Some Thoughts on California’s Wildfires

Sometimes it takes a series of related events to really get someone’s attention.  In this case the related events are California wildfires and the “someone” is me.  There is plenty of objective evidence indicating that 2018 has been, and continues to be, a bad year for wildfires both in California and more generally across the western United States.  The relationship that has finally gotten my attention is that several wildfires have had a closer effect on me than in previous years.

Although that may sound like a self-centered statement, it is actually, more simply, a description of the relationship between several of the many wildfires that seem to assault our wilderness areas and other national forests every year with increasing scope and intensity.  For example, I downloaded this US fire map about a month ago.  Each icon indicates a separate fire incident, and the colored clouds probably indicate smoke plumes being blown eastward by the jet stream.  The overwhelming impression from this map was that practically the entire western United States, save the southern part of California’s Central Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area, was on fire.

image of United States fire map on 4 August 2018

United States fire map on 4 August 2018

Since then, some fires have been brought under control but others have broken out.  Traditionally, September and October – at the end of the long, dry summer season – are the peak months for wildfires.  So this map, as of a full month earlier, was very sobering.

I am fortunate, because the actual effects on me have been trivial compared to people whose homes have been destroyed, several firefighters and civilians who were killed, other people who have been evacuated for safety reasons, the wildlife living in the forests, and the forests themselves along with related flora.  In the case of the forests and destroyed homes the effects of wildfires can last for years.  The effects on me have been limited to abandoned or rearranged hikes – a minor inconvenience, really – or the realization that a place where I hiked recently has since been damaged by fire, or at least closed due to threat of fire.

So the purpose of this post is to describe several current and recent wildfires, how they’re related to my hiking activities, and how I’ve been impacted.  I must say that my strongest reaction is a profound sadness regarding the more severe effects on others.

A recent statewide fire map is shown here.  While not as busy as the US map above, it still shows something like 18 major fires in progress within California.  Only one of the fires shown is fully contained, but it will continue to burn internally for some time – probably until Fall rain and snow begin.

image of California fire map as of 5 September 2018

California fire map as of 5 September 2018

One of the most recent fires to break out is the Delta fire, which began on 5 September 2018 2 miles north of Lakehead, in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Shasta County.  In just three days it has grown – “exploded,” according to some news stories – to nearly 37,000 acres, which is about 58 square miles.  No containment is being reported, which generally means 0% containment.  (Containment refers to robust perimeter fire break lines that the fire can be “reasonably expected” not to jump across.)  Early on, the fire jumped across I-5, and this major north-south route is closed for about 50 miles.  Note that the fire isn’t this large, but the closures, especially for through traffic, are from either end of a suitable detour on non-affected roads.    About a dozen big rigs were abandoned on the I-5 roadway and several of them have burned (I believe their drivers were all safely evacuated).  Mandatory evacuations affect portions of Shasta and Trinity Counties and evacuation warnings affect portions of Siskiyou County.

Some of the current wildfires are being managed by Cal Fire and others are being managed by interagency incident management teams and reported on InciWeb, which is part of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.  This InciWeb map shows the areas of the Delta (left) and Hirz (right) fires.  Apparently the two fire areas are about to join.  The Hirz fire started on 9 August 2018 and grew to its current size of just over 46,000 acres, or 72 square miles.  It is reported to be 89% contained.

image of InciWeb map of the Delta (left) and Hirz (right) fires as of 8 September 2018

InciWeb map of the Delta (left) and Hirz (right) fires as of 8 September 2018

I believe that the Hirz fire area mainly involves remote areas, so any evacuations have involved campgrounds and local roads which are now (temporarily) closed.  The Hirz fire resulted in the closure of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) for 31 miles between Ash Camp and I-5.  As it turns out, I hiked that section in two day hikes (see here and here) last Fall, and I hiked from Bartle Gap to Ash Camp, just east of the closure, in June of this year.

The Delta fire has extended the local area trail and park closures.  The PCT is now closed through Castle Crags State Park – the entire park is closed – for another 25 miles to Gumboot Trailhead.  I spent three days hiking in and near the park in June, including the new PCT closure area.  I should note that these areas are closed due to threat of fire, but the PCT itself and Castle Crags State Park itself have not been burned – thankfully.

The origins of the Delta and Hirz fires are believed to be human, though specific causes are still under investigation.

Another map, shown here, shows how close the Delta and Hirz fires are to the area burned by the Carr fire.  At over 229,000 acres, or 359 square miles, this fire was one of the largest and most destructive wildfires this season.  Nearly 1100 residences were destroyed and almost 200 others damaged, in addition to commercial structures and outbuildings.  There were 3 firefighter fatalities.  Hundreds of firefighters took about 6 weeks to fully contain the fire, which still smolders within its interior.  It appears from this map that the current perimeter of the Delta fire is only about 3 miles, at its closest approach, to the perimeter of the Carr fire.  That’s pretty close!

image of map of Delta (center), Hirz (right), and Carr (left) fires as of 8 September 2018

Map of Delta (center), Hirz (right), and Carr (left) fires as of 8 September 2018

Some 220 miles southwest there are two other fires that have impacted me a bit more directly.  The first and larger is the Donnell fire, which started on 1 August 2018 and has grown to 36,400 acres, or 57 square miles, in the Stanislaus National Forest and its Carson-Iceberg Wilderness just west of Sonora Pass, at the confluence of Alpine, Tuolumne, and Mono Counties.  As of 8 September 2018 it is reported to be 87% contained.  Some 54 structures and 81 minor structures have been destroyed.  For at least 2 weeks, if not longer, the PCT has been closed between Sonora Pass (at CA-108) and Ebbetts Pass (at CA-4), a 31-mile stretch.  I have hiked all of this section except for about 2.5 miles just north of Sonora Pass.  Two day hikes (see here and here) were staged from a campground on Clark Fork Rd which has been closed throughout the fire and, I fear, very likely damaged.

image of map of Donnell (left) and Boot (right) fires as of 8 September 2018

Map of Donnell (left) and Boot (right) fires as of 8 September 2018

I had been hoping to be able to hike the 2.5-mile gap earlier in the week, but the PCT was still closed and there were prominent “Do Not Enter” signs posted, as well as yellow tape across the trail entry points at the Sonora Pass trailhead parking area.  Although I did check out the trailhead, I abandoned the hike.  Instead, I drove part way down CA-108 east, toward US-395, to the Leavitt Meadows trailhead where I’d identified a “Plan B” hike.  After I completed the hike I continued down CA-108 to US-395.  Along the way I noticed what looked like a smoke plume, a bit orange around the edges, north of CA-108.  When I got to Sonora Junction I found that US-395 was closed just north of the intersection, and a wildfire was clearly visible.  I later learned that the fire had started only about two hours before I got there.  The CHP personnel on-site staffing the road closure seemed as interested as I was in taking pictures of the fire, which was clearly visible from the road closure point.

image of early stage of the Boot fire on 4 September 2018

Early stage of the Boot fire on 4 September 2018

I had been planning to meet up with a hiking buddy later in the evening and, the next day, to hike south from Sonora Pass on the PCT.  After several phone calls and conversations with the CHP personnel, though, we agreed to abandon that hike.  The fire situation was just too unpredictable.  Once we’d made our decision I drove back up CA-108 over Sonora Pass to return to the Bay Area.  As I gained elevation the sun approached sunset, and the sky got more and more orange due to the angle of the sun and to the smoke and haze in the air.

image of sunset near Sonora Pass the first day of the Boot fire

Sunset near Sonora Pass the first day of the Boot fire

Although the air was somewhat better at the 9500-foot elevation of Sonora Pass, I was more and more convinced we’d made the right decision to abandon the next day’s hike.  When I could get to the internet I learned that the new fire had been named the Boot fire.  Sometime during the day we would have been hiking, CA-108 was closed from US-395 to somewhere west of Sonora Pass.  If I’d done the planned out-and-back day hike, by the time I returned to my car it would have been within the closed section of highway.  This became an even better reason to be glad we’d cancelled the hike!

As shown on the map above, the Boot fire is much smaller in area than the Donnell fire.  As of 8 September the area is just under 7000 acres, or 11 square miles.  The area east of the Pacific Crest is in Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.  A more detailed map is shown here, showing that the fire has jumped both US-395 and Burcham Flat Rd to its east.  In accordance with the usual prevailing wind direction it is spreading to the east.  It is just 3% contained.

image of map of Boot fire as of 8 September 2018

Map of Boot fire as of 8 September 2018

Earlier there were mandatory evacuations of two campgrounds and a US Marine Training Center along CA-108 – including the campground located at the trailhead of my 4 September hike.

With all of the destruction, and the loss of life and property and forest, is there good news?  I believe there is.  Of course, the lives lost cannot be recovered or replaced.  But at least some of the structures can be rebuilt or replaced.  The forest itself will recover over time, as it is amazingly resilient.  In the spring I visited a North Bay Area open space that had been heavily damaged in one of last Fall’s devastating wildfires.  I was pleasantly surprised to see how many wildflowers seemed to be thriving less than 6 months later.  Yes, some of those flowers do especially well in the aftermath of a wildfire.  But the larger flora, such as shrubs and trees – some of them, at least – will seed themselves and in that manner regrow the forest.  This is hopeful, as long as a new fire doesn’t come through too soon.

On a more mundane and personal note, as I’ve been writing this post and checking web sites for up-to-date information on the specific fires I’ve discussed, I’ve noted that US-395 and CA-108 are now open again in the area of the Boot fire.  And today the Donnell fire web page announced that the PCT is open again north of Sonora Pass.  Of course this could change again if warranted, but I believe that the US Forest Service closures are treated conservatively and the strong expectation is that the re-opened areas will be able to remain open.  This is an important public-facing step in the fire recovery.

Posted in Alpine County, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Mono County, Pacific Crest Trail, Shasta County, Siskiyou County, Trinity County, Tuolumne County | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

West Walker River Trail to Hoover Wilderness

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The West Walker River Trail is, I think, a relatively unknown trail along CA-108 between US-395 and Sonora Pass, passing southward for some 17 miles from the Leavitt Meadows Trailhead in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and into the Hoover Wilderness.  The trail is on the east side of the Pacific Crest in northwestern Mono County.

I happened to find the trail on a regional trail map while searching for a possible alternative to the hike I’d hoped to be able to do, on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) north from Sonora Pass.  That section of the PCT had been closed since 9 August due to the Donnell fire.  I had decided to check out the trailhead since I was going to be in the area anyway, but wanted to have a backup plan.  I was glad I’d found a backup plan, because there was prominent signage, as well as yellow “police tape,” across the entrance to the PCT at the Sonora Pass trailhead parking area.

The trailhead for the West Walker River Trail is at the lower end of the Leavitt Meadows Campground, which is at about 7200 feet elevation and about 6 miles up CA-108 from Sonora Junction.  An adjacent trailhead, Leavitt Trailhead, is available for day use and overnight parking at no charge.  No camping is allowed at the trailhead parking area, but you can leave a car for a multi-day backpack trip if desired.

I mentally allocated about 3 hours for an exploratory hike.  There are several small lakes in the area – Roosevelt, Lane, Secret, and Poore Lakes – and I was hoping to make it to at least one.  As it turned out I didn’t quite make it to Roosevelt Lake, the closest, though I turned around only about 1/4 mile short.  I had become concerned about some thunder rumblings I’d been hearing during my outbound hike.  The weather forecast had not called for any rain that I was aware of, so I had not put my rain gear in my day pack, and I didn’t want to get caught in any rain.

From the Leavitt Trailhead parking area a small path leads to the campground, crossing an informal log bridge across Brownie Creek.  Following the campground road north (downhill) through the campground leads easily to a more substantial bridge across the West Walker River.  The bridge seems to mark the official beginning of the West Walker River Trail.

photo of bridge across West Walker River at Leavitt Meadows Campground

Bridge across West Walker River at Leavitt Meadows Campground

An overview of the hike is shown in the GPS track image, with the orange dot denoting my parking location in the Leavitt Trailhead parking area.  The bridge and the beginning of the West Walker River Trail are at the northernmost point of the GPS track.  My out-and-back hike was 5.7 miles.

GPS track

GPS track

The map shows a couple of alternatives to the main trail, but I decided to keep my navigation simple by following the main West Walker River Trail.  It turned out to be a sensible decision.  It was clear from the contour lines on the map that the first mile and a half beyond the bridge were pretty flat, generally following the wavy path of the river through Leavitt Meadows.  After that the trail would begin climbing into and through the Hoover Wilderness.  The elevation profile shows this character.  Altogether my hike included about 650 feet of elevation gain and loss, so the average grade was only about 4.3%.  In the “climbing” section the grade was about 7%, which is still quite reasonable.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The first section of trail passes through a pretty, mostly conifer-forested area.

photo of West Walker River Trail passing through forest

West Walker River Trail passing through forest

After a short distance, by about 0.5 mile from the parking area, the forest opens up as the trail approaches Leavitt Meadows proper.  A signed trail to the left goes to Secret Lake.  To the right (west), there is a very nice view of a row of peaks on the far side of the Leavitt Creek canyon, through which CA-108 travels.  Only about 10 air miles to the west the Donnell fire was still burning.  I couldn’t tell whether the grey skies were indicative of high-elevation smoke or of clouds.

photo of skyline along the west side of Leavitt Creek canyon

Skyline along the west side of Leavitt Creek canyon

To the left (east) there was an interesting rocky formation not far away.  Some blue sky and puffy clouds were visible past the edge of the dark grey cloud.

photo of rocky formation east of the trail

Rocky formation east of the trail

About 0.8 mile from the trailhead there was a view pretty much directly up the Leavitt Creek canyon, with a higher peak visible in the distance.  With a bit of blue sky and “regular” clouds peeking through, I still didn’t know quite what to make of the large grey cloud.

photo of view up Leavitt Creek canyon

View up Leavitt Creek canyon

Although much of the forest was conifers, in the more open meadow there were also some other trees and shrubs, such as this aspen (Populus tremuloides).  A few branches had leaves that had already begun to change color to the beautiful, characteristic yellow of aspens in the fall.

photo of aspen


About 1.2 mile from the trailhead the meandering path of the West Walker River sweeps rather close to the trail, and you can look either upstream or downstream across Leavitt Meadows.  Near the riverbed there are willows and other such water-loving plants, while farther away and higher, where the trail has been routed, there is sagebrush and other dry-environment plants.

photo of West Walker River and Leavitt Meadows

West Walker River and Leavitt Meadows

Along this relatively level section there were a few rather faint, unsigned trails that took off toward the river.  I think one of them goes to a pack camp where visitors can rent horse rides.  In this area the primary plant with flowers was rabbitbrush, most likely rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa), which is the most prevalent type.

About 1.9 miles from the trailhead the trail begins to climb and gets a little closer to a low ridge on the left.  After another 1/2 mile or so, I encountered a particularly interesting conifer that was growing next to a geometrically shaped boulder.  The texture of the bark was visually compelling.

photo of conifer with textured bark next to a geometrical rock

Conifer with textured bark next to a geometrical rock

I soon encountered a shrub with toothed leaves and distinctive red berries.  The leaves tell me it’s not any kind of gooseberry (Ribes sp) but I don’t know what it is.

photo of shrub with distinctive red berries

Shrub with distinctive red berries

There were a few yellow aspen leaves on the ground – the first I’ve seen this year – and perhaps a premonition of the approaching end to summer.

photo of aspen leaf on the trail

Aspen leaf on the trail

About 2.8 miles from the parking lot I arrived at a sign announcing the boundary of the Hoover Wilderness.  I was not familiar with the Hoover Wilderness before this hike, but through some quick research I learned that it was one of the original parts of the National Wilderness Preservation System and has been a designated Wilderness Area since 1964.  Its 128,000 acres are partly in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and partly in the Inyo National Forest.  It briefly borders CA-108 in the north and extends southward to the northern border of Yosemite National Park.  Its west border, which runs along the Pacific Crest, connects to the Emigrant Wilderness within Stanislaus National Forest.  In this part of the Sierra Nevada the national forests and wilderness areas are virtually continuous, except for a few roads that cross the mountains (and which are closed due to snow all winter).

Because of my time constraints and my concern with the possible thunder rumblings, I continued into the Hoover Wilderness only for about 0.1 mile before turning around to return to the trailhead.  As I left the wilderness I noticed a side trail and sign that I’d missed on my inbound hike.  The side trail goes to Poore Lake and Secret Lake; the Secret Lake Trail meets back up with the West Walker River Trail near the trailhead, as can be seen on the GPS track image.

As the trail descended toward the meadows, there was a nice view north or northeast down the canyon through which CA-108 goes.  In this direction the cloud cover was nearly complete and the skies were grey. Every so often I imagined that I felt a couple of rain drops, so I basically hiked diligently in the hope that I’d arrive at my car dry.  I thought the breeze picked up, also.

photo of view down the canyon

View down the canyon

About halfway back I happened to notice a small conifer that looked like a perfect Christmas tree.  A chaparral bush was growing right next to it, and the breeze clearly ruffled the more flexible branches of the chaparral.

photo of Christmas tree and a bush, the latter ruffled by a strong breeze

Christmas tree and a bush, the latter ruffled by a strong breeze

There were pretty views across Leavitt Meadows.  Although it was pretty brown in the late season, I imagine that it is much more lush, even here on the eastern (desert) side of the Sierras, in the spring.  Suddenly I noticed a brilliant red paintbrush, just a single spike growing among some brush.  In spite of the dry location, I think it is most likely Applegate’s paintbrush (Castilleja applegatei) rather than desert paintbrush (C. chromosa), based on the number of lobes on the bracts.

photo of paintbrush – a touch of brilliant color

Paintbrush – a touch of brilliant color

Shortly after that I noticed some buckwheat and decided to try to identify it via my photos.  I think it is naked buckwheat (Eriogonum nudum).  I’d not identified this species before, even though it is relatively common and widespread, but the leafless stems, basal leaves, and relatively small flower heads fit the description.

photo of naked buckwheat along the trail

Naked buckwheat along the trail

Closer to the trailhead I noticed a large, stately juniper (Juniperus sp), with clusters of purple berries in evidence.

When I got to the bridge across the West Walker River I noticed someone sitting high up on the bank fishing in a pool of calm water.

photo of fishing in the West Walker River

Fishing in the West Walker River

It was a serene view that I enjoyed as I realized that I would, indeed, reach my car before any rain.  In fact, there wasn’t any rain for at least the next 2 or 3 hours.  I think the grey clouds were primarily smoke, even though I didn’t particularly smell smoke.  And as I drove down CA-108 to US-395 I came upon the beginning of the Boot fire, which ended up cancelling my hiking plan for the next day.

Posted in Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Mono County | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Two-day backpack between Silver Lake and Long Lake

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My first, and perhaps only, backpack trip for 2018 was a two-day out-and-back trek from Silver Lake to Long Lake near Carson Pass.  I’m a relatively inexperienced backpacker – this was only my third lifetime backpack trip – and I think it was the most ambitious: a bit longer, a bit higher in elevation, and with more elevation gain than my previous two trips.  So it was somewhat challenging, but the weather was perfect and the scenery was worth the effort.

In addition to mountain scenery, the hike went past at least six lakes and there were side trails to others.  The destination, and overnight camping spot, was at Long Lake.  Although four hikers began the hike together, only two of us had planned to backpack, while our companions had planned a day hike.  We did encounter a few other hikers and generally exchanged chitchat about where we were headed.  I don’t recall that any of them had heard of Long Lake, so it seems to be a beautifully well-kept secret.  This was our first view of this pretty lake, after hiking 10 miles.

picture of Long Lake – first view

Long Lake – first view

The GPS track shows an overview of the route, which was in the El Dorado National Forest in northeast Amador County.  The starting point, marked with an orange dot, was the Granite Lake Trail trailhead on the east side of Silver Lake.  The route was about 10.3 miles each way; the outbound trip was a little longer due to a short detour and then finding what turned out to be a beautiful camp site.  My GPS recorded 20.9 miles total for the two days.

GPS track

GPS track

After passing Granite and Hidden Lakes, the trail joins the Allen Camp Trail and switchbacks up a ridge.  It then follows what turned out to be a very dusty jeep road for about 0.8 mile, then a cutoff trail that leads to Squaw Ridge.  South and east of Squaw Ridge the Munson Meadow Trail enters the Mokelumne Wilderness and descends south across multiple meadows, none of them the actual Munson Meadow.  It passes spur trails to Black Rock Lake, Cole Creek Lakes (a cluster of small lakes), and finally Long Lake.  It’s another mile-plus to Munson Meadow, but we didn’t try to go that far.

The elevation profile for the outbound hike shows the small ridge and Squaw Ridge, the highest point of the hike at about 8600 feet elevation.  The trailhead at Silver Lake is about 7300 feet elevation, while Long Lake is about 7800 feet.  The total elevation gain and loss for the two days was about 2925 feet, so the average grade was about 5.3%.  Normally I would consider this to be a very comfortable grade, but it seemed steeper, and the distance longer, when carrying a 25 pound pack!

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Barely 1/4 mile from the trailhead we came to our first interesting view, which was of a nearby rocky ridge.  In this area there was chaparral, some rather sparse conifers, and lots of rocks.

picture of rocky ridge not far from the trailhead

Rocky ridge not far from the trailhead

Soon after that we passed an interesting boulder that seemed to be balancing on its rounded underside on the base rock below it.  The tree that appears to have grown out of the boulder is actually behind it.

picture of boulder balancing act

Boulder balancing act

About 0.5 mile from the trailhead the trail crosses a bridge across an intermittent stream.  Not far after that, near the first small rise on the elevation profile, there was a nice view of Silver Lake.

picture of Silver Lake viewed from the Granite Lake Trail

Silver Lake viewed from the Granite Lake Trail

The trail then passes a small unnamed lake, followed by Granite Lake, about 1.6 miles from the trailhead.  This lake is close enough to the trailhead to be fairly popular, but in other respects would make a good destination for a first backpack trip, in which the distance hiked is relatively unimportant; the point is to carry a pack, identify a camp site, and do all of the other backpacking activities.  I think the ridge in the background of this picture is the same one we’d noticed near the beginning of the hike.

picture of Granite Lake

Granite Lake

The trail now passes through nearly continuous forested areas, like this example.  Within the forest there are fewer rocks to negotiate within the trail tread.

picture of Granite Lake Trail passing through forest

Granite Lake Trail passing through forest

About 2 miles past Granite Lake is Hidden Lake, where a slight breeze created ripples that reflected points of bright sunlight.  Hidden Lake would be another destination for a first backpack trip, with the advantage of being less populated than Granite Lake.

picture of Hidden Lake

Hidden Lake

About 4.3 miles from the trailhead we arrived at a junction with Allen Camp Trail, where we turned left.  In this area I noted a few thistles and some broad-leaf lupine (Lupinus polyphylla) that had finished blooming for the season.  There was also a good-sized cementitious (sedimentary rock) boulder next to the trail.  The next 0.5 mile climbs about 250 feet (9% grade), switchbacking a few times up to the top of a ridge.  Along the way there is a fantastic view to the north of a row of rather distant peaks.  I think the lake in the foreground is Silver Lake, and then the peaks would be in the Desolation Wilderness southwest of Lake Tahoe.

picture of distant view north, toward the Desolation Wilderness

Distant view north, toward the Desolation Wilderness

Just over the top of the ridge is Allen Ranch, which appears to be a remnant of an earlier operation.  The trail proceeds downhill and shortly turns into a jeep road.  This was a very dusty road, with several inches of fine “moon dust” to walk through.  It was almost preferable to walk off the side of the road, even though that meant bushwhacking through the chaparral.  The road passes what looks like a former barn or other ranch building, now mostly collapsed.  We encountered Forest Service staff who advised us that the road is currently closed to vehicle traffic due to some road rehabilitation work in progress.  After a bit we stopped for a lunch break and our day-hike companions returned to the trailhead instead of extending their hike on the road.  After 0.8 mile on the road my backpacking companion and I found a trail that avoids the road for the last half mile up to Squaw Ridge.  I have to say that this road was the least pleasant part of the hike.

In any case, when we reached Squaw Ridge we found some signage indicating the location of the former Plasse Trading Post, a location along the Mormon-Carson River Emigrant Trail that was active around 1850.

picture of Plasse Trading Post commemorative sign

Plasse Trading Post commemorative sign

On Squaw Ridge we made a small navigational error that resulted in a detour of about 0.3 mile.  Instead of continuing essentially straight at the Plasse Trading Post sign we went left along the ridge, and it took us a few minutes to figure out we’d made an error and another several minutes to correct it and figure out where we should have gone.  While off the intended route on the ridge, though, we had a very nice view of The Nipple, a distinctive 9340-foot peak about 9 miles almost due east.  I had hiked part way across a shoulder of The Nipple two years ago on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and was hoping to fill in a PCT gap in a few weeks.  We would see views of The Nipple from our intended route, also.

picture of The Nipple, a distinctive peak south and east of Carson Pass

The Nipple, a distinctive peak south and east of Carson Pass

South of the top of Squaw Ridge the trail becomes Munson Meadow Trail and enters the Mokelumne Wilderness, passing near Horse Thief Spring.  The trail descends almost monotonically the rest of the way to the Long Lake spur trail, almost 3.5 miles.  Most of the time it passes through forest.  Shortly after a trail takes off to the left (east) toward Black Rock Lake there is a short section of trail that passes over bare rock, with a few sparse trees.  The trail’s path has been marked with smaller rocks, though, so it is actually very easy to follow.

picture of Munson Meadow Trail section across bare rock

Munson Meadow Trail section across bare rock

There is another spur trail, this one to the right, that leads to a cluster of small lakes called Cole Creek Lakes.  Just before the trail passes very close to Lower Cole Creek Lake it descends through what can only be described as a chute.  This picture looks up the chute from the bottom.  Fortunately, it wasn’t as difficult as it initially looked to negotiate the chute with a loaded pack.

picture of chute down a steep section of trail

Chute down a steep section of trail

About 3.4 miles past Squaw Ridge we came to the spur trail to Long Lake.  The lake itself was just 0.4 mile away on this trail.  The first picture in this post shows how serene the lake looked when we arrived a little before 3:30 pm.  The first order of business was to find a nice camp site.  Long Lake has been described as “many-bayed,” and indeed the shape is reminiscent of a number 3, with two major bays and smaller ones around the perimeter.  We ended up deciding to camp on a small peninsula between the two eastern arms of the lake.  We found camp sites that had obviously been used previously; one even had a fire circle that we didn’t use due to current fire restrictions.  After setting up camp we had time to relax, refill our water containers, and prepare dinner.  A nice breeze alternately blew for a bit and then calmed down.  If I walked just a short distance from my camp site this was my view.

picture of Long Lake - evening view

Long Lake – evening view

The next morning I walked a short distance across the peninsula and had this view facing west, backlit by the rising sun.  Although it was tempting to sit and enjoy the lake view some more, we broke camp and were hiking again before 8am.

picture of Long Lake - morning view

Long Lake – morning view

Most of the way to the Black Rock Lake spur trail I stopped to appreciate a distant view generally eastward.  The skyline included a double-humped peak, at the left in the picture, and what appears to be a small plume of smoke to the right.  I haven’t determined which peaks are in the picture.

picture of view of Sierra Nevada skyline with a smoke plume

View of Sierra Nevada skyline with a smoke plume

On the way back up to Squaw Ridge I particularly noticed the meadows through which the trail passed.  I even noticed one plant of woolly mule ears (Wyethia mollis) whose leaves were still green and fresh-looking, unlike all of the others whose leaves had long since become dry.  Although I found very few wildflowers in bloom, I did notice a few clusters of light purple asters.  And later, in the section between Hidden and Granite Lakes, I found an Alpine gentian (Gentiana newberryi).

picture of Alpine gentian

Alpine gentian

The rest of the return hike was relatively uneventful, though it was pleasant to take note of many of the same views I’d seen on the outbound hike.  Overall this was a beautiful hike and backpack trip, with lovely lakes and views.  And I enjoyed the accomplishment of finishing a backpack that was more challenging than my others.  When I got home and discovered I’d lost about 2 pounds, I resolved to eat more next time!

Posted in Amador County, backpacking, Eldorado National Forest | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pacific Crest Trail from Carson Pass to the Winnemucca Lake Trail junction

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The main purpose of this relatively short hike was – besides enjoying spectacular scenery near Carson Pass – to fill in part of a gap in my hikes on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).  Before I did this hike the gap extended from Carson Pass to the western shoulder of a peak called The Nipple: about 8 miles.  I was already planning to do a group hike a few weeks later that would fill in the middle portion of the gap, leaving a short 1.2 mile gap just south of Carson Pass.  I decided to add to the PCT segment by continuing almost to Winnemucca Lake and by taking a very short side trip to Frog Lake.

This part of the PCT is in the El Dorado National Forest in Alpine County.   The trail enters the Mokelumne Wilderness almost immediately past the Carson Pass Information Station on CA-88.  The information station has a good-sized parking area, restroom, and several interpretive signs.

picture of Carson Pass Information Station

Carson Pass Information Station

An overview of the route is shown in the GPS track image, where the orange dot shows the beginning and end of the out-and-back hike.

GPS track

GPS track

The total length of the hike was 4.8 miles, with half of the distance on the PCT.  The official PCT mileages, according to the PCT data book, are 1078.7 at CA-88 and 1077.5 at the Winnemucca Lake Trail junction.  Carson Pass is close to 8600 feet elevation, nearly the lowest elevation of the hike.  The total elevation gain and loss were just 725 feet, so the average grade was 5.7%, which is quite modest.  My turnaround point near Winnemucca Lake is just over 9000 feet elevation.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Although it was quite late in the wildflower season I did find a few late-blooming flowers.  One example is this cluster of rabbit brush growing in a thin layer of soil on top of a granite boulder.  It is most likely rubber rabbit brush (Ericameria nauseosa), based on general prevalence, though there are other species of rabbit brush also found in the area.

picture of rabbit brush

Rabbit brush

The first part of the trail passes through a fairly open forested area, where I noted an interesting-looking tree.  I’m not sure what kind of weather or climatological situation caused the main trunk to twist around almost in a loop before continuing a more traditional vertical growth pattern.  The tree was well over 50 feet tall.

picture of twisted tree along the PCT

Twisted tree along the PCT

By about 1 mile from the trailhead the trail has emerged into more open sub-alpine terrain, and there is a beautiful view of aptly-named Round Top.  The nearby skyline includes the formation known as The Sisters.

picture of Round Top (left) and The Sisters (right)

Round Top (left) and The Sisters (right)

About 1.1 mile from the trailhead there is a junction with a spur trail that leads to Frog Lake; I would visit Frog Lake on the return trip.  Just 0.1 mile after that there is another junction with Winnemucca Lake Trail.  I had decided to extend my hike by leaving the PCT to hike to Winnemucca Lake.  This area is a wildflower hot spot in season, but this year late August was definitely past prime time.

At the Winnemucca Lake Trail junction there were several interesting views.  One was of the distinctive formation called Elephant’s Back.

picture of Elephant’s Back

Elephant’s Back

Another nice view, almost in the opposite direction, included Caples Lake.  CA-88 passes right by Caples Lake several miles west of Carson Pass, between Carson Pass and Carson Spur.

picture of Caples Lake

Caples Lake

To the north there is a pretty view of Red Lake Peak, shown at the right in this picture.  Little Round Top is at the left.  And between these nearby peaks you can see two other, more distant peaks.  I think they are near Fallen Leaf Lake, about 15 miles away and just south of Lake Tahoe.

picture of Red Lake Peak (right) and Little Round Top (left)

Red Lake Peak (right) and Little Round Top (left)

From this trail junction I left the PCT and continued on the Winnemucca Lake Trail.  This trail climbs gently and then makes a very slight descent to Winnemucca Lake, about 1 1/4 mile away.  Along the way the trail passes through meadows and other moist areas which are lush with wildflowers in season.  Although it was slightly disappointing to miss the wildflowers I was rewarded by seeing a few Alpine gentians (Gentiana newberryi).  In general gentians are late bloomers, so these particular flowers would not be evident during the peak wildflower season.

picture of Alpine gentian

Alpine gentian

I decided to turn around just before I reached the shore of Winnemucca Lake, 2.3 miles from the trailhead.  This view was from my turnaround point.

picture approaching Winnemucca Lake

Approaching Winnemucca Lake

Looking across the north end of the lake there was another pretty view of Round Top.  Although it doesn’t show very distinctly in the photo, the slope at the right was almost a patchwork of muted colors distinct from the decomposed rock soil.

picture of Round Top behind Winnemucca Lake

Round Top behind Winnemucca Lake

After enjoying the views of Winnemucca Lake I began to retrace my path back to the trailhead.  As sometimes happens, I notice views on the return trip that I had not noticed on the outbound hike.  This is especially true when the interesting view is directly in front of me on the return hike!  Just as the Winnemucca Lake Trail starts definitively downhill there is a really nice view, almost northeast, of the cluster of Freel Peak, Job’s Sister, and Job’s Peak about 15 miles away.  I think the peak farther to the right may be Hawkins Peak, which is somewhat closer, less than 10 miles away.  I have hiked Job’s Peak, Job’s Sister, and Freel Peak, and it’s always a special treat to see them from a distance and remember that hike.

picture of Freel Peak, Job’s Sister, and Job’s Peak (left to right), with Hawkins Peak to the right

Freel Peak, Job’s Sister, and Job’s Peak (left to right), with Hawkins Peak to the right

From about the same place on the trail there is a different view of Elephant’s Back: more of a side view.  From this vantage point it looks – to me, anyway – more like a whale than an elephant.

picture of Elephant’s Back (side view)

Elephant’s Back (side view)

After returning to the PCT I continued the short distance to the Frog Lake spur trail and hiked over to visit Frog Lake.  It is a pretty lake, with a nice view of Red Lake Peak in the background.  The water was calm, creating pretty reflections of a couple of large boulders.

picture of Frog Lake, with Red Lake Peak behind

Frog Lake, with Red Lake Peak behind

After taking a short break enjoying the lake view I returned to the trailhead at the Carson Pass Information Station.  Although short, this hike is very rewarding with respect to views.

Posted in Alpine County, Eldorado National Forest, Pacific Crest Trail | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Frog Lake Overlook and Devil’s Oven Lake Overlook Loop

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The area around Donner Summit, just a few miles west of Truckee, has a number of interesting hiking and mountain biking trails.  Among other trails, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) passes through the area; and Hole in the Ground Trail is a favorite with mountain bikers.  This was a loop hike with destinations of Frog Lake and Devil’s Oven Lake overlooks.  A subtitle for the hike might be “two vista point overlooks and an unintended peak summit,” with the latter resulting from a wrong turn.

Highlights of this pretty hike included many views of the Sierras in the vicinity of Donner Summit and views of Castle Peak from virtually every direction.  The loop actually circles Castle Peak, so a different subtitle might be “circumnavigation of Castle Peak”.  A sample view is shown here, with Castle Peak on the left and Basin Peak on the right, as viewed from the Frog Lake overlook.

image of Castle Peak (left) and Basin Peak (right), from the Frog Lake overlook

Castle Peak (left) and Basin Peak (right), from the Frog Lake overlook

Including my detour the hike was 13 miles, with 3,000 feet of elevation gain and loss.  As shown in the GPS track map, the peak right in the middle of the loop is Castle Peak.  The orange dot denotes the start/end point at the Donner Summit rest area on westbound I-80.  The hike proceeded around the loop in the counterclockwise direction.  The hike is in Tahoe National Forest, in Nevada County.

GPS track

GPS track

The elevation profile shows that the rest area was the lowest elevation of the entire hike.  The high elevation point at 2.7 miles, about 8,600 feet, was at the Frog Lake overlook; hiking just to the overlook and back is a nice, shorter hike with views that are worth the effort.  The highest elevation I reached, nearly 9,000 feet, was essentially the top of Basin Peak at the turnaround point for my unplanned side trip.  If I hadn’t made the wrong turn the high elevation point on the shoulder of Basin Peak would have been about 8,500 feet.  The overall average grade was 8.75%, and the elevation profile shows that there were certainly some steeper sections.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Although I often hike solo, I had two companions on this hike.  We stayed reasonably close together – except, as it turned out, near the place where I made the wrong turn.

At the first junction the route goes toward Summit Lake, following the Summit Lake Trail for nearly a mile.  The next junction is the Donner Lake Rim Trail (also Summit Lake Trail to the right); the loop route continues straight on the Warren Lake Trail, and follows the Warren Lake Trail for about 4.2 miles.

The lower part of the loop passes through pretty forest and winds around granite outcrops.

image of forested area near Donner Summit

Forested area near Donner Summit

In the forested area, near both the beginning and the end of the hike, I found some checkerblooms (Sidalcea glaucescens is the most common local species).

image of checkerbloom


About 1.6 miles from the trailhead the Warren Lake Trail, which has been climbing steadily, makes a left turn and emerges from the trees to reveal a nice view to the south.  You can see a couple of ski lift towers at either Sugar Bowl or Soda Springs and the row of peaks along the Pacific Crest between Donner Summit and Squaw Valley, another beautiful and popular hike (see, for example here).  This row of peaks would re-appear several times during the hike.

The next section of the hike primarily passed through open meadow.  Some of the more common wildflowers I saw were woolly mule ears (Wyethia mollis), hoary aster (Machaeranthera canescens), a couple of types of daisy (Erigeron sp), several unidentified yellow composites (UYC’s), and glaucus larkspur (Delphinium glaucum).  Not surprisingly, distant views gradually opened up.

The short (0.1 mile) detour up a small hill to the Frog Lake overlook is about 2.6 miles from the trailhead.  The overlook itself is just under 8,600 feet elevation, after a total climb of 1400 feet.  The views are quite memorable, since the overlook is nearly the highest point for several miles in all directions.  Frog Lake is just down a steep cliff face, some 1000 feet lower than the overlook.  If you stay a safe distance back from the cliff face you can’t even see the entire lake.  In this picture Mt Rose is barely visible at the right side of the skyline, about 22 miles away.

image of Frog Lake, from its overlook

Frog Lake, from its overlook

The Pacific Crest skyline south from the Donner Summit area to Tinker Knob seems to be almost at the same elevation as the overlook – probably because it actually is!

image of Pacific Crest skyline, from Frog Lake overlook

Pacific Crest skyline, from Frog Lake overlook

Looking west, both Castle Peak and Basin Peak were prominent on the skyline, as shown in the first picture in this post.  From the Frog Lake overlook the route would proceed generally northwest and pass just behind Basin Peak.

After enjoying a short break and the views, we returned back to the Warren Lake Trail and continued around the loop.  Just as we got to the main trail we encountered two women who were placing way-marking flags for an upcoming 100 km trail run.  They quickly jogged ahead of us, placing bright orange flags to mark the trail and, at junctions, blue streamers to mark trails to ignore.  (This turned out to be important relative to my wrong turn about 4 miles later.)  About a half mile later the Warren Lake Trail makes a left turn where an unsigned trail enters from the right.  After a short flat section, the trail dips over 300 feet, crossing a small canyon with a stream at the bottom.

Shortly after the left turn there is an especially nice view of Castle Peak, which seems to rise majestically from the canyon side, with different areas of meadows, trees, and bare granite.

image of Castle Peak

Castle Peak

As the trail negotiates the canyon it is lined on both sides by meadows and colorful wildflowers, including broad-leaf lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus), fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium), ranger’s buttons (Sphenosciadium capitellatum), common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and primrose monkeyflowers (Erythranthe primuloides, formerly Mimulus primuloides).  There were pretty views down the canyon.

At the bottom of the canyon there is a stream that later joins others to form the North Fork Prosser Creek, which then flows eastward through Carpenter Valley.  The stream crossing is what is often called a rock hop, and there were quite a few paintbrush (Castilleja sp) along the stream banks.

image of paintbrush at a stream crossing

Paintbrush at a stream crossing

As the trail climbed the far side of the canyon we passed some broad scaled owl’s clover (Orthocarpus cuspidatus), also called Copeland’s owl’s clover.  The overlapping bracts are pinkish, or even mauve, in color.

image of broad scaled, or Copeland’s, owl’s clover

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

The elevation profile shows several small dips as the trail climbs, and I think each of the dips denotes the crossing of a small stream.  At two of these streams I was startled, but happy, to find some Lewis’ monkeyflower (Erythranthe lewisii, formerly Mimulus lewisii), which is also called great purple monkeyflower.  I had recently seen my first Lewis’ monkeyflower in a botanical garden, and it was special to find it in the wild.  This close-up shows a lot of the detail at the throat of the blossom; some of these details help attract pollinators and the structures on the upper petals serve to accomplish the pollination.

image of Lewis’ monkeyflower, also called great purple monkeyflower

Lewis’ monkeyflower, also called great purple monkeyflower

Continuing to climb, there was a nice view down the main stream toward Coon Canyon, with at least 3 meadows visible below.  Shortly I noticed a patch of bright pink rock fringe (Epilobium obcordatum), each blossom with 4 heart-shaped petals.

image of rock fringe

Rock fringe

About 5.5 miles from the trailhead we came to the signed junction with the Devil’s Oven cutoff trail, where we turned left and departed the Warren Lake Trail.  From this area there was another nice view of Castle Peak, almost diametrically opposite to the more typical view from I-80.  The long ridgeline at the right of the picture extends roughly northwest from the castle.

image of Castle Peak, viewed from near the beginning of the Devil’s Oven cutoff trail

Castle Peak, viewed from near the beginning of the Devil’s Oven cutoff trail

Less than 1/2 mile later we came to the Devil’s Oven Lake overlook.  Along the way there was one place where we could see, between some trees, a pointy peak far to the north.  It was too far away to be Mt Lola, which is only about 4 miles away, and probably too close to be Lassen Peak, which is 95 miles away.  Devil’s Oven Lake is directly below the overlook, about 600 feet lower in elevation.

image of Devil’s Oven Lake, from the overlook

Devil’s Oven Lake, from the overlook

The smaller body of water to the left is in about the right location to be the southern part of Paradise Lake.  However, it appears to be higher than Devil’s Oven Lake, while Paradise Lake is actually about 150 feet lower.  So it’s a bit of a mystery, unless there is simply a small, unnamed lake in that area.

Continuing along the cutoff trail, I suddenly noticed another bright pink/magenta flower; it reminded me of the owl’s clover I see in the Bay Area near sea level, but that flower doesn’t grow this high.   A closer look at the flower head suggested that it was actually a type of paintbrush I’d never seen before.  After a bit of research I’m pretty sure it is Lemmon’s paintbrush (Castilleja lemmonii), the only Castilleja species that is such a magenta color.

image of Lemmon’s paintbrush

Lemmon’s paintbrush

Right next to the paintbrush there were a few little elephant’s head (Pedicularis attollens) plants, though I didn’t take the time to get good pictures.  Shortly after that we came upon a water stash for the trail run.  Immediately after passing the water stash the trail makes a sharp turn to the left, where the trail straight ahead was marked with blue streamers and blocked by a large stick across the trail.  Another trail, marked by orange flags, continued uphill sharply to the left.  Here I made a mistake.  Apparently I did not hear that we would finally depart from the trail run route, though I understood that our loop trail would shortly top out and we would stop for a lunch break.  In any case, I followed the orange flags uphill.  In a few minutes there was a nice view westward, with Old Man Mountain on the right and (I think) Red Mountain on the left.  The distinctive Sierra Buttes were also visible, about 20 miles northwest.

image of Old Man Mountain (right) and Red Mountain (left)

Old Man Mountain (right) and Red Mountain (left)

Even though I became less and less sure that I was on the correct trail, I continued uphill.  The trail was pretty steep, and I was reluctant to descend until I was sure I wouldn’t have to climb up again.  Several minutes later I decided to try to call my companions; the number stored in my phone was the home number, but I left a message anyway.  Meanwhile there were more pretty views; I think the lake visible far below may be Warren Lake.

image of Warren Lake (perhaps), from my detour

Warren Lake (perhaps), from my detour

I could see that I might be near the top of the trail, so I continued to follow the orange flags.  Just as I reached a small pile of rocks that I believe marks the summit of Basin Peak, I received a phone call from my companions and was informed that I should not have hiked up the hill!  Before I started down I took one more picture of Castle Peak, which is less than 100 feet higher than Basin Peak and less than 1.5 miles away.

image of Castle Peak, viewed from Basin Peak

Castle Peak, viewed from Basin Peak

Because I was now holding up our overall progress, once I knew for sure I should go back to the last junction I tried to descend as efficiently as possible, but safely.  The only other alternative would have been to bushwhack down the southwest side of Basin Peak to intersect the PCT, since the trail I’d hiked up was apparently a spur trail.  In all, my mistake cost us about 45 minutes, even though I’d unintentionally bagged Basin Peak.

After a quick lunch break (for me), we all continued along the Devil’s Oven Lake cutoff trail toward the PCT.  About 3/4 mile past the end of my detour we reached the junction with the PCT and turned left.  And before too long we began to encounter northbound through-hikers.

After the Basin Peak spur trail our route was mainly downhill.  Near the PCT junction there was a nice view down to a series of meadows, with the Pacific Crest skyline once again visible in the background.

image of meadows and Pacific Crest skyline

Meadows and Pacific Crest skyline

As the PCT descends it passes a trail that leads west to Hole in the Ground Trail.  The last dip in the elevation profile was a crossing of Lower Castle Creek, which later empties into the South Yuba River.  At the creek crossing we encountered a group of 4 equestrians who had paused for their horses to have a short rest and a refreshing drink.  Shortly after the creek crossing we arrived at the Peter Grubb Hut, which was built and is operated by the Sierra Club and named for a young club member who died in 1937 at the age of 18.  Note that the main entrance is on the second floor, so that it remains accessible during the winter.

image of Peter Grubb Hut

Peter Grubb Hut

After a quick stop at the Peter Grubb Hut we continued on the PCT back to the trailhead.  There is a final 200-foot climb, but the rest is downhill.  Near the top of this climb there is a clear view of Basin Peak, about 1000 feet higher.  It’s always a bit impressive to be able to see how far I’ve climbed or descended on a hike.

About 0.9 mile past the Peter Grubb Hut we reached Castle Pass, where a trail goes northeast up to Castle Peak.  From Castle Pass it is about 2.5 miles to the trailhead.  The PCT crosses the Donner Lake Rim Trail again and passes through forested areas and past granite outcrops similar to the first part of the hike.

Even without the detour to the top of Basin Peak this is a fairly ambitious hike, but the effort is well-rewarded by the views.

Posted in Nevada County, North Tahoe, Pacific Crest Trail, Tahoe National Forest | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Surprising Summer Wildflowers at the Regional Parks Botanic Garden

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This was a no-apology wildflower walk at the Regional Parks Botanical Garden in Tilden Regional Park in Berkeley.  Why no-apology?  Well, two days prior I had received a newsletter with an article highlighting two rare clarkia wildflowers that were in bloom.  And, due to the reason for the rare status, I might not be successful finding at least one of them in the wild.  When that is the situation, I have no hesitation about looking for the rare flower in a botanical garden.  In fact, I’m inclined to make a beeline to the garden as soon as possible.

A good possibility of seeing two new – and rare – clarkias made the trip worthwhile.  As it turned out, I also saw a third new clarkia, a new mariposa lily, two new columbines, two new monkeyflowers, and a handful of other flowers of note.  One of the really nice things about a place like the Regional Parks Botanic Garden is that there is almost always something in bloom, even when you think it’s not really wildflower season.

I was lucky to arrive at the garden just before a scheduled docent tour was to start, and I was almost the only person on the tour.  When I asked about the clarkias, one of the garden’s botanists happened to be nearby, and he joined the tour to show me where the “target” clarkias were.  He also pointed out several other interesting wildflowers in the same part of the garden, particularly after I shared some of my favorite types of wildflower.  His expertise was a wonderful addition to the tour!

Before we got to the two rare clarkias we passed a bed that had quite a few foothill clarkias (Clarkia williamsonii).  This flower is found in the western Sierra foothills, mainly between Amador and Kern Counties.  It isn’t rare, but I had never seen one before.  Each petal has a distinct dark purple splotch.

picture of foothill clarkia

Foothill clarkia

I noticed, thanks to the sunny weather, that the splotches were quite visible from the outside of the blossom, as shown in this side view.  In fact, the petals seemed almost luminous in the sun.

picture of foothill clarkia, side view

Foothill clarkia, side view

As we walked past the next flower bed on the way to the rare clarkias the botanist pointed out an unusual columbine: Sierra columbine (Aquilegia pubescens), sometimes called Coville’s columbine.  It is striking for two reasons: it is yellow, and the spurs are particularly long.  It also is found in the western Sierra foothills, mainly between Tuolumne County and Tulare County.  (We were in the Sierran section of the garden.)

picture of Sierra columbine

Sierra columbine

According to Calflora there are only 4 columbines found in California, and I’ve only seen “regular” western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) before.  There are 60-70 species of columbine worldwide, with quite a variety of colors.  In the same bed there were some red columbines, and they were desert columbine (Aquilegia shockleyi).  They can be distinguished from western columbine by the foliage.

picture of desert columbine

Desert columbine

An interesting surprise was that these two columbines apparently are able to hybridize.  The botanist was quick to point out a couple of hybrids.  The general form of the hybrid was like the Sierra, but with a touch of color from desert.

picture of columbine hybrid: Sierra x desert

Columbine hybrid: Sierra x desert

Momentarily we arrived at the flower bed containing the rare clarkias.  First we saw Vine Hill clarkia (Clarkia imbricata), also sometimes called Sonoma clarkia, which grows only in a very local area of Sonoma County.  And the area is gradually being built up, further reducing native habitat.  It is fortunate that the Botanic Garden has a fairly robust population of this flower.  Like the foothill clarkia, the Vine Hill clarkia has a (redder) purplish splotch on each petal, with the splotch a somewhat different shape and color and closer to the outer edge of the petal.  There is also a distinctive reddish margin at the base of the petals, which can look almost like the outline of a square when the blossom is viewed from above.

picture of Vine Hill clarkia

Vine Hill clarkia

The other rare clarkia, white-stemmed clarkia (Clarkia gracilis ssp albicaulis), was growing in another part of the same flower bed.  While not as limited in distribution as Vine Hill clarkia, it is mainly found in Butte, Colusa, and Lake Counties.  In addition to having very light-colored stems, the petals of this flower have three distinct colors, almost in bands: reddish at the base, then white, and finally a fairly typical clarkia color at the outer edge.  It is quite striking.

picture of white-stemmed clarkia

White-stemmed clarkia

Our next stop was a small raised bed that serves as a nursery for several flowers, including mariposa lilies, which I had already mentioned to the botanist as my favorite wildflower genus.  He just wanted to show me the existence and location of the bed, since early August was certainly past the general blooming season for mariposa lilies.  There was a cluster of clarkias, perhaps farewell to spring (Clarkia rubicunda), in one corner of the flower bed.

Suddenly someone noticed a single mariposa lily blossom, almost hidden in the middle of the colorful clarkias!  The plant had a fairly long stem, and next to the base of the stem was a sign indicating Plummer’s mariposa lily (Calochortus plummerae).  However, the botanist was not certain that was the actual identification of the flower.  After I got home I consulted a calochortus reference book and have tentatively concluded that it is a late-flowered mariposa lily (Calochortus fimbriatus), a close relative of Plummer’s mariposa lily.  The coloring is correct, the hairs are correct, the external bulge of the nectary gland is correct – and late-flowered mariposa lily has the latest blooming season of any I checked in Calflora, ending in August.

picture of late-flowered mariposa lily

Late-flowered mariposa lily

A side view of the flower shows the gland even more clearly, as well as what I presume to be a bud.

picture of late-flowered mariposa lily, side view

Late-flowered mariposa lily, side view

A nearby flower bed was being watered, and the botanist pointed out a couple of pitcher plants (Darlingtonia californica).  They were not in bloom, but it was a treat to see this exotic-looking plant so close to home.

I had also mentioned that I like monkeyflowers, and the botanist was kind enough to point out, in a nearby moist flower bed, some primrose monkeyflower (Erythranthe primuloides, formerly Mimulus primuloides).  The blossoms are small, about 1/2” in diameter.

picture of primrose monkeyflower

Primrose monkeyflower

I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this monkeyflower in the wild, but it was a convenient opportunity to get a quick explanation about the 2012 reclassification of Mimulus into two separate genera, Erythranthe and Diplacus.  I learned that, in general, Erythranthe have distinct stems (petioles) whereas Diplacus appear to lack stems (i.e., are sessile).

The same flower bed had some Lewis’ monkeyflower (Erythranthe lewisii, formerly Mimulus lewisii), which was a new monkeyflower species for me.  It is sometimes called great purple monkeyflower, and the blossoms are somewhat larger than the primrose monkeyflower.

picture of Lewis’ monkeyflower

Lewis’ monkeyflower

Around this point both the docent and botanist needed to return to other duties, and the tour ended.  In roughly an hour and 10 minutes we had covered 0.4 mile – and seen quite a few interesting flowers!  I’m showing the GPS track mainly as an illustration of how wandering and circuitous my route was.  In my entire visit I walked about 1.8 miles, and the orange section shows the tour.  After the tour I continued to explore a portion of the garden.

GPS track

GPS track

The Regional Parks Botanic Garden is just 10 acres in size, and is one of some 73 parks owned and managed by the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), which covers Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.  The parks include over 120,000 acres of open space and over 1,250 miles of trails – a wonderful resource for county residents as well as regional residents and visitors.

The Botanic Garden focuses on California native plants.  It is divided into 10 sections, each representing a geographic region (and usually related ecosystems) in the state.  The garden brochure includes a color-coded map of California along with a similarly color-coded map of the garden.  The flower beds are numbered, with color-coded signs.  And many plants have identifying signs, also color-coded.  Of course, some plants self-propagate beyond their original planting and signage, and it is impossible to label all instances of the more common plants.

After the tour I basically wandered, without too much of an agenda.  I had already seen enough new flowers to make my visit worthwhile, and I didn’t want to overload myself.  But I wasn’t quite ready to leave, either.  The tour had mostly been in the Sierran Section (section 6).  By continuing north I passed a small grove of sequoias and redwoods, which was especially peaceful, and entered the Pacific Rain Forest section.  Shortly I found myself walking along Wildcat Creek, which bisects the garden, with the Santa Lucia Section across from the Rain Forest Section.

Along the creek, and later in several other places, I found quite a few cardinal monkeyflowers (Erythranthe cardinalis, formerly Mimulus cardinalis).  The blossoms are fairly large, a little over 1 inch long, and brilliant red.  As with some other monkeyflowers, the flower tube is longer than the diameter (or length) of the blossom.  This is quite evident in a side view.

picture of cardinal monkeyflower, side view

Cardinal monkeyflower, side view

From the front the cardinal monkeyflower blossoms are also rather unique.  While many monkeyflowers are close to round (e.g. the primrose and Lewis’ monkeyflowers pictured above), two of the petals at the side of the cardinal monkeyflower are strongly recurved, making the blossom appear very elongated.  For some reason this front view makes me think of a very surprised human face, with its mouth in the center.  In any case, although I’d looked for them I’d never seen cardinal monkeyflowers in the wild, so I was happy to see so many in the botanic garden.

picture of cardinal monkeyflower, front view

Cardinal monkeyflower, front view

I continued east and, after a bit, entered the Channel Islands Section.  I knew I would see a lot of new flowers here, so I mainly just walked and admired without trying to take pictures and notes.  But there was one particular flower that caught my attention.  It was also bright red, but not a monkeyflower.  Instead it was a cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis).  I was actually surprised to see one here, since I had seen some before in Wisconsin, and I didn’t realize the range extended this far west.  It turns out that cardinal flower is native to a wide swath of the western hemisphere from southeastern Canada to northern Colombia!  It is a spectacular flower, and this example clearly has quite a bit of blooming left to do.

picture of cardinal flower

Cardinal flower

Passing through the Santa Lucia Section again, I paused to check out some California goldenrod (Solidago velutina ssp californica).  It was kind of a reminder for me to look into goldenrod after I got back to my computer.  There are 14 species and subspecies listed in Calflora, mostly late season bloomers and not found in the Bay Area.  This is why I typically do not see goldenrod during my local hikes.

After re-entering the Sierran Section I noticed a beautiful spice bush (Calycanthus occidentalis).  I have seen this a couple of times on hikes and I always enjoy it.

Then I passed some brodiaea plants with surprisingly large flowers.  The signage indicated they were California brodiaea (Brodiaea californica).  I have encountered many of the related wildflowers and am gradually learning what details to look at to distinguish different species.  A notable characteristic was the extremely tall stamens, well over 1/2”.

picture of California brodiaea

California brodiaea

In the Sierran Section I was looking for a pond, and in the process of finding it I went past the mariposa lily, columbines, and all of the clarkias a second time.  Eventually I found the pond, where I was hoping to find a pond lily.  I didn’t find one, but I did find some golden-yellow-orange flowers that turned out to be golden cardinal monkeyflowers, a variety of cardinal monkeyflower called Santa Cruz Island Gold, found on Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands.  The golden cardinal monkeyflowers were growing right next to regular cardinal monkeyflowers.

picture of golden cardinal monkeyflower

Golden cardinal monkeyflower

After enjoying the pond area I returned to my car.

The Botanic Garden is a great place to visit to see flowers and well-maintained plants, shrubs, and trees year-round.  There is a great variety for such a small area.  For example, there are over 100 species of manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp) in California, many endemic and quite a few rare, with most represented in the garden.  It is easy to get overloaded with all of the information, so I find that it is useful to plan somewhat brief visits, say two hours or so, and then go somewhere else to process all of the new learning.  I’ll certainly return other times.

Posted in Contra Costa County, East Bay, East Bay Regional Park District, wildflower hikes | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Tahoe Meadows Loop Trails

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During a recent visit to the north Lake Tahoe area I decided to explore a pretty system of trails at Tahoe Meadows, near Mt Rose summit: the Tahoe Meadows Loop Trails.  Most of the hike I did was recently highlighted as a wildflower hike on/near the Tahoe Rim Trail.  The time was late July, and I did find a nice variety of wildflowers.

Tahoe Meadows refers to the large, open meadow area less than 1 mile south of Mt Rose summit.  At about 8500 feet elevation, it’s a popular place to hike in the summer and to snow-play in the winter.  Normally there is a good view of Slide Mountain across the meadow, but when I arrived a smoke and haze cloud from the many active northern California wildfires was in the area.

image of smoky view across Tahoe Meadows toward Slide Mountain

Smoky view across Tahoe Meadows toward Slide Mountain

I almost abandoned the hike, but decided to see how I felt once I’d hiked a bit; other than the base elevation, the hike would be fairly easy.  As it turned out, the haze cleared out pretty well within a couple of hours, and I ended up hiking the entire set of connected loops plus a short exploration of the upper portion of the Ophir Creek Trail, for a 5.7 mile total.  By choosing loops, a hike in this trail system can be as short as 1.5 miles.  The orange dot on the map shows the location where I parked, right next to the highway (NV 431).

GPS track

GPS track

The elevation profile shows that, except for the Ophir Creek Trail section between mile 2 and mile 3.4, the hike was pretty level.  The total elevation gain and loss was a little over 800 feet.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

For reference, the entire Tahoe Meadows area is within the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.  Within the meadow area visitors are requested via prominent signage to remain on the established trails, since the meadow ecosystem is quite fragile.  In certain areas, particularly along Ophir Creek, there is a slightly raised boardwalk that prevents visitors from walking on the ground.

A trail leads less than 0.2 mile from the roadside parking to the boardwalk area, where the ground is wetter.  Immediately I found several types of wildflower.  One of the first I saw was primrose monkeyflower (Erythranthe primuloides, formerly Mimulus primuloides).  These cheerful flowers are about 1/2” in diameter, with each flower on a skinny stem a few inches long.  The stem almost looks too fragile to support the blossom (the stem in the picture belongs to a different plant).

image of primrose monkeyflower

Primrose monkeyflower

There was also meadow penstemon (Penstemon rydbergii), appearing to be late in its blooming phase.  The blossoms of meadow penstemon are among the smaller penstemons, not much more than 1/2”long, and they typically form one or more whorls at the top of the stem.

image of meadow penstemon

Meadow penstemon

An unusual find was ladies tresses (Spiranthus romanzoffiana) – at least, I thought it was unusual.  The small blossoms of this moisture-loving plant appear to grow in spirals around the main stem; and the petals are proportionally thick, almost fleshy in appearance.

image of ladies tresses

Ladies tresses

At the creek crossing there is a bridge as well as a boardwalk along the creek.  I had decided that I would first hike the “inland” side of the Middle and Lower Loops, so I went straight after crossing the creek.  Signage indicates that this trail is initially both the Ophir Creek Trail and the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT).  After about 0.2 mile there is a Y junction, where the TRT goes right and the Ophir Creek Trail goes left.  I followed the Ophir Creek Trail, still part of the Tahoe Meadows loop trail system.  The trail runs southeast, then east for the next mile, passing mainly through open forest.

A little way into the forest a small bird spent a couple of minutes on the pine needle-covered forest floor, presumably foraging for food.  It alternated brief pauses with spurts of running to a different spot to again pause.  Eventually I was lucky to get a fairly clear picture, which helped me identify it as a mountain chickadee (Poecile gambeli).  The black throat is a well-known chickadee characteristic, and the white eyebrow stripe confirms the mountain chickadee identification.  I often hear, and sometimes see, chickadees flitting around in the trees in the Tahoe area, but much less frequently get a good, unobstructed view.

image of mountain chickadee

Mountain chickadee

In the same area I noted large patches of a very low-growing lupine, which I later identified as Brewer’s lupine (Lupinus brewerii).  The picture indicates how low-to-the-ground this plant is, with typically lupine palmate (hand-shaped) leaves and mostly-blue flower head.  The entire plant is typically just a few inches tall.

image of Brewer’s lupine

Brewer’s lupine

Next I began to see some light purple daisy-like flowers, perhaps similar to others I’d already seen out in the meadow, and I decided to try to document and identify similar species.  I am sure I saw at least three related species, as shown in this photo composite.  On the left is (I believe) wandering daisy (Erigeron peregrinus), which I found here in the open forest; note that there are two overlapping flower heads in the picture.  The center picture shows hoary aster (Dieteria canescens var canescens, sometimes called Machaeranthera canescens), which I saw a bit later along the Ophir Creek Trail.  The ray flowers are much more intense purple in color, and the flower head always seems messy-looking – so I usually skip taking pictures since I can never find a nice-looking flower head.  This time I also photographed the phyllaries at the back side of the flower head, and they helped confirm the identification.  On the right is Coulter’s daisy (Erigeron coulteri), also sometimes called Coulter’s fleabane, which has many skinny white ray flowers.  I tend to associate this pattern of ray flowers with the common name fleabane, though that many not always be correct.  In any case, the differences between these flowers are quite evident.

image of wandering daisy (left), hoary aster (center), and Coulter’s daisy (right)

Wandering daisy (left), hoary aster (center), and Coulter’s daisy (right)

At a place where the trail passes by a small locally wet spot I was delighted to find some little elephant’s head (Pedicularis attolens).  The small (less than 1/2” across) pink blossoms are named for the tubular structure that looks just like a tiny elephant trunk.

image of little elephant’s head, in a damp area next to the trail

Little elephant’s head, in a damp area next to the trail

A bit farther I found a nice patch of corn lily (Veratrum californicum var californicum) in bloom.  Although the large, veined leaves of corn lily are characteristic and notable, the many spikes of blossoms are also spectacular a bit later in the season.

image of corn lily blossoms

Corn lily blossoms

In the open forest area, the trail occasionally passes near clusters of large granite boulders.  This boulder was interesting because it looked as though it had been cracked in half, perhaps as water entered a small crack and subsequently alternately froze and thawed numerous times over centuries or millennia.  My hiking poles serve to indicate the size of the boulders.

image of granite boulders in the open forest

Granite boulders in the open forest

As I continued through the forest past other damp areas I noted several yellow composite flowers, including arrow-leaf senecio (Senecio triangularis), soft arnica (Arnica mollis), and an unidentified rayless flower.  I almost always see UYC’s (unidentified yellow composites) on my hikes!

About 1.5 miles from the trailhead I reached a junction where the Middle Loop goes to the left.  I had decided to try to hike all of the sections of all of the loops, so I hiked about halfway to the other side of the Middle Loop and then returned to my main route.  I would explore the other end of this 0.2-mile connector trail later.  About 0.3 mile later I passed the junction where the Lower Loop leaves the Ophir Creek Trail.  I decided to go straight on the Ophir Creek Trail.  I had hiked a longer section of this trail before, and I knew I didn’t want to go as far on this hike.  So I decided I would turn around at a certain time, or when I’d descended to 8000 feet elevation, whichever came first.

Shortly past the junction the Ophir Creek Trail goes over kind of a lip in the landscape, and the grade steepens fairly abruptly.  In fact, the average grade becomes over 13%.  I passed a place that I remembered to be kind of an overlook into the Washoe Valley, but I didn’t stop for the view because the valley was full of hazy air and I couldn’t see anything.  However, I passed lots of pennyroyal (Monardella odoratissima), some woolly mule ears (Wyethia mollis), and the hoary aster pictured above.

The trail gradually gets closer to Ophir Creek, and there are plants that appreciate the water source.  Among them is horse-mint (Agastache urticifolia), which tends to grow in masses.  Here the mass was modest, but there were still dozens, if not hundreds, of flower spikes.

image of horse-mint along the Ophir Creek Trail

Horse-mint along the Ophir Creek Trail

The trail also passes a grove of quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) trees.  Of course, because it was summer, the leaves were green, but in the fall they turn a wonderful golden.  And at any time of the summer/fall the leaves audibly “quake” in a breeze.  I appreciated the leaf shape and the way some of the leaves were backlit.

image of quaking aspen leaves

Quaking aspen leaves

Once I reached 8000 feet elevation I turned around per my plan, and on the way back up the trail I noticed some more wildflowers, including sulphur buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum), western columbine (Aquilegia formosa), buttercup (Raununculus sp), probably poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), Coulter’s daisy (see above), and ranger’s button (Sphenosciadium capitellatum).  I also found a pretty, light purple flower that has me puzzled.  It has 6 petals (or 3 each petals and sepals) with whitish bases and a few dark purple veins, and 6 stamens with yellow anthers.  It reminds me of bellflowers but has the wrong number of petals.  So, for now, it is a mystery flower.

image of mystery flower along the Ophir Creek Trail

Mystery flower along the Ophir Creek Trail

When I reached the junction with Lower Loop, I turned right to follow the side of the loop closer to the open meadow area.  After about 0.6 mile, shortly before the Middle Loop junction, I found some monkshood (Aconitum columbianum).  This interesting flower looks like its common name, with a spur-like structure at the back of the blossom resembling its namesake.  I have not seen monkshood very often, so it was a pleasant surprise, and I just saw one small cluster of plants near the trail junction.

image of monkshood


At the junction with Middle Loop I turned left to hike up to my previous turnaround point, then returned to my main route.  In this area the loop trail goes pretty much right along the edge of the meadow, so there is open forest on one side of the trail and open meadow on the other.  Along the way I passed more little elephant’s head and some more primrose monkeyflower, as well as paintbrush (Castilleja sp) and bistort (Bistorta bistortoides).  The paintbrush was well out in the meadow area, so I presumed it was one of the damp-adapted species, rather than a dry-adapted species.  Once again there were views across Tahoe Meadows toward Slide Mountain, but the sky was much clearer than it had been at the beginning of my hike.

image of Tahoe Meadows and Slide Mountain

Tahoe Meadows and Slide Mountain

About 0.6 mile past the Middle Loop junction the trail reaches a junction with Upper Loop, Ophir Creek, and some more boardwalk.  Here I turned right to follow the meadow side of the Upper Loop, and almost immediately I was very surprised to see a shooting star.  I think it is most likely an alpine shooting star (Primula tetranda, sometimes called Dodecatheon alpinum); or it could possibly be a Jeffrey’s shooting star (Primula jeffreyi, formerly called Dodecatheon jeffreyi).  The location, i.e. Tahoe Meadows, better matches the range of alpine shooting star, so that is my tentative identification.

image of alpine shooting star

Alpine shooting star

Nearby there was a nice patch of glaucus larkspur (Delphinium glaucum).  I sometimes have trouble photographing larkspur, so I was glad to get several in-focus pictures.  This one shows blossoms from essentially all angles in a single picture.

image of glaucus larkspur

Glaucus larkspur

I continued along the boardwalk, reaching the bridge about 0.3 mile later.  Just before the bridge there is a small boardwalk platform on the left (creek) side of the boardwalk.  I was hoping to see hiker’s gentians (Gentianopsis simplex) here, since I’d seen them on two previous visits.  Sure enough, they were there, right where I had seen them before!  These beautiful flowers have intense dark blue-purple petals with slightly toothed or ragged edges and an unusual twisted appearance.

image of hiker’s gentians

Hiker’s gentians

Finally, I’m including one picture from a previous visit: 2 years ago but about a month later.  In the area near the bridge I found a good-sized mass of alpine gentians (Gentiana newberryi).  Like many other gentians in the Gentiana genus, it has 5 petals; it also has delicate green spots on the petals and pointed web-like structures between the petals.  It’s a stunning plant – perhaps worth a return trip later in the season.

image of alpine gentian

Alpine gentian

After enjoying the hiker’s gentian I explored the rest of the short Upper Loop, then returned to the bridge and to my car.  The Tahoe Meadows loop trail system is an ideal destination for an easy, but rewarding, wildflower hike.

Posted in Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, North Tahoe, Tahoe Rim Trail, wildflower hikes | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment