Vargas Plateau Regional Park

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Recently the East Bay Regional Park District opened a new park in the Fremont Hills: Vargas Plateau Regional Park.  The park hosts a 2-mile segment of the Bay Area Ridge Trail.  Both the park opening and the new Ridge Trail segment were much-anticipated events, in the making for a number of years.  The only park access is from the new Vargas Plateau Staging Area on Morrison Canyon Rd not far from Vargas Rd.

Vargas Plateau Regional Park features grass-covered hills separated by small but steep canyons.  Trees are mainly oak with some bay, and are mostly located near the small streams that run down the canyons, eventually leading to Alameda Creek.  There is relatively little shade on the trails, but the views of the surrounding area are expansive and beautiful.  Here is a view down one of the tree-lined canyons, with Lake Elizabeth in the background.

image of canyon in Vargas Plateau Regional Park, with Fremont’s Lake Elizabeth in the background

Canyon in Vargas Plateau Regional Park, with Fremont’s Lake Elizabeth in the background

There is only one trail, the Golden Eagle Trail, leading away from the staging area, denoted by the orange dot on my GPS track.  The Bay Area Ridge Trail route follows the western side of the loop and, for now, terminates at the north end of the loop.  Someday the trail will connect to existing Ridge Trail segments in Garin Regional Park a few miles to the northwest and in Mission Peak Regional Preserve less than 5 miles to the southeast.

I visited the park with a friend, and we first hiked up to the loop containing the Bay Area Ridge Trail segment, the Upper Ranch Trail, where we went around the loop counterclockwise.  Near the end of the loop we took a short side trip to a view point.  After completing the loop and returning to the top end of the Golden Eagle Trail, we headed southwest on the Deer Gulch Loop Trail.  At the next junction we climbed up Cliff Trail, which ends at the park boundary, and finally returned to the staging area.  The length of the hike was 6.7 miles.

GPS track

GPS track

As we were about to leave the staging area, a hiker returning from his hike alerted us that there were some cows on the trail less than 1/4 mile ahead.  Sure enough, as soon as we rounded the first slight curve, a group of about 6 cows was coming down the trail toward us.  I wasn’t quite quick enough with my camera to get pictures, but it seemed that at least two of the females were very pregnant.

Not far from the Y junction at the end of the Golden Eagle Trail, we came upon a dense cluster of ruby sand spurry (Spergularia rubra).  The whole area looked light blue-purple because the blossoms were so dense.  The blossoms are quite small, only about 1/4 inch in diameter.  They were quite delightful, and we saw another cluster a bit farther along.

image of Cluster of ruby sand spurry

Cluster of ruby sand spurry

In general I would say that the spring wildflower season is winding down.  We saw California poppies here and there throughout the park, as well as filaree, a few fiddlenecks, some Mediterranean linseed (Bellardia trixago), and a bit of miniature lupine (Lupinus bicolor).

Many of the trails appeared to be former ranch roads; the park land was previously ranchland owned by the Vargas family.  Although there were almost no flat areas, the elevation changes were less than I have experienced in many other areas of the East Bay Hills.  The elevation difference between the lowest and highest parts of the trails we hiked was less than 300 feet, but the total elevation gain and loss was nearly 1100 feet.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

As we reached the far end of the Upper Ranch Trail loop (and the unmarked north end of the Bay Area Ridge Trail segment) about 1.6 miles from the trailhead, we came around a curve and suddenly found ourselves descending to where we would pass a pond.  The green color of the pond’s surface was striking.

image of pond near the north end of the Upper Ranch Trail loop

Pond near the north end of the Upper Ranch Trail loop

At the right side of the pond there was a patch of yellow flowering plants.  When we got closer I took some pictures, which I then enlarged further on my computer after the hike.  The yellow flowers turned out to be seep spring monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus), which favors a wet habitat.  I wasn’t able to determine what the white flowers are, and we didn’t go off-trail to get a closer look.

image of seep spring monkeyflowers near the green pond

Seep spring monkeyflowers near the green pond

Since the day was sunny and warm, in the mid 80’s, we were grateful to find a bit of shade among the oaks at the bottom of the hill past the pond.  In this area we noticed some miner’s lettuce, which enjoys shady areas.

When we reached the spur trail to the view point, we climbed up to check out the 360-degree views.  There were nice views across Fremont, toward Garin to the northwest, toward another ridge line to the northeast, and toward Mission Peak to the southeast.  After completing the Upper Ranch Trail loop and returning part way to the trailhead, we decided to explore the Deer Gulch Loop Trail, which goes west ant then southwest from the 3-way junction.  Perhaps 1/2 mile along Deer Gulch Loop Trail, we had more nice views of Mission Peak, here with a row of milk thistle in the foreground.  I was a bit amused that, at first, I almost didn’t recognize Mission Peak from this angle.  I-680 passes along some folds in the hills on its way from Fremont to Pleasanton.

image of Mission Peak viewed from Deer Gulch Loop Trail

Mission Peak viewed from Deer Gulch Loop Trail

When we reached the junction with Cliff Trail we decided to follow it to the park boundary.  But first we went just a little bit further along Deer Gulch Loop Trail because we could see that a nice view was coming up.  Indeed, we had a fantastic view of the numerous lakes and ponds that make up Quarry Lakes Regional Recreation Area.  Just out of view over the hill is the upper end of Alameda Creek and the Niles Canyon Staging Area for the Alameda Creek Trail, where I have gone for long training walks several times.

image of view overlooking Quarry Lakes

View overlooking Quarry Lakes

Near the top of Cliff Trail we found a number of yellow mariposa lilies (Calochortus luteus).  This is one of my favorite wildflowers, and I was hoping we would find some.  These two flowers were part of a cluster of three, being visited by some small beetles.

image of yellow mariposa lilies

Yellow mariposa lilies

I couldn’t resist taking a picture of my friend as she snapped photos of the mariposa lilies.  The upper right of the picture shows a hint of the beautiful views from this spot near the park boundary.

image of photographing the mariposa lilies

Photographing the mariposa lilies

When I encounter a favorite wildflower, I tend to photograph several flowers, usually multiple times each, to be sure I get some good shots.  In this picture the interior of the mariposa lily is especially clear, including the hairs that are found on the petals of many members of the Calochortus genus.  Near the base of each petal there is a darker yellow nectar gland, which has denser hairs.  Note that the entire flower has 3-fold symmetry, a hallmark characteristic of the lily family.

image of yellow mariposa lily, with clearly visible hairs and darker nectar glands

Yellow mariposa lily, with clearly visible hairs and darker nectar glands

As we were leaving the area of mariposa lilies to begin to return to the trailhead, I noticed a pair of johnny jump-ups (Viola pedunculata).  I tend to think of these flowers a bit earlier in the spring, so it was a treat to see them here in mid-May.

image of johnny jump-up

Johnny jump-up

As we were approaching the 3-way junction once again, we noted a pretty view of a nearby hill topped by a single oak tree, with a couple of other oaks nearby.  In the background behind this hill we could see a row of hills in the Sunol and Ohlone Regional Wildernesses.  The Ohlone Wilderness Trail winds through these hills and is a wonderful longer-distance trail, covering 30 miles between Mission Peak Regional Preserve in Fremont and Del Valle Regional Park in Livermore.

image of hill with a single oak tree

Hill with a single oak tree

After reaching the 3-way junction we returned down the last hill to the staging area, where we were glad that our cars’ air conditioning was in good working order.  It had been an unexpectedly warm hike, but highlighted by pretty views and several wildflowers.  And as I drove out of the staging area, I encountered a wild turkey crossing a driveway on the other side of Morrison Canyon Rd.

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Docent-led tour at Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge

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Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge is unique within the National Wildlife Refuge system: it is the only wildlife refuge that was established specifically to protect endangered plants and insects.  The special species protected here are the Antioch Dunes evening primrose, the Contra Costa wallflower, and the Lange’s metalmark butterfly.  The refuge is accessible for the public to visit only on a docent-led tour one day per month.  When I learned that a good, if not the best, time to see the evening primrose was around May, I immediately put the associated docent-led tour date on my calendar.  The tour is not long – mine was just over 1 mile and lasted nearly 2 hours – but it was a unique opportunity to visit an otherwise inaccessible wildlife refuge and see special sights.

The star of the tour, in my view, was the Antioch Dunes evening primrose (Oenothera deltoides ssp. howellii), listed on the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants.  Although I could see a few plants within the refuge even before the docents arrived to open the gate, of course the best close-up views came later in the tour.

picture of Antioch Dunes evening primrose

Antioch Dunes evening primrose

The GPS track shows the relatively short loop that we hiked: only a bit over 1 mile long.  Although we did climb up the dune, here the dunes are small, and the total elevation change was only about 20 feet.  On the GPS track image, the orange dot shows where the visitors gathered for initial orientation before we started the walking part of the tour.

GPS track

GPS track

Near the entrance there was a bushy plant with several showy yellow flowers.  I think it is telegraph weed (Heterotheca grandiflora), one of the common native plants that grow in the dunes.  It is in the same family as daisies, asters, and sunflowers.

picture of telegraph weed near the refuge entrance

Telegraph weed near the refuge entrance

There is an interesting story behind the sand dunes.  Historically they were larger than the present dunes.  Following the 1906 great earthquake and fire in San Francisco, the sand was harvested for making bricks for rebuilding the city and the dunes were nearly destroyed.  Before that the dunes had accumulated over millennia from silt deposited in the area as the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers converged and their flow to San Pablo and San Francisco Bays was constricted by the narrow Carquinez Strait.  Prevailing winds blew deposited sand eastward (upstream) and created a localized area of sand dunes, perhaps a few square miles.  Wildlife such as plants and insects that thrived in the ecosystem were isolated from others and evolved to be unique and endemic to the area.  The use of sand for industrial purposes nearly eliminated the local species.  After creation of the wildlife refuge the sand dunes are gradually being rebuilt, in part using sand that is dredged from the San Joaquin River channel to preserve a shipping channel to Stockton.  So today the dunes themselves are gradually being restored.  This view is along the side of one of the sand dunes.  Non-native plants growing nearby are not able to thrive on the dune, where native plants will grow naturally.

picture of restored sand dune at Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge

Restored sand dune at Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge

Modern evidence of the reliable winds in the area was in the form of a large windmill farm visible not far away in southern Solano County. Although the refuge is in Contra Costa County, there is a narrow slice of Sacramento County between the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers, and on the north side of the Sacramento River is Solano County.

There were Antioch Dunes evening primrose plants thriving in the sand where other, non-native, plants were not growing.  This picture shows several blooms as well as a couple that had turned pink after the blooming cycle was complete.  This color change is characteristic of other large/showy evening primroses; I have seen examples both in the Sierras and in the Southern California desert.

picture of Antioch Dunes evening primrose

Antioch Dunes evening primrose

The area known as the Delta is very flat, and it was easy to see Mt Diablo rising abruptly to over 3800 feet elevation, only about 12 miles away.  On the day of my visit it seemed that Mt Diablo was capturing some of the passing clouds and even training them into a plume extending down-wind.  The lower, brown hills in the right foreground are in Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve.

picture of Mt Diablo with a plume of clouds

Mt Diablo with a plume of clouds

Among the non-native grasses growing near the dunes there were several other colorful plants.  Deerweed (Acmispon glaber) is considered by some to be a weed, but it is actually considered by biologists to be beneficial to the ecosystem since it provides food for hummingbirds, bees, butterfly larvae, and deer.

picture of deerweed

Deerweed

On the other hand, this has been a banner year for vetch, probably winter vetch (Vicia villosa ssp. villosa), which seems to be considered to be more of a nuisance (although it’s rather pretty).  We noticed a bee busy feeding on some vetch, with fat orange pollen pouches.

picture of winter vetch visited by a bee

Winter vetch visited by a bee

Occasionally a few boats powered past in the San Joaquin River.  The Delta is very popular with boaters, especially during the summer.

picture of boats in the San Joaquin River

Boats in the San Joaquin River

Near the far end of our loop walk – while a walkway had been mown, there are no established trails – we came to a small stand of Contra Costa wallflower (Erysimum capitatum ssp. angustatum).  The wallflower flowers are much bigger than the flowers of the wild mustard grass that also was present in the refuge.  The four-petal pattern is characteristic of the mustard family of plants.

picture of Contra Costa wallflower

Contra Costa wallflower

We did not see Lange’s metalmark butterfly, the insect protected by this wildlife refuge.  This butterfly has only one reproductive cycle per year, and the butterflies do not emerge until August and September.  We did not go to a location where the larvae are known to be present.  An important food supply for the butterflies is the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), which blooms throughout the spring and summer.  The poppies in the refuge are not the most typical poppy color, but rather are bright yellow with a bit of the poppy color near the base of the petals.  I am trying to learn whether this coloration difference is due to genetic differences (e.g. color mutation variant), nutrients, or some other factor(s).

picture of California poppy: yellower than the famous poppy color

California poppy: yellower than the famous poppy color

Along the river side of the dune we passed several clusters of elegant clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata), whose blossoms are indeed elegant, as well as complex.  It is another of the common native plants that grow in the dunes area.

picture of elegant clarkia

Elegant clarkia

Eventually we completed the loop and arrived back at the entrance gate.  A visit to Antioch Dunes is a little different each month, as the docents focus on what is happening / blooming at the time, as well as the general history and ecology.  It was a very enjoyable visit – and I just might come back to try to see the butterflies during their short season in the fall.

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Early spring colors – Lake Tahoe area

Spring comes later to the Sierras than to the Bay Area, due to the elevation difference.  In this post I want to show some early spring colors in the Lake Tahoe area, mostly around 6500 feet elevation, during a visit in early- to mid-May.  In the mountains this is early spring, since higher elevations are still under snow and lake-level elevations are only recently snow-free.  I have included a few pictures at somewhat lower elevations, down to perhaps 3500 feet elevation, only a day or two later, and the difference is striking.

Especially during spring and fall, mountain weather can change dramatically in a matter of hours.  Early in my visit there was a forecast for afternoon thundershowers.  When the storm arrived, it included intense hail for 15 minutes or so, enough to cover the deck, streets, and yard with a thin layer of white, followed by rain showers.  By the next morning the hail had completely melted.

photo of hail accumulating on the deck

Hail accumulating on the deck

I have always anticipated the arrival of daffodils to announce the beginning of spring.  When I was growing up on the east coast, once the daffodils started to bloom there was no more snow.  In the Sierras, the end of snow season is not quite so clearly defined.  While on a walk around my neighborhood in Tahoe Donner there were many front-yard garden areas with pretty displays of daffodils.  In one case there was a bit of grape hyacinth mixed in (not shown here).

photo of front-yard daffodils

Front-yard daffodils

One of the first spring wildflowers, as distinct from garden flowers, is snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea).  This plant is interesting because it does not utilize photosynthesis, but rather grows by obtaining nutrients from underground fungi.  It often starts to appear not long after the seasonally permanent snow cover melts or recedes.  Usually I see one or two snow plants in a given location, but here there was a cluster of at least ten plants.

photo of cluster of snow plants

Cluster of snow plants

There is quite a bit of manzanita (Arctostaphylos) around Tahoe Donner as well as in the surrounding forest areas.  It also blooms quite early.

photo of manzanita in bloom

Manzanita in bloom

One of the characteristics of early spring in snow country is flowing water due to snowmelt.  Since the winter of 2015-16 was at least close to average for snowfall, there has been plenty of snowmelt to create ephemeral streams.  Here a low rock wall helps to create a path for the water to flow, avoiding inundating the nearby street.  There is even a small temporary waterfall.  This area will dry up once the remaining snow has melted in the upper parts of Tahoe Donner.

photo of ephemeral stream and mini-waterfall fed by snowmelt

Ephemeral stream and mini-waterfall fed by snowmelt

Not far from our cabin, along one of my favorite routes for a short walk, there is a location with a wonderful view of the Carson Range, including Mt Rose.  Prosser Hill is in the foreground, just out of view to the left.  With a summit elevation of nearly 10,800 feet, Mt Rose retains some snow cover relatively late, in good snow years extending into July.  It can be seen here roughly in the center of the skyline, with some cloud cover almost kissing the peak.

photo of Mt Rose, still snow-covered in mid-May after a nearly average snow season

Mt Rose, still snow-covered in mid-May after a nearly average snow season

During the same visit I went for a walk along the bike path that runs along CA-89 and the Truckee River between Squaw Valley and Tahoe City.  Although the Truckee River has been nearly dry the last few summers, due to the ongoing drought, for now there seems to be a good amount of water flowing.  Just before a set of rapids approaching Alpine Meadows Rd – the sign seen in the foreground warns summertime river rafters of rapids ahead – there was a calm section with pretty reflections of the forest across the river.

photo of calm spot in the Truckee River

Calm spot in the Truckee River

A special spring activity is checking out trail heads for hikes I plan to take later in the year.  As part of my drive back to the Bay Area I decided to see if I could check out the roads leading to several trail heads I plan to use during the summer.  The first trailhead was about 15 miles off CA-89, with the turnoff at Little Truckee Summit.  When I was about halfway to the trailhead I encountered snow covering the road.  With a low-clearance car and no snow tires, I decided to turn around here.  If I’d been intending to hike along the road I would have kept going, since I could easily see clear pavement not far ahead.  The elevation at this point was only about 6,800 feet, so I was a bit surprised to see this much residual snow; clearly this road is not plowed during the winter.

photo of forest road covered with snow en route to a hike trail head

Forest road covered with snow en route to a hike trail head

On my way back out to CA-89 I paused to enjoy a beautiful view of a snow-covered ridgeline overlooking a small lake formed in the Little Truckee River not far from Webber Lake.  Two hikes I plan to take in this area are on the Pacific Crest Trail.

photo of hiking country along the Little Truckee River

Hiking country along the Little Truckee River

Even though I encountered snow on two different roads on the way to trail heads, I was at least able to determine whether the roads are paved (this one is, but another is dirt/gravel) and passable in my car.  After returning to CA-89 I continued north until I reached CA-49, a designated California Scenic Byway, and followed it west and down into the Sierra foothills.  CA-49 follows along the North Fork of the Yuba River through the heart of Sierra County.  I made several impromptu stops to appreciate the river and colorful wildflowers.  I saw lots of brilliant blue lupine along the side of the road, including this hillside overlooking the river.  While I was stopped and taking pictures a car coming the other way also stopped, and two men clearly dressed for kayaking – with kayaks strapped to the car’s roof – got out to check out the rapids.

photo of lupine along the bank of the North Fork of the Yuba River

Lupine along the bank of the North Fork of the Yuba River

Several miles farther along, after I’d been seeing patches of a golden yellow flowering bush on the hillside to my right, I stopped again to investigate.  I discovered that it was bush monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus).  Later I also discovered that it is now considered to be the same species as the yellow sticky monkeyflower that is common in the Bay Area.  These two flowers do not look like they should be the same species, but the plant experts have apparently concluded that they are!

photo of bush monkeyflower along CA-49

Bush monkeyflower along CA-49

I also passed flashes of light blue and reddish purple and stopped several more times to investigate.  I found some Indian paintbrush, blue dick (Dichelostemma capitatum), and some tiny white 5-petaled flowers that somewhat resemble cryptantha.  The flashes of reddish purple turned out to be dwarf monkeyflower (Mimulus nanus).  It was the first time I’d seen any of the many species of small monkeyflower.  When I looked more closely I found several light-colored, almost white monkeyflowers.  I think they are variants of the nanus.  The dwarf monkeyflower was an especially nice find, since earlier in the spring I’d gone looking for a different type of tiny monkeyflower in Kern County and not found a single flower.

photo of dwarf monkeyflower along CA-49

Dwarf monkeyflower along CA-49

As I explored this area I noticed several light-colored swallowtail butterflies, which I believe to be pale swallowtail (Papilio eurymedon).  Mostly they seemed to fly around, but occasionally one would land on some blue dicks and remain more-or-less still as it fed.  The markings are quite pretty and include both blue and orange spots.

photo of pale swallowtail on a blue dick flower-head

Pale swallowtail on a blue dick flower-head

Farther along, and at lower elevation, I passed some white flowers that looked like mariposa lilies, one of my favorites.  When I stopped yet again to investigate, I could see that they were superb mariposa lilies (Calochortus superbus).  By this time I had left CA-49 and was traveling along Marysville Rd, probably at low enough elevation that I should not consider myself to be in the mountains, or hardly even in the foothills.

photo of superb mariposa lily along Marysville Rd

Superb mariposa lily along Marysville Rd

Close by I also found some white brodiaea (Brodiaea hyacinthina) and some yellow flowers that might be mountain dandelion.

The drive from Truckee to the Bay Area was a dramatic reminder that, especially during the spring and autumn months, it is possible to experience quite different parts of the season simply by traveling to a different elevation.  I plan to continue to collect seasonal color images at different seasons of the year.

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Wildflowers along the Stanford Dish Trail

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I visit the Stanford Dish Trail fairly regularly to enjoy a hilly training walk in the hills just above the Stanford University campus.  Recently I took a slower-paced hike on The Dish trail and the nearby Matadero Creek Trail to enjoy the spring wildflowers.  I think it is a good thing to occasionally slow down to enjoy the scenery and/or wildflowers, because on a true training walk I typically don’t stop for anything, and this hike has shown me how much I may be missing.  I have been both surprised and delighted this spring with the variety of wildflowers.  I think I may have been too focused on walking briskly and not enough on enjoying the beauty around me.  Lesson learned, I hope!

All of the wildflowers highlighted in this post were observed along The Dish, though many were also seen along the Matadero Creek Trail; the habitat is very similar, sometimes classified as hill and valley grassland.  Although I had taken a few pictures in early March, most of the wildflowers shown below were present in mid-April.  I decided to create composite images with 2 or 3 flowers each, in order to keep the actual number of images to a reasonable number, while calling out some 28 or 29 species.

For my mid-April hike I started at the main entrance to The Dish area, along Junipero Serra Blvd at Stanford Ave.  The GPS track shows my path, with the orange dot denoting the main entrance.  Once I reached the loop proper, I went around clockwise, as I usually do.  One full loop to and from the main entrance is about 3.6 miles with a little under 600 feet of elevation gain and loss.

GPS track

GPS track

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

My usual route actually starts at a different entrance, sometimes called the back entrance, along Alpine Rd.  This route comes in from the left (west) and intersects the loop about halfway along the western leg, at the location of the large radio telescope dish.  It’s a longer access route, and most visitors begin at the main entrance.  Near the back entrance there is a shady area and a stream crossing, and there are a few plants not seen in the grassland areas.  First, on the left, is miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), which blooms fairly early, beginning in February, after which the distinctive circular leaf remains visible and recognizable into the summer months.  In the center is a hedge nettle, most likely either bugle hedge nettle (Stachys ajugoides) or marsh hedge nettle (Stachys palustris).  The flower on the right is a mystery: the leaves and stem put it in the mint family, along with hedge nettles, but I have not yet been able to find an identifying picture with the same kind of blossom.  The mint family and Stachys genus are both quite large.

picture of shade-loving plants: miner’s lettuce, hedge nettle, and a mystery flower

Shade-loving plants: miner’s lettuce, hedge nettle, and a mystery flower

Next is a trio of small pink flowers, all members of the geranium family.  On the left is broad-leaf filaree (Erodium botrys), in the center is white-stemmed or green-stemmed filaree (Erodium moschatum), and on the right is dove’s foot geranium (Geranium molle).  I saw the filarees in profusion along both the back access trail and around the loop first during March training walks, and I needed to slow down and take a closer look to confirm that they are indeed different species.  (The blossoms are only about 1 cm in diameter and I was viewing them from a distance/height of at least 5 feet while moving at a speed of over 4 mph.) I first noticed the dove’s foot geranium a few weeks later, in early April, and took note of its different foliage.  My camera has some trouble rendering pinks and purples accurately: the white-stemmed filaree is pinker than the broad-leaf filaree, and the dove’s foot geranium is a very bright pink.

picture of small pink flowers: broad-leaf filaree, white- or green-stemmed filaree, and dove’s foot geranium

Small pink flowers: broad-leaf filaree, white- or green-stemmed filaree, and dove’s foot geranium

There were other small flowers as well: Here I show bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculata) on the left, clearly a member of the pea family.  In the center is scarlet pimpernel (Lysimachia arvensis), really an orange-colored flower with scarlet/red at the throat.  And on the right is pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea), which seems to like to grow immediately next to the paved trail where the other vegetation is low;  I’ve seen it in many other parks literally within unpaved hiking trails.

picture of other small flowers: bird’s foot trefoil, scarlet pimpernel, and pineapple weed

Other small flowers: bird’s foot trefoil, scarlet pimpernel, and pineapple weed

I found two types of flowers named buttercup: on the left is the California buttercup (Raununculus californicus) and on the right is Bermuda buttercup (Oxalis pes-caprae).  I should point out that oxalis is actually in the wood sorrel family and is not very closely related to true buttercups – and the structure of the flower is quite different.

picture of California buttercup and Bermuda buttercup

California buttercup and Bermuda buttercup

There were some other wildflowers in the yellow color range, notably common fiddleneck (Amsinckia intermedia) and California poppy (Eschscholzia californica).  The fiddleneck at the left was photographed in early March, and the blossom coil is very short.  As the blooming season progresses the coil unwinds, always with just a few blossoms at the top.  The picture in the center was taken in mid-April, and the uncoiling appears nearly complete.  This year the poppies did not seem profuse to me, but they were pretty, as always.  In some areas around the trail there were poppies intermixed with fiddlenecks and others, such as lupine.

picture of yellow flowers: common fiddleneck and California poppy

Yellow flowers: common fiddleneck and California poppy

Near the highest part of the loop, about 0.85 miles from the trailhead at nearly 500 feet elevation and near the southernmost part of the trail, there is a lichen-covered rock that reminds me of rocks often found in serpentine soil areas.  I don’t know that the soil is actually serpentine there, but I was interested to find a couple of clusters of popcorn flowers, which I tend to associate with serpentine soil; sometimes this is called an affinity.  The plants in the left photo were at least a foot tall, comparable to the height of the surrounding grasses in mid-March; I think they are common popcorn flower (Plagiobothrys nothofulvus or P. fulvus).  By mid-April the grasses were taller, and these flowers had finished blooming – or were crowded/shaded out by the grasses.  Not far away I found a different type of popcorn flower, possibly valley popcorn flower (Plagiobothrys canescens) just off the trail pavement.  This plant is much lower to the ground, though the flowers themselves look very similar to common popcorn flower.  I have read that it is tricky to distinguish different species of popcorn flower.  The center photo is clover that was abundant around The Dish loop in mid-April.  I think it is rose clover (Trifolium hirtum), based on the shape and configuration of the individual flowers in the flower head.  The genus name, trifolium, of course refers to the familiar 3-leaved characteristic.

picture of common popcorn flower, rose clover, and valley popcorn flower

Common popcorn flower, rose clover, and valley popcorn flower

There were several types of wildflower growing among the grasses in sunny areas.  On the left is a type of wild onion, perhaps narrow leaf onion (Allium amplectens); I confess that I didn’t walk off-trail the necessary 10 yards to examine the foliage.  In the center is what I believe to be sky lupine (Lupinus nanus).  Although clearly a lupine, the exact identification was confounded a bit by conflicting naming in a couple of trusted and well-respected wildflower resources.  I have read that, when in doubt, an effort should be made to use the correct Latin name, since the same common name is sometimes used for multiple species.  On the right is Mediterranean lineseed (Bellardia trixago), which is considered an invasive species: too bad, since I think the flowers are pretty.

picture of wildflowers among the grasses: onion, sky lupine, and Mediterranean lineseed

Wildflowers among the grasses: onion, sky lupine, and Mediterranean lineseed

Of course there were quite a few thistles: these, too are considered invasive but have become so widespread that it is by now unfeasible to eradicate them, I suspect.  On the left is Italian thistle (Carduus pycnocephalus), which has smaller, lighter-hued flowers that typically appear several at a time on each stem.  On the right is milk thistle (Silybum marianum), which has larger, purpler flower heads that grow singly on thick stems with large bracts and large variegated leaves.

picture of Italian thistle and milk thistle

Italian thistle and milk thistle

Two types of vetch are easily found along the trail.  I noticed more spring vetch (Vicia sativa) along the west (higher elevation) side of the loop and more winter vetch (Vicia villosa ssp. varia), also called smooth vetch, along the east (lower elevation) side of the loop.  The blossoms of the spring vetch clearly place it in the pea family, and the leaves of these two vetches are similar.

picture of spring vetch and winter vetch

Spring vetch and winter vetch

There were several types of relatively tall blue flowers in addition to the lupine shown above.  Here are a few, coincidentally all containing “blue” in their names.  On the left is blue dick (Dichelostemma capitatum); I think the species name capitatum refers to the head-like cluster of flowers.  In the center, blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) is famously neither blue – it is more like purple – nor a grass; it’s actually in the iris family (Iridaceae).  On the right is blue witch nightshade (Solanum umbelliferum), which is actually a small shrub.  I saw these blossoms in passing, perhaps 10 yards off-trail, in early March and promptly returned for photos.  Even though the blooming period is rather long (Jan through Jun), within a couple of weeks I could no longer find this example even though I knew exactly where to look.  Sometimes individual flowers are rather fleeting!

picture of A few tall blue flowers: blue dick, blue-eyed grass, and blue witch nightshade

A few tall blue flowers: blue dick, blue-eyed grass, and blue witch nightshade

About midway down the long descent at the north end of the loop I found a single pair of what appeared to be white blue-eyed grass.  It turns out that there is, in fact, a species in the Sisyrinchium genus that is white: Nevada blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium halophilum).  A photo on the Calflora web site looks – to me – exactly like this one.  The only problem is that the range of Nevada blue-eyed grass seems to be in Mono County and northern Inyo County, over 200 miles from The Dish.  So I am hesitant to make this identification.

picture of white blue-eyed grass, possibly out-of-range Nevada blue-eyed grass

White blue-eyed grass, possibly out-of-range Nevada blue-eyed grass

Finally, I saw two types of brodiaeas: on the left is Ithuriel’s spear (Triteleia laxa) and on the right is dwarf brodiaea (Brodiaea terrestris ssp. terrestris).  Ithuriel’s spear typically has a long main stem, topped by a cluster of several flowers, each on its own stem or peduncle.  What struck me about the dwarf brodiaeas was that they were very short, only a few inches to the top of the single blossom.  The blossoms are also a bit pinker than Ithuriel’s spear.  The reproductive structures inside the blossoms are also different, and helped guide my identification of the dwarf brodiaea: not harvest brodiaea (Brodiaea elegans), for example.

picture of brodiaeas: Ithuriel’s spear and dwarf brodiaea

Brodiaeas: Ithuriel’s spear and dwarf brodiaea

Although none of these wildflowers – except the white blue-eyed grass – are rare or unusual, it was a delight to see so many different species on such a short walk.  It was a reminder to me, and perhaps to others as well, to at least occasionally slow down and look carefully at – if not stop to smell – the flowers.

Posted in Peninsula, Santa Clara County, wildflower hikes | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Stanford Dish and Matadero Creek Trails

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Over the last several months I’ve been going regularly to walk the Stanford Dish Trail, aka The Dish.  In fact, it has become my favorite hilly training walk route, and I typically make two passes around the loop.  This time I wanted to take my time a bit more and stop for pictures of the views and wildflowers.  The day was especially clear, thanks to a couple of days of fairly strong breezes, and the views were exceptional.  I went around the loop just once, and then drove to nearby Matadero Creek Trail for an out-and-back hike.  In this post I’ll describe the hikes, and in another I’ll focus on the wildflowers.

The GPS track image shows both GPS tracks, with the Stanford Dish Trail in orange and the Matadero Creek Trail in grey.  Both trails are on Stanford University land.  The total distance for both was 7 miles, with a little over 1200 feet of elevation gain and loss.  For The Dish, I started at the main entrance at Stanford Ave, where the parking has recently been re-arranged, with back-in parking along only one side of the street – and still no U-turns allowed.

GPS track

GPS track

After the short climb to the loop proper, I went around clockwise.  I have always gone this direction, even though it means a steady climb of 350 feet in about 0.85 mile – almost 8% grade – to the highest point on the loop.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The Stanford Dish Trail is a paved recreational trail for walkers and runners.  Strollers are the only wheeled conveyances allowed (except for campus security vehicles and a few research personnel) and are quite common, though it should be noted that coyotes do live in the hills and are occasionally seen near the trail.  This spring the hills through which the trail winds have been especially beautiful, thanks to normal amounts of rainfall during the winter.

photo of Stanford Dish Trail

Stanford Dish Trail

The highest point of the trail is, in my estimation, an example of a great viewpoint: all of the major peaks of the southern and central Bay Area are visible from a single location.  One only needs to stop and slowly twirl around in place in order to view all of them.  Practically due north, Mt Diablo rises above the East Bay Hills to an elevation of nearly 3850 feet, some 35 miles away.  In the foreground the Dumbarton Bridge crosses San Francisco Bay, and the low, brown hills denote Coyote Hills Regional Park.

photo of Mt Diablo, with the Dumbarton Bridge and Coyote Hills in the foreground

Mt Diablo, with the Dumbarton Bridge and Coyote Hills in the foreground

A bit to the south, still in the East Bay, specifically Fremont, is Mission Peak, about 17 miles away and 2500 feet elevation.  A distinctive landslide is visible to the left of Mission Peak, and Mt Allison is to the right, with Monument Peak out of view.  Mt Allison is topped with communication towers, and Mission Peak is a popular destination for area hikers.

photo of Mission Peak viewed from the Stanford Dish Trail

Mission Peak viewed from the Stanford Dish Trail

Still farther south in the Diablo Range is Mt Hamilton, site of Lick Observatory with white buildings that often gleam in the afternoon sun.  The mountain actually encompasses several peaks, including Copernicus Peak, Kepler Peak, and Observatory Peak.  It is about 30 miles away, almost due east.  The observatory is at 4200 feet elevation.

photo of Lick Observatory atop Mt Hamilton

Lick Observatory atop Mt Hamilton

Looking along the southern part of the Peninsula, actually southeast, Mt Umunhum and Loma Prieta are visible about 22 miles away.  Mt Umunhum is topped by The Cube, an historic Cold War era radar tower.  Toward the right in the picture and about 5 miles away is Loma Prieta, near the epicenter of the 1989 earthquake named after it.  Mt Umunhum is almost 3500 feet high and Loma Prieta is just over 3800 feet high.

photo of Mt Umunhum and Loma Prieta

Mt Umunhum and Loma Prieta

Across the Golden Gate, 42 miles away in Marin County, is Mt Tamalpais, the sleeping maiden, just under 2600 feet high.  A simple metric for the clarity of the air in the Bay Area is how visible Mt Tam is from the Palo Alto area.  This was a good, clear day.  I believe Sutro Tower is right in the center of the picture.

photo of Mt Tamalpais, 42 miles away in Marin County

Mt Tamalpais, 42 miles away in Marin County

To the right of Mt Tamalpais the skyline of downtown San Francisco is clearly visible.  This picture takes advantage of the zoom capability of my camera.  The buildings are 30 miles away!  Unfortunately, shots like this one emphasize some particulates that are inside the lens stack in my camera, I think acquired a couple of months prior during a visit to Death Valley.

photo of San Francisco skyline

San Francisco skyline

To the right of downtown San Francisco the Bay Bridge and San Mateo Bridge are also visible.  The previous six peaks are my “top 6” peaks in the central and south Bay Area.  From this same location I could also see a couple of bonus peaks.  One is Round Top, the round bump on the skyline shown here.  Round Top is an extinct volcano located in Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, in the Berkeley Hills above Oakland.  It is about 30 miles away and, like the other peaks shown here, looks almost close enough to reach out and touch.

photo of Round Top, in the Berkeley Hills above Oakland

Round Top, in the Berkeley Hills above Oakland

The other bonus peak is Black Mountain, only about 6 miles away in Monte Bello Open Space Preserve.  It does not have a distinct “prominence,” but it is easy to spot if you have a clear view of its surrounding area; it’s easier to get that view from farther away!

From the highest point on the Stanford Dish Trail, the trail descends about 100 feet before climbing again.  On the way down there are clear views of The Dish itself, a radio telescope used for scientific research.  Although there is a smaller radio telescope nearby and equally close to the trail, this larger dish is visible from I-280 and – for good reason – is considered a local landmark.  This view shows some of the support and steering structure that allows the telescope to be pointed in a desired direction.

photo of The Dish

The Dish

The Dish is located at the top of the small climb, at about 1.6 miles on the elevation profile.  After passing The Dish I continued around the loop, enjoying views across the Stanford University campus.

Just as I reached the lowest point on the loop I heard a white-tailed kite (Elanus leucurus) and then saw it.  It was exhibiting its characteristic behavior of hovering while looking for prey on the ground below.  It seemed to hover in one spot until I almost got it in my camera’s view and focused, and then flew somewhere else before I could get a picture.  I tried for a few minutes to get a picture and finally got lucky.

photo of white-tailed kite

White-tailed kite

I’m not sure what prey the kite was looking for, but there is a large population of ground squirrels that live in these hills.  I think they are more aware of coyotes than of birds of prey.  I have seen dozens of squirrels simultaneously upright on their haunches, all faced in the direction of a coyote and chirping warnings to others.  Only when the coyote leaves the area and gets out of sight do the squirrels stop their warning calls and return to feeding on the grasses and other plants.

After completing the loop and returning to my car, I drove less than a mile to a small staging area along Coyote Hill Rd near Page Mill Rd.  This staging area is for the Matadero Creek Trail, which actually starts at the intersection of Page Mill Rd and Junipero Serra Blvd at the north end of Foothill Expressway.  The first 0.8 mile or so of Matadero Creek Trail is a paved multi-use trail, and after Deer Creek Rd it becomes an unpaved pedestrian path.  (This was at 0.6 mile on my GPS track, which started at my car on Coyote Hill Rd.)  The trail is part of the Santa Clara County Parks Countywide Trails Master Plan.

The elevation profile shows that the trail climbs through the hills to about 425 feet elevation before dropping via a 10% grade to another paved multi-use trail, the Adobe Creek Trail, near Arastradero Rd.  I hiked the Matadero Creek Trail as an out-and-back hike.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

In another post I will showcase wildflowers I saw along the Stanford Dish Trail; here I show a few that I saw only along the Matadero Creek Trail.  One was common yarrow (Achillea millefolium).  Beneath the cluster of blossoms there is a hint of the feather-like leaves that distinguish this plant and give rise to the species name millefolium: thousand leaves.

photo of common yarrow

Common yarrow

As the trail climbed to about 350 feet elevation I passed a beautiful oak tree next to some buckeye, the latter blooming nicely.  Nearby, but just out of view, I could see the moon, a few days past the first quarter.

photo of oak tree and buckeye

Oak tree and buckeye

The trail continued to climb through the hills, with a couple of gentle rolls before reaching the highest point.

photo of Matadero Creek Trail

Matadero Creek Trail

From the area near trail’s high point I once again had nice views of the South Bay peaks: Mt Diablo, Mission Peak, Mt Hamilton, Mt Umunhum, and Loma Prieta.  Mt Tamalpais was hidden by the hills around The Dish.  After that there was a steady descent at about 10% grade to a T intersection with the Adobe Creek Trail.  In this section of trail there were a few views of I-280 making its way through Los Altos Hills toward Cupertino.  For a short distance this busy highway was just a proverbial stone’s throw away from the trail.

As the trail descended I noticed a couple of butterflies, at times on the flowers and at times on the trail itself.  They turned out to be common buckeyes (Junonia coenia).  As usual, a little patience was needed to capture a picture of one of the buckeyes as it paused in the sun.

photo of common buckeye on the Matadero Creek Trail

Common buckeye on the Matadero Creek Trail

When I reached the Adobe Creek Trail I turned around to return to my car.  As I again approached the top of the trail I noticed several horses grazing in the area to my right, on the other side of a fence along which the trail passed.  I paused to look at the horses and take a few pictures, and soon several were walking up an informal path to the area near the hiking trail.  I don’t know what prompted them to come my way, but I enjoyed watching them – and taking some more pictures!

photo of horse in a grazing area near the Matadero Creek Trail

Horse in a grazing area near the Matadero Creek Trail

Continuing the return to my car, I eventually reached the paved multi-use portion of trail.  In my peripheral vision I noticed a few small lizards, probably western fence lizards as they are common in the area.  One of them paused just long enough for me to get a picture, before it continued off the side of the trail into the vegetation.

photo of lizard, probably a western fence lizard

Lizard, probably a western fence lizard

Near the trailhead I noticed some common teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) plants, with seed heads that might be from last season.

photo of common teasels

Common teasels

Although I have visited The Dish many times, this was the first time I hiked the Matadero Creek Trail.  Both trails go through the hills just above the main part of the Stanford University campus.  It is a delightful convenience that both trails are open to the public.

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Winter colors: San Francisco Bay area

From time to time I have been assembling some images that I find interesting and that are related to seasons.  Recently I published a post about winter colors in the Lake Tahoe Area, and this post is about winter colors in the San Francisco Bay Area.  After four very dry winters, the winter of 2015-16 has brought normal or near-normal rainfall to the Bay Area and more widely to other parts of the state, and it has certainly been enjoyable to see green hills as they are “supposed” to look at this time of year.

I took these photos while out on walks and/or hikes in the months of January and February in years 2013 to 2016.

Although winters in the Bay Area are considered mild, there are typically several overnight frosts each year, especially in valleys that are a bit inland from the Pacific Ocean.  During the frost watches, many residents place coverings over sensitive vegetation that would be harmed by frost.  Here is an example of a sheet draped over a lemon bush; citrus plants famously do not tolerate frost well.  It is notable that our local frost only occurs overnight, and temperatures quickly warm up to above freezing shortly after sunrise.

image of a sheet protecting a lemon bush from overnight frost

A sheet protects a lemon bush from overnight frost

On a mid-January walk in the North Bay I noticed Christmas decorations still in place.  It was a bit amusing to see Santa on the rooftop with his sleigh!

image of rooftop Santa with his sleigh in mid-January

Rooftop Santa with his sleigh in mid-January

During the same walk I found some pretty roses: yes, roses blooming in January.  I think they are the last of the previous year, since it is typical for gardeners to prune their roses in early February.  I grew up on the East Coast with roses in the landscaping and, even after living in California for more than 30 years, I get a thrill seeing roses bloom during the winter.

image of roses blooming in January

Roses blooming in January

In another yard there was a beautiful succulent plant accompanied by pansies.  Pansies are another flower I associate with spring, and consequently I especially enjoy seeing them early in the season: this is another picture taken in mid-January.

image of succulent with pansies

Succulent with pansies

Flowering trees begin to bloom in February or even in late January.  One of the earliest is magnolia, which is easy to find since it is a common street tree in many communities around the Bay Area.  Most of the magnolia trees have pink blossoms, like this one, but some have white blossoms.

image of beautiful pink magnolia blossom

Beautiful pink magnolia blossom

In one neighborhood, as I walked past one of the houses, I was checked out by a black cat sitting under a large tree.

image of black cat checking me out as I walked by

Black cat checking me out as I walked by

In another yard I noticed a colorful pinwheel, with three wheels that could spin in a breeze.

image of colorful pinwheel

Colorful pinwheel

Although I typically hike more frequently in the spring, summer, and fall than in the winter, it is generally feasible to hike all year round in the Bay Area.  The only typical weather-related hazard, besides rainy weather itself, is muddy trails following multiple rain storms.  One January I went for a hike in Diablo Foothills Regional Park, on the flanks of Mt Diablo.  The green hills seemed especially glorious in January 2015, the fourth year of a serious drought, following a few weeks of much needed rains.  It’s clearly winter time in the picture, since the trees are not yet budding new leaves.

image of green hill in Diablo Foothills Regional Park

Green hill in Diablo Foothills Regional Park

Many Bay Area families and communities celebrate the Lunar New Year, which falls on the new moon that occurs between 21 January and 20 February.  A number of traditions are observed at this time, and colorful house decorations appear outside some houses.

image of Lunar New Year decorations

Lunar New Year decorations

In my neighborhood there is a torii, which is a traditional Japanese gate typically found within, or at the entrance of, a Shinto shrine.  Obviously, this torii is present all year round, but I enjoyed photographing it with a nearby flowering tree around the time of the Lunar New Year.

image of torii in a Bay Area neighborhood

Torii in a Bay Area neighborhood

From time to time I walk the entire length of Stevens Creek Trail to Shoreline at Mountain View, more familiarly known as Shoreline Park.  When I start from my front door, the round trip distance is 10.4 miles – unless I add loop-backs to increase the distance.  It is one of my favorite walks.  On one particular occasion I carried my camera and stopped numerous times to take pictures.  I also took a short side trip off Stevens Creek Trail toward the heart of Shoreline.  I was particularly interested in this hillside carpeted in orange flowers.  Although a similar color to California poppies, the flowers were something else, so far unidentified.

image of flower-carpeted hill in Shoreline at Mountain View (more familiarly, Shoreline Park)

Flower-carpeted hill in Shoreline at Mountain View (more familiarly, Shoreline Park)

While walking Stevens Creek Trail that day, I saw a few birds of note.  First, heard before seen, was an Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna); its call is said to be reminiscent of a squeaky gate, and the first time you hear one you will recognize it.  The hummer sat on a branch for a few minutes, looking around and intermittently calling, before I continued walking and scared it away.  (It was on the same branch when I returned, walking the other direction.)  The feathers on its back gleamed in the sunlight, but I couldn’t see the throat to see whether or not it was a male, with a characteristic bright red throat.

image of Anna’s hummingbird

Anna’s hummingbird

In the grassy area near the orange flower-covered hill I saw a small group of killdeer (Charadrius vociferous), which kindly stayed relatively still long enough for me to take a few pictures.  Normally killdeer spend a lot of time running around the ground wherever they happen to be feeding.

image of group of killdeer near the Stevens Creek Trail

Group of killdeer near the Stevens Creek Trail

I also saw a black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) feeding – and nicely reflected – in shallow water.

image of black-necked stilt

Black-necked stilt

While walking in a neighborhood near my house I saw a tree, or large shrub, with distinctive yellow flower clusters: a mimosa (Acacia dealbata), also known as blue wattle or silver wattle.  At first I didn’t know its identification, but once I found that information, I seemed to see them all over.  It think they are quite pretty.

image of beautiful mimosa blossoms

Beautiful mimosa blossoms

The first Sunday of February, 2016, was a special date in the Bay Area, as the city of Santa Clara hosted Super Bowl 50.  The day before the game the Blue Angels made several passes around the area practicing for their appearance at the game.  I was actually able to see them from my front yard.  Of course they were audible before they were visible, but they moved so fast that I was lucky to get a couple of pictures on their third pass, this one almost in focus!

image of Blue Angels practicing before Super Bowl 50

Blue Angels practicing before Super Bowl 50

For Super Bowl Sunday I opted to go on a group hike in San Francisco, covering most of the Bay Area Ridge Trail route through the city.  The weather was spectacular and clear for the hike.  Afterward, while taking a city bus back to the beginning of the hike around sunset, I realized that I was seeing a couple of specks on the horizon in the Pacific Ocean.  As the bus stopped for a traffic light, I quickly got out my camera for this picture.  To my surprise, the specks turned out to be the Farallon Islands!  Because they are about 35 miles off the coast, and because of the persistent fog bank that tends to park off-shore, they are not often visible from the mainland.  It was a real treat and the perfect ending for the hike.

image of Farallon Islands viewed from San Francisco

Farallon Islands viewed from San Francisco

I feel very fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where residents and visitors are able to enjoy walks, hikes, green vegetation (in non-drought years), and even flowers blooming during the winter months.  Each season has a different look, and I look forward to presenting photo collections for other seasons.

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Death Valley National Park wildflower trip: Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

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You could say that a desert visit would not be compete without a hike in some sand dunes. I began my fourth and final day in Death Valley National Park with just that: a hike in the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. While there are several dune fields in the park, this one is the easiest one to access – I think the others all require 4-wheel drive, which I do not have – and therefore receives the most visitors.

My day began, as the others in my spring wildflower visit had, essentially at dawn. I’d been staying in Beatty, NV at a motel with an atomic energy related theme. I presume the name is associated with the nearby Nevada Test and Training Range, which includes a National Security Site. In any case, it was the Atomic Motel, with the “o” a symbol representing an atom. Outside the small buildings with rooms were several space creatures, and the pictures in my room carried through on the theme.

image of one of the exterior decorations at my motel

One of the exterior decorations at my motel

Since this was to be my last day in the park, I checked out and began my drive to and through the park for the last time, passing the now-familiar sights of Daylight Pass, the Death Valley Buttes, Hells Gate, and aptly named Corkscrew Peak, shown here in the morning light.

image of Corkscrew Peak

Corkscrew Peak

From Hells Gate I continued down Daylight Pass Rd through Mud Canyon, where the wildflowers carpeted the landscape next to the road. In one area where I stopped for a closer look I found brown-eyed evening primrose (Chylismia claviformis), golden evening primrose (Chylismia brevipes), notch-leaf phacelia (Phacelia crenulata), cryptantha, lesser mojavea (Mohavea breviflora), and hybrid evening primroses within a few square feet of area. I also found – or perhaps noticed – a new one: spiny-herb (Chorizanthe rigida), also sometimes called devil’s spineflower or rigid spineflower. This one was getting ready to bud, but the identification was mainly accomplished by the distinctive spiny cluster with an array of basal leaves that almost look like another plant type entirely.

image of spiny-herb in Mud Canyon on Daylight Pass Rd

Spiny-herb in Mud Canyon on Daylight Pass Rd

After reaching CA-190 at the bottom of Daylight Pass Rd, I made the small jog over to CA-190 and headed west, toward Stovepipe Wells. This area is known as the Devil’s Cornfield, where at least some of the bushes may be arrowweed (Pluchea sericea, I think). Now in Death Valley proper, the ground is quite sandy and mostly flat. A notable exception is Tucki Mountain, in the background of the picture.

image of Devil’s Cornfield with Tucki Mountain in the background

Devil’s Cornfield with Tucki Mountain in the background

Near Stovepipe Wells Village is the parking area for Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. In addition to my hiking boots I decided to wear gaiters in an attempt to reduce the amount of sand I would later find inside my shoes. Of course there are no real trails in the sand dunes, though near the parking area the sand had almost continuous footprints and there was a smooth “trail” where I suppose someone had dragged a sandboard. (Sandboarding is prohibited at most of the dune fields, but not at Mesquite Flat.)

image of “trail” through the sand near the parking area

“Trail” through the sand near the parking area

My hike plan was not very well formulated: basically I thought I would just explore, and hopefully I would identify a suitable destination and be able to get there and back within a reasonable amount of time. The GPS track shows my route, with the orange dot at the parking area. I did choose a destination, but varied my route somewhat for the return hike.

GPS track

GPS track

My hike was about 3.2 miles total, with a little over 500 feet of climbing. I should note that climbing – and walking!! – on sand is more difficult than on firm ground. Think of the last time you were at a beach and found that it required a surprising amount of effort just to climb a 10-foot dune. Here, my greatest continuous ascent was about 100 feet.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

One of my first tasks, since there aren’t any named landmarks within the dune field, was to choose a proposed destination. I was kind of fascinated by the crescent-shaped dune in the center of the dune skyline in this picture.

image of my destination: the crescent-shaped dune

My destination: the crescent-shaped dune

The next challenge was to figure out, or guess, a path that would minimize the amount of up-and-down required to get there. It’s clear from the picture that there are rows and waves of dunes, so there is no such thing as a route with a monotonic incline (e.g. no descents during the ascent). As my first time hiking in sand dunes, it would be an adventure!

As I was climbing up a row of dunes I stopped to take a closer look at a creosote bush (Larrea tridentate) that had a couple of blossoms (shown in the lower right as an inset). Creosote bush is fairly common in Death Valley, but this was the first time I stopped to look closely and try to make an identification.

image of creosote bush

Creosote bush

Once I got to the top of the row of dunes I paused to look around me and found the dune field to be beautiful and stark, as well as relatively empty. Almost a mile from the trailhead, there were fewer other visitors in view.

image of Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Not far away I had an interesting view-perspective looking along a row of dunes.

image of row of sand dunes

Row of sand dunes

I continued toward the crescent-shaped dune crest I had identified early in the hike. About 1.4 miles from the parking area, I arrived and walked around the crescent on the crest. Of course there were more dunes after that, but I decided to turn around and continue exploring elsewhere. An interesting dune closer to the edge of the dune field is in the center of this picture; I think this is called a star dune.

image of star dune near the edge of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dune field

Star dune near the edge of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dune field

Looking more to the west I could see a pointy dune, taller than where I currently was, and decided to go that way. I’m not sure what difference in sand content causes the patches of darker color, but here the color sharply defined a ridge in the direct path.

image of my next destination: a pointy dune

My next destination: a pointy dune

I retraced my path along the crescent-shaped ridge-top first. Especially near the dune crests the wind smooths out visitors’ footprints; these are mostly, but not all, mine.

image of view along the crest of the crescent-shaped dune

View along the crest of the crescent-shaped dune

In other areas the wind creates small fields of ripple patterns in the sand.

I did make it to the top of the pointy dune, at an elevation of about 85 feet, compared to the base elevation of about -35 feet at the parking area. I guess I felt a little like Queen of the Mountain at the top of the dune, and there was a wonderful view of surrounding dunes, all lower.

image of view from the top of the pointy dune

View from the top of the pointy dune

On my return trip I did as much sight-line navigation as possible, but it was a little tricky to see the parking area behind the rows of intervening dunes. So I did make use of my GPS track to help me go generally in the correct direction, while again attempting to navigate a path that – somewhat – minimized going up and over extra rows of dunes. The path on my GPS track shows that I did a pretty good job of that.

When I was about 3/4 mile from the parking area I realized that I was approaching two people who had apparently stopped for a rest or to enjoy the view. When I got closer I could see that one was actually an artist working on a painting. It was an unexpected, but pleasant, find.

image of artist at work

Artist at work

After reaching the parking area I went through a ritual that I saw other visitors doing upon reaching their vehicles: I sat down, removed my hiking boots, and dumped out the accumulated sand. All things considered, I thought I’d done well to have only about a tablespoon of sand in each boot. So I do think my gaiters helped reduce the amount!

My next adventure for the day was a hike in nearby Mosaic Canyon.

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