Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Wet Environmental Education at Little Darby

Date: November 30, 2014
Place: Little Darby Environmental Education Area, Willits, California
Coordinates: 39.437045, -123.257777
Length: about 1.5 miles
Level: moderate

That Subday after our strained hike at Grizzly Creek State Park we woke up in Willits, to the last day of Our Thanksgiving vacation. There was a general glumness in the air and a subtle pressure within the family to skip the hiking plan for the morning and drive straight home. It wasn't raining, but a heavy and grey dampness hung over us that might have contributed to the overall feeling. That, and the mute awareness that a regular work/school day was coming up just a single Earth-rotation away.
Fog on the Forest, Water in the Sky
Things looked more upbeat after breakfast, and the family agreed to a short morning hike. So I directed the car to a place I learned about only the night before: Little Darby Environmental Education Area.
The place is under the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is habitat of the endangered spotted owl, a scouts camp, and a lovely place to hike.
Our hike at Little Darby, as captured by the GPS.
Finding the place isn't straight forward. Kind of a local secret, very little is written about it outside of the BLM site, and even there I could find only a general description to go on. We followed the given directions and when we arrived at the pullout that constituted the parking lot, the sky was once again dark with clouds. Grandma Quail, who wasn't feeling well that morning, decided to remain in the car and the rest of us donned our rain ponchos and headed into the damp forest.

It smelled wonderful. The damp forest felt and smelled absolutely wonderful. Earthy, rich, fresh. There were mushrooms everywhere, and the slugs were everywhere too. Feasting.

The trail begins with a drop down to the canyon. Below, the creek was running beautifully. As were all the tributaries.

We crossed the bridge and came across a sloped forest clearing where we found the remain of a primitive wood shelter, probably the work of the scouts from the summer before.

Bright orange spots littered the ground near the shelter. At that time we didn't pay much attention to them. On our way back, however, after completing the loop, I stooped over to see what they were.
Mushrooms, of course. Of a species I haven't encountered previously.

The clearing is where the loop trail starts (and ends). We took to the right and hiked along the creek.

The trees were all wrapped in a sheath of moss and fern, lush and moist.

Lichen, often seen at the most hostile environments, flourishes in the rich wetness of the California coastal forest.

The chikas were in a much better mood than the day before. They were eager to find new mushrooms for me to document.

Many of the mushrooms I've seen are edible. But I am never absolutely sure and I'm to afraid to try. The one wild mushroom I am sure about is the Suillus that grows under pine trees. At Little Darby I saw a close relative: a bolete mushroom that grew under a broadleaf tree that I didn't recognize.

Mushrooms don't have to be edible to be enjoyed. I have been admiring these fascinating organisms ever since I learned about them and the crucial role they play in the biome. But it is when they fruit above ground that I can enjoy their aesthetic qualities and sheer beauty.

Fungi decompose biological materials underground but also work inside dead logs to break down and release the locked-up nutrients, making them available once more to growing plants.

From the creek the trail climbs up the hillside. Water dripped heavily on our heads and for some time we told ourselves that it was just from the trees towering overhead. 
Most of the trees there were Douglas Fir, but there were also broadleaf trees here and there. One of these tree species was the red-barked California Madrone, beautifully contrasting with the forest greens. 
California Madrone
Atop the first loop there are two fallen trees, lying opposite of each other with a large gap between them. It was the perfect place for a rest stop. The trees must ave fallen fairly recently because nothing yet has grown on the freshly turned soil. 

About that place there is a split in the trail to the upper loop. We didn't plan to go on the upper loop (mainly because it became clear that the droplets were not coming just from the trees), but we had missed the turn. So further up we went. 

The trail wasn't all that steep, but it was quite slippery. The wood stairs were of some help, but to me they were more interesting as the mushroom garden they were. Each log seemed to have only one species of fungus growing on it. I wonder how long it would tale for the decomposition process to complete. 

Until the log would be recognizable only by the line of mushrooms on the ground. 

The rain intensified. We arrived at the top of the hill and looked around. At that point we'd realized we had taken the wrong turn. We could not recognize any landmark and we had no idea how long is the upper loop so, reluctantly, I conceded and agreed to go back the way we came. 
The view from the hilltop at Little Darby
Fortunately, the trail was more obvious on the way down and so we didn't have to backtrack our entire hike, but make the turn we had missed.

Papa Quail and the chikas were eager to go back to the car, while I lumbered along on my injured knee, steadying myself on the slippery slope with my hiking poles. Half way down, when I caught up with them for the umpfth time, I told Papa Quail to take the girls and hurry along. He wasn't happy about it, but conceded. Soon, all three were out of my sight.

With no one to hurry me along, I slowed down again and took more time to appreciate the local beauty.

Hiking in the rain has its merits. Many of them. If it isn't too cold, and wearing appropriate attire, it can be a very pleasant experience. Nature loves rain and responds in strong vibrance of scents and colors. 

Not to mention that some wildlife encounters are more chancy when conditions are wet :-)

I made it back to the creek and crossed the bridge. It was about there that I paid attention to the other organisms that the rain awoke: numerous sprouts of miners' lettuce were pushing through the mat of fir needles.

My way up to the road was very slow indeed. And it wasn't because of my knee, or because of the upgrade. It was the last walk of our Thanksgiving trip. Getting in the car meant going back home. 

But then, again, one must return to the home base in order to set out on a new adventure. The hike at Little Darby was the last of a long and highly gratifying vacation along the most spectacular coastline of Northern California, at the season when it bursts with life like nowhere else I know. 

Little Darby is a sweet little gem for hikers. Out of the way and not broadly known, this place is the perfect hide-out for anyone who likes a quiet retreat in the woods. 


  1. This trail looks magical.

    But still, I admire your motivation to go on wet hikes - especially with an injured knee

    1. Thanks, Moti! I would be depressing to stay cooped at home :-)

  2. so lovely! and in the current heat (the hottest July ever here, according to some - and keeping the record in August) - this wintery post makes me yearn for the winter and rain and mushrooms...

    1. Relief will come to you soon. And the good rains will pour once more. I hope.