Ice Age Trail – Table Bluff

stats box

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.

Posted in Ice Age Trail, wildflower hikes, Wisconsin | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Indian Lake County Park

stats box

Indian Lake County Park is a 483-acre park in Dane County, Wisconsin, where I visited recently.  The hike described here is a pleasant 3.9-mile loop that passes through woodlands and prairie and passes along the edge of Indian Lake, a remnant of the most recent glaciation in the area.  There are several networks of trails in the park: cross-country ski trails, hiking trails, a large off-leash dog park, and snowmobile trails.  The park also hosts a segment of the Ice Age Trail and, as suggested in a write-up in a Madison-area hiking book, the most straightforward loop basically follows the Ice Age Trail segment through the park, with a short return walk along the entry road to complete the loop.

One of the highlights was the prairie area southwest of the lake.  Especially in light of today’s huge areas of farmland in the Midwest – which play a significant part in feeding the nation – it amazes me that, before farming, there were thousands of square miles of prairie, perhaps much of it looking like this in the spring and summer, with continuous masses of wildflowers as far as one could see.  In this view there are Queen Anne’s lace, gray-headed (or yellow) coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), and wild bergamot (or bee balm) (Monarda fistulosa).

photo of prairie wildflowers in Indian Lake County Park

Prairie wildflowers in Indian Lake County Park

The hike’s starting and ending points were at the main parking area, indicated by the orange dot on the GPS track.  The loop sampled the major habitats of the park: woods, prairie, and lake.  Even with the relatively large number of trail choices, following the Ice Age Trail’s yellow blazes was straightforward.  (Note: in several places the route followed the opposite direction of travel along one-way cross-country ski trails, so it was necessary to ignore the Wrong Way signs.)

GPS track

GPS track

The first part of the hike was on a trail labeled Ski Hill (or similar) and headed south and uphill into the woods.  Although this was not a long section of the hike, the shade was welcome on a day that promised to be in the mid 80’s – both temperature and humidity – by lunch time.

photo of shaded trail through the woods

Shaded trail through the woods

The leaf canopy was sufficiently dense that there were not a lot of wildflowers, but I did take note of red clover (Trifolium pratense), white clover (Trifolium repens), daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus), and heal-all (Prunella vulgaris).  The trail climbed about 150 feet in about 0.8 mile before descending to lake level for the remainder of the hike.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Another wildflower found in the woods was this pretty, small (about 1/3 inch diameter) yellow flower.  So far I haven’t been able to identify it.

photo of small yellow flower

Small yellow flower

About 1.3 miles along the loop the Ice Age Trail emerges from the woods and approaches the edge of Indian Lake, with a band of prairie between the trail and the lake.  What a pretty place for cross-country skiing in the winter!

photo of Indian Lake

Indian Lake

At the edge of the woods area there was some common St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum).  I have discovered that I like wildflowers with sprays of reproductive parts extending a welcome to their pollinators.

photo of common St John’s wort

Common St John’s wort

In the more open prairie areas there was Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) with its characteristic and familiar sprays of tiny white blossoms and the distinctive underlayer of long, narrow parts (bracts? – I’m still learning plant parts).

photo of Queen Anne’s lace

Queen Anne’s lace

To the southwest of the lake, the Ice Age Trail skirts the outer edge of the off-leash dog area, passing through a pretty, restored prairie area.  From the interior of a large area of either wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) or possibly golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) came calling sounds of a bird.  Although it was difficult to actually see it among the yellow wildflowers, I managed a few pictures with enough information to identify an Eastern meadowlark (Sturna magna), blending in almost perfectly.

photo of Eastern meadowlark among wild parsnip or golden Alexander

Eastern meadowlark among wild parsnip or golden Alexander

Not far away there was some alfalfa (Medicago sativa), possibly an escapee from a nearby farmer’s field.  In a way it’s amazing that a plant with such pretty flowers was originally imported and planted as food for farm animals.  One source suggests that a winter-hardy form of alfalfa was partly responsible for the development of the dairy industry in the upper Midwest.

photo of alfalfa


A bit farther along there was some pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea) in the trail, just as I have found it in the middle of many trails in the San Francisco Bay Area.  At the southwest end of the lake the trail crosses Halfway Prairie Creek on a small bridge.  I could not see water in the creek, but the creek bed was choked with large-leaved water-loving plants.

As the trail again approached the edge of Indian Lake there was some swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) that was being visited by a butterfly.  Although milkweed is famously a major food source for the monarch butterfly, this one had quite different coloring.  Another of my pictures seems to show a swallowtail, suggesting that it might be a black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes).  In any case the butterfly did not actually land on the milkweed but rather hovered briefly before flying to a different flower head cluster to repeat the process.  I imagined that the butterfly understood that it was too heavy to actually land on the flowers!

photo of swamp milkweed visited by (possibly) a black swallowtail

Swamp milkweed visited by (possibly) a black swallowtail

Along this part of the lake there were some yellow pond lilies (Nyphar lutea).

photo of yellow pond lily

Yellow pond lily

Near the lake’s edge there was a bit of woodland, including some woodland sunflower (Helianthus strumosus).  Although most types of sunflower grow in full sun, the woodland sunflower grows in shade or along edges or clearings of deciduous woods.

photo of woodland sunflower

Woodland sunflower

As the trail continued into a more open prairie area, I noticed several flowers that reminded me of St John’s wort – except that the plants were 5-6 feet tall and the blossoms were nearly 2 inches in diameter.  Until I could make an identification, I mentally labeled it a giant St John’s wort.  When I did make an identification I was astonished to find that the common name actually is giant (or great) St John’s wort (Hypericum ascyron)!

photo of giant St John’s wort near Indian Lake

Giant St John’s wort near Indian Lake

In this area there were also a number of cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum).  This is one of four species of silphium found in southeastern Wisconsin.  They are in the sunflower/aster family, but have somewhat lighter ray flowers and disc flowers than familiar sunflowers.  The types of silphium have very different and distinctive leaves; in addition cup plant has a distinctive stem.  The stem is nearly 1/2 inch in diameter and is square; note the out-of-focus example at the right of the picture.  The large leaves form a small cup at the junction with the stem, where rain water collects.

photo of cup plant

Cup plant

In this prairie area there was some rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), as well as field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis).  The latter reminds me of morning glory, but the blossoms tend to be smaller.

photo of field bindweed

Field bindweed

Along the park entrance road there was chicory (Cichorium intybus), which is normally up to 2 feet tall but can grow back and flower just a few inches tall after being mowed.  There were also some pretty, light purple flower spikes that seem to be a type of hedge nettle (Stachys sp): certainly in the mint family.

photo of hedge nettle along the park entrance road

Hedge nettle along the park entrance road

This was a very pleasant, short, and easy hike featuring prairie wildflowers, a lake, and some woods.  After returning to the car we were off to another nearby park and Ice Age Trail segment.

Posted in Ice Age Trail, wildflower hikes, Wisconsin | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Henry W Coe State Park: China Hole loop

stats - Coe China Hole

I have previously hiked only a couple of times in Henry W Coe State Park (see here and here).  Coe is a vast park: over 89,000 acres, the largest state park in northern California, and the second largest in the state.  Coe is so large that, for day hikers like me, much of it by necessity remains unexplored, remote wilderness.  This includes an area officially called the Henry W Coe State Wilderness, locally known as the Orestimba Wilderness.  The park is partly in Santa Clara County and partly in Stanislaus County.

For this hike I selected a moderate semi-loop hike beginning at the main visitor center near the E Dunne Ave entrance.  Coe is locally infamous for having few flat areas.  There are several ridges within the park, and it seems that all hikes over a few miles long have a lot of vertical gain and loss.  I selected a route to China Hole, which I had not previously visited.  I was hoping that, at a special place about 0.7 mile from the visitor center, I would be able to see some late-season butterfly mariposa lilies.  During my first visit to Coe 3 years ago I saw my very first mariposa lily and immediately was enchanted by these beautiful flowers.  This time I saw not only some “standard” butterfly mariposa lilies (Calochortus venustus) (see below), but a rare red variant.

image of red variant of butterfly mariposa lily

Red variant of butterfly mariposa lily

In addition, as confirmed by a visitor note on a whiteboard outside the visitor center, China Hole was full: that is, it had plenty of water.  I do not know if this will be the case later in the summer.

The GPS track shows my route, with the orange dot at the base of the balloon string denoting the visitor center.

GPS track

GPS track

Actually, the GPS track does not show the last 2.1 miles: I thought I might need to change batteries before the end of the hike, but did not realize that the unit was not configured to beep when battery power was getting low.  And although I had been checking periodically, I did not realize that the batteries had died until I arrived back at the visitor center.

On both the outbound and return I took trails that run roughly parallel to Manzanita Point Rd: Springs Trail on the outbound leg and Forest Trail on the return leg.  After reaching Manzanita Point I began the actual loop, hiking down Madrone Soda Spring Trail to Mile Trail, which further descends to China Hole along a stream, and then hiking back up China Hole Trail to Manzanita Point.

Even though my GPS data is missing the last couple of miles, the elevation profile emphasizes that the first half of the hike, to China Hole, was almost entirely downhill, with the bulk of the climbing on the return from China Hole.  The main descent, which was after leaving Manzanita Point Rd, was about 1000 feet.  It should be noted that 1000 feet – or more – from ridge to canyon bottom is very common in Coe.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

From the visitor center, I first enjoyed views across the southern Santa Clara Valley and Coyote Valley, with Mt Umunhum and Loma Prieta visible on the western skyline.  Though the day of my hike the weather was fairly clear, it is not unusual to view fog in the valleys, with the mountain tops floating on top.  From the visitor center I hiked down Corral Trail to reach Springs Trail.  Corral Trail is mostly shaded, which would be appreciated on many typical warm days.  Near the beginning of Corral Trail I noticed some western verbena (Verbena lasiostachys var lasiostachys), or California vervain, with characteristic finger-like spikes with light purple-blue flowers blooming at the tip.

image of western verbena along Corral Trail

Western verbena along Corral Trail

The last part of Corral Trail emerges from the shaded area into grassy hillsides shortly before the junction with Springs Trail (and Forest Trail, on my return hike).  Along Springs Trail there are pretty, scattered oaks and a couple of small springs.  On an earlier visit around the same time of year I encountered a snake sunning itself on this trail and opted to turn around rather than try to induce the snake to move off the trail.

image of Springs Trail

Springs Trail

Along Springs Trail I also found my first mariposa lilies of the day: familiar yellow mariposa lilies (Calochortus luteus).  The specimens along Springs Trail, shown on the left, were closer to the end of their blooming period: note that the edges of the petals were ruffled and the six stamens have spread out toward the petals and begun to dry up.  I found the flower on the right along the Forest Trail near the end of the hike, in a shaded area, and it looks much fresher.

image of yellow mariposa lilies

Yellow mariposa lilies

Along Springs Trail I encountered several types of sun-loving wildflowers, including harvest brodiaea (Brodiaea elegans), caterpillar phacelia (Phacelia cicutaria), small clarkia (Clarkia affinis), and California buckeye (Aesculus californica).

About 1.9 miles from the visitor center I reached the end of Springs Trail at Manzanita Point Rd, where I turned right to follow the road, perhaps a previous ranch road, 0.7 mile to Manzanita Point.  At Manzanita Point there is a small pond and a campground with 10 marked campsites.  Approaching Manzanita Point I noted some impressively large manzanitas, I believe bigberry manzanita (Arcostaphylos glauca).  Most manzanitas I have seen are shrubs, but this was really more like a tree.

image of impressive bigberry manzanita near Manzanita Point

Impressive bigberry manzanita near Manzanita Point

At Manzanita Point, near the sign for campsite 7, I turned right on Madrone Soda Spring Trail, which descends almost 800 feet in 1 mile (15% grade) into a canyon with a stream at the bottom.  I paid careful attention to my footing, both because of the relatively steep grade and because I seem to have most of my tripping and face-plant experiences on descents.  Along the way I passed coyote mint (Monardella villosa) and scrub.  At the bottom of the canyon is Madrone Soda Springs, site of a former mineral springs resort a century or so ago.  Once you reach the stream Madrone Soda Spring Trail becomes Mile Trail, which follows the stream for about 1.3 miles to China Hole.  Interestingly, the stream and trail descend another 300 feet before reaching China Hole.

I presume this stream is spring-fed and flows most or all of the year.  It is one of several small streams in the area that converge near China Hole to form Coyote Creek, which flows south into what is now Coyote Reservoir, then west and northwest to Anderson Reservoir in Anderson Lake County Park, and finally northwest through San Jose and eventually to the southeastern tip of San Francisco Bay.

Mile Trail, as it runs along the stream, is cool and shady.  I found a few Ithuriel’s spear (Triteleia laxa) that had not been hurried by full sun exposure to the end of their blooming cycle, as well as the skeleton of what might have been a squirrel.  I also found some white Chinese houses (Collinsia heterophylla), whose pretty flowers are a little under 1 inch long.  Father east in the park, the Chinese houses have more typical coloring, with the upper petals white and the lower petals violet.

image of white Chinese houses along Mile Trail

White Chinese houses along Mile Trail

I found it challenging to follow Mile Trail, even though it followed the stream bank.  It actually crosses the stream 12 times along the way to China Hole.  Here is one of the crossings, which uses a small log rather than the more common rock crossings.  You have to look carefully for the trail on the other side of the stream in order to not miss several of the crossings.

image of one of twelve stream crossings along Mile Trail

One of twelve stream crossings along Mile Trail

In fact, at one point I missed a crossing and found myself trying to climb up an almost imperceptible gully on an impossibly steep hillside.  On close examination the small blip on my GPS track suggests that the grade was nearly 40%!  I quickly abandoned this adventure, descending carefully using both feet, both hands, and my rear end and hoping to avoid the poison oak.  (I decontaminated carefully as soon as I got home.)  When I got back to the stream I quickly found the stream crossing I’d missed.  A few of the crossings were barely 10 meters apart.

At the end of Mile Trail there is signage indicating the short, perhaps 100 meter long, detour to China Hole, at the lowest elevation of the hike.  China Hole feels like a quiet, remote place where the stream is relatively wide and calm, lined by lush green plants and reflecting the nearby hills.  With a 5-mile hike to get there, the remote feeling is justified.

image of China Hole

China Hole

After enjoying a break, I returned to the trail junction at the beginning of the detour and hiked out on the other trail, which is China Hole Trail.  The trail climbs steadily, gaining roughly 1000 feet in 2.5 miles (8% grade).  Along the way there were spectacular views of nearby canyons; I think this one contains one of the forks of the Coyote Creek that join together near China Hole.

image of canyon view

Canyon view

The view was from a small rock outcrop where there was some canyon live-forever (Dudleya cymosa), also called rock lettuce.  The plant has a rosette of succulent leaves at the base and these unusual yellow flowers at the top.

image of canyon live-forever, or rock lettuce

Canyon live-forever, or rock lettuce

A bit farther up the trail I found some ruby chalice clarkia (Clarkia rubicunda), also called farewell-to-spring because its blooming period usually signals the end of the spring wildflower season.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised at how many different types of wildflower I saw in mid-June, since the landscape was generally already dry and summer-like.

image of farewell-to-spring


I also found a few clay mariposa lilies (Calochortus argillosus).  This was one of the better examples, though the condition of the petals and stamens indicates that it is well along in its bloom cycle.

image of clay mariposa lily along China Hole Trail

Clay mariposa lily along China Hole Trail

There were quite a few large puffy seed head balls at least 2 inches in diameter, the familiar seed heads of dandelions.  In this case they were California dandelion (Agoseris grandiflora); grandiflora means “large flower.”  Although familiar, they are quite striking when viewed more closely.

image of California dandelion seed head

California dandelion seed head

Significant sections of China Hole Trail pass through areas of dense scrub and trees.  Here the vegetation cover creates the feeling of hiking through a green tunnel.  During the long, hot summer the shade is very welcome.

image of China Hole Trail

China Hole Trail

In many places along my hike route I passed California everlasting (Pseudognaphalium californicum).  The flowers are in clusters, and each individual flower seems to resemble a small sphere until you look more closely and see that they are slightly elongated and the outer end has a small yellow spot.

image of California everlasting

California everlasting

After the 2.5-mile climb I arrived back at Manzanita Point and Manzanita Point Rd, where I turned right to return to the visitor center.  Along Manzanita Point Rd my GPS batteries died, though I was unaware at the time.  The outer junction with Springs Trail is also the outer junction with Forest Trail, and I had planned to hike back along Forest Trail.  This is an interpretive trail, with printed and laminated trail guides available in small boxes at each end of the trail and at the visitor center.  I had picked up a guide before I left the visitor center on my hike, to make sure it was available when I got to the trail, as the boxes are sometimes empty.  Forest Trail is about 1.1 miles long and has some 28 marked locations with interpretive information in the guide.  Because I started at the outer end of the trail, I actually followed the stations in reverse sequence.  Forest Trail is more shaded than Springs Trail, so I thought it would be more pleasant for the return hike in the afternoon – and it was.

Near the northwest end of Forest Trail is the location where I was hoping to find butterfly mariposa lilies (Caluchortus venustus).  These mariposa lilies are special because each petal has, in addition to a darker red splotch near the base, a second, lighter splotch closer to the tip.  Since this was the first type of mariposa lily I had ever encountered, it is special for me – in addition to its inherent beauty.

image of butterfly mariposa lily along Forest Trail

Butterfly mariposa lily along Forest Trail

As I looked around for more butterfly mariposa lilies, I was startled to find one of the much rarer red variety, pictured at the beginning of this post.  The petals are almost red instead of cream-colored, and the pink outer splotches are a lighter shade of pink.  The impression is light on dark instead of the more typical dark on light.  The red one was actually a bit challenging to photograph, since its colors are in a part of the spectrum where my camera doesn’t always focus well.  It was quite a treat to find this unusual flower!

After completing the Forest Trail I crossed Manzanita Point Rd to Corral Trail for the last climb through the shade to the visitor center.  Along this trail there was more California everlasting, western verbena, and some small-flower lotus (Lotus micranthus).  These flowers, with petals that proclaim affiliation with the pea family, are pink and about 1/4 inch across.

image of small-flower lotus not far from the visitor center

Small-flower lotus not far from the visitor center

When I got back to the visitor center I made sure to get a copy of the very useful wildflower guide, available only via mail or at the visitor center.  It focuses on the park but is relevant for other inland areas in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Especially with the variety of wildflowers, this was a very enjoyable hike.  And any hike during which I see three different species of mariposa lily – plus a rare variant – is certainly memorable.  Although many hikes at Coe are long enough to be backpack trips, there are a few more that can be enjoyed as day hikes.  I look forward to coming back in seasons when it is not too hot.

Posted in Santa Clara County | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Mt Diablo State Park: Wall Point Rd – Pine Canyon loop

stats boxI decided to celebrate National Trails Day this year by hiking in Mt Diablo State Park, where there are over 500 miles of trails to choose from, with a variety of hike lengths and difficulties.  Due to a forecast of very warm weather, I decided to choose a hike rated as moderate: a 6-mile loop starting at the Macedo Ranch staging area following Wall Point Rd and passing through Pine Canyon.  This loop passes through several types of habitat.

Although spring seems to be progressing rapidly into summer this year, I was hoping to find some splendid mariposa lilies (Calochortus splendens); on a recent visit to the Mitchell Canyon area of the park I had been advised by a ranger/naturalist that Wall Point Rd was a good place to find them.  Finding this splendid and beautiful flower was surely one of the highlights of the hike!

picture of splendid mariposa lily

Splendid mariposa lily

The GPS track shows the layout of the hike, with the orange dot showing the location of the Macedo Ranch staging area.  Wall Point Rd forms the “balloon string” and the southern side of the loop.  When I got to the eastern end of the intended loop, at Secret Trail, I decided to continue to explore Wall Point Rd.  I think that the place where I turned around is actually not far from Ridge View Trail, where I could have made a larger loop, but I decided to go back to Secret Trail and complete the shorter loop.

GPS track

GPS track

Near the beginning of the hike the trail passes through what I would call foothills of Mt Diablo: lower-elevation, rolling hills with lots of open grassland and scattered oaks.  The golden hue of the grasses, with very little remaining green tint, is a good indicator of the de facto arrival of the summer season.  Indeed, a sign prominently displayed at the staging area stated that the fire danger was high.  At the staging area I also noted separate signage denoting one terminus of the Las Trampas to Mt Diablo Trail, one of several regional trails designated by the East Bay Regional Parks District.

picture of foothills of Mt Diablo

Foothills of Mt Diablo

The trail climbs fairly steadily up Wall Ridge, with only a couple of rolls, before reaching the highest elevation of my hike, where I turned around about 3.2 miles from the trailhead.  Near the end of the loop there was a 200-foot climb from Pine Canyon to Wall Point Rd before the final descent back to the trailhead.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Throughout the grassland areas of the hike I found harvest brodiaea (Brodiaea elegans) near the sides of the trail.  Just before the beginning of the loop proper there is a gate.  Often such gates mark the boundaries of cattle grazing areas; I didn’t see evidence of any cattle, so I speculate that the associated fence may instead mark the boundary between two of the many formerly separate land parcels that now make up the 20,000-acre park.  In any case, as I approached the gate I was overtaken by an equestrian, and I gladly stepped to the side of the trail to wait for the horse and rider to pass me and negotiate the gate.  I immediately understood why gates in some parks have a handle that sticks up about a foot higher than my head: the rider did not need to dismount to open the gate, though it was a bit of a tricky operation maneuvering the horse so she could reach the handle.

Along the lower part of Wall Point Rd I noticed quite a few dense spider webs like this one, which seems to reach out from an obvious hole in the ground.  I presume the hole denotes the burrow of a burrowing spider, perhaps a tarantula; they are fairly common in the park.  The main part of the web looks like a very effective way to trap insects that might be close by.  The hole is a bit over an inch in diameter.

picture of web marking the entrance to a spider burrow

Web marking the entrance to a spider burrow

Particularly from the lower part of Wall Point Rd there were views toward the summit of Mt Diablo.  To me it looks different from this relatively close vantage point than it does from farther away.  The prominence of Mt Diablo – the height of its summit above the surrounding area – is about 3100 feet, with the summit elevation 3849 feet.  Mt Diablo is impressive from many points of view!

picture of view of the summit of Mt Diablo from Wall Point Rd

View of the summit of Mt Diablo from Wall Point Rd

One of the next wildflowers of note was the California everlasting (Pseudognaphalium californicum), sometimes called California cudweed.  The small, white, almost spherical flowers are actually slightly elongated and have a small yellow dot at the tip.

picture of California everlasting

California everlasting

I found quite a bit of elegant clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata) nearly throughout the hike.  The flowers that were in the shade seemed to be newer and fresher-looking, while the blossoms that had experienced more sun exposure were beginning to look not-so-elegant.  I also found some winecup clarkia (Clarkia purpurea), which I tried, rather unsuccessfully, to photograph.  The blossoms are not terribly small, perhaps 3/4 inch in diameter, but the dark pink-purple color seems to be very difficult for my camera’s focus system.

picture of elegant clarkia

Elegant clarkia

Once I had gotten about half way to Secret Trail I found nice views ahead toward Wall Ridge and a small hill called Wall Point.

picture of trail winding up Wall Ridge toward Wall Point

Trail winding up Wall Ridge toward Wall Point

This section of Wall Point Rd began to pass through chaparral, and the surrounding plant community changed.  There was some chaparral pea (Pickeringia montana), with bright pink pretty blossoms, obviously in the pea family.

picture of chaparral pea

Chaparral pea

There were several different types of manzanita, with differing foliage and growth patterns.  I’m pretty sure this is Mt Diablo manzanita (Arctostaphylos auriculata), an endangered species due to its very limited geographic range; it is only found on the slopes of Mt Diablo.  The leaves are more silver-grey than other types of manzanita, and they grow directly from branches, i.e., without leaf stems.

picture of Mt Diablo manzanita

Mt Diablo manzanita

In this section of Wall Point Rd I was delighted to find some more of the splendid mariposa lily.  Here I noticed that the hairs on the inner surface of the petals seemed even longer and denser than the flowers I’d seen earlier.  The condition of the petals of this example told me that the flower was most likely in the later stages of its bloom cycle.

picture of splendid mariposa lily

Splendid mariposa lily

One of the reasons I continued past the Secret Trail end of the planned loop was that I continued to see more splendid mariposa lilies, and shortly I also saw some clay mariposa lilies (Calochortus argillosus).  This type of mariposa lily looks similar to one or two others, but is primarily found only in Contra Costa and Alameda Counties, both in the East Bay.  Although the colored markings tend to be fairly variable, this one nicely shows yellow splashes above the maroon splotches, as well as some more coloring on the upper/inner surface of the narrow sepals, which seem to fill in the small gaps between the petals.

picture of clay mariposa lily

Clay mariposa lily

As I hiked up the overshoot past Secret Trail I kept telling myself I’d turn around at the next small rise or around the next small curve.  Finally I picked a place and simply turned around, and sat down trailside for a brief break.  Suddenly I noticed some small, bright pink belly flowers that look like one of several species of whiskerbrush (genus Leptosiphon).  The flowers are only about 1/4 inch across, and are best appreciated close-up, on one’s belly or at least from a sitting position.

picture of whiskerbrush


Not far away there were some clusters of narrowleaf goldenbush (Ericameria linearifolia).  The flowers are composites, with both ray and disk flowers, and both flower types are golden yellow.

picture of narrowleaf goldenbush

Narrowleaf goldenbush

In addition, in this area there was some phacelia, I think rock phacelia (Phacelia imbricata).  I made this identification based in part on the shape of the leaves at the base of the plants.  Also, it seemed clear that the plants I saw had finished flowering for the season, and the blooming period for rock phacelia is roughly February through April.

There was also some coyote mint (Monardella villosa), scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), and bellardia (Bellardia trixago).  I was pleasantly surprised at the variety of wildflowers I was finding.

After my short break I hiked back approximately 0.6 mile to Secret Trail, which descends to Barbeque Terrace Rd in Pine Canyon, on the north side of the loop.  In the forested area I found Ithuriel’s spear (Triteleia laxa) and some paintbrush or possibly Indian warrior.  It seemed noteworthy that the flowers in the shady areas were not as far along in the blooming period as those in the sun.  And, although I’d actually seen quite a few yellow mariposa lilies (Calochortus luteus) earlier in  the hike, the ones I saw along Secret Trail were fresher-looking.

picture of yellow mariposa lily along Secret Trail

Yellow mariposa lily along Secret Trail

Barbeque Terrace Rd passes along a small stream, which – surprisingly, to me – had running water.  In sections the trail passed through woodsy areas, and the shade was quite welcome.  Although the day of my hike was warm, it can get downright hot on Mt Diablo; on such days the shade would be especially welcome.

picture of Barbeque Terrace Rd passing through a woodsy area

Barbeque Terrace Rd passing through a woodsy area

When Barbeque Terrace Rd teed into Stage Rd, I turned left, then left again at Dusty Rd to climb back up to Wall Point Rd.  I should note that Dusty Rd lived up to its name!  At Wall Point Rd I turned right to hike back down the balloon string to the staging area.

Although the day was quite warm, in the mid to high 80’s, an overcast layer that lasted into the afternoon prevented the temperatures from being even warmer.  I would say that I chose a pretty good day to do a hike that could have been more taxing if the temperature had been warmer or if the sun had been beating down.  With the sighting of a new mariposa lily and the Mt Diablo manzanita, the hike was also memorable for the wildflowers and plants.

Posted in Alameda County, Contra Costa County, East Bay | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wildflower hunting: Donner Pass Rd; Steamboat, NV; and the Hunter Lake trailhead

This post describes three brief wildflower explorations in the North Tahoe / Reno area.  I didn’t get out of sight of my car during any of the explorations, but I found interesting wildflowers in each location.  I was experimenting with my photography: my regular camera had just failed mechanically and I hadn’t yet gotten a diagnosis or replacement for it.  So I was carrying a tablet for taking photographs.  I would say that the quality of the photos is certainly not as good as it would have been with my regular camera, but I was nevertheless able to enjoy and document my finds.

The first exploration was along Donner Pass Rd above Donner Lake on the way to Soda Springs.    I had a description of a pull-out about 2 miles up the road.  Although I did not find the specific flowers I was hoping to find, I did find an amazing belly flower: a flower so small it is best appreciated on your belly!  I discovered that, when using my tablet for wildflower close-ups, it can be useful to point to exactly what I want in the picture.  That way I can find the exact spot more easily to frame the photo and, as an unexpected bonus, my finger provides a convenient ruler.  The tiny flower I found is called whiskerbrush (Leptosiphon ciliatus) and it is only about 1/4 inch in diameter.  The petals each had a pink spot and yellow at the throat, and the entire plant was barely an inch tall.  This was an unexpected and pretty find.

photo of whiskerbrush along Donner Pass Rd

Whiskerbrush along Donner Pass Rd

In the same area there were also some white belly flowers, though my pictures were not clear enough to attempt an identification.  There was also a shrub with pink flower clusters, some mahala mat, manzanita, and other typical vegetation.  I had turned on my GPS at the west end of Donner Lake so that I could easily determine after-the-fact where I’d stopped for photos.  In this image the orange section shows my path up to the spot where I found the whiskerbrush.

GPS track for Donner Pass Rd

GPS track for Donner Pass Rd

Just before the short, narrow bridge I stopped again for a nice view of Donner Lake, nearly 1000 feet lower in elevation, with part of the Carson Range in the background.

photo of Donner Lake viewed from Donner Pass Rd

Donner Lake viewed from Donner Pass Rd

When I reached the top of the hill I turned off my GPS and returned home.

The next day I returned to a place I’d visited two days prior, right after my camera failed.  I had found a flower I was looking for, and I wanted to go back and get some pictures.  The location was near the small town formerly known as Steamboat Springs, Nevada, now simply known as Steamboat, about 15 miles south of I-80 in Reno.  I had directions to a wildflower viewing area near Steamboat Creek, not far from some buildings that either are, or once were, a mineral spa.  The GPS track image shows the area where I walked around in the context of nearby roads (Old US-395, NV-431, and NV-341).

GPS track for Steamboat, Nevada

GPS track for Steamboat, Nevada

To my delight, I was able to see my primary target wildflower before I even stopped my car.  This was because the flower looks bright pink and because there were simply masses of them just a few yards away from the road.  The flower is called yellow-or-purple monkeyflower or skunky monkeyflower (Mimulus nanus var. mephiticus).  The reason for the yellow-or-purple name is that the flower – already a species variant – comes in two forms, one purple and one yellow.  Obviously from the picture, this is the purple form.  The plant seems to be practically all blossom, and the blossoms are just about 1/2 inch in diameter.  It is one of the many types of dwarf monkeyflower; in fact, there are relatively few monkeyflowers that grow in bush form.

photo of purple form of yellow-or-purple (or skunky) monkeyflower

Purple form of yellow-or-purple (or skunky) monkeyflower

Based on the description of what grows in this area, I was hoping to see some yellow club-fruited evening primrose (Chylismia claviformis ssp. lancifolium), and it was nice that I found some more or less as soon as I walked into the monkeyflower area.  When researching this evening primrose I was surprised to learn that it is a subspecies variant of the brown-eyed evening primroses – whose blossoms are white – that I’d seen in profusion in Death Valley earlier in the season.

photo of yellow club-fruited evening primrose

Yellow club-fruited evening primrose

Another flower I expected to find, based on the description of the area, was the rayless daisy (Erigeron aphanactis).  Generally speaking, daisies are composite flowers, with both ray flowers and disc flowers.  The rayless daisy only has disc flowers, and the flower head almost looks like a button.  They were growing in clusters perhaps half a meter across.  The inset in the picture shows close-ups of several flower heads.

photo of rayless daisies

Rayless daisies

A local endemic flower I hoped to see is called Steamboat Springs buckwheat (Eriogonum ovalifolium ssp. williamsiae).  It is only found in the area around Steamboat: locally it is common, but its range is very limited.  I must say that, to me, it looks like other forms of buckwheat, but I do appreciate being able to find a flower that only occurs locally.

photo of Steamboat Springs buckwheat

Steamboat Springs buckwheat

About 100 yards from the small road I’d driven along I could see a small stream, which turned out to be Steamboat Creek.  I suppose the creek may be fed by some of the mineral springs in the area.

photo of Steamboat Creek

Steamboat Creek

As I simply wandered around the area between the creek and the road, I found a few other flowers.  In addition to birds foot lotus (Lotus corniculatus), which is not unusual, I found a few instances of what I believe to be a variety of milkvetch (genus Astragalus).  It looks a lot like Pursh’s milkvetch (Astragalus purshii), though that is a tentative identification since there are many types that are difficult to distinguish.

photo of a variety of milkvetch, possibly Pursh’s milkvetch

A variety of milkvetch, possibly Pursh’s milkvetch

Finally, I saw a few clusters of lupine, which I believe may be Torrey’s lupine (Lupinus lepidus var. sellulus).  Some of the plant’s characteristics (low basal leaves with tight, cylindrical racemes rising above) fit this plant to a tee, and it does occur nearby in Washoe Valley.

photo of Torrey’s lupine

Torrey’s lupine

Before I knew it I’d spent 45 minutes wandering around and enjoying the variety of wildflowers, most of which were first-timers for me.

Then I drove to another spot where I wanted to check out a few more flowers: the trailhead for the Hunter Lake Trail.  It was nearly on the way from Steamboat to a different trailhead where I planned to hike that day.  The Hunter Lake Trail trailhead is not far off Caughlin Parkway, which is near the western portion of McCarran Blvd in Reno.  The GPS track image shows the area around the trail head, with McCarran at the upper right and Caughlin at the top of the image.  Based on a previous visit to this trailhead, I expected that my exploration would involve less than 1/4 mile of walking, making it practically a drive-by event.

GPS track showing Hunter Lake trailhead

GPS track showing Hunter Lake trailhead

My first and primary target was to look for Bruneau mariposa lilies (Calochortus bruneaunis).  I remembered exactly where to look – not hard to find, essentially within view of my parking place – and there were quite a few beauties to enjoy.  Here is a cluster of three blossoms, with one hiding behind/below the other two.  The purple anthers distinguish this species from a similar one, Leichtlin’s mariposa lily (Calochortus leictlinii), which has white anthers.

photo of Bruneau mariposa lilies at the Hunter Lake trailhead

Bruneau mariposa lilies at the Hunter Lake trailhead

In the same area there is some prickly poppy (Argemone munita).  Although the plant looks quite different, the flowers remind me – at least somewhat – of matilija poppies (Romneya coulteri) and bush anemone (Carpenteria californica), both of which brighten up a multi-use trail where I walk regularly in the Bay Area.

photo of prickly poppy

Prickly poppy

Although these wildflower explorations and sightings involved practically no walking, much less hiking, it is sometimes a pleasant change of pace to be able to drive somewhere and see a variety of beautiful wildflowers.

Posted in Nevada, North Tahoe, wildflower hikes | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Jumbo Grade Trail

stats box

Winding through the Virginia Hills between Washoe Lake and Virginia City is a jeep trail known as Jumbo Grade.  It is named after Jumbo, a mining town that was active for a relatively brief time early in the 20th century (approx. 1907 – 1921).  Today the area is a unit of the Bureau of Land Management, BLM, and is managed jointly with Washoe County Parks.  The jeep trail starts at a fairly new trailhead, the New Washoe City trailhead, and ends 8 miles to the east in Virginia City.

There are numerous jeep roads in the Virginia Hills that connect now-abandoned mines.  These trails are popular with ATV drivers and dirt bike riders, but can also be hiked.  The day of my hike was Memorial Day and I encountered barely a half dozen other trail users.

Highlights of my hike included views of the Virginia Hills, a surprising variety of spring wildflowers, and clear views of Slide Mountain and Mt Rose, still decorated with the remnants of the winter snow pack.

image of Slide Mountain and Mt Rose viewed from Jumbo Grade

Slide Mountain and Mt Rose viewed from Jumbo Grade

The day of my hike promised to be hot, with a high temperature in the mid 90’s, so I only set out to cover 4 or 5 miles before turning around.  On the GPS track the orange dot denotes the Jumbo Grade Trailhead, well signed from Eastlake Blvd in New Washoe City, about 15 miles south of I-80 in Reno via I-580 and Old US 395.  The trailhead is just off Jumbo Grade, and to get to Virginia City you basically go as straight as possible at all trail junctions.  About 3.4 miles from the trailhead the “straight as possible” road becomes Ophir Grade, though there are no road-naming signs at the junction.

GPS track

GPS track

Before reaching the Ophir Grade junction the road climbs steadily, with an average grade of 7%.  I believe this is the highest elevation on the way to Virginia City.  The first part of the descent is more gradual, and I followed it for about a mile before deciding I should turn around.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

I started seeing wildflowers virtually as soon as I left the trailhead.  There was quite a bit of bush lupine and phlox throughout the hike.  Near the beginning, which passed nearby a stream with flowing water, there was some pink wild onion, I believe aspen onion (Allium bisceptrum).

image of aspen onion near the beginning of Jumbo Grade

Aspen onion near the beginning of Jumbo Grade

In the area where the trail was close to the stream I also saw wild California rose.

After about 1 mile the trail diverged from the path of the stream and continued to climb.  Within the next half mile I saw quite a variety of wildflowers.  One was this small, perhaps 1/3 inch diameter, 5-petaled beauty.  I tend to refer to all such flowers as cinquefoil (genus Potentilla), though I could not find a type in my flower books or on-line that looked like this, with a touch of orange and green at the base of the petals and numerous stamens protruding from the flower.

image of a type of cinquefoil? – not sure

A type of cinquefoil? – not sure

I noticed one or two yellow salsify flowers (Tragopogon dubius), perhaps 1 inch in diameter.

image of yellow salsify

Yellow salsify

Next was a patch of white tidy tips (Layia glandulosa), in which the ray flowers are completely white.  (The ray flowers of the tidy tips I see in the Bay Area are yellow, like the disc flowers, with crisp white tips.)

image of white tidy tips

White tidy tips

Just after I noticed the white tidy tips I saw, just a few feet away, the first Bruneau mariposa lily (Calochortus bruneaunis) of the day. So I climbed a few feet up the slope at the side of the trail for pictures of both.  The Bruneau mariposa lily is quite showy, with yellow at the base of the snowy white petals, a maroon chevron above the yellow area, and six purple anthers.

image of Bruneau mariposa lily

Bruneau mariposa lily

Not far along the trail was a fairly tall phacelia, I believe a varileaf phacelia (Phacelia heterophylla).  It is one of the relatively few phacelias in the Great Basin with white, or dirty white, instead of violet or purple, flowers, and it is characterized by a “stout” stem, which is evident in the picture.  I saw lots of these phacelias during the hike.  Each plant has numerous tight coils, along the outside of which the flowers bloom, a few at a time.  The inset at the lower right shows a close-up of a blossom, with various reproductive parts extending outward from the petals.

image of varileaf phacelia

Varileaf phacelia

Yet another white flower in this area of the trail was blepharipappus (Blepharipappus scaber), or rough eyelash.  This is another composite flower, with ray flowers and disc flowers.

image of so-called rough eyelash

So-called rough eyelash

In this area there were also a few penstemons, which I usually find difficult to photograph.  This picture came out nicely, and seems to show short hairs on the outside of the petals, on the stems, and on the leaves.  The different species of penstemon are difficult to distinguish, so I didn’t try very hard to make a specific identification.

image of penstemon with lots of short hairs

Penstemon with lots of short hairs

I happened to look up an unmarked side trail, which may lead to some nearby former mines, and was startled to see a couple of bright pink patches of wildflowers.  I made a small, 10 yards or so, excursion to check them out.  The flowers reminded me of purple mat, which I’d seen in Death Valley earlier in the spring.  These are purple nama (Nama aretioides) and are, in fact, closely related to the purple mat in Death Valley.

image of purple nama, just up a side trail from Jumbo Grade

Purple nama, just up a side trail from Jumbo Grade

By this time I’d covered less than 1.5 miles of trail and I’d already seen enough wildflowers to call it a good day!  There were a few prickly poppies (Argemone munita) and then some snow thistle, also called cobweb thistle (Cirsium occidentale).  I would see a lot more of this large thistle plant.  When it blooms, the flowers are almost red, quite striking.

image of snow thistle

Snow thistle

When I hike I frequently see flowers that remind me of dandelions.  This time I decided to take a closer look at some, and noticed many pretty, forked stamens extending upward from the center of the flower head.  I think these flowers are western hawksbeard (Crepis occidentalis), but they might be short-beaked agoseris (Agoseris glauca) instead.

image of western hawksbeard, I think, with distinctive forked stamens

Western hawksbeard, I think, with distinctive forked stamens

Near this area I reached the first major trail crossing.  The trail to the left leads to the Empire Mine and the Pandora Mine.  Now the Jumbo Grade trail is heading into the heart of the Virginia Hills and a few peaks come into and remain in view.  I think Mt Bullion is on the left and Butler Peak is on the right in this picture.

image of Mt Bullion (left) and Butler Peak (right) in the Virginia Hills

Mt Bullion (left) and Butler Peak (right) in the Virginia Hills

A bit later I found an interesting multi-colored cluster of Indian paintbrush (Castilleja).  It turns out that a couple of types of paintbrush appear in different colors.  This picture is intended to show the range of colors – from red to orange to yellow – even though my camera decided to focus on the grasses in the foreground instead of on the paintbrush!

image of colorful Indian paintbrush

Colorful Indian paintbrush

About 3.4 miles from the trailhead there was a second major trail crossing, again unsigned.  According to my GPS map, when you continue straight here to go to Virginia City, you actually leave Jumbo Grade and follow Ophir Grade.  At the junction, if you look to the right along Ophir Grade, you see McClellan Peak with McClellan Lookout Tower on top, and what appear to be broadcast towers for several radio stations.  This junction marks the highest point on the way to Virginia City.  The trail begins a gradual descent and winds around several hills.

In a few places I saw some brilliant blue larkspur (genus Delphinium).  This is another wildflower that is generally difficult to photograph close-up.  However, here there were several stalks close to each other, and the cluster makes a pretty picture.

image of cluster of larkspur stalks

Cluster of larkspur stalks

Once past the highest point of the trail, the views ahead start to open up toward the valley in which Virginia City is located.  Several jeep tracks criss-cross in the foreground.

image of eastern section of the Virginia Hills

Eastern section of the Virginia Hills

About a mile after I passed the trail’s highest point I decided I would turn around and return to the trailhead.  On the way back I noticed a small cluster of sand corm (Zigadenus paniculatus).  Although the blossoms are pretty, it is notable that the plant is a type of death camas and is quite poisonous, both to humans and to livestock.

image of sand corm: pretty, but a type of death camas

Sand corm: pretty, but a type of death camas

I continued back toward the trailhead, almost without incident.  About 1.5 miles from the trailhead I re-encountered a damp area below which the trail follows a stream, mentioned before.  This time I stopped to look for flowers that prefer damp areas and noticed a single crimson columbine (Aquilegia formosa).  As it turned out, this is the last picture that my camera would take.  After this one, the camera was unable to focus properly and shortly the lens retract mechanism failed entirely.

image of crimson columbine in a damp area

Crimson columbine in a damp area

In spite of the heat and camera failure, this was an enjoyable hike.  It would have been interesting to get all the way to Virginia City and explore some of the many historic buildings and other sites in town.  This would be a great point-to-point hike with a second car stashed at the other end.  Alternatively, on a cooler day a round-trip hike of 16 miles would be feasible.

Posted in Nevada, wildflower hikes | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vargas Plateau Regional Park

stats box

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

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

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

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

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

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

GPS track

GPS track

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

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

image of Cluster of ruby sand spurry

Cluster of ruby sand spurry

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

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

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

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

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

Pond near the north end of the Upper Ranch Trail loop

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

image of seep spring monkeyflowers near the green pond

Seep spring monkeyflowers near the green pond

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

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

image of Mission Peak viewed from Deer Gulch Loop Trail

Mission Peak viewed from Deer Gulch Loop Trail

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

image of view overlooking Quarry Lakes

View overlooking Quarry Lakes

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

image of yellow mariposa lilies

Yellow mariposa lilies

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

image of photographing the mariposa lilies

Photographing the mariposa lilies

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

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

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

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

image of johnny jump-up

Johnny jump-up

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

image of hill with a single oak tree

Hill with a single oak tree

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

Posted in Alameda County, Bay Area Ridge Trail | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment