Family-fun activities include tours to locate spiders, crafts, and geocaching

Sophia Johnson, 9, and Ava Johnson, 7, both of Oakwood School, check out a Tarantula held by Monika Davis of Salinas at the Tarantula Fest, held Oct. 5 at Henry W. Coe State Park.

By Calvin Nuttall

The spiders are crawling out of their burrows and into our hearts at Henry W. Coe State Park’s annual Tarantula Festival.

Hosted by the Pine Ridge Association in collaboration with California State Parks, the 2023 Tarantula Fest will be held at Coe’s headquarters 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 7. The event is free to attend but limited parking costs $8 (or $7 with a senior 62 years or older in the vehicle).

At the annual family-friendly event, South Valley residents connect with local wildlife, and celebrate the fascinating eight-legged critters. Fall is a prime time to sight male California tarantulas as they emerge to wander the park in search of a mate before winter’s chill settles in.

Tarantula Fest activities include walking wildlife tours, arts and crafts, and opportunities to get face-to-face with some of the natural denizens of Coe, said Chere Bargar, a PRA member and one of the festival’s coordinators.

Representatives from the Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center (WERC) will bring birds of prey, snakes, tarantulas and other local wildlife for festival-goers to meet and interact with. Many of these are captured wild animals who cannot be returned to the wild for one reason or another.

“Some kids don’t have opportunities to interact with many animals, and this gives them the chance to get up close,” Bargar said. “They also get the opportunity to look at or, if they feel comfortable, pet or even hold a snake. So many people are afraid of snakes, it’s really good for kids and parents to see that they’re not mean or scary creatures. These snakes have been handled a lot, and are very gentle.”

Visitors can join a volunteer-led Tarantula Walk in search of the hairy arachnids. This short, leisurely walk gives them an opportunity to spot the critters in their native habitat as they search for mates. For the male tarantulas, this is their last chance at love. After reaching maturity about seven years old, they won’t live much longer. Females, by contrast, can live up to 30 years or more, so they’re in no rush — they let the males come find them.

“They’ll go in a straight line for a while, and then they’ll make a couple of circles, and then they’ll go in a straight line, maybe in a different direction,” Bargar said. “They are trying to catch the scent of a female tarantula. When they catch her scent, then they head toward her burrow.”

Males approach to within a few feet of the female’s hole, where they stop and begin to stomp their fuzzy little front feet on the ground. The female can actually feel the vibrations in her web and, if she decides she wants the male’s company, comes out. After they mate the female will usually attempt to eat the male. Males who survive their romantic encounter will eventually perish in the cold of winter, or at the beak or claws of a predator.

At Tarantula Fest, visitors will also have opportunities to search for hidden treasures during a volunteer-led geocache tour. Geocaches are small, hidden containers scattered around Coe Park that contain small treasures and serve as the target of a GPS-guided scavenger hunt.

“They’re usually very small items, and they are hidden well,” Bargar said. “You have to really look. It’s good for kids, they get to concentrate on looking for an item and finding it. They get to learn how to use a GPS. Anything that gets them outdoors and appreciating it, I am all for.”

Beyond the guided tour at the Tarantula Fest, geocaching is a worldwide outdoor recreational activity that combines a treasure hunt with an exercise in using navigational equipment.

“You’re not just going out hiking for its own sake, you have a reason,” Bargar said. “It gives you a goal of something to look for. It just adds another level of fun and excitement. It gets a lot of people out into the parks and open spaces who, a lot of the time, would have been sitting in front of their TVs at home.”

Kids can also get an introduction to the geology of Coe through the use of the ultimate teaching tools: cookies and candy. Ellen Metzger, a professor of geology at San Jose State University, will lead the workshop accompanied by some of her students.

“The kids get a basic understanding of the different kinds of rocks and what their properties are,” Bargar said. “Then they get these candies and cookies and they have to decide what candy or cookie reminds them of an igneous rock, or a metamorphic rock, or a sedimentary rock. The kids really enjoy that because they can see a correlation there, and it certainly helps them to remember what a kind of rock is and what its properties are. It’s a fun way to learn about geology.”

Other activities at the festival include: an arts and crafts table, where kids can make their own tarantulas out of pipe cleaners and cotton balls; a live “jug band,” consisting of current and former PRA volunteers Bill Holl, Mike Billo, Greg Scott and Mike Gray, who will play bluegrass-style music with bottles and washboards; and a fire engine and crew for children to meet and explore. Hot dogs and hamburgers and veggie burgers will be sold for lunch, with each meal including chips, cookies and lemonade.

As a fundraiser for the nonprofit volunteer organization, there will be a raffle. Prizes include passes for Coe Park events like Backcountry Weekend, gift certificates for local restaurants, a gift basket from Guglielmo Winery, and many more, with all proceeds going to the Pine Ridge Association. Tickets for the raffle can be purchased online at Buyers need not be present to win.

The drive up East Dunne Avenue to Coe headquarters can be daunting with plenty of curves and steep side cliffs, so drive carefully and be considerate of festival-goers. And please mind the tarantulas crossing the road.

Calvin Nuttall is a freelance reporter from Morgan Hill.