Monday, December 5, 2016

Crags Campground and Nearby Treasures

Dates: May 27-30
Place: Crags Campground and vicinity, Toyabe National Forest, Bridgeport, California
This isn't a hiking post.

By the time I got around planning our getaway for Memorial Day weekend almost every campground in California was already booked out. I didn't worry, for I had in mind to camp at a first come first serve place. I also didn't think to drive more than 3-4 hours from home. But then I found some vacancies at the Crags Campground near Twin Lakes by Bridgeport and decided to book a couple, one for us and one for friends who where to join us for this trip.
For some time now I wanted to explore the area around Bridgeport, and now we had a good opportunity to do so. And it had been a very rewarding trip for us. Crags Campground turned out to be beautiful and our stay there was much enjoyed. This is not a hike post - it is about Crags Campground and a few other places that we visited in the area.

Crags Campground
Coordinates: 38.172068, -119.321567

Crags Campground is located near Twin Lakes, northeast of the town of Bridgeport. For that weekend, the minimum nights for which a campsite could be reserved was three, so we had reserved our sites from Friday night until Monday morning. The campground is about 6 driving hours from the San Francisco Bay Area, and despite Papa Quail's reluctance I was hoping to cover all that distance on Friday evening.
We worked hard to get ready. Papa Quail made it home early from work, and as soon as the chikas we out of school we packed everything and everybody in the car and took off.
The drive was uneventful and we actually made it to Bridgeport not to long after nightfall. It was then that we found out that we couldn't find the campground. We went by the coordinates supplied by Google, and those turned out to be wrong (and they still are! People who read this post and wish to go there, use the coordinates I give above, not those found at Google Maps!). Following the faulty coordinates, our navigator took us on a desolate dirt road leading nowhere. When we realized we were not going to the right place we got back into town and then I looked up the driving description given at the Toyabe National Forest website. We followed the directions, and by 11 pm we finally arrived our destination. We quickly pitched out tent and transferred the sleeping chikas into it, then followed suit and went to sleep.

We woke up and found ourselves in the most beautiful settings. Having arrived at night we did not know what the area looked like, so when I stepped out of the tent in the morning I stood and gasped. We were in a flat valley surrounded by peaks - round hills on the north and east, and high, jagged peaks on the west and south. The high mountain peaks were snow-capped. The air was crisp and my lungs hurt with the first few breaths, until I got used to the chill. I could hear running water nearby, but couldn't see the creek.
At Crags Campground
A wall-like ridge that towered over the valley grabbed my attention. Later I looked at the map and found that these high peaks were within bounds of Yosemite National Park. Indeed, one of the backpackers entry points to the Yosemite wilderness was nearby. Perhaps I'll take that route one day.

On the night of our arrival, as I made my way to the toilets before going to sleep I saw dark figures moving slowly nearby. The flashlight beam revealed them to be deer - a small herd of under 10 animals. They were still there when daylight came.

In fact, they were hanging by the campground throughout our stay there, shifting positions every now and then, or resting under a tree in the middle of the campground, completely untroubled by the camping humans.
Black-tailed Deer
Pappa Quail took a few walks around the campground, looking for birds to photograph. After many near misses he had managed to photograph a green-tailed towhee in Bodie State Historic Park. Later he got an even better image of that bird at the campground.
Green-tailed Towhee 
Another discovery he made was this nest of Steller's jay, right behind the toilet structure. The sitting bird eyed him nervously but remained in her nest.
Steller's Jay on the nest
The chikas made some discoveries too. As the sun rose in the sky the morning chill disappeared and the sunshine prompted the lizards out of their hiding.
They weren't all too quick, though.

Between the bushes I found my own little pleasure. A very tiny pleasure, in the shape of dwarf monkeyflowers. So small they were that I had to lie almost flat on the ground to get any decent photo.
Dwarf Monkeyflower, Mimulus nanus var. nanus
Squirrels were also plentiful and very busy with their spring activities. They, too, didn't seem to mind the presence of so many humans in their vicinity.
Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel
The road that connects the Twin Lakes area where Crags Campground is located with the town of Bridgeport goes through an area of flat fields and cattle pastures. In the line between the hills and pastures run a little creek, and near the road it swelled and flooded a good size area. There, in the flooded field, grew a bunch of iris flowers. On our second camping day I had Pappa Quail stop there on our way to take some photos.
Rocky Mountain Iris, Iris missouriensis 

Our friends couldn't make it on Friday night and we were expecting them around noon Saturday. We wanted to explore the area a bit but not get too far away (and stay within reception range) so we went to check out Bridgeport Lake.

Bridgeport Lake
Coordinates: 38.290953, -119.214320

Bridgeport Lake is a water reservoir at the edge of town with a picnic area and a boat launch ramp. We arrived at the picnic area and found it nearly empty, despite it being a nice Saturday morning. At least one of the picnic tables was occupied ...
Black-billed Magpie
The picnic area had a wide lush lawn, clearly well watered and maintained. Robins hopped on the grass, skillfully pulling worms from the moist soil underneath.
American Robin
Robins are quite common birds, and the adults are very easy to recognize. The flycatcher below, however, falls under the category of LGB (Little Gray Bird), meaning hard to photograph, and hard to identify. The ID in the photo captioning is closest to the description at the Sibley bird guide.
Willow Flycatcher
Bridgeport Lake turned out to be a prime birding location. And we hadn't even gone down to the lake yet. The chikas wanted to eat, and while I was fixing them some food, Pappa Quail went around and sampled the avian scene.
Pine Siskin
The chikas and I soon joined Pappa Quail in exploring the area. Outside the landscaped lawn stretched an area of low mounds covered with scrub. We went up one of them and looked around. Pappa Quail spotted a male California Quail and we all enjoyed his call.
California Quail, male
After that we went down to the lake. As soon as we emerged form the bushes that flanked the trail I stopped and gasped: before me was an intensely yellow field of flowers. I've seen the like of which only once before: at the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge, also by a lakeshore.

It was a field of evening primrose. Like I've seen at the Modoc NWR, here too the primrose flowers thrived in an area that used to be covered by water when the lake was higher before the drought.
Tansy Leaf Evening Primrose, Taraxia tanacetifolia
It wasn't for the flowers only that I had gasped. Looking westward, the eastern wall of the Sierra Nevada mountain range loomed in all of its snow-capped glory.

Pappa Quail had his attention to the water, where birds have been swimming peacefully. Spring time was apparent in the grebe's breeding plumage.
Eared Grebe, breeding colors
A few pelicans also floated on the water. Two of them came near enough to us: an adult with its breeding growth on the bill and a black-capped juvenile following in its wake.
American White Pelican, breeding adult (left) and juvenile (right)
We had spent a lovely time by the Bridgeport Lake, until the chikas started again about wanting to have lunch. It was already well after noon time, but we have not yet heard from our friends. Trying to stretch the time we walked ever so slowly back to the lawn area, where Pappa Quail went on another round of birding.
Western Tanager, female
It was there that he got the nicest image of a yellow warbler yet. On the following day he would photograph them also at the Mono Lake Park.
Yellow Warbler, male
As we lingered at the Bridgeport Lake area the wind picked up more and more, until it became quite unpleasant. By the time we made it back to town the clouds had gathered over, bringing the promise of rain. 
We stopped to fuel, and Pappa Quail took the opportunity and photographed a gull that perched on a nearby roof.
California Gull
While we had our lunch our friends finally came to Bridgeport and joined us. And they had their own ideas of what they'd wanted to do in the area - they had their minds set on dipping in the local hot springs.

Travertine Hot Springs
Coordinates: 38.245735, -119.204239

I suppose I will upset Bridgeport residents by adding some publicity to this local treasure of theirs, but I think it really is already a well-known site. Otherwise I cannot explain how it was so full of people, many of who sounded foreign, with a rainstorm brewing above.
There are several hot springs in the great Bridgeport area, but the closest to town and the most accessible and well known are the Travertine Hot Springs. A short dirt road that starts behind the National Forest Ranger Station leads into the hills and ends in a small, dirt parking lot with a small vault toilet at its edge. The parking lot was full but a few cars were leaving as we came so we quickly pulled in and parked.
It was overcast, windy, and quite cold outside. Not an inviting weather to wear bathing suits. Still, none of us wanted to back out of this (Pappa Quail, maybe, but he didn't say anything, he simply refrained from taking his swimsuit out), so we got our stuff ready and went out to check out the pools.
There were several pools in the area of Travertine Hot Springs. The closest one was right by the parking lot - a small rock basin full of steaming water and submerged partially humans in swimsuits. Behind the pool was a low ridge, and a narrow trail sloped up and curved behind it. We went on the trail, our friends leading and me at the rear, enjoying the colorful wildflowers that added bright colors to the overcast and gray afternoon.
Wavyleaf Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja applegatei sap. martinii 
The children soon disappeared ahead up the trail while I lingered behind. It was a special treat to be in this area in the spring, following a good rainy winter. Many of the plants there I've seen blooming for the first time, and I was reveling in their splendor.
Desert Globemallow, Sphaeralcea ambigua var. rugosa
While many of them were of familiar genera, such as the popcorn flowers. The species, however, were quite new to me, and some I could not identify to that level. Still, they made that entire area look like a wonderful rock garden.
Cryptantha sp.
Eventually I, too, made it up the ridge. There, I had a wonderful view of the hot springs area. A good view that faded into the approaching clouds.
Travertine Hot Springs Area
The hot springs are formed when water that seeped down into the ground was heated by magma that in that area is close enough to the surface. Then it steams its way back up and pours out in scalding temperatures, collecting into these little rock pools, some altered somewhat by people, where it cools enough for humans to soak in safely.
Below is a snip of a satellite image of the area, showing the Travertine geothermal zone right at the edge of Bridgeport.
Satellite image of the Travertine Hot Springs area
An oblong rock lay horizontally on the ridge. It was cracked lengthwise and a small pine was growing, evoking the ages-old question of which came first, the crack or the pine? 
Nut Pine, Pinus monophylla
Several pools could be seen from atop the ridge, recognizable by the whiffs of steam that connected them with the clouds overhead. All of the pools had people sitting in them. Our company made its way to one of the pools and all except for Pappa Quail and myself, stripped down to the bathing suit and plunged into the rock basin. 
One of the hot springs pools
Pappa Quail had no intention to get into the water. I did plan to get in, but before that I had to explore the surroundings a bit.
The hot springs area is somewhat elevated from the town but lies below higher hills to the east. An open forest of pinyon pines spaced by sage brush and other gray-green shrubs covered much of the light-brown soil, and annual wildflowers claimed most of the remaining open space. 

It was those wildflowers that attracted me, and I spent a good time looking at them before returning eventually to the hot spring pool and joining my chikas and my friends in the water.
Milkvetch, Astragalus sp.
I couldn't remember the last time I sat in a natural hot spring. With the amazing backdrop of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada peaks to our west, it was an absolutely delightful experience. I must say too that my pleasure intensified by the fact that outside it was cold and that the clouds overhead had started dripping a gentle, large-dropped rain. It might have been cool to remain in the pool throughout the rain but Pappa Quail wasn't happy getting wet and when he mentioned that my camera that I tucked so carefully under my clothes out on the rocks could get damaged, I knew it was time to go.
Longleaf Groundsel, Packera multilobata
Getting out of a hot spring pool into cold air and rain isn't pleasant at all. I went out first and dressed up quickly. Then I called the chikas out and me and Pappa Quail helped them dress up. There was much whining in the process, but it was over quickly and soon we were in the car, blasting the heater full power. It was now time to go back to the campground and call it a day. On the morrow our friends would join us to explore the ghost town of Bodie, and later Mono Lake Park too.

Twin Lakes
On Monday morning we broke camp and said goodby to the lovely campground we had spent the weekend at. Our friends had departed and were already on their way back to the Bay Area, but we wished to explore the area some more before embarking on the long drive home.
At first we took a drive along the northeastern shores of the Twin lakes. It was a beautiful day and the lake was calm. As calm as a mirror.

A solitary bird floated on the water - a young common loon.
Common Loon, juvenile
While Pappa Quail trained his camera on the loon I went across the road to check out the wildflowers that bloomed on the slope.
Mountain Wallflower, Erysimum perenne
According to the map we had there was a trail beginning at the end of the road that goes into the wilderness. I was hoping to go hiking a bit along that trail. When we got to the end of the road, however, we discovered that there was a private resort there. Many people roamed to and fro and I didn't see any official there. We decided to turn around and go somewhere else, less crowded. After some debate we settled on going back to the Bodie Hills and hike there instead - a pretty hike that I already have written about.
Mountain Mule Ear, Wyethie mollis
I describe no particular hike in this post, but some description of the beautiful campground we had found in this most beautiful part of California, and one we would love going back to when opportunity arise next. It was a long drive for us and we had spent such a short time there. I remained with a strong taste for more.
Mountain Bluebird, male