Monday, September 26, 2016

The Beach's Backdrop: Hiking Crystal Cove State Park

Date: November 25, 2015
Place: Crystal Cove State Park, Laguna Beach, California
Address:  8471 N Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Coordinates: 33.566709, -117.821390
Length: 5.7 miles
Level: moderate

As this year is turning and fall comes around again, we make plans once more for the week-long Thanksgiving school break in November.
Last year we traveled to Southern California, combining a visit at Mission San Juan Capistrano for then 4th grader younger chika, a visit to Disneyland as a birthday gift to the elder chika, a visit with our friends at San Juan Capistrano, and of course - hiking a sample of the numerous Orange County Nature gems.
Early on that trip we had a nice hike at Laguna Niguel. After that we had a more frustrating hike in the Santa Ana Mountains, a hike that ended abruptly when the elder chika fell and cut her hand on a sharp rock. The cut was deep and we had spent the rest of that evening at the local urgent care with her. After that adventure, we were ready for something nice and easy, and less hot. The coast seemed the natural direction and I selected Crystal Cove State Park at Laguna Beach.

This park is actually larger than how it looks on the map. And it has a nice trail system that we realized immediately, would be too extensive to cover in one day. Or even three.

We arrived at the main parking lot and started at the trailhead behind the visitor center building.
Our hike at Crystal Cove State Park as captured by Papa Quail's GPS
It rained a bit on the day before and I was worried because the hill trails close when conditions are muddy. Apparently it hadn't rained all that much because everything was wide open when we entered the park. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and only a bit of moisture under the top soil told of yesterday's rain.
We took some water and snacks and started uphill, getting slowly away from the communication towers and the power lines. I tried focusing on what Nature had on display for us that day.
Missouri Melon (Cucurbita foetidissima)
In the beginning we were going uphill. The slope is mild but soon we were quite high and had an excellent view of the coastline below.

It was a hot day and the chikas were complaining, especially the elder chika who was hurting still from her injury from our hike at the Santa Ana Mountains on the day before. To keep the girls interested I recruited them to 'Mission Roadrunner', urging them to seek the bird that all of us would love to see.
Well, 'Mission Roadrunner' was accomplished within a few minutes when papa Quail spotted a single roadrunner standing by the side of the trail and looking at us carefully. It waited there until we were almost on top of it, then it walked into the bushes and vanished from our sight.
Immediately I recruited the girls to 'Mission Coyote', which was not accomplished on that day.
Greater Roadrunner
We continued for some time along the Ridge Trail, enjoying the views. The vegetation was mostly dry - the rainy season was just beginning. But when looking for wildflower out of wildflower season, the coastal region usually has something to show, most commonly in the form of perennial shrubs. 
California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum)
Large areas of the hills were covered with green chaparral, and the contrast between the dry south-facing and the green north-facing slopes was very apparent.

Way to the east the twin peaks of the Saddleback peeked over the hills ridge line. We planned to go east as far as we had the time for, but the Saddleback would wait for another trip Southern California.
The Saddleback
The trail we were hiking on along the ridge was wide dirt road named very descriptively 'No Dogs Road'. About a mile up this trail there is short connection to the Moro Canyon trail along the creek below, The connection is called the Poles Trail for the long line of power line poles that stretches along it. It's impossible to miss. At the bottom of the Poles Trail I found a few straggling wildflowers. All of them, naturally, were hard to identify composites. I think I got one of them right.
Cliff Aster (Malacothrix saxatilis) 
Now we continued east along the creek. We lost the ridge breeze but enjoyed the shade of the hills that was cast of the path in places.
Going east on Moro Canyon Road
Tweets in the bushes a few yards away caught our attention. Papa Quail gazed through his binoculars and dismissed the tweeters as being too common. I nagged him a bit so he clicked a few photos of those little bush birds (LBB's).
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Around the curve I spotted another tiny bird - a hummingbird. She was sitting still on a dead fennel stem and didn't seem to concerned about us. I motioned Papa Quail closer and he documented the encounter.
Anna's Hummingbird, female
Little by little the hills drew nearer and the creek valley became more canyon-like. Here and there we could see some sheer rock face through the vegetation. Also the trail grew steeper and the chikas started requesting more frequent breaks.

We didn't smell anything in particular but there must have been something interesting on the hillside to our north because a committee of vultures was circling over that particular area. Perhaps the deceased in the shrubs was too fresh still.
Turkey Vulture
By mid-day we arrived at a nice, shaded area where sycamores, oaks and willows grow dense and tall. We found a nice nook in the rocky canyon wall and sat for a break. When we started on that trail

I thought we might make it to the eastern boundary of the park and loop back along the Moro Ridge trail. On any other day we would have probably completed that look as planned but on that November day we has a deadline that couldn't be pushed back - the low tide was due at about 3:00 pm and if we wanted to go tide-pooling (we wanted! we wanted!), then we would have to turn back right then.

I managed to wrestle a few more minutes out of Papa Quail's timeline calculations and went briefly up a side trail to see what I could see from there. I didn't get much of a view but I did see a sticky monkeyflower that bloomed in red - a color I had never before seen in Bay Area monkeyflowers.
Sticky Monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus)
We finished our snack break, and with some difficulty left the nice cool shade of the sycamore trees. In the Bay Area all the sycamores were already bare but down at Orange County they were just beginning to turn their leaves.
California Sycamore (Platanus racemosa)
We turned about and started back west. It was very hot still, but at least we were going downhill.
Moro Canyon north-facing slope chaparral 
If the chikas were lagging before the turning point, now they were running ahead, and Papa Quail right along with them. I brought up the rear, stopping now and then to appreciate the creekside vegetation.
Whatever little rain had fallen so far on those hills - the cacti were making the most of it, sprouting new pads out of plump old ones.
New pad budding of Mission Cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica)
Every now and then we crossed paths with another hiker or biker, altogether there were very few others on that trail and most of the time it felt as if we were the only people in the park. We would stop occasionally to drink and take a breather and between those stops we were making a good time.
One of our stopping points - a sole oak hugging the rock
A congress of ravens were coming around the curve toward us. They went into the bushes and continued hopping in and out of the vegetation until they all settled on one branch or another, all the time making a lot of noise. I love watching the group dynamics of ravens.
The canyon opened up and we were walking under direct sunlight. I kept pulling my bandana and wiping my forehead with it. Elder chika kept spilling water on her head despite my warning that we need that water for drinking. Papa quail wasn't concerned - we were getting close to the end of the hike. 
Coyote Brush (Baccharis pilularis) 
We passed the turn to the Poles Trail where we had descended into the canyon earlier that morning. This time there was no question - none of us wanted to go up the hill, so we continued westward along the creek below.
The Poles Trail
Soon we were in vegetation again. The hillside chaparral blending and then changing with riverbed riparian bushes.
There, where moisture collects and remains even throughout summer the shrubs were green and welcoming, and few bore flowers still.
California Wild Rose (Rosa californica) 
We slowed down. Toward the mouth of the canyon there is a nature interpretive area with a boardwalk and benches. We stopped for another break. I explored the vegetation while the chikas looked for lizards and bugs.
Pill Millipede (Roly Poly Bug)
There is a parking lot at the mouth of Moro Canyon, but not the one we were parked at. To get there we had to go uphill again and walk along the cliffs. We climbed out of the canyon and walked north behind and around the visitor center.
Chaparral Mallow (Malancothamunus fasciculatus) 
The interpretive nature trail continued on the cliff along which we were walking. The shrubs there were planted and maintained carefully. Posted signs said that this was part of native plant community restoration efforts. I hope these efforts are successful.
Menzies' Goldenbush (Isocoma menziesii var. menziesii)
Back at the parking lot I found a ticket on the windshield announcing that my Golden Poppy parks Pass wasn't good for Southern California Parks and that I had to pay separately. Attn. NorCal pass holders.
On the way up -Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) 
We made it in good time and decided to go and eat lunch before heading down to the beach. As it turned out it was the lunch stop rather than the hike that caused us to almost miss the low tide. We made it there, though, just as the tide has started rolling back in again, but that's for another blog post.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

If This Is Devilish, What Does Heaven Look Like? A Hike to the Devil's Postpile and the Rainbow Falls

Date: August 13, 2016
Place: Devil's Postpile National Monument, Mammoth Lakes, California
Length: 6 miles
Level: moderate

Several years ago we decided to go on a road trip along the southern part of California Hwy 395. One of the places we visited was Devil's Postpile National Monument. It was one of many other sites we had visited on that trip and I have very few memories from that visit. This summer I had the chance to go there again - and this time I was focused on creating unforgettable memories.
Devil's Postpile NM is a small area west of the town of Mammoth Lakes, east of Yosemite National Park. The monument features an ancient lava bed that crusted in the form of hexagonal pillars of basalt. This formation is amazingly beautiful and awe striking and I cannot imagine why anyone would give it a devilish name.

We were getting to the end of our August Sierra Nevada road trip with Grandma Quail and Papa Quail's nieces that were visiting us this summer. We arrived at Mammoth Lakes after having to change the car tires, following our adventure at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest the day before. Arriving in late morning after the long drive from Bishop, the parking lot at the Mammoth Adventure Center was already full and we had to find a spot along the road and walk up to the shop where we bought our bus tickets.

There is no car access to the Devil's Postpile, unless with a special permit. There is an all day shuttle that runs back and forth from Mammoth Lakes to the National Monument and the adjacent Reds Meadow Resort. The bus has 10 stops in that area, with trailheads leading into the forest and down the river. We got off at the Postpile stop where we listened to an introduction given by the ranger, filled our water bottles and started down the trail south to the famed rock formation.

Our hike as captured by Papa Quail's GPS
The river that runs through the Devil's Postpile National Monument is the middle fork of San Joaquin. It isn't very big there, and in most places quite shallow. It does support some nice riparian vegetation such as groves of willows.

The trail follows the river downstream, southward. For the most part the trail is far above the river but it does start at the water level and I took the chance and went down to feel the water.
San Joaquin River, middle fork. 
We went on down the trail, passing a few sign boards with information about how the Postpile  formation came to be. Then we got to an intersection and had to make a choice.
The Postpile is surrounded by a small loop trail. To get to the top of the Postpile we had to make a right turn and climb uphill. Some in ur little company argued a bit but Grandma Quail tipped the scale by vocally remembering how beautiful it was up there when she'd been there last.
So we hiked uphill to the top of the Postpile and sat down on the flat hexagons.
Bassalt hexagons under a manzanita cover
The hexagons form when lava cools down slowly and the newly solidified basalt cracks along the lines of least resistance. 

Those cracks are fine nursery spots for seedlings. And seedlings can grow into saplings. And trees. Big trees. And the tree roots join the other elements that widen the cracks between the hexagonal columns, eventually separating them.

After our break on top of the Postpile we had a little debate after which everyone else except for me and Papa Quail's eldest niece went back down the same trail came up on. Me and Papa Quail's niece continued on and completed the loop, meeting the rest of the family at the bottom of the Postpile.

This area used to be part of Yosemite National Park but in 1905 it was made public to allow for gold mining and other prospecting in the area of Mammoth, and only after the efforts by early conservationists including John Muir the postpile was protected as a National Monument.

The top of the Postpile is very beautiful but the view from the bottom is absolutely stunning. While basalt hexagons aren't all that rare, the formation seen at that National Monument is vey impressive. The stacks of the basalt pillars capped with Jeffrey pines and the pile of broken posts that flaked off the stack give the place the feel of an archeological site.

The broken posts reminded me of ancient greek structures I've seen, only without the carvings and statues. 

After joining the rest of the family we hiked up little, and then continued south towards the Rainbow Falls. The ranger at the small visitor center had suggested that we take plenty of water with us and it was a very good advise because the day was hot and the hike was mainly in the open.
We were hiking through a thin pine forest that had many clearings with many little pinelets growing around large fallen logs.

Those clearings are the outcome of the great Reds Meadow Blowdown on 2012 when a wind storm with gusts measuring over 100 mph uprooted many trees in the valley.

The open forest areas promotes the growth of shrubs and herbaceous plants. Although quite late in summer, many of them were blooming still.
Rabbitbrush (Ericameria bloomeri)
It was a hot day and my young chika wasn't feeling het best. We made slow progress along the dusty path. I kept breaking forward at a faster pace and then stopping to appreciate some flower or another until the rest of the group caught up with me.
Wire lettuce (Stephanomeria sp.)
I usually don't pay much attention to grasses. The local grasses at the Devil's Postpile, however, really stand out in their beauty and unique look, unlike the common grasses of the Bay Area, many of which are old-world imports.

Not catering for bugs or birds, the wind-pollinated grasses don't normally show interesting colors or shapes. Yet, their delicate spikes have a fairy-like beauty that attracts the eye and the camera lens.

Every now and then the view opened up and we could see the mountain tops that surround the National Monument. The mountains call me and I go to them. Physically, whenever I can. Mentally - every day.

We sit down once more - my little chika says her stomach is upset. Everyone else seems affected by the heat. I am restless, walking in circles around them. When everyone gets up from the log they were sitting on I get a chance to take a closer look at the plant that was blooming near it.
Short-leaved Alpinegold (Hulse brevifolia) 
Swallows were zooming through the air over the river vegetation. Photographing swallows in flight can be very challenging, it is much better to catch them while sitting in the tree.
Violet-green Swallows
We passed the turn to Reds Meadow Trail, the trail we were planning to take on our way back. South of the trail intersection there is a direct view to Mammoth Mountain. The view is unhindered by any trees: a vast emptiness stretches between: it is the aftermath of the big Rainbow Fire from 1992. That fire was so intense it consumed the soil seed bank. It's been 24 years since and the forest hasn't regrown yet.
Behind the devastation area is the bald top of Mammoth Mountain.
Mammoth Mountain
Further south the trail to Rainbow Falls crosses the John Muir Trail, a large, scenic backpacking trail along California's mountainous backbone. A few backpackers walked along that trail and I felt envious. It will be a while before I'll be backpacking again. In the meanwhile, I'll settle for beautiful day hikes such as this one.
Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium)
More people packed the trail as we neared the falls. Many of them arrived on the same trail we did, coming from the postpile. Many others came down the Reds Meadow trail.
The human inflation didn't seem to bother the small forest rodents. In fact, I think they were hanging around the trail on purpose.
Least Chipmunk
At last we made it to the Rainbow Falls. The small observation balcony was packed with people and I had to wait patiently to get a clear view of the falls.
Rainbow Falls
There is a short trail leading to the base of the falls, and on our last visit there we had gone down it. This time, however, the trail was closed for maintenance.
We sat down at the balcony for a snack break. A local squirrel was running between the people, begging for treats. While many people took the chance to photograph the little critter, I am glad to say that at least while I was there, no human shared food with it.

Feeding wildlife is bad for them. They get habituated on human food and keep approaching humans to get it, which endangers them. It also endanger humans, as many of the Sierra Nevada squirrels are hosts of the Plague pathogen. Plus, human food isn't suitable for them and can compromise their health. (Come to think of it, most of which people call 'food' isn't quite suitable for humans either ...)

So, no feeding of wildlife, please! No matter how cute they look and how intensely they beg.

After we had are time at the Rainbow Falls came the question of what's next. We could go on to the Lower Falls that were about half a mile downstream,  For most of our party that was a no question at all - Grandma Quail and one of the nieces announced that they aren't going any further. The chikas immediately said they'll be going back too. Papa Quail's elder niece said she'd like to go on. Papa Quail sighed. He gave me his GPS and started back up the trail with his mother, daughters, and younger niece.
Me and Papa Quail's elder niece continued on to the Lower Falls.

The trail continues south along the river. Dense riparian vegetation separated us from the water, but on the other side of the trail it was dry soil and mostly open view.  A good location for lupine shrubs to grow.
Silvery Lupine (Lupinus argenteus)
Flowers weren't the only colorful sights along the trail - there were ripe gooseberry fruits too. They reminded me of happy holiday ornaments, hanging from the branches like that.
Sierra Gooseberry (Ribes roeslii)
This trail segment is only half a mile long. As we were nearing the Lower Falls the trail got closer to the river and we could seed the other bank and the rising granite slopes. Trees were growing there in the cracks f the massive granite slab. Large trees, widening the granite cracks. Trees are a weathering force to be reckoned with.
San Joaquin River, middle fork. 
The Lower Falls are south of the National Monument Area. A small brown sign notified us that we were entering the Ansel Adams Wilderness.

I was surprised to see how many ferns were growing there, in such an open, and seemingly dry area.

We arrived at the top of the falls. A man carrying a large camera and a tripod was coming up from below. He informed me that the area is full of people and said that if I wanted to get a people-free photo of the falls I should go up the opposite slope. I thanked him for the tip and he moved on.
The view south of the lower falls. 
I tried following the photographer's advise, but the opposite slope was steep and slippery, and proved too challenging for me.
The base of the lower falls was in deed very crowded. There were people sitting all along the pool at the bottom of the falls. Many people were also swimming in the pool, climbing on the surrounding rocks, and even sitting on top of the falls. I had managed to find a brief people-free moment and photographed the falls. And even this photo is cropped.
Then I forgot all about getting the 'perfect image'. I shelled off all I could stopping short of creating provocation, and hopped into the water myself.
Papa Quail's niece settled for just dipping her feet in the pool - the water was very cold.
It was very cold for me too. I swam to the falls once, touched the slippery rock, then headed back out of the pool.
The Lower Falls
The swim was very refreshing, and in the heat of that day, was a true treat. We sat there for a little while, but then it was time to head back up the trail.
Indeed - not a moment later than when we were back on top of the falls, Papa Quail called me to find out where we were at.  (I was surprised to find out that there was cellular reception there!).
Heading back out of the lower Falls. 
Wishing to reconnect quickly with the rest of the family, Papa Quail's niece and I rushed up the trail. We wanted to get to Reds Meadow Resort before their little shop closed: the niece was thinking of ice cream, I was thinking of cold beer.
So I didn't take nearly as many photos on the way back north. But I did like this clump of pines on the trail up.

We made it back on time to meet everyone, get our treats, and take the shuttle back to Mammoth lakes, where we would stay the final night of our trip.
It was my second time at the Devil's Postpile National Monument. I remember very little from my first visit there. This time, however, I documented as much as I could. It is a lovely place, and I much recommend going there when it's open.
The Rainbow of Rainbow Falls

Many thanks to members of the California Native Plants Society for their help in identifying plants!