Saturday, July 19, 2014

Too Late for Winter, Too Early for Spring: Cedar Creek and Stough Reservoir

Dates: April 23 and 24, 2014
Place: Cedar Pass, Modoc County, California 
Coordinates:   Upper Cedar Creek: 41.554335, -120.262592 ,  Lower Cedar Creek: 41.534199, -120.224428 ,  Stough Reservoir: 41.562343, -120.254996  
Length: Complete Cedar Creek Trail (one way): 3.5 miles. Around Stough Reservoir: about 0.6 mile
Difficulty: easy

After our visit to Modoc NWR we went back to Alturas for a late lunch and some decision making. We had planned to camp for the two flowing nights at one of the South Warner Wilderness campgrounds, but the weather forecast wasn't looking very camping-friendly.
After a friendly discussion we had with our diner host we decided to change our plan slightly and go to hike and camp at Cedar Pass.
Swainson's Hawk by the road side on the way to Cedar Pass
There is a nice trail alongside Cedar Creek. The full trail is about 3.5 long, but we had just one car and not enough time to hike it fully back and forth, so we just walked in and out some distance from each end of the trail.
The upper trailhead is at the small ski area of Cedar Pass. There's restrooms there, but little else. I found the trail information post and photographed it, as we didn't have any other trail map with us.
Cedar Creek trail, photographed from a sign at the trailhead. Our hike is labeled yellow.

But there is really no need for a trail map there. The trail is well marked and maintained, and there was no problem of following it. In a couple of spots it was still under snow, but nothing we couldn't deal with either by going around or by stepping carefully over.

Close to the upper Cedar Pass trailhead
A major reason for choosing to hike at the Cedar Pass area was a birding brochure I picked up at the BLM headquarters in Alturas earlier that morning. The brochure listed a few bird species that we've never seen before, and while Papa Quail kept searching the treetops, I payed closer attention to the ground.
Sagebrush Buttercup (Ranunculus glaberrimus)
The elevation of Cedar Pass is 7100 feet. April is just the very beginning of spring there. A few sagebrush buttercups and some budding Ballhead Waterleaf were all the flowers I found there. 
Ballhead Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum capitatum)
Papa Quail didn't have much success either. All he saw was a little yellow-rumped warbler that kept teasing him from the foliage, never assuming a camera-friendly pose.
The chikas, on the other hand, had a great time everytime we encountered a nearby snow patch.
Lingering winter remnants
There were no other people around. We enjoyed much the quiet walk in the woods along the snow melt-fed Cedar Creek, but after about a mile we turned around and headed back to the trailhead.
A Cedar Creek tributary
Papa Quail wanted to take a look at the lower Cedar Creek trail, just in case the birds he was looking for were hiding there.
There's no parking lot at the lower Cedar Creek trailhead, just a large pullout. No bathrooms either. The creek is about 40 feet below the road and the woods there are a bit more sparse than at the upper end of the trail. Not very surprising, considering that the lower end of the trail is located east of the mountain pass.
Cedar Creek, a view from the road
   Cedar Creek must have picked up a few more tributaries on its way down, because the current was much stronger by the lower trailhead.
Cedar Creek
The lower trailhead, other than being lower in altitude, is also east of the mountain pass, meaning the area is gets less precipitation. It was actually sunny and nice there.
We could here the birds. Didn't see any, though. The flower situation wasn't much different. Buttercups in the shady areas, and in the sunny patches, caught my eye only two invasive weed species: the alyssum and the bluegrass.
Alyssum simplex, non-native
Usually green, and not as spectacular as lilies of orchids, grasses can be quite beautiful nonetheless. Many grasses are also among the most successful and widely spread species in the world. Invasive old world grasses make today an overwhelming part of open land plant communities, and have in many places in California, completely changed the water economy in the soil and the overall fire dynamics in those areas to favor more wildfires (most of the invasive old world grasses are annual and dry-out completely, and are very flammable).
But they are beautiful :-)
Bulbous Bluegrass (Poa bulbosa), non-native
Fall colors are very appealing. Spring colors no less so :-) 
A mix of evergreens and deciduous trees at various budding stages.
I love the pasty-white bark of naked Aspen trees.
Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides)

The birds were hiding and the wind picked up considerably. It was also getting late and we still needed to find a campsite and cook dinner, so we turned about after less than a mile of strolling along the creek, and headed back to the road. Next time we visit Modoc I hope to hike the entire Cedar Creek trail.

The Modoc National Forest campgrounds in the area were open for use, but without any running water yet, so we were aiming for the Stough Reservoir campground, which is very close to the Upper Cedar Creek trailhead, meaning high near the pass.
Stough Reservoir 
The campground is small and away from the main road, and was completely empty when we were there. We were alone in the woods.
We chose the site nearest to the water and were soon racing to get our tent up and cook dinner, because the wind was getting stronger and stronger by the minute. The moment Papa Quail and the chikas vanished inside the tent the flurries started. I finished cleaning the dinner table and entered the tent myself, expecting to wake up to a white scenery.

Snow-capped peak overlooking Stough Reservoir
It took me a long while to fall asleep. Not only was the wind whistling loudly, there was also an even louder chorus of frogs coming from the reservoir.
I laid in my sleeping bag and listened to the passionate frogs calling their lungs out, and to the banging of the wind at the tent, which lasted well into the wee hours of the night. While I do not intentionally go camping when this kind of weather is expected, I do find that it enhances my nature experience.
Papa Quail does not share my view of camping in less than optimal weather, so our night at Stough Reservoir campground was to be our last night in Modoc County for this trip.
As it turned out, the wind died down half way through the night and there was no snow on the ground when we emerged from our tent in the morning. It was very cold, though, and after a quick breakfast near the campfire we were ready to break camp and leave, but not before hiking a short loop around the reservoir.
Mountain Chikadee
There were many birds about, tweeting all over the place. Flickers, robins, chikadees, warblers and woodpeckers. Papa Quail walked slowly and photographed a lot.
Yellow-rumped Warbler
The chikas were excited to help. Particularly the elder one who knew how much Papa Quail longs to see a pileated woodpecker.
There were plenty of woodpeckers around, alright. None pileated, though.
White-headed Woodpecker
And me, as usual, with my eyes on the ground, looking for the bright colors.
Sheathed Lomatium (Lomatium vaginatum)
Stough Reservoir is small and even at our slowest pace we managed to circumvent it pretty fast. The day was turning out to be a nice one so we quickly broke camp and hurried down CA-299 back westward to Alturas, and on south to Mill Creek Falls at the South Warner Mountains Wilderness, where we planned to hike that day.
Phlox (Phlox sp.)

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


  1. The title should have been "alone in the woods"...

    Even though you didn't find much, it seems to be a nice trip.

    And I never managed to sleep well in camping

    1. 'Alone in the Woods' would have been suitable here :-) and for so many other trips we've done as well! 'Alone in the Woods' is one one my favorite states of being (along with 'Alone on the Beach', 'Alone in the Desert' and 'Alone on a Mountaintop' :-)

  2. so eventually you did find some lovely flowers :-)
    the little Waterleaf is delightful :-)

    1. We did indeed! Not very many, but enough to make me happy!