Hamilton Sightseeing and Waterfall Walks

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While I was in Hamilton, Ontario to watch the 2015 World Synchronized Skating Championships I took several short walks to explore: one walk near the competition arena, several to visit waterfalls, one to explore part of the Royal Botanical Gardens, and one in the Kelso Conservation Area. This post is a summary of these walks.

The first walk was on my first day in Hamilton. I’d taken a red-eye flight to Toronto and arrived early in the morning to pick up my rental car and get oriented. I headed to the FirstOntario Centre, the competition venue, to watch a few of the official practice sessions. During the break before the competition began late in the afternoon I went out for a walk. I simply walked up York Blvd from the arena, passing the Hamilton Cemetery and enjoying views across Cootes Paradise and Hamilton Harbour before turning around. In this picture Hamilton is in the background at the right, and the skyway rises above the opening between Hamilton Harbour and Lake Ontario at the left.

image of view of Hamilton Harbour from York Blvd

View of Hamilton Harbour from York Blvd

On my way back to the arena I spent a few minutes walking around the grounds of Dundern Castle, a mansion built in the early 1830s.

photo of Dundern Castle

Dundern Castle

The following morning I had a few hours for exploration before the competition resumed. I decided to try to visit four waterfalls on the east side of Hamilton, in the area called Stoney Creek. The waterfalls cascade down the Niagara Escarpment. It is worth noting that the Niagara Escarpment area, which runs from Niagara Falls to Tobermory, at the north end of the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, has been designated as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. There are over 100 waterfalls in the Hamilton area. These four falls – and others – are accessible via short walks from parking areas for conservation areas, or parks.

This GPS track shows the location of four short waterfall walks, totaling just 2 miles.

GPS track

GPS track

I started at the easternmost track, in blue, at Devil’s Punchbowl. It is in the Devil’s Punchbowl Conservation Area and is a 37-meter high overhang ribbon type of waterfall on Stoney Creek. The guardrail in the background shows just how close this waterfall is to a road. Basically the creek passes under the road and spills over the Niagara Escarpment. Many layers of different types of rock are easily visible. There are remnants of the winter’s ice buildup from freezing spray. The horseshoe shape of the escarpment edge is typical of many of the waterfalls I visited.

picture of Devil’s Punchbowl

Devil’s Punchbowl

Next I visited Felker’s Falls, the green track, a 10-15 minute drive from Devil’s Punchbowl. Felker’s Falls is in the Felker’s Falls Conservation area and is on Red Hill Creek. It is a terraced ribbon falls (note more spray ice at the left). I think the falls are less obstructed by trees when viewed from the Bruce Trail.

image of Felker’s Falls

Felker’s Falls

I continued west to Albion Falls, the red track, perhaps 10 minutes from Felker’s Falls. It is a complex classical cascade, and I thought it was especially pretty. It was possible to hike down either side of the waterfall via social trails.

photo of Albion Falls

Albion Falls

Just a few minutes’ drive from Albion Falls is Buttermilk Falls, the yellow GPS track. It is a terraced ribbon falls. This is another waterfall that is right next to a road; the culvert over which the road passes is just out of the picture at the top.

picture of Buttermilk Falls

Buttermilk Falls

The next group of short walks was north of Hamilton, and the GPS tracks are shown here.

GPS track

GPS track

First, after I completed a day-long hike on the Bruce Trail, I had remaining daylight and energy to visit one more waterfall: Darnley Cascade, denoted by the blue track. The cascade is on Spencer Creek in an area known as Crooks’ Hollow, site of a grist mill (later a paper mill) in the mid-1800s. You can actually see the cascade upstream from the road crossing – that’s where this picture was taken – but I walked along an informal path to get closer. The cascade is 4 meters tall and, at about 725 feet elevation, the highest in the Hamilton area.

image of Darnley Cascade

Darnley Cascade

My next visit was to Great Falls, in the town of Waterdown on the Grindstone Creek and denoted by the green GPS track. During the 1800s there were many sawmills and other mills along creeks in the area, and the resulting smoke gave the name Smokey Hollow. Like many other waterfalls that I visited, Great Falls is right next to a road – that is, the road was built near the falls. It is a terraced ribbon falls about 10 meters high, here viewed from a short distance down the Bruce Trail.

photo of Great Falls

Great Falls

I had decided to walk about 1 km along the trail to see if I could find a bridge across Grindstone Creek and an overhang that was noted as an interesting landmark in some trail information. Not far from the road crossing was a distinctive overhang, where the trail (lower right) was built between this section of the escarpment and the creek below. It was interesting to see the rock layers up close.

picture of Grindstone overhang

Grindstone overhang

I continued down the trail – always descending, yet still at creek level – and, about 1.2 miles from the trailhead, I arrived at the bridge I was looking for. I turned around and returned up the gorge. Along the way the creek spilled down the gorge. I knew there was an area designated as the Grindstone Cascade, and this seemed to be the steepest part of the creek’s descent. Whether or not I’ve correctly identified the cascade, it was quite picturesque!

image of Grindstone Cascade

Grindstone Cascade

On my way to my next stop I passed an intersection known as Clappison’s Corners, at the junction of Highways 5 and 6. Leaving the intersection I was startled to see this highway sign, since I was sure I wasn’t in France!

photo of mileage to Paris and London

Mileage to Paris and London

My next stop was Borer’s Falls, the red GPS track and located in the Borer’s Falls Conservation Area. The Rock Chapel trailhead provides immediate access to the Bruce Trail, co-designated locally as the Escarpment Trail. From the parking area I essentially turned left to follow Borer’s Creek about 0.25 mile to the falls, which is a 15-meter high plunge ribbon falls. Although by this point I had seen at least a dozen waterfalls, I continued to be fascinated by each one’s individuality.

picture of Borer’s Falls

Borer’s Falls

After visiting the falls I turned around and walked nearly 1 mile past the parking area, just exploring the trail along the top, or brow, of the Niagara Escarpment. There were some views over the city of Hamilton, though they were a bit hazy. I heard several flickers, calling and making holes in trees looking for insects. Eventually one paused on a tree branch just long enough for me to capture a picture that shows its distinctive coloring.

image of flicker


After my brief hike along the top of the escarpment, I headed to the Hendrie Valley Sanctuary area of the Royal Botanical Gardens, located “down the hill” in local parlance, below the escarpment at the bottom of the Grindstone Creek watershed.  The yellow GPS track is almost hidden under its label near the lower right of the map. I was planning to walk along a marsh trail, and I hoped to see some skunk cabbage, the only wildflower that was expected to be in bloom, in the damp or seep areas. There were numerous young families walking along the path, and as I approached one family a youngster was excitedly pointing out a gaily striped garter snake. Though I didn’t see any wildflowers, there were several bird species, including red-winged blackbirds, black-capped chickadees, sparrows, and a pair of tagged tundra swans. On several occasions a downy woodpecker landed on the dirt path and seemed to be eating something: I’m not sure if it was mini-gravel or tiny insects. Toward the end of my walk I noticed a hawk on the opposite bank of the creek, apparently guarding a recent catch. The bird that had been caught was still moving intermittently.

photo of hawk with a recent catch

Hawk with a recent catch

After these adventures it was time to make my way to the airport to return home. I had picked out one more stop along the way: Kelso, a conservation area in the Conservation Halton jurisdiction near Miton. Every time I’ve traveled near a city, road, valley, or park called Kelso I’ve tried to visit! This Kelso-named park has multi-season recreation: it is a ski area in the winter and a hiking and mountain biking park in the summer. (And it is on Kelso Road in the town of Kelso.) I hadn’t seen any snow on the ground so far during my visit, but as I approached the area I could clearly see where the ski area is located, with its slopes facing northwest and the ski season just recently completed.

picture of Kelso ski area

Kelso ski area

I only had time for a brief hike, accessing yet another short section of the Bruce Trail. The parking area and green slopes denoting the lower ski area are clear on the Google Earth map.

GPS track

GPS track

After passing the tube park the trail begins to climb up the hill toward the steep upper part of the escarpment, with several cross-country ski trails running through the area. The trail passes an old lime kiln and goes through pretty forest with white birch trees scattered among the darker trunks.

image of Niagara Escarpment at Kelso

Niagara Escarpment at Kelso

After a little less than 1 mile I reluctantly turned around and returned to the parking area. It was a pleasant conclusion to a brief but amazing visit to the Hamilton area.

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Bruce Trail, Hamilton, Ontario

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While researching additional things to do during my recent trip to the 2015 World Synchronized Skating Championships in Hamilton, Ontario, I was startled and delighted to discover that there is a long-distance hiking trail right in the area. The Bruce Trail is nearly 900 km (560 mi) long and mostly follows a geological feature called the Niagara Escarpment from the Niagara Falls area to Tobermory, at the northwest end of Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula.

As soon as I learned about the Bruce Trail I resolved to designate a day of my trip for a hike. After some research I got in touch with someone in the local Bruce Trail Conservancy chapter. I was then put in touch with a true trail angel who agreed to meet me at the end point of my planned hike and drop me off at the beginning. This way I was able to do a point-to-point hike and experience twice as much of the trail, all in the Hamilton area. It was a fantastic experience!

The day I had pre-selected weeks in advance turned out to be a perfect day for a hike: in fact, it was the first nice hiking day of the 2015 season. The trees and other plant life were still essentially winter-like, but the trail was clear of snow and the afternoon high temperature approached 70F.

The section I decided to hike was in a primarily greenbelt area west of downtown Hamilton, where the Bruce Trail follows the Niagara Escarpment along a big U-shape around the Dundas Valley. I chose my start and end points based on the distance I wanted to hike, access points to the trail, and the locations of waterfalls. It turns out that there are over 100 waterfalls just in the Hamilton area, and I was excited to see as many of the larger ones as I could. On the GPS track, I started at the lower right and ended at the top, where the blue carat points.

GPS track

GPS track

I hiked 15 miles in all, just under 9 miles on the main Bruce Trail and nearly 13 trail miles including official, marked side trails. The elevation profile shows that the elevation ranged between 300 and 750 feet, a rather modest range, with ups and downs accumulating to 1900 feet of elevation gain. At numerous places where the trail is steep, for example in a gorge along a creek, steps have been built to ease the climb/descent.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Armed with a map and other hiking info downloaded from the Bruce Trail web site, I started my hike at the end of the Filman Rd side trail. Following the trail is straightforward, as blazes have been put in place, either on sign posts or on trees, at frequent intervals and at junctions. (See the example in the stats box for this post.) The Filman Rd side trail is about 0.3 miles long, and after just another 0.6 mile on the Bruce Trail I came to the Tiffany Falls side trail that leads to Tiffany Falls (0.6 mile round trip). Tiffany Falls is on the Tiffany Creek and is called a ribbon falls, since it is taller than the width at the crest. Remnants of the winter’s ice accumulation from the mist are visible on both sides of the falls.

photo of Tiffany Falls

Tiffany Falls

About 0.7 mile past the Tiffany Falls side trail, the Bruce Trail passes Sherman Falls, where the Ancaster Creek comes over the Niagara Escarpment; note the layering in the rock. This falls is actually privately owned, and the Bruce Trail crosses the property on an easement. It is a terraced ribbon falls; note the terrace between the upper and lower sections.

picture of Sherman Falls

Sherman Falls

Only another 0.5 mile along the Bruce Trail I came to Canterbury Falls. This falls is somewhat lesser-known and is rated only a “B,” so when I encountered another hiker I asked about its location. I was told “you can’t miss it; the trail passes right by” – and it does! The falls is a terraced ribbon cascade with upper and lower sections and is on a tributary of the Sulphur Creek.

image of Canterbury Falls

Canterbury Falls

The trail passes into the Dundas Valley Conservation Area, continuing to go through the forest and passing mossy rocks and the occasional downy woodpecker in a tree. Suddenly I noticed a large group of hikers coming down the trail and realized that it was probably the guided hike that my trail angel was participating in. Sure enough: there had been such a large turnout (44 people) that they split into two groups. As I approached and greeted them, I was asked several times if I was the lady from California; my hosts had apparently mentioned my visit to the group. I said Yes, and that I was glad to be there.

photo of hiking group on the Bruce Trail in the Dundas Valley Conservation Area

Hiking group on the Bruce Trail in the Dundas Valley Conservation Area

Within the Conservation Area there is a loop trail called the Main Loop; I followed the Bruce Trail around the western part of the loop. This branch of the trail passes the Hermitage Cascade, a so-called complex classical cascade on the Hermitage Creek with a lovely shaded picnic table nearby.

picture of Hermitage Cascade

Hermitage Cascade

A short distance from the Hermitage Cascade is The Hermitage, once a grand residence. It burned almost completely in 1934.  After the fire, the youngest daughter of the family that owned the property and house apparently built a small house within the ruins and lived there alone until her death in 1942.

image of The Hermitage

The Hermitage

Within the Dundas Valley Conservation Area is a specially designated area called the Dundas Valley Environmentally Significant Area. According to signage, this area is near the northern boundary of the Carolinian Life Zone; certain types of trees, birds, and other wildlife do not occur farther north.

About 0.8 mile past The Hermitage is the Trail Centre, a main access point for the Dundas Valley Conservation Area with parking, rest rooms, a small snack area, and picnic tables. This was about 5.2 miles into my hike. The Bruce Trail crosses the Hamilton to Brantford Rail Trail, a regional paved multi-use trail. I had decided to take a short exploratory detour on the rail trail to a nearby road crossing (0.7 mile round trip).

photo of Hamilton to Brantford Rail Trail

Hamilton to Brantford Rail Trail

Along this short section of paved trail I noticed some trees with distinctive red plume-like clusters. I haven’t identified what they are, but I thought they were quite pretty.

picture of brilliant red plume on a tree

Brilliant red plume on a tree

The trail continues almost due north for the next 1.6 miles, crossing Governor’s Rd, and then turns right near a railway. After passing the Davidson Blvd side trail, the Bruce Trail passes closer to a residential area. Along this section I noticed the only flowers that I’d call a wildflower. They looked similar to fleabane, but I don’t know the specific type.

image of yellow wildflower, possibly a fleabane

Yellow wildflower, possibly a fleabane

About 8.9 miles into my hike the trail emerged onto a street and descended about 150 feet over the next 1.1 mile. I decided to follow the marked Bruce Trail route even though there were several social trails that cut up the hillside to the trail I would follow up the escarpment. The street-side route passes through a residential neighborhood in Dundas over to Sydenham St, at the lowest elevation of the hike. Along this section there were a few signs that spring was finally arriving in the area. One sign was clusters of crocuses in front yards of houses.

photo of pretty cluster of crocuses in a front yard

Pretty cluster of crocuses in a front yard

There were also a few snowdrops (galanthus).

picture of snowdrops in another front yard

Snowdrops in another front yard

At the left turn at Sydenham St the road and Bruce Trail begin to climb up the escarpment. About 0.4 mile later I left the main Bruce Trail to follow the Webster’s Falls side trail. This trail climbs steadily, gaining about 320 feet in 1 mile. Along the way there were emerging views of Dundas as well as the steep upper part of the escarpment ahead and several turkey vultures soaring overhead. At about 750 feet elevation the trail reaches the top, or brow, of the escarpment and follows along to the west. There is a very short side trail to Dundas Lookout, a very popular place. From the lookout there was a great view along the escarpment.

image of Niagara Escarpment from Dundas Lookout

Niagara Escarpment from Dundas Lookout

The steep overhang attracted some people to the edge to enjoy the views.

photo of overhang near Dundas Lookout

Overhang near Dundas Lookout

The views extended over about 180 degrees and included the cities of Dundas and Hamilton.

picture of view from Dundas Lookout across Dundas toward Hamilton

View from Dundas Lookout across Dundas toward Hamilton

After enjoying the views I continued along the Webster’s Falls side trail into the Spencer Gorge Wilderness Area. I have to say that, compared to California’s wilderness areas, the designation has a different meaning. At least one additional side trail and two large parking areas service this wilderness area and barely a mile of trail.

Roughly 0.6 mile after leaving the lookout I arrived at Tew’s Falls. This is an overhang ribbon falls, at 41 meters in height just a few meters shorter than Niagara Falls. Note the significant remnant of the mist ice buildup at the base of the falls. The striations that denote different types of rock layers are particularly evident here.

image of Tew’s Falls

Tew’s Falls

Continuing another 0.7 mile past Tew’s Falls I arrived at Webster’s Falls, where Spencer Creek flows over the edge of the escarpment. Although only about half the height of Tew’s Falls, Webster’s Falls has quite a bit more water flow and is quite impressive.

photo of Webster’s Falls

Webster’s Falls

I spent some time exploring the visitor’s area, crossing the foot bridge in the background of the picture. Near the visitor’s area there are stairs leading to the base of the falls. Due to trail erosion and other issues, however, the stairs path is indefinitely closed to public access. Unfortunately, prominent signage and fences did not deter some visitors from trespassing by climbing over the fences and going down the trail that is in poor repair. It was disappointing to see so many (young-adult) visitors ignore the fences and signage. From the viewing area on the far side you could look down into Spencer Gorge and enjoy the mist billowing up from the base of the falls. A youngster excitedly pointed out a rainbow that grew and waned as the mist changed.

After exploring the visitor’s area above the falls I returned to the Tew’s Falls parking area, where I had parked in the morning before being transported to the start of my hike. What a wonderful way to spend a beautiful hiking day! I had more waterfall explorations planned for the next day. And I would welcome a future opportunity to hike on this beautiful trail.

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2015 World Synchronized Skating Championships, Hamilton, Ontario

The 2015 World Synchronized Skating Championships were held in Hamilton, Ontario, and I was fortunate to be able to attend this exciting event as a spectator. I skated on an adult synchro team for a number of years, and our team even qualified for Nationals a couple of times. Our goals were modest: to finish better than last place. The world championships are in a completely different category, and the level of skating skills displayed is – in my opinion – truly worthy of inclusion in the Winter Olympics (see below).

Similar to the other figure skating disciplines, the event includes a short program and a long program. Each phase has several required elements, and entrants are judged on technical aspects and so-called program components. The scores for the two programs are added together to determine final placements.

Each participating country can send one team to Worlds; I’m not sure what the qualifications are, other than to be a senior-level team (the highest of several levels) with 16 skaters. The five countries with the highest placing teams at the previous Worlds can send two teams. In recent years, these countries have consistently been Finland, Sweden, Canada, USA, and Russia. A team consists of 16 skaters, with a few alternates permitted. This year there were 25 teams in all, representing 20 countries. As far as I know, this was the largest participation in the 16-year history of the official World Championship. Flags for all participating countries were displayed over one end of the ice.

After arriving in Hamilton I made my way to the FirstOntario Centre, the arena venue, to pick up my tickets. Then I went inside to watch some of the official practices for the short program, the first phase of the competition. Each team has a 10-minute practice session on the event ice. Since time is so limited, the entire practice is very carefully choreographed. At the end of the session, when the announcer has announced that there is 1 minute remaining, some of the teams do a formal bow, since there are always some spectators. Team USA1, the Haydenettes, formed the letter H for their bow.

image of Team USA1 (Haydenettes) after their formal bow ending an official practice session

Team USA1 (Haydenettes) after their formal bow ending an official practice session

Following Team USA1 was Team Canada 1. Most of the spectators, not surprisingly, were Canadians, including one especially young fan.

photo of young Canadian fan

Young Canadian fan

My seat was above and behind the judges’ table, which was an ideal location. I was high enough in the stands to be able to see formations, and I had a good view of the kiss-and-cry area, where teams go after skating their programs to await their scores. This picture shows Team Japan following their short program skate. They are posing for their official photo (note the photographer at the lower left). I thought their dresses were especially soft and pretty. If you count heads, you will note that they had 4 alternates who waited at the boards while 16 skaters skated the program. Occasionally, if a skater cannot complete the program – usually due to an injury during the program – an alternate takes the skater’s place for the remainder of the program.

picgture of Team Japan in the kiss and cry area after their short program skate

Team Japan in the kiss and cry area after their short program skate

Several of the teams have sizable and visible groups of fans. Team Mexico is one of my favorites. This was their third trip to Worlds, and the enthusiasm was great to see.

image of Team Mexico fans cheering their team

Team Mexico fans cheering their team

One of the other entries was Team Spain. After they skated their short program, the announcer mentioned that Javier Fernandez, recently crowned Men’s World Champion, was in attendance, and he was shown on the jumbo-tron. I bet that was exciting for the team members!

After each group of 5 teams skated their programs, the ice was re-surfaced. During each such break, various skating-related videos were shown, along with other videos to keep the audience motivated and entertained. This “I love synchro” image was displayed frequently on the jumbo-tron.

photo of I love synchro

I love synchro

For the short program teams are roughly seeded into several groups, with a random draw within each group. The groups are sequenced roughly from expected lower to expected higher placements. For the long program the groups of 5 teams (for each ice cut) are determined by the short program placements, with another random draw for skate order. Again, the groups go from lower to higher expected placement. There are several reasons for this sequencing, but I think one reason is that teams of similar ability skate roughly in sequence, making judging more consistent.

One of the more entertaining long programs from the first two groups (10 teams) was that of Team Czech Republic. The music began with “I Will Follow Him,” and continued with other selections from the movie Sister Act. The costumes fit perfectly with the program theme.

picture of Team Czech Republic skated to music from Sister Act

Team Czech Republic skated to music from Sister Act

During one of the ice cuts, a group of fans went up and down several aisles carrying a banner with #whynotsynchro2018, a reference to a growing movement in the synchronized skating community to advocate for introducing synchronized skating as an Olympic sport for the next Winter Games.

image of banner promoting synchronized skating as an Olympic sport

Banner promoting synchronized skating as an Olympic sport

As mentioned before, two teams represented the USA, with Team USA 2 from Miami University. Here is the ending pose for their Elvis Presley themed long program.

photo of Miami University, Team USA 2

Miami University, Team USA 2

Team USA 1, the Haydenettes, unfortunately had a fall during the long program. After exiting the ice, the team gathered in the kiss and cry area for some supporting words from their coach before their score was announced.

picture of Haydenettes, Team USA 1

Haydenettes, Team USA 1

While a team waits in the kiss and cry area for scores, the next team takes the ice for a very brief warmup. When one of the Canadian teams was next to skate, the Canadians in the audience started cheering very loudly, waving flags, banners, pom poms, etc. Almost the entire side of the arena opposite my seat was filled with Canadian fans going nuts for their teams.

image of Canadian crowd cheering for one of their teams

Canadian crowd cheering for one of their teams

Especially in the long program teams try to introduce something creative. Team Sweden 2, Boomerang, had an interesting twist with their dresses during their A Day in the Dance Studio program. They started in white dresses and black tights, a somewhat unusual look. Then, at a music change part way through the program, the dresses suddenly – somehow – came apart and were stowed underneath the skirts, transforming virtually instantly into black dresses.

One of the most spectacular and exciting elements of the long program is the group lifts. Typically the lift involves 3 skaters lifting a fourth to an overhead position. Here Team Canada 1, Nexxice, performs their lift. The positions of the lifted skater are becoming more elaborate – and risky. The group typically rotates and travels during the lift. Teamwork and cooperation are essential!

photo of Team Canada 1, Nexxice, group lift

Team Canada 1, Nexxice, group lift

Here is an overview view of the group lift performed by Team Finland 1, Marigold Ice Unity. Note that the four groups are expected to rotate and travel in a synchronized manner and are scored accordingly.

picture of Team Finland 1, Marigold Ice Unity, group lift

Team Finland 1, Marigold Ice Unity, group lift

Elsewhere in the Team Finland 1 program, during a so-called creative element, five or six skaters performed a group lift in which three skaters lifted a fourth overhead (as usual) but then one or two of the lifting skaters did an exchange of position like a pass-off maneuver.

Almost impossibly, the long program scores for Team Canada 1 and Team Finland 1 were identical (143.67). Therefore the final placement was determined by the short program scores, with Team Canada 1 winning by 0.67 point. As it turns out, Team Canada 1 was like the home team, since they train at a rink only about 5 miles away from the competition arena. The bronze medal was earned by Team Russia 1, their first world medal in synchronized skating. Here the teams are lined up during the medal ceremony, after receiving their medals.

image of World Synchronized Skating Championship medalist teams

World Synchronized Skating Championship medalist teams

A special mat had been placed on the ice for the official press photographers to gather to take photos.

photo of press paparazzi

Press paparazzi

The ceremony concluded with raising the flags of the medal-winning teams and the playing of the Canadian national anthem.

picture of flag-raising for medal-winning teams

Flag-raising for medal-winning teams

It was an exciting experience to watch Synchro Worlds. The atmosphere was simply electric, of course especially for the Canadian teams, but very enthusiastic for all of the teams. I have managed to attend all of the Synchro Worlds events held in North America, and look forward to the next one.

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John Nicholas Trail, Sanborn County Park

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Recently a new trail in Sanborn County Park was dedicated as a new section of the Bay Area Ridge Trail. Sanborn Park is located in the Santa Cruz Mountains above Saratoga and Los Gatos in Santa Clara County. The John Nicholas Trail has been named in honor one of the co-founders of a unique park management program at nearby West Valley College. This program is one of only a few in the United States that train park management personnel.

I was glad to be able to hike the John Nicholas Trail on the day of the dedication festivities and ribbon-cutting. The easiest access to the trail is from the Sunnyvale Mountain picnic area on Skyline Blvd (CA-35); the John Nicholas Trail trailhead is about 0.15 mile from the parking area. The trail descends 3.4 miles and 950 feet to Lake Ranch, which can also be accessed from a small parking area along Black Rd via a 1.9-mile access trail. The top of the trail connects to the Skyline Trail, which roughly parallels Skyline Blvd to Saratoga Gap at CA-9.

The John Nicholas Trail winds through beautiful forest as it descends the hillside, with a vista point and several interesting geological (rock) features along the way. On the GPS track the orange dot shows the beginning of the trail at the picnic area parking area.

GPS track

GPS track

The outbound descent and return ascent are steady but with a reasonable grade of about 5%.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Between the parking area and the trailhead I found a few wildflowers, including some pretty baby blue eyes (nemophila menziesii).

picture of baby blue eyes near the John Nicholas Trail trailhead

Baby blue eyes near the John Nicholas Trail trailhead

There was also some scotch broom (cytisus scoparius) near the trail head as well as at Lake Ranch. Scotch broom is actually rather handsome, but is considered a nasty invasive species in the US; it is native to western and central Europe.

image of handsome scotch broom blossom

Handsome scotch broom blossom

The small rise on the elevation profile shows the location of the John Nicholas Trail trailhead. A short distance down the trail there is a special tree stump next to the trail. It has been “autographed” by California Conservation Corps staff who helped build the trail.

photo of specially marked tree stump

Specially marked tree stump

About 0.5 mile from the parking area is a vista point, the only one along the trail, overlooking the south end of Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay and the East Bay hills, including Mt Diablo. Several benches have been installed to encourage trail users to stop and enjoy the view.

picture of view from John Nicholas Trail

View from John Nicholas Trail

Barely 0.1 mile past the vista point, as the trail curves around a small gully, an overturned VW bug can be seen about 10 yards off-trail. I haven’t heard the story about how it got there, but apparently it can’t be removed without disturbing some delicate habitat, so it remains in place.

image of VW bug just off the trail

VW bug just off the trail

About 1 mile from the parking area there is a unique section of trail dubbed Lombard St. When you get there you immediately understand the nickname, as the trail has several short, sharp switchbacks. In the picture a mountain biker is negotiating one of the switchbacks.

photo of Lombard St negotiated by a mountain biker

Lombard St negotiated by a mountain biker

Just past the bottom of Lombard St the trail passes an impressive tafoni outcrop.

picture of tafoni outcrop near Lombard St

Tafoni outcrop near Lombard St

At the next curve around a gully there is a culvert to accommodate the seasonal stream (when it has water). The trail construction crew built a beautiful rock work retaining wall at the end of the culvert.

image of culvert with detailed rock work

Culvert with detailed rock work

After passing these features the trail continues to wind through the mixed forest, occasionally passing additional large rocks. In this picture two bay laurel trees happened to be lined up, emphasizing the many trunks that spread out from the base of each tree.

photo of trees along John Nicholas Trail

Trees along John Nicholas Trail

The lower part of the trail crosses three bridges over small creeks. The upper bridge has kind of a bump-out with a built-in bench, here enjoyed by other trail visitors.

picture of bridge along the lower part of John Nicholas Trail

Bridge along the lower part of John Nicholas Trail

The trail was laid out so that the already-existing natural features enhance the trail experience.

image of trail winding around a rock

Trail winding around a rock

Along the lower part of the trail, near the creeks, there were ferns and some miner’s lettuce. At Lake Ranch there is a small lake, formed by damming one (or more) of the small creeks. Sometimes the lake is dry, but there appeared to be ample water at the time of the hike.

photo of Lake Ranch

Lake Ranch

In the sunny open area near the lake there was more scotch broom, some red maids, and a cluster of delicate Fernald’s iris (iris fernaldii).

picture of Fernald’s iris next to Lake Ranch

Fernald’s iris next to Lake Ranch

After enjoying a short break at one of the picnic tables I began the climb back to Sunnyvale Mountain. Along the way I met a horse and rider coming down the trail. The rider had hoped to be the first to ride on the newly dedicated trail (after the ribbon-cutting).

image of equestrian visitor to the John Nicholas Trail

Equestrian visitor to the John Nicholas Trail

The John Nicholas Trail is a beautifully constructed trail that takes advantage of the terrain and passes through pretty forest. This is a nice hike in almost any weather, but the shade would be particularly welcome in warm weather.

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Coyote Ridge Open Space wildflower hike

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Coyote Ridge is an open space parcel in central Santa Clara County, including a small protected area within a larger study area. The protected area is owned by the VTA and managed by the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority (OSA). The soil of Coyote Ridge is serpentine and hosts critical habitat for the endangered bay checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha bayensis). Public access is restricted in order to maintain the special and unique ecosystem, which supports several other endangered species in addition to the checkerspot. For the past several years the OSA has hosted docent-led spring wildflower hikes for just a few weeks at the peak of the spring wildflowers. I was fortunate to sign up in time to participate in one of the hikes; they fill up fast. Since the purpose of the hikes is to enjoy, and learn about, and photograph the wildflowers and other unique wildlife in the area, the distance is relatively short; the day of my hike, the route was just 2.8 miles in a semi-loop configuration with an 800-foot climb to the top of the ridge.

The hike was pretty, and the wildflowers were simply spectacular. This post is mainly about the hike and non-wildflower sightings, with a separate post focusing on the wildflowers.

On the GPS track the orange dot denotes the start/end of the hike.

GPS track

GPS track

There are no formal trails, but the docent-led walks have created informal trails along part of the route. In other parts, the group was asked to deliberately spread out over a wider area in order to avoid creating even an informal trail.

We hiked gently uphill along a fence and shortly climbed a little more steeply. We were treated to hillside fields blanketed in wildflowers, such as this one with white popcorn flower and purple owl’s clover, with a few California poppies adding brighter color. The poppies were closed because the overnight fog layer had not yet burned off, but it did about an hour later. It was not unusual to see several different types of wildflower in this kind of close proximity.

photo of hillside blanketed with popcorn flowers and owl’s clover

Hillside blanketed with popcorn flowers and owl’s clover

Not far from the beginning of the hike we passed what we were informed would be the last tree we would see for most of the hike; the hillsides and ridge are essentially completely exposed. We heard a bird song that I did not recognize, but soon one of the other hikers identified it as a Bullock’s oriole and commented that it was very unusual to hear one sing. When it flew away the lighting was such that I couldn’t make a visual identification at all, though the coloring and pattern are actually rather distinctive.

A little farther up the hill there was a section of the trail covered with goldfields, creating an effect dubbed by the docents as the yellow brick road.

picture of the yellow brick road of goldfields climbing up to Coyote Ridge

The yellow brick road of goldfields climbing up to Coyote Ridge

As is evident from the elevation profile, the first half of the elevation gain was a gentler grade, and the last half was a bit steeper. The steep section was also where we spread out to avoid creating a specific path through the fields of wildflowers.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

As we climbed higher we enjoyed beautiful views, behind us, across the Coyote Valley toward the southern portion of the Santa Cruz Mountains. These views included Loma Prieta, the high point on the skyline, and Mt Umunhum. The browner-hued hill to the right is another area with serpentine soil and is the site of another study and/or protected area. The green area on the valley floor is the Coyote Creek Golf Course, next to US-101.

image of view across the Coyote Valley

View across the Coyote Valley

As we approached the ridge top, the sun had been out for long enough that the light-sensitive flowers had opened up and the butterflies were out flying around. One of the docents noticed a ferruginous hawk and a harrier above the ridge. It was kind of neat to see my first bay checkerspot and get a photo of it as it paused to feed or rest briefly. The small white puffs in the upper right of the picture are dwarf plantain (plantago erecta), at the base of which the checkerspot lays its eggs.

photo of endangered bay checkerspot

Endangered bay checkerspot

When the group reached the ridgetop we stopped for a relatively extended break with opportunities for more sightings and photos. We had a great view of Lick Observatory on Mt Hamilton, perhaps 10 miles away almost due north. The actual peak is Copernicus Peak, just out of the picture to the right.

picture of Lick Observatory on Mt Hamilton

Lick Observatory on Mt Hamilton

The view to the east was across a pretty, green valley toward Henry W Coe State Park. The ridge in the middle of the skyline is Pine Ridge or Blue Ridge, including Mt Sizer as the highest point. The ridge is less than 10 miles away.

image of view east toward Henry W Coe State Park

View east toward Henry W Coe State Park

We saw quite a few butterflies during the break, but they did not seem to want to land and pose for photos. However, I eventually got a picture of a buckeye (junonia coenia), which is similar in size to the checkerspot and smaller than monarchs and painted ladies.

photo of buckeye


During the break, someone noticed that the two birds soaring overhead at the time were bald eagles, with strikingly distinct white heads and tails against the brilliant blue sky. They were magnificent! Too bad that I was unable to get a photograph, so I simply enjoyed watching them for several minutes.

After the break we proceeded a short distance along the ridge top and then started down. At the bottom of the steep section we curved to the right to meet up with our outbound path. Along the way we passed a solitary oak tree: a leather oak, whose leaves are actually almost succulent and have prickly edges. The leather oak is endemic to serpentine environments in California. This one is growing next to a seep, and we saw some seep spring monkey flowers near the base of the trunk.

picture of solitary leather oak

Solitary leather oak

Not far after that we passed a bit of chaparral with a bird, identified by someone else as a rock wren. Moments later there was a pair of lark sparrows that paused long enough for a few quick pictures. The facial pattern is very distinctive!

image of pair of lark sparrows

Pair of lark sparrows

Shortly after seeing the lark sparrows we passed a small mound a few yards away from our path. The mound was covered with poppies, owl’s clover, and cream cups interspersed with a few blue dicks.

photo of colorful flower-covered mound

Colorful flower-covered mound

We then finished closing the loop and retraced our initial path back to the start. It had been a beautiful day and a very enjoyable hike. In a companion post I’ll focus on the many wildflowers we encountered along the way.

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Wildcat Canyon and Tilden Regional Parks: East Bay Skyline National Trail

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This was a group hike to celebrate the first day of Spring by hiking the northern 10 miles of the East Bay Skyline National Trail in the East Bay hills of Contra Costa County, starting in Wildcat Canyon Regional Park and passing through Tilden Nature Area and Tilden Regional Park. Though the day was partly cloudy we were treated to spectacular Bay and inland views and enjoyed numerous wildflowers and beautiful green hills.

The GPS track shows an overview of the route, beginning at the orange dot at the McBryde Ave trailhead for Wildcat Canyon Regional Park.

GPS track

GPS track

Before we even left the parking area we encountered our first wildflowers of the day, several dense patches of winter vetch (vicia villosa) at the edge of the pavement.

picture of winter vetch

Winter vetch

The first part of the trail climbs up about 800 feet to San Pablo Ridge, with beautiful green hillsides all around us.

image of beautiful green hills on the way up to San Pablo Ridge

Beautiful green hills on the way up to San Pablo Ridge

After reaching the ridge top the trail levels off, with more gentle ups and downs for 5 miles until there is more climbing. A few hikers noted that it seemed like we were always climbing. The elevation profile shows that we did climb nearly 2500 feet, and the climbs were more sustained compared to rolling ups and downs along the ridge-top.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

About 1.5 miles from the trailhead we had an impressive view of the trail ahead, which winds around the small hill in the right foreground and then snakes up the bigger hill.

photo of San Pablo Ridge Trail winding up to the ridge top

San Pablo Ridge Trail winding up to the ridge top

With the open hillsides it should be no surprise that, as we gained elevation, we started to have wonderful views across San Francisco Bay. Here is Mt Tamalpais, about 20 miles away to the west, with Richmond in the foreground.

picture of Mt Tamalpais

Mt Tamalpais

As we neared the ridge top we could also see across San Pablo Bay and the Carquinez Strait into Solano County. On the east side of the ridge is San Pablo Reservoir, as well as Mt Diablo, about 21 miles to the east.

image of San Pablo Reservoir and Mt Diablo from San Pablo Ridge

San Pablo Reservoir and Mt Diablo from San Pablo Ridge

The trail continues along San Pablo Ridge for about 5 miles. We kind of cruised along, enjoying the views and wildflowers. Among others, we saw some checkerbloom (sidalcea malviflora), which looked like it was just beginning to bloom.

photo of checkerbloom


The poppies had begun to pop, and there were many of them scattered among the hilltop grasses, along with lupine.

Although there are other trails and the trail changes name, way-finding is straightforward. This trail is multiply-designated: in addition to the East Bay Skyline National Trail, which is part of the National Trails System, it is an American Discovery Trail and part of the Mokelumne Coast to Crest Trail. About 4.3 miles from the trailhead the Bay Area Ridge Trail enters from the adjacent East Bay Municipal Utility District watershed lands. I hiked the southern 6 miles of this route previously as part of my Bay Area Ridge Trail circumnavigation.

About 5.2 miles from the trailhead the trail leaves Wildcat Canyon Regional Park and enters the Tilden Nature Area. As it happens, the trail leaves the open area and becomes more forested; the shade would be welcome on a warmer day. Less than a mile later the trail leaves Tilden Nature Area and enters Tilden Regional Park. Then at 7 miles from the trailhead we arrived at Inspiration Point, overlooking the hills to the east. After this the climbing begins again, but with more views and wildflowers providing pleasant distractions.

Here is a milk thistle in bloom. Although it is considered to be an invasive weed, I happen to think the blossom is pretty!

picture of milk thistle

Milk thistle

There were several impressive patches of bush, or silver, lupine (lupinus albifrons) along the trail.

image of silver lupine

Silver lupine

The spectacular views across San Francisco Bay included Angel Island, the Golden Gate Bridge, and some afternoon fog beginning to come inland across the Marin headlands.

photo of Angel Island and the Marin headlands

Angel Island and the Marin headlands

There were impressive views of downtown San Francisco behind the Bay Bridge. Just to the left of Sutro Tower are the Twin Peaks. If you look closely you can see that the old Bay Bridge has been partly demolished, leaving a bigger gap next to the new East span. Eventually the entire old section of the Bay Bridge will be removed.

picture of downtown San Francisco and the Bay Bridge

Downtown San Francisco and the Bay Bridge

The trail continues to follow a ridge-top, with views over the East Bay hills (for example Sobrante Ridge and Franklin Ridge) as well as San Francisco Bay.

image of view across the East Bay Hills

View across the East Bay Hills

I noticed some pretty, small white flower clusters on a plant with large, broad leaves. I later identified this as coastal manroot (marah oreganus), based on the leaf structure. (The other possibility is California manroot (marah fabacea).)

photo of coastal manroot

Coastal manroot

I was surprised to find mule’s ear (wyethia) here, since I’m accustomed to seeing it more than 5000 feet higher in elevation in the Lake Tahoe area. I couldn’t determine whether it is the grey or the narrow-leaved variety.

picture of mule’s ear

Mule’s ear

Among the views to the east side of the ridge was Briones Reservoir.

image of Briones Reservoir

Briones Reservoir

Wildflowers included hound’s tongue, forget-me-nots, and a few fiddlenecks already blooming, quite early this year. Also, I was startled to almost walk right up to a snake stretched out in the sun about half way across the trail, which, fortunately, is a double-wide trail. Also fortunately, the snake was a bull (gopher) snake rather than a rattlesnake.

I noticed a small, pretty pea-like flower that I think I’ve seen before without identifying. This time I got a picture good enough to help with identification: I believe it is common, or spring, vetch (vicia sativa).

photo of common or spring vetch

Common or spring vetch

About 9.6 miles from the trailhead everyone missed a turn to stay on the Skyline Trail, and we ended up on a portion of the Seaview Trail that is paved. After going a short distance up the paved trail we decided to turn around and see if we could pick up the dirt trail. (The paved trail actually goes to the ending trailhead, so it was a choice to return to the dirt trail.) The highest point of the hike was actually in this short (0.4-mile) off-route section, and the remainder of the hike was a descent to trailhead parking near the steam trains.

This would be a beautiful hike at any time of the year, but was especially nice to experience with members of my hiking club as a first-day-of-spring celebration.

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

East Slope Sonoma Mountain Ridge Trail

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The dedication of a new segment of Bay Area Ridge Trail is typically celebrated with a dedication ceremony, ribbon cutting, and official first outings. Recently a new segment was dedicated in Jack London State Historic Park, in the Valley of the Moon area of Sonoma County. The new section of trail, called the East Slope Sonoma Mountain Ridge Trail, is only about 1.2 miles long; however, in order to hike or ride it you need to traverse a 2.1-mile connector trail (via Lake Trail and Mountain Trail) and 2.5 miles of previously-dedicated Bay Area Ridge Trail (Sonoma Ridge Trail). On the day of the dedication there was a guided hike to and along the new trail, and I participated in that hike.

Approaching the dedication venue in the winery ruins near one of the parking areas, there was a great view of Sonoma Mountain, where we would be hiking a couple of hours later. The weather was perfect for a trail outing, and there was interest and anticipation among the attendees. Sonoma Mountain is actually more like an entire ridgeline; in the picture the entire backdrop is considered Sonoma Mountain.

photo of Sonoma Mountain across the Jack London State Historic Park winery ruins

Sonoma Mountain across the Jack London State Historic Park winery ruins

After the formalities the outings began. The route is shown in the GPS track, with the orange dot near the top denoting the ribbon-cutting ceremony location. With minor detours and an alternate route taken on the return hike, the total hike distance was 12.1 miles, with 2000 feet of elevation gain.

GPS track

GPS track

Near the winery ruins the trail passes by the lower end of a working vineyard, with rows of grape vines running across gently rolling hills. I was a little surprised that the vines still seemed to be in their winter dormant state, since so many other trees and wildflowers seem to be bursting into spring well ahead of schedule this year.

picture of vineyard in Jack London State Historic Park

Vineyard in Jack London State Historic Park

After a rather short section with a gentle climb, the Lake and Mountain Trails climb with a more noticeable, approximately 8%, grade.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The hike leaders for this hike tend to hike rather purposefully and with minimal stops, so I actually didn’t stop for many pictures until we were almost up to the new section of trail. There were brief stops to look at views, between the trees, of the Valley of the Moon and the ridge line across the valley, including distinctive Hogback Mountain.

After about 3 miles I started to notice some pretty wildflowers with a range of hues from light orange to red-orange. They are called orange larkspurs (delphinium nudicale).

image of orange larkspurs next to the Sonoma Ridge Trail

Orange larkspurs next to the Sonoma Ridge Trail

About 4.5 miles from the start we came to a short loop trail, which had been the end of the previous Ridge Trail segment. In this area I began to stop more frequently for pictures, including this beautiful shooting star.

photo of shooting star

Shooting star

At 4.7 miles from the start we passed a sign indicating the beginning of the new trail segment, the East Slope Sonoma Mountain Ridge Trail. In this “high country” there were lovely grassy meadows with an array of wildflowers just starting to pop out, including vetch and giant hound’s tongue among others.

After perhaps 0.7 mile on the new trail we took a short detour – I presume with the appropriate permissions – to climb a knoll around which the trail passes. From the knoll there were 360-degree views, simply wonderful. One was toward the top of Sonoma Mountain, marked by a communication tower.

picture of top of Sonoma Mountain from a knoll-top vista point

Top of Sonoma Mountain from a knoll-top vista point

To the north-northwest, no more than 20 miles away, Mount St Helena’s distinctive profile marks the skyline.

image of Mount St Helena from the vista point

Mount St Helena from the vista point

To the southeast, Mt Diablo was visible, though slightly hazy, over 45 miles away across Suisun Bay.

photo of Mt Diablo from the vista point

Mt Diablo from the vista point

Mt Tamalpais was also visible, nearly 30 miles away to the south.

The hillside was decorated with poppies, which had reportedly started blooming only within the previous week.

picture of hilltop meadow full of poppies

Hilltop meadow full of poppies

After enjoying a brief lunch break at the vista point, we returned to the trail and continued toward the end, with several other types of wildflower making appearances along the way. Perhaps the most unusual was a plant with small maroon balls of blossoms, I believe purple sanicle (sanicula bipinnatifida).

image of purple sanicle

Purple sanicle

The far end of the new trail returns from open meadow to a forested area with lush ferns and some interesting-looking red rocks. The trail was lined with miner’s lettuce and red maids. At the end of the trail there is a very short loop through this ecosystem. On the return trip, back in the meadow area I stopped to photograph some of the many brodiaeas (dichelostemma capitatum), or purple head (also familiarly known as blue dicks).

photo of brodiaea near the East Slope Sonoma Mountain Ridge Trail

Brodiaea near the East Slope Sonoma Mountain Ridge Trail

There was also a fair amount of sky lupine (lupinus nanus), with distinctive purple tips and white areas with tiny black spots.

picture of sky lupine

Sky lupine

There were also a few baby blue eyes (nemophila menziesii). And after we left the meadow and re-entered the forested area I noticed a particularly magnificent tree.

image of magnificent tree near the East Slope Sonoma Mountain Ridge Trail

Magnificent tree near the East Slope Sonoma Mountain Ridge Trail

We remained in the forest for the remainder of the descent, with fewer wildflowers and different types than we had seen in the meadows. We saw a few specimens of these beautiful fritillaries, called mission bells (fritillaria affinus).

photo of fritillary, or mission bell

Fritillary, or mission bell

Among the orange larkspurs were a few yellow larkspurs (delphinium luteum). These were probably lucky finds, since this species, endemic to Sonoma County, is considered endangered.

picture of yellow larkspur

Yellow larkspur

In the shady areas there were also several Fernald’s irises (iris fernaldii). These pretty flowers are almost a transparent white in color, with delicate yellow veins.

image of Fernald’s iris

Fernald’s iris

Near London Lake, about 1 mile from the parking area, there are (at least!) two trail options, and we ended up going around the other side of the lake compared to the outbound hike. In this area there is a small grove of redwoods and we found several trilliums. Based on the information I could find about which types could be in this area, I believe they were western wake robin (trillium ovatum), also called Pacific trillium.

photo of Pacific trillium flowering near some redwood trees

Pacific trillium flowering near some redwood trees

After finishing the lake circumnavigation we made our way back to the winery ruins and out to the parking area. I had not been expecting such an array of wildflowers in mid-March, and that added a nice touch to what was already an enjoyable hike.

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