Early spring wildflowers at Pulgas Ridge Open Space Preserve

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I “discovered” Pulgas Ridge Open Space Preserve four years ago, and I have now visited each year during the spring or early spring.  Of course, the timing and abundance of wildflowers depend on several factors, including the timing and abundance of rain, as well as the month.  My first two visits were in 2014 and 2015, both in May.  In 2017 I visited in April.  These two hikes (2016 and 2018) took place in early February and were focused on early spring wildflowers.

Pulgas Ridge is one of 26 open space preserves managed by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, often called Midpen.  Pulgas Ridge is one of the smaller preserves, at 366 acres, and is located in San Mateo County near the city of San Carlos.   One of its special attractions is an off-leash dog area in the center of the preserve, and leashed dogs are permitted on all other trails.  Even if you take trails that do not intersect the off-leash area, as I did, you will most likely encounter hikers with dogs at some point during your visit.  All of the dogs I’ve encountered at Pulgas Ridge have been very well-behaved and under proper control of their owners.  The preserve used to house a tuberculosis treatment center; all of the buildings were demolished after Midpen acquired the property.  I have not been able to discover the origin of the name Pulgas Ridge, though pulgas means fleas in Spanish.

This post primarily describes my 2018 visit, but my 2016 visit followed an almost identical route.  And both visits were motivated by a desire to see an early spring wildflower with the unusual common name of fetid adder’s tongue (Scoliopus bigelovii).  Apparently the blossoms are considered to be foul-smelling, though you have to get down close to them – the plants are typically less than 6” tall – in order to smell them.  And I think adder’s tongue refers to the shape of the underground part of the plant.

In any case, seeing the fetid adder’s tongue was the highlight of both hikes.  The foliage is quite distinctive: two broad leaves that are typically mottled with brownish spots.  The blossoms are fairly intricate, though are often noticed by people only after seeing the foliage.  In fact, the showiest part of the flower, with a light background color and delicate purple-brown veins, is actually the sepals rather than the petals.

picture of fetid adder’s tongue

Fetid adder’s tongue

The route for my hike was basically a semi-loop with a short extension.  On the map the orange dot shows the main parking area.  From there the Blue Oaks Trail switchbacks uphill to the beginning of the loop.  Since I was planning to skip the off-leash dog area, I hiked clockwise around a loop consisting of the Dick Bishop, Polly Geraci, and Hassler Trails before descending the Blue Oaks Trail.  Near the bottom end of the Polly Geraci Trail I took a short extension on the Dusky-Footed Woodrat Trail.  The entire route was about 3.1 miles.

GPS track

GPS track

The elevation gain and loss are moderate, about 550 feet total, so the average grade is about 6.7%.  The highest point, a bit under 750 feet elevation, is the junction of the Dick Bishop and Polly Geraci Trails.  Near the end of the loop the Hassler Trail climbs up to the Blue Oaks Trail.  An alternative route, which I took in 2016, essentially follows Hassler Rd (visible on the GPS track map) back to the parking area and is level.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The first part of the hike is the climb up 0.4 mile long Blue Oaks Trail, which makes a few switchbacks through a lovely blue oak forest area dominated by shade.  This year the area is dry due to low rainfall levels, but it was somewhat moister in 2016.  On that hike there was quite a bit of Indian warrior (Pedicularis densiflora) in areas that received partial sun, though on this hike I didn’t see any at all.

picture of Indian warrior

Indian warrior

There were also several Henderson’s shooting stars (Primula hendersonii).  This particular plant was evidently getting ready to launch several more blossoms.

picture of Henderson’s shooting star

Henderson’s shooting star

Another shade-tolerant early bloomer is Pacific hound’s tongue (Cynoglossum grande).  This plant was also getting ready to produce additional blossoms.

picture of Pacific hound’s tongue

Pacific hound’s tongue

In addition, there was miner’s lettuce, Bermuda buttercup, and – of course – poison oak.

Closer to the top of Blue Oaks Trail there are some chaparral plants, including manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.).  Manzanitas come in a variety of sizes – this one was what I consider to be a typical size, about 5 ft tall – but I have not yet learned to distinguish them at the species level.  Later, along the Polly Geraci Trail, I would see perhaps a different species, with a slightly pinkish tinge to the blossoms.

picture of manzanita with blooms

Manzanita with blooms

At the top of Blue Oaks Trail there are a few different trail options, and I turned left on the Dick Bishop Trail, which continues to climb, gaining about 200 feet in 0.7 mile.  Along the way there is a nice view of Edgewood Park and Natural Preserve, which is located just across Edgewood Rd from Pulgas Ridge.  Edgewood, a San Mateo County park, is well-known for wildflowers.

picture of view of nearby Edgewood Park

View of nearby Edgewood Park

The trail passes a colorful silver wattle (Acacia dealbata), sometimes called mimosa tree.  The bright yellow flowers are like small balls about 1/2 inch in diameter.  Unfortunately, this is a non-native tree.

picture of silver wattle, or mimosa

Silver wattle, or mimosa

I was particularly impressed by one particular oak tree along the Dick Bishop Trail.  I suppose it is a coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) since that is the most common evergreen oak in the area.  However, coast live oak’s leaf edges are supposed to be spinose (spiny-toothed), and this tree’s leaf edges were smooth-looking.  In any case, it was not a blue oak (Q. douglasii) since blue oaks are deciduous.

picture of magnificent oak tree along the Dick Bishop Trail

Magnificent oak tree along the Dick Bishop Trail

Along the Dick Bishop trail I also saw some pre-blooming wavy-leaved soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum), which is easy to identify from its characteristic long, wavy leaves.

The top end of the Dick Bishop Trail leads directly, crossing paved Hassler Trail, to the Polly Geraci Trail.  The upper portion of the trail travels through chaparral, including manzanita and toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) among other species.  Toyon is notable for its bright orange-red berry clusters.

picture of toyon


The lower half of Polly Geraci Trail is shaded and generally moist, though less moist than usual this year (2018).  A variety of ferns can be found, including several bright green species and a dark green species.  One of the more interesting, as well as distinctive, ferns is maidenhair fern (Adiantum jordanii).

picture of maidenhair fern

Maidenhair fern

Another early spring wildflower is milk maid (Cardamine californica), with four delicately veined white petals.  It is found in many different types of plant community, but generally along stream banks or on slopes.  These were in the lower, moist and shaded, section of the Polly Geraci Trail.

picture of milk maids along the Polly Geraci Trail

Milk maids along the Polly Geraci Trail

In 2016 I encountered a couple of plant experts who pointed out an unusual plant in a particularly moist slope area next to the trail.  If I remember correctly, it is called a liverwort, which is a type of non-vascular land plant.  They are most similar to mosses.

picture of liverwort, I believe

Liverwort, I believe

In 2016 I saw a few California buttercups (Raununculus californicus) along the Polly Geraci Trail.  My 2018 hike may have been too early for them to be blooming.

A trail junction near the lower end of the Polly Geraci Trail provides access to the Dusky-Footed Woodrat Trail.  Although this trail climbs back up into the chaparral, on this hike I only covered about 0.2 mile, in a shady forest area next to Cordilleras Creek.  Along both trails I encountered some common snowberry (Symphoricarpus albus) shrubs in shady and moist areas.  Snowberry is deciduous, so its pure white berry clusters on bare branches are rather easy to identify in the winter and early spring.  (The leaves in the background of the picture belong to different plants.)

picture of common snowberries

Common snowberries

One of my favorite early spring flowers is trillium, and there are a few species that are found in the Bay Area and in San Mateo County.  On my 2016 hike, but not on my 2018 hike, I found numerous common, or giant, trilliums (Trillium chloropelatum) on the Dusky-Footed Woodrat Trail near the junction with the Polly Geraci Trail.  These spectacular plants thrive in shady forest areas and often grow in clumps.  An interesting footnote, which perhaps explains the clumping growth habit, is that trillium seeds are dispersed by ants.  Another interesting fact is that the large leaf-like structures, which do perform photosynthesis, are actually bracts; trilliums do not have leaves!

picture of common, or giant, trillium

Common, or giant, trillium

Along the first part of the Dusky-Footed Woodrat Trail there are a couple of tree stumps that always seem to sport colorful fungi.  This is a collection of brownish turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) which is actually a type of mushroom.

picture of brownish turkey tail on a tree stump

Brownish turkey tail on a tree stump

About 0.2 mile from the Polly Geraci Trail there is a bridge that crosses Cordilleras Creek.  From the picture it is obvious that it is a simple bridge, but it conveniently marks a location along the trail.

picture of bridge across Cordilleras Creek

Bridge across Cordilleras Creek

The importance of this location is that there is a “colony” of fetid adder’s tongue (Scoliopus bigelovii) growing between the creek and the trail about 10-15 yards before the bridge.  This makes it really easy to return to the same spot, without needing to use GPS coordinates or even look very hard, to find the plants.  Here is one example; the stem extends well above the leaves.

picture of fetid adder’s tongue

Fetid adder’s tongue

And here is one more example, in which a single plant has produced three blossoms at the same time.  (I admit that, when I find a special wildflower, I usually take at least a dozen photos, sometimes more!)

picture of fetid adder’s tongue with three blossoms

Fetid adder’s tongue with three blossoms

It should be noted that the leaves last several weeks longer than the blossoms.  In fact, I have a couple of photos from my May 2014 visit that, in retrospect, are of fetid adder’s tongue leaves.  I had no idea at the time about the flower, since it was absent – I just thought the leaves looked interesting!

It is always a joy to visit an open space that has a reputation for excellent wildflowers, because there is typically a good variety.  Later in the spring the early flowers are replaced by later blooms, such as yellow sticky monkeyflower, blue dicks, yerba Buena, blue-eyed grass, and yellow mariposa lilies, among others.

Posted in Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, Peninsula, San Mateo County, wildflower hikes | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Alviso Marina County Park and Alviso Slough Trail

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Recently an idea occurred to me to combine two hikes in one, via a visit to Alviso Marina County Park and Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

The National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1974 as the nation’s first urban national wildlife refuge.  It is located at the southeast end of San Francisco Bay and incudes much of the shoreline south of the Dumbarton Bridge.  There are numerous hiking/biking trails, many on levees that circle areas that were originally salt marsh and later salt ponds for the production of salt, prior to creation of the refuge.  It is straightforward to access the wildlife refuge from the marina.  Most of my hike was on the San Francisco Bay Trail.

Santa Clara County Parks is hosting a program called Pix In Parks Challenge, which is intended to encourage people to visit county parks and enjoy short hikes.  Part of the Pix In Parks Challenge involves hiking to a designated location and taking a picture, ideally a selfie, that can be posted on social media and used to demonstrate that the hike was completed.  Since I usually hike by myself I have decided to take a picture of the designated location with part of my hiking gear in the picture.  For example, for my first Challenge hike I placed my hiking poles in the picture.  For this hike I didn’t need poles, so I placed my pack in the picture instead.  The designated location was one of 4 or 5 doorway-like structures that can be closed to prevent access to the levee trails when the park and refuge are closed (between sunset and sunrise).

photo of PixInParks Challenge hike photo spot at Alviso Marina County Park

PixInParks Challenge hike photo spot at Alviso Marina County Park

It was a beautiful day to be outdoors and go for a walk.  I was able to enjoy expansive views, especially around the south bay, several shorebirds, a few wildflowers, and even a bit of local history.  A slough, as defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is a swamp or shallow lake system, often a backwater to a larger body of water.  Such areas are estuaries, where freshwater from creeks, runoff from land, and salty ocean water transported by tides mingle and mix together.  They are excellent areas to encounter shorebirds as well as plants that are tolerant of salt water.

The designated Challenge hike at Alviso Marina is less than 1/2 mile, so I decided to extend it by continuing into the wildlife refuge.  As it turns out, the 9-mile Alviso Slough Trail is a loop that partially overlaps the Challenge hike, so it was a perfect combination.  The Alviso Slough Trail is also part of the San Francisco Bay Trail.  The orange dot on the GPS track shows the location of the parking area.  I basically walked 0.1 mile northwest to the Challenge photo location, counterclockwise around the Alviso Slough Trail back to the photo location, finally completing the short Alviso Marina loop in the clockwise direction.

GPS track

GPS track

The Alviso Slough primarily refers to the area circumscribed by the trail.  The blue dotted lines on the map denote levees, either current, former, or partial.  In several places along the levees there are gates with opening mechanisms, to allow for seasonal rather than strictly tidal water exchange.  The green areas on the map are the wildlife refuge and are actually water, though quite shallow.

I generally include an elevation profile for my hikes.  In this case, however, the total elevation gain and loss was less than 50 feet, so my GPS unit’s elevation profile was dominated by noise and other “phantom” elevation changes.

Almost as soon as I’d turned right on the Alviso Slough Trail I started to see Bermuda buttercup (Oxalis pes-caprae), which is a non-native and considered by some to be invasive, since is it becoming ever more prevalent in the area.  In a way this is too bad, since the plant and blossom are really rather pretty.  I would see these buttercups in many locations along my walk.

photo of Bermuda buttercup

Bermuda buttercup

The east end of the marina is marked by a single railroad track that is actively used by Amtrak.  In fact, as I spent a few minutes at an observation deck at the corner and then continued north, I could hear the toot-toot that signaled an approaching Amtrak train.  Sure enough, momentarily it came by and I was able to capture a couple of quick pictures.  I would hear, then see another one near the end of my walk.

photo of Amtrak train crossing San Francisco Bay

Amtrak train crossing San Francisco Bay

Not long after the train passed, a number of black-necked stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) that had been feeding in the narrow strip of water between the trail levee and the railroad levee returned and resumed their foraging.  I really enjoy watching stilts, with their black and white coloring, distinctive white spot just behind the eye, and long red legs.  The shallow depth of the water is indicated by noting that the knee joint is approximately half way between the feet and body.  Not far away, other individuals were under water all the way up to their hips.

photo of black-necked stilts

Black-necked stilts

As I proceeded north along the trail I had great views of several of the region’s landmark peaks.  Near the small jog in the levee there was a nice view of the nearby East Bay skyline including Mission Peak, Mt Allison, and Monument Peak (from left to right).  The surface of the very shallow slough is almost like a mirror.

photo of Mission Peak, Mt Allison, and Monument Peak across the calm water of the slough

Mission Peak, Mt Allison, and Monument Peak across the calm water of the slough

A few minutes later I had a nice view of Mt Tamalpais, about 45 miles away to the northwest in Marin County.  In the foreground some sea gulls rested on a slight mud buildup, and several species of ducks and other water birds swam and fed.

photo of Mt Tamalpais

Mt Tamalpais

Near the corner where the trail turns to the left there is a milepost indicating 2 miles from the marina area.  A little farther I paused to look almost due south at Loma Prieta and Mt Umunhum, 20-plus miles away in the southern Santa Cruz Mountains.  If you click on the photo you can see the radio towers on Loma Prieta (left) and the former radar tower on Mt Umunhum (right) on the skyline.

photo of Loma Prieta (left) and Mt Umunhum (right)

Loma Prieta (left) and Mt Umunhum (right)

Around this part of the trail I was taking careful note of the area just north, in another green area on the map.  Between Coyote Creek Slough and Mud Slough, the lower and upper blue waterways, respectively, is Station Island, which is 7 feet above sea level.  It is the location of an abandoned railroad station and a ghost town called Drawbridge.  Drawbridge was created in 1876 by the need for someone to operate drawbridges over the sloughs to accommodate both rail and boat traffic, and grew into a town with about 90 buildings.  For years 10 passenger trains per day stopped there, and there were many weekend visitors who came to hunt.  The town’s last resident is said to have left in 1979, and the buildings are slowly sinking into the marshland.  Several of the decaying buildings of Drawbridge are in the foreground of this picture, about half a mile away – as close as the public can get today, other than whizzing by on an Amtrak train.  I think the road or trail in the background is the lower part of the trail that goes up to Mission Peak.

photo of ghost town of Drawbridge

Ghost town of Drawbridge

Along the northern part of the trail I noticed several places where there appeared to be bird footprints in the dried dirt surface of the levee.  I believe larger birds, such as egrets or herons, created the footprints when the surface was last wet.  Near the notch on the map there was one of the gate valves mentioned earlier, and water was actively running out from the slough into the bay.

Farther to the west the trail comes within about 0.3 mile of the closest set of power lines that cross the bay.  In this area the levee curves to the left, and the afternoon sunlight created delicate reflections.

photo of Alviso Slough Trail levee curving southward

Alviso Slough Trail levee curving southward

Where the levee turns south, it goes along a more distinctive open waterway, which is also called Alviso Slough.  At the muddy edge of the water channel there were a few dozen American avocets (Recurvirostra americana) walking along, mostly poking their beaks in the mud for food.  As may be hinted in the picture, a bit of afternoon breeze was starting to pick up.  Among the avocets I also noticed at least one willet (Tringa semipalmata).

photo of American avocets busy feeding along the edge of Alviso Slough

American avocets busy feeding along the edge of Alviso Slough

In this area I also noticed some blooming sea fig (Carpobrotus chilensis); I’m pretty sure it’s the chilensis species, as it is the only type of ice plant that blooms in January.  All of these similar-looking plants are non-native, and many are planted along roads to minimize soil erosion.  I’m not sure whether these were planted deliberately.

photo of sea fig in bloom

Sea fig in bloom

There was also some pickleweed (Salicornia pacifica), which is notable for its unusual appearance and because it grows well in saline conditions.

photo of pickleweed


On the southbound leg where the dashed blue line intersects the trail there is another levee, which is off-limits to visitors to protect wildlife and habitat.  Next to this levee, almost out of range of my camera’s zoom lens, there were numerous American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) in groups of 2, 3, or 4.  Here is a group of 4, almost in formation.  Note that the breeze has fluffed up the feathers on their backs and the backs of their heads.  Later, closer to dusk, I would see a group of white pelicans fly overhead in a V formation, showing the prominent black patches in their wings, invisible when the wings are folded at rest.

photo of American white pelicans

American white pelicans

Several minutes later I was passed, first by a runner and then by a bicyclist.  The bicyclist caught up to the runner and passed him as the levee went around another curve in Alviso Slough.  They are both visible in this picture, the runner in black and the bicyclist in white.  Almost directly above the bicyclist Lick Observatory is visible on Mt Hamilton.

photo of Alviso Slough, runner, bicyclist, and Mt Hamilton in the background

Alviso Slough, runner, bicyclist, and Mt Hamilton in the background

The Slough waterway is apparently deep enough to allow some boats to pass, as I shortly realized when a motor boot came by.  I also noticed that the almost-full moon was rising.  A few days later there would be a rare celestial event: a so-called super blue blood moon, a combination of super moon (near the moon’s closest approach to earth in its orbit), blue moon (2nd full moon in a calendar month), and blood moon (total lunar eclipse).

A couple of times during my hike I saw a great egret (Ardea alba) and a snowy egret (Egretta thula) near each other.  Each time, as I carefully walked closer, preparing my camera and hoping for a picture showing both, first one, then the other, would fly away.  Later I saw a snowy egret in the Alviso Slough waterway, nicely backlit by the sun.  The characteristic fluffy feathers along the back of the neck and at the tail were evident.

photo of snowy egret

Snowy egret

Off and on I had noticed sparrows flitting around in the grasses and other plants near the levee trail.  Eventually one paused long enough, where I had a good view of it, for me to get a few pictures.  It turned out to be a savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis), which is distinguished by the yellow area between the bill and eye.  As soon as I shot this picture I started walking again and it flew off.

photo of savannah sparrow

Savannah sparrow

As I approached the marina area I began to encounter more people; during most of the 9-mile loop I had been the only person in view.  I approached a young family and it was evident that something exciting was happening, as a youngster was simultaneously fascinated and a little frightened by something on the trail.  As I came closer I could barely see a very small rodent-like animal scurrying off the trail into the grass.  I did not get a good look at it, but I wondered if it might be a salt marsh harvest mouse (Reithrodontomys raviventris) .  These tiny mice are endemic to the San Francisco Bay salt marshes and are considered endangered.  If it was indeed a salt marsh harvest mouse it was a lucky sighting.

After passing the Challenge photo location again I continued around the smaller Alviso Marina loop and returned to my car, as a few late-afternoon clouds took on sunset coloration.  It had been a very enjoyable walk away from the shoreline into the extensive slough habitat at the south end of San Francisco Bay.

Posted in birding, San Francisco Bay Trail, Santa Clara County, South Bay | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Santa Clara County Parks PixInPark Challenge: Harvey Bear Ranch

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At least since 2014 Santa Clara County Parks has hosted an annual trails challenge to encourage the public to visit parks and open spaces for healthy outdoor activities.  Although I have been intermittent in my participation in this particular program, I am planning to complete all 7 hikes in the 2018 Pix In Parks challenge.

I have participated in other trail challenges (e.g. East Bay Regional Park District and Tahoe Rim Trail Association, in addition to Santa Clara County Parks) over the past several years, and I found them to be an enjoyable “excuse” to go for a generally short-to-moderate hike.   Participation in a challenge can make it easier to decide where to hike on those days when I know I want to hike but don’t have a specific destination that calls to me.

In any case, I recently completed my first Pix In Parks hike for 2018, and I selected the hike in Coyote Lake – Harvey Bear Ranch County Park just east of Gilroy.  Based on the park name and park entrance names, I gather that the park is a combination of two former ranches (Mendoza Ranch and Harvey Bear Ranch) as well as a 635-acre lake (Coyote Lake).  The park is nearly 4600 acres and includes some 30 miles of hiking trails, many of which also support biking and equestrian activities.

For the challenge, the idea is that you hike a specific trail, generally a loop, which passes a specific location where you take a picture (e.g. a selfie) to post on social media with specific hash tags.  If you complete the hikes by the deadline, in this case December 1, you can receive a T-shirt.  Since I often hike on my own, taking a selfie with the appropriate background showing the correct location is not usually possible.  And on the day of my hike, when I arrived at the designated location I was the only one there, so there was no one to recruit to take my picture.  So I decided to take a picture of my hiking poles instead.


image of PixInParks challenge hike photo spot at Coyote Lake - Harvey Bear Ranch County Park

PixInParks challenge hike photo spot at Coyote Lake – Harvey Bear Ranch County Park

The challenge hike is staged at the Harvey Bear Ranch entrance on San Martin Ave.  The 4.4-mile loop goes up into the hills following the Willow Springs, Town Springs, and Harvey Bear Trails.  This is the larger loop on the east side of my GPS track, where the orange dot shows the parking area.  An alternative 2.4-mile loop, along the paved Martin Murphy trail, is available for ADA participants or simply as an easier option, though it does not pass the photo location.  I decided that I should be able to manage both loops.

GPS track

GPS track

As might be expected, there was a bit of climbing involved in the main loop.  As it turns out, the trail climbs from about 350 feet to 1000 feet elevation with a few small rolls.  My total elevation gain and loss for both loops was about 820 feet.  The grade for the upper part of the climb was a little over 6%, which is moderate.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Shortly after leaving the parking area the Willow Springs Trail begins a gentle climb into the hills, and after 0.4 mile reaches the junction with Harvey Bear Trail, where the loop completes.  After another 0.6 mile enough elevation has been gained to provide nice views of the surrounding hills, which were in a typical early winter shade of “getting green”.  The day was mostly cloudy but was very comfortable for hiking.

image of view of hills in Coyote Lake - Harvey Bear Ranch County Park

View of hills in Coyote Lake – Harvey Bear Ranch County Park

Another view, looking back along the trail, hints at the floor of the Coyote Valley.  A little bit to the north Loma Prieta and Mt Umunhum are visible on the skyline across the valley.

image of view toward the Coyote Valley

View toward the Coyote Valley

After the trail loops around to the west, about 1.4 miles from the parking area, there is a nice view down the hillside toward San Martin, an unincorporated community just north of Gilroy.  The prominent straight road is San Martin Ave.  The park access road is just visible and leads to the parking area, which is obscured by several trees.  The flat open area is ringed by the paved Martin Murphy Trail, the second loop of my hike.

image of view toward the community of San Martin

View toward the community of San Martin

At this point I was on the Town Springs Trail at the bottom of the 1-mile climb to the highest point of the loop.  Shortly I noticed what looked like some seep monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus) on the uphill side of the trail perhaps 10 yards away.  As soon as I left the trail to get closer I realized that the ground was pretty wet and wondered if the area was part of Town Springs.  The wet conditions made it easy to confirm the identity, though I was surprised to see monkeyflowers so early.  (In fact, according to the Calflora web site, the blooming season is April through June.)

image of early-season seep monkeyflower

Early-season seep monkeyflower

In the same area of the trail there were some spectacular trees.  Here is what I presume to be a valley oak (Quercus lobata), with characteristically intricate branches bare of leaves during the winter.  Many branches can be adorned with mistletoe.

image of valley oak with a view of the valley

Valley oak with a view of the valley

Valley oaks are considered sturdy, some living for as long as 600 years, and resistant to wildfire.  On older trees the main branches can droop toward the ground.  This tree seems to have grown sideways and is now supporting itself on the ground!

image of another valley oak with an unusual growth pattern

Another valley oak with an unusual growth pattern

Later on I saw other valley oaks with substantial branches at ground level providing accessible climbing opportunities for young children.  I don’t know if these beautiful trees prefer to grow a certain distance from each other, but it was interesting to note that they seemed to be too far apart to be accounted for by falling acorns.  On the skyline in the background of this picture, Loma Prieta is a bit left of center and Mt Umunhum is a bit right of center.

image of valley oaks on a hillside

Valley oaks on a hillside

Near the end of Town Springs Trail I noticed some toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) perhaps a couple hundred feet off-trail.  I zoomed in for this picture showing the leaf pattern and familiar orange-red berries.

image of toyon


The Town Springs Trail tees into the Harvey Bear Trail, and I turned left to return to the parking area.  This junction is the highest point of the loop, at 1000 feet elevation.  Close to this junction I was a bit surprised to notice some hayfield tarweed (Hemizonia congesta). Basically I simply don’t expect to see wildflowers blooming in January.  However, a quick check of Calflora informed me that the blooming season is from April through December, so the blooms I saw were only a little bit out of season.  With such a long season, I hope individual plants get adequate rest to produce more blooms.

image of hayfield tarweed

Hayfield tarweed

Near the beginning of the descent the trail passes near a small pond that made a bright contrast to the surrounding grassland.  I presume it is a watering hole for cattle that graze in the area.  Although most cattle I’ve noticed do not seem to care, they would have a lovely view of the valley floor.

image of pond for watering cattle?

Pond for watering cattle?

A bit later I happened to notice a dead oak that had a typical fate: it had become a granary for acorn woodpeckers, which are known for their habit of creating rows and rows of storage places for acorns in dead oak trees.  Actually, this may be more of a former granary, since all of the holes appear to be empty.

image of (former) acorn granary

(Former) acorn granary

As I got closer to the junction that marked the beginning/end of the loop I had a good view of a landslide that I’d noticed earlier.  The trail is just visible at the intersection of two gullies at the lower right of the picture.  This view is a much better overview than I was able to appreciate from close-up.

image of Landslide near the lower end of the loop

Landslide near the lower end of the loop

When I was close to the parking area I took one of a few short spur trails that connect to the Martin Murphy Trail, and I started walking this trail in the counterclockwise direction.  It turns out that it is a par course loop; I think I counted 5 stations, each with suggestions available via QR code for exercises to perform.

Not far along the loop I noticed a pair of yellow-billed magpies (Pica nuttalli) feeding in the open area inside the loop; I imagine this is a cattle grazing area.  I stopped for a few minutes to watch them alternately run in the grass and then pause.  These magpies are common in open oak woodlands in central and southern California but are found only here, nowhere else in the world.  They are easily identifiable as magpies by their handsome black-and-white coloring and they are distinguished from other magpies by their yellow bill and eyes.

image of yellow-billed magpie

Yellow-billed magpie

The park map shows a viewpoint about halfway around the loop, and I was interested to discover what was intended.  From the far side of the loop there is indeed a nice view, across the grazing area, of the hills in the main part of the park.  I especially liked the lumpy contours of the skyline.

image of view from Martin Murphy Trail loop toward the hills of the park

View from Martin Murphy Trail loop toward the hills of the park

The second half of the loop roughly parallels two roads: Foothill Ave and San Martin Ave.  Along Foothill Ave there are several small, presumably family-owned and -operated, wineries.  Or perhaps this is just a really nice private residence.  In any case, I was struck by the rows of palm trees lining the driveway.  It was kind of an “only in California” moment.

image of palm trees lining a driveway adjacent to the park

Palm trees lining a driveway adjacent to the park

Just over 2 1/2 hours after I set out, I arrived back at my car at the end of a quite enjoyable hike.  I plan to complete the other 6 hikes in the challenge, though I haven’t decided yet which one will be next.

Posted in Santa Clara County, South Bay | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

2018 National Figure Skating Championships, San Jose

The 2018 National Figure Skating Championships were recently held in San Jose, California.  It was the third time that Nationals had been held in San Jose, with previous events hosted in 1996 and 2012.  For Bay Area figure skaters and fans this Nationals had special significance since, promptly after the conclusion of each of the top-level events (ladies, men, pairs, and dance), the 2018 Winter Olympic team would be announced.  These elite skaters would shortly be doing their final preparations and traveling to the PyongChang Winter Olympic Games.

National champion medals were contested in the 4 categories just mentioned at five levels: Juvenile, Intermediate, Novice, Junior, and Senior/Championship.  I had purchased an all-event ticket almost as soon as they were available, so that I would be able to attend whichever sessions I was most interested in and that fit my schedule.  In practice, this meant that I spent the better part of 10 days at the championships.  Between official practices and competition sessions, up to 3 ice surfaces were in use at two different facilities.

In addition I decided to be a volunteer, in part reprising a role I was able to fill in 2012.   Specifically, several of my volunteer shifts involved accreditation, which is a fancy term for generating official badges for competitors, coaches, chaperones, judges, media folks, and other skating officials.  It is an interesting and fun way to interact directly with people that I don’t normally get so close to.  And when you’re on duty – and in uniform – you’re expected to treat everyone the same, even if you’re tempted to tell your favorite skater you hope they crush the competition!  I have to admit I was flattered by a brief encounter with a skater parent/chaperone for whom I had also made a badge in 2012: as I smiled and said “welcome to San Jose” as he approached my station he looked at me, smiled, and said “I remember you (from 2012).”  Moments like these, being able to help people get a good start to the championships, illustrate why it’s rewarding to be a volunteer.

There were numerous memorable moments throughout the skating events, largely concentrated on skaters, their performances, and their stories.  As usual I intended to take pictures, but it is famously difficult to get good action shots of skaters: they are relatively far away and they are generally moving fast!  I ended up getting most of my pictures by photographing the Jumbotron at the SAP Center, venue for the Junior finals and Senior events.  However, I managed a nice shot of Maia and Alex Shibutani, a sister-brother championship-level dance couple, as they took their initial position prior to a run-through of their Short Dance at an official practice session.

photo of Maia and Alex Shibutani preparing to practice their Short Dance program

Maia and Alex Shibutani preparing to practice their Short Dance program

One of the joys of watching the so-called lower-level events is the knowledge that some of the skaters will progress to the higher levels and perhaps to international competitions.  Though I am quite an amateur, it is interesting to note which skaters seem to show that special promise and fire, even at the Juvenile level.  Of course, even though I have been a recreational ice skater for longer than any of the competitors in the entire championships (except perhaps for one…), I would be more than thrilled if I could skate 10% as well as any of the Juvenile-level competitors.

There is an interesting story behind the 2018 Junior Dance champions.  As it turns out, there is a local connection, and I was a little embarrassed that I did not recognize the young man as I checked him in to receive his badge, though I was quite familiar with his name.  Anthony Ponomarenko is the younger son of Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, who earned Olympic medals (bronze, silver, and gold in 1984, 1988, and 1992 respectively) representing the Soviet Union and the Unified Team in ice dance.  They live in the Bay Area and coach locally, and several of my skating friends have trained with them and/or taken classes.  It is especially interesting to see this next generation of ice dancer – one of my friends insists that Anthony was born with skates on.  Here are the Junior Dance medalists during the medal ceremony.

photo of Junior Dance medalists

Junior Dance medalists

As a volunteer, in addition to several shifts in accreditation, I did some shifts as “shuttle concierge”.  The competition ran shuttle busses between the two main hotels in downtown San Jose and the two main rink facilities where practice sessions and competition events were held.  My job was to make sure potential riders knew the schedule, the exact arrival and departure location, had the appropriate credential available for the shuttle driver to check, and got on the correct shuttle (by the end of the week there were 3 separate routes).  One morning shift started at 7:00am, even though the first shuttle would arrive at 7:30 without any passengers and the next one would not arrive until 8:30.  (I brought reading materials and located a chair outside, so I could sit down in relative warmth when there wasn’t much else to do.)  Because of the early hour, I was able to enjoy a dramatic cloudy sunrise from the back entrance to the practice facility.

photo of dramatic cloudy sunrise during a volunteer shift

Dramatic cloudy sunrise during a volunteer shift

Of the senior/championship level events, the first to be contested was Ladies.  As is often the case, there were a few ladies who had just moved up from juniors and were completing their first season as seniors.  These are the young women most likely to be the next stars to emerge on the national stage.  In my opinion – and I’m hardly alone – one of the next stars will be Starr Andrews.  In addition to exceptional skating skills she has that special something that draws in her audience and makes them take notice.  She is pictured here, via the Jumbotron, in the Kiss and Cry area at the moment that her score is posted.  She hasn’t yet realized that she is (temporarily) in first place.  She ended up in 6th place, which is more than respectable for her first year as a senior.  She was later named to the World Junior Championship team.

photo of Starr Andrews viewing her score, a moment before it truly registered

Starr Andrews views her score, a moment before it truly registered

As a side note, Junior and Senior are skating skill levels, but there are age requirements for the corresponding world championships.  The 2018 junior ladies champion, Alysa Liu, is another skater to watch in the future.  She was not named to the 2018 Junior Worlds team because, at just 12 years of age, she is too young to qualify.

Later in the ladies competition the top ladies skated; the current practice is for the warmup groups for the long program to be seeded according to the results from the short program, with the top skaters in the last group.  Mirai Nagasu moved up to seniors ten years ago, won the national championship, and has placed up and down, between 2nd and 10th, in the years since.  She is one of only two American women to land the triple Axel jump in international competition (a third American woman has landed this jump at Nationals).  In a warmup session just prior to the Senior Ladies event I watched her land 4 out of 5 triple Axel attempts.  In her competition she was unable to land cleanly, but otherwise she skated extremely well and was overcome by emotion at the end of her program.  (She was famously, and controversially, not included on the 2014 Olympic team and was doing her very best to unequivocally earn a spot on the 2018 Olympic team.)  Here she waits for her score in the Kiss and Cry area.  I thought it was interesting that the staff running the Jumbotron were being fed – in real time – tweets with the hashtag shown.  Mirai placed second and was subsequently named to the 2018 Olympic team.

photo of Mirai Nagasu waiting for her score

Mirai Nagasu waits for her score

Next to skate was Karen Chen, the 2017 national ladies champion and a local Bay Area skater. She had a few technical issues in her program (note that her scores are almost the reverse of Starr’s) but overcame the pressure of defending her title with a bronze medal and selection to the Olympic team.  At times the wait in Kiss and Cry seems awfully long – this can be due to commercials during the live TV coverage, review of jumps by the technical specialists, or both.  I was amused and somewhat in awe to note that Karen and her coach had the presence of mind to pose nicely for one of the TV cameras just after her score was finally posted.

Karen Chen posing for TV cameras with her coach

Bradie Tennell was the leader after the short program and drew the final position to skate her long program.  She had been considered something of a dark horse, so it was both expected that she would do well but a bit unexpected to lead after the short program.  She skated her Cinderella long program very well and, like the other top women, was emotionally happy as she finished her skate – and then again when her first place score was posted.  It was nice that she had the presence of mind to acknowledge the audience’s support.

photo of Bradie Tennell, new national ladies champion, waving to the crowd

Bradie Tennell, new national ladies champion, waves to the crowd

Immediately after the long program of each event (20 in all: 5 levels in 4 disciplines) there was a medal ceremony.  The 4 medal winners were introduced and there was a formal protocol of presentation of medals, Radix pins, special awards, flowers, congratulations by event officials, official photographs, and finally unofficial photographs.  For the junior- and senior-level events the medal ceremonies were in the big arena with television lights and professional photographers.  For the so-called lower level events the medal ceremonies were in the smaller rink where those competitions were held.  For some reason I am amused by the row of official photographers in a row with their big cameras and long lenses pointed at the medalists, and I think of them – in a gentle way – as paparazzi.  For the lower level events the photographers seem to be mostly parents and friends with cell phones.  This was the lineup at the side of the rink for the Juvenile Pairs event, the first medal ceremony of the Nationals.

photo of paparazzi (unofficial photographers) for the Juvenile Pairs event

Paparazzi (unofficial photographers) for the Juvenile Pairs event

The second senior/championship level event was pairs.  In certain respects this is the most dramatic event, due to the inherent drama and risks associated with overhead lifts, throw lifts, and throw jumps.  The lady has to have an immense amount of trust in her partner’s ability to throw and catch her safely.  The ladies tend to be tiny and the men taller and extremely strong.  One pair was especially interesting since the lady, Deanna Stellato-Dudek, is 34 years old and, I believe, the oldest skater in the entire competition.  She has only been skating pairs for 2 seasons, having returned to skating after a 16-year hiatus.  At 4’11” tall she is particularly petite, and her enthusiasm radiates over the ice and into the seats in the arena.  She and her partner, Nathan Bartholomay, shown here as their scores were posted, won the bronze medal.  They have been named to the 2018 Four Continents Championship and are first alternates for the 2018 World Championships.

photo of Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Nathan Bartholomay receiving their scores in the Senior Pairs event

Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Nathan Bartholomay receive their scores in the Senior Pairs event

The gold medal performance in pairs was clearly delivered by Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Christopher Knierem.  They also have an interesting story, as they missed almost the entire previous season due to illness/injury after being 2016 national champions, and were thrilled to be able to be at Nationals this year.  They had been able to revive their signature move, the quadruple twist lift (actually, a lift into a throw), only at the end of November.  And they performed it admirably in their long program, as shown here.  (Note: photo is credited to US Figure Skating and appeared in a social media post.)  This is a great example of the trust that the lady has to have in her partner’s ability to throw her properly and catch her safely!

photo of Alexa Scimeca-Knierem and Christopher Knierem performing a quadruple twist

Alexa Scimeca-Knierem and Christopher Knierem performing a quadruple twist

As noted above, the skaters, their coaches, and sometimes their choreographers wait in the Kiss and Cry area for their scores to be posted.  In the concourse of the main arena there was a mock Kiss and Cry area where spectators could pose for photos.  During one of the ice cuts, while making my rounds of the concourse, I ran into a friend near the Kiss and Cry and suggested that we have our pictures taken together.  She was game, and even suggested that we should try to make hearts with our fingers like some of the skaters do.  We recruited a random nearby person to take the photos.  It was fun, though our efforts demonstrate that we both could use a little more practice.

photo of posing with a friend in the spectators’ Kiss and Cry area

Posing with a friend in the spectators’ Kiss and Cry area

Next up were the men.  And there was more drama as well as controversy.  The Olympic team selection criteria included not only these national championships but also the skaters’ international and national competitive record over the past year-plus.  For these reasons, and his competition record, Adam Rippon was one of the three men named to the Olympic team, even though he placed 4th at Nationals.  (The men generally try riskier jumps than the ladies, and there were many falls throughout the programs.)  This made him the first openly gay US athlete to be named to a Winter Olympic team.  Although it is widely known that there are many gay male figure skaters, it is more common for them to come out as gay after their competitive career is finished.  Adam came out two years ago.  He has a great fan base, and there was a lot of support in the audience at Nationals.

photo of audience support for Adam Rippon

Audience support for Adam Rippon

Jason Brown is another hugely popular skater.  Unfortunately he did not skate his best at this competition, ending up in sixth place.  I am impressed that, no matter how well he skates, he seems to genuinely appreciate the crowd’s response.  Here he waits for his scores with his coach and choreographer.  If I remember correctly, the heart is a reaction to one of the tweets that had just been displayed on the Jumbotron.  Jason was later named as first alternate on the 2018 Olympic and World teams and to compete at the upcoming Four Continents Championship.

photo of Jason Brown appreciating his huge fan base

Jason Brown appreciates his huge fan base

The men’s gold medalist was Nathan Chen, whose extraordinary skating skills have made the skating world take notice.  At the 2017 national championships he essentially ran away from the rest of the competitors by landing 7 quadruple jumps in his short and long programs and by winning the event by an unprecedented 55 points.  He had a couple of technical errors near the end of his long program, but to a certain extent they were compensated by improved artistic scores compared to 2017.  In the Kiss and Cry area he almost looked nonchalant as his scores were posted, but until the last two seasons a total score of 300 points was too crazy to comprehend.  This time he “only” won by 40 points.  If the top men all skate well at the Olympics the final placements will be much closer!

photo of Nathan Chen’s final score, which was over 300 for the second time at Nationals

Nathan Chen’s final score was over 300 for the second time at Nationals

For a number of years it has been a custom for fans to throw gifts onto the ice at the end of a favorite skater’s program.  Clearly it’s dangerous for the next skater if there is any debris associated with the gifts – flowers used to be common, but are no longer allowed, even if fully enclosed/wrapped.  Instead, stuffed toys are popular.  Also, large fabric flowers were available for sale in the arena concourse area.  For events at which there is an expectation for toys to be thrown on the ice, sweepers are in place to collect them.  Young skaters are very excited to be chosen as sweepers.  For the senior/championship finals there were 6 sweepers for each event.  For popular competitors, the sweepers had to be very efficient to clear the ice before the scores were announced and the next skater would be introduced.

Here is an example of sweepers working hard to clear the ice: Vincent Zhou, a local Bay Area skater who eventually placed second in the men’s event, received a shower of gifts after his long program.  There were just as many toys at the far end of the rink, as well as all along the sides.  The small red fist-sized toys were strawberries provided by Smucker’s, a long-time Nationals event sponsor.  I learned later that the strawberries were segregated from the other toys and sent back up to the concourse to be recycled as handouts for later events.

photo of some skaters (here, Vincent Zhou) receive many stuffed toys from their fans

Some skaters (here, Vincent Zhou) receive many stuffed toys from their fans

You might notice that one of the sweepers is holding a basket into which toys could be placed, allowing for improved efficiency.  At the ice entrance adult sweeper chaperone volunteers (in white jackets) wait with plastic bags for the larger toys.  After the cleanup from Vincent’s skate, the chaperones more or less dispensed with the baskets and sent the sweepers out with plastic bags so they could be even more efficient about clearing the ice.  Never mind proper appearance, it was more important to keep the competition moving on schedule!

I am not sure what was done with the bags-ful of toys that were collected for some skaters.  Jason Brown has donated many of his to children in local hospitals where he skates.  I read that, for Nationals, many would be donated to families affected by the recent North Bay fires.  Here a sweeper brings an armload and basketful of colorful items that had been thrown for Jason Brown.

photo of sweeper carrying an armload and basketful of stuffed toys thrown for Jason Brown

Sweeper carrying an armload and basketful of stuffed toys thrown for Jason Brown

The final championship-level event was dance.  The technical requirements are less restrictive than for the other disciplines and, as a result, there is more creativity.  The biggest emphasis is on edge quality and step sequences, both of which are more challenging for the general public to assess than jumps or throws.  Dance lifts, compared to pairs lifts, are lower (not above the man’s shoulder height) and with less duration, but with more turns (sometimes the couple practically spins) and with much more variety.

I was particularly taken with one element performed by Elicia and Stephen Reynolds, a brother-sister team.  I think it must be called a choreographic element, since it seems too close to the ice to be a lift.  In any case, I saw them do this move in one of the practice sessions and was looking forward to see it in their long program.  I was at a very bad angle to capture it live on my camera, but I was able to photograph the Jumbotron during the replay after their skate.  Surely this is their signature move! – and it was quite interesting to see the entrance and exit.

photo of Elicia and Stephen Reynolds performing their signature move

Elicia and Stephen Reynolds perform their signature move

Another dramatic element for dance couples is the synchronized twizzle sequence.  Basically these are like very controlled traveling one-foot spins with perfect synchronization of both partners’ rotations.  In the sequence the couples rotate in one direction, then in the opposite direction on the other foot, and typically change back, for three sections, each with different free leg and arm positions.  For each section there is a minimum of 4 rotations.  Maia and Alex Shibutani added some difficulty and risk to the twizzles in their short dance, with 4 sections and a total of 20 rotations – and they were excellently synchronized.

For the last few seasons the top three US dance couples have been fairly close to each other in their scores.  At the 2017 Grand Prix Final, held in December, their scores were separated by only 0.85 point.  At these nationals, their scores were even closer, separated by just 0.52 point.  It is entirely possible that these three couples will be the main contenders for the bronze medal at the Olympics – if so, it will be an especially exciting competition.  Here are the Senior Dance medalists preparing for the official photographs at the end of the medal ceremony.

photo of championship/senior dance medalists

Championship/senior dance medalists

Typically it is several years, if not longer, before the National Figure Skating Championships return to a given host city.  Of course, it’s not known yet when Nationals might return to San Jose.  In the meantime, there are many memories to cherish of an event that had the extra sparkle of an Olympic Team selection event.

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San Francisco Bay Trail: Dumbarton Bridge and Shoreline Trail

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On a day when I wanted to go for a hike but preferred something less strenuous than usual, I decided to walk across San Francisco Bay.  That may sound ambitious, but it actually wasn’t!  The Dumbarton Bridge crosses the bay at a narrow point near the southern end, and it’s actually only a mile and a half from shore to shore.

I have a bit of a fascination with walking across bridges that cross the San Francisco Bay and its major connected waterways.  In fact, I have previously walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, the Carquinez Bridge, the Benicia-Martinez Bridge, and the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.  Bridge crossings are neither remote, parklike, nor urban, and frankly they are unsuitable for a walk-and-talk type stroll.  They are inherently noisy due to the proximity to traffic.  But if you accept the limitations, bridge crossings provide unique viewpoints to the region.  And, like other types of hikes, you are letting yourself slow down and view the experience in a different way than when you whiz by in your car, intent to get to the other side and your possibly more distant destination.

The day of my hike was a bit tricky for photography.  It was a spare-the-air day, with some haze floating over the Bay most of the day.  In addition it was mostly overcast, which made for flat lighting except when the sun – briefly! – burst through the clouds.  Finally, between the late December early sunset time and my mid-afternoon start, I only gave myself 2 to 2 1/2 hours to complete my walk with some daylight.  But I was surprisingly well rewarded with interesting sights and views.

As I walked along a shoreline path after the bridge crossing I came upon what I presumed to be construction debris: a few large sections of pipe, mossy from years of exposure to bay air and fog.  Some of the local shorebirds seemed to be using the pipe as a lookout point to keep an eye on the bay.

picture of shorebirds on a mossy pipe

Shorebirds on a mossy pipe

The route of my hike/walk was a small portion of the San Francisco Bay Trail, a system of trails that is envisioned to ring the bay.  When complete, it will be over 500 miles long.  In general it is quite close to the shoreline – and it crosses, or is planned to cross, all 7 major bridges that cross the bay and its major connected waterways.

I had previously walked on the San Francisco Bay Trail to the western end of the Dumbarton Bridge, and I viewed this walk as a continuation across the bay.  Since I knew the bridge itself was relatively short, I planned to continue into the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which is a “unit” of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuges.  As it turned out, a bit less than half of the distance was actually on the bridge.  The GPS track shows my route, with the orange dot denoting my starting point in one of the sections of Ravenswood Preserve at the west end of the bridge.

GPS track

GPS track

In general, the topography of a Bay Trail section is pretty flat.  I’m including this elevation profile mainly to illustrate the elevation of the bridge above the water (about 85 feet at the apex).  Of course, the portion of my walk in the Don Edwards NWR was not under water, but the elevation numbers simply reflect the fact that my GPS unit interprets changes in barometric pressure as elevation changes.  Ignoring all of the hash, I estimate that the total elevation gain and loss was about 200 feet.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

At the Ravenswood (west) end of the Dumbarton Bridge there is some nice-looking and informative interpretive signage about the bridge.

picture of Dumbarton Bridge signage

Dumbarton Bridge signage

After checking out the signage I climbed a short flight of steps from a small parking area to the cycling/pedestrian lane of the bridge, just past “liftoff” from ground level.  About 3/4 mile across the water to the southeast there is an abandoned railroad bridge formerly (1910-1982) used by the Southern Pacific Railroad.  The swing-arm section of the bridge that could be opened to allow boats to pass has been welded in the open position.  The small white cube near the right side of the picture is a pumping station for the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct pipeline, which runs mostly under the Bay carrying water from Yosemite to the peninsula.

picture of former Southern Pacific Railroad bridge

Former Southern Pacific Railroad bridge

I was interested to note several metal box enclosures along the bridge.  Per their numbered labels as seismic enclosures they contain equipment to monitor seismic activity within the bridge structure.  I presume that this equipment was installed as part of the major seismic retrofit project that was carried out roughly between 2010 and 2013.  Unless the numbering system is based on the designation of the bridge piers below, there are at least 60 such enclosures on the bridge (since I noted an enclosure labeled 60 at the eastern end).

picture of seismic equipment on the Dumbarton Bridge

Seismic equipment on the Dumbarton Bridge

Daily vehicular traffic on the bridge is well over 80,000 vehicles per day, so on a weekday afternoon the traffic is constant in all three lanes in each direction.  There is little boat traffic so far south in the bay, but other things to look at include power lines that cross the bay parallel to the bridge, 3 radio station towers on the east side, and views of the Coyote Hills (on the east side) and the peninsula hills (on the west side).  Signs near the apex of the bridge note the Alameda / San Mateo County line.

At the east end of the bridge the roadway and pedestrian/cycling lane gradually return to ground level.  The pedestrian/cyclist lane veers away from the roadway and connects to a paved multi-use path with signage indicating bike-path mileage to Newark and Fremont.  I knew from my research that, in order to access the levee trail I was interested in, I would need to backtrack at ground level and find an underpass.

As I began the backtrack I noticed a great egret (Ardea alba) walking along the edge of the water between items of litter.  These elegant birds are always a joy to see, and I can’t help thinking it must be bad for them to be searching for food among human-generated trash.

picture of great egret

Great egret

A short distance along the backtrack there is a parking area that provides access to the Dumbarton Pier, the only current remnant of the original Dumbarton Bridge; the current bridge replaced the original in the early 1980’s.  A quick exploration of the parking area revealed a welcome sign for the pier and access to the levee trail, which is signed as Shoreline Trail and is part of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Almost immediately after exiting the underpass under the bridge I found a snowy egret (Egretta thula).  Snowy egrets are smaller than great egrets, and they have black (rather than yellow) bills and often a bit of characteristically fluffy white tail feathers.  Another distinctive characteristic is bright yellow feet.  Both egrets are common in the Bay Area.

picture of snowy egret

Snowy egret

A short distance later I encountered the mossy pipes mentioned at the beginning of this post.  Both on the pipes and on the nearby shoreline there were many willets (Tringa semipalmata), along with a few marbled godwits (Limosa fedoa).  The willets are greyer in coloration, while the godwits are browner.  In this picture, I wonder if the willet closer to the water is blinking.

picture of willets


Later on I passed a group of northern shovelers (Anas clypeata) generating small wakes as they swam.  Shovelers are so-called dabblers, and they tend to feed by tipping their heads under water with their rear ends sticking straight up out of the water.  They are easily identified by their relatively long bills that are broader at the tip than at the base.  I think the coloring of the males is quite handsome.

picture of northern shovelers

Northern shovelers

The Shoreline Trail levee is at the edge of the bay, with a salt evaporation pond on the land side.  About 1.6 miles from the Dumbarton Bridge I decided I needed to turn around.  I had originally been hoping to make it as far as the No Name Trail in Coyote Hills Regional Park, but I didn’t have enough time.  Since I like to turn around at easily recognizable locations, in the absence of a trail junction I turned around at a distinctive curve in the levee.

As I headed back toward the bridge I immediately had a great view of it rising and falling gently, with the peninsula hills – actually the northern part of the Santa Cruz Mountains – in the background.  Barely an hour before sunset, the clouds were already beginning to turn pink.

picture of Dumbarton Bridge

Dumbarton Bridge

In the relatively calm waters of an evaporation pond there were pretty reflections of the brightness between clouds.  Note that the skyline of the peninsula hills is topped by a wispy-topped fog bank getting ready to pour over the top.  This is the famous marine fog that so often resides along the California coast, waiting for overnight to steal inland.

picture of reflection in an evaporation pond of San Francisco Bay

Reflection in an evaporation pond of San Francisco Bay

For the remainder of my walk I would continue to enjoy the interplay of clouds and remaining sunlight.  About 20 minutes later I noticed a hole in the clouds with sunlight pouring through and creating a concentrated reflection on the water.  Because of the clouds and the approaching sunset, the local shorebirds were flying around in groups and getting ready to settle down for the night.

picture of sunlight shining through a hole in the clouds

Sunlight shining through a hole in the clouds

As I approached the bridge access I again passed the mossy pipes, along with moss-covered rocks, an enormous discarded tire, and groups of sea gulls and shorebirds (willets and godwits) gathering on the shoreline.

As I ascended on the bridge I periodically turned around to view the east side of the bay, particularly the Coyote Hills.  I presume because of the hole in the clouds, as well as the sun getting lower in the sky, I noticed that the Coyote Hills were awash in sunlight.  Even with the bridge and its traffic and light poles in the foreground, the hills were beautiful.

picture of Coyote Hills

Coyote Hills

Note the disparity in the amount of traffic, typical of the afternoon commute: much heavier traffic eastbound.

Almost halfway across the bridge I paused to study the activity at the outer end of the Dumbarton Pier.  It is a popular spot for fishing, and there was a group of 3 men just finishing their day; the pier closes at sunset.  Just after I took this picture, literally within a minute, according to the time stamps on my other pictures, they finished packing up and removed their poles.

picture of fishing on Dumbarton Pier

Fishing on Dumbarton Pier

Since it was the afternoon rush hour, I was not too surprised to encounter several bicyclists riding across the bridge toward the East Bay.  Commuting via bicycle is one way to get some exercise and – I presume – avoid the bridge toll.  Most of my pictures of cyclists were blurry, due to low light levels and their speed.  This was my best attempt and illustrates good use of safety clothing and equipment.

picture of cycling commuter on the Dumbarton Bridge

Cycling commuter on the Dumbarton Bridge

The hole in the clouds that I’d been monitoring gradually revealed a small patch of blue sky, with just some residual glowing from sun reflections off the wispier clouds at the edge of the hole.  Note how prominent the top of the fog layer is above the hills.

picture of blue sky peeking through a hole in the clouds

Blue sky peeks through a hole in the clouds

I took this picture about 13 minutes before “official” sunset time – I did not know that at the time; I just knew I needed to keep moving to get back to my car before it got too dark.  With the heavy cloud cover, my expectation was that twilight would be, or appear to be, relatively short.  As I descended from the apex of the bridge the car headlights grew brighter, and I could see – but not photograph – some shovelers getting a last bit of nourishment, as well as a few gulls and willets in the very shallow water at the edge of the bay.

This bridge crossing turned out to be even more eventful than I had anticipated.  I do still have a few more bridges to go, so stay tuned.

Posted in Alameda County, San Francisco Bay Trail, San Mateo County | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Bay Area Ridge Trail – Milagra Gate to Mussel Rock through Pacifica

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Recently a new 2.5-mile section of the Bay Area Ridge Trail was dedicated in Pacifica, about half in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) north of Milagra Gate and half along streets, almost to the Daly City border.  I had an opportunity to hike the new trail section with a small group of Ridge Trail enthusiasts on what turned out to be a perfect day.  While there can be many definitions of a perfect day, for hikes along the San Mateo County coast one definition is weather so clear that the Farallon Islands are visible; they are often hidden in a bank of coastal fog.

Of course, when the Farallons are visible the views of Mt Tamalpais, the sleeping maiden, are spectacular.  This was the first view of Mt Tam, which is about 20 miles away and almost due north, looking across the Pacific Manor neighborhood of Pacifica.  This early view set the stage for continued wonderful views during the hike.

picture of Mt Tamalpais, with part of Pacifica in the foreground

Mt Tamalpais, with part of Pacifica in the foreground

The GPS track shows the entire hiking route, which was just over 9 miles total, out and back.  For parking convenience the meeting point for the hike (the orange dot on the GPS track image) was on the campus of Skyline College, and the first mile or so was a walk across the beautiful campus.

GPS track

GPS track

After crossing campus we arrived at Milagra Gate, an entry point to the Milagra Ridge section of the GGNRA.  Milagra Ridge was previously a site for Nike missiles and other defense installations.  During the hike we passed a small concrete bunker that might have housed a small gun, or perhaps provided shelter to as many as a half dozen soldiers in cramped quarters.  It is noteworthy that the GGNRA has been designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in recognition of its outstanding, unique, and highly diverse terrestrial, coastal, and marine environments.  It is truly a wonderful local treasure.

Although I have visited Milagra Ridge once, before the Ridge Trail section was designated, I hiked a different route.  The Ridge Trail route is signed Milagra Ridge Road and is initially a paved route for full multi-use (hiking, cycling, and equestrian).  After a fairly gentle mile and a half the trail begins a steady 500-foot descent from the ridge down to the bluffs above the Pacific Ocean.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

As might be expected, in clear weather the views are beautiful during the entire descent.  Shortly after the descent begins there is a great view south along the coast line, with Mori Point in the foreground and San Pedro Rock in the background.  This photo was taken at an elevation of about 600 feet.

picture of San Pedro Rock behind Mori Point

San Pedro Rock behind Mori Point

From the higher elevations the Farallons were a bit easier to see than from lower elevations.  Thanks to the zoom on my camera, I was able to get a pretty good image, here at 500 feet elevation.  The Farallons are about 30 miles out in the Pacific Ocean and the highest point is 200 feet.  It is always a treat to be able to see the Farallons from the mainland!

picture of Farallon Islands

Farallon Islands

Although most of the flowers I saw during the hike were cultivated (e.g. in residential landscaping) there was some coast buckwheat (Eriogonum latifolium) blooming somewhat later than its usual blooming period.

picture of coast buckwheat

Coast buckwheat

At the edge of the GGNRA property there is a newly constructed staging area in the adjacent residential neighborhood.  After this point the Ridge Trail follows sidewalks and streets for about 1.2 miles.  The route leads to a pedestrian-bicycle overpass across busy Hwy 1, which is a multi-lane freeway through this part of Pacifica.  The ramp to the overpass makes a graceful circle at each side of the highway.

picture of overpass ramp

Overpass ramp

The Ridge Trail route makes a short jog over to Esplanade Drive, the last street before the bluffs that drop to the edge of the Pacific Ocean.  Bay Area residents may remember that two apartment buildings along this street were evacuated several years ago and demolished in early 2016, as a result of years of erosion of the cliffs.  Another apartment building is about to suffer the same fate.  Several pieces of demolition equipment seem to be waiting for their next instructions.

picture of demolition equipment along Esplanade Drive in Pacifica

Demolition equipment along Esplanade Drive in Pacifica

These buildings are, or used to be, between the street and the cliff.  But there are areas where the distance from the sidewalk to the cliff edge is now only a few yards.  When you see this in person it is obvious that the buildings had to be evacuated and condemned, though it must have been a painful experience for all who were affected.  The houses that remain, on the “inland” side of the street, are modest in appearance, but the views are spectacular.  On the other hand, one can only wonder how many (or few?) more years it will be before the street itself begins to fall into the ocean.  Surely this is Mother Nature at work.

The north end of Esplanade makes a short jog to the east and tees at Palmetto Avenue.  The intended Ridge Trail route follows Palmetto north to the Daly City border.  However, along Palmetto there is mostly no sidewalk, so the route has not been designated as official Ridge Trail.  Our plan was to continue walking along the street, being extra careful about vehicle traffic.  Along Palmetto there were a few places with pretty views of the bluffs, with lush green plants contrasting with the bluffs and the blue water.

picture of coastal bluff along Palmetto Avenue

Coastal bluff along Palmetto Avenue

Palmetto changes name at the Daly City border but continues into Mussel Rock City Park.   The parking lot is the staging area for the next section of Bay Area Ridge Trail through Daly City.  We spent at least 20 minutes exploring a bit of the park and enjoying the views.  The coastline view, with bluffs and breaking waves and with Mt Tamalpais and Pt Reyes in the background, was breathtaking.

picture of San Mateo County coastline and Mt Tamalpais

San Mateo County coastline and Mt Tamalpais

Before we arrived at Mussel Rock Park, I had noticed what looked like a small crowd of people.  I had not realized that there is a popular paragliding area in the park.  And the breeze was sufficient that there were several paragliders enjoying the day.  There were at least 3 parasails, with different people apparently taking turns with them.  It was quite a treat to see two at a time floating around with Mt Tam in the background!

picture of colorful parasails flying in front of Mt Tamalpais

Colorful parasails flying in front of Mt Tamalpais

If you look closely at the person flying the blue parasail you might notice that (s)he seems to be dressed in red.  Sure enough, that’s a Santa suit, complete with black boots and a white beard!

picture of Santa flying a parasail at Mussel Rock Park, Daly City

Santa flying a parasail at Mussel Rock Park, Daly City

After enjoying watching the paragliders and ocean/Farallon Islands views our hiking group began the return trip to Skyline College.  When we got back to the parking area I stopped to take a closer look at Mussel Rock, for which the park is named.  According to a Wikipedia article the rock formation type is called a stack (I had also seen stacks off Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland a few years prior).  Also, apparently Mussel Rock is the land location closest to the epicenter of the 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake: the San Andreas Fault re-enters the mainland after traversing several miles of the Pacific Ocean roughly southeast from Point Reyes.  At first I thought the stick-like objects might be rebar, but now I think they may be related to seismic equipment on the rock.

picture of Mussel Rock

Mussel Rock

One more point of interested related to Mussel Rock: at the edge of the parking area there is a bench where you can sit and enjoy the ocean view.  From the bench I noted that the Farallon Islands are almost directly above/behind Mussel Rock, on the horizon.  I took a few pictures with both, but of course the Farallons are too small to see clearly.

As we left the parking area we had a great view of the coastline to the south, with sunlight reflecting brightly off the water in front of Montara Mountain.  There was also a plume of mist/fog extending up toward Sweeney Ridge inland from the Pacifica city pier.

picture of Montara Mountain down the San Mateo County coast

Montara Mountain down the San Mateo County coast

We stopped for a break at the Chit-Chat Café, midway along Eslpanade Dr.  It’s a friendly neighborhood café that was bustling with customers at lunchtime on a Sunday.  There was even a group of 4 musicians playing toe-tapping music.  Since some of us had dogs with us we sat outside in the pleasant weather to eat, drink, and enjoy the music.

picture of musicians performing at the Chit-Chat Cafe

Musicians performing at the Chit-Chat Cafe

After the break we continued making our way back to the meeting point on the Skyline College campus.  It had been a very pleasant “in-town” hike on a perfect hiking day.

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La Honda Creek Open Space Preserve: Harrington Creek Trail

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It’s always a special treat to hike a brand new trail shortly after it has been opened to the public – sometimes I’ve hiked the trail the same day, and sometimes within a week or two.  On this occasion, I was able to hike the trail the day after its dedication, on the first day it was open to the public.  The trail was the Harrington Creek Trail, the primary trail in a section of La Honda Creek Open Space Preserve newly opened for public access.  The preserve is owned and managed by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District.  It began in 1984 with a modest 255 acres and, after several additions, is now over 6100 acres.

The Harrington Creek Trail is in the southern, lower elevation, portion of the preserve.  It almost traces 3 sides of a square, passing through hilly grasslands that include active ranching activities and distinctive flat-topped Ray’s Peak.  The trail follows ranch roads, rather than being a single-track trail.  Pretty much as soon as you leave the parking lot you feel that you are hiking in ranch land remote from cities, even though the preserve is only a few miles west of Skyline Blvd (CA-35) on the ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains in San Mateo County, at the western edge of the populous San Francisco Bay Area.  This is a typical view of the southern area of the preserve, looking roughly southeast from a spot about a mile from the parking area.

image of view of La Honda Creek Open Space Preserve

View of La Honda Creek Open Space Preserve

The new trails include Harrington Creek Trail and Folger Ranch Loop Trail, which together form a semi-loop or balloon trail configuration, as shown in the GPS track.  The orange dot on the track shows the parking area.  The Folger Ranch Loop Trail is at the far end of the Harrington Creek Trail.  The total trail mileage is just under 6 miles, and my hike was 9 miles.

GPS track

GPS track

The elevation gain and loss are about 1800 feet, so the average grade of the trail is about 7.5%.  This is a reasonable grade, but it’s certainly not negligible.  At the lowest elevation (500 feet) the trail crosses Harrington Creek, and at the highest elevation (1100 feet) there are lovely views toward the Pacific Ocean, which is barely 5 miles away.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

As if to reinforce the existence of active ranching activities in the preserve, barely 1/4 mile from the trailhead parking area the trail passes within view of a barn, pond, and corral.

image of ranching activities near trailhead parking area

Ranching activities near trailhead parking area

There are several segregated areas for cattle grazing, with adjacent areas separated by fencing and gates.  The gates on the ranch road are generally closed and locked, with separate hiker gates several yards off the road.  This view shows the gate at the parking area, with a typical configuration of a wider gate across the road and a separate hiker gate.

image of one of several gates on the trail

One of several gates on the trail

About 1 mile from the parking area, after a gradual 150-foot ascent the trail bends to the west and begins a somewhat steeper descent to the creek crossing.  In the moister environment not far from the creek I noticed some colorful poison oak and a few California buckeye, or California horse-chestnut, trees (Aesculus californica).  The buckeyes are about half the size of my fist and really stand out against the bare branches.  Buckeye trees produce leaves early in the spring and lose them well before fall.

image of California buckeye

California buckeye

After the creek crossing the trail climbs steadily, gaining almost 600 feet in 1.3 miles.  Near the end of the climb the trail makes a bend to start heading south, and there is a pretty view of the hills to the east.  This view will be spectacular later in the winter after the rains turn the hills green.

image of eastward view of hills from the Harrington Creek Trail

Eastward view of hills from the Harrington Creek Trail

As expected for early December, I saw almost no wildflowers in bloom.  However, perhaps unfortunately, I did see some purple star thistle (Centaurea calcitrapa), which is considered an invasive non-native species.  (In spite of the invasive designation, I happen to think the flower heads themselves are pretty.)

image of purple star thistle

Purple star thistle

About 3 miles from the parking area the Harrington Creek Trail crosses over a slight ridge at an elevation of about 1100 feet.  From here there is a great view across a few remaining hills toward the Pacific Ocean.  To me it’s always special to see the ocean, even when the day is not perfectly clear.  From this viewpoint it was possible to see waves breaking on the shore at Tunitas Beach, San Gregorio State Beach, or perhaps somewhere between these two beaches.

image of view from the highest point on the Harrington Creek Trail

View from the highest point on the Harrington Creek Trail

A short distance farther, about 3.2 miles from the parking area, there is a Y junction, with the Harrington Creek Trail going slightly left and the Folger Ranch Loop Trail going slightly right.  I continued on the Harrington Creek Trail, going around the loop clockwise.

Soon after I passed the Y junction I encountered nearly a dozen cattle grazing next to the trail and/or resting on the trail, including this calf that was clearly more interested in keeping an eye on me than on the fantastic view behind him.  Whenever I encounter cattle on or near the trail I approach slowly and with what I hope is nonthreatening body language.

image of calf checking me out as I hiked past

Calf checking me out as I hiked past

It is a little over a mile to the bottom of the loop, and the trail descends 200 feet.  This view shows the trail making a curve to the right (west) toward the bottom of the loop and the junction with the Folger Ranch Loop Trail.

image of Harrington Creek Trail approaching the southern junction with the Folger Ranch Loop Trail

Harrington Creek Trail approaching the southern junction with the Folger Ranch Loop Trail


About 0.1 mile before reaching the junction I passed what appeared to be an abandoned ranch wagon overlooking a small valley, through which Bogess Creek runs on its way to San Gregorio Creek, and a few low-elevation hills dropping down to the ocean.

image of abandoned ranch wagon near the south end of the loop

Abandoned ranch wagon near the south end of the loop

Nearby there was an interesting-looking somewhat rusty pole that I think may be a hitching post.  It is noteworthy that, at the junction, a permit-only equestrian trail proceeds south about 1.2 miles to an equestrian staging area on CA-84.

image of hitching post? – interesting, in any case

Hitching post? – interesting, in any case

Once I reached the junction I proceeded north on the Folger Ranch Loop Trail, which descends to about 600 feet elevation before climbing back up to the Y junction at 950 feet elevation.  The return trip to the parking area was along the Harrington Creek Trail.  During the descent to Harrington Creek I took note of a perfectly shaped tree next to a corral.  The base of the trunk appeared to consist of a cluster of several trunks, rather like some bay laurel trees, but the leaves were more reminiscent of eucalyptus.  In any case, I remembered noticing the corral on my outbound hike, but not the tree!

image of perfectly shaped tree next to a corral

Perfectly shaped tree next to a corral

The remainder of the hike back to the parking area was very pleasant and was uneventful.

This hike was my first real exposure to the historically common agricultural environment in San Mateo County – I’ve been more aware of redwood forests and associated historical logging activity at higher elevations near Skyline Blvd – so in this respect it was especially interesting.  I haven’t yet explored the northern section of the preserve, which is open by permit only, but I’ll make a point to return sometime in the future.

Posted in Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, Peninsula, San Mateo County | Tagged , , | 1 Comment