Sandhill crane viewings near Lodi, California

This post covers several visits to the area near the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve, also known as the Isenberg Sandhill Crane Reserve, a sandhill crane viewing area near Lodi, California. These magnificent birds, and others, overwinter in this area. There are roosting areas near the South site of the reserve, and a viewing shelter on the North site; the latter is accessible only during docent-led tours. Around sundown the cranes return to the roosting areas from their more widespread feeding activities, and the crane fly-in is quite spectacular to see. There are a number of other bird species in the area, some of which, like the cranes, have come from their northern breeding grounds to spend the winter.

I have previously seen sandhill cranes during summertime visits with family in Wisconsin. Those sightings were unexpected opportunities to briefly observe these striking birds.

My first visit to the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve was with a docent-led tour and was a good introduction to the cranes, as well as a daylight viewing opportunity. The introduction to sandhill cranes included some demonstrations with a model crane, dubbed Ichabod. In this picture one of the other tour members and I posed with Ichabod at the viewing shelter.

picture of Ichabod the Crane and two friends

Ichabod the Crane and two friends

Perhaps since the tour was near mid-day when the cranes were mainly elsewhere feeding, we actually didn’t see many cranes. A couple of people had spotting scopes, though, which facilitated seeing other birds, such as black-necked stilts.

photo of black-necked stilt

Black-necked stilt

It is worth noting that the Stockton River delta wetlands provide a large area of freshwater marsh wintering habitat, both for sandhill cranes and for other waterfowl. The South site of the reserve includes several ponds that are irrigated with water from nearby Sycamore Slough during the winter months specifically to provide water habitat for the sandhhill cranes, whose numbers in California have dropped so low that they were listed as threatened in 1983.

Since that first visit I have returned twice near sunset to observe the daily fly-in. On one of those occasions I had hiked earlier in the day in Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve and, when I finished my hike, I pleasantly realized that my onward route to Truckee would pass right by the reserve. On the way, I drove along part of the Sacramento River and passed a portion of a large farm of wind-power windmills.

image of part of a windmill farm along the Sacramento River

Part of a windmill farm along the Sacramento River

On both of my late-afternoon visits, I had some daylight time to do some birding prior to sunset. This picture shows three white swans along with some geese. The swans are tundra swans, with distinctive black bills. They breed in the high tundra at the far north of North America and overwinter in California’s Central Valley.

picture of tundra swan

Tundra swan

As I drove out and back on Woodbridge Rd I noticed a hawk-like bird perched on a power pole and stopped for pictures. It stayed still for long enough for me to get several pictures to assist with identification (I’m not an expert on identifying birds of prey). I think this is a juvenile sharp-shinned hawk, based on the coloring, the streaks on the breast, and the distinctly yellow eye.

photo of juvenile sharp-shinned hawk

Juvenile sharp-shinned hawk

I also noticed a ring-necked pheasant walking in the brush next to the road, nicely illuminated by the late-afternoon sun.

image of ring-necked pheasant

Ring-necked pheasant

Although the main fly-in seems to happen right at sunset, there were some cranes feeding in the fields. Here is a close-up of one.

picture of sandhill crane

Sandhill crane

Other cranes were in pond areas and made pretty reflections.

photo of sandhill cranes

Sandhill cranes

There were brown-colored geese everywhere, it seemed (for example, with the tundra swans), with distinctive white patches on the front of their faces. These white patches, along with the dark splotches on their fronts, identify them as white-fronted geese, which also breed in the far northern tundra and overwinter in the Central Valley.

image of white-fronted geese

White-fronted geese

After driving out to the far end of Woodbridge Rd and then back to the South site of the reserve, by about 15 minutes prior to sunset I had parked and would stay in the viewing area for the rest of my visit. I was serenaded by a meadowlark which had landed in a nearby bush and sang for what seemed like several minutes.

picture of meadowlark looking around between songs

Meadowlark looking around between songs

On one of the visits there was a bit of haze, and the sun seemed to sink into the haze well before reaching the actual horizon. This picture was taken about 11 minutes prior to official sunset time.

photo of hazy sunset

Hazy sunset

Around this time the fly-in really started to intensify. It is amazingly difficult to obtain good pictures of flying waterfowl since, if they are close enough to be bigger than a speck in the picture, they move across the field of view very quickly. Here are two sandhill cranes with typically outstretched necks and legs. The wings are especially impressive.

image of sandhill cranes arriving at the daily fly-in

Sandhill cranes arriving at the daily fly-in

As the sunlight faded my camera compensated by increasing the ISO setting, and the pictures did get grainier-looking. I like to think of these as Impressionist-style photos. Here is a group of cranes reflected on the water, about 1 minute before sunset.

picture of sandhill cranes at dusk (about 1 minute before sunset)

Sandhill cranes at dusk (about 1 minute before sunset)

Every so often one of the cranes would briefly dance, spreading its wings and sometimes leaping off the ground. Cranes dance as part of the communication pattern between mates – not just during mating season. (The exposure for this picture was much too long to stop the action!)

photo of sandhill crane dancing

Sandhill crane dancing

Here is a small group of cranes feeding in a pond area.

image of sandhill cranes at dusk (about 2 minutes after sunset)

Sandhill cranes at dusk (about 2 minutes after sunset)

Zooming in even farther creates additional photographic challenges, since the cranes do not stand still to pose for photos!

picture of sandhill crane at dusk (about 3 minutes after sunset)

Sandhill crane at dusk (about 3 minutes after sunset)

This is a larger group photo.

photo of group of sandhill cranes at dusk (about 5 minutes after sunset)

Group of sandhill cranes at dusk (about 5 minutes after sunset)

Here is another small group, again with reflections on the water.

image of sandhill cranes and their reflections at dusk (about 6 minutes after sunset)

Sandhill cranes and their reflections at dusk (about 6 minutes after sunset)

On one visit Mt Diablo was clearly visible on the horizon, about 30 miles away to the southwest. Several minutes after sunset the clouds were simply brilliant.

picture of Mt Diablo sunset

Mt Diablo sunset

On the first fly-in visit I just kept taking pictures, probably long after I should have stopped. It was something of an experiment – and I’m grateful that digital “film” is essentially free! This picture was taken about 19 minutes after sunset. Cranes continued to fly in, and to walk around in the pond areas before truly settling down for the night.

photo of sandhill cranes late into dusk (about 19 minutes after sunset)

Sandhill cranes late into dusk (about 19 minutes after sunset)

On the other fly-in visit I noticed that the cranes were silhouetted against a pond area made orange by the post-sunset lighting.

image of sandhill cranes in silhouette (about 10 minutes after sunset)

Sandhill cranes in silhouette (about 10 minutes after sunset)

I continue to be in awe of the beauty and majesty of sandhill cranes, and going to watch a fly-in is a truly special experience. The other bird life in this area is also quite interesting.

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Ohlone Wilderness Trail part 1: Stanford Ave to SF Water District land

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This hike was the first stage in a new adventure: hiking the Ohlone Wilderness Trail, a regional trail connecting Mission Peak Regional Preserve, Sunol Regional Wilderness, Ohlone Regional Wilderness, and Del Valle Regional Park. All of these parks are in the East Bay Regional Park District system. The idea of the EBRPD regional trails is that they are longer trails that connect important regional parks, sometimes crossing non-park areas. In this case the non-park areas are on San Francisco Water District land.

The Ohlone Wilderness Trail is 28 miles long and the middle sections especially are typically accessed via a backpacking through hike. A permit is required and is available at two of the trailheads as well as through the EBRPD office. It includes a detailed map, elevation information, and a description of the trail and highlighted landmarks. It’s good for one year and only costs $2.

I am attempting to hike the trail as day hikes, since I choose not to backpack. Trailheads are at the Stanford Ave trailhead for Mission Peak Regional Preserve, in Sunol Regional Wilderness, and at Del Valle Regional Park. It is about 8.5 miles between the Mission Peak and Sunol trailheads and nearly 20 miles between Sunol and Del Valle. The location of the trailheads means that there is a 20-mile section of trail with no intermediate access. In order to experience the entire trail, I will need to do a 20-mile hike with a pre-arranged car shuttle. Or I could do two 20-mile out-and-back hikes.

For this first section, I started at the Stanford Ave trailhead and followed the trail all the way through Mission Peak Regional Preserve and about 1 mile into the adjacent San Francisco Water District land, covering 4.6 miles of the Ohlone Wilderness Trail. On my outbound hike I skipped going to the top of Mission Peak, and on the return trip I hiked Peak Trail up-and-over Mission Peak: something I’ve wanted to do since I “discovered” that there is actually a trail down the southeast side of Mission Peak. On the GPS track, the orange dot at the left indicates my parking spot about ¼ mile from the Stanford Ave trailhead. That was the nearest available parking spot on a weekday – on weekends, parking fills up early and stays full all day long.

GPS track

GPS track

The elevation profile emphasizes that the hike from Stanford Ave to the top of Mission Peak entails a climb of slightly over 2000 vertical feet in about 3 miles.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

I have hiked up Mission Peak numerous times previously, including one hike that was a segment hike of the Bay Area Ridge Trail. However, this was the first time that I have hiked out of Mission Peak Regional Preserve along the Ohlone Wilderness Trail. So about 1.5 miles of trail were new for me. All the rest of the Ohlone Wilderness Trail will be new for me.

It was evident as I drove to the trailhead that the East Bay hills are green this year. Though we are still in a longer-term drought, we have had a normal amount of rainfall for the season to date. It was great to see the hills in the brilliant green that is supposed to be normal for this time of year!

picture of green foothills of Mission Peak

Green foothills of Mission Peak

The preserve has areas that are leased for cattle grazing. Though the grazing herd seemed modest, I did encounter a cow and calf preparing to cross the trail ahead of me. The calf was slightly delayed negotiating a small gully and literally scampered across the trail to catch up with its mom.

In several places I noticed clumps of a low-growing plant with pretty, variegated leaves. I’ve been thinking of it as a nettle but I’m not sure of this identification.

image of nettle(?) with variegated leaves

Nettle(?) with variegated leaves

As I climbed I had a couple of early views of Mt Tamalpais in Marin County: an early indication of other long-distance views to come later on. There were also bluebirds that occasionally paused on rocks or posts in between feeding runs.

About 1.4 miles from the trailhead I paused to look at the view, which was primarily behind me. I had climbed about 1000 feet at that point. The trail’s winding route up the hill was clearly visible, with the south end of San Francisco Bay in the background.

photo of Hidden Valley Trail on Mission Peak, with San Francisco Bay in the background

Hidden Valley Trail on Mission Peak, with San Francisco Bay in the background

The trail that actually goes to the top of Mission Peak is called Peak Trail. The upper portion, above 2000 feet elevation, traditionally used to reach the peak, has recently been rerouted; the traditional route is blocked off to facilitate trail rehabilitation. Signage is good, and a portion of this part of the trail has been “paved” in crushed gravel. By comparison to the other trails, it rather resembles a multi-lane highway, with corresponding foot traffic on weekend days. Past the well-marked junction the trail is much less populated. In fact, the only hiker I encountered had made a wrong turn, and I was able to quickly give him the directions he needed.

For my outbound hike I bypassed the trip to the top of Mission Peak and continued on the Ohlone Wilderness Trail; the route is indicated at trail intersections with red disc markers like the one in the stats box for this post. This part of the route is on the Eagle Trail, and I consider it to be the back side of Mission Peak, with the Bay on the front side. Immediately there is a feeling of being in the back country, and there are nice views of Mt Diablo. As I hiked I could hear meadowlarks singing. I noticed a pair of birds on the trail in front of me: they looked somewhat similar to meadowlarks but weren’t, and they behaved differently. Meadowlarks would have flown away long before I got close to them. These ran up the trail as I approached, but did eventually fly away. I later identified them as horned larks.

picture of horned lark on Eagle Trail

Horned lark on Eagle Trail

About 3.1 miles from the trailhead the Ohlone Wilderness Trail goes left to follow Laurel Canyon Trail and begins a descent; ¼ mile later you take the right fork on Laurel Loop Trail. From this section of trail there are beautiful views of a ridgeline, probably Apperson Ridge or Wauhab Ridge, with the trail in the foreground.

image of ridge-line, with Ohlone Regional Trail in the foreground

Ridge-line, with Ohlone Regional Trail in the foreground

From the same area, more to the north, there is another beautiful view of Mt Diablo with what looks like two parallel ridges in the foreground. I think they are Sunol and Pleasanton Ridges.

photo of Mt Diablo and Sunol and Pleasanton Ridges

Mt Diablo and Sunol and Pleasanton Ridges

About 3.7 miles from the trailhead is the boundary of Mission Peak Regional Preserve, where there is a sign-in kiosk where the Ohlone Wilderness Trail enters Water District land. From the ledger I could see that only two or three other hikers had passed through in the previous 2 weeks. The cattle that were grazing on the San Francisco Water District land seemed a bit unaccustomed to people passing by.

The trail descends gently and winds through the hills, passing a couple of streams where there is a higher density of trees, mainly oak.

picture of Ohlone Wilderness Trail on a hillside in San Francisco Water District land

Ohlone Wilderness Trail on a hillside in San Francisco Water District land

I was planning to continue about 1 mile into the Water District land before turning around, so I started to look for a good landmark to use as a turnaround point. Luckily, there was a side trail, not open to hikers, just about 0.9 mile past the sign-in kiosk and 4.6 miles from the trailhead, so that’s where I turned around. From here my path would be almost completely uphill until I reached the top of Mission Peak. On the way up there were more nice views of Mt Diablo, I think with Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve nearby.

When I reached the junction at the top of Laurel Canyon Trail I turned left on Eagle Trail to approach Mission Peak from the southeast. Shortly the trail passes Eagle Springs Backpack Camp, which is available by reservation, and then reaches Peak Trail. From the junction with Peak Trail there is a great view of Mission Peak, with the summit only about 200 feet higher.

image of Mission Peak not far ahead

Mission Peak not far ahead

There is also a nice view to the northeast, with several rows of ridge lines visible and a bit of white on the horizon. I believe the white denotes the Sierras in the general area of Ebbetts Pass, nearly 150 miles away.

photo of view northeast toward the Sierras

View northeast toward the Sierras

From this junction the climb to the top of Mission Peak is only about 0.3 mile. It is worth noting that the actual peak – the highest point, with a geodetic marker – is perhaps 100 meters southeast of the small tower that hikers like to pose with. Here is the view – a rarity on such a pretty day to have only 4 people in view – of the tower from the real (south) peak. Mt Tamalpais is clearly visible in the background, some 45 miles away to the northwest. Both Mission Peak and Mt Tamalpais are above the level of most of the day’s haze.

picture of Mission Peak and Mt Tamalpais

Mission Peak and Mt Tamalpais

The views of San Francisco Bay were impressive. Across the Bay, Loma Prieta and Mt Umunhum highlight the skyline. It is no wonder that Mission Peak has become even more popular recently as a local hiking destination.

image of San Francisco Bay from Mission Peak

San Francisco Bay from Mission Peak

As I descended from the main peak to continue on Peak Trail back to the Ohlone Wilderness Trail, a small group of young adults reached the tower area and posed for a picture via their selfie stick.

Basically I just enjoyed the hike downhill with continuous views of the hills, Bay, and Coastal Range. I paused on the lower part of the trail to enjoy the oxalis flowers that were in bloom.

photo of oxalis, a type of wood sorrel

Oxalis, a type of wood sorrel

This was an auspicious beginning to my Ohlone Wilderness Trail adventure: a beautiful hike on a great hiking day. Next I will hike from the Sunol Regional Wilderness trailhead to today’s turnaround point.

Posted in Alameda County, Ohlone Wilderness Trail, South Bay | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Wildflowers along Stevens Trail

On my recent hike on Stevens Trail, in the Sierra foothills near Colfax, I was astonished at how many wildflowers were already in bloom in the first week of February. There was such a variety that I decided to prepare this second post related to the hike, just to share some pictures of wildflowers and a few other plants.

The trail begins near the Colfax exit from I-80 and drops about 1000 feet in elevation to the North Fork American River at Secret Ravine after about 3.75 miles. Additional details about the trail and non-wildflower sightings are in the companion post about the hike. The trail passes through ecosystems classified as chaparral, lower conifer forest, rock outcrops, and riparian. For wildflower identification I consulted a terrific book entitled Wildflowers of Nevada and Placer Counties, California as well as a web site referenced on the web site of the Redbud Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, which authored the book.

I have a lot to learn about regional wildflowers, but I enjoy the visual variety and I try to identify as many as I can – and to be accurate in my identifications.

Relatively early in the hike, just as the trail begins to descend into the canyon of the North Fork American River, we saw our first of many manzanitas in bloom. The delicate pink blossoms were a sign that spring was coming, even if it was only early February.

picture of manzanita blossoms

Manzanita blossoms

About 1.5 miles from the trailhead, before arriving at the abandoned mine entrance, we encountered a cluster with two different types of blue wildflower. One was a little lighter in color and the blossoms had yellow centers reminiscent of shooting stars. I wasn’t able to identify this flower.

image of blue flowers with yellow centers

Blue flowers with yellow centers

The other nearby flower was hound’s tongue, most likely grand hound’s tongue (cynoglossum grande), which can start blooming in February. Both the leaf shape and the circular white centers to the intense blue blossoms are helpful identifying characteristics.

photo of grand hound's tongue

Grand hound’s tongue

A short distance later we found some blue dicks (dichelostemma capitatum), one of the first wildflowers to bloom in the spring.

picture of blue dicks

Blue dicks

The next 2 miles included the primary descent to the river at the bottom of the canyon. In the upper area we passed a pretty white-flowering shrub that I think is buckbrush, also called wedgeleaf ceanothus (ceanothus cuneatus).

image of buckbrush with clusters of small white blossoms

Buckbrush with clusters of small white blossoms

In this area, and elsewhere, we noticed leaf buds, both closed and partly open, that I believe are California buckeye. Buckeye is known for beginning its growth very early in the spring and dropping its leaves early in the fall – or even summer.

photo of California buckeye leaf buds

California buckeye leaf buds

In numerous places we passed lupine plants with their distinctive leaf patterns. I have not yet learned to identify the various local species of lupine by the leaves, and blooming season will come later in the spring.

picture of distinctive lupine leaves

Distinctive lupine leaves

I was especially captivated by Henderson’s shooting stars (dodecatheon hendersonii), which we found in several locations. This is another early bloomer and grows up to 6000 feet elevation.

image of Henderson’s shooting star

Henderson’s shooting star

As we approached the level of the river the habitat became moister, with more fungi growing on tree trunks and with moss-covered rocks along the river’s edge. We noticed what appeared to be a different type of hound’s tongue: it seemed different because the leaves were darker, rather purplish in fact. The flower stalks were also shorter. If this was also a grand, perhaps it was just earlier in its blooming cycle.

photo of hound's tongue near the river

Hound’s tongue near the river

Near the Secret Ravine confluence we saw quite a few milkmaids (cardamine californica), also early bloomers. Although this group had white petals, others nearby were pinkish.

picture of milkmaids near the river

Milkmaids near the river

Also near the Secret Ravine confluence we saw a several remarkable brilliant green plants. The leaves are quite striking, but I don’t know yet what the plant is.

image of green plant with striking leaves

Green plant with striking leaves

On the return hike, still within about 100 vertical feet of the river, we passed a moist, nearly vertical, rock wall with a mass of delicate-looking white flowering plants growing on the wall. Based on the descriptions and pictures in the wildflower guide, I think they are waterfall false buttercup (kumlienia hystricula) – or possibly western rue anemone (isopyrum occidentale). They look similar, and both are early bloomers.

photo of waterfall false buttercup (I think), along the lower part of Stevens Trail

Waterfall false buttercup (I think), along the lower part of Stevens Trail

A short distance later we noticed a plant with clusters of tiny yellow flowers. I’m pretty sure it is a lomatium, either a Foothill (or common) lomatium (lomatium utriculatum) or else a biscuitroot (lomatium nudicaule). Both species are known to be early-blooming wildflowers.

picture of Foothill lomatium, or possibly biscuitroot

Foothill lomatium, or possibly biscuitroot

In numerous places along the trail we passed bay laurels (laurus nobilis) in bloom. Here is one example, with the blossoms in the center of a pattern of leaves.

image of bay laurel in bloom

Bay laurel in bloom

As the spring progresses, the wildflowers along Stevens Trail will change with the season. I will look forward to another opportunity to experience the beautiful wildflowers of the area – and hopefully I will continue to learn to identify and recognize more of them.

Posted in Placer County, Sierra foothills, wildflower hikes | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Stevens Trail

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Doing this hike with a couple of hiking buddies was a bit of a winter-time impromptu outing. The trail selected was the Stevens Trail, a Bureau of Land Management trail just outside of Colfax, along I-80 between Auburn and Truckee. It turned out to be a good day for a hike, with an impending winter storm still a day away. The trail and local area have a rich history related to gold mining (see, for example, here). And the trail, which leads gently down the side of a steep canyon, at the bottom of which is the North Fork American River, was quite lovely. A big surprise was the number of wildflowers that were already in bloom in the first week of February; in fact, there were so many different wildflowers that I’m planning a second post devoted just to the flowers and a few plants.

Although the trailhead sign states that the trail is 4.5 miles long to reach the river, it is actually only 3.75 miles to Secret Ravine, at the confluence of Secret Town Stream and the North Fork American River. The orange dot on the GPS track shows the trailhead location on N Canyon Way on the east side of I-80 at the Colfax exit.

GPS track

GPS track

The first (upper) part of the trail passes through a pretty forested area.

image of upper part of Stevens Trail

Upper part of Stevens Trail

The outbound hike is almost entirely downhill. After ¾ mile of gentle descent, signage directs trail users to follow a dirt road for ¼ mile or so, climbing about 100 feet before leaving the road and continuing downhill and into the canyon. The end of the trail is about 1000 feet lower than the saddle where the trail leaves the dirt road.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

About 1.2 miles from the trailhead the trail splits, with hikers going left (the high road) and mountain bikers and equestrians going right (the low road) for less than ¼ mile before rejoining. For the outbound hike we took the hiker route, which follows just below a very steep hillside. We found a short spur trail to the right leading to a rock outcropping overlooking the canyon. This picture gives a good idea of the territory in which the trail is located.

photo of canyon view from Stevens Trail

Canyon view from Stevens Trail

In this area an intermittent stream cascades down the rock face in a waterfall or possibly a series of waterfalls. Due to the ongoing drought, the waterfall was just a sliver, barely visible through the brush. About 300-400 feet up the hillside the tracks for the Southern Pacific Railroad pass around the promontory above. This promontory is known as Cape Horn, and was one of the three biggest challenges in building the transcontinental railroad from Colfax to Donner Pass in the mid 1860’s. A retaining wall famously built using Chinese laborers is visible. Almost 50 years later a second track, now used by westbound trains, was built in a tunnel excavated through the hillside. The original track is used by eastbound trains. This picture was taken from the bike/equestrian part of the trail (on the return trip), from which the visibility is better.

picture of retaining wall for the Cape Horn section of the transcontinental railroad

Retaining wall for the Cape Horn section of the transcontinental railroad

Shortly after the split trails rejoin, at about 1.6 miles from the trailhead, there is an entrance to an abandoned mine. It’s considered dangerous to enter such abandoned mines, so we didn’t.

image of abandoned mine entrance

Abandoned mine entrance

Downhill from the mine entrance there are some narrower sections in the trail, as well as steep drop-offs into the canyon. It is interesting to note that the trail was originally built as a toll road for pack mules traveling between Colfax and the gold fields near Iowa Hill. The mine entrance also marks the first view of the North Fork American River as it descends through Slaughter Ravine and is crossed by Iowa Hill Rd. For the remaining 2+ miles of trail, the river seems almost continuously in view. Here is a nice view looking downstream from about 600 feet above the river.

photo of North Fork American River

North Fork American River

In several places we noticed various interesting fungi growing on tree trunks. Here is a particularly striking example. It would be interesting to learn the origin of the stripes and varying colors.

picture of colorful fungus

Colorful fungus

As mentioned before, there were also quite a few early wildflowers along the way.

By 3.2 miles from the trailhead the trail is much closer in elevation to the river. There is a little overlook, where we noticed someone in the edge of the river. Nearby there were several examples of paraphernalia that might be associated with panning for gold – or so we thought/wondered. One item was this tub, with a screen and a bucket.

image of panning equipment?

Panning equipment?

In some places the river dropped over some rapids, and in others the water was very calm. There were places where you could hear the river rushing over rapids, while the part you could see was completely calm. In some of the calm areas you could see underwater rocks simultaneously with a reflection of the hillside above.

photo of reflection in the river

Reflection in the river

On the far river bank there were rocky areas with the rocks covered by brilliant moss. The rushing water must generate a good deal of spray. The brilliance of the moss reminded me of a recent hike through a lush mossy forest in Northern Ireland.

picture of moss-covered rocks

Moss-covered rocks

As we approached river level at Secret Ravine there was another lovely view of the river, up close.

image of North Fork American River

North Fork American River

After crossing Secret Town Stream there is an area that has clearly been used as a camp site. The original gold-rush era bridge across the river may have been in this area. In any case, we stopped for lunch at the river’s edge. We noticed a couple of dippers, or water ouzels, on the mid-stream rocks right in front of us. Dippers’ typical habitat is fast-flowing streams in or near mountains, and perhaps their most distinguishing characteristic is the short, stubby tail. I saw my first ouzel about 50 years ago, and not many since, so I was pleasantly surprised that I came up with the correct identification even before I consulted my favorite bird guide!

photo of dipper, or water ouzel

Dipper, or water ouzel

As we were getting ready to return up the trail, we noticed that a blue tarp left on the ground near the informal camp site was partly covered with lady bugs. Apparently it was already spring mating time! Note the variations in the spot pattern – including a few with no spots.

picture of crowd of lady bugs on a tarp

Crowd of lady bugs on a tarp

On the return trip I happened to see a fern with its frond tipped at an angle, so that the spore-covered underside was clearly visible.

image of spore-covered fern

Spore-covered fern

As we were about to leave behind the views of the river we paused once again to enjoy the view. We realized that we could hear a vehicle, and shortly we saw it pass a small gap in the trees on our side (the north side) of the river. Figuring that it was traveling on Iowa Hill Rd and would shortly cross the bridge, we waited and monitored its progress along a large switchback (see the GPS track southeast of the blue square labeled Burnt Flat. Sure enough, the pickup truck emerged from the forest and crossed the bridge.

photo of truck crossing the river on Iowa Hill Rd

Truck crossing the river on Iowa Hill Rd

The green area just to the left of the bridge in the picture contains picnic tables as well as what look like markers and either bear boxes or trash receptacles. I think it is Mineral Bar Campground, at the north end of Auburn State Recreation Area.

After enjoying the view we returned to the trailhead, taking the biking/equestrian part of the trail at the split.

This was a wonderful hike, especially for what is supposed to be the winter (rainy) season.

Posted in Placer County, Sierra foothills | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Diablo Foothills Regional Park

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This 3.5-mile loop hike was an exploration in Diablo Foothills Regional Park with a short section in the City of Walnut Creek’s Shell Ridge Open Space. Part of the area near the trailhead is designated as Castle Rock Recreation Area, which has historically specialized in picnic space for large groups. This was my first visit to Diablo Foothills Regional Park, and I met a friend at the Castle Rock Staging Area for a relatively short, but pretty, loop hike with nice views of nearby open space including hills robed in winter-spring green.

The GPS track shows an overview of the loop; the orange dot designates the Castle Rock Staging Area, the start/end point.

GPS track

GPS track

The hike is rated is Moderate, with just over 700 feet of elevation gain and loss.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

From the Castle Rock Staging Area a trail climbs up the hillside just a short distance before a T junction with Castle Rock Trail. We turned right to traverse the loop in a counterclockwise direction. Almost immediately there were nice views across a small canyon toward the lower reaches of Mt Diablo State Park. From this location the primary and North Peak summits were not visible; however, Eagle Peak and Mitchell Rock were visible at the right and left, respectively, in the picture. This initial view seemed to provide an apt setting for a park named Diablo Foothills!

photo of Eagle Peak and Mitchell Rock

Eagle Peak and Mitchell Rock

Before long we were overtaken by a handsome horse and its rider.

picture of horse and rider on Castle Rock Trail near the trailhead

Horse and rider on Castle Rock Trail near the trailhead

Many of the park’s oak trees drop their leaves in the winter, making clumps of mistletoe stand out.

image of oak tree festooned with mistletoe

Oak tree festooned with mistletoe

We continued around the loop, first west and then south along Borges Ranch Trail, with a short section on paved road near the Old Borges Ranch Interpretive Center, which is in Shell Ridge Open Space. In general, the boundaries between open spaces managed by different agencies are almost invisible, with a modest sign, perhaps a fence with a gate, and perhaps a small kiosk with different park brochures. At the interpretive center there are several ranch buildings containing exhibits. One of these buildings housed, among other items, a wagon mounted on a wall.

photo of wagon at the Borges Ranch in Shell Ridge Open Space

Wagon at the Borges Ranch in Shell Ridge Open Space

After briefly exploring the buildings we continued along Borges Ranch Trail, once again unpaved. As we left the ranch area we saw a bunny having a snack in one of the grassy areas.

picture of bunny snacking on some grass

Bunny snacking on some grass

About 0.2 mile past the end of the paved road there is a 4-way trail junction, where Briones Ranch Trail becomes Twin Ponds Trail and the Briones to Mt Diablo Regional Trail (also the Mokelumne Coast-to-Crest Trail) crosses. We turned left on the Briones to Mt Diablo Regional Trail. From the junction there was a nice view generally to the west toward what I consider to be the back side of the East Bay Hills. Across several rows of hills the distinctive silhouette of Round Top, in Robert Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, was visible.

image of view west toward East Bay Hills, with Round Top on the skyline

View west toward East Bay Hills, with Round Top on the skyline

About 0.3 mile past the previous junction the Fairy Lantern Trail comes in from the left, and after another 0.2 mile the Buckeye Ravine Trail also comes in from the left. We continued straight, with a slight descent, and had a lovely view ahead (southeast) of the green hills and the continuation of the Briones to Mt Diablo Regional Trail.

photo of green hills and the Briones to Mt Diablo Regional Trail

Green hills and the Briones to Mt Diablo Regional Trail

We noticed that there was what looked like a social trail that climbed up a small hill to our left, and we decided to climb up and check out the view. We were treated to perhaps our only view of the main part of Mt Diablo, though it was almost unrecognizable other than some communication towers near the top, I think due to the perspective of looking up at it from relatively close range. Below was our first glimpse of the sandstone formations known as Castle Rock.

picture of Mt Diablo, with Castle Rock in the foreground

Mt Diablo, with Castle Rock in the foreground

We returned to the main trail and almost immediately came to another junction with Buckeye Ravine Trail, which descends rather steeply down the ravine, losing about 300 feet in 0.4 mile (14% grade). Since we hadn’t brought hiking poles, we needed to exercise some care to descend safely.

At the lower end of the ravine Buckeye Ravine Trail tees into Stage Road Trail near Pine Creek. We turned left on Stage Road Trail. Almost immediately we noticed some striking, almost orange, fungi growing in the moist ground-level vegetation. This specimen was at least 6” across!

image of spectacular fungus near Pine Creek

Spectacular fungus near Pine Creek

Along Stage Road Trail, almost a fire road, there were interesting rock formations and quite a few more hikers than we had encountered elsewhere. After about 0.4 miles the Fairy Lantern Trail entered from the left, and then a single-track trail split off from Stage Road Trail. We decided to take the single-track trail, Castle Rock Trail, since it would also end up at the staging area and would probably have less foot traffic. Since it was a little higher on the hillside, the views were better also. One of the nice views was behind us, with more interesting rocks in the Castle Rock formation.

photo of Castle Rock from Castle Rock Trail

Castle Rock from Castle Rock Trail

Another pretty view was this one, of a spring-green-carpeted hill with several scattered oak trees. The late afternoon lighting was from the side and was, I thought, especially pretty.

picture of green hill with oak trees

Green hill with oak trees

We completed the loop just uphill from the Staging Area parking. My friend and I had selected Diablo Foothills Regional Park for our hike because we thought it would be pretty – neither of us had hiked there previously – and we were certainly not disappointed. For a longer hike, it would be straightforward to complete a loop at least twice as long by continuing to the southeast part of the park.

Posted in Contra Costa County, East Bay, East Bay Regional Park District | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rockville Trails Preserve

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Rockville Trails Preserve is a relatively new open space preserve near Fairfield, CA, owned and managed by the Solano Land Trust. It is just across Rockville Rd from Rockville Hills Regional Park, where I have previously hiked.  The Rockville Trails Preserve 1500-acre property was purchased by the Solano Land Trust in 2011 and 2012. There are some ranch roads and a trail system is under development. Currently, however, public access is available only through docent-led outings. It is planned that a segment of the Bay Area Ridge Trail will pass through the preserve.

The docent-led hikes require signup, which is easy on the Land Trust web site. Outings are 4 hours, including meeting and carpooling between the meeting location and the trailhead. The hikes typically cover 4-5 miles and less than 1000 feet of elevation gain and loss, so are relatively easy. The GPS track shows the route for the hike I joined; the orange dot at the lower right shows the trailhead. The hike was basically a loop into the western Solano County hills with a few side excursions.

GPS track

GPS track

The elevation profile shows the climbing. The average grade for the entire hike was about 6%, which is quite moderate.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The highlights of the day were the beautiful green hills – green after the bountiful rains of the previous month – and the oak trees, especially blue and coast live oaks. But there were many other interesting and scenic moments as well.

From the trailhead we followed a trail that runs parallel to Rockville Rd for about 0.1 mile. From there we could see, though not really clearly, a place across the road where the fault line of the Cordelia Fault is visible where the road has been cut through the hillside. It’s relatively unusual to be able to see a fault line on a hillside, kind of in a side view.

We turned left and continued a gentle climb. A few tenths of a mile later we passed a nice example of the local rocks, after which Rockville may have been named.

photo of rocky hillside in Rockville Trails Preserve

Rocky hillside in Rockville Trails Preserve

A short distance later we were treated to a pretty view of a small mesa with a distinctive peak behind it.  I believe the peak is Elkhorn Peak, though when I asked one of the docents about the name, I was told that the informal local name is Kissing Lips – which is pretty descriptive! I’ve seen Elkhorn Peak many times driving along I-80, as well as on several hikes (see here, for example ) in the area.

picture of Elkhorn Peak behind a mesa

Elkhorn Peak behind a mesa

About 0.7 mile from the trailhead we took a short detour for a nice view of the Suisun Valley. In the picture, I think the nearly vertical bright stripe toward the left is the Putah South Canal.

image of Suisun Valley

Suisun Valley

As we continued hiking there were questions and conversations about local wildlife. Suddenly we heard, then saw, a woodpecker in a nearby oak tree. It was an acorn woodpecker, which seems to be quite common in the Bay Area. However, I’m not sure I have seen its distinctive facial pattern quite so clearly on other occasions. Later on we saw a few other woodpeckers, mostly acorns but at least one Lewis’ woodpecker, less common and with darker plumage.

photo of acorn woodpecker

Acorn woodpecker

Although most of the ground cover was grass, we came upon a few examples of this plant with pretty, variegated leaves. I think it might be a nettle, or a close relative.

picture of plant with variegated leaves, possibly a nettle

Plant with variegated leaves, possibly a nettle

Oak trees sometimes have clusters of mistletoe growing in the outer branches. The parasitic relationship seems to not bother the oak tree, usually. The mistletoe is very obvious when the oak is a deciduous variety, like this one.

image of mistletoe clump in an oak tree

Mistletoe clump in an oak tree

About 1.9 miles from the trailhead we came to one of several discreetly marked trail junctions. Our docents had maps of the preserve, and the trail junctions are marked with small numbered markers at ground level. We turned left at the junction. Shortly afterward someone noticed a hawk in a nearby tree, apparently enjoying a meal. The prey is barely visible on the branch under one or both of the hawk’s feet. Due to the backlighting we were not able to make out markings that would help with identification. At first I thought that the upper leg feathers were distinctive, but a quick check in my bird guide told me they weren’t.

photo of hawk enjoying a meal

Hawk enjoying a meal

Just after the hawk sighting we turned left on a side trail and made our way about 0.15 mile to a view point, where we took a short break. From the viewpoint we could see Elkhorn Peak to the southwest and Twin Sisters almost due north. The docents were hoping that we could see Mt Diablo, but the conditions were too hazy. After the break we returned to the main loop and continued. Soon we found a small wildflower in bloom: somewhat amazing, considering that it was early January! It was identified as a filaree, I think a redstem filaree. It was quite small, less than 1 cm across.

picture of redstem filaree in Rockville Trails Preserve

Redstem filaree in Rockville Trails Preserve

We shortly left the main loop trail once again, this time for a longer side trip that passed through a small forested area and had more views of the surrounding hills. We had a slightly different viewing direction toward Twin Sisters, just a couple of miles away. From this part of the trail the “second sister” was more visible than it had been from our break location. The whitish structure on top of one of the twins is an impressive house.

image of Twin Sisters

Twin Sisters

Along this part of the trail we also noticed a particularly impressive coast live oak with very wide and low lower branches.

photo of impressive coast live oak tree

Impressive coast live oak tree

I had noticed several times that, due to the time of year, the sunlight was at a relatively shallow angle, even in the middle of the day. This provided interesting lighting on some of the hillsides, with trees casting pretty shadows.

picgture of tree casting a long shadow down a hillside

Tree casting a long shadow down a hillside

There was a nice view down a gully, with Elkhorn Peak once again in the background.

image of view of a gully and Elkhorn Peak

View of a gully and Elkhorn Peak

We continued hiking southeast for another mile or so back to the trailhead.

It was a treat to visit this new open space preserve, and I look forward to a time when it opens to the public with what promises to be a nice network of hiking trails.

Posted in North Bay, Solano County | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

2014 Summary by the Numbers

This is a summary of my hikes and walks for the year 2014. I have assembled annual summaries for 2012 and 2013 and wanted to do a new summary, since each year is different and has special highlights.

As before, the activities I summarize are those I track by recording GPS data. This means my hiking and fitness walking-type activities, but not other day-to-day activities like running errands or walking around the house/office. Besides carrying my GPS, I also usually carry a pedometer during fitness walks; when I’ve not carried a pedometer I estimate my steps based on the terrain and my experience.

I separate my activities into potentially 3 categories: hikes, training walks, and rehab walks. I am very pleased that 2014 was injury-free, so there aren’t any rehab miles that need to be included in my summary!

stats - 2014 summary

A small confession: I generally set up a running annual total on a spreadsheet tab that I don’t look at, other than occasionally. Well, I happened to look at it in early December and realized that, with just a little “extra” effort, I could exceed 700 hiking miles and 1000 training miles for the year for a personal high grand total of over 1700 miles. The table shows that I made this late-year goal: barely!

Here is a comparison of some totals over the last 4 years. Note that 2011 was the year in which I broke my hip in late October, and consequently I spent 2 months of 2011 and 4+ months of 2012 in rehab. Even though I only spent about 5 days completely off my feet at the time of my hip fracture, it should be no surprise that I’m able to walk and hike more when I’m injury-free.

stats - 2014 comparison

In a way It’s difficult to put into perspective 1700 miles, or over 130,000 vertical feet (that’s only about 25 miles, though I descended an equal amount), or almost 4 million steps. My stats are pretty comparable for 2013 and 2014. I hiked a little more in 2014 and trained (including rehab walks related to a hamstring injury) a little more in 2013. In 2013 I walked a marathon and two half marathons, and in 2014 I walked three half marathons, so I certainly did a greater number of longer training walks in 2013.

Although this summary includes tables of numbers, I also want to mention several highlights for the year. After all, the journey is really much more than numbers!

Significant life experience: Since I started hiking seriously and walking for fitness I have enjoyed sharing some of my experiences with my mother. Even as her own health began to fail, she really got it that I was outdoors on my feet on an almost daily basis. Often when she’d call for a brief chat, her first question typically was “Are you out on a walk?” rather than “How are you today?” She went into a more rapid decline at the beginning of 2014, succumbing to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s on July 1 at the age of 93. I was privileged to spend the month of June with her, just taking each day as it came and going for walks more sporadically. My siblings helped by providing transportation to and from local parks for a few hikes. It was truly a special time to be with my mom.

Hiking: I started this blog as a way to chronicle my adventures hiking the Bay Area Ridge Trail. At the end of 2013 I was approaching completion of the currently dedicated segments. I had decided early on that my last segment would be the one that crosses the Golden Gate Bridge, and early in the year I chose the date when I would become an official Ridge Trail circumnavigator: May 21, which would have been my dad’s 97th birthday. I think he taught well and by his own example that outdoor exercise is pleasant, and it seemed an appropriate way to honor him.

Another highlight was spending a week hiking along the north coast of Northern Ireland. It was truly an eachtra aisling Éireannach (Irish dream adventure)! The scenery was spectacular, even with more rainy than dry days. And I’m proud that I planned the entire trip by myself.

In addition, I signed up for three trail challenges: one on the Tahoe Rim Trail, one sponsored by the East Bay Regional Park District, and the third sponsored by Santa Clara County Parks. I completed all three challenges, each of which consisted of 5 or 6 hikes on associated trails. I also enjoyed several hikes with other members of the Tahoe Donner Hiking Club, including several new-for-me segments of the Pacific Crest Trail. Three of these segments were accessed via a car-camping trip, also a first in my recent experience.

During 2014 I added a couple of particular new categories for hikes/walks: birding walks and wildflower walks. Focusing on bird and wildflower sightings, especially when they are numerous, adds a new dimension to some of my hikes.

Fitness walking: I completed three half marathons in 2014, including one in San Francisco, my first overseas event in Dublin, Ireland, and my seventh in San Jose. All three events were in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Series. The San Francisco course had over 900 feet of hills and was additionally notable by crossing the Golden Gate Bridge – on the roadway, not the pedestrian walkway! In both the San Francisco and Dublin events I carried a camera and took some pictures on the move – I didn’t stop, or even break my cadence, but I’m sure I lost some time in the process. It was certainly worth it! In Dublin I was fortunate to meet two couples, American Army civilians living in Germany, and we continue to stay in touch and plan to reunite for a future half marathon event. For the San Jose event, since my training had been somewhat unconventional (for me), consisting of more hikes than long training walks, I wasn’t sure what would be a reasonable time goal. I made a couple of spontaneous changes to my fueling during the event, let my body tell me how hard to push, and ended up achieving a new personal best time by just over a minute and a half, with an average pace of 12:57 per mile. In a 12k Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving morning, I managed an even faster pace of 12:46 per mile. These times are really pretty good for a walker with my leg length.  (Longer legs generally translate to a faster pace.)

Preview of 2015: I plan another overseas hiking adventure, along with friends in the Tahoe Donner Hiking Club. We’ll hike for 9 days in the Dolomites (in Italy) followed by another week in the Julian Alps (in Slovenia). I am busy planning other exciting adventures for before and/or after the hikes. I will be planning some steep hikes as training, hopefully including more new segments of the Pacific Crest Trail. The trail challenges of 2014 were great ways to explore parks and open spaces, and I hope to be able to do 2 or 3 challenges again in 2015. Each organization selects different trail segments to highlight each year, so these will definitely not be simple repeats. And the Bay Area Ridge Trail is expected to expand by 20 miles in 2015; I’ll plan to hike these additional segments as they are formally dedicated. My plans for walking events are currently undecided while I sort out hiking plans and other special events, but I’ll at least do Bay to Breakers again and I’m sure a few other timed walking events will be added. Last but not least, I hope to stay healthy and injury-free, and I do what I can pro-actively to support that goal.

Posted in Bay Area Ridge Trail, general, walking for fitness | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments