PCT: Carson Pass to Showers Lake

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This was the third time I have hiked in the area between Carson Pass and Showers Lake.  It’s a beautiful area, though, and I was eager to return – each visit is unique and special.  My first hike in the area was a Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) hike in 2010 from Big Meadows to Showers Lake and back.  My second hike was essentially a duplicate of today’s hike, from Carson Pass to Showers Lake and back via the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and partially via the TRT, in 2014.  The route is within El Dorado National Forest, in the northern part of Alpine County.

The highest elevation of the hike is about 1.5 miles from the start.  From the associated ridge there is a beautiful view to the south, across Carson Pass and into the Mokelumne Wilderness.  In this view Round Top is easily identified, with The Sisters and Fourth of July Peak to the right (west).  There is a small unnamed, presumably seasonal, pond.  This is one of my favorite views of the hike.  This year there are still remnants of last winter’s snow in the high country above 9000 feet elevation on north-facing slopes.

photo of view south into the Mokelumne Wilderness

View south into the Mokelumne Wilderness

The hike was about 10.6 miles round trip; an overview is shown in the GPS track.  The orange dot shows the Meiss Meadows trailhead parking area, where I parked.  After I returned from Showers Lake, 10.2 miles round trip, I continued about 0.2 mile to the Carson Pass Information Station, where there is another parking area that often fills up.

GPS track

GPS track

In terms of official PCT mileage, as noted in the PCT data book, the hike covered mile 1078.7 to mile 1084.0.

In the context of either the PCT or the TRT, this section is relatively level.  The elevation range is only about 450 feet, and the total elevation gain and loss for the hike is 1400 feet.  The steepest sections have about 10% grade, which is the typical designed maximum grade for both trails.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

I had remembered from both previous hikes that the trail was a bit confusing near Showers Lake, with several informal social trails leading to and from the lake.  This time I had downloaded a map to my phone – the map showed the PCT/TRT – and I followed the main trail around the south side of the lake to my turnaround point.  When I studied my GPS tracks afterward, I realized that, for both previous hikes, I hiked around the north side of Showers Lake!  Further study of paper maps has revealed that older maps show the trail going north of the lake, while more recent maps show it going south of the lake.  Evidently, the PCT/TRT has been re-routed.  In any case, this time I made sure to stay on the trail as it was indicated on my downloaded map.

Not far from the trailhead, as the trail initially proceeds to the west, there are several sierra junipers (Juniperus grandes).  These trees seem to have a talent for growing among granite boulders where one would swear there are insufficient nutrients to support trees of their size.

photo of sierra junipers apparently thriving among granite boulders

Sierra junipers apparently thriving among granite boulders

One reason I went on this hike was because I had, just a few days prior, read a report of a multitude of wildflowers still in bloom in spite of the lateness of the season – according to the date, anyway.  In 2017 the spring began later than usual, due to the high amounts of snowfall over the winter season, and likewise lasted later than usual.  Some of the wildflowers I saw more or less throughout the hike included paintbrush (Castilleja sp.), mallow (Sidalcea sp.), common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and both yellow and white species of cinquefoil (Potentilla sp.).  One of my favorites at higher elevation is short-flowered owl’s clover (Orthocarpus cuspidatus ssp. cryptanthus).

photo of short-flowered owl’s clover

Short-flowered owl’s clover

Near the seasonal pond I found some fresh-looking woolly mule ears (Wyethia mollis) as well as ranger buttons (Sphenosciadium capitellatum).  In other places there were fields of mule ears, all well past their prime.  I also found mountain dandelion (Agoseris heterophylla) and sulphur buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum).  I was pleased to find, and recognize, some meadow rue (Thalictrum fendleri), which I had recently encountered for the first time.

photo of meadow rue

Meadow rue

Although much of the hike was on open hillsides, there were some areas where the trail passes through forested areas.  In one such area I found a pair of very large mushrooms, almost 6” in diameter, with an orange tint and white flecks.

photo of mushrooms near the trail

Mushrooms near the trail

During the early part of the hike I was leap-frogging a group of young adult hikers.  When I was actually moving I was hiking a bit faster than their chatting supported, but nearly every time I stopped to take pictures they passed me again.  About 2 miles in they stopped for a break and sat on a trailside log that was large enough to hold the entire group.  They were kind – or amused – enough to let me take their picture.

photo of younger hikers enjoying a quick break

Younger hikers enjoying a quick break

One of the visual highlights was Meiss meadow, which may actually be several meadows extending for a couple of miles.  Here is a pretty view of the meadow, which was still lush green in early September.  On my previous hikes in the area the meadow had already turned golden by the time of my hike.

photo of Meiss meadow view

Meiss meadow view

About 3 miles from the trailhead the PCT joins the TRT at a Y junction, with both the PCT and TRT going to the left past Showers Lake toward Echo Summit and just the TRT going to the right toward Big Meadow.  This junction is not far from the Meiss family cabin, which dates from around 1878.  The trail continues to pass through meadows for another mile.  I found Lobb’s lupine (Lupinus lepidus var. lobbii), soft arnica (Arnica mollis), blue flax (Linum lewisii), penny royal (Monardella odoratissima), yampah (Perideridia sp.), bistort (Polygonum bistortoides), at least two types of aster, and meadow penstemon (Penstemon rydbergii).  This area is part of the watershed for the Upper Truckee River, and there were occasional small streams with flowing water.  Near the damp areas I found broad-leaf lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus) and seep spring monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus).  In a sunny damp spot I noticed some corn lily (Veratrum californicum) nicely backlit by the sun.

photo of corn lily

Corn lily

About a half mile after the Y junction you can barely see Meiss Lake off to the right, behind some trees.  I presume there is a social trail that goes to the lake; I passed and had brief conversations with several hikers, including one couple who had backpacked to Meiss Lake and stayed there the previous night.

About 4 miles from the trailhead the trail begins to climb once again, passing alternately through forested areas and hillsides of mule’s ear and other plants.  At one point I noticed a particularly colorful cluster of flowers just at the edge of the trail.  There were mule’s ear, paintbrush, both types of aster, and others.

photo of flower cluster along the PCT / TRT

Flower cluster along the PCT / TRT

In this general area I noticed a few plants with flowers I’d never seen before.  It turns out that they were streamside bluebells (Martensia ciliata).  The clusters of pendant, delicate blossoms were quite distinctive.

photo of streamside bluebells

Streamside bluebells

Not far from the bluebells I noticed a view of some peaks to the northeast.  I’m pretty sure they are the cluster of Job’s Peak, Job’s Sister, and Freel Peak, where I did a memorable hike a few years ago.

Here, and in other areas along the trail, I found colorful scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata).

photo of scarlet gilia

Scarlet gilia

About 5 miles from the trailhead the trail crests and descends about 50 feet to Showers Lake, where a social trail leads straight to the lake’s edge and other trails lead both left and right to encircle the lake.  My map application had indicated that the PCT/TRT went around the lake on the south and west sides, so I took the trail to the left.  It soon curved a little farther from the edge of the lake, and I simply looked for a good place to have an early lunch break, enjoy the view, and then turn around to return to the trailhead.  This was my view from my lunch break: very serene.

photo of Showers Lake

Showers Lake

Just before I stopped for lunch I had noticed some yellow rayless composite flowers I was pretty sure I’d seen several times before without taking the time to identify.  This time I decided to try to identify them, and I’m pretty sure they are Brewer’s aster (Eucephalus breweri).

photo of Brewer’s aster

Brewer’s aster

On the way back toward the trailhead I noticed some fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium var. circumvagum), which made pretty pink splashes among the still-green leaves of other plants.

Not far from the Y junction I looked more closely at some flowers I’d noticed in passing in the outbound direction.  I realized they were not “more of the same” but dusky horkelia (Horkelia fusca).

photo of dusky horkelia

Dusky horkelia

After passing over the saddle (the hike’s highest elevation) I noticed some succulent plants among rocks next to the trail.  Not surprisingly they turned out to be stonecrop, I believe Sierra stonecrop (Sedum obtusatum).  They were certainly past their prime blooming season but were still recognizable.

photo of sierra stonecrop

Sierra stonecrop

A bit farther I noticed a very unusual-looking mini-cluster of trees, in which one of the trees appeared to have had very low branches (or secondary trunks) that curved downward almost to ground level and then upward.  When I looked through the pictures from my 2014 hike on this same route I was amused to find a picture of the same tree cluster, essentially the exact same view.

photo of unusual-looking tree

Unusual-looking tree

After I arrived back at my car in the Meiss meadows trailhead parking area, I decided to walk the short distance to the Carson Pass Information Station.  At the station there are trail information boards, a picnic table outside, and various maps, reference books, and a few supplies available inside.  I was surprised, but pleased, to note a brand new addition to the station: a branch of the Little Free Library (LFL) .  I love the concept: take a book, leave a book.  I encountered my first LFL branch on the Military Ridge Trail outside Madison, WI and have since found branches in my neighborhood and many other locations.  The Information Station volunteer I chatted with told me she really wanted to get started, so she rounded up a bin, a few magazines and paperbacks, and that was all she needed.  It is certainly the most remote LFL branch I have encountered, and I was charmed.

photo of Little Free Library

Little Free Library

I was pleasantly surprised at how many wildflowers were still blooming in the area.  Even though the monumental snowfall had melted only fairly recently, I was well aware that in the recent drought years the wildflower season was complete at least a few weeks earlier.

The next time I hike near Carson Pass I hope to continue hiking the PCT southward from the Information Station.  At this time there is about an 8-mile gap to fill in, to a ridge northwest of The Nipple, where I had to turn around last year due to high winds and unstable footing.

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Posted in Alpine County, Eldorado National Forest, Pacific Crest Trail, South Tahoe, Tahoe Rim Trail, wildflower hikes | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Pacific Crest Trail – Tahoe NF Rd 86 to NF Rd 07

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The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in northern Nevada and southern Sierra Counties features wonderful views of the northern Sierras, with a mixture of mountain and lake views, beautiful forest, and open hillsides.  This point-to-point group hike covered 11.6 miles of the PCT between Tahoe National Forest Road 86 (Meadow Lake Rd) and Forest Road 07 (Jackson Meadows Rd, labelled on some maps as Henness Pass Rd).

The view from the first of two lunch breaks, at the highest point of the hike, was simply splendid.  One of the lakes in view was Fordyce Lake, approximately 4 miles away.

image of Fordyce Lake

Fordyce Lake

As a prelude to the PCT hike, the group I was hiking with also hiked Lacey Valley Trail, which I’d pre-checked earlier in the summer (see here and here for descriptions and wildflower photos).  The GPS track shows the entire hike.  The orange dot is the lower end of the Lacey Valley Trail, which travels south-southwest for about 3.2 miles to Meadow Lake Rd, Tahoe National Forest Rd 86.  We then hiked along FR 86 for 1.2 miles to the PCT crossing, essentially at the south end of the track.  I had previously hiked on the PCT to this road crossing from the east.  The PCT section is 11.6 miles, from “official” PCT mile 1174.7 to mile 1186.3, according to mileages listed in the PCT data book.  I had also previously hiked the section north of FR 07, so this hike allowed me to fill in a gap in my PCT hikes.

GPS track

GPS track

From the elevation profile it is easy to identify the Lacey Valley Trail, with a very gradual upslope.  The section along FR 86 and the first part of the PCT have a similar grade, which turns out to be about 9% and typical of the grade along the entire section.  We enjoyed a nice break at the hike’s highest elevation before beginning the mostly downhill stretch to FR 07.  The total elevation gain for the hike was about 2070 feet.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

As it turns out, this hike was enough later in the wildflower season than my checkout hike that the wildflowers were gone for the year in Lacey Meadows.  In fact, the group started out at a fairly fast hiking pace and I didn’t stop even once for photos as we hiked through the pretty Lower and Upper Lacey Meadows.  This is actually a picture from the earlier hike; for this hike there was much less remnant snow on the higher hills.  As a result the crossing of Lacey Creek, which had been halfway up my shins and with a decent current several weeks earlier, was a simple hop across barely a trickle of a stream.

image of view of Lacey Valley

View of Lacey Valley

We hiked the length of the Lacey Valley Trail and then up FR 86 to the PCT, a total of 4.4 miles, in about 1 hr 40 min, for an average hiking pace of over 2.5 mph.  This is a bit faster than I typically hike on my own – but I usually stop more often for photos, especially when wildflowers are in bloom.

We continued on the PCT, hiking steadily uphill through pretty forest.  After about 1.6 miles we reached what turned out to be the highest elevation of the hike and stopped for an early lunch break.  The views from this location, which was marked with a weathered sign pointing to nearby Lacey Peak, were simply spectacular and demanded a stop!  To the south we had a clear view of Fordyce Lake, pictured above, and nearby Meadow Lake.  Both lakes are only a few miles away.

image of Meadow Lake, viewed from an early lunch stop

Meadow Lake, viewed from an early lunch stop

Between these lakes is an interesting-looking peak, which is called Old Man Mountain.  It somewhat resembles a mini Half Dome, but I imagine it is easier to summit – even though I’m not sure there is any trail.  There was discussion about how to get closer by road and what hiking options might exist.

image of Old Man Mountain

Old Man Mountain

We could also see Webber Lake to the northeast.  And much farther away to the south, we saw what looked like snow-capped peaks that we thought might be in the Desolation Wilderness – if not, they are part of the Pacific Crest just south of Donner Pass.

Finally, looking back in the direction we’d hiked to get to this viewpoint, we noticed a craggy peak between a couple of trees.  At first we thought it might be the Sierra Buttes, but it was in the opposite direction.  It turns out that it was Castle Peak, near Donner Pass, less than 10 miles away to the southeast.

image of Castle Peak, viewed from the early lunch stop

Castle Peak, viewed from the early lunch stop

After a leisurely break enjoying the views, as we were preparing to resume hiking, suddenly we heard, and then saw, a small airplane flying roughly parallel to the ridgeline and between our location and Fordyce and Meadow Lakes.  The plane then made a left turn and flew away.  We were mystified about its mission.

Over the next 3 miles the trail descends about 600 feet and the regains 400 feet with an average grade of about 7%, so quite reasonable.  Along the way there were mostly open views of the surrounding country, including a few patches of remnant snow on north-facing slopes.  There were entire hillsides that were golden, perhaps from past-prime masses of mule ears; we passed through a few such sloped meadows.

In one of the areas full of mule ears – near the second high point 9 miles from the beginning of the hike – there was some short-flowered owl’s clover (Orthocarpus cuspidatus ssp cryptanthus), a favorite high-elevation wildflower.  I saw many that were finished with their season, so I was pleased to find a few colorful ones.  I seem to find these beauties frequently in association with mule ears.

image of short-flowered owl’s clover along the PCT

Short-flowered owl’s clover along the PCT

Toward the west-northwest there was an interesting-looking peak with a pointed top and a staircase-like jagged ridge top sloping to my right.  I saw it from the high point at around 9 miles and again a couple of miles later.  Here is what it looked like when I had a clear, unobstructed view.  I did not find any features on my maps that would help identify it.

image of interesting jagged peak viewed from the PCT

Interesting jagged peak viewed from the PCT

Near the second sighting of the jagged peak and ridge, visible at the lower left of this picture, there was a magnificent sierra juniper (Juniperus grandis) silhouetted against the sky.

image of sierra juniper

Sierra juniper

In this area, the last 5 1/2 miles or so of the hike, I noticed that the character of the rock was changing.  The preponderance of granite was giving way to more volcanic rock.  After a bit we stopped for a second lunch break before continuing to hike downhill.  We passed isolated outcrops of volcanic rock, and then found an unusual clump with a small arch or window.

image of volcanic rock with a small arch or window

Volcanic rock with a small arch or window

About 13 miles into the hike and 3 miles from the end, the PCT turns from a westward course to a northward course and begins to drop into forest below 7000 feet elevation.  Apparently there has been logging activity in this area, but it was still quite pretty.  There is a marked trail junction with a side trail leading to Lasier Meadow.

image of PCT passing through a forested area

PCT passing through a forested area

About 1 mile from the end of the hike there is a nice view of Jackson Meadows Reservoir, looking through a small gap between trees.

image of Jackson Meadows Reservoir

Jackson Meadows Reservoir

The trail arrives at a paved road approximately 1/4 mile from Forest Road 07, where we had stashed a vehicle before beginning the hike.  So the last small piece of the hike was along a paved road.

This was a very pleasant hike: the day was warm but not hot, and the scenery was beautiful.  The only thing that went badly was that I managed to dislodge my car key from a hip pocket in my day pack, and the key dropped somewhere along the trail.  I didn’t notice until the group had carpooled back to Truckee, and it wasn’t feasible to go back without a way to drive my car!  I was able to have my spare key overnighted to me, so I do currently have transportation, and I have placed notices everywhere I can think of.  If the key turns up I’ll post an update.

Posted in Nevada County, Pacific Crest Trail, Sierra County, Tahoe National Forest | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Backpacking maiden voyage: Loch Leven Lakes

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After two or three years of thinking about it, followed by acquisition of a few key equipment items, I embarked on my maiden voyage backpacking.  Part of my plan was that the initial trip would be just one night with a relatively modest hike, and I would be accompanied by someone who supported the notion of a “Backpacking 101” type trip.  I feel fortunate and grateful that a couple I know through a hiking club were very happy to accompany me on such a trip; and we were joined by a fourth hiking club member who was looking forward to a relatively relaxed two-day, overnight trip.

The trail we jointly selected was the Loch Leven Lakes Trail, which is located off I-80 at Exit 168 in the Tahoe National Forest along a roughly 7-mile stretch of I-80 that dips into Placer County from Nevada County.  The trail elevation ranges between about 5800 and 6800 feet; when we selected the hike date it was on a short list of suitable trails at a low enough elevation that we could be sure the trail would be snow-free following a well above-average snow season in the Sierras.

Another consideration, as always for backpacking, was water.  The Loch Leven Lakes Trail goes to three lakes that are quite close to each other (Lower Lake, Middle Lake, and High Lake), with a fourth, Salmon Lake, not far off the main trail.  This configuration makes the trail quite popular, and we were glad to be able to schedule the trip for a Thursday and Friday, avoiding what would have been a much more crowded experience on the weekend.  We ended up camping at Middle Lake, the largest of the group.  This was our first view of Middle Lake, and it immediately made the uphill hike to get there worthwhile!

picture of our first view of Middle Lake

Our first view of Middle Lake

In essence we ended up doing three separate hikes: the main outbound and return hikes, plus a shorter side trip to High Lake without our packs, once we’d set up camp.  This GPS track shows the outbound hike, with the trailhead parking area denoted by the orange dot.  We hiked past Lower Lake to get to Middle Lake, roughly 3.4 miles.  The side trip to High Lake entailed following the trail around the south end of Middle Lake and then northeast to High Lake, about 2.1 miles round trip.  On the return trip from Middle Lake the next morning two of us made a short unintended detour that added to our total mileage, which was 9.1 miles for the trip.

GPS track

GPS track

In this area I-80 follows the South Yuba River, which is lined on both sides by higher ridges.  To reach the Loch Leven Lakes the trail climbs about 1000 feet up the Hampshire Rocks into higher country, as shown in the elevation profile for the outbound hike.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

On the morning of our outbound hike we noted that there was some smoke and haze in the air, as had been the case regionally for the previous few days due to the Detwiler Fire some 100 miles away, due south.  The size of the fire, along with the prevailing wind pattern, resulted in a smoke plume so far away.  Fortunately, by later in the day the smoke had abated, and the skies remained clear in the North Tahoe area for at least several days afterward.  This picture was taken on the return hike, looking north across I-80 in the general direction of French and Fordyce Lakes.  On the outbound hike we could see that there was a ridge in that direction, but it was very indistinct.

picture of view to the north from Loch Leven Lakes Trail

View to the north from Loch Leven Lakes Trail

The ascent is actually a bit more difficult than the overall elevation gain and mileage would suggest, mainly because the trail basically goes up the wall of the Hampshire Rocks.  In the first half mile there is a short section with a 20% grade.  After a modest dip, which includes the crossing of Union Pacific Railroad tracks, the longer steady ascent up the rock face is at about 10% grade.  This is a perfectly reasonable grade for a trail, but the rocky terrain, backpack-weight packs, and 80+ degree temperatures made it a bit more strenuous.

Not far from the railroad crossing the trail passes close to – and crosses – an intermittent stream, where there were several types of wildflower that appreciated the moister environment, or its remnant.  Among them was horse mint (Agastache urticifolia), whose leaves and stem proclaimed membership in the mint family.  I also appreciated the flowers’ reproductive parts extending so far beyond the petals.

picture of horse mint near an intermittent stream

Horse mint near an intermittent stream

A bit higher, perhaps 250 vertical feet above the last dip and into the steady climb, we passed several larkspurs.  I believe they are Nuttall’s larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum).  I often have a bit of trouble getting larkspur photos in focus – I think it’s a typical limitation of camera sensors – and this picture is a little blurry, though it does show the characteristic “spur” of the blossom on the left.

picture of Nuttall’s larkspur

Nuttall’s larkspur

Almost next to the Nuttall’s larkspur I found this pretty, nearly white flower that I have been unable to identify so far.  Of the wildflowers I checked out it looks most similar to a skullcap or snapdragon, but seems to be neither.

picture of pretty mystery flower along the Loch Leven Lakes Trail

Pretty mystery flower along the Loch Leven Lakes Trail

After another 0.2 miles or so the trail crosses the intermittent stream again, and near this crossing there were several alpine lilies (Lilium parvum).  Once again I was having difficulty getting my camera (phone) to focus on the flower itself.  But I wanted to show the structure of the petals and sepals, which are in the so-called erect configuration as distinct from the recurved configuration common with many other orange, spotted lilies.  Alpine lilies are also a little smaller than other similar lilies.

picture of Alpine lilies

Alpine lilies

As the trail approaches its highest elevation it begins to pass through more of an open forested area, and the trail tread becomes dirt, duff, some roots, and a bit of forest litter.

picture of Loch Leven Trail passing through forested area near its high point

Loch Leven Trail passing through forested area near its high point

After reaching the top of the ridge, or perhaps the top of the South Yuba River valley, the trail drops just 50 feet or so to pass by Lower Loch Leven Lake.  We had labored to cover 2.8 miles in 2 1/4 hours, so we rewarded ourselves with a short break here.  Note that the sky is still somewhat hazy.

picture of Lower Loch Leven Lake

Lower Loch Leven Lake

After our break we continued the remaining half mile to Middle Loch Leven Lake, where two of the group scouted campsites while I waited briefly at another campsite that was literally right next to the main trail.  There was an interesting rock cairn that almost looked like a Transformers character.  Our scouts selected what turned out to be a marvelous site.  There were excellent locations for our tents (one 2-person tent and two 1-person tents), as well as an informal fire pit surrounded by various flat rocks suitable for setting up cook stoves, for sitting, and for locating our packs.  Here is how the camp looked after we’d set up all of the tents.  It was my first time actually pitching my tent, as opposed to “pretend” pitching in my living room, so it took longer than it will the next time!

picture of Our excellent campsite at Middle Loch Leven Lake

Our excellent campsite at Middle Loch Leven Lake

After we’d finished setting up camp we were eager to go exploring, specifically to High Loch Leven Lake, so off we went.  The trail continues south along the west and south shores of Middle Lake before heading northeast and climbing 100 feet or so.  High Lake is about 1 mile away and just over a lip.  The trail was not very distinct, so it was helpful that the others hiking with me had actually been there before.  High Loch Leven Lake is serene, and the three women were happy to pose for a group photo as one of our companion dogs checked out the water.

picture of High Loch Leven Lake

High Loch Leven Lake

Near the lake’s edge there was some mountain heather (Phyllodoce breweri).  After we sat just chatting for a while we realized we might as well continue the conversation at camp, so we headed back.  Because the trail was indistinct, we followed a different path part of the way.  Along the way we passed several Leichtlin’s mariposa lilies (Calochortus leichtlinii).  I had also noticed quite a few before we’d reached camp, but decided to stop for photos here.

picture of Leichtlin’s mariposa lilies

Leichtlin’s mariposa lilies

After we returned to camp there was time for some swimming in Middle Lake before dinner.  It was pleasant to just sit on the rocks and enjoy the late afternoon serenity of calm breezes and pretty reflections.  A couple of years ago I started making a point of taking a picture out my hotel room window whenever there was an interesting view.  This is my Loch Leven Lakes view from my room, or room with a view.

picture of Middle Loch Leven Lake viewed from our campsite

Middle Loch Leven Lake viewed from our campsite

About a half hour later I was still admiring the reflections in the lake.

picture of pretty reflection in Middle Loch Leven Lake

Pretty reflection in Middle Loch Leven Lake

We continued our relaxed evening until shortly after sundown, when we all decided to retire to our tents – even though it was not yet 9 pm.  I must admit that I’d determined in advance that I was going to enjoy using my sleeping pad.  Indeed, it still amazes me that a 15-ounce inflatable pad is nearly as comfortable as a regular bed, but it is.  However, while unzipping my sleeping bag to get in I managed to disconnect the bottom of the zipper and was unsuccessful at getting the zipper re-seated.  The resulting “cool zone” down one side of my body contributed to fitful sleep for most of the night, and I don’t think I fell deeply asleep until nearly dawn.  As I related my story to the others, chuckling about my struggles with the zipper (which I fixed once it was daylight and I could see what I was doing), one of the others commented “Oh, we forgot to tell you, you don’t sleep well backpacking”!

In the morning there was time for another dip in the lake before we broke camp and started back.  We had two inflatable flotation mats – worthwhile to carry perhaps only because the hike distance was short – which could be taken out on the water.  The surface of the lake was so calm that there were pretty ripple patterns, with interference patterns as ripples reflected from the island in the background of the picture.

picture of morning ripples on the surface of Middle Loch Leven Lake

Morning ripples on the surface of Middle Loch Leven Lake

In the morning, as well as the previous afternoon at High Lake, there were several brilliant blue insects both on and near the shallow water at the edge of the lake.  Here is one.  Although I initially assumed this is a dragonfly (suborder Anisoptera), after a bit more research I concluded that this is more likely a damselfly (suborder Zygoptera) since the wings are folded against the body.

picture of brilliant blue damselfly

Brilliant blue damselfly

We took our time breaking camp and getting back on the trail.  Before long we passed a group of brilliant azure penstemon (Penstemon azureus) plants that I had noted the previous day and resolved to stop for pictures.  Although there are 9 species of penstemon found in Placer and adjacent Nevada Counties, azure penstemon is the only one at this elevation with yellow buds.

picture of azure penstemon

Azure penstemon

On the return trip I paid more attention to the wildflowers than I had on the outbound trip.  Some of the ones I noted were pretty face (Triteleia ixioides), corn lily (Veratrum californicum), and mountain pride (Penstemon newberryi).  I noticed a single plant of what I believe to be sanddune wallflower (Erysimum perenne).

picture of sanddune wallflower

Sanddune wallflower

As we descended further we passed spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa), crimson columbine (Aquilegia formosa), checkerbloom (Sidalcea sp.), some paintbrush (Castilleja sp.), asters, and pussy paws (Calyptridium umbellatum).  There were sizeable patches, I think near the intermittent stream, of lush green ferns.  Finally, in moist areas there were some musk monkeyflowers (Mimulus moschatus).

picture of musk monkeyflower

Musk monkeyflower

On the return trip there was a short off-trail exploration, which added perhaps 0.2 miles to the distance.  Even though hiking down the Hampshire Rocks seemed fairly slow, we hiked down about a half hour quicker than we’d hiked up, even with the detour and my stops for wildflower photographs.

As I had anticipated, I learned a lot during this initial backpack trip.  And as I’d hoped, it was a great experience – and I’m looking forward to another opportunity to backpack soon.

Posted in backpacking, Placer County, Tahoe National Forest | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Lacey Valley Trail: southern section

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This is the second of two posts (see here for the first post) about a hike on the recently-opened Lacey Valley Trail.  The area around the trail is owned and managed by the Truckee Donner Land Trust.   The trail, located in Sierra County in the Tahoe National Forest, is 3.4 miles long, passing through two meadows and surrounding forested areas.

This post covers the southern portion of the trail, south of the Lacey Creek crossing.  I had done the hike in what I hoped would be prime wildflower viewing season, and the wildflowers were indeed wonderful.  Some of the identifications were assisted by a list posted on the Truckee Donner Land Trust web site.

This is a view of the upper meadow, signed Upper Lacey Valley, with an unnamed peak behind.  The trail itself was covered by a puddle on the day of my hike.

image of view of the upper meadow on the Lacey Valley Trail

View of the upper meadow on the Lacey Valley Trail

An overview of the trail is shown in the GPS track in the first post; the trail generally follows Lacey Creek for 3.4 miles from the southwest side of Webber Lake to Forest Rd 86.  The Lacey Creek crossing, about 0.7 mile from the trailhead, serves as the starting point for this post.

Once I had crossed the creek, dried my feet, and put my boots back on, I continued along the trail, still passing through the lower meadow.  Soon I saw more belly flowers: needle navarretia (Navarretia intertexta).   These tiny beauties are only about 0.1” in diameter.  I found them when I stopped to investigate what turned out to be a large mass of almost-as-tiny Torrey’s monkeyflower.

image of needle navarretia

Needle navarretia

Not far away there were some interesting flower clusters perched on top of tall (perhaps 18”) stems rising above the surrounding grasses and other plants.  I’m pretty sure they are dusky horkelia (Horkelia fusca).

image of dusky horkelia

Dusky horkelia

Out in the meadow several meters from the trail there was a lot of Bolander’s yampah (Perideridia bolanderi ssp bolanderi) with characteristic delicate compound umbrels of tiny white blossoms.  This one was being visited by a small insect.

image of Bolander’s yampah

Bolander’s yampah

In the same area there was some pussy paws (Calyptridium umbellatum).  These plants typically grow fairly close to the ground, with a cluster of basal leaves and very interesting flower heads.  The flowers vary from off-white to pink.

image of pussy paws

Pussy paws

Still in the lower meadow, about 1 mile from the trailhead I found a second area that was blue with a moderately dense display of camas lilies (Camassia quamash).  This is one example; I am continually fascinated by the colors and details of the reproductive parts of the blossoms.

image of typical blue camas lily

Typical blue camas lily

Among the typical camas lilies I noticed a single plant with white blossoms.  When I find what I believe to be such a color variation I always pay close attention to the details of the plant; in this case it was perfectly obvious that this was a white version of the same camas lily.

image of unusual white camas lily among a mass of blue ones

Unusual white camas lily among a mass of blue ones

After passing through the lower meadow the trail continues through a forested area for about 3/4 mile.  In the forested area I found more violets (I had seen mountain violets near the trailhead).  I think this one is a canary violet (Viola praemorsa), due to the shape of the leaves and the absence of purple on the back of the upper petals.

image of canary violet, I think

Canary violet, I think

Not far away there were some stream violets (Viola glabella), whose leaves are wider than canary violets.

image of stream violet

Stream violet

Before long the trail re-emerged into the upper meadow, with a sign indicating Upper Lacey Valley.  Here I noticed more spikes of pink flowers.  I could quickly see that they were elephant heads, this time “regular” elephant head (Pedicularis groenlandica).  The plants are taller than little elephant heads, and the blossoms are both larger and pinker.  Also, the “trunks” were longer than the little elephant heads I’d seen in the lower meadow.  Finally, the upper petals seem to form more obvious elephant ears.  The structure of this flower is pretty amazing!

image of elephant heads in Upper Lacey Valley

Elephant heads in Upper Lacey Valley

Not far away I noticed some shooting stars; I think they are alpine shooting stars (Dodecatheon alpinum).  Another possibility is Jeffrey’s shooting star (D. jeffreyi).  However, Jeffrey’s has hairs on the stems and alpine does not; and these do not appear to have hairs.  An interesting characteristic of shooting stars is illustrated in this picture: two of the blossoms point downward and one points upward.  The upward-pointing blossom has been pollinated and has changed its orientation as an advisory to potential pollinators not to bother!

image of alpine shooting star

Alpine shooting star

The upper meadow is much smaller than the lower meadow, and soon I was passing through another forested area.  Here I encountered some stickseed, which could be either sierra stickseed (Hackelia nervosa) or Jessica stickseed (H. micrantha).   My research suggested that stickseeds are difficult to distinguish, indeed are indistinguishable unless you are able to examine the seeds carefully. They are also called forget-me-nots.

image of sierra or Jessica stickseed

Sierra or Jessica stickseed

I saw buttercups in several locations along the trail.  Here is a water plantain buttercup (Raununculus alismifdius).

image of water plantain buttercup

Water plantain buttercup

In a smaller meadow I found some western bistort (Polygonum bistortoides), with characteristic egg-shaped flower heads at the top of long stems.  This one had an insect visitor.  There was also a butterfly, possibly a fritillary (Boloria sp.), visiting several flower heads—but not pausing long enough for me to get a clear photo.

image of western bistort

Western bistort

In a forested area I found a new-for-me type of phacelia: low phacelia (Phacelia humilis).  The plants are quite small compared to all other phacelias I’ve observed, and the flowers can occur individually rather than in the characteristic curls.  In order to illustrate this individual plant I needed to gently pull away some other plants that were growing next to it, almost hiding it and confusing the identification (some of the foliage was Brewer’s lupine).  A blue-eyed Mary is just in front of the phacelia, which is less than 1/2” in diameter.

image of low phacelia

Low phacelia

Not far away I found some sierra lewisia (Lewisia nevadensis).  Note the delicate veins in the petals, as well as the yellowish area at the base of each petal, which presumably helps draw pollinators to the center of the blossom.

image of sierra lewisia

Sierra lewisia

Approaching the southern end of the trail I encountered more puddles, as well as a couple of places where mini-tributaries of Lacey Creek crossed the trail.  Unlike the Lacey Creek crossing, however, there was virtually no current and there were enough down tree branches to accomplish the crossings with dry boots.

At the southern end of the trail there is a slight elevation gain, less than 200 feet.  I was a little surprised to find some snow on the trail.  It was easy to make my way around, or across, it.

image of upper Lacey Valley Trail with remnant snow

Upper Lacey Valley Trail with remnant snow

As expected, about 3.4 miles from the trailhead I arrived at the southern end of the trail at Forest Rd 86.  Within sight of this intersection I could see snow covering the road looking in both directions.  It was not really a lot of snow, but I was glad I hadn’t needed to drive my low-clearance car there.

After reaching this point I turned around and began to make my way back north, stopping for a lunch break at a small clearing perhaps a tenth of a mile back along the trail.  It was a pleasant place to enjoy the view and some corn lilies that were getting ready to bloom.

The return hike was as pleasant as the outbound hike, though I stopped less frequently for wildflower study.  I did notice that, toward the north end of the trail, I could see a blue stripe across the lower meadow denoting Webber Lake.  Notably, the trail does not go to the shore of the lake, which is opening to the public (mainly for fishing, I believe) later in 2017.

After I returned to my car I started my drive 8 miles back out to CA-89 at Little Truckee Summit.  I had decided that I would stop along the way to investigate interesting-looking splashes of color that might signify wildflowers.  I ended up stopping several times.  Among my finds: seep monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus), woolly mule ears (Wyethia mollis), paintbrush (Castilleja sp.), and sulphur buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum).  When I checked out the mule ears, behind them I found several Leichtlin’s mariposa lilies (Calochortus leichtlinii).

image of Leichtlin’s mariposa lily

Leichtlin’s mariposa lily

And as I was checking out something else I found some tiny monkeyflowers, I believe Layne’s monkeyflower (Mimulus layneae).  I had to carefully hold the flower in order to facilitate getting a picture at least somewhat in focus.  The fat-finger look is due to the close-up view of my camera!  This flower is less than 1/4” across and looks different from the Torrey’s monkeyflowers I’d seen on the trail.  The Torrey’s monkeyflowers had bilateral symmetry, while this one had more of a radial symmetry.

image of Layne’s monkeyflower, I believe

Layne’s monkeyflower, I believe

At the last stop I found scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata), which I always consider to be a treat.  These flowers are much bigger than what I would consider to be the common gilia species.  And the color is very intense.

image of scarlet gilia

Scarlet gilia

My hike on the Lacey Valley Trail was well-timed, as evidenced by the great variety of wildflowers I found.  I didn’t see everything on the list, but that’s not surprising given that the spring wildflower season generally encompasses several succeeding waves of different types of blooms.  I also saw several that were not on the list.

I would like to note that the 8-mile drive between CA-89 and the trailhead is a very pretty drive.  There are several places worth pausing to enjoy views across Perazzo Meadows, which is not far from Webber Lake and the Lacey Meadows.

Posted in Sierra County, Tahoe National Forest, wildflower hikes | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Lacey Valley Trail: northern section

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The Lacey Valley Trail has recently opened to the public.  It is located off Forest Road 07, about 8 miles west of the Little Truckee Summit on CA-89, in the Tahoe National Forest in Sierra County.  The trail and surrounding land are now owned and managed by the Truckee Donner Land Trust.  The north trailhead is near Webber Lake and the south trailhead is along Forest Road 86 about 1.2 miles north of the Pacific Crest Trail crossing.

I recently hiked this trail as a partial pre-check of a group hike I’ll be co-leading later in the summer. The write-up of the trail on the Truckee Donner Land Trust web site suggested that there would be numerous wildflowers “in season”.  Since the hike might be after the wildflower season I decided to check it out when I expected the wildflowers to be plentiful.  I was not disappointed! In fact, I saw so many beautiful wildflowers, some that I would consider to be less common, that I am creating two posts about the hike.  This post covers the first part of the hike, just to a crossing of Lacey Creek about 0.7 mile from the trailhead; see here for a description of the rest of the hike.

The trail itself is like an informal forest road, about 3.4 miles long.  It passes through two beautiful meadows, with forested areas surrounding the meadows.  This view shows the trail passing through the first meadow, signed as Lower Lacey Valley, with low peaks in the background still covered with remnant snow in early July.

image of view of the lower meadow on the Lacey Valley Trail

View of the lower meadow on the Lacey Valley Trail

The GPS track shows the trail generally following Lacey Creek in a south-southwesterly direction from the southwest edge of Webber Lake.  The orange dot shows the location of the trailhead.  (I recorded the additional track leading to/from the trailhead as I drove back to CA-89.)

GPS track

GPS track

The entire trail is 3.4 miles long.  As shown on the elevation profile, there is relatively little elevation gain/loss: just over 300 feet for the round trip.  Indeed, the Upper Lacey Valley is barely 100 feet higher than the Lower Lacey Valley.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

I should note that the web site contains good directions for finding the trailhead among several roads near Forest Road 07 that could make things confusing.  In addition, there are prominent signs directing the way at at least two intersections.

I discovered that there were several interesting wildflowers in a small clearing near the modest trailhead parking area.  Among them were corn lily (Veratrum californicum), Bolander’s yampah, primrose monkeyflower, checkermallow (Sidalcea sp.), Nuttall’s larkspur, and some small gilia-like flowers.  There was also red sierra onion (Allium campanulatum), which I did not see along the trail.

image of red sierra onion

Red sierra onion

In addition there was Brewer’s lupine (Lupinus breweri), which can form almost a mat-like ground cover in good growing conditions.

image of Brewer’s lupine

Brewer’s lupine

I should note that I made extensive use of the online wildflower list to assist with identifications, especially when there might be multiple possible similar species present.

Once on the trail, it was not long before I began to see other wildflowers.  Indeed, there were not many wildflower-free sections on the entire trail!  One of the first finds was mountain violet (Viola purpurea), which is distinguished by a purple-maroon coloration on the back of the upper two petals.

image of mountain violet

Mountain violet

A short distance farther I found some crimson columbine (Aquilegia formosa) in a shaded but moist area.

image of crimson columbine

Crimson columbine

Next to the columbine was some Nuttall’s larkspur (Delphinium nutallianum), a brilliantly colored larkspur that I’d also seen at the trailhead.  I often have trouble photographing larkspur, so I was pleased to get a few good close-ups this time.

image of Nuttall’s larkspur

Nuttall’s larkspur

Also nearby was another wildflower that I don’t remember seeing before, and before I learned the correct identification I gave it an informal name – upside-down plant – since that’s how it appeared to me.  It turns out to be meadow rue (Thalictrum fendleri).  The blossoms hang down in a cluster from the main stem, which extends above the cluster.  Unusual, and certainly distinctive.

image of meadow rue

Meadow rue

As expected for the ecosystem, I found lots of aster, specifically tundra aster (Oreostemma alpigenum var. andersonii), also called alpine aster.  I still find asters and daisies to be difficult to distinguish, and this ID was facilitated by the on-line wildflower list.

image of tundra, or alpine, aster

Tundra, or alpine, aster

My next find was a cluster of three types of wildflower.  I initially paused my walking to enjoy several pretty face (Triteleia ixioides), which is a favorite.  Once I’d stopped I noticed two much smaller wildflowers, also favorites.  One was Torrey’s monkeyflower (Mimulus torreyi), shown here with my index finger serving as an always-available ruler.  The entire plant is less than 1” tall, and the blossom is about 1/4“ in its longer dimension.

image of Torrey’s monkeyflower

Torrey’s monkeyflower

Near the monkeyflowers there was some blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia parviflora), with slightly smaller blossoms.   These are classic belly flowers: best seen on your belly, or at least sitting down! – and a magnifying glass comes in handy.

image of blue-eyed Mary

Blue-eyed Mary

Shortly after these finds the forested area opened up into the lower meadow; see the first picture of this post.  A sign indicates the location of the former Johnson family homestead.  This is about 0.5 mile from the trailhead.

In the meadow there were numerous wildflowers that thrive on the seasonally wet conditions.  One was primrose monkeyflower (Mimulus primuloides), a cheerful bright yellow and larger than Torrey’s monkeyflower: perhaps 1/2” in diameter and a bit rounder in appearance.

image of primrose monkeyflower

Primrose monkeyflower

There was also some low-growing yellow cinquefoil (probably Potentilla sp.).  Most cinquefoils can be distinguished from similar-looking buttercups by the presence of sepals peeking out between the five petals.

image of cinquefoil

Cinquefoil

I was quite surprised to notice another belly flower growing in the middle of the trail: on the other hand, if it had been growing off the trail I would likely have missed it among the taller grasses.  It is called porterella (Porterella carnosula).  Like the similar-appearing downingias, it grows at the drying margins of wet places like lakes, vernal pools, and puddles.  I would pass numerous “active” puddles later in my hike.  I have seen these small (about 1/3” diameter) charming wildflowers only a few times previously.

image of porterella

Porterella

In the meadow, a few tens of meters from the trail, I noticed stalks of intense blue flowers that I immediately suspected – and hoped – were camas lilies (Camassia quamash).  I was delighted to confirm these seasonal Tahoe area favorites.  The meadow at the east end of Sagehen Creek Trail is a favorite place to find a large display of camas lilies, and I had been disappointed to hike there recently and not find a single bloom.

image of camas lily

Camas lily

A short distance later I noticed delicate pink flower spikes closer to the trail.  Upon closer investigation I could see that they were little elephant head (Pedicularis attolens), with a petal tube forming the trunk-like characteristic.  The little elephant head can be distinguished from a larger cousin by the smaller size of the blossoms; these were about 1/3” across.  I would see the “regular” elephant head later in my hike.

image of little elephant head

Little elephant head

Nearby there were other, more intensely hued, pink flower spikes.  The flowers reminded me of checkerblooms, though I’ve not previously noticed checkerblooms blooming in spikes.  Further research revealed them to be Oregon checkerbloom (Sidalcea oregana ssp. spicata).  There are many species of Sidalcea in the Tahoe area, many difficult to identify, but this one seems to be distinctive.

image of Oregon checkerbloom

Oregon checkerbloom

Near the trail there were also some meadow penstemon (Penstemon rydbergii var. oreocharis), with characteristic helicopter-blade-like whorls of blossoms.  I have seen this penstemon many times, but learned during my research that it is almost identical to another, the whorled penstemon, except that whorled penstemon has hairy flowers and meadow penstemon’s flowers are hairless.  This was a small lesson in the importance of details in the identification of wildflowers!

image of meadow penstemon

Meadow penstemon

About 0.7 mile from the trailhead I arrived at Lacey Creek.  I had read a description of the trail that indicated this crossing is usually wet until late in the summer – and there is no bridge, even logs, to facilitate getting across.  Because of this information I had brought my Crocs and a small towel with me, so I was able to change footwear and roll up my pant legs.  The water was bracingly cold and came about halfway up my shins.  I was glad to have brought hiking poles; they were not needed anywhere else but helped steady me with the surprisingly strong current.  The family shown in this photo was accomplishing the crossing in what I’d call the hard way: the dad carried each child across one at a time, getting his boots thoroughly wet, while cautioning the waiting children not to go in the water.  I think they were amused and impressed that I had brought footwear especially for the crossing!

image of Lacey Creek crossing the Lacey Valley Trail

Lacey Creek crossing the Lacey Valley Trail

My adventures on the southern part of the Lacey Valley Trail are continued in my next post.

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Modini Mayacamas Preserves wildflower exploration – part 2

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This post is a continuation of my previous post about a recent visit to the Modini Mayacamas Preserves in Sonoma County, for the purpose of exploring for wildflowers.  It was a docent-led visit, and we saw so many wildflowers that I decided to create two posts.

As mentioned in my previous post the entire group of visitors basically caravanned up Pine Flat Rd into the preserves, stopping at various locations for either quick explorations or short hikes away from the road.

Around the middle of the visit we walked along a dirt fire road, basically a side road from paved Pine Flat Rd.  We saw quite a few wildflowers during this excursion.  One of the wildflowers was hayfield tarweed (Hemizonia congesta); in fact, we saw quite a few of these tarweeds during the visit.  This particular individual flower was being visited by a native moth as we approached.  The moth kindly remained in place long enough for me to get a few quick pictures.  The blossom is about 1/2 inch in diameter, and the moth had pretty markings.

photo of hayfield tarweed and native moth

Hayfield tarweed and native moth

Another interesting find was some long-rayed brodiaea (Triteleia peduncularis).  It is similar in appearance to wild hyacinth (Triteleia hyacinthia), which I have seen elsewhere, but has longer stalks; in addition, the ribs are less prominent on the long-rayed brodiaea.

photo of long-rayed brodiaea

Long-rayed brodiaea

Along this dirt road we saw other related flowers: ookow (Dicholestemma congestum), harvest brodiaea (Brodiaea elegans), and Ithuriel’s spear (Triteleia laxa).  In addition we saw some winecup clarkia (Clarkia purpurea) and checkerblooms (Sidalcea diploscypha).  Actually, there are many checkerbloom species in the region and they are said to be difficult to distinguish; this is the identification provided by our docent.

A pretty flower we would see in several locations was slender centaury (Centaurium tenuiflorum).  Each main stem supports at least a dozen small flowers, which are just 3mm or 1/8 inch in diameter.  Take special note of the yellow tops of the stamens.

photo of slender centaury

Slender centaury

In a shady area one of the group spotted a few rein orchids (Piperia sp.).  These pretty flowers come in several varieties, which I have yet to learn to distinguish.

photo of rein orchid

Rein orchid

In a sunny spot there were a few cream sacs (Castilleja rubicundula).   These interesting flowers are in the same genus as paintbrush and owl’s clover.

photo of cream sac

Cream sac

As the day warmed up, in sunny areas we could virtually smell before seeing both hayfield tarweed and turpentine weed (Trichostema laxum), both of which have been named for their fragrance.  The turpentine weed flowers have an unusual structure in which very long stamens form a dramatic arch over the main part of the blossom.  I’m sure the stamens dangle just the right height over the entrance to the nectar source to ensure that the pollinator – I assume one or more species of bee – successfully pollinates!

photo of turpentine weed

Turpentine weed

Our last find along the side road was California skullcap (Scutellaria californica).  The blossoms are reminiscent of snapdragons.  California skullcap is endemic to California, with a range extending from approximately San Francisco to Trinity Lake in low-elevation mountains (i.e., not in the Central Valley).  Our docent was familiar with the flower but told us he had seen it only once before in the Modini Mayacamas Preserves.  So it was a lucky find.

photo of California skullcap

California skullcap

One of the targets of the hike on the side road was mariposa lilies.  A few days prior to our visit there had been 3 or 4 still blooming in an area along the road.  We all looked very carefully but were unable to find any.  Our docent knew one other location to look, so we proceeded to drive there after returning to the cars.  The area was another grassy hillside.  Our initial survey did not turn up any mariposa lilies, but it did reveal a larger species of centaury: charming centaury (Zeltnera venusta).  The species name means beautiful, graceful, charming, and handsome, and seems to be an apt description of this flower.  In contrast to the slender centaury, which is a non-native, the charming centaury is a California native.  The charming centaury is a big larger: about 1/2 inch in diameter.  The stamens are quite distinctive, very long and corkscrew-shaped.

photo of charming centaury

Charming centaury

While the group examined the charming centaury our docent continued a hundred yards or so over a small rise, and suddenly we heard him exclaim “Aha! I found one!”  As we hurried over, he found a second coast range mariposa lily (Calochortus vestae) nearby.  At least, we think they were coast range rather than superb mariposa lilies (C. superbus).  These two species are a little tricky to differentiate, as the definitive distinguishing characteristic seems to be the shape of the hairy area near the base of the petal.  I tried to get a good picture including the hairs in order to revisit later if needed.  In either case, it was a new species of mariposa lily for me, and that is always exciting.  Apparently this is the end of the 2017 blooming season for them.

photo of coast range mariposa lily

Coast range mariposa lily

The finding of the mariposa lilies essentially ended our exploration up Pine Flat Rd, and we then began to descend back to our meeting point.  As we passed a sign for one of the pullouts, labelled MM 7.3, I realized that we had traveled at least 8 miles up the road, perhaps farther.  We made a few more stops on the way down.

At one of the stops – I think we stopped to check out some possible frying-pan poppies – we found a tiny pink primrose with petals so deeply lobed that the 4 petals look more like 8.  I think it is a spike primrose (Epilobium sp.) or possibly called willow herb or boisduvalia; there may be several possibilities.  In any case, it is a pretty flower.

photo of spike primrose, maybe

Spike primrose, maybe

Another stop, which I specifically requested, was to appreciate a clear view of Mount St Helena, roughly 10 miles away.  Previously I’ve only seen Mt St Helena from the other side – and it is always a treat to have a clear view of a well-known peak from a different perspective!

photo of Mt St Helena

Mt St Helena

We needed to walk up the road for the view from the closest pullout.  As we returned to the car we noticed some turkey mullein (Croton setiger), also called dove weed.  It often grows in mounds or clusters – the cluster we found was 2 or 3 feet across.  The leaves are fuzzy, and the flowers feature tall stamens that rise above the rest of the blossom.

photo of turkey mullein, or dove weed

Turkey mullein, or dove weed

At the edge of the pullout, on a nearly vertical hillside, we found a single plant of a dark purple jewel flower.  I happen to think jewel flowers are pretty special, so this was another exciting find. It was difficult to see, since it was several feet up the hillside and conditions were unsafe to try to get closer.  This was my best picture, a bit over-zoomed and grainy.  I think it is a bristly jewel flower (Streptanthus glandulosus), based on prevalence in Sonoma county as reported on the Calflora web site, though it could be Brewer’s jewel flower (S. breweri).

photo of bristly jewel flower or Brewer’s jewel flower

Bristly jewel flower or Brewer’s jewel flower

Later on we stopped for something else and found some sedge and some tall cyperus (Cyperus eragrostis), also called tall flatsedge.  So far I haven’t tried to learn sedges, but I thought the structure was distinctive and interesting.  Also, I think many sedges are brown, so it was interesting to find a green one.

photo of tall cyperus

Tall cyperus

After this exploration we made it back to the meeting point without further stops.

My first visit to the Modini Mayacamas Preserves had been very interesting – and productive, in terms of getting introduced to many new wildflowers.  I look forward to a future visit, perhaps earlier in the spring when a different collection of wildflowers will be blooming.

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Modini Mayacamas Preserves wildflower exploration – part 1

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Recently I learned of the existence of an open space preserve in Sonoma County that is open to the public via docent-led hikes and wildflower walks, and I signed up for a wildflower walk.  The preserve is called the Modini Mayacamas Preserves, and it is one of four preserves managed by Audubon Canyon Ranch, an organization dedicated to “protecting natural and human communities through land preservation, nature education, and conservation science” (text quoted from the web site).

The Modini and Mayacamas Preserves property is located northeast of Healdsburg and roughly 10 miles northwest of Mt St Helena, which is shown in the banner picture for this post.  During the visit we saw numerous wildflowers; some were familiar but many were new sightings for me.  There were so many interesting species that I decided to create two posts for the visit; here is a link to the second post.

In order to learn as much as possible from our docent I tried to take complete notes, particularly about the new species.  As an example, one of my new species was western spicebush (Calycanthus occidentalis).  It’s actually not especially unusual, but I had never encountered it before.  The color contrast between the green leaves and deep red blossoms was stunning.

photo of western spicebush

Western spicebush

For the docent-led activities the meeting point is at the junction of Pine Flat Rd and Red Winery Rd.  We collected in the smallest possible number of cars – which happened to be just 2 – and basically caravanned up Pine Flat Rd into the nearby hills.  Although we did several short walks away from the road to visit interesting wildflower hot spots, most of the distance we covered was by car, and I didn’t record a GPS track.  However, I reproduced the driving route in Google maps since Pine Flat Rd is a public road.

driving route through the Modini and Mayacamas Preserves

Driving route through the Modini and Mayacamas Preserves

Basically we stopped whenever any of the following happened: the docent, Dave, or anyone else in his car saw something that looked interesting; or we came to a known location for finding an interesting plant or wildflower.  It was invaluable to be traveling with a local expert!

We stopped frequently, always using pullouts along the narrow road.  At the first stop we found some Kenilworth ivy (Cymbalaria muralis) growing in cracks in a dilapidated building.  This is not actually an ivy, but rather a toadflax, and the flowers resemble snapdragons.

photo of kenilworth ivy

Kenilworth ivy

In the same area we found western spicebush and swamp thistle (Cirsium douglasii), a native thistle. So many thistles I have seen are non-native, even considered invasive, it was nice to find an actual native thistle.

photo of swamp thistle

Swamp thistle

Not far away there was Indian pink (Silene lanciniata ssp. californica), which is actually red.

photo of Indian pink

Indian pink

At the next stop there was Sonoma clarkia (Clarkia gracilis ssp. sonomensis), which is found primarily in Sonoma County with smaller populations in Mendocino, Lake, Napa, and Marin Counties.  The red spots are unusual for a slender clarkia (C. gracilis), and they could easily be seen from the outside of the blossom.

photo of Sonoma clarkia

Sonoma clarkia

At the same stop we found Fuller’s teasel (Dipsacus sativus), a non-native wildflower, in bloom.  This was the first time I’ve seen teasel blooming.  On some flower heads the blooms were in a narrow band, rather like a tutu.  In this case the tiny flowers covered the top half of the head, a little like a fuzzy head of hair.  The first time I saw a teasel I gave it a descriptive name – lampshade plant – for the long bract-like structures that resemble those used to attach a lampshade to old-style lamps.

photo of Fuller’s teasel

Fuller’s teasel

There was also rabbit’s foot grass (Polypogon monspeliensis), another non-native, which seemed like an apt name.

photo of rabbbit’s foot grass

Rabbbit’s foot grass

Before we left this area we also saw some native dandelion and one yellow mariposa lily (Calochortus luteus) that was well past its prime.

As we got higher into the hills we came to a location where we needed to walk a couple hundred yards across a grassy hillside in order to reach a rock outcropping where we were promised a nice wildflower surprise.  On the way there was a lovely view of grape vineyards below and grassy hills in the background.

photo of view from Pine Flat Rd in the Modini Mayacamas Preserves

View from Pine Flat Rd in the Modini Mayacamas Preserves

As we walked across the hillside we could see a bit of native grasses amid the more predominant non-native grasses.  Most of the native grasses are bunch grasses, but there were also some grasses that grow as individual plants.  Near the road there was some brilliantly purple thistle, probably bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare), which is a non-native that is considered to be moderately invasive.

Yet another non-native in this area was bristly ox-tongue (Helminthoteca echioides).  The flowers resemble dandelions and, like dandelions, are in the aster or composite flower family and have only ray flowers without disc flowers.  The flower gets its name from the shape and texture of its leaves, which do indeed resemble ox tongues.  Native to the Mediterranean basin, ox-tongue has become widespread across North America.  If you see a dandelion-like flower on a tall plant with branching stems, look more closely at the leaves on the long stems: you may have found some ox-tongue.

photo of bristly ox-tongue

Bristly ox-tongue

When we approached the rock outcropping we could immediately see what had been hinted at: a nice cluster of redwood bush penstemon (Keckiella corymbosa).  And there was even more around a corner of the rock, out of sight from our initial approach direction.  This is just one small group of the beautiful red blossoms.

photo of redwood bush penstemon

Redwood bush penstemon

Among the penstemons I suddenly noticed a single plant, or cluster, that seemed to be growing – like the penstemons – in a crack in the rock.  Evidently there was enough water and nourishment to support this plant.  It was difficult to photograph, and this is my best shot.  The small flower heads are about a half inch in diameter.  The petals appeared to be very light purple.  This flower is a mystery, and was a mystery to our docent as well.

photo of mystery flower growing in a crack in the rock near the redwood bush penstemons

Mystery flower growing in a crack in the rock near the redwood bush penstemons

After enjoying the penstemons we headed back to the cars and continued up Pine Flat Rd.  We made a special stop to admire some red thistle (Cirsium occidentale var. venutum), also called western thistle, that was growing next to the road and caught my eye.  It turns out that this type of thistle is endemic to California: it is not found outside the state.  In the picture the flower head looks almost pink, but it was actually red; other flower heads looked even darker red.

photo of red, or western, thistle

Red, or western, thistle

At this stop we also saw yellow sticky monkeyflower (Mimulus auranticus), coyote mint (Monardella villosa), and a couple of chicory (Cichorum intybus) plants.

At one location we parked the cars and walked less than a half mile up an informal dirt road with a locked gate (but we could walk around the gate).  Along this road we found several flowers we had not yet seen on our adventure.  One was foothill penstemon (Penstemon heterophyllus), which is what I think of as a more typical purple color for penstemon.  The petal tubes are a bit pinker on the outside, and at the mouth of the flower, if you look carefully, you can see the so-called runway markings that guide pollinator insects to the flower’s nectary.

photo of foothill penstemon

Foothill penstemon

In a shady area there was western columbine (Aquilegia formosa), somewhat common but always beautiful.  How appropriate that the species name formosa, which comes from Latin via Portuguese, means beautiful.

photo of western columbine

Western columbine

There was also some wild blackberry, in this case Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus).  As the species name suggests, it is thought to be native to Armenia (as well as northern Iran, as it turns out).  It has been widely naturalized, and some consider it to be a noxious invasive.

photo of Himalayan blackberry

Himalayan blackberry

Yet another non-native found along this dirt road was St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), which is notable for its lavish sprays of stamens that seem to burst from the center of each blossom.

photo of St John’s wort

St John’s wort

In partial defense of such non-native wildflowers, I will note that they clearly serve as nectar sources for various insects.  They survive, and in so many cases thrive, in part because they successfully attract pollinators.  In some cases such non-native plants provide nectar sources during times of the year when native sources may not be available.  In this sense they may well provide a positive contribution to the overall health of local ecosystems.

Our wildflower adventures in the Modini Mayacamas Preserves are continued in part 2.

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