North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve – Wildflowers

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Recently I visited North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve, located in Butte County several miles north of Oroville, for the first time.  The reserve has a well-deserved reputation for spectacular spring wildflowers, as well as beautiful seasonal waterfalls and unique geology.

Perhaps this image can serve to illustrate the essence of two of the three major features of the reserve.  It shows a carpet of colorful wildflowers – primarily lupine, owl’s clover, and poppies – below a small lava cliff.  And, although not shown in the photo, one of the major waterfalls is only about 100 meters away.

image of colorful wildflowers below a small lava cliff in North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve

Colorful wildflowers below a small lava cliff in North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve

Table Mountain was formed from extensive lava flows that occurred about 15 million years ago, eventually building up a layer of basalt several hundred feet thick.  It is one of the oldest land forms in California.  Most of the flow area was subsequently disrupted by geological forces, but Table Mountain remains as an isolated island, rising above the floor of the Central Valley.  Due to the hard-pan nature of the lava, the soil thickness varies from zero to thick enough to sustain grasses and wildflowers.  On the top of Table Mountain there are only sparse trees, mainly oaks, though there are more trees around the edges as well as in the many canyons that have been formed over time.  A special type of vernal pool, called Northern Basalt Flow Vernal Pool, is found on Table Mountain.  There are numerous micro-environments, many with specialized flora and fauna.

In addition to areas of relatively dense wildflowers as shown in the picture, I encountered numerous other wildflowers in more of a one-at-a time mode.  The variety was quite lovely.  This post shows many of the wildflowers I found, while a separate post describes my somewhat wandering hike.  For the most part there are not well-defined trails, and I ended up making two larger loops with a couple of smaller excursions.  The informal GPS track from the earlier post is reproduced here for reference.  Altogether I hiked nearly 7 miles, with relatively little elevation gain/loss.

GPS track

GPS track

There is just one public access point to the 3300-acre reserve, which is managed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife.  It is worth noting that, a couple of years ago, the DFW expanded a Lands Pass program to include Table Mountain.  Currently all visitors to the reserve are required to have in their possession a valid pass to enter the property; there is a prominent sign next to the gate that serves as the public access point.

An informal use trail leads west from the parking area toward the nearest waterfall, which is usually called Hollow Falls and is only about 0.6 mile away.  The walk can easily take 30 minutes in the spring when the wildflowers are in bloom and they, as well as the scenery, compete for attention.  The day of my visit had been preceded by several days of rainy weather, and the use trail was wet in many places.  Fortunately, I’d brought an older pair of hiking boots that I didn’t mind getting wet.

Many of the wildflower identifications for this post have been informed by a nice book about the wildflowers of Table Mountain.  In addition, the Chico Hiking Association has information about Table Mountain, including illustrated time-based wildflower guides.

Along the way to Hollow Falls I found several wildflowers right away.  In addition to what I presume to be Western buttercups (Ranunculus occidentalis) I found lupine, goldfields, and bluedicks (Dichelostemma capitatum ssp capitatum).

image of bluedick


I also found Douglas’ violets (Viola douglasii), shown on the left in this picture.  Until the day became somewhat sunnier later in the morning, I had to look carefully to find a blossom that wasn’t facing downward.  The oakwoods violet (V. purpurea ssp quercetorum) on the right has different leaves, different purple streaks, and grows in a different micro-habitat; I found it near Hollow Falls.  In addition the oakwoods violet petals are a lemon yellow, while those of the Douglas’ violet are a bit more gold-orange in color.

image of Douglas’ (left) and oakwoods (right) violets

Douglas’ (left) and oakwoods (right) violets

Of course there was lots of filaree (Erodium sp) throughout much of the reserve.  There was a large yellow carpet of wildflowers – several different species – sprinkled with lupine and other color spots, as well as small rocks and low bare rock outcrops.  Soon I recognized johnnytuck, or butter-and-eggs (Triphysaria eriantha ssp eriantha), with cheerful yellow and white flowers and reddish leaves and/or bracts.  (I’m not sure I have the plant parts correctly described for these members of the broomrape family.)

image of johnnytuck, or butter-and-eggs

Johnnytuck, or butter-and-eggs

Almost immediately after passing a sign indicating the boundary of the Ecological Reserve – I think the use trail from the parking area actually crosses private land, presumably on an easement – there was a blue carpet of sky lupine (Lupinus nanus), a relatively low-growing species with characteristic white-tipped blossoms.

image of sky lupine, which is common in the reserve and grows in bright blue carpets

Sky lupine is common in the reserve and grows in bright blue carpets

About 40 minutes and 0.6 mile from the parking area I arrived at the area immediately around Hollow Falls, in which Campbell Creek falls into Beatson Hollow.  The creek had a pretty good water flow, presumably due to the recent rain as well as the season.  Near the creek I found some California saxifrage (Micranthes californica), characterized by white petals, a yellow-green center, and yellow stamens.

image of California saxifrage near Campbell Creek at Hollow Falls

California saxifrage near Campbell Creek at Hollow Falls

I also found white, or longhorn, plectritis (Plectritis macrocera).

image of white plectritis, also near Campbell Creek at Hollow Falls

White plectritis, also near Campbell Creek at Hollow Falls

Soon I noticed a field of pink – owl’s clover – on the opposite (north) side of the creek.  I wanted to see it up close, so I walked a short distance upstream until I found a place to cross safely.  Then I could easily view individual plants of purple owl’s clover (Castilleja exserta ssp exserta) – note that the flower heads are actually pink.

image of so-called purple owl’s clover, which looks pink

So-called purple owl’s clover, which looks pink

Among the owl’s clover were a few valley tassels (Castilleja attenuata).  They are reminiscent of how a white owl’s clover would appear.

image ov valley tassel among purple owl’s clover

Valley tassel among purple owl’s clover

I decided to continue generally north, at times following small tributary water flows.  Near one of them I noticed some seep monkeyflowers (Mimulus guttatus, recently re-named to Erythranthe guttata).  Although this is a common and very widespread wildflower in California, it always seems cheerful and I enjoy seeing it.

image of seep monkeyflower next to a wet spot above Hollow Falls

Seep monkeyflower next to a wet spot above Hollow Falls

Farther uphill from the owl’s clover there were some poppies at the base of a small vertical basalt outcrop.  I could clearly see that there were two sizes of blossom, but most of the blossoms were still in their overnight closed state.  Later in my hike there was more sun, the day warmed up, and the poppies I encountered gradually opened.  Here are the two species found on Table Mountain:  On the left is a foothill poppy (Eschscholzia caespitosa), which is the larger, slightly darker orange, and more cup-shaped flower (when open).  On the right is a frying pan (Eschscholzia lobbii), with a smaller, lighter, and flatter flower.

image of foothill poppy (left) and frying pan (right)

Foothill poppy (left) and frying pan (right)

Soon I also found some lomatium, or hog fennel (Lomatium utriculatum), with clusters of tiny yellow flowers.

image of hog fennel, a type of lomatium

Hog fennel, a type of lomatium

After a prolonged period of exploring and enjoying the wildflowers above Hollow Falls, I began to make my way farther north.  Along the way I passed more goldfields: though three species are found in the reserve, the most common is California goldfield (Lasthenia californica ssp californica).

image of California goldfields, the most common goldfield at North Table Mountain

California goldfields, the most common goldfield at North Table Mountain

Suddenly I noticed some fringepod (Thysanocarpus curvipes).  I’ve seen this a few times before in other places, but always later in the bloom cycle.  This example demonstrates that the flowers bloom from the bottom of the stem upward.  The top of the flower stalk was still buds, with active blooms a few “layers” down, and the more familiar oval-shaped seed pods that appear to have tiny windows at the bottom of the stem.

image of fringepod illustrating varying stages of bloom

Fringepod illustrating varying stages of bloom

For a while I followed a small stream that flowed down toward Campbell Creek.  Fortunately it was narrow enough that I could cross back and forth as needed to find dry footing and avoid needing to climb up and down small lava outcrops.  I found (at least) two types of popcorn flower: The one on the left in the picture is taller and was in a drier grassland area, though not far from the stream; I think it is rusty popcorn flower (Plagiobothrys nothofulvus).  The one on the right is a much shorter plant, with different foliage and right next to the stream in a damp area; I think it is one of the several variants of vernal pool allocarya (P. stipitatus sp) that are found at Table Mountain.  I am not sure whether it is important for identification whether the centers are white or yellow; in some popcorn flowers the center is yellow when the blossom is fresh and ages to white.

image of popcorn flowers

Popcorn flowers

Along the stream I found some Table Mountain meadowfoam, also called snow-white meadowfoam (Limnanthes douglasii ssp nivea).  The other subspecies of Douglas’ meadowfoam look quite different from ssp nivea, but the yellow anthers seem to be a distinguishing characteristic.

image of Table Mountain, or snow-white, meadowfoam

Table Mountain, or snow-white, meadowfoam

I temporarily left the stream bank and, while exploring, found some white-tipped clover (Trifolium variegatum).

image of white-tipped clover

White-tipped clover

Another short exploration was to a small nearby area of bare lava rock, another of the many micro-environments in the reserve.  Here I found some small, just 2 or 3 inches tall, volcanic onion (Allium cratericola).  Especially when the onion grows among some low mossy plants, it appears to have virtually no stem (or else the short stem is prostrate, on the ground); then there is a cluster of delicate pink blossoms.  There is also a long, very narrow leaf.

image of volcanic onion

Volcanic onion

Back to following the stream slightly uphill, I came to a place where it cascaded down a small (few feet high) lava cliff; there is a picture of this in the post about the hike.  Near this crossing I finally stopped for pictures of a small yellow flower that, to some, looks like a goldfield.  It is actually yellow carpet (Blennosperma nanum var nanum), and I saw it in many places along my route.  Like goldfields, yellow carpet is in the sunflower (or aster) family and has ray flowers and disc flowers.  I do not know the significance of the outer ring of disc flowers being white, but it was one of several characteristics distinguishing yellow carpet from goldfields.

image of yellow carpet

Yellow carpet

Near the small cascade I found some buttercups that I had not seen before.  They are called Sacramento Valley buttercup, or Hartweg’s buttercup (Ranunculus canus var canus).  The blossoms are larger than California or Western buttercup, and the stamens are longer and more pronounced.  The Calflora range maps show that the Sacramento Valley buttercup mainly occurs in the Sacramento Valley, while Western buttercup occurs outside the valley, perhaps in higher elevations, and the California buttercup occurs mainly in the counties along the Pacific coast.

image of Sacramento Valley, or Hartweg’s, buttercup

Sacramento Valley, or Hartweg’s, buttercup

After crossing the stream I continued generally north, and a little while later I saw my first red maids (Calandrinia menziesii) of the day.  As is well known, red maids are not actually red, but more of a dark pink-to-purple.  My point-and-shoot cameras have all had difficulty focusing on red maids, giving my pictures an aura of dreamy, soft focus.  Later in my hike I would see quite a few more.

image of red maid

Red maid

As I explored I came across some bird’s-eye gilia (Gilia tricolor ssp tricolor), another species I would see more of later.  The three colors in the Latin name are the light purple of the petals, darker purple at the base of the petals, and some yellow in the throat, hard to see in the picture.

image of bird’s-eye gilia

Bird’s-eye gilia

After this, I actually walked for quite a while before I found more new species to document.  I passed a vernal pool, wandered almost back to the parking area, and then hiked north past another vernal pool.  I hoped to see some new flowers near the vernal pools, but perhaps the pools are not drying up quite yet.  I think some of the associated species, for example downingias, appear as the vernal pools shrink after the rains have completely stopped for the season; if this is so, these species will only appear later in the spring.

After passing the second vernal pool I found Ravine Falls, sometimes called Fern Falls.  Here I found some ferns that I was unfamiliar with; I think they are known as polypody ferns (Polypodium sp).

image of pretty polypody ferns near Ravine Falls

Pretty polypody ferns near Ravine Falls

I also found some spreading larkspur (Delphinium patens ssp patens) while I took a short break at Ravine Falls.  The cluster of plants was only 10-20 meters away, but the slope was steep and dropped off into the ravine so I decided to just make use of the zoom on my camera, rather than try to get closer.

image of spreading larkspur

Spreading larkspur

On the other side of the ravine I could see a patch of bright yellow on a ledge part way down the ravine wall.  Using my camera as binoculars, I zoomed in and concluded that the flowers were seep monkeyflowers.

After leaving Ravine Falls I hiked generally south, with a bit of a detour to the west to enjoy the scenery.  Eventually I arrived back at Hollow Falls, where I did some more exploring before returning to the parking area.  As I was returning from a brief exploration on the south side of Hollow Falls, I noticed a group of few-flowered blue-eyed Marys (Collinsia sparsiflora var collina) at the base of a small rock.  These pretty flowers are more purple than blue, and they are easy to miss because the blossoms are individuals rather than the many-blossom whorls found on the closely-related Chinese houses.

image of few-flowered blue-eyed Marys near Hollow Falls

Few-flowered blue-eyed Marys near Hollow Falls

In this area, the base of a small lava cliff is the location where I found the oakwoods violet pictured near the beginning of this post.

Finally I made my way back to the parking area and, much later, had a chance to review my photos and try to do identifications.  There are many locally specialized wildflowers at North Table Mountain, and I had also found several first-timers that are not quite as specialized.  At least half of the plants pictured in this post were first-time observations.  That’s a big day!  And I’d like to return another time, at a different time during the wildflower season, to enjoy even more of the beautiful wildflowers.

Posted in Butte County, wildflower hikes | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve – Wanderings and Waterfalls

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Recently I learned about North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve, which is located in Butte County several miles north of Oroville.  The context was wildflowers – spectacular spring wildflowers – in addition to beautiful waterfalls and interesting and unique geology.  When I had an opportunity to be in the area I made plans to visit the reserve.  In part because there aren’t well-defined trails, it turned out to be more of an initial exploration than I planned, but it was quite memorable.

This post focuses on my wanderings and the waterfalls and other scenery I saw.  A separate post is about the wildflowers.

The waterfall closest to the parking area is usually called Hollow Falls, and it can be reached via a leisurely 30-minute walk.  It’s only about 0.6 mile from the parking area, but in the spring there are enough wildflowers and pretty scenery to slow you down.

picture of Hollow Falls, the waterfall closest to the parking area

Hollow Falls, the waterfall closest to the parking area

The picture of Hollow Falls provides hints about the special geology of Table Mountain, with steep cliffs leading down into narrow canyons.  From a distance Table Mountain looks like a flat-topped mesa, a few miles across and several hundred feet high.  This is how it appeared as I drove to the reserve from Oroville.

picture of Table Mountain viewed from several miles away

Table Mountain viewed from several miles away

Table Mountain was formed from extensive lava flows that occurred about 15 million years ago, eventually building up a layer of basalt several hundred feet thick.  It is one of the oldest land forms in California.  Most of the flow area was subsequently disrupted by geological forces, but Table Mountain remains as an isolated island, rising above the floor of the Central Valley.  Due to the hard-pan nature of the lava, the soil thickness varies from zero to thick enough to sustain grasses and wildflowers.  On top of Table Mountain there are only sparse trees, mainly oaks, though there are more trees around the edges as well as in the many canyons that have been formed over time.  A special type of vernal pool, called Northern Basalt Flow Vernal Pool, is found on Table Mountain.  There are numerous micro-environments, many with specialized flora and fauna.

There is just one public access point to the Ecological Reserve, which includes 3300 acres.  The reserve is managed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife.  It is worth noting that, a couple of years ago, the DFW expanded a Lands Pass program to include Table Mountain.  Currently all visitors to the reserve are required to have in their possession a valid pass to enter the property.

An informal use trail leads west from the parking area near a solitary oak tree.

picture of oak tree near the parking area

Oak tree near the parking area

Visitors are requested to stay on the use trails as much as possible, in order to avoid disturbing the flora.  Also, there is a cattle grazing program that helps reduce the presence and impact of non-native grasses.  It is recommended and requested that visitors stay a good distance away from the cattle, let’s say to promote peaceful coexistence by not bothering them.

The GPS track for my wanderings is unique.  As it turned out my track data failed to record on the memory card in my GPS unit and, as a result, I was unable to upload the track to my computer.  The photo shows the track as stored in temporary memory and displayed on my unit.  The arrow at the lower right points to the parking area.  Data on a different display page indicate that my walk was about 6.9 miles with a total elevation gain and loss of about 870 feet.

GPS track

GPS track

If the track suggests that I didn’t know quite where I was going, it’s a good description of my wanderings.  Actually, I had some information about how to find three of the major waterfalls in the reserve; I believe I found two of the three.  However, it’s difficult to tell exactly where I went since my GPS unit has only rudimentary maps, and specifically lacks any topographical information.

To go to the closest waterfall, Hollow Falls, you follow the use trail essentially west from the parking area.  The day of my visit had been preceded by several days of rainy weather, and I discovered that the use trail was pretty sloppy.  I was glad I’d brought an older pair of hiking boots that I didn’t mind getting wet!  The use trail follows a seasonal stream that descends gradually, and I tried to find a relatively dry route.  After about 0.6 mile the small stream had emptied into Campbell Creek and I arrived at Hollow Falls, which spills down a cliff face to the bottom of a canyon.  As I approached the brink of the falls I noticed a field of pink-colored owl’s clover on a hillside on the other side of Campbell Creek, so I backtracked upstream far enough to find a safe crossing point.  This view is from the far (west) side of the Campbell Creek, looking down into the canyon.  I didn’t realize until later that there is actually a trail that zigzags down the canyon to the bottom; the trail is visible at the upper right of the photo.  I believe the canyon is called Beatson Hollow.

picture of Hollow Falls falling into Beatson Hollow

Hollow Falls falling into Beatson Hollow

In the spring the bottom of the hollow is covered with lush green grass and other plants, and the oak trees look ethereal.

picture of Beatson Hollow below the waterfall

Beatson Hollow below the waterfall

From Hollow Falls I headed north up the small wildflower-covered hillside, at first not following a trail.  Later, when I did find another use trail, I just followed it – at this point I felt like I was on a cross-country adventure, and figured that I could return to the parking area by backtracking on my GPS track if necessary.  Awhile later – my photos have time stamps but not GPS coordinates – I came to yet another seasonal stream that cascaded down a small slope.  The use trail I was following at the time crossed this small stream.

picture of stream crossing just below a small cascade

Stream crossing just below a small cascade

Between the lush green of the plants, the wet areas around the many small streams, and the sometimes grey clouds, I almost felt like I was hiking in Northern Ireland, where trails are sometimes faint or marked with only infrequent markers.

There were numerous places where there were small areas with rather dense wildflowers, often multi-colored.  In this picture there are goldfields, lupine, owl’s clover, and a few poppies.

picture of multi-colored wildflowers

Multi-colored wildflowers

In some places there were beautiful views of Sutter Buttes, which are about 30 miles away to the south-southwest.  From Table Mountain you really have the impression that you are looking over the edge of a high place across the Central Valley, and can see the next land form that rises above the valley floor.

picture of Sutter Buttes viewed from North Table Mountain

Sutter Buttes viewed from North Table Mountain

In other places, gently sloped hillsides show another interesting phenomenon related to the plant micro-environments.  Surrounding areas of exposed lava rock there are rings of goldfields, and outside this ring the soil is thick enough to support other types of plant.  This colorful phenomenon adds to the beauty of the Table Mountain landscape.

picture of Table Mountain landscape

Table Mountain landscape

I found two vernal pools during my walk; this is the first one.  These pools are places where water collects during winter rains, but there is no channel leading to a nearby seasonal stream.  Later in the season the pool will completely evaporate, and during this process specialized plants will grow at the edge of the pool.  Also, I noted that many of the clouds seemed to be floating on an invisible “floor” perhaps a few thousand feet above the Central Valley floor.  I liked the fact that the pool was big enough to mirror some of the clouds.  In the background of this picture, just over the edge of the mesa, you can barely see a stripe of the Central Valley floor.

picture of first vernal pool

First vernal pool

Shortly after passing this vernal pool I came to a cow carcass: one of those “smelled before seen” events.  Earlier I had noticed a number of vultures flying over an area north of Hollow Falls, and I presume they were interested in the carcass.

I may have gotten myself slightly mis-oriented in this area.  I began following a small stream uphill, thinking I was still traveling north.  To my surprise, however, I found myself approaching the parking area along the use trail that leads to Hollow Falls.  Since I wanted to continue exploring, I headed away from the parking area once again, this time to the northwest, in hopes of reaching another of the major waterfalls.  And I paid more attention to the direction I was hiking, just to make sure I maintained a generally northwest track.  At this point I was on the easternmost branch of the GPS track.

In this area I found a second vernal pool, again in a generally flat area with no path for the water to flow away into a stream.  In the background, past the edge of Table Mountain and across the Central Valley, it was possible to see a row of peaks in the North Coast Range, which is roughly 65 miles away in Mendocino National Forest.

picture of second vernal pool

Second vernal pool

Near the north extent of my hike I found a second large waterfall, which I believe is Ravine Falls.  If so, this is where Ravine Creek tumbles into a canyon called (on some maps) The Ravine, which is a small arm of Coal Canyon.  Note that the creek bed is at the bottom of a V-shaped shallow slot between lava formations.  The view was stunning, and I stopped for a short break to enjoy it.

picture of Ravine Falls

Ravine Falls

Continuing to look to the left, down the canyon, the cliff face was also spectacular.

picture of cliff face along The Ravine, the south arm of Coal Canyon

Cliff face along The Ravine, the south arm of Coal Canyon

From Ravine Falls I think I followed the more westerly branch of my GPS track generally southward, later curving around to the east and south.  Almost an hour later I found myself once again approaching Hollow Falls.  After doing another safe crossing of Campbell Creek above the falls, while trying to get a better view of the falls from the south side, I noticed a small sign indicating a trail.  I believe this is the trail that eventually leads to the bottom of Beatson Hollow.  In any case, I followed the trail for a short distance, again looking for a good view of the falls without climbing all the way down.  I found this view and stopped for another short break to enjoy Hollow Falls and the cliff faces.

picture of Hollow Falls

Hollow Falls

While on the marked trail I passed a small rock on which a butterfly had stopped to sun itself.  It stayed in place long enough for me to get out my camera and take several pictures.  I think it is a Western white (Pontia occidentalis) – this seems to be the best match to the coloration pattern.  I took particular note of the pair of very long antennae; in the picture they look longer than the body length!

picture of Western white butterfly

Western white butterfly

From Hollow Falls I simply followed the use trail back to the parking area.  Along the way, I encountered a somewhat large sparrow foraging in the grass.  Based on the unique head coloration, it is probably a lark sparrow (Chondestes grammacus), the only species in its genus.

picture of lark sparrow

Lark sparrow

After I arrived back at the parking area, before driving back to Oroville I made a short side trip to see a covered bridge near the unincorporated community of Oregon City.  The community was first established in 1848 and later served as a gold mining and supply center; it is now a registered California Historic Landmark.

picture of Oregon City covered bridge

Oregon City covered bridge

The bridge is much more recent than the mining town, dating from the 1980s; a nearby sign recognizes the contributions of several Butte County employees in the construction.  The sign is most visible through one of the three windows along each side of the bridge.

Just past the bridge I noticed an interesting super-sized mailbox, clearly intended to look like the bridge.

picture of mailbox near the Oregon City covered bridge

Mailbox near the Oregon City covered bridge

My explorations of the North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve and vicinity had certainly been an interesting adventure; see also the separate description of the many wildflowers I found.  I am now looking forward to an opportunity to visit again, perhaps at a somewhat different time during the wildflower season.

Posted in Butte County, waterfalls | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Sequoia National Park – sightseeing

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I recently spent a day visiting the lower-elevation western foothill section of Sequoia National Park.  In addition to a hike along the Marble Fork Kaweah River on the Marble Falls Trail I did some other sightseeing, mostly driving but with two short hikes and a few stops at interesting sights along the way.  I had decided to limit myself to visiting elevations below an active snow chain control point on the Generals Highway (CA-198), the main park road.  The chain control was at about 5200 feet elevation, which is lower than the Giant Forest area and General Sherman Tree, which are above 6500 feet.  I would enjoy returning another time to see more of the high country, but for a single-day visit I enjoyed what I could without dealing with chains.

The scenery was outstanding and at these lower elevations – the Ash Mountain park entrance is just below 1400 feet – and there were several types of wildflower in bloom, even in late February.

As I drove up CA-198 from Visalia and approached the park entrance I had several glimpses of a snow-capped peak, which served as a preview of my views for the day.  When I reached the Ash Mountain entrance station there was a short line of cars waiting to enter the park – and it turned out that everyone was receiving information about the chain controls about 15 miles up the road.  While I waited I had a great view of the same snow-capped peak, which is 11204-foot Alta Peak, about 12 miles away to the northeast.

picture of view of Alta Peak from Sequoia National Park’s Ash Mountain entrance station

View of Alta Peak from Sequoia National Park’s Ash Mountain entrance station

After entering the park, my first stop was the Park Information station about a mile up the road.  My experience at other national parks has been that the information station staff are well-informed about current conditions and can make recommendations based on the conditions and your time and interests.  So when I exited the station I had a plan for the day, in addition to a nice booklet about the park’s wildflowers.

Outside the station there was a small botanical garden with several plants identified with signs.  A flower I saw in the garden but not plentifully elsewhere was silver bush lupine (Lupinus albifrons).  The blooms were just getting started and should be spectacular in a few more weeks.

picture of silver bush lupine at the information station

Silver bush lupine at the information station

My plan was to continue up Generals Highway to Potwisha Campground, where I would hike up Marble Falls Trail, hoping to see the waterfalls.  Although I did not get to the top of the trail, due to a little more snow than I was prepared for, I did have a lovely view of the falls.  After my hike I would drive up Generals Highway to the chain controls and then back down, stopping at several points of interest along the way: a vista point near Amphitheater Point, Big Fern Springs, Hospital Rock River Trail, Tunnel Rock, and Indian Head River Trail.  I decided to record a GPS track for the trip down from the chain control, marked by an orange dot in this overview image.  While there were a few flatter sections, most of the road was a steady 6.5% grade with lots of turns, several signed 10 mph.

GPS track

GPS track

There were frequent turnouts that were convenient for stopping for views, or to let faster traffic pass.  Not far from the information station I stopped at one of the turnouts to enjoy another view of Alta Peak.  Across the highway I noticed several chaparral yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei) on the grassy hillside.

picture of chaparral yucca next to the Generals Highway

Chaparral yucca next to the Generals Highway

The chain control point was at about 5200 feet elevation, and once I explained to the personnel that I planned to turn around I was able to do so without any problems.  I started up my GPS unit and continued downhill.  The first point of interest was a great vista point near Amphitheater Point, at about 4300 feet elevation.  There is a dramatic hairpin turn, with the vista point parking area inside the turn.  In the GPS track image it is just to the right of an unlabeled peak, which is called Switchback Peak.  The views from the vista point are quite remarkable.

About 5 miles away to the southeast is a formation known as Castle Rocks, with individual peaks between 8500 and 9000 feet elevation.  Just to the left, peeking between Castle Rocks and a nearby hill feature, is 12160-foot snow-capped Mt Eisen, about 13 miles away in the heart of the Great Western Divide.  In the foreground is a deep canyon cut by the Middle Fork Kaweah River.

picture of Castle Rocks and snow-capped Mt Eisen

Castle Rocks and snow-capped Mt Eisen

Less than 1 1/2 miles away to the northeast is distinctive Moro Rock. In the sky just to the right you can see the moon.

picture of Moro Rock viewed from the Amphitheater Point vista point

Moro Rock viewed from the Amphitheater Point vista point

And to the south, directly past the apex of the hairpin turn, there is a great view of the lower-elevation foothills, with Milk Ranch Peak at the left.

picture of Sierra foothills and Milk Ranch Peak

Sierra foothills and Milk Ranch Peak

After enjoying the views I continued down the highway.  My next stop was Big Fern Springs, which was marked with a sign and another pullout with space for a few cars.  I decided to explore the springs at least briefly.  I found what I presume to be a spring-fed very shallow stream flowing down a stepped rock hillside.  What I would call the stream bed was at least 10 feet wide, though except for a few tiny pools the water was just a sheet flowing down the rocks.  In the shaded area there were moss-covered rocks, a fallen tree, and lots of ferns.  It was a bit tricky to capture in a photograph but it was beautiful!

picture of Big Fern Springs

Big Fern Springs

After my brief exploration of Big Fern Springs I continued down Generals Highway to the Hospital Rock area around 2700 feet elevation.  There is a short trail that descends about 100 vertical feet to the Middle Fork Kaweah River.  The bottom several yards of the trail pass under a rock arch.  This is a view from the river side, looking back up the trail, with sunlight coming down from above the river canyon.  Although the rock on the left might look somewhat precarious, I am confident that it’s very stable, or else the National Park Service would not allow visitors to walk underneath.

picture of rock arch at the foot of the Hospital Rock River Trail

Rock arch at the foot of the Hospital Rock River Trail

The Middle Fork Kaweah River is quite pretty, here tumbling down a small rapid just before entering a series of several pools of quiet water in the smooth, marbled brown rock channel of the stream bed.

picture of Middle Fork Kaweah River

Middle Fork Kaweah River

After climbing back up to the top of the trail I visited Hospital Rock, a special rock that has Native American pictographs.  Park signage indicates that the village that once occupied the site was the largest Native American village within current park boundaries.

picture of Hospital Rock, with Native American pictographs

Hospital Rock, with Native American pictographs

Another short drive down Generals Highway went past Potwisha Campground and then Tunnel Rock.  This is an impressive rock arch – really a single massive headstone between two other rocks, forming a short tunnel.  This site is signed and is right next to the highway.  It just takes a few minutes to park, then walk through the tunnel and back again.

picture of Tunnel Rock

Tunnel Rock

My final stop in the park was at the Indian Head parking area just inside the park entrance.  The famous Indian head sign is currently undergoing repair.  There is another short trail from a small parking area that descends 100 feet to the bank of the Middle Fork Kaweah River.  As I left the parking area I forgot to look at the views because I was distracted by a pretty display of blooming common fiddlenecks (Amsinckia intermedia).  I am kind of fascinated by plants that bloom in sequence from one end of the stem to the other, especially when the end of the stem gradually uncoils as the active blooming section approaches.

picture of common fiddleneck next to the Indian Head River Trail

Common fiddleneck next to the Indian Head River Trail

Growing among some of the fiddleneck was some Pacific popcorn flower (Plagiobothrys tenellus), with characteristic white flowers about 1/4 – 1/3 inch in diameter.  The detail at the base and edges of the petals is remarkable.

picture of Pacific popcorn flower

Pacific popcorn flower

Near the river bank I found some miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) in bloom, with similar size white blooms on long stems above the distinctive leaves.

picture of miner’s lettuce

Miner’s lettuce

Near the trail access point to the river there were several pools in which the water was very calm.  This beautiful and calm reflection was looking downstream.

picture of peaceful reflection in the Middle Fork Kaweah River

Peaceful reflection in the Middle Fork Kaweah River

After exploring the river bank for several minutes I climbed back up the river trail to the parking area so that I could see the view I’d missed on the way down.  It was a lovely view looking upstream, with the river below in the foreground, illuminated by the late afternoon sun, and Moro Rock and Alta Peak in the background.

picture of Middle Fork Kaweah River, Moro Rock, and Alta Peak

Middle Fork Kaweah River, Moro Rock, and Alta Peak

After that final stop I headed out of the park at the end of a whirlwind day of sightseeing and exploration.  I hope to return to Sequoia National Park some other time when I can get up to the higher elevations to see the famous giant sequoias.

Posted in Sequoia National Park, Tulare County | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Sequoia National Park – Marble Falls Trail

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I recently made a one-day, early spring visit to Sequoia National Park, just in the lower-elevation western foothills east of Visalia.  I was restricted to lower elevations due to a snow chain requirement at about 5000 feet elevation.  I didn’t want to bother with my chains, so I missed seeing the giant sequoias for which the park is famous.  Instead, I decided to hike as much as possible of the Marble Falls Trail, which follows the Marble Fork Kaweah River up a beautiful canyon to Marble Falls.  As it turned out I did not reach the falls, but it was a nice hike anyway.

Sequoia National Park covers a huge elevation range, from about 1370 feet at the Ash Mountain Entrance on CA-198, where I entered the park, to 14494 feet at the top of Mt Whitney, which I summited in 2016.  The elevation climbs quickly from the floor of the San Joaquin Valley into the Sierra Nevada foothills and then into the high country.  It is less than 20 driving miles – and only about 8 miles as the crow files – from the entrance station to the General Sherman Tree, which is at 6900 feet elevation.

I had a preview of the local scenery driving into the park, so I knew the hike would be pretty.  The trailhead for the Marble Falls Trail is in Potwisha Campground, and there is a day use parking area just across Generals Highway (CA-198, the main park road).  As I walked from the day use parking area to the campground I had this pretty view of the area.  I’m pretty sure the pointy peak is Milk Ranch Peak; I would see if off and on during the hike.

photo of view of Milk Ranch Peak near Potwisha Campground

View of Milk Ranch Peak near Potwisha Campground

My GPS track shows the route of Marble Falls Trail, with the orange dot designating the day use parking area.  The small loop near the beginning of the track is Potwisha Campground; I walked one way around the campground road on my way to the trailhead and the other way after I exited the trail.

GPS track

GPS track

The elevation profile shows that the trail was basically a steady uphill climb, with the trail proper beginning just after the short flat section.  From this point to my turnaround point the grade was about 10.7%, which I consider to be reasonable.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

A trailhead sign is at the upper end of Potwisha Campground, and the first part of the trail follows right along the Marble Fork Kaweah River, which is within concrete walls for a short section along a service-type road.  After about 0.3 mile a sign shows what I would consider the trail proper, which is single-track in width thereafter.  Along the service road I passed some miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) and a few common fiddlenecks (Amsinckia intermedia).  Just before leaving the service road I noticed a Dudleya plant growing on the steep hillside at the edge of the road.  After some research I think it may be a larger subspecies of canyon live-forever (Dudleya cymosa ssp gigantea).  The identification of cymosa rather than a different species could be more definitive in a month or so when it blooms.

photo of canyon live-forever near the beginning of Marble Falls Trail

Canyon live-forever near the beginning of Marble Falls Trail

The lower part of the trail was rather moist due to the proximity to the river.  There were several types of fern, as well as a few hound’s tongue (Cynoglossum grande) plants that were not yet in bloom.  Not far up the trail I noticed a tree trunk with quite a bit of turkey tail mushroom (Trametes versicolor) growing on it.  I’ve seen more colorful turkey tail, but in this case there was one section, not shown in the photo, in which the mushroom was growing upside down and therefore was obviously a mushroom.  It was the first time I’d looked at the bottom of turkey tail, so it was interesting and informative.

photo of turkey tail on a tree trunk

Turkey tail on a tree trunk

There was a short section of trail that passed beneath maple trees, and the trail tread was briefly covered with leaves.  However, most of the trail was bare, which made it easier to negotiate without tripping on the inevitable rocks!  This is a view looking back (downhill) as the trail passed through a pretty, forested area.

photo of Marble Falls Trail passing under trees

Marble Falls Trail passing under trees

About 1 1/2 miles up the trail, where it was sunnier and exposed, there were nice views across the canyon toward a distinctive peak called Panorama Point.

photo of Panorama Point

Panorama Point

Occasionally I paused to look back down the canyon, and there were views of Milk Ranch Peak, which I’d seen from the parking area.  Milk Ranch Peak is about 3 1/2 miles south-southeast.

photo of Milk Ranch Peak

Milk Ranch Peak

Slightly below 3000 feet elevation I passed the first small patch of snow on the uphill side of the trail, on a steep west-facing slope.  Although I had been planning to follow the trail all the way to Marble Falls, I began to suspect that I might find too much snow on the trail before I got as high as the falls.  This suspicion turned out to be correct.

As I climbed above 3000 feet elevation I began to see small patches of common groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) in front of small rocks in the middle of the trail tread.  This is a type of composite flower, which usually means there are both ray flowers and disk flowers; however, groundsel only has disk flowers.

photo of common groundsel in the trail

Common groundsel in the trail

Not far past the groundsel I noticed some wavyleaf soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum).  Its leaves, in clusters with distinctive wavy edges, are easy to recognize well before the blooming season, which typically begins in May.  Shortly I noticed a different plant cluster that almost looked like a shrub growing on the high side of the trail.  A few longish branches or stems, which were almost horizontal, had pink-purplish flowers.  A bit of research revealed that this was most likely arching rockcress (Boechera arcuata), a first-occasion member of a new-for-me genus of wildflower.  It was the most colorful plant I found on the hike.

photo of arching rockcress

Arching rockcress

Once again I paused to enjoy the views, including this one looking back down the canyon of the Marble Fork Kaweah River.  Milk Ranch Peak is on the left, and with the higher elevation there is better visibility of the foothills rolling away to the south and east.

photo of view down the canyon of the Marble Fork Kaweah River

View down the canyon of the Marble Fork Kaweah River

There was more snow in the shade on the uphill side of the trail, and occasional snowy spots on the trail itself.  In one place I found a few ferns standing in the snow.  Since I tend to associate ferns with warmer temperatures, it was an interesting juxtaposition.

photo of ferns with snow at their feet

Ferns with snow at their feet

At about 3450 feet elevation and about 2.2 miles from the beginning of the single-track trail I arrived at a small overlook, which essentially became my turnaround point.  I had just hiked through a 100-foot long section of snow on the trail, which was fairly narrow and dropped off steeply; and I could see more icy snow covering the trail ahead.  At the overlook I had a nice view looking farther up the canyon.

photo of view up the Marble Fork Kaweah River canyon

View up the Marble Fork Kaweah River canyon

At the bottom center of the picture you can barely see three waterfalls: Marble Falls.  Here is a closer look.  The river courses very steeply down the head of the canyon, with falls alternating with small pools.  It was a lovely view to enjoy while I had lunch.

photo of Marble Falls

Marble Falls

Immediately next to the rock where I sat for my lunch break there was a pretty chaparral yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei) with an almost perfectly spherically symmetrical cluster of leaves radiating from the base.  I thought zooming in a bit for my picture made an interesting geometric pattern.

photo of chaparral yucca: a close view

Chaparral yucca: a close view

My GPS mileage suggested that there was at least another 3/4 mile of trail before its official end.  Due to the on-trail snow and ice that I could see, with possibly more ahead, I decided I had gone as far as I needed to, especially since I’d reached such a nice overlook.  So I headed back down the trail, enjoying the views and plants in reverse sequence, as often happens on an out-and-back hike.  I was planning to spend the rest of the afternoon driving up to the chain control point and back, stopping to see several points of interest and to do a couple of very short walks.

When I reached the trailhead sign at Potwisha Campground I noticed a discreet quotation in a lower corner of the sign.  The quotation is attributed to Charles Dickens: “Walk and be happy, walk and be healthy.”  It seemed like a fitting way to end my hike.

Posted in Sequoia National Park, Tulare County, waterfalls | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Sandhill crane fly-in at Pixley National Wildlife Refuge

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While on a long weekend trip to the southern Central (San Joaquin) Valley I made a point to visit the Pixley National Wildlife Refuge to witness the evening fly-in of sandhill cranes.  Huge flocks forage in agricultural and other fields near the wildlife refuge during the day and fly into the refuge to roost overnight.

As I was driving to the refuge about 45 minutes before sunset I noticed a large group of the sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) finishing their day’s foraging in the field next to which I was driving.  Of course I took advantage of my camera’s excellent zoom capability for this picture – I estimate that I was 100 yards away – but, notably, this is by far the closest view I had of the cranes.

image of sandhill cranes foraging in the late afternoon

Sandhill cranes foraging in the late afternoon

These magnificent birds migrate back and forth each year from summer breeding grounds primarily in Canada and Alaska to winter sites in Texas, northern Mexico, southern Florida, and California’s Central Valley.  During their winter stay in the Central Valley the cranes roost overnight in the shallow water of wetlands, and various state and national refuge sites have been established to protect wetland sites that are suitable for many other migrating waterfowl in addition to the cranes.  During the days the cranes forage for food in fields that generally surround the refuges.  The daily routine is to fly out at dawn, forage, and fly back in at dusk to roost overnight.  This range map is courtesy of the Cornell Ornithology Lab web site.

image of range map for sandhill cranes

Range map for sandhill cranes

When I studied the range map I was interested to note that the breeding territory extends south into most of Wisconsin.  As it turns out, I have observed sandhill cranes in Wisconsin in July, and I now realize that they were breeding there.  The young I’d observed in family groups were so large that I didn’t associate the area with breeding and nesting.  The cranes that breed in Wisconsin apparently migrate to Florida for the winter.

Although I have never witnessed a dawn fly-out I have previously experienced the evening fly-in at Woodbridge Ecological Reserve, a California state reserve near Lodi.  It was an impressive experience, so as soon as I learned about Pixley from a web site focused on special places in Tulare County, I resolved to go see the cranes.  It turned out to be convenient to go later in the afternoon following a wildflower walk that took place about 35 miles away near Porterville.

Pixley NWR has a trail that leads from a parking area on Rd 88 about 0.75 mile to an observation deck.  The trail is slightly raised above the wetlands on what appears to be a levee.  As far as I know this is the only part of the refuge that is open to the public, and it is open from sunrise to sunset.  Of course, if you want to view the morning fly-out you need to arrive slightly before sunrise and, correspondingly, remain slightly after sunset in order to see the evening fly-in.

The GPS track shows the entire trail, with the orange dot denoting the parking area.  Because the trail is on a levee there is essentially zero elevation gain/loss.

GPS track

GPS track

It is noteworthy that there is currently a detour in place to access the parking area; this detour is mentioned on the refuge’s web site but is not comprehended by, say, Google maps.  Since I had consulted Google maps for driving directions, I initially approached the refuge from the south side, ignoring signage intended to direct visitors on a detour.  In fact, while approaching on the wrong road I saw the cranes in the previous photo foraging in a field right next to the road.  However, once I discovered that Rd 88 from the south to the parking area was closed, I realized that the signage was correct and, in fact, I had a 16-mile detour – basically around a 4-mile square – to arrive at the parking area.  As a result, I didn’t actually begin walking out the trail until 10-15 minutes before sunset, with light already rapidly fading.

Along the side of the trail I noticed a few clusters of plants with cheerful yellow composite flowers.  The identification has been a challenge: the flower heads most resemble goldfields (Lasthenia sp.) but are somewhat larger than I usually think of goldfields.  Both Fremont’s goldfields (L. fremontii) and yellow rayed goldfields (L. glabrata) occur in the southwest corner of Tulare County in wetland areas, so they are my best guess.

image of yellow flowers, perhaps goldfields

Yellow flowers, perhaps goldfields

As I made my way as quickly as possible along the path I was treated to wonderful views of the approaching sunset across the wetlands.

image of approaching sunset in Pixley National Wildlife Refuge

Approaching sunset in Pixley National Wildlife Refuge

Although there were several American avocets (Recurvirostra americana) busy feeding, one particular individual was close enough to photograph. The appearance of the water was almost surreal, reflecting the color of the sky.

image of avocet feeding at sunset

Avocet feeding at sunset

A few moments later a large group of American coots (Fulica americana) traipsed across the trail from one pond to another.  If you look closely at the sky in this picture you can see numerous black dots, each denoting a bird and signifying that the evening fly-in was underway.  (I could also hear the distinctive calls of the cranes.)

image of group of coots crossing the trail

Group of coots crossing the trail

I was still only about halfway out to the observation deck, so I continued walking quickly as soon as the entire group of coots had crossed the trail.  Meanwhile the western sky just got more and more spectacular.  The sun had actually set about 10 minutes before I reached the observation platform but the sky was still spectacular.

image of spectacular post-sunset sky

Spectacular post-sunset sky

Meanwhile the fly-in was ongoing, with wave after wave of cranes approaching in groups and calling loudly.  The roosting locations were far enough from the observation area that it was impossible to see any more detail than black dots: some cranes, others some of the numerous other waterfowl species that roost in the shallow wetlands.  I recorded several short video clips in addition to single photographs.

image of sandhill crane evening fly-in at Pixley National Wildlife Refuge

Sandhill crane evening fly-in at Pixley National Wildlife Refuge

Watching a sandhill crane evening fly-in is simply an unforgettable experience.  There had been a couple at the observation area when I arrived, with binoculars and bigger, more capable, cameras.  All three of us stayed, watching with wonder, until the fly-in had essentially completed.  The cranes on the ground continued to “converse” with each other, and the three of us chatted quietly for about 10 minutes.  Then we made our way carefully back to the parking area as the sky darkened, eventually using a small flashlight I’d brought with me to ensure a safe journey.

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Sequoia Riverlands Trust – Lewis Hill Preserve

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I recently had an opportunity to visit a preserve that’s open to the public just one day a year, hopefully observing a wildflower that is found in only a few specialized locations in California: the striped adobe lily.  The preserve is Lewis Hill Preserve, which is owned and managed by the Sequoia Riverlands Trust in Tulare County.  I decided to sign up for the outing and make it a long weekend.

Lewis Hill Preserve is just 110 acres in size and is located on the north-facing side of Lewis Hill, just north of Porterville in Tulare County.  Lewis Hill is at the southeastern corner of the San Joaquin Valley next to foothills of the Sierra Nevada.  The preserve was set up and is maintained to protect critical natural habitats and to protect two rare wildflowers: the adobe striped lily (Fritillaria striata), listed in California as threatened, and the San Joaquin adobe sunburst (Pseudobahia peirsonii), listed in California as endangered and as federally threatened.  There is significant and growing pressure on natural habitats from agriculture, housing, and other human-generated development.  Lewis Hill Preserve includes unique rock and soil habitats due to its location relative to past geologic events.

Just two days before the wildflower walk I was advised that, due to very little rainfall this winter, the floral display might be underwhelming.  I decided to go anyway, and I’m glad I did.  The naturalist who led the hike was very knowledgeable, the scenery was special, the weather was excellent – and there were a few striped adobe lilies.  (The sunburst blooms about a month later than the adobe lily.)  In addition, I was able to help Trust volunteers flag additional pre-blooming adobe lily plants.  Here are the two blossoms on one of the two plants that were in bloom.

picture of striped adobe lily in Lewis Hill Preserve

Striped adobe lily in Lewis Hill Preserve

Due to the relatively small size of the preserve the walk was fairly modest: just 1.5 miles round-trip.  The GPS track shows my route, with the orange dot denoting the roadside parking that served as a trailhead.

GPS track

GPS track

From the trailhead starting point, Lewis Hill is only 250 feet high, so the total elevation gain and loss was only about 335 feet.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

This is a view of Lewis Hill as we started out.   The dark dots toward the top of the hill are small rock outcroppings.  It is notable that the grasses were very dry indeed, especially for February.  This really reinforced the statement that there had been very little rain.

picture of Lewis Hill

Lewis Hill

As we walked over to the hill we stopped several times to hear about the local geology and the resulting rock and soil types, including the clay soil favored by both the adobe lily and the adobe sunburst.  We were able to view several nearby hills to the north that clearly had different soil types: one hill was covered in winter-brown grass, and the next was heavily dotted with oaks, which only appeared as small black blobs from our location several miles away.  Along the way, after the docent had paused to talk some more about rocks, he noticed something interesting on a fence post perhaps 1/4 mile away.  He said he thought it was a bald eagle, so I immediately pulled out my camera to try to zoom in for a picture.  Alas, as soon as I turned the camera on, the eagle took off from the fence post, its gleaming white head and tail confirming the identification.  It flew around and seemed to catch a small thermal, circling a few times and rising into the sky.  Since it was hopeless to try for a photo once the eagle was airborne, we all just watched for a few minutes, enjoying the serendipitous moment.

Even though it seemed that there might not be any interesting plants growing, much less in flower, we did find several wildflowers. For example, there were a few blue dicks, or wild hyacinth (Dichelostemma capitatum).  As this picture suggests, they had not yet reached the peak of their blooming period.

picture of blue dicks, or wild hyacinth

Blue dicks, or wild hyacinth

The group was escorted fairly directly to the two striped adobe lily plants that were known to be in bloom.  This is one of the plants, and the entire plant was about 8” high.  The flowers are in the nodding configuration (hanging downward), as they are supposed to be, but the petals were kind of drooping instead of flaring open.  I’m not sure, but I suppose this might be due to the lack of moisture.  If so, the plants were struggling mightily to produce and maintain flowers at all!

picture of striped adobe lily

Striped adobe lily

A look at the inside of the blossom reveals the beautiful, delicate striations that give the flower its name.  As with many other flowers in the lily family, three petals form an inside layer, with three sepals, in this case closely resembling the petals, forming an outside layer.

picture of striped adobe lily

Striped adobe lily

As we continued to walk up the hillside we encountered two types of lomatium.  At lower elevations there was alkali desert parsley (Lomatium caruifolium).  Since I’m definitely still learning many wildflowers I was pleased that I immediately recognized this as a lomatium.

picture of alkali desert parsley

Alkali desert parsley

The docent confirmed my identification and said there was a different type, with a larger plant size, a bit higher on the hillside.  So I looked carefully and, before long, found a bigseed lomatium (Lomatium macrocarpum).  The differences in plant size, leaf shape, and blossom color were quite clear.

picture of bigseed lomatium

Bigseed lomatium

When we reached the top of Lewis Hill there were lovely views to appreciate.  Perhaps the most obvious, since I’d taken note of snow-topped peaks while driving to the hike meeting point, was a row of peaks just in view north of a nearby hill.  These peaks are northeast of Lewis Hill and are, I believe, part of the Great Western Divide, which is in Sequoia National Park.  As it turns out, Mt Whitney, which I hiked in 2016, is just over 50 miles away behind those peaks.

picture of Great Western Divide viewed from Lewis Hill

Great Western Divide viewed from Lewis Hill

By contrast, looking to the southeast there was a pretty view of orange groves, with foothills behind leading to the southernmost part of Giant Sequoia National Monument.

picture of orange groves and Sierra foothills

Orange groves and Sierra foothills

At the trailhead youngsters – and the young at heart – had been offered kites to fly from the top of Lewis Hill.  Several kites were indeed flown from the hill, each one colorful and, apparently, different from the rest.

picture of kites at the top of Lewis Hill

Kites at the top of Lewis Hill

The guided walk officially ended at the top of the hill, and participants stayed varying amounts of time to enjoy the place, the views, and the experience.  After most of the participants had gone back to the trailhead a few Sequoia Riverlands Trust volunteers began a planned activity to flag striped adobe lily plants.  The flags are a convenient way to count plants, and the plant count can be compared year-to-year as a marker of the health of the local population.

picture of Sequoia Riverlands Trust volunteer flagging striped adobe lily plants

Sequoia Riverlands Trust volunteer flagging striped adobe lily plants

The technique is marvelously simple: each participant looks carefully in an area, fanning outward from an area that’s already been flagged or some other convenient location, such as a rock.  Each additional plant is marked with a flag, in this case green.  At the end of the day’s activity the number of plants flagged is simply the difference between the number of flags at the beginning and at the end.  The volunteers had brought 8 bundles of 25 flags, and we used all of them.  Cleanup activities included removing old flags with obviously weathered metal stakes and faded plastic flags.  I was happy to participate in this activity and plant 30 or so flags.

This was an area of the hillside as we finished for the day.  The blue flags are used to mark flowering plants – I think all of the blue flags in this picture were from last year, left in place for now in the hopes that they would mark new plants a little later in the growing season.  If even a quarter of the plants in this view flower this year, it will be a wonderful hot spot!

picture of flags marking striped adobe lily plants

Flags marking striped adobe lily plants

As the volunteers and I walked back to the trailhead we went past a smaller group of red flags.  These flags were from last year and denote San Joaquin adobe sunburst plants.  I checked a couple of the flags and didn’t see any indication of a green plant.  So they were still in a dormant state, and hopefully some more rain will occur and spur these plants to grow and bloom at their normal time.

Near the trailhead I noticed – right in the middle of the informal trail tread – a small rock barrier surrounding a plant that had been marked with a blue flag.  I have seen this rock barrier technique used in other open spaces to mark a plant that should not be stepped on.  I gather that it is a milkweed that usually grows quite a ways to the south, and therefore was a surprise to find at Lewis Hill.  I think I heard someone say “Mojave,” and there is indeed a Mojave milkweed (Asclepias nyctaginifolia) with the corresponding geographic characteristics.  This plant was too small/young for me to conclude anything more than that it could be possible.

picture of out-of-range milkweed, perhaps Mojave milkweed

Out-of-range milkweed, perhaps Mojave milkweed

In spite of a minimally optimistic wildflower forecast for the day of this scheduled walk, it was a very enjoyable experience.  Of course I was happy to see the target wildflower, the striped adobe lily, but it was a great opportunity to learn about, and participate in, real-life rare plant management.

Posted in Tulare County, wildflower hikes | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Purisima Creek Redwoods OSP – in search of trilliums

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A recent social media post prompted this visit to Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, one of my favorite preserves on the spine of the peninsula along Skyline Blvd (CA-35).  The 4700-acre preserve is part of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and features beautiful redwood forest, the Purisima Creek Canyon, and wildflowers.

I have hiked in this preserve several times previously, notably as part of my Bay Area Ridge Trail circumnavigation (see here and here) and to explore Irish Ridge.  What was provocative about the social media post was reported sightings of Western trillium (Trillium ovatum) – I think I’d seen one before, but I wanted to see more.  This beautiful wildflower was the highlight of my hike, but was far from the only wildflower I encountered.

photo of Western trillium: highlight of this hike

Western trillium: highlight of this hike

I had been able to inquire about likely locations for Western trillium, and had been provided with specific trail names.  This was quite helpful in planning my itinerary, as there are more than 24 miles of trails in the preserve.  Rather than drive to the lower, western park entrance I used a smaller trailhead along Tunitas Creek Rd; there is informal roadside parking for only about 4 cars near this trailhead.  I determined a basic route of about 8 miles, intended to cover as much as possible of the trails mentioned to me.  Once underway on my hike I added or extended explorations so that my total hike length was 10.8 miles.  The GPS track map shows my route, with the orange dot indicating the trailhead.

GPS track

GPS track

Because I didn’t start at the western park entrance – it’s a longer drive from my house – there was an initial descent down the Purisima Creek Canyon to reach the areas most likely to host trilliums.  Altogether there were about 1600 feet of elevation gain and loss, for an overall average grade of 5.7%.  As shown on the elevation profile, there is very little “flat” area in the preserve.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

As a side note, I decided to research the proper plural of trillium for this post.  The obvious candidates were “trillia” – which my 4 years of Latin study insisted should be correct – and “trilliums” – which grated on my sensibilities but I found in several online dictionaries; my 1150-page Webster’s Dictionary didn’t even contain an entry for trillium.  Eventually I ran across a blog post in which a commenter explained that trillium is apparently a so-called New Latin term, the type of Latin used for scientific and literary classifications in the last 400 years.  I’m not sure why that would change the form of the plural, but for now I’ll go with “trilliums”.

From the Tunitas Creek Rd trailhead the Grabtown Gulch Trail leads down to the Purisima Creek Trail via two options: the continuation of Grabtown Gulch Trail and Borden Hatch Mill Trail.  I had decided I would go down the latter, so I turned left at the first junction.  Quite soon I was surprised to encounter a California banana slug (Ariolimax californicus) at the side of the trail tread.  I wasn’t surprised to see a banana slug in the preserve, since much of the Purisima Creek Canyon has just the kind of moist environment that banana slugs seem to like, but I was not yet in the moist, lower parts of the preserve.

photo of California banana slug

California banana slug

In fact, in the upper parts of the trail I found a few wildflowers that I associate with shady, but somewhat drier, forest environments.  One was hound’s tongue (Cynoglossum grande).  This individual happened to be in a small spot of sunshine when I came by.

photo of hound’s tongue

Hound’s tongue

After about 0.2 miles on Borden Hatch Mill Trail there is another junction, where Bald Knob Trail leads down to Irish Ridge Trail, the destination for a previous visit to the preserve.  This time I continued down Borden Hatch Mill Trail, which descends 900 feet over 2.5 miles to reach Purisima Creek Trail.  Throughout the higher elevations of this hike I encountered milk maids (Cardamine californica), a delicate early-blooming spring wildflower.

photo of milk maids

Milk maids

In addition I found some forget-me-not (Myosotis latifolia), whose blossoms look similar to hound’s tongue though are smaller, are lighter in color, and have slightly different centers.  Unfortunately, forget-me-nots are non-natives that are considered to be invasive.

photo of forget-me-not


As I continued down Borden Hatch Mill Trail I passed a few fairy rings: several second-growth coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) growing in a ring around the stump of a former old-growth redwood.  These fairy rings are reminders that the area was heavily logged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to build and then re-build San Francisco.  Today’s forest is much younger than the original redwood forest, and it is a blessing that so many areas are now preserved as open spaces.

In other places there are large redwoods on the high side of the trail with part of the margin of the root system extending slightly out of the ground to the side.  I think of these as redwood “toes.”  In another place I noticed a stump, without a fairy ring, that had new shoots growing on its top and sides.  These wonderful trees can be resilient about regenerating themselves.

As the redwoods become one of the dominant forest species there are large clusters, almost mats, of redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana) on the forest floor.  The three-leaf-clover-like leaves are distinctive, and the petals are white to pink in color with beautiful veins.

photo of redwood sorrel

Redwood sorrel

The Borden Hatch Mill Trail tees into Purisima Creek Trail, which runs along the creek for about 4 miles from the western park entrance on Purisima Creek Rd to one of the main park entrances on Skyline Blvd.  It was one of the target trails for finding trillium.  The trail is near the south bank of Purisima Creek, along a fairly steep canyon wall.  This trail is the heart of the preserve, with ferns and other plants and with wildflowers that enjoy a moist, shady environment.

photo of Purisima Creek Trail

Purisima Creek Trail

When I arrived at the junction I knew I was only about 1.3 miles from the lower end of Purisima Creek Trail.  My primary itinerary was uphill, but I decided to explore downhill first.  I figured that the area near the creek would be prime territory for trilliums.  I’m really glad I went downhill because, about halfway down, I found my first Western trillium.  It was a single plant and, if I hadn’t been looking so carefully on the creek side of the trail, I might have missed it.  For one thing, I’d forgotten that the leaves and flower are usually at least 8” high, so I was actually looking for the wrong type of plant.  This close-up shows the three large, deeply veined leaves, the three white petals and three sepals, and six yellow anthers and other reproductive parts.

photo of Western trillium, up close and personal

Western trillium, up close and personal

Besides redwood sorrel, another redwood-associated wildflower is redwood violet (Viola sempervirens).  I saw lots of these pretty flowers below about 1300 feet elevation on my hike.

photo of redwood violet

Redwood violet

There were many types of fern along my route.  I happened to notice this one after I’d turned around at the first trillium and was making my way uphill on Purisima Creek Trail.  This entire plant was about a foot in diameter.

photo of fern along Purisima Creek Trail

Fern along Purisima Creek Trail

There are several small streams that come down the canyon sides to Purisima Creek, including one near Borden Hatch Mill Trail.  Back near this junction I noticed some common horsetail (Equisetum arvense).  The genus Equisetum is considered to be the oldest vascular plant genus, with predecessors potentially serving as a food source for dinosaurs.  It is interesting to contemplate this history while enjoying viewing these plants, which are actually ferns.

photo of common horsetail

Common horsetail

I was planning to hike up Purisima Creek Trail about 2 miles from where I turned around, past Borden Hatch Mill and Grabtown Gulch Trails to Craig Britton Trail.  Along the way the trail crosses the creek several times, including 3 bridges.  I also passed quite a few trilliums and had an opportunity to see more variety in the plants and the flowers themselves.  This picture shows a bit more of the plant, whose main stem was roughly 8” tall.  Unlike other local trillium species, the flower grows on its own stem, which is at least 1” long.  A few of the flowers I found had pinkish petals, either a slight variant or possibly at the later stages of the flowering phase.

photo of Western trillium showing main stem, flower stem, and pinker petals

Western trillium showing main stem, flower stem, and pinker petals

Craig Britton Trail goes roughly northwest past Soda Gulch to Harkins Ridge Trail in the northern part of the preserve.  I hiked in a few tenths of a mile before turning around.  This trail is narrower than Purisima Creek Trail, is open to hiking only, and passes through beautiful redwood forest.

photo of redwood forest along Craig Britton Trail

Redwood forest along Craig Britton Trail

Along Craig Britton Trail I found a few wildflowers I did not see – or notice – elsewhere on my hike.  One example is California blackberry (Rubus ursinus), with characteristic five petals and a small forest of white stamens.

photo of California blackberry

California blackberry

An interesting find was large flower fairybells (Prosartes smithii).  The leaves remind me of Solomon’s seal – perhaps they shouldn’t, since they are alternate rather than opposite – but in any case the flowers are very different.  This was a first-time observation for me.

photo of large flower fairybells

Large flower fairybells


photo of tall redwood trees

Tall redwood trees






As I took a break sitting on a commemorative bench I decided to experiment with taking vertical panoramas of the amazing redwoods.  This is an attempt to convey the majesty of these trees, while being aware that they are only slightly over 100 years old.






Along both Purisima Creek Trail and Craig Britton Trail I encountered quite a few fetid adder’s tongue (Scoliopus bigelovii).  In fact, I saw most stages of the annual cycle, from early leaves to flowers to post-flower seed pods.  This individual, obviously in the flowering stage, was at the lower end of Grabtown Gulch Trail at the junction with Purisima Creek Trail.


photo of fetid adder’s tongue

Fetid adder’s tongue

In other places along my hike I saw periwinkle (Vinca major) as well as remnants of last year’s self-heal (Prunella vulgaris).  When I got to Grabtown Gulch Trail I hiked all the way up it, about 2.3 miles, to the trailhead on Tunitas Creek Rd.  The climb is steady and was the steepest of the day, though it may have seemed a little steeper than it really was because it was at the end of the hike.  As I approached the trailhead I caught a glimpse of brightness through the trees and realized that it was the Pacific Ocean with some reflected late-afternoon sunlight.

photo of Pacific Ocean

Pacific Ocean

This was a wonderful springtime wildflower walk in which I found several flowers that thrive in moist and shady conditions.  It was a delightful variation on my more usual spring wildflower hikes on open grassland hills and ridges.

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