Monday, November 25, 2019

A Sweet Discovery: Hiking the Black Swan Trail

Black Swan Lake

Date: November 10, 2019
Place: Black Swan Trail. Smartsville, California
Coordinates: 39.209342, -121.278121
Length: 2 miles
Level: moderate

After our guided field trip at the Bobelaine Audubon Sanctuary we were left to bird (v.) on our own. Just before departing the sanctuary's parking area I took a few recommendations from one of the participants, and one of the places she suggested was to  visit the Sycamore Ranch campground, at the shores of the Yuba River. After lunch we drove there and found out that is was indeed a very pretty place, but sans hiking trails. So while Pappa Quail and the chikas walked around looking for birds I scanned the area with my phone and came up with a couple of trails nearby that we could hike at. The first one we went to was a few minutes' drive east, at a place called Black Swan Preserve.
When we got to the point at the map we found a very small and very uneven dirt parking area. There were two cars already there and we parked next to them, grabbed our water and cameras and went down the trail. 
Our hike as captured by my GPS
Almost immediately we came upon the loop fork and the chikas decided to go downhill first, so down we continued, on a middle sloping dirt road. 

We were walking through a low forest (or a high chaparral) of pines, oaks, manzanita and some other prominent bushes. The vegetation was thick enough so we didn't see the lake until we were right by it.
Black Swan Lake
Our primary objective was to look for birds and there were a few ducks, all mallards, swimming between the dead branches poking through the water surface. We didn't see there any swans, certainly not black ones. I wondered how this place got its name.
The lake was very low. Not surprising, since we were there after a long and dry summer and fall. A bet of dry vegetation surrounded the water, and behind it - the forest. The soft ochre and yellow colors of fall dyed the warm afternoon of the north Sierra foothills.

Most of the oaks in the preserve were blue oaks but a few valley oaks here and there were adding their beautiful fall colors to the overall scenery.
Valley Oak, Quercus lobata
We slowly circumvented the lake which, at a close distance, looked more a pond than a lake. In fact, there were several shallow ponds near the main lake (I assume that when full to capacity they are all connected into a one body of water). The shallow ponds were covered with light green pond scum. I didn't get close enough to see if these were algae or anything else.

Here too I got to see the buttonbush that I was introduced to earlier in the day at the Bobelaine sanctuary. Here however, the 'buttons' were mature and dry already. Fall was more advanced.
Common Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis
I did't expect to as much bloom if any, and indeed there was very little of it. Tar plants, mostly. But I did see a few vinegar weed flowers, very miserable looking, but flowers nonetheless. These are pretty hardy plants - I see them blooming in the heat of summer on the dry, exposed hills of the East Bay as well.
Vinegarweed, Trichostema lanceolatum 
Being in daylight savings time now, the day seemed awfully short. On the clock it was still early in the afternoon but the shadows were getting long and the lighting was softer and accentuated the fall colors. Soon the sun wood disappear behind the cliff and we would be waling in the evening shadow.
Black Swan Lake 
The dirt road curved southwest and we started ascending, mildly at first. Exposed stone outcrops revealed interesting formations and colorful layers.

Soon we were walking beneath a tall, sheer cliff. In the gold rush era this place was used as an hydraulic pond, serving the local mines.

The cut cliff face was beautifully decorated with California wild grape in fall colors. Much of the cliff face was still exposed, the huge scar in the land not yet covered by the vegetation.
California Wild Grape, Vitis californica 
Beneath the cliff we were in the evening realm. {a[[a Quail and the chikas were ahead of me, going quickly up the trail and I took my time, giving due attention to the funny looking rocks and the smooth manzanitas.
Common Manzanita, Arctostaphylos manzanita 
Higher up the train we came out of the cliff's shadow and into the sunshine once more. Of the few plants that were still blooming were small buckwheat shrubs bearing pinkish-white inflorescences.
Buckwheat, Eriogonum sp. 
The strongest red there however, was not a flower but a fruit - berry-laden toyon, all ripe. I like its taste.
Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia
The trail led us up around the cliff through a low mixed forest. The fall colors of the valley oaks mixed nicely with the dusty green of the blue oaks and the gray of the pines. Everything below seemed bone dry.

Well, almost everything. The spikeweed wasn't dry. In fact, it was blooming. One can count on the tar plants and their like to show their colors at the very end of summer and of fall.
Spikeweed, Centromadia fitchii
Then the dirt road we were walking on curved sharply to the right and into the forest in a suddenly steep slope. Having no map with us we might have continued up that most obvious trail if not for a scary warning sign at the bottom of the curve, announcing that beyond the sign was private property.
Do you sit on that pile of gold still? 
We continued south on a narrow foot trail that split from the dirt road where it turned private. Luckily there was another sign there, a simple one with an arrow and a singe word - Trail.
That foot trail led us over the cliff we'd seen earlier from below. Now we had a spectacular view of the lake and near ponds.
Black Swan Lake
After I detached myself from the pretty view below and caught up with the rest of my family Pappa Quail told me that they saw a scrub jay grabbing a mouthful of acorns. Later I saw his photos of that jay.  It really did get acorn gathering to the level of perfection.
Scrub Jay

The lat afternoon shadows were getting longer even on to of the cliff. We all quicken our pace and moved faster down the trail.

I knew that we were getting close to our starting point, yet we were still high over the cliff. As I expected, the downhill segment came soon and was steep. Sliding down the dusty switchbacks I paused to look at a few buckeye trees, already 2 months into their own personal winter. This tree species is probably the earliest one to go through senescence.
California Buckeye, Aescuus californica
The loop closed behind a huge rock that supported a thin, unsteady tree. From there it was a short walk back to the parking lot which was now full. Someone was waiting for us to vacate our parking spot and we obliged by sliding into the car and driving back to Hwy 20 and to the Yuba River.

The Black Swan Preserve will be managed in the future by the California Department of Fish and Game. It wold be interesting to see how they'll care for this pretty little area. I would like to see it again, perhaps in spring time at peak bloom.


  1. Nice hike. The jay picture is great and the "no trespassing" sign is hilarious :-)

    1. Thank you! It sure was a nice trail with a few interesting surprises :-)

  2. you find gems wherever you go :-)

    1. Yes, I have a knack for that :-) Then again, I don't write here about the fails ...