Monday, June 17, 2019

Floating Through Nature's Catherdral at Natural Bridges


April 7, 2019

Date: July 7, 2018 and April 7, 2019
Place: Natural Bridges Day Use Area, Vallecito, California
Coordinates: 38.052626, -120.471504
Length: about 2.5 miles in and out
Level: moderate hike to the south opening, challenging if going down to the north opening.  Float/swim through the cavern requires coming down a steep rock face. Flashlights and floaters strongly recommended.


It took a couple of years since I first learned about the Natural Bridges cavern until I had  the chance to visit there with my family last summer. Then I visited there again with the chikas and friends last spring and my impression was just as intense. The photos here are from both these trips.

We almost didn't go on this hike on our first visit. We arrived on a very hot Saturday, the chikas and their visiting cousin eager to get down to the promised water, Grandma Quail a little less eager to get out of the air-conditioned car and Pappa Quail who left his big camera behind not wanting to get it wet. There is a narrow strip of asphalt near the trailhead and it was already jam-packed with parking vehicles. After a minute or two of debating what's next we got lucky: one of the cars pulled out of its spot. Quickly we slid into the vacated space, got our drinking water and deflated floaters and headed to the trailhead gate. Another family was coming up and their little child was crying bitterly. They were focused on calming her down and said nothing to us as we walked by. Only a few steps down the trail and it was our young chika that started screaming and crying. She had stepped right on a yellowjacket hole in the ground right on the trail. The angry yellowjackets swarmed at us and we run back up to the parking strip. My poor young chika had 3 bites, Grandma Quail had one and the rest of us got lucky and escaped with none. It took a while to calm everybody and by that time Pappa Quail and I were ready to turn around and go somewhere else.

Near the Trailhead, July 7, 2018
It was the chikas and their cousin that insisted on hiking down again. Even the young chika who was still hurting from her bites. The heat was intense and the promise of a dip in the cool water of Coyote Creek was too alluring. So we took our stuff and started down again, this time getting off trail to bypass that hornet's nest.
Below is a photo of that same spot I took last April. There were no yellowjackets waiting for us then, and the difference in the scenery was striking. It was amazing to see the place all green and lush. There were also much fewer cars parked uphill and for most of the time we saw very few people along the trail or down at the creek.
Near the trailhead, April 7, 2019
Our April hike also presented us with a very nice bloom scene. We were rushing downhill and I had only my little pocket camera with me so I didn't photograph most of them, only those that really stood out.
Western Redbud Cercis occidentalis, April 7, 2019
Some of the wildflowers were just beginning to bloom, which made it hard for me to identify them. Thankfully I got help at the California Native Plants Society forum :-)
Leather Root, Hoita macrostachya, July 7, 2018

On our previous hike in July we've seen no bloom. Everything annual was already parched dry and even the perennials seemed tired and yellowish under the bright summer sun. Fruit were hanging from shrub and tree branches, and none as pretty as those of the Clematis.  They always remind me of Traffula trees.
Clematis sp.  July 7, 2018
The trail drops down to the creek going south first, then switch-backs to the north. Most of the way is under the trees and whatever shade we got was gratefully welcomed. We couldn't wait getting to the water, and I couldn't avoid the thought that all that slope was waiting for us on the way up.
Natural Bridges Trail, July 7, 2018
About two thirds of the way down the trail emerges from the trees and a nice view of the canyon opens up. The water cannot be seen, hidden well by the tree canopies. Gray pines and reddish manzanita dominated the view, and all looked in suspension, waiting for the rain that wouldn't come for a few good months yet.
July 7, 2018
It was quite stunning to look at this very view nine months later, after the heavy winter California had.
April 7, 2019
The reason why I wanted to hike that trail wasn't just that Coyote Creek is a nice place to take a dip in the summer, but because the creek flows through a beautiful cavern with pretty rock formations. Until that hike I have only seen it in photos and it looked like it would be a very exciting place to visit. Now we were getting very close to the place and needed to find the path down to the water.
Before going down the last drop to the creek the trail follows the edge of a cliff. A bit too close to the edge at one point.
July 7, 2018
Just above Coyote Creek there is a steep trail with a few stairs leading down to the south opening. On our July hike, Grandma Quail had already decided that she won't be floating through the cave with us so she went down to wait at the south opening and we left with her all the stuff that we didn't want to take on the water. On our later, April hike it was our friend's parents that remained to wait there.
View down to the area of south opening of the cave, April 7, 2019

Going down to the north opening is challenging. A number of unofficial trails made it difficult for us on our first hike to find the path to the north (upstream) opening. After we found it we discovered that to get town to the creek we needed to scramble down a fairly steep rock. On our July hike there was a sturdy rope anchored to the top of the rock that aided a great deal in going down. The rope was missing on our second visit so we had to scramble down unaided. It is certainly doable but if coming with little children or people who might have difficulty with rock scrambling I strongly recommend bringing a rope or even a rope ladder to aid with the descend.

There were quite a few people down at the north opening and my next challenge was to get a people-free photo of the creak upstream of the cave.
Coyote Creek upstream of the cave. July 7, 2018

We took a while to inflate all of our floaters. I made our party wait a bit until most of the people who were there went into the cave and disappeared in the darkness. I couldn't hold back the chikas for a clean shot of the cave mouth. They were hot and too eager to get in the water.
The north opening of the cave, July 7, 2018
I add the matching photo from our later, April visit to show the contrast between the dry and the wet seasons. It is quite a striking difference.
The north opening of the cave, April 7, 2019

The water was very cold. Surprisingly, I thought it felt colder in July than in April. Perhaps it was the contrast with the air temperature, which was very hot in July and much cooler on or April visit.
Once getting into the cave I could see that all the people that went in before us were still hanging there, floating lazily on their tubes with no apparent hurry to get anywhere. (I distorted the faces in the photo to avoid recognition).
Pappa Quail, the chikas and their cousin snaked their way between the others, then settled on their tubes and floated into the darkness.
July 7, 2018
I followed my family and once I cleared the other people I stood up and took photos of the cave. It was an easier task the second time around because I came with better splash protection for my little camera. Still, most of my photos came out blurry for poor lighting, or distorted due to water droplets that landed on my lens. Still, I got a few nice ones to show the magnificence of the cave.
April 7, 2019

There are many karst caves in the Gold Country of California, may of them unknown and unopened to the public. Some of the most beautiful caves are open for guided tours. Two of those are very close to the Natural Bridges cave. The Natural Bridges cave is open to the public year round, no guided tours, and no aiding scaffolds. No stairs or crawling, no boardwalks and while flashlights are recommended (mainly to see the rock features) they are not necessary. There are also no fantastic rock formation like those seen in the other caves. Still, the rock formations of the Natural Bridges cave are very beautiful and interesting.
Rock formation, July 7, 2018
Going through this cave is an excellent way to combine a sightseeing of the geological wonders the area has to offer with a very cool (double meaning intended) passage through this cathedral of Nature.
I do not know how deep is the water throughout the cave because I didn't try to stand there, but it seemed quite deep on parts. Swimming, or a floater are needed to pass through (and swimming there would be a very cold experience and would make photographing much more challenging).
July 7, 2018
The cave's ceiling drips water. All the water that the rock above absorbed during the rainy seasons dripping on us as we passed through. Even on our July visit after the fairly dry 2018 winter.
July 7, 2018
Most of this dripping happens near the south opening of the cave. Those of us who were careful enough to keep our upper bodies dry during most of are passage were now getting soaked as we floated through the ceiling showers that screened the cave's south opening.
April 7, 2019

I tucked my camera under its cover and passed through the cave shower. Outside I turned to take a photo of the raining vegetation at the opening and found that the lens did get some splash after all.
The cave's south opening, April 7, 2019
Outside the cave we rejoined Grandma Quail and sat on the hot rocks to deflate the tubes and to dry off. I wandered a bit downstream to get a people free shot of the creek.
Coyote Creek downstream of the cave, July 7, 2018

Meanwhile the chikas and their cousin got busy exploring. The elder chika found some tadpoles and after taking the photo I had her take it back to the water. I hope it grew into a nice frog.
Tadpole, July 7, 2018
I was amazed at how quickly the cool of the water faded away and we were hot again. Gathering our things we started our hike uphill. I took a final look at the picnic spot just above the south opening area. It was completely deserted because who would be fool enough to bake there in the hot sun when the cook creek is only a few steps down?
July 7, 2018
We hiked up the trail quickly, and remembered to bypass the yellowjackets on our way back. Although we did dry off before setting out on our return hike we were all wet again wen we got to the car, this time with sweat. Our second visit there was much nicer in that sense, and also much less crowded. If we only wanted to pay in the water we could have gone to the nearby New Melones Reservoir. But this hike is definitely worth it because of the cave and the wonderful way to pass through it. I have no doubt that I'll be there again.

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



Friday, June 14, 2019

Mineral Treasures and Natural Beauty at Alum Rock Park

Date: February 26 and May 11, 2019
Place: Alum Rock Park, San Jose, California
Coordinates: 37.396132, -121.801633
Length: About 3.5 miles
Level: moderate

Considering how old is this park (the oldest municipal park in California) it is surprising how long it took me to find it. I knew it was there because I saw the signs every time I drove down I-680 past that area, but I never took the time to check it out before. Not until last winter when I was looking for new trails for our 4-H Hiking Project. And from the first few steps on the park's trails I was completely taken by it.
It was May already when I finally got to lead our 4H Hiking Project on the trail I checked last February. The masonry still looked the same, but everything else changed with the season. Most of the photos here were taken during the May hike (some by Pappa Quail and the elder chika) but a few are from the February hike.

Alum Rock Park has a rich history of human indulgence. Once discovered, the Pentensia Creek mineral springs became a hot sensation among spa seekers, attracting visitors from all around.
Penitensia Creek, the mineral springs area. May 11, 2019
The creek was tamed between stone walls and stone grottos were built at the springs, channeling the water to sitting pools.
Mineral spring grotto, May 11
The Penitensia springs are rich in salts and minerals but none more evident than the sulfur, which I could smell in the air. The mineral water is also a splendid substrate for bacteria: white filaments of bacterial growth mark the water flow from the springs to the creek.
Mineral spring grotto, February 26
It was high spring when I lead the 4H group along that trail and the birds were active all around us. Pappa Quail had joined our hike and captured many of them, including this pretty grosbeak female.
Black-headed Grosbeak, May 11
He had seen only female grosbeaks on that hike. The elder chika, however, had seen the male.
Black-headed Grosbeak, male, May 11

The elder chika was also quick to see a garter snake slithering through the vegetation. By the time I came over it was already gone.
Garter Snake, May 11

At its prime, Alum Rock Park had a Natatorium with an indoor pool, a zoo, a carousel, and many other attractions. A railroad connected the park to downtown San Jose and thousands of people visited it every year. Much of the masonry from those days is still present, rendering the area a look of a reconstructed archeological site.
Across the bridge there is a narrow trail following the north bank of the creek back to the road and the parking lot area. We crossed and continued west along that trail.
Foot bridge across Penitensia Creek, February 26. 
The mineral springs aren't hot springs, so the water in the sitting pools was heated. While most of these pools are now broken and drained, some still hold water.
Mineral spring pool, February 26, 2019
The pool's water was green with algae growth, as expected of standing water. Ten weeks later it was full of a different kind if growth, foretelling a very itchy future for the nearby neighborhoods.
Mosquito larvae at the sitting pool, May 11.
Other, more benign and much prettier insects were flying all around us, enjoying the lovely spring. I had a hard time photographing them because they were constantly on the move.
Checkerspot, May 11
My chika however, got a nice shot of swallowtails when they posed a little to drink some mineral water.
Pale Swallowtail, May 11
Butterflies and birds, birds and butterflies. I love spring in the Bay Area. Everyone is so busy with love! Colors and love songs fill the air.
Mourning Dove, May 11

Pappa Quail was busy photographing the birds but when I caught sight of some orange poppies down by the creek way beyond the range of my wide lens zoom, I grabbed him to get a close up for me.
Wind Poppy, Papaver, heterophyllum, May 11

Back at the road we turned onto the North rim Trail that leads up high above the creek. Back in February I walked through lush green open oak savannah.
February 26

The firs wave of wildflowers had just begun and I was excited to see any a bloom. 
February 26

The surrounding hills looked like an image taken from The Sound of Music. All that was missing was Julie Andrews dancing on the ridge.
February 26
Needless to say, two and a half months later the scenery looked very different.
May 11 
Although the hills were already turning yellow, there were many more wildflowers and they were painting much of the slopes in lively colors.
Morning Glory, Calistegia sp. May 11 
Although much of the wildflowers-painted slopes was because of invasive plants it was still very pretty.
May 11
The plants that were blooming February were now bearing fruit. Pretty fruit.
Creek Clematis, Clematis ligusticifolia, May 11
The North Rim Trail rises up high above Penitensia Creek. The way up was about half a mile of moderate grade slope. We walked slowly and steadily, but then Pappa Quail stopped walking altogether: he saw a male lazuli bunting! Ever since my first hike up Mission Peak where I had seen a lazuli bunting, Pappa Quail had a burning desire to see one too. We did see them since - in Joshua Tree National Park. Now however, it was sitting in a perfect pose, perched fairly close. A very beautiful bird.
Lazuli Bunting, May 11

He didn't settle for the bunting - even the very commonly seen red-tailed hawk  was given appropriate attention.
Red-tailed Hawk, May 11
High up above the creek the view was fantastic. It would have been spectacular if not for the cloud of smog hanging over the Santa Clara Valley.
May 11
By May the buckeye trees were in full bloom. One of the nicest trees of the bay Area, the buckeye changes its appearance throughout the year and renders its own seasonal tag to the local landscape.
Buckeye, Aesculus californica, May 11
 I think this year I saw a record high of the yellow flowering coastal bush lupine. They were literally everywhere in the East Bay, and of course in Alum Rock Park.
Coastal Bush Lupine, Lupinus arboreus, May 11
We ad a nice break in the shade of a knoll of large oak trees. The day was getting hotter and we were grateful for any patch of shade we passed under.
May 11
The North Rim Trail, however, is exposed to the sun almost all its length. But after the initial ascent the slope grade mellowed and we were making a good pace on our hike. Even the adults.
May 11
From a distance the slope seemed to be covered will only tall, dry grasses and some low chaparral. When looking into the grass however, I could see smaller wildflowers making themselves known to the bees and other insects that were buzzing about.
Blue Dicks, Dichelostemma capitatum, May 11
The name of Alum Rock comes from a large, prominent and colorful rock that filled early prospectors to believe it might contain alum ore. They were wrong, but the name stuck. And the rock is still present and looking very lovely.
'Alum' Rock, May 11
There are other trails that split off the North Rim Trail and extend higher uphill into Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve. I looked wistfully at the trails leading to the high ridge. I had no time to extend my hike there in February, and it wasn't an option during the 4H hike. I therefore added the Sierra Vista OSP to my wish list for the near future.
May 11

After nearly a mile of a pleasant walk westward on the North Rim Trail we took the turn south to go back down to Penitensia Creek. The trail drops sharply right to the access road and crosses the creek on the old railroad bridge.
At its prime, thousands of people would visit Alum Rock Park each year. In time the facilities could not be upkept anymore and the city scaled back on maintenance. One by one the recreation facilities closed and dismantled and the park was put on the long and continuous path of nature restoration.
After crossing the creek we turned left and followed Penitensia Creek on the nicely shaded South Rim Trail close to the running water.
On my February solo hike there were only a few wildflowers blooming along that trail. Of those in bloom the most common was the milkmaids.
Milk maids, Cardamon californica, February 26
On our May hike the south rim trailside was a celebration of colorful wildflowers. Every sunny patch was filled with the common gumplant and many invasive thistles.
Common Gumplant,  Grindelia camporum, May 11
Pink onion inflorescences towered over lower weeds and poison oak. These didn't grow in patches but as separate individuals here and there.
Onion, Allium sp. May 11
Carpets of Chinese houses flowers covered the ground between trees and poison oak bushes and their colors were as intense as I've ever seen.
Chinese Houses, Collinsia heterophylla, May 11

I was starting to fall behind the group, trying to get good shots of all of the wildflowers when the chikas call me excitedly - they had found fairylantern flowers!
Fairylantern, Calochortus albus, May 11
Pappa Quail was also happy - he caught on camera a tree swallow in a rare perching pose.
Tree Swallow, May 11

He had also captured a small house wren that was singing out for its mate.
House Wren, May 11

I left the bird photographing to Pappa Quail and the elder chika and trained my camera on other, less conspicuous beings. 
Cobweb covered in willow seeds, May 11
Most of the group had already arrived back at the visitor center when I caught up with them. We finished our hike with a nice picnic - it was the last hike of this 4H year, and this trail was a perfect one to conclude this year with.
February 26