
Illustrated pier pilings and an old wooden boat suspended from the ceiling remind us of the barnacles, mussels and anemones who call submerged wood structures home. Old wood is also the dominant feature in the Old Wharf Classroom. Here classes are held with participants seated on weathered wood crates gazing at a welcome aboard plaque, two white life preservers, an illustrated backdrop of an old wharf and a room-wide diorama of bay and estuary life forms. Cozy as the hold of a ship, I could almost smell the salt tanged air.
To explore further, I followed the path to Marine Reserve Cove where the park’s rich wildlife was in full display. A flock of Canada geese were sharing the waters with several brown pelicans. The geese were repeatedly dipping their backs, heads and necks into the water, extending their wings and flapping them vigorously, some were even engaged in complete body rotations. The pelicans, meanwhile, performed their own routine by swimming as a group, extending necks and flapping their wings, then scooting across the water. An audience of cormorants occupying a cement jetty extending far into the water was much more sedate, merely opening their wings in the weak morning sun.
Tearing myself away I continued into Crown Park consisting of several acres of well-maintained lawns, multiple picnic areas, two fresh-water lagoons, sand dunes and a 2.5-mile shoreline. I passed gaggles of plump Canada geese, some foraging on the lawns, others at attention surrounding a picnic area, as if waiting for the cookout to begin.
Being on foot and wanting to maximize my coastal experience I opted to walk at the water’s edge with firm sand, rather than pavement, below my feet. It’s an odd juxtaposition, ambling on an urban beach. Clumps of seaweed at your feet, small waves lapping on the shore, multihued dune grasses dotting the sandy hills, cool breeze at your face, but across the street multistoried housing side by side and the San Francisco skyline across the bay. Soon I was lost in the enjoyment of my surroundings and the city seemed far away: beachcombing through assortments of driftwood, shells and rocks; playing the seaweed I.D. game amid the iodine-rich red algae and two types of bright green algae; watching gulls bobbing in the waves; a lone fisherman on his camp chair anchored rod awaiting a strike; kayakers and fishing boats cruising the bay.
At the southern end of Shoreline Path stands the Elsie Roemer Bird Sanctuary, the site of an interesting ecological dilemma, that of the endangered California clapper rail versus an invasion of non-native cordgrass.
The California clapper rail once flourished along the coastal marshes of central and northern California. Its clattering call could be heard among salt water, brackish marshes and tidal sloughs. Today that habitat has been reduced to the San Francisco Bay. This endangered bird’s population has actually increased in recent years, in part due to the spread of Spartina alterniflora, an alien species of bright green seven-foot-tall cordgrass choking out native flora and fauna as it slowly converts mudflats to meadows.
The taller denser alterniflora provides more cover, protecting the clapper rail from predators and their nests from washing away with the tides. Now covering over 1,000-acres, this alien has upset the delicate ecological balance of the estuary and drastically reduced diversity. This is especially true in the case of native pickleweed, an important habitat for the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse.
Standing at the end of the observation platform I looked out over the sea of cordgrass, beautiful but dangerous. Under gunpowder gray skies, the bright green and yellow stalks stood out in proud defiance, strongly asserting their strength. Nearby, placards warned of upcoming plans to clean up this botanical pest, signaling that a choice had been made.
Choices abound to prolong this estuarine adventure. A bike path and road continue over a bridge to Bayfarm Island where homes built around lagoons and Shoreline Park offer a more recent environment for exploring. If you prefer going back in time, amble down Alameda’s Park Street or Webster Street where yesterday and today meld pleasantly with browse worthy shops and mouth watering eateries that will satisfy everyone in your party.
East Bay Regional Park District Trail Challenge: 562-PARK, www.ebparks.org.
Getting there: Take I-580 east and I-980 (Downtown Oakland). Exit I-980 at 11th/12th Streets, go several blocks and turn left onto 5th Street. This will take you through the Oakland/Alameda Tube onto Webster St. Webster St. dead ends on Central Ave. Turn right on Central to reach the Crab Cove entrance at McKay Ave. on the left. Distance 15 miles.
Crab Cove Visitor Center: 1252 McKay Ave., 521-6887, Wed.-Sun. 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., through November. For schedule of programs and classes call or go to www.ebparks.org/events.
Crown Memorial State Beach: Eighth Street and Otis Drive, 5 a.m.-10 p.m., $5/car, $2/dog (on leash in picnic areas, not allowed on beach). Street parking available.