Wildflowers along the Mt Whitney Trail

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The proverbial icing on the cake for my Mt Whitney hiking adventure (overview, ascent, and descent) was seeing wildflowers along the Mt Whitney Trail.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised at how many wildflowers were still in bloom in late August, especially at the higher elevations above 12,000 feet.  On the other hand, I hiked much of the lower elevations (everything below 10,000 feet and one way between 10,000 and 12,000) feet in the dark – so my wildflower sightings below 10,000 feet elevation were significantly limited by the availability of daylight.

My favorite wildflower sighting was sky pilot (Polemonium eximium).  I had seen a few pictures on-line of this exceptionally pretty flower and knew it grows in the alpine zone – above the tree-line – and specifically along the Mt Whitney Trail.  I found this particular plant along the stretch of trail between Trail Crest and the summit, near the end of the pinnacles section at about 13,900 feet elevation. I was actually doing very well but, if I’d needed an energy boost to keep going, this beauty would have supplied it!

image of sky pilot

Sky pilot

As discussed in more detail in my post about the ascent, my group and I were hiking in darkness until we reached Trail Camp at about 12,000 feet elevation, already about 1,000 feet above tree-line.  Above Trail Camp is the famous switchback section of the Mt Whitney Trail, in which the trail climbs 1,600 feet in about 2.1 miles, traversing some 94 switchbacks.  (The official number of switchbacks varies between 94 and “approximately 99”; I counted 94 on my descent.)

Not far into the switchback section I began to see my first wildflowers: cushion buckwheat (Eriogonum ovalifolium).  The plant consists of a pincushion of oval-shaped, succulent, light-colored leaves with bright pink flower heads perched on top.  This picture highlights a single flower head, but there are often one or two dozen flower heads on each plant.

image of cushion buckwheat in the lower part of the switchbacks

Cushion buckwheat in the lower part of the switchbacks

There was also a lot of alpine mountain sorrel (Oxyria digyna) along the switchbacks. These plants typically grow practically underneath rocks, with the flower stalks reaching upward up to perhaps 12 inches in height.  This picture was taken at 7:30 am, about an hour after sunrise; the shadow shows the nearly horizontal direction of the sunlight.

image of alpine mountain sorrel along the switchbacks

Alpine mountain sorrel along the switchbacks

My next discovery – nearly all of these wildflowers were first-time sightings for me – was gray chickensage (Sphaeromeria cana), or tansy.  This plant is a clump about 1.5 feet in diameter growing either from a small crack in a rock or from a tiny bit of remnant-rock soil.  The flower heads are almost the same color as the surrounding granite rock and the leaves are a grayish-green color, so the plant is rather subtle in spite of its size.

image of gray chickensage in the switchbacks

Gray chickensage in the switchbacks

A bit higher, beyond the hand rail, I found a cluster of cut-leaf daisy (Erigeron compositus).  These flowers looked to be past their prime, and the information on Calflora suggests that they were late in the blooming season.

image of cut-leaf daisy

Cut-leaf daisy

Apparently there are two “varieties” of cut-leaf daisy, the second type rayless, with only disk flowers.  I found an example of this a bit higher and initially thought it was a different plant altogether.  However, the leaves are identical to cut-leaf daisy.  It’s possible that I’m mistaken, but these flower heads did not look like they’d ever had ray flowers.

image of rayless cut-leaf daisy

Rayless cut-leaf daisy

In the upper switchback section I saw several clusters of what turned out to be sky pilot (Polemonium eximium) after completion of the flowering phase.  There were some amazing clusters growing right out of cracks between the talus rocks.  When I first saw this plant I thought it might be an exotic form of buckwheat (Eriogonum), even though the foliage was all wrong.  Fortunately I got some good pictures, including close-ups like this one, and was able to solve the mystery once I uploaded the pictures to my computer.  The foliage and the remnants of purple blossoms are key distinguishing characteristics.  All of the sky pilot I saw in the switchbacks was, like this one, past the flowering phase.

image of sky pilot after flowering

Sky pilot after flowering

It turns out that the upper section of the Mt Whitney Trail, in the 2 miles between Trail Crest and the summit and above 13,500 feet elevation, is the place to find the most spectacular high-elevation flowers.  As mentioned above, this is where I found sky pilot blooming, and in fact there was quite a bit of it in the talus section above the pinnacles section around 14,000 feet elevation.

This is also where I found some beautiful, brightly-colored alpine gold (Hulsea algida).  This is a high-elevation, late-season flower and it, like the sky pilot, stands out from the surrounding gray rock and seems to grow in places where life forms shouldn’t be able to survive.  Also like the sky pilot, I had read about alpine gold ahead of the hike and was specifically looking for it – though it was hard to miss!

image of alpine gold at 14,000 feet elevation

Alpine gold at 14,000 feet elevation

After successfully summiting Mt Whitney and taking a needed rest break, I began my descent around 1pm.  The descent would take nearly 8.5 hours and end, once again, in the dark.

A short distance below Trail Camp I noticed some bright pink rock fringe (Epilobium obcordatum) that I had missed on the way up in the morning twilight.  This example was at about 11,900 feet elevation.  Unlike the sky pilot and alpine gold, the entire rock fringe plant and its flowers grow relatively low to the ground.

image of rock fringe not far below Trail Camp

Rock fringe not far below Trail Camp

About 0.4 mile below Trail Camp the trail is built on a nice series of rock steps and crosses Lone Pine Creek.  In this relatively moist area there was some larger mountain monkeyflower (Mimulus tilingii), or Tiling’s monkeyflower.  Since we were literally stepping over the plants I had noticed them in the twilight of the ascent and had mentally bookmarked them for photos on the descent.  They were growing literally in the cracks of the stone steps.

image of larger mountain monkeyflower

Larger mountain monkeyflower

About 0.1 mile below Trailside Meadow – a beautiful high-elevation (11,400 feet) hillside meadow – there was some crimson columbine (Aquilegia formosa) growing right next to the trail, not far from another trail-crossing of Lone Pine Creek.  This was not a first-time sighting, but columbines are so pretty that it was a delight to see.

image of crimson columbine just below Trailside Meadow

Crimson columbine just below Trailside Meadow

Below Mirror Lake and approaching Outpost Camp we passed some Arizona thistle (Cirsium arizonicum).  According to Calflora this type of thistle is only found at relatively high elevations in the southern Sierras and in the White Mountains just east of the Owens Valley.

image of Arizona thistle

Arizona thistle

Approaching Outpost Camp I found a cluster of monardella at 10,450 feet elevation.  I have had a challenge with this identification.  On the one hand, pennyroyal (Monardella odoratissima) is quite common in the Sierras, especially in dry areas at low-to-mid elevation (below 10,000 feet).  On the other hand, sweet-smelling monardella (Monardella beneolens) occurs at slightly higher elevations (2,500-3,600 meters, or 8,250-11,900 feet) and is less associated with dry habitat.  I found this cluster right next to another Lone Pine Creek crossing in a moist habitat.  Also, sweet-smelling monardella has wavy-edged and moderately triangular leaves and, if I look closely at my photo, these plants appear to show this characteristic.  Notably, sweet-smelling monardella is considered rare, threatened, or endangered due to limited range – but it has been observed along the Mt Whitney Trail.  So my tentative identification is sweet-smelling monardella.

image of sweet-smelling monardella (tentative identification)

Sweet-smelling monardella (tentative identification)

I found the monardella about 1/2 hour before dark and, as it turns out, it was the last daylight wildflower sighting of the day even though we were still 4 miles from the Whitney Portal trailhead.  It would certainly be interesting to return to the area some other time – in the daylight! – to explore and to enjoy other spring- and summer-season wildflowers.

Posted in Inyo County, Mt Whitney, Sierras, wildflower hikes | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Mt Whitney Trail: Day Hike from Whitney Portal to the Summit and Back – the descent

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This post is a continuation of my previous post describing an ascent of the Mt Whitney Trail as part of a day hike from Whitney Portal to the summit of Mt Whitney and back.  The hike was so amazing, and there was so much to see and experience, that I’m writing 4 posts in all: an overview, the ascent, the descent, and the wildflowers I saw along the way.  This post describes the descent from the summit to Whitney Portal.  My GPS tradk and elevation profile are in the overview post.

As a quick summary, I was with a group of eight hikers.  We’d agreed to start hiking at 2:00 am and, as a consequence, had hiked the lower part of the trail – up to Trail Camp at 12,000 feet elevation – essentially before first light.  Then came the heavy work, hiking up the switchbacks to Trail Crest and then the final 2 miles across talus fields to the summit at 14,505 feet elevation.  By the time we summited, we had spread out over more than 2 hours, with two people ahead of the main group and two behind, and with each gap at least an hour.

My summit time was about 9 hours 40 minutes for the 10.6-mile climb, and I was very happy to have made it in less than 10 hours with no elevation-related issues and with good energy.  In fact, it was pretty exhilarating to be at the highest elevation in the lower 48 states with incredible views and beautiful weather.

After almost exactly 1 hour at the summit it was time to begin the descent.  The two faster hikers and one of the main group had already started to descend, so three of us started the descent together.  We passed the last two about 20 minutes after leaving the summit.

Although I didn’t want to get ahead of myself, as I was preparing to begin hiking down I did briefly think ahead to a few of the significant milestones that lay ahead: the switchbacks, and hopefully seeing most of the lower trail below Trail Camp in daylight.  First, however, there was the difficult 2.1-mile section across talus fields and past the pinnacles to Trail Crest – and there were some incredible views in this section.  This preview view is across the upper talus field, with Keeler Needle on the left and Crooks Point on the right.

picture of Keeler Needle (left) and Crooks Point (right)

Keeler Needle (left) and Crooks Point (right)

As my sub-group of three hikers was getting ready to begin the descent, this was our view toward the beginning of the Mt Whitney Trail from a spot right next to the summit hut.  I am not completely sure of the landmarks, but I think the row of peaks just to the right of center includes Mt Kaweah, Black Kaweah, Red Kaweah, and Kaweah Queen, with Kern Canyon below.  You can see a couple of hikers on the trail, making their way among the talus rocks.

picture of view from next to the Mt Whitney summit hut

View from next to the Mt Whitney summit hut

Less than half a mile down the trail we came to the view of Keeler Needle and Crooks Point.  These features are not considered to be separate peaks from Whitney, as their prominence, or elevation difference from the surrounding baseline, is too small.  It is said that they are straightforward talus slopes to climb, but I didn’t see anyone over there.  If anyone did want to climb them, it would be important to pay attention to where the summit is, because the eastern face is a sheer drop-off for hundreds, if not thousands, of feet.

About 1 mile from the summit is the beginning of the so-called pinnacles section of trail.  Sharp, pointed rock structures thrust upward into the sky.  Some of the towers begin practically right next to the trail, leaving skinny windows with incredible views down and to the east.  These views were so amazing I photographed all of them!  Here is the first: remember that the Owens Valley floor is over 9,000 feet below, and the Inyo Mountains rise on the east side, just outside the western boundary of Death Valley National Park.

picture of view through first window in the pinnacles

View through first window in the pinnacles

Only a few minutes later I came to the second window.  Here you are looking down on Wotan’s Throne, almost in the center of the picture, with Candlelight Peak behind and slightly to the left and Lone Pine Peak further behind and to the right.  Lone Pine Peak is the most prominent peak you see from the town of Lone Pine, and its summit is at an elevation of about 12,950 feet, nearly 1000 feet lower than this viewing location.

picture of view through second window in the pinnacles

View through second window in the pinnacles

Barely 100 feet further along the trail there is a fantastic view of Mt Muir, with a peak elevation of 14,018 feet.  The Mt Whitney Trail passes by at an elevation of about 13,750 feet, and some brave souls do make this ascent – with proper equipment and skills, and most likely not as part of a day hike from Whitney Portal!

picture of Mt Muir

Mt Muir

The gap between Mt Muir and the next pinnacle to the left forms a third window with a spectacular view.  Here you can see Pinnacle Ridge on the left, with Wotan’s Throne in front of the ridge and Candlelight Peak to the right, behind Wotan’s Throne.  Again, the Inyo Mountains are visible in the background across the Owens Valley.  The views through these windows have been described as jaw-dropping, and it is hard to disagree with that description!

picture of view through third window in the pinnacles

View through third window in the pinnacles

As beautiful as the pinnacles – and the views through the windows – are, there are also exceptional views off to the other side of the trail, where the west side of the Whitney crest drops off steeply for about 2,000 feet to a basin that contains the Hitchcock Lakes and aptly named Guitar Lake, shown in this picture.  The longish ridge in the center of the picture is topped by Mt Young, with a peak elevation of 13,160 feet.

picture of Guitar Lake, with Mt Young behind

Guitar Lake, with Mt Young behind

Zooming in a bit over Mt Young, you can see a nice view of a more distant skyline in Sequoia National Park.  In between is the Pacific Crest Trail, which coincides with the John Muir Trail (JMT) north of Crabtree Meadow and continues south to Kennedy Meadows on the way to Mexico.  The peak on the skyline that is reminiscent of Half Dome might be Kern Point, about 9 miles away from the Mt Whitney Trail.

picture of Sequoia National Park skyline west of the Mt Whitney Trail

Sequoia National Park skyline west of the Mt Whitney Trail

About 2 miles from the summit is the junction with the JMT.  Here some backpackers leave the heaviest part of their pack weight in order to summit Mt Whitney with a much lighter load.  It is worth noting that anyone who intends to do this should leave all food in bear containers.  Although I’m not sure there are bears in the area, any unsecured food will probably be taken by marmots, ground squirrels, or chipmunks, all of which have been known to tear into fabric pockets and packs to reach unsecured food.  Indeed, one of the hikers in my group had found during the ascent that her water bladder was leaking, so she left her day pack here and summited with a bottle or two of water and a few snacks in her pockets.  When she returned, the rest of her food was gone! – but the more valuable items, such as her water filter and headlamp, were untouched.

picture of backpackers sometimes leave their heavy packs at the JMT junction

Backpackers sometimes leave their heavy packs at the JMT junction

For about 0.15 mile past the JMT junction the trail climbs – the only noticeable climb of the return trip – to Trail Crest.  Not far from Trail Crest, if you look away from your feet at the right place, you have a fantastic view of the upper switchbacks.  I somehow managed to miss this view, and borrowed this picture from the group member who had descended about an hour ahead of me.  I can only surmise that the lighting was more dramatic at the time she came through, since this view just presents itself to hikers who are paying attention.

picture of top portion of the switchbacks

Top portion of the switchbacks

Here is a look back toward Trail Crest from the long traverse above the switchbacks, with the south end of the pinnacles at the right.  In addition to the hikers visible in the notch at Trail Crest, by this time (almost 3pm) some clouds were beginning to come into the area.  In retrospect, I do think the lighting was better earlier in the afternoon to view the switchbacks.

picture of looking back at Trail Crest, just before beginning the switchbacks

Looking back at Trail Crest, just before beginning the switchbacks

In any case, I proceeded down the switchbacks.  By this time our little group of three hikers was somewhat spread out, and we simply planned to regroup at Trail Camp at the bottom of the switchbacks.  I thought it would be interesting to see what the switchbacks look like in a birds-eye view: This image of my GPS track shows the section between Trail Crest and Trail Camp.  The end of the orange section indicates the approximate location of the handrail mentioned in the post about the ascent.

picture of GPS track of the switchback section between Trail Crest (left) and Trail Camp (right)

GPS track of the switchback section between Trail Crest (left) and Trail Camp (right)

In order to keep my focus I decided to count the switchbacks on the way down.  As it turns out, another hiker who was close to me was doing the same thing, though he was counting more loudly than I was.  Our counts agreed at least into the 30’s, and then I was interrupted by someone calling to me to relay a message from one of my hiking companions via a stranger, to wait for her at Trail Camp.  In the process I may have counted 4 switchbacks as 2.  Some of them are quite short, so it’s not possible to distinguish them on the GPS track and do an independent count.  By my count, the hand rail was after #52, and I got a total count of 94.  Published counts of the switchbacks range from 94 to “approximately 99”.

In the upper part of the switchback section I came upon a pika, presumably an American pika (Ochotona princeps) scurrying around on the rocks right next to the trail.  It had just grabbed a mouthful of leaves, I think from some sky pilot, and was most likely going to leave them on the rock to dry, to be stored later under a nearby rock.  This is a primary way pikas store food for the winter, since they do not hibernate.

picture of pika gathering food for the winter

Pika gathering food for the winter

After completing the switchbacks I arrived once again at Trail Camp.  On the one hand the most demanding part of the hike was done, but on the other hand there were still 6.5 miles to go and my watch assured me that the last part of the hike would be done, once again, in darkness.  I was the 4th to arrive at Trail Camp, out of what would become a group of 5 hiking the last 6.5 miles together.  We waited for my companion who had verbally messaged me higher on the switchbacks.  We had a light meal and refilled our water supplies at the beautiful small lake.  And we discussed what to do about our two companions who were most likely already over 2 hours behind us and hiking more slowly.  (We did not have radios and, of course, there is no cell phone service.)  Eventually we decided that it was more prudent for the 5 of us to get off the mountain safely and sooner, and then make further plans about how to meet up with the last two hikers when they reached Whitney Portal.

After a 45-minute break, we began hiking the last 6.5 miles at 5pm.  As it turns out, it took us about 4 1/4 hours to reach Whitney Portal, but a bit more than the first half was in daylight.

Trailside Meadow is a beautiful hillside meadow about 1 mile down from Trail Camp.  We had passed it in the dark during the ascent without being aware of it.  A small stream, which turns out to be Lone Pine Creek, trickles and tumbles down the hillside from Consultation Lake, with tiny waterfalls along the way.  The moisture gives rise to the beautiful green meadow.  This would be a beautiful place to explore with more daylight available.

picture of Trailside Meadow

Trailside Meadow

About 1/4 mile past Trailside Meadow there was a pretty view of Mirror Lake, about 500 feet lower in elevation.  We would pass this lake a bit later, just before reaching Outpost Camp.

picture of Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake

Another short distance past the view of Mirror Lake, just above 11,000 feet elevation, we started to see trees.  Here is what I presume to be a foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana).  The shadow line on Candlelight Peak was a reminder that we didn’t have a lot of daylight left, and we didn’t take time to stop and enjoy our first trees of the day – after hiking more than 16 miles.

picture of foxtail pine above Outpost Camp at 11,000 feet elevation

Foxtail pine above Outpost Camp at 11,000 feet elevation

After passing Mirror Lake at lake level we were treated to a pretty view down the canyon formed by Lone Pine Creek.  In the base of the canyon, near the water, there were more trees and other plants.  For reference, the elevation here was about 10,650 feet, which is about 100 feet lower than the summit of Mt Rose in the Lake Tahoe area and therefore the highest conveniently accessible hiking location for many Californians.  Amazingly, we had already descended 4,000 feet from the summit of Mt Whitney (and still had a little over 2,000 feet to go)!

picture of view down the Lone Pine Creek canyon

View down the Lone Pine Creek canyon

About 1.4 mile past Trailside Meadow, and nearly 1000 feet lower, we reached Outpost Camp, a very pretty campground that would make a wonderful home base for shorter day hikes in the area.  This was another landmark we had passed in the dark on the ascent, unaware of its very existence since we didn’t see the sign.  Just past Outpost Camp, Lone Pine Creek cascades down a lovely waterfall on a steep, rocky hillside.

picture of Lone Pine Creek waterfall near Outpost Camp

Lone Pine Creek waterfall near Outpost Camp

Less than 1/2 mile past Outpost Camp we came to a particularly nice view down the canyon, with the Inyo Mountains again in the background and still experiencing some sunlight, and with Lone Pine Lake appearing to be a perfect reflecting mirror in the growing twilight.  At last, we had dropped below the height of the peaks in the Inyo Mountains.

picture of Lone Pine Lake near twilight

Lone Pine Lake near twilight

About 0.8 mile past Outpost Camp we passed the sign designating the boundary of the Whitney Zone, where a permit is required for either day use or overnight use.  I was, frankly, delighted to pass this sign in the daylight.  While I might wish to return in the future to spend some more leisurely time between Outpost Camp and, say, Trailside Meadow, within the Whitney Zone, I had at least seen this area once in daylight.  It would be straightforward to revisit the area below and outside the Whitney Zone at my convenience, because a permit is not needed.

There was one more nearby goal that I was hoping to reach before dark: the so-called balance beam, a long water crossing just below a spur trail to Lone Pine Lake.  The water crossing is accomplished via some 8 to 10 logs placed end to end, passing through an area that must be wet for much of the year.  We had not been able to see very well in our night-time crossing during our ascent.  We just knew that the logs seemed to go on for a long time!

picture of so-called balance beam water crossing, crossed in the dark on the ascent and at twilight on the descent

So-called balance beam water crossing, crossed in the dark on the ascent and at twilight on the descent

Literally just a few minutes after negotiating the balance beam we stopped for our last 5-minute break and then turned on our headlamps for the remaining hour and 40 minutes – and 3 miles – of hiking.  Because we reached the Whitney Portal trailhead in full darkness, we did not linger for a celebration.  Instead, WAG bags were unfastened from packs and disposed of and our car, parked without a permit, was checked and found to have not been ticketed.  We climbed in and drove back to Lone Pine to meet up with our lead hiker, who had finished at least 2 hours earlier, and strategize about how to connect with the last two hikers.  It turns out that they finished their hike around 11:40pm, which meant that their hike had lasted nearly 21.75 hours.

For the record, my descent was accomplished in 8.5 hours, the ascent took 9.75 hours, and I spent 1 hour at the summit, for a total of 19.25 hours.  Among the many things I was grateful for were these: I had good energy for the last 3 miles of hiking in the dark (some people insist that they are the hardest miles of the entire journey); I had not developed any blisters or hot spots on my feet; my knees felt great; and my legs were not especially tired or sore, even a day or two later.  Last but not least, I had remained vertical.  I think preparation and focus, with a touch of determination, must have helped to carry me through.

In the final post about this amazing experience I describe the wildflowers I saw along the Mt Whitney Trail.

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Mt Whitney Trail: Day Hike from Whitney Portal to the Summit and Back – the ascent

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I recently had the incredible experience of hiking the Mt Whitney Trail from Whitney Portal to the summit of Mt Whitney and back in one day.  This hike is truly amazing!  There was so much to see and experience, and that I’d like to share here on my blog, that I’m writing a total of 4 posts: an overview, the ascent, the descent, and the wildflowers.  This post covers the ascent.

Completing this hike in one day virtually requires starting before dawn.  In fact, the group of eight people I was hiking with agreed to start hiking at 2:00 am in order to have a good chance to summit by noon.  This is a safety concern, since summer thundershowers can occur and they are usually in the afternoon.  So it is a good idea to plan to be at and off the summit by early in the afternoon, especially if there is any question about the weather.

Jumping ahead for a moment: after a long hike in the dark we arrived at Trail Camp shortly after sunrise.  The small lake there captured a beautiful reflection of nearby Wotan’s Throne.  The promise of a beautiful morning was one of the things that spurred us on during the night hike.

photo of Wotan’s Throne reflected in the lake at Trail Camp

Wotan’s Throne reflected in the lake at Trail Camp

Note that a 2am start and noon summit meant that we were hoping to complete our ascent in 10 hours.  Since the hike is 10.6 miles each way, these simple numbers give an indication of just how strenuous the hike is.  Indeed, it begins at 8,400 feet elevation and tops off at 14,505 feet elevation.  If your body is not accustomed to high-elevation hiking, AMS (acute mountain sickness, or elevation sickness) is a very real possibility that can force a turn-around at any time.  Happily, everyone in our group summited successfully and, as a group, we had relatively few altitude-related issues.  Most hikers go somewhat faster at the lower elevations and more slowly as the elevation climbs.  As is evident from the elevation profile in the hike overview post, the grade could be described as relentless, but not especially steep – or flat, for that matter.

For about 4 hours we hiked in full darkness with headlamps on to light the way.  In this picture I have my headlamp pointed toward a plant at the side of the trail, but this image pretty much sums up the views during this first section of the hike.

photo of hiking the Mt Whitney Trail at night

Hiking the Mt Whitney Trail at night

Since there were other groups that started hiking almost at the same time that we started, there were a few occasions when I could see a row of bobbing lights on the next switchback below me.  Also, not long after we started hiking the moon rose: a waning crescent just 4 days before a new moon.

In the first few miles of the trail there were several water crossings, mostly rock-hopping but a couple in which it was inevitable that we would get our boot soles wet.  There was one exceptionally long crossing that is accomplished via 8-10 long logs placed end-to-end.  We decided it should be called the balance beam, perhaps in honor of the just-completed Rio Summer Olympics, so we channeled our inner Simone Biles to cross without falling off!  I hoped we’d return when there was still daylight.

Shortly before 6am we could see the eastern sky begin to turn red in the twilight anticipation of sunrise about a half hour later.  I surmise that the range of hills in the background of this picture is the Inyo Mountains on the east side of the Owens Valley and on the west side of Death Valley National Park.  We had already climbed to an elevation of about 11,450 feet completely in the dark!  In terms of trail landmarks, we had passed Outpost Camp and Trailside Meadow without being aware of our surroundings: just our headlamps illuminating the trail immediately in front of us and, often, illuminating the feet of the hiker in front of us.

photo of morning twilight view across the Owens Valley toward the Inyo Mountains

Morning twilight view across the Owens Valley toward the Inyo Mountains

As the sun approached the horizon behind us, the granite walls of the Whitney crest in front of us turned rosy in pre-sunrise alpenglow.  This was a quite ephemeral view, but it was so beautiful that it, alone, made the early rising hour and over 4 hours of hiking in the dark completely worthwhile.  In this picture Mt Muir is the prominent peak about 1/3 of the way in from the right, and I think Crook’s Peak is at the very right.  The notch at the upper right side of the steep flat slope, almost exactly in the center of the picture, is Trail Crest.

photo of alpenglow

Alpenglow

Another 8 or so minutes later the sun finally rose above the topography behind us.  It was just after 6:30 am and we were about to arrive at Trail Camp at 12,000 feet elevation.

photo of sunrise on the Mt Whitney Trail, not far from Trail Camp

Sunrise on the Mt Whitney Trail, not far from Trail Camp

Trail Camp marks the end of the first section of the hike, the lower section where there are multiple opportunities to find water along the trail.  Above Trail Camp, an 8.8-mile round trip to the summit, there is no water.  Most hikers stop here for a longer break, including a light meal (I had a half sandwich) and a refill of water containers.  The refill is accomplished at a small unnamed lake less than 50 yards from the main trail (see the picture at the beginning of this post).

After about 35 minutes at Trail Camp, mostly taking care of the necessities while overnight campers were just getting up and heating water for breakfast, it was time to tackle the next section: the famous switchbacks.  The number of switchbacks is variously reported between 94 and 99.  They basically go up the flat-looking slope in the center of the alpenglow picture, gaining 1600 feet in 2.1 miles.  Since they begin at 12,000 feet elevation it is advisable to take them slowly.

photo of hikers making their way up the switchbacks above Trail Camp

Hikers making their way up the switchbacks above Trail Camp

One of the techniques I had practiced in my mostly low-elevation training was to achieve and maintain a good rhythm of stepping and breathing so that I could make steady progress with tolerable effort and not too many stops.  It took me a few minutes less than 2 hours to climb the switchbacks to Trail Crest, so I still paused quite a few times to drink and to appreciate the spectacular views.  This is a view of what I think of as the granite wall at the top of, and to the north of, the switchbacks.

photo of view of the “granite wall,” the Whitney crest

View of the “granite wall,” the Whitney crest

Although the slope of the relatively flat talus field criss-crossed by the switchbacks looks like it could be at a 45-degree incline, I think it is more like 35-40 degrees: still very steep.  You would not want to trip or stumble off the trail.  There is one section, a little less than halfway up, which traverses some flat rock and which apparently sometimes retains snow and ice well into the summer.  In this section a hand rail has been built to help ensure that hikers stay safely on the trail.  Fortunately the snow was gone for the 2016 summer season.

phto of hand rail section

Hand rail section

On steep hillsides like this one I tend to hike toward the uphill side of the trail, as far as possible away from the edge.  I found the footing to be quite secure, as long as I primarily looked at where I was placing my feet!  If I wanted to sightsee, I stopped.

The switchbacks end with a long traverse to the west toward Trail Crest, a small notch in the ridge-top topography.  In this picture Trail Crest is the notch near the center of the skyline.  If you look closely you can see several hikers pausing there for a short break.

photo of near the top of the switchbacks, approaching Trail Crest

Near the top of the switchbacks, approaching Trail Crest

At Trail Crest you are literally at the crest of the Sierras, and the views are quite remarkable.  If you look back roughly the way you’ve come up the switchbacks, you can see Consultation Lake as well as the smaller lake to its left at Trail Camp.  The distinctive notched peak in the background may be Candlelight Peak.

photo of Consultation Lake, Trail Camp, and (I believe) Candlelight Peak

Consultation Lake, Trail Camp, and (I believe) Candlelight Peak

The views to the west are equally impressive.  The two lakes nearly directly below Trail Crest are the Hitchcock Lakes, with Mt Hitchcock behind.

photo of Hitchcock Lakes in front of Mt Hitchcock

Hitchcock Lakes in front of Mt Hitchcock

While enjoying the views at Trail Crest, I was mindful that there were still about 2.1 tough miles to hike before arriving at Mt Whitney’s summit.  First there was a short-but-steep descent to the junction with the John Muir Trail (JMT), about 0.15 mile past Trail Crest and past a sign announcing entry into Sequoia National Park.  This is a point where many backpackers join the Mt Whitney Trail from adventures on the west side of the Sierra crest.  Some leave their backpacks at the junction to hike to the summit with minimal gear.  Day hikers generally just continue carrying everything to the summit.

This section of trail seemed to be mainly across endless talus fields.  Here is a view of the trail crossing a talus field just past the JMT junction.  Crossing this particular talus field is the only place where the trail seemed not quite well-defined in all places.  I was hiking with two of the women in my group, and we did get slightly off-trail at one point.  As we were trying to figure out whether to go uphill or downhill to find the trail, descending hikers came into view and essentially showed us the way.

photo of Mt Whitney Trail crossing a talus field after passing the JMT junction

Mt Whitney Trail crossing a talus field after passing the JMT junction

The step-and-breathe technique became more important, since we were above 13,500 feet elevation and needed to work a bit to get over some of the talus rocks.  I should note that my pedometer more-or-less failed throughout this section, as it seemed to detect that my foot was actually taking steps only about half of the time.

This section of trail passes a section known as the pinnacles, with spectacular other-worldly structures perched on the Sierra crest.  In this view, I realized only after I uploaded my photos to my computer that the summit hut is barely visible on the flat-topped nose just to the left of the jagged structures.  At the time my focus was, quite honestly, on slow and careful hiking and on minding my breathing and hydration.

photo of pinnacles along the Sierra crest

Pinnacles along the Sierra crest

Through this section from Trail Crest to the summit, my average progress was about 0.9 mph.  Besides taking care of my breathing and so on, I had a great curiosity to see what would come next.  And there were some spectacular views that I mention in the post on the descent.  Also, the highest elevation wildflowers were here: alpine gold and sky pilot, amazingly growing and apparently thriving in spaces between talus rocks where it seemed impossible for any life form to exist.

After passing Keeler Needle the trail curves to the west, then angles northeast and east.  Throughout this section the summit hut is not visible.  The ground is so steep that you don’t really have a sense of how much higher the top is.  Then, suddenly, the summit hut comes into view.  I think anyone who has come this far feels a surge of energy to complete the last 0.1 mile or so of the climb!

photo of Mt Whitney summit hut

Mt Whitney summit hut

As is evident from the picture, the weather was fantastic, and we knew that thunderstorms were not going to be an issue.  The hike overview post describes in some detail the official tasks for the summit: signing the ledger, finding the geodetic markers and the commemorative tablet, etc.  I even posed for a special picture holding a specific magazine cover I’d carried up in my pack for that purpose.  But the most fun thing I did at the summit of Mt Whitney was a (very small) celebratory jump – you can tell I was jumping because all of my straps, my permit, and my camera and GPS are flapping.  For the record, the wind was absolutely calm.

photo of celebration at the summit of Mt Whitney

Celebration at the summit of Mt Whitney

I had summited in approximately 9 hours and 40 minutes.  Although that is not considered a “fast” ascent time, I was very happy with a time under 10 hours.  Most of the other hikers at the summit seemed to be in their twenties, which meant that they were roughly 40 years younger than I am.  Here are a few of the others who were climbing around on the summit rocks just east of the hut.  I’m pretty sure I saw a GoPro-type camera mounted on the white helmet.  The short sleeves emphasize that the temperature was very comfortable.  I think that the two overlapping peaks just to the right of the fellow in the white helmet are Mt Keith and Mt Williamson, with Mt Russell at the right and closer.

photo of other hikers at the summit of Mt Whitney

Other hikers at the summit of Mt Whitney

Although the weather was clear, with no clouds in the sky, my impression was that the atmosphere was not as clear as it sometimes is at the summit.  Here is a view looking down to the east at the Owens Valley.  It is roughly 2 miles down and several miles away horizontally, yet seems hazy.  The Los Angeles Aqueduct carries water to southern California metropolitan areas.

photo of Owens Valley viewed from the summit of Mt Whitney

Owens Valley viewed from the summit of Mt Whitney

This is a stunning view generally south, showing numerous landmarks:  The arc-shaped ridge is Pinnacle Ridge; the angular lump in the basin-like area is Wotan’s Throne, with Trail Camp immediately to its right.  On the horizon, the flat-topped peak is Mt Langley, with Mt LeConte and Mt Mallory just to its left.  Probably just out of view at the left, and lost in the haze, is Telescope Peak at the western edge of Death Valley.  The pointy-top peak is Mt McAdie, with Cirque Peak and Olancha Peak behind it.  Crooks Pk and Keeler Needle are in the foreground at the right.  The pretty lake within the curve of Pinnacle Ridge is not named on any of my maps.

photo of summit view to the south

Summit view to the south

Altogether I spent about an hour at the summit, doing official things like signing the register, getting my picture taken, taking pictures, eating/drinking, and resting a bit with my pack removed.  After that it was time to begin the descent.  I should probably note that one of the cardinal rules, especially of out-and-back hikes, is to never hike up – or down – anything that you are unwilling or unable to hike in the opposite direction.  Part of the purpose of the rest was to regain the necessary energy for the 10.6-mile descent, described in the next post.

Posted in Inyo County, Mt Whitney, Sierras | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Mt Whitney Trail: Day Hike from Whitney Portal to the Summit and Back – overview

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The hike from Whitney Portal to the summit of Mt Whitney via the Mt Whitney Trail is on the bucket list of many hikers.  Although I had not specifically put it on my own bucket list, an opportunity to do this hike pretty much fell in my lap when a member of a group that already had a permit needed to drop out, and a friend invited me to join the group.  I only had 18 days to prepare, so I quickly began a whirlwind of training walks and hikes: some flat, some steep, mostly at sea level but the last couple at 7,800 – 10,500 feet elevation, and all with a pack filled to a weight I estimated I would need to carry (10-12 lb).

A useful reference is the “One Best Hike” guide to Mt Whitney written by Elizabeth Wenk.  The section that describes the hike in detail includes hints, many of which I used.  The plan was to do the entire hike in one day.

The Mt Whitney Trail begins at Whitney Portal, which is located 13 miles west of Lone Pine just outside the Inyo National Forest and the John Muir Wilderness.  The elevation at Whitney Portal is about 8,400 feet.  The 10.6-mile trail climbs to 14,505 feet elevation at the summit, passing through the western edge of Sequoia National Park and the Sequoia – Kings Canyon Wilderness.  The summit is virtually on the boundary between Inyo National Forest and Sequoia National Park.

Although the Mt Whitney Trail is not considered technical, the hike is certainly strenuous, especially if you spend most of your time at sea level.  An ascent time (climb only) of 7 hours is considered quite fast, and the descent is, for most hikers, a little bit – but not a lot – faster.  My ascent time was about 9.75 hours and my descent time was about 8.5 hours.  With an additional hour at the summit, the entire hike was nearly 19.25 hours.  It was a long day! but that’s just how the math works out.  I was going to be satisfied with an 11-hour ascent and my goal was 10 hours, so I was thrilled to make it to the summit in under 10 hours. I think I was equally thrilled to have good energy right to the end of the descent; some people insist that the last 3 miles are the longest of the entire hike!

In some respects the round-trip hike has three major sections, due to the availability – or lack thereof – of water along the trail.  The first and third sections are below Trail Camp, at 12,000 feet elevation: the last water along the trail.  The second section is above 12,000 feet and includes the famous switchbacks.

Because there was so much to see and experience, there will be 4 posts about the hike: this overview, the ascent, the descent, and the wildflowers I saw along the way.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised at how many wildflowers I saw at the end of August, especially above Trail Camp, which is itself above the tree line.  The highlight was sky pilot (Polemonium eximium).  I had seen pictures of this beautiful high-elevation wildflower and was on the lookout for it.  I found this one at about 13,900 feet elevation.

image of sky pilot

Sky pilot

In order to complete such a long hike in one day, most hikers start out very early in the morning.  My group agreed on a plan to start hiking at 2:00 am, which meant waking up in our motels in Lone Pine at 1:00 am, gathering quickly, and driving up to the trailhead.  Because of extra parking restrictions due to road construction during the summer of 2016, we decided to take 2 cars even though our permits only included one parking permit.  Besides having more people (8) than could fit in one car, we figured that we would not all return to the trailhead at the same time and therefore would want a second vehicle.

We were surprised – though we probably shouldn’t have been – that a few other groups had the same start time in mind.  We took turns posing at the big trail sign at the trailhead, handing one of our cameras to someone in one of the other groups and turning off our head lamps while they illuminated us with theirs for the photo.  Then we traded places.  And then we were off! – only about 5 minutes behind our planned start time.  For some reason we are missing one person in the photo, probably still finishing the all-important bio pit stop.

image of group picture at the start

Group picture at the start

The GPS track image shows the route of the trail, with the orange dot at the upper right designating the Whitney Portal trailhead.  If you look at the distance scale (0.5 mile) the trail doesn’t look like it is 10.6 miles long.  However, there are sections with lots of switchbacks.

GPS track

GPS track

With a relatively minor exception at 13,600 feet elevation, between Trail Crest and the John Muir Trail junction, the trail simply climbs monotonically from the trailhead to the summit.  The section between 12,000 and 13,600 feet elevation – the switchbacks – is the steepest section of the trail; the grade here is about 15.5%.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

At the summit there is a commemorative tablet noting the construction time period.  The last ~2 miles of the Mt Whitney Trail is also the last section of the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra Trail.

image of commemorative tablet at the summit of Mt Whitney

Commemorative tablet at the summit of Mt Whitney

There are also at least three geodetic markers embedded in the rocks at the actual summit.  This is the only one that actually says Whitney.

image of one of the geodetic markers at the summit of Mt Whitney

One of the geodetic markers at the summit of Mt Whitney

The elevation at the top of Mt Whitney is reported at different values:  First, note that the commemorative tablet states 14,497 feet; I presume that more accurate surveying has been conducted since the tablet was placed in 1930.  The reference book states 14,505 feet, while the permit (see below) states 14,508 feet.  On the geodetic marker that has elevation verbiage, the actual elevation has been covered by a blob of metal.

Next to the summit hut there is a tray-like metal box that houses a ledger.  I presume that a ranger or other official person visits the summit once a week or so and, among other things, replaces the ledger sheets with new ones.  The day of my summit the sheets were nearly full on both sides, and it was a challenge to find a place to sign in – but eventually I did.  Mine is the next-to-last entry:

Whee! – I made it!

It was interesting to read some of the other comments.

image of my ledger entry at the summit

My ledger entry at the summit

I arrived at the summit shortly before noon and stayed nearly an hour.  An important consequence of the length of the hike is that the descent can end after dark.  In fact, only one person in our group of eight made it back to Whitney Portal before dark.  Five of us stayed together for the third section of the hike, below Trail Camp.

I had two goals, both relating to darkness.  One goal was to exit the Whitney Zone, where a permit is required for either day use or overnight use, in daylight.  That way I would be able to return some other time to experience the lower 3 miles of the trail in daylight without the complication of needing a permit.  Happily, we exited at 7:20pm with good, but fading, light.

image of permit for entering the Whitney Zone

Permit for entering the Whitney Zone

The second goal was to arrive at an especially long water crossing before losing daylight.  Ever since we had done this crossing in the dark on the ascent, I’d hoped we could do the return crossing of the balance beam in daylight.  We made it just in time, a few minutes after 7:30 pm with the light fading quickly.

image of a quick photo opportunity on the balance beam

A quick photo opportunity on the balance beam

Very shortly after I took this picture we all turned our headlamps back on for the remainder of the hike, about 1 hour 40 minutes.

It was fortunate that we had two cars parked at the trailhead.  The first hiker to return, the friend who had invited me to join the group, drove back to Lone Pine and proceeded to plan, with the spouse of one of the other hikers, to get a bountiful take-out meal for everyone.  My group of five returned in the second car.  The last two hikers returned about 2 1/2 hours later, and three members of the group drove back up to meet (and feed) them.

I would certainly say that the expedition was successful: all 8 of our group successfully summited.  Although there were a couple of elevation-related issues*, no one had to turn back early as a result.  The weather was just about perfect: it was a clear, sunny day with comfortable temperatures and virtually no wind at the summit.  The hike itself is simply amazing, and very beautiful.  Following are separate posts describing the ascent, the descent, and my wildflower sightings.

*Addendum: I did have what is likely an elevation-related experience that happened after the hike: I’ll call it post hike swollen feet syndrome.  I’d been keeping notes about my weight, partly since I’m aware that I typically drink less than recommended amounts; I’m also lighter than average, around 105 lb.  I lost a few pounds during my training blitz, then another pound in the last few days, and yet another pound-plus during the hike, weighing in just under 100 lb the morning after the hike.  That day I drove back to the Bay Area from Lone Pine, spending much of the day sitting in my car with few and brief breaks.  On the second morning my weight was mysteriously up 3 pounds, and by the middle of the day I’d noticed that one foot and ankle were rather swollen, even though I had not tweaked anything during the hike.  On the third morning my weight was up another 2 pounds, and both feet, ankles, and calves were very swollen.  Wearing compression socks didn’t help.  By the end of the afternoon I decided to consult an advice nurse, who had me go in for some tests that couldn’t be done on the phone.  Fortunately cardiac, pulmonary, and deep vein thrombosis concerns were alleviated during my visit to the urgent care clinic.  I received instructions to continue wearing the compression socks, drink plenty of fluids, eat a low-sodium diet, elevate my feet at night, and go ahead and walk as usual.  I think elevating my feet did the trick: by the next (fourth) morning I was peeing more than usual and my weight was starting to go down.  Walking felt great and also seemed to help.  My weight continued to drop for three more days, until I was down a full 5 pounds from my peak weight.  Now, 7 days after the hike, I hope I have plateaued.  At least I feel normal!

Posted in Inyo County, Mt Whitney, Sierras | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

PCT – Paradise Lake Trail to Tahoe NF Road 86

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The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) winds through the Tahoe National Forest for almost 40 miles in Nevada and Sierra Counties between I-80 and CA-49 near Sierra City.  For this hike I covered a little less than 8 miles of trail as an out-and-back hike, starting at a road crossing of Forest Road 86 (Meadow Lake Rd) and turning around at the junction with a jeep road to Paradise Lake.  I had previously hiked (before I started this blog!) from the Paradise Lake junction to I-80 so the intent of this hike was to fill in the next small section to the north.  In terms of official PCT mileage, the hike was between mile 1167.1 and mile 1174.7.

Although there were many beautiful wildflowers in season, I think my favorite view from the hike was from a viewpoint overlooking Tom’s Valley down a fairly precipitous rock wall.  The valley floor was gloriously green, with a ring of trees around the perimeter.

picture of view toward Tom’s Valley

View toward Tom’s Valley

I started the hike at Meadow Lake Rd, Tahoe National Forest Rd 86, where the PCT crosses it about 6 miles south of Tahoe National Forest Rd 07, which is a good paved road that travels west from CA-89 at Little Truckee Summit to Jackson Meadows Reservoir.  Meadow Lake Rd is a gravel road, but it is of sufficient quality that I had no trouble getting in and out in a regular passenger car (a Prius).  On the GPS track the starting point is shown as an orange dot.  The route crosses jeep roads 3 times, in addition to passing the Mt Lola Trail and crossing White Rock Creek.

GPS track

GPS track

As shown in the elevation profile the elevation gain was moderate: the range of elevations spanned only 600 feet or so, with a total of just under 2300 feet of elevation gain for the round trip.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Much of this section of the PCT passes through pretty forest, like this example view.

picture of PCT passing through Tahoe National Forest

PCT passing through Tahoe National Forest

I encountered numerous wildflowers during the hike, including at least two types of arnica, several types of buckwheat, and three species of monkeyflower, to list a few.  One of the first flowers was waxy checkerbloom (Sidalcea glaucescens). Although many of the blossoms I came across in the early part of the hike were nearly closed, this one was open, showing off the contrasting white reproductive parts.

picture of waxy checkerbloom

Waxy checkerbloom

Most of the mule’s ears (Wyethia mollis) were finished blooming for the season, but there were some clusters of plants nicely illuminated by the sun.  There were several dense cobwebs covering what appeared to be burrows for spiders that live underground.

A wildflower I found throughout the hike was sulphur buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum).  In the early part of the blooming phase the flowers are bright yellow, as shown here.  Later in the blooming phase the flowers turn to a burnt orange color, almost red or brown.

picture of sulphur buckwheat

Sulphur buckwheat

Also there was plenty of mountain, or western, pennyroyal (Monardella odoratissima), mostly past the peak blooming period.  In a few places I found scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata).  Between forested areas there were intermittent views of nearby ridges.

I was interested to find what I think is broad-scaled owl’s clover (Orthocarpus cuspidatus).  In some references this wildflower is called Copeland’s owl’s-clover.  I particularly noticed the rounded bracts, the upper ones with light pink-purple tips.  I thought this was an especially pretty plant, simultaneously robust and delicate.

picture of broad-scaled, or Copeland’s, owl’s clover

Broad-scaled, or Copeland’s, owl’s clover

Related to other types of owl’s clover are many types of paintbrush (Castilleja sp.), with two shown here.  As with Copeland’s owl’s-clover, the noticeable part of the paintbrush plant actually consist of bracts.  In some species of paintbrush, the reddish-tipped bracts are single lobed, while in others the bracts have three lobes.  The plant on the left is earlier in the growth phase, while the plant on the right is actually blooming; the light yellow-green pointed structures are the flowers.  Although these pictures may not show clearly, the bract color was definitely different between these two examples.

picture of paintbrush

Paintbrush

There were several clusters of meadow penstemon (Penstemon rydbergii), with whorls of relatively small-sized blossoms in layers up the stem of the plant.  This is a fairly common type of penstemon in the Sierras, though others are more dramatic.

picture of meadow penstemon

Meadow penstemon

In addition to sulphur buckwheat I found some white-colored buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.).  I had some trouble making an identification of this one, based on the leaf type, but I thought the flower heads were pretty when viewed up close.

picture of white buckwheat

White buckwheat

About 3 miles from the trailhead I arrived at the viewpoint mentioned above, with the spectacular view across Tom’s Valley.  Just as I was leaving this area a through hiker approached from the south and, as is my custom, I asked where he was headed.  His reply: “Canada, of course.”  Then I asked where he’d started hiking, and learned he’d started at Donner Summit, less than 15 miles away – it turned out he was just on his second day of hiking, and he was proud/amused to point out how clean he was!

Over the next 2 miles the trail makes a small dip, then climbs again to about 8000 feet elevation before descending 500 feet with a nice, comfortable 6% grade.  Near the highest point I was surprised to find some monkeyflowers.  I think this is called larger mountain monkeyflower (Mimulus tilingii), or Tiling’s monkeyflower.  The bright yellow petals are plain except for some hairs.

picture of larger mountain monkeyflower

Larger mountain monkeyflower

A short distance farther I found some fan-leaf cinquefoil (Potentilla flabellifolia).  One thing that is interesting about this picture is that the flower only has four petals!  But I have other pictures of the same plant and all of the other blossoms are 5-petaled.  I should note that some plants do characteristically have variable numbers of petals.  The details of the blossom really look like cinquefoil, especially the small structures that look like round paddles.  Note the sepals showing through in the gaps between the petals.

picture of fan-leaf cinquefoil

Fan-leaf cinquefoil

Not far away there was a pretty meadow with numerous moisture-loving plants fed by Snowbank Spring: bright yellow arnicas, lavender wandering daisies, puffy white flowers, crimson columbine (Aquilegia formosa), and big-leaf lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus), among others.  Across the trail from the meadow there was an 8500-foot elevation hill with a patch of snow.

picture of meadow near Snowbank Spring

Meadow near Snowbank Spring

During the descent mentioned above, the trail returns to forest, then emerges into clearings.  In a clearing there was a notable pair of nearly car-sized boulders.  Here I found what I think is a pale dandelion (Agoseris glaucus). A small bug paid a visit as I took pictures.

picture of pale dandelion

Pale dandelion

There is a short section of trail marked by a couple of 4×4 wooden posts etched with PCT logos.  I presume the posts are to assist with way-finding, but I didn’t have any trouble determining where the trail was supposed to go.  In this damp area there were obvious seeps along the northeast side of the trail.  There were also more monkeyflowers: first musk monkeyflower (Mimulus moschatus), with delicate dotted stripes on the lower petals.

picture of musk monkeyflower

Musk monkeyflower

There was also what I think is primrose monkeyflower (Mimulus primuloides).  The pattern of red dots on the lower petals, plus the white reproductive part, are distinctive and guided my identification.

picture of primrose monkeyflower

Primrose monkeyflower

There were more wandering daisies (Erigeron glacialis var. glacialis) and a related, more intense purple, flower.  I’m not sure if the latter is an aster, a daisy, or another similar species.

picture of wandering daisy (left) and a more intense purple aster-like flower (right)

Wandering daisy (left) and a more intense purple aster-like flower (right)

This damp area continued until the trail crossed White Rock Creek on a nicely constructed wooden bridge, about 5.3 miles from the beginning of my hike.  The creek is descending from White Rock Lake at 7800 feet elevation to North Creek, which empties into Fordyce Lake at 6400 feet elevation.  These two lakes are only about 5 miles from each other.  Barely 0.1 mile past White Rock Creek there is a trail junction with the Mt Lola Trail.  Next to this trail junction I noticed several tall alpine lily (Lilium parvum) plants near another large boulder.

picture of alpine lily

Alpine lily

Past the Mt Lola Trail junction the trail climbs again, gaining 400 feet on the way to a saddle.  Along the way the trail passes right through a nice patch of Sierra larkspur (Delphinium glaucum).  This is a relatively tall plant, about 5 feet tall, with large leaves somewhat reminiscent of maple leaves and with beautiful, tall flower spikes.

picture of Sierra larkspur

Sierra larkspur

There was miniature lupine (I’m not sure of the species) and pink Lobb’s buckwheat (Eriogonum lobbii) nearby.

At the top of the climb there was a saddle on the side of a rather bare hill, where I found some Leichtlin’s mariposa lilies (Calochortus leichtlinii).  The contrast between the white petals, dark maroon chevrons, and hairy yellow nectar glands is stunning.  I was pleasantly surprised to find these beauties still blooming in early August.

picture of Leichtlin’s mariposa lily

Leichtlin’s mariposa lily

After passing the saddle and beginning to descend again I came to one of several places where I saw Anderson’s thistle (Cirsium andersonii).  There are many types of thistle in California, and this one is notable for the nearly cylindrical shape of the bracts and flower head, essentially without bulges.  It is mainly found in the Sierras.

picture of Anderson’s thistle

Anderson’s thistle

Several minutes later I noticed a couple of butterflies flitting around the trail, so I paused to determine whether one of them would land on a flower and stay still long enough for me to get a picture.  This butterfly, later identified as a Lorquin’s admiral (Limenitis lorquini) apparently decided that my pants leg was a good place to land!  It stayed there for more than long enough for me to take pictures – the challenge was coaxing my camera to focus at that unusual distance, and I didn’t dare bend over to get close enough to use the macro setting.

picture of Lorquin’s admiral visiting my pants leg

Lorquin’s admiral visiting my pants leg

About 7.8 miles from the beginning of my hike I arrived at the junction with the jeep road to Paradise Lake, clearly marked with a rock cairn.  Since I didn’t recognize the trail junction from my 2010 hike I decided to hike a little farther, just another 0.1 mile or so.  I found a nice rock to sit down on and enjoy a lunch break.  Part of my view included some more impressive boulders among the trees.

picture of impressive boulders at my lunch spot and turnaround point

Impressive boulders at my lunch spot and turnaround point

On an out-and-back hike I enjoy re-visiting views and wildflowers I’ve already seen on the outbound leg of the hike.  I also enjoy discovering new views, since sometimes an interesting view is behind on the outbound leg and then in front on the return leg.  This is one example, approaching the saddle where I’d found Leichtlin’s mariposa lilies.  There was a wonderful view to the northwest, with an impressive tree appearing to watch over the vista.

picture of Sierra view with a tree keeping watch

Sierra view with a tree keeping watch

On the return trip I noticed fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium), common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and a type of bottle grass (Elymus sp) that reminded me of eastern bottle grass I’d seen in Wisconsin a few weeks prior.

Shortly before I reached White Rock Creek I encountered a pair of backpackers hiking southbound.  Since most long-distance hikers hike the PCT northbound, I asked them about their destination, then their starting point.  It turns out that they were on their way to Mt Whitney and had already hiked about 150 miles.  They still had quite a distance to go before they reached the beginning of the John Muir Trail in Yosemite Valley to begin the famous 215-mile-long high Sierra trail that eventually goes to Mt Whitney.  Clearly they were focusing on the high Sierras for their adventure, and their comments demonstrated that they were excited to be on the journey.

picture of hikers on their way to Mt Whitney

Hikers on their way to Mt Whitney

The remainder of my return trip was uneventful but very pleasant.  Just past the place I’d parked my car next to Forest Rd 86 there was another pretty meadow, and I spent several minutes exploring before driving home.

Posted in Nevada County, Pacific Crest Trail, Sierra County, Sierras, Tahoe National Forest, wildflower hikes | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

University of Wisconsin Arboretum: Greene Prairie

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The University of Wisconsin-Madison operates a 1260-acre arboretum that includes areas of prairie, savanna, marshland, and deciduous and coniferous forest.  Much of the arboretum has been restored with some 300 species of plants that used to be prevalent in the area before the arrival of European immigrants, including my own ancestors, in the mid-19th century.  In my childhood years, annual grandparent visits frequently included a visit to “the arb” – probably for short walks from the Visitor Center in some of the nearby gardens.  This time, during a visit with my brother, he suggested a walk in the southern section of the Arboretum, just south of the beltway, with a primary destination of Greene Prairie, a 50-acre prairie planted by prairie expert Henry Greene in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Although only a relatively short section of the walk was actually in Greene Prairie, the multitude and diversity of the wildflowers made up for the short distance.  One of my favorite wildflowers, found near the edge of the prairie near a savanna, was the dotted horsemint (Monarda punctata), which featured swirls of delicately colored, spotted blossoms.

image of dotted horsemint

Dotted horsemint

The primary access point for the southern section of the Arboretum is a small parking area immediately next to the beltway: the Grady Tract parking lot, located on land that had previously belonged to the Grady family before the University acquired it.  Several walking trails wind through the areas that have been restored to deciduous and coniferous forest, oak savanna, and prairie.  Our 2.1-mile loop path is shown in the GPS track image, where the orange dot denotes the parking lot.  We traversed the loop clockwise.

GPS track

GPS track

The elevation changes are quite gentle, with only about 100 feet separating the low and high elevations and less than 200 total feet of ascent and descent.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

As is typical for July in Wisconsin, the day was warm, though I think both the temperature and humidity were below average.  Nevertheless, the forest areas were shaded and pleasant to walk through.  The trail angles away from the beltline and, although traffic noise was apparent initially, it faded surprisingly quickly as we walked.

image of walking trail through a restored forest at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum

Walking trail through a restored forest at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum

Quite early in the walk we encountered a bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), with blue-purple petals and a characteristic yellow “beak”.

image of bittersweet nightshade

Bittersweet nightshade

Our next find was some flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata).  The white petal-like structures are actually bracts, with the tiny flower in the center of the bracts.

image of flowering spurge

Flowering spurge

In the same area we found some showy tick trefoil (Desmodium canadense).  The picture shows the blossoms, which are indeed showy.  It turns out that there is another tick trefoil that looks very similar.  I have made the identification on the basis of other pictures that show details of the leaves, which have three lobes as suggested by the term trefoil.  The showy tick trefoil has stipules – the small structures that occur on some plants at the base of the leaf stem – that have a lanceolate, or pointed, shape.  And the leaf stems, or petioles, are shorter than in the other species.  This is the first time I’ve made a species identification based on this kind of detail about the plant’s structure – and had the photograph(s) to support my identification!

image of showy tick trefoil

Showy tick trefoil

Near the edge of the forest we encountered a few woodland sunflowers (Helianthus strumosus).  It is a wondrous mystery that these flowers, which thrive in a woodland habitat, can find areas that have just the right amount of sunlight.  This one was like a bright beacon in a patch of sunlight in the shaded woodland.

image of woodland sunflower

Woodland sunflower

Also near the edge of the forest we found some common yarrow (Achillea millefolium).  I have seen the same species numerous time and places in California, and it is always interesting to me to find the exact same species thousands of miles away.  The Latin species name, millefolium, means thousand leaves.  It was also interesting to note that the feathery characteristic of the leaves (see upper right of the picture) was much more pronounced than the yarrow plants I’ve seen on the West Coast.

image of common yarrow

Common yarrow

Other fairly common flowers found in the forest include common St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), heal-all (Prunella vulgaris), and wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), which was also prevalent in the prairie.  We also saw some goldenrod, which I think may be Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); this is a rather tentative identification since there are something like 24 species of goldenrod found in the area and several look quite similar.  However, Canada goldenrod may be the most common and widespread of the goldenrod species.

After we had covered about 1 mile we emerged into Greene Prairie and found a wonderful open area chock full of beautiful wildflowers and tall grasses.  In this picture the nearby forest is in the background.

image of Greene Prairie

Greene Prairie

Almost immediately I spied a group of Japanese beetles feasting on an unsuspecting, unidentified young budding plant.

image of hungry Japanese beetles

Hungry Japanese beetles

A common prairie wildflower, noted on several walks during my visit, was rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium).  The round, compact flower heads are quite distinctive.

image of rattlesnake master

Rattlesnake master

Another unusual flower that was prevalent in Greene Prairie is prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya).  I had been getting used to seeing flower stalks that bloom sequentially from the bottom to the top, but in this case the flowering proceeds from the top to the bottom of the several-inch-long stalk.  This plant belongs to the aster family, which characteristically means the flowers are composites, with ray and disc flowers.  The blazing stars – there are several species in Wisconsin – have no ray flowers, only disc flowers.  But the most surprising thing is that the wildflowers I have seen in California parks – and also called blazing stars – tend to be bright yellow and look very different from Midwest blazing stars!

image of prairie blazing star

Prairie blazing star

A fairly common prairie wildflower is lead plant (Amorpha canescens).  The leaf pattern suggests that it is in the pea family, and it is.  In fact, it is actually a shrub.  Many of the plants we saw seemed to be nearing the end of their blooming cycle; this one was not quite as far along.  The individual flowers are quite small, only about 1/8 inch long, with orange anthers.

image of lead plant

Lead plant

Along a short section of trail we found several nodding onion (Allium cernuum) plants.  With the long naked stems and blossom structure it was easy to identify them as onion, and nodding was a particularly apt description of the flower head cluster.

image of nodding onion

Nodding onion

Nearby and close to each other were two types of prairie clover, both of which bloom from the bottom to the top of the elongated flower head.  One was purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea).

image of purple prairie clover

Purple prairie clover

The other was white prairie clover (Dalea candida).  Both specimens I photographed had nearly perfect tutus at the base of the flower head.

image of white prairie clover

White prairie clover

In the prairie area we also saw a couple of giant, or great, St John’s wort (Hypericum ascyron) and at least one, if not several, types of phlox.

To our delight we found some turk’s-cap lily (Lilium superbum).  I seem to especially enjoy the bright color of the recurved petals and sepals (3 each), as well as the fat brown anthers dangling below the petals and sepals.  Of course the spots vary from individual to individual flower.

image of turk’s-cap lily

Turk’s-cap lily

As we approached the edge of the prairie and the transition to savanna area, we found quite a few dotted horsemint (Monarda punctata).  The first characteristic I noticed was the distinctive pinkish bracts that occur in several layers up and down the main stem.  It was only after I had taken numerous pictures, more or less top-down views, of the bracts that I noticed the rows of smaller blossoms almost hiding between the layers of bracts.  These blossoms are shown above, in the first picture in this post.  The plant is, indeed, in the mint family, and the blossoms are reminiscent of other mints I have seen elsewhere.  I thought this was a fantastic plant.

image of dotted horsemint

Dotted horsemint

Near the dotted horsemint there were a few small, bright yellow flowers.  I think they are evening primrose (Oenothera sp) though I was unable to make a species identification; there are at least 10 evening primrose species found in Wisconsin and I did not find descriptions for more than one.  I should note that the blossoms were not much bigger than 1/2 inch in diameter, much smaller than the most common type of evening primrose in Wisconsin.

image of evening primrose near the edge of Greene Prairie

Evening primrose near the edge of Greene Prairie

After leaving Greene Prairie we walked through a forest area at the west edge of the Arboretum toward the parking area.  Along the way we saw a few Deptford pinks (Dianthus armeria) and some yellow wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta).  Wood sorrel plants often have clover-like leaves: three leaves, each with two lobes and a visible stem up the center between the lobes.  The yellow wood sorrel blossoms are only about 3/8 inch in diameter; the tip of my finger serves as an informal field ruler.

image of yellow wood sorrel

Yellow wood sorrel

For such a short walk, barely over 2 miles, I was pleasantly surprised at the variety of wildflowers we saw.  We had seen some of them on previous walks, but several were new finds, which I always enjoy.  As I learn more about the local ecology, I have a growing appreciation for the work done at the Arboretum to restore areas to their pre-settlement state.

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Ice Age Trail – Table Bluff

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Not far from Madison, Wisconsin, and just a few miles from Indian Lake County Park in Dane County, there is a segment of the Ice Age Trail at Table Bluff.  The Ice Age Trail segment is about 2.2 miles long and, in the absence of a car shuttle, is easy to experience as an out-and-back hike.  The trail is partly in open prairie areas and partly in woodsy areas; partly on the Swamplovers Nature Preserve, which is managed by the Swamplovers Foundation, and partly on private property via easements.

The Ice Age Trail is one of only 11 designated National Scenic Trails.  It is a work in progress, envisioned to eventually be over 1000 miles long running mostly along the southern edge of the glacial flow associated with the most recent Ice Age.  The trail passes through a variety of landscape features created by the glacial ice and its retreat.

My visit was in July, and a highlight was the variety of wildflowers, mostly prairie wildflowers, in bloom.  One of my favorites was an isolated find: a turk’s-cap lily (Lilium superbum): a superb lily, indeed.

picture of Turk’s-cap lily

Turk’s-cap lily

The Ice Age Trail runs essentially north-south in the immediate area.  The northern trailhead is along Table Bluff Rd not far from County Rd KP.  A southern trailhead is along Cowling Rd, also not far from County Rd KP.  The route is shown in this GPS track image, with the northern trailhead denoted by the orange dot.

GPS track

GPS track

There are two sections of parallel trail, denoted White-Blaze Trail, near the north and south trailheads.  The Ice Age Trail is marked by yellow blazes, mostly painted on 4×4 posts, while the side trails are marked by white blazes.  The difference between the highest and lowest points on the trail is less than 150 feet, so the overall elevation gain and loss is relatively modest; indeed, the Table Bluff feature is somewhat subtle.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

After leaving the north trailhead, the first part of the trail passes through open area, and just 0.2 mile from the trailhead we passed the north junction with the first section of the White-Blazed Trail.  We had decided earlier to save the White-Blazed Trail sections for the return trip.  Until we reached the next white-blazed junction we would be on a section of trail we would hike only once, though we expected all of the sections to have similar habitat range and wildflowers.

One of the first wildflowers encountered was purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea). In the early part of the blooming phase a ring of tiny blossoms resembles a tutu at the base of the flower head.  These were a bit farther along in the blooming phase.

picture of purple prairie clover

Purple prairie clover

After finding a couple of pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) we looked carefully to see if we could find one that was somewhat earlier in its blooming phase, and eventually we did.  The ray flowers are much paler than regular purple coneflowers, and they droop more dramatically.  When you can find (nearly) side-by-side comparisons, you can see that the shape and color of the head of disc flowers is also different between these two species.  The pale purple coneflower is considered to be a threatened species in Wisconsin, and this area is near the northern end of its range.

picture of pale purple coneflower

Pale purple coneflower

In this section of trail we did encounter a wildflower that we did not see elsewhere along the trail.  While it reminds me in some respects of everlasting, it is different.  In the absence of an identification, I simply call it white flower balls.  All of the parts of this plant, from the details of the heads to the tiny blossoms to the stem color and structure, are rather unusual and distinctive.  I could not find it in three separate resources that focus on the more common wildflowers found in Wisconsin, so it remains a mystery.

picture of white flower balls

White flower balls

In this sunny area we found Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), with characteristic tall waving plume-like flower stalks.

picture of Culver’s root

Culver’s root

We also found some compass plant (Silphium aciniatum), one of the four types of silphium found in Wisconsin.  The leaves of compass plant are distinctive: large (typically larger than 8 inches long) with deep lobes, oriented vertically.  The plant’s common name is based on the typical orientation of the leaves, with the blade facing east-west and the tips pointing north-south.  It is said – according to one resource I read – that early settlers in the Great Plains could navigate in the dark via the leaf orientation of this plant!  The plants themselves are also tall, up to a few meters in height.

picture of compass plant

Compass plant

About 0.8 mile from the trailhead we came to the second junction with the White-Blazed Trail and proceeded another 0.7 mile or so on the section we would hike in both directions.  Here we came across a wildflower that we only saw once, with a stalk bearing unusual-looking white-green blossoms.  I believe it is Canadian milkvetch (Astralagus canadensis).  The leaf pattern, visible near the bottom of the picture, was helpful to identify the pea family.

picture of Canadian milkvetch

Canadian milkvetch

The central part of the trail passed through a woodsy area.  In several places we passed eastern bottle brush grass (Elymus hystrix) with the bottle-brush-like tips illuminated by small shafts of sunlight coming through the leaf canopy.  This lighting created a pretty effect and made it possible to see the details of the individual blades.

picture of eastern bottle brush grass

Eastern bottle brush grass

We also found some examples of a plant we’d seen several times in the preceding days on other hikes near Madison.  This small (about 1/4 inch across) blossom is at the top of a long stem, perhaps 10 inches tall, and is a brilliant pink color.  My camera does not render this color very accurately, and the actual color is more intense and redder than shown here.  It was rather tricky – and required luck, patience, or both – to get a clear photo with all of the detail on the petals.  It is Deptford pink (Dianthus armeria), and it is quite a beauty!

picture of Deptford pink

Deptford pink

Roughly midway through this woodsy section the trail dips a bit, 50 feet or so, to cross a small tributary of the Black Earth Creek. Within the forest there were other wildflowers, including daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus), white daisies, perhaps ox-eye, American bellflower (Campanulastrum americanum), and others I neglected to note.

Just before the next junction with the White-Blazed Trail there is a surprise: a pottery bikini-clad alligator – or perhaps crocodile? – right next to the trail.  Although this is mentioned in one write-up of the hike, the origin is neither speculated on nor mentioned.

picture of surprise find next to the trail, in the woods

Surprise find next to the trail, in the woods

After the junction with the White-Blazed Trail, the trail again emerges from the woodsy area into open area, with sun-loving plants and wildflowers.  Here there was hoary vervain (Verbena stricta), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), and butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).  As far as I know, butterfly milkweed is the only orange species of milkweed, at least in the region, and for that reason it is quite distinctive.

picture of butterfly milkweed

Butterfly milkweed

At the fourth junction with the White-Blazed Trail we essentially began the return trip to the north trailhead, omitting a quarter-mile section of Ice Age Trail down the ridge to the south trailhead.  Near this junction there is a picnic shelter, complete with picnic tables, barbecues, and a porta-potty, on a knoll overlooking the area to the south.  I believe this is part of the area that is actually on private property, and it is a privilege as trail users to have access to such a fine picnic area via the easement agreement with the property owner(s).

This segment of the Ice Age Trail is within what is called the Driftless Area, the area just beyond what was covered by the so-called Green Bay lobe of the most recent glaciation (Laurentide Ice Sheet) about 18,000 years ago.  Signage at a vista point is helpful to elucidate this information.  Here is a view overlooking the Driftless Area, now covered by farms, woods, and geological mounds.

picture of view of Driftless Area

View of Driftless Area

As nearly always happens when I visit southeastern Wisconsin, I focused on a typical selection of farm buildings with (preferably multiple) silos.

picture of typical southeastern Wisconsin barn and silos

Typical southeastern Wisconsin barn and silos

The prairie area on the relatively steep slope leading down from the ridge is referred to as goat prairie, perhaps because it was more hospitable to goats than to humans.  In southeastern Wisconsin there is a lot of active prairie restoration in progress: the original prairie was overtaken by trees, shrubs, and other non-prairie flora once the early settlers began to suppress the natural wildfires.  It is interesting to imagine how this view might have looked with original prairie dominating the landscape.

Near the vista area additional signage described the oak savanna habitat, locally including bur oak.  I presume that the oak trees I noted by the picnic shelter were bur oaks, with large, traditionally-shaped oak leaves – unlike what I have become accustomed to in California.

After enjoying the views we began the return trip to the north trailhead, this time hiking both sections of the White-Blazed Trail as alternatives to the yellow-blazed Ice Age Trail.  As we returned to the north prairie area near the trailhead I noted black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia lutea) and some prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) with its exceptionally large (up to 2 feet long!) basal leaves but at this time lacking flowering stalks.  We also found some common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), one of the pale pinkish varieties of milkweed.  This specific plant was almost draped across some other plants just at the side of the trail and seemed to be posing for pictures.

picture of common milkweed

Common milkweed

This segment of the Ice Age Trail samples somewhat atypical geological terrain since it is technically beyond the reach of the last glacier and in the Driftless Area.  However, to a non-geologist, the prairie and woodsy habitats and their associated wildflowers are equally enjoyable whether or not there was previous glacial coverage.

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