Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Strong Spring in Tilden

Date: April 17, 2013
Place: Tilden Regional Park, Berkeley, California
Coordinates: 37.88947, -122.23466
Length: about 2.5 miles round trip
Difficulty: Strenuous

The hills of the south-east Bay Area are slowly turning brown. Naturally, I had the impression that spring is waning. Today, however, I went for a hike in Tilden Regional Park and found to my pleasure that in the north-east side of the Bay Area, spring is still going strong. Therefore, I am quickly writing up this post and pushing it too to the top of the queue. Bay Area residents! This is the perfect time to go visit Tilden.

Along with some fantastic hiking trails, Tilden also has many family attractions. It is one of the most visited parks of the East Bay. Finding a quiet trail, therefore, could pose a challenge. Being one who normally shies away from crowds I chose to hike the Arroyo-Vollmer Peak loop on the south-east region of the park and is enough removed from its main attractions.
Uphill view from Arroyo Trail

The Arroyo trail has a decent upgrade, which got me panting before too long. Wildflowers along the path gave me the perfect excuse to stop for frequent photo-breather stops.
The lower part of the trail goes along the Arroyo Creek (now dry) and is fairly shaded. As it goes up the tree groves become fewer and far between and the hillsides are covered with chaparral. As soon as I left the shade the wildflowers started paining the trail side.
Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum)
One of the shortcomings of the internet is that it doesn't transmit scents. It is impossible for me to deliver here the sensual delight of walking among some of the most fragrant plants that can be found in the Bay Area. Here are examples of some of these plants (most are not in bloom at the moment, and not all I could identify). Please click on the photos for a large view.

Salvia spp. 

Sagebrush (Artemisia californica)
Pinapple weed (Matricaria discoidea), invasive

Artemisia douglasiana

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), invasive.

California Laurel (Umbellularia californica)

But there were plenty of wildflowers all around. Most of them I've seen on the upper part of the Arroyo Trail.
Plantain (Plantago lanceolata), invasive.
Hill Morning Glory (Calystegia subacaulis)

Just before meeting the Vollmer Peak Trail there is an open grassy area patched with a few lichen-coated rocks. The entire area was dotted with colorful wildflowers and I was hopping giddily from one patch to another, taking snapshots of the magnificent coastal spring. 
Dwarf Checkerbloom (Cidalcea malviflora)

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

Many of these wildflowers which paint the East Bay hills are, in fact, invasive weeds that immigrated here from the old world and took a powerful hold in this land, much at the expense of native species. The botanical landscape of the Bay Area today is very different than what is used to be before the European settling. For better or worse, they are now an integrated part of the local plant communities.
Vicia villosa
A patch of clover (Trifolium hirtum)
This includes the huge Himalayan Blackberry patches all along the trail. They were in full bloom and, in a couple of month I plan to return to Tilden with buckets for the booty.
A blooming Himalayan Blackberry (Rubus armeniacus), entertaining a visitor.
My original plan did not include going all the way to Vollmer Peak. I could not resist the temptation, however, and took the trail that connects to the paved road that leads to the peak. Along that road I saw the thick pouches of nascent cow parsnip inflorescence. On that day I could not find one in full bloom.
(Less than a week after I returned with the chickas 4H group and the roadside was white with their large umbrella-like blossom).
Cow Parsnip (Heracleum lanatum)
The road to Vollmer Peak also provides a viewing opportunity to the east.
Briones Reservoir

There are large antennas at Vollmer Peak  and a nice, shady tree overlooking to the east. Someone thought it a good idea to hang a swing on that tree and I spent some time rocking on that swing like a happy little child.

A waved to the familiar Bay Area land mark: Mount Diablo. Now should be the time to visit Mitchell Canyon to see the endemic globe tulips in bloom!

Mount Diablo
The view from Vollmer Peak to the west was no less spectacular:
San Francisco
I was lucky that day. On my return trip with the group the fog was still in the air and visibility was very poor.
The Golden Gate Bridge
Ocean liners move south past the Oakland Embarcadero
I didn't see much wildlife on this hike. I could hear birds all around but they were very shy and didn't come out to the open. Except for this robin that stood his ground on the Vollmer Peak road:

I backtracked my footsteps to the Vollmer Peak Trail and started descending. There were plenty of wildflowers along that trail too. Some in small patches, like the yellow Mule's Ear, and some in wide carpets. like the bright orange Scarlet Pimpernel.
Coast Range Mule's Ear (Wyethia glabra)
Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis)

Further down the trail enters chaparral area where the dominant color was the bright yellow of the invasive Scotch broom:
Scotch Broom (Cytisus scoparius)
The trail goes past the fire station and near the steam train depot. At that point it enters a large Eucalyptus grove. There, in the thin, filtered sunlight I found the shy-blue Forget-Me-Not and the bold-yellow Euphorbia.
Forget-Me-Not (Myosotis latifolia)
Euphorbia oblongata

Eucalyptus is also a very fragrant plant and its smell dominates the air on the Vollmer Peak Trail. It was close to the parking lot, though, where I could enjoy the gentle scent of this mint:
Less than a week after this hike I returned to this trail with the chickas 4H group. There were many flowers still, also some that were at the beginning of their season. The lupines, however, where laden with heavy pods. For these, as well as other ephemeral plants, spring is ending.

Summer (and berry season) is right around the corner.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Crunchy Footsteps: a Frosty Hike in Briones Regional Park

Dates: January 8, 2013 and January 12, 2013
Place: Briones Regional Park, Martinez, California
Trailhead coordinates: 37.95643, -122.12366 
Length: about 2.5 miles
Difficulty: moderate to strenuous

Map downloaded from the EBRPD site. I labeled the trail yellow.
After hiking a trail at the southwestern part of Briones Regional Park I decided to try another trail at its north east side. I arrived by myself after dropping the chikas off in school and parked at the Alhambra Creek Staging Area. It was very cold, barely above freezing, and the air burned my lungs with every breath. The weeds were covered with frost and crackled under my feet. I started walking south and uphill along the Alhambra Creek Trail.

My drive to Briones was through thick fog but in the park itself it was sunny and clear. The Alhambra Creek was running and I caught the sun in the stream:
The sun taking a bath in the Alhambra Creek
The trail goes through the forest, where I could see the sun rays breaking through the canopy:
Nature's cathedral
It rained four days before my hike there and the trail was still very muddy, which made the ascend uphill quite challenging. The East Bay mud is heavy and clayish and caked on my shoes like large platform soles.

The forest undergrowth was very green and lush. Moss covered every rock and tree. New ferns were sprouting on beds of humus.

There were ferns everywhere. They were the most common members of the undergrowth community. 
Ferns in Alhambra Creek

And not just ferns: the rains brought the mushrooms too.

It all smelled very fresh. 
I made it uphill and turned left, taking the Diablo View Trail northward. Way down the valley was still covered in thick fog and I could see the double peaks of Mount Diablo hovering above the fog. 
Mount Diablo, just visible above the fog. 
A week after this hike I took the 4H group on the same trail. This time there was no fog and Mount Diablo was looming over the valley in full view.
The western slopes of Mount Diablo
Eventually the Diablo View Trail sloped steeply down towards the staging area.

On my second hike of this trail I managed to catch the sun once more as it peeped between tree branches. By then it warmed up quite a bit and all signs of frost were gone.

Papa Quail, who joined our group managed to catch this Northern Harrier on Camera as it swooped by.
Northern Harrier
And this sparrow, along with its family, waited for us at the staging area:
Golden-crowned sparrow
I finished this trail in a little over 1 hour. The group hiked it in about 2.5 hours. Both times I enjoyed it very much. I now look forward for my next visit to Briones.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Not Just for Elves: El Moro Elfin Forest

Date: January 21, 2013
Place: El Moro Elfin Forest, Los Osos, California
Coordinates: 35.33177, -120.82622
Difficulty: easy

South of Morro Bay State Park and east of the bay itself there is a little nature area called the El Moro Elfin Forest, right at the outskirts of the town of Los Osos. On Monday morning, the last day of our MLK camping trip to Morro Bay we broke camp and went with our friends to check out the Elfin Forest.
The hills of Morro Bay State Park, a view across the Elfin Forest
There are several entrances to this park, all extending from the streets of Los Osos. We parked at the end of 15th street and started the loop from there.
A view to the northwest to the estuary and Morro Rock. 
The single trail there is an easy board walk loop about 1 mile long with a few short extensions leading to observation decks. We started walking west, going clockwise on the loop trail, following the children who run ahead and vanished around the turn.
The area is almost completely covered with thick chaparral of changing heights. The little exposed spots between the shrubs revealed reddish sand.
Coastal shrubs holding the sand in place. View to the northwest. 
The observation deck at the southwestern overlooks the estuary. We were there during low tide. The mud flats were exposed. A mesh of canals and rivulets encircled mud mound, a playground for ducks and grebes.

The Elfin Forest is named so because it is a home for a beautiful grove of pygmy oaks. The north side of the loop trail goes through this grove. There is a lovely corner there, right under those trees.
The Pygmy Oaks of the Elfin Forest
These oaks, like many others, bear galls. The residents of the galls we saw had already moved out.
A Pygmy Oak gall. 
The most challenging part of this hike was to keep track of the children and stopping them from climbing the oaks. We could easily have walked the entire loop in less than 30 minutes, but it did take us a good 2 hours. We kept stopping for every pretty sight and there were many pretty sights there. This hummingbird, for example.
Anna's hummingbird, female
But our prized sighting was this bird: the California thrasher.
California thrasher
This lovely nature area is the perfect stop for anyone who likes short easy walks packed with nature of both plant and animal kind, as well as beautiful scenery. Definitely one of the gems along California highway 1.