Friday, February 28, 2014

The Balconies of The Pinnacles National Park

Date: August 17, 2013
Place: Pinnacles National Park (west), Soledad, California
Coordinates: 36.4918, -121.2097
Length: 2.6 miles
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous (involves rock scrambling and a narrow staircase).
Comment: Flashlights required if entering the caves.

Since we moved to California I had visited the Pinnacles National Monument several times. Recently, though, it has been promoted to a National Park. Last August, en-route to our revisit of the Channel Island NP with Grandma Quail, we had the chance to stop on the way and show her the latest addition to the glowing list of California National Parks.
The brand new visitor center on the west side. With the updated sign.
Visiting the Pinnacles in the height of summer isn't necessarily the wisest of ideas. Nestled in a mountain range once removed from the coast, it can get very, very hot there. Still, we went there and yes, it was very hot :-)
A Pinnacle
The park is named after the massive rock jags that are the remains of an inactive volcano, which was split in half and moved to its current position by the San Andreas Fault. These pinnacles of rock can be seen briefly from Hwy 101, but otherwise they are hidden in the mountain range.
More Pinnacles
Not quite the desert, The Pinnacles is fairly dry. By mid-August the annual plants were all brown and the bushes displayed a variety of colors ranging from rusty to dark green. The trees there are far apart  and each of them stands out in character.
Live Oak
Coming from the west and not planning to stay, we chose to hike the caves and balconies loop trail.
Map section scanned from Tom Harrison Maps' Pinnacles National Monument map. Our trail is labeled yellow. 
After walking for half a mile under the sun we entered boulder area. The creek narrowed into a canyon and the trail went over and between some very large boulders, many of which were decorated with colorful lichen growth:
Lichen on the rock
When we got to the loop we took the right trail, leading directly into and down the caves.
In a hole in the ground there lived ... bats. Sometimes.
These caves are not curved inside the rock. They were created when massive boulders fell on top of the canyon, roofing it. Except for the occasional skylight opening it is dark inside, and the trail can be tricky and slippery.

We took our time to carefully climb the narrow, dark trail.
Light at the end of the tunnel
Waiting for us, after emerging from the cave, were pretty red flowers that grew at the bottom of the stairs.
Hummingbird Trumpet (Epilobium canum)
The Hummingbird Trumpet wasn't the only red color there. The Poison Oak can get quite red too.
Poison Oak being festive
Very few plants were blooming at the time. And even those that did, were at the very end of it. Like this broomrape, a parasitic plant that instead of photosynthesizing, lives on and off roots of nearby plants.
Jepson's Broomrape (Orobanche californica ssp. jepsonii) 
There were many of the cushion-like bushes of the Eastern Mojave Buckwheat, some were even blooming still:
Eastern Mojave Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum)
But most already wore the rusty-brown after bloom colors:
Eastern Mojave Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum)
It was very hot and we stopped to rest for a while in the shade. The Clematis stayed in the sun and the light shone through its fluffy seed feathers. They looked like little cotton-ball clouds.
Pipestem (Clematis lasiantha)
After going through the caves and up the stairs we turned left and up to the Balconies Cliff Trail. The Balconies are the cliff levels of the mountain to the west. They tower pretty high over the canyon.

The trail doesn't go all the way up there. Just along the lower balcony.
The Balconies
Up there, just before going round the curve back south, I glances north to the valley beyond the canyon. It was the closest thing to a forest that we saw that day.

As we walked along the lower balcony I noticed the dark, vertical lines in the rock: the marks of seasonal water flow.
The Balconies
Looking at the map now, I noticed for the first time that many of these pinnacles have been named. I wish I could remember which ones are these. Regardless of their name, they are all unique and awe-inspiring. And yes, people do go there to climb them. (But not in the middle of August, apparently.)
Toogs? Osiris? 
After almost a mile of walking along the balcony, the trail descends back into the canyon, some distance before the entrance to the caves.
A view south from the Balconies
The reason the place was upgraded from a National Monument to a National Park is that this place was chosen as one of the sites to re-introduce the almost extinct California Condor. We have seen them there in previous visits, and were hoping to see them again on this one too.
Not quite condors: Turkey Vultures circling the sky. 
But the condors were someplace else that day. We did get to see other birds, though. Little, evasive, and noisy. Good thing Papa Quail has patience for them.
Nothing as exciting as a bobcat on that hike for us. Just a cute little chipmunk. They always make me smile.
Merriam's Chipmunk
Back near he parking lot I took the time to photograph a member of the tarweed family that really caught my attention in our SoCal trip. I like the way the disc florets stick out like eyes from between the ray florets.
Three-ray Tarweed (Deinandra lobbii)
Despite the heat, we had a very nice hike at the Pinnacles. From there we continued south to spend the night in Ventura, where on the morrow we would embark on our cruise to Santa Cruz Island. About a week later we would come all around and return to the Pinnacles from the east on our way back home.

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

Thursday, February 6, 2014

An Impromptu Hike at Bothe-Napa Valley State Park

Date: January 20, 2014
Place: Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, Calistoga, California
Coordinates: 38.55120, -122.51997
Length: About 5 miles
Difficulty: moderate to strenuous

It being so soon after a long winter vacation, we didn't plan any big trip for the Martin Luther King's Day weekend. A one day hike was enough for us. I have planned to take my family to Angel Island so we packed up food and water for the whole day and we arrived on time to the Oakland ferry just to discover that it doesn't run to Angel Island until spring.
We stood at the depot with our full backpacks and wondered where to go next.
I was recently reminded of cedar waxwings and I recalled that the first time I ever saw these beautiful birds was at Bothe-Napa State Park, on a persimmon tree right by the visitor center. I immediately suggested that we go there.
It's been a few years since we've been there last. The chikas were very young and we didn't walk much. Now we had the opportunity to do a proper hike there.
The park is a bout 6 miles south of Calistoga on Hy 29 and it took us about an hour to drive there from Oakland. When we got there we found no attendant at the gate, a closed visitor center, and no brochures of maps available. Having gone there on an impulse we did not have the map with us and I wondered how far out we should go without one. Then I spotted a ranger coming to empty the self-registration stand and I approached him, asking for the park's brochure. He handed me a flyer with the map of the campground and the marking of the trailheads, which did not satisfy me. I kept asking questions about different trails and eventually he pulled his one copy of the park brochure with a detailed trail map from his vehicle and gave it to me.
American Robin, near the visitor center
As it turned out, The map was very useful (if the ranger happens to read this, thank you!), and not only for us. All along our hike we run into people who weren't sure where to go next. Based on this I'd say that people who plan to go hiking at Bothe-Napa Valley State Park (or at any other California State Park, I guess) would be prudent to download and print the brochure map before going.

Map portion scanned from the park's brochure. Our hike is labeled yellow.
The Ritchey Creek, along which we hiked most of the time, originates at a spring and has a year-round flow. It was nice to see running water in January of the worse drought year California is experiencing in many years.
Ritchey Creek
Although it was already late morning, it was quite cold when we started on the trail. We had planned to be under full sunlight in Angel Island and were not prepared for the deep chill of the shady woods. All of us were huddled in our light sweaters and I hugged my chikas on both my sides and urged them to walk quicker. Eventually we run into a small, but effective ascend that had warmed us up enough.
Occasionally too, the sun rays broke through the canopy and lit up patches of the forest. At that point I got warm enough to pull my hands out of my sleeves and turn on my camera. As always: the pretty bark of a madrone tree made the perfect photo subject.
California Madrone (Arbutus menziesii)
The park prides itself on the redwood trees. Although we did not see any giants, even the younger, slimmer redwoods are impressive.
Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens)
We went on along the creek going up at a gentle slope. We originally took the Redwoods Trail, which goes along the southern bank of the creek, but all the time we had in view the wider Ritchey Canyon Trail that went parallel to us along the northern bank.
At some point the elder chika announced that she saw a cat on that trail, across the creek. I lifted my binoculars to my eyes and couldn't believe our luck: for the second time in two months I was looking at a bobcat. And this one, too, was nonchalant. Walking to and fro, aware of our presence but not caring all that much. Not enough to run away, anyways.
Humans? Bah!
Papa Quail was busy photographing the cat with every move it made. Eventually it started trotting down the trail in the opposite direction of our hike. Papa Quail followed along on our side of the creek and when he got tired of photographing the cat's behind, he whistled.
And the cat turned its face to the camera :-)
Seriously? A whistle? What am I, a dog?
That truly was the turning point of the hike. Suddenly the chill was forgotten and all the whines and complaints quelled. Giddy and excited we dashed along the trail, ready to meet the next surprise. 
The Redwood Trail ands at the creek. We crossed on the rocks and met with the Ritchey Canyon trail. Then we had to decide weather to loop back to the car or go on forward. At that point I was really glad that I got the map from the ranger because without knowing where the trail was headed we would have certainly gone back at that point.
The end of Redwood Trail
We went on uphill, joined by two other hikers who had no map and did not want to stray too far. Soon, the Ritchey Trail forks. We took left (straight, really) onto the wider Spring Trail, which crosses the creek on a small bridge, and continues uphill in steep slope. At the end of Spring Trail there's the actual spring, all fenced away. At that point the trail suddenly narrows and disappears between the trees. We followed the trail in a single file all the way uphill. At the meeting point with Ritchey Canyon Trail the forest becomes chaparral and the view opens up.

This was the only true sunny spot in our entire hike. And it isn't a convenient stopping place so we didn't stay there for long. Just enough to notice this pretty hummingbird, enjoying the warmth:
Anna's Hummingbird
We started downhill on the Ritchey Canyon Trail and immediately plunged back into the woods. The trail segment all the way down to the first creek crossing is very steep and slippery and caution should be taken going down there.
Despite the drought, the forest air felt cook damp. Many of the downed wood had fungi growing on them.
The fungi, an essential component of the forest ecosystem, decompose dead organism and release the nutrients back into the ground to be used for new growth. The fungus lives its life underground or within the dead wood, out of sight. Unless, of course, it's fruiting.
Fungi fruiting bodies growing out of a felled tree.
The shade was thick and there was very little undergrowth. Of what did grow under the trees, I found this delicate plant the prettiest, even without its inside-out flowers:
Insideout Flower (Vancouveria hexandra)
After crossing the creek the slope became gentler and the trail widened again. We continued walking on the north side of the creek and Papa Quail continued searching for the little brown birds that chirped in the vegetation. Eventually, with a lot of patience and some luck, he spotted one that was staying put long enough to be photographed:
Fox Sparrow (Sooty)
We didn't run into the bobcat again. More and more hikers were coming up the trail, though. Soon we were going past the Hitchcock Site, where the area's once owner used to have a home, and past the campground.
At the Hitchcock Site
Half a mile of an easy walk later we were back at the staging area. I wasn't sorry one bit for missing out on Angel Island. It would wait for another day. We've hiked in a beautiful redwood forest and seen a bobcat: what more could I ask for?
Creek and Redwoods and what turned out to be a very nice day.
And, yes. We did stop at one winery on the way back home. We were in Napa Valley wine country after all.

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

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Looking for the Lost Palms of Joshua Tree National Park

Date: March 12, 2013
Place: Joshua Tree National Park, California
Coordinates: 33.73692, -115.81019
Length: 7 miles in and out
Difficulty: Strenuous

Our desert tour was nearing its end. The weather, which was very cold and even stormy when we started, has gradually warmed up. After our tour of Hidden Valley, my friend announced that it had warmed up enough for us to go camping. So we spent the night at the Cottonwood Campground, at the south part of the park. We were lucky - it was a moonless (and cloudless) night and we had a great time trying to make out all the constellations we could see. A full starry night is a rare treat for me. I hardly get to see stars in the light-polluted and murky-aired Bay Area.
After a blissfully quiet night we packed our gear and headed to the Lost Palms Oasis trailhead.
Palms and poplars at the Cottonwood Oasis: the Lost Palms trailhead.
Papa Quail and I hiked this trail about 10 years before but I didn't remember much of it. I did remember the extreme heat, and the wildlife encounters: hummingbirds and a rattlesnake at the oasis.
Mojave Yucca, budding. (Yucca schidigera)
The weather on our hike this time was perfect: sunny and warm, but not hot. My friend and I decided to skip the short Mastodon Peak loop and went directly eastward in the way of The Lost Palms Oasis.
The trail begins up a shallow wash and, passing on the second chance to go up Mastodon Peak, it continues on a high plateau.

There are no Joshua trees in this part of the park. There are, however, plenty of large ocotillo bushes all over the place. Perfectly adapted to the heat and aridity with their tiny, seasonal leaves and their large, ominous thorns, they send their spiraling, non-branching branches upward, reaching for the cloudless big blue.
We were there a month too early to see the ocotillo in bloom. We did, however, fond one ephemeral ocotillo in a different locale in the park that was blooming. Bright red blossoms, like hand-held torches. Here's a photo of that early-blooming ocotillo:
Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). Photo taken at the Ocotillo Patch, Joshua Tree NP
Little birds chirped all around us. They were mainly sparrows, though not the species we usually see in the Bay Area, like this black-throated sparrow:
Black-throated Sparrow
Or this chipping sparrow:
Chipping Sparrow
And of course, the phainopepla bird that can be seen guarding almost every desert bush:
Phainopepla, male
Although we saw no Joshua Trees on that side of the park, the rock formations we saw along our path were no less impressive. For some time, for example, we walked along a long granite wall so straight it looked almost as if laid down by people:
And in another place, the wall was weathered down into a line of jagged granite teeth:

Some of these rocks really enticed our imagination:
Desert sentinels
Interesting weathering marks:
Rock zipper
The rocks are there year round, of course. But the reason we went there in March was to see the desert flowers in bloom. I was there, at the south region of Joshua Tree National Park that we finally saw many wildflowers.
Blazing Star (Mentzelia albicaulis) 
There were plenty of flowers along the high sections of the Lost Palms trail. It took awhile, though, before we realized they were there.
A ground photo from a standing person's height. Can you see the plowers? 
There are so tiny! Merely half an inch above the ground. There were many patches of them, though. All we needed was to kneel down before the white crowns.
Mojave Desert Star (Monoptilon belloides) 
Once we knew where to look, they were suddenly everywhere, those tinsy-winsy beauties.
Wallace's Wooly Daisy (Eriophyllum wallacei) 
So we walked on with our eyes on the ground. (Not meaning to say we ignored the larger vegetation around us). 
A sample of the Mojave plant community and its humble beauty. 
About half-way the trail enters a wash and follows its route.

At that point the temperature got high enough and we were worked out enough to have welcomed the shade of the junipers that grew along the wash.
California Juniper (Juniperus californica)
Then the trail climbed up again and we found ourselves transversing a plateau once more. A splendid view stretched before us, of a mountain range and a blue lake below it: we had a direct view of Salton Sea and the Santa Rosa Mountains.
A view of Salton Sea and the Santa Rosa Mountains
Time was passing and the sun was right above us. As we approached our destination, about half a mile before the oasis, we were looking down at the trail as it descended sharply into a deep ravine:

We started down, slowly and carefully. Almost immediately my friend kept with delight: right before us were flowers so conspicuous and so pretty that we stopped for a good long while and photographed them from every possible direction. My friend, who was somewhat disappointed of the weak bloom we have encountered in the past week was finally satisfied: she has found her 'wow!' flower.
Scarlet Milkvetch (Astragalus coccineus)
While the scarlet milk vetch was definitely the botanical highlight of our hike, we soon run right into our zoological highlight: a chuckwalla lizard, sunbathing on top of a rock next to the trail.
Not as close as the flower, but it sat there for a long time and we had a zoom lens.
It was all downhill from there: straight to the Lost Palms Oasis.

I suppose there are hikers who settle for gazing at the saught-after palms from the height of the cliff. The descend into the oasis is steep and narrow and, although short, is the most difficult part of the hike.

What awaits below, though, is worth every drop of sweat. The Lost Palms Oasis is home to the largest grove of California fan palms within Joshua Tree National Park.
California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera) 
And for a good reason too: there is water there. Open water. Close to the surface ad above it.

Wherever there's water, there's life. My friend and I, hot from the hike, sat down in the shade and appreciated the birds.
House Finch
We weren't alone there. Behind one of the palms, on a large slate of granite, was a couple busy with activity that I would normally find fascinating enough to witness. This couple, however, belonged to my own species, which made us feel bit awkward, and eventually move away.
The day turned really hot by then. We made our way slowly up to the trail and headed west back to Cottonwood.
Jack Rabbit
Although the sun was already on its way down, the heat only intensified. We walked silently, making a few rest stops wherever we found a bit of shade.
Perfect camouflage: a Western Zebra-tailed lizard on the gravel
As we got near Cottonwood, we saw a small group of youth heading out east toward Lost Palms. They asked us how long it was and we told them, adding our opinion that it was already too late to get there that day. They listened, said nothing and continued on. Soon we realized that the 'small' group was just the spearhead of a much larger, and a very stretched out group of hikers, all young and in various states of undress. They were very spread-out and many of them seemed already tired and dragging their feet. What was even more alarming: they carried very little water with them.
We finished our hike and drove quickly to Cottonwood ranger station to report that ill-prepared group. I guess they eventually did turn back since we didn't hear of any disasters in the news later that night.
I bring this story here as a warning and an example. The leading cause of fatality in desert hikes is heat stroke. Anyone going on a desert hike should be wearing sun protection, carrying plenty of water and pacing the hike according to the time and ability. With adequate planning, this trail is a true treasure for hikers and desert lovers.

Many thanks to my friend עננת for identifying the plants and lizard. And an extra-special huge Huge thanks to her for this big desert trip and for that special time of us together! Can't wait till we get to do that again     :-)