Friday, January 29, 2016

A Wish Come True: Hiking to Alamere Falls

Alamere Falls
Date: January 21, 2016
Place: Point Reyes National Seashore, Bolinas, California
Coordinates: 37.934184, -122.747055
Length: 8.4 miles in and out
Level: strenuous

Point Reyes National Seashore offers some of the best coastal views in California. It was a prime area to take my visiting friend to, to show her the beauty of the Pacific Coast. Hiking to the Alamere Falls has been on my mind for a while, and now I had and excellent opportunity to go there. Papa Quail had arranged to be home and take care of the chikas, enabling me and my friend to have a full day for that hike.

We arrived at the trailhead a bit later than planned, and after an all too relaxed breakfast we started our hike.
Our hike from the Palomarin Traihead to the Alamere Falls as captured by my GPS. 
In its beginning, the trail cuts through an impressive eucalyptus grove. These trees were introduced from Australia to provide quick-growing lumber. While they never became main lumber in California, they did, however, spread all over the northern coastal areas. For better or worse, eucalyptus are now a prominent part of the California coastal habitat.

This eucalyptus grove had been around for a long while. Long enough to produce some nice-looking giants (on a eucalyptus scale).
Eucalyptus Octopus
Not very far down the trail I saw the first bloom: a flowering currant shrub. It is so beautiful I was sure at first I saw a runaway cultivar. It is, however, a wild California native plant and a proof that wild plants do not need any 'betterment'.
Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum).
For the first mile the trail stretches along the ocean cliffs. Once out of the eucalyptus grove the view opens up and the magnificent coastline unravels.

The Point Reyes peninsula slants to the west. We walked along the southern coastline and when I turned to look behind me, I was facing the mid-day sun as it hanged right above the ocean, shining off the sea surface.

We couldn't have had a better day for the hike: the weather was perfect and everything was lush and clean after the rains earlier that week.

After about a mile the trail leaves the coast cliffs and turns inland and uphill to bypass some deep canyon creeks and lakes. As we went up the vegetation closed in around us, and the heavy scent of forest earth filled the air.
I didn't have to look too hard for the mushrooms: they were there. Large and small, emerging, full grown, and in decay. And always beautiful to see.
Gemmed Amanita
But there weren't many of them. At least, not as many as I've seen last winter in similar places. Last winter was a fabulous year for mushrooms. That winter had started with a bang after 3 years of drought (and sadly stopped short to continue the drought a forth year), and the fungi responded forcefully and bloomed all over the place. It seemed like they gave it all they got before the rains had ceased, then remained thirsty for the rest of that winter. Too thirsty to build enough hyphae too bloom strong this winter too.
Coral Mushroom
Naturally, I looked for the iconic flay agaric mushroom. There were a few, here and there, but only one that was nice and whole. And even that one was knocked over by something before I saw it.
Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria)
The trail meanders in and out of forested areas and crosses some creeks that at the time of our hike were running high. On parts, the water was running right on the trail.
Groves of willow and sycamore marked the creek beds, all in their winter-wear, nicely contrasted with the bright green of adjacent new herbaceous growth.

Halfway uphill the trail split and we continued left, westward. Immediately after the turn we saw a few small ponds left of the trail. One of them was particularly interesting: it was completely covered with pond vegetation. It looked almost as if we could walk on it. (We didn't). We were inticed to come over and take a closer look. There were newts in the shallows too, but they swam away as we approached.
Mosquito Fern (Azolla filiculoides) and Duckweed (Lemna sp.) on the pond's surface
Nearly all the conifers we saw there were Douglas Fir. This species can reach enormous size, but the trees facing the coast were humble.

We went on and eventually reached another, much larger lake: Bass Lake. The lake was far below the trail, and had we not started the hike too late we might have gone down to see it closer too. As it was, we remained on the trail above and appreciated its beauty from afar.

I noticed some movement in the water and looked through my binoculars. A few bufflehead ducks were swimming here and there, occasionally diving underwater. I changed to the high zoom lens but they were pretty far down. A male bufflehead, however, fits very nicely in the ripply background of the lake surface.
See the duck?
 Willows hemmed the lake all around, all bare, sleeping away the winter.
 We went on and entered a grove of thin Douglas Fir with bare lower branches standing in a thick carpet of fern.

The fern too are recovering from the harsh drought. New shoots were rolling out, delicate and tender, adding new fern leaves to the forest undergrowth carpet.

The abundant moisture brought out the resident mollusks: the banana slugs. My visiting friend was duly impressed with their size but all the slugs we've seen there that day looked 'unripe', without the signature bright yellow color. (We've seen those later at Henry Cowell Redwoods SP).
Banana Slug

As we neared the turn to Alamere Falls we came across some people who were coming back from visiting there. All of them warned us about the trail condition and suggested that we go down only to the overlook point. When we probed further, however, they all admitted to have climbed down all the way to the beach.
We nearly missed the trail turn leading to the falls. It looks like a narrow gap in thick vegetation and is marked with a sign saying 'Unmaintained Trail". The part of the sign that says "Alamere Falls" was painted over by graffiti. A nice fellow hiker we met there confirmed that that was indeed the turn we needed to take to get to the falls, and he too warn us about the poor trail condition.
We made it to the overlook first, and the view was spectacular.
The Overlook: View to the North
Directly below we could see the train of the falls reaching the ocean, but there was no view of the falls. For that we had to climb down the cliff.
Looking down from the Overlook
The way down is heavily eroded. The first part goes through a narrow chute of sandstone and thick, crumbling topsoil mud. Skid marks were evidence that not everyone that went down before us made it on their feet. We used hiking poles, which helped us keep our behinds clean.
Half way down there is a lovely view of the Alamere Creek as it cascades down with cheerful noise of intensely running water. The flow was nice and high and we were facing the next challenge: crossing that creek to get to the second part of the trail down.
Basically, there are two ways of doing that. Hopping across or wading through. My friend hopped with ease. I duly took off my shoes, rolled up my pants, and waded through.
At this point I must add that entering a fast running creek atop a waterfall isn't the smartest of things to do. Many fatalities were caused by poor decision taking at such places. The risk of crossing the Alamere Creek at that point was not high for me but I would strongly recommend not to let young children enter the water there on times the creek runs high. Better to carry them across.
Upper Alamere Falls
Climbing that last bit did get me down on my behind. It's hard rock, but flaking and crumbling with lots of sharp shards. Young children would need assistance getting down (and up) there.
And in the end - there's the beach. And the most beautiful waterfall in the larger Bay Area.
Alamere Falls is a tide fall - a waterfall that drops directly to the ocean beach. There are very few such falls in the world, two of which are in California. (The other one is McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park). Alamere Falls is a wonderful sight to see.
There were quite a few people there and it was challenging to take a photo of the falls without other humans in the frame.
Made it down in one piece
A nice person too a photo of my friend and me with the Alamere Falls. Then we took our shoes off and waded across the creek to the south side where we sat for lunch. We sat near the cliff but had to change our spot quickly: stones kept falling down the cliff on us and we weren't about to wait for the big one to fall on our heads.
Glaucus-winged Gull on Alamere Beach
The cliffs are made of sediment rocks. The layers vary in thickness and color. I observed it most closely as I was wiping the sand from my feet and putting on my shoes, getting ready to climb up the trail.
By 3:30 the sun had disappeared behind new clouds and the wind picked up. We chilled from sitting too long and were ready to get moving again. We were advised earlier to hike on the beach 1.3 miles north to Wildcat Campground and pick up the coastal trail there, but we feared of getting caught by the incoming tide. We had to face the cliff again.
Going back up: the Chutes
Climbing back up proved considerably easier than going down. By the time we were up the Coastal/Palomarin trail we had about an hour of daylight left and 4 miles to go. We needed to hurry.
I promised not to stop for anything since we were going back on the same trail anyway, but the same trail can provide new sights even a couple of hours later.
Witch's Butter

On our way back we met many newts on the trail. Mainly in the puddles, but quite a few were wondering around. They were all very small, much smaller than newts I've seen before in other places. I think they might be young ones looking for a place to settle down, but they could be a local strain too, I'm not sure. 
None of the newts seemed all too active. They just sat there while we circled around and took photos.  
California Newt
We couldn't appreciate these pretty amphibians for too long. We rushed down the trail, chasing the quickly fading sun rays.
The late afternoon light was more than enough out in the open. Under the trees, however, nighttime was already setting in.
The sun was no longer hanging in the south. In fact, by the time we were back to the point where I took the earlier photo of the southern tip of Point Reyes coast, the sun was completely behind clouds and the ocean sparkled no longer.
Looking south
We made it back to the parking lot with little day light to spare. One last sunset photo, and we were on our way back home. 
Pacific Sunset
Seeing the Alamere Falls has been on my mind for a long time, ever since Papa Quail found out about 'the most beautiful waterfall in the area'. Hiking there, however, was the option always dropped: hiking in and out to the falls is over 8 miles and we are slow walkers, especially with the chikas in tow. Papa Quail had made it possible for me to take the entire day off for this hike. The next time will not be long from now. The next time we'll go there together, with the chikas.

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

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Rocky Bones of a Dead Lake: the Trona Pinnacles


Date: January 12, 2016
Place: Trona Pinnacles, Trona, California
Coordinates: 36.618598, -117.374068
Level: easy

Last week I had a wonderful opportunity to take a close friend that's visiting me on a road trip to see  California's hottest place, Death Valley National Park. Needless to say, it was bitterly cold whilst we were there. On our way there, however, we stopped at a few other places. One of our stops was at the Trona Pinnacles, off SR178 northeast of Ridgecrest.
Approaching the Trona Pinnacles
Access to the Trona Pinnacles is by a packed dirt road that's in pretty good condition. The pinnacles are visible from a good distance: they stand out, rising from the flat valley floor.
The Trona Pinnacles
The Trona Pinnacles are Tufa formation: deposits of carbonate minerals left behind when the old lake that used to be there had dried out.
The area is on the western edge of the Great Basin Desert, and the Trona area is a basin - a watershed with no outlet. The water collects at the valley floor and evaporates, leaving behind salts and mineral deposits. The white flat in the photo below is the dry Searles Lake, the lowest area of Searles Valley. Above the dry lake are the Slate Range and the southern part of the Panamint Range, the southeastern border of Death Valley National Park. 
The Slate Range (near) and the Panamint Range (far) over the dry Searles Lake
The access road goes all the way down to the pinnacles. The road circles the main cluster of pinnacles but we parked at the large (and completely empty) parking lot and took off to explore on foot. 
Holy Circle
There isn't one specific foot trail there, but there are many use-made foot trails all over the place. It is also very clear that not everyone who goes exploring within the pinnacles area is on foot: tracks of ORVs were all over the place, even past the sign saying no ORVs beyond this point. 
And then, there was this dark room curved into the large tufa near the parking lot. I don't know when it was dug there and for what purpose, but nowadays it is used as an improvised latrine :-(  

Trona is the name of a carbonate mineral which is the primary source of soda ash, a chemical used in various industries. The mineral had lent its name to the town of Trona, where this mineral is mined and processed. The Trona Pinnacles are on BLM lands and, thankfully, are not mined. 
It was already late in the afternoon when we arrived at the Trona Pinnacles and we started our hike westward with the sun in our faces. The challenge it posed for clear photographing was offset by lovely silhouette compositions. 

Some of the larger pinnacles had been climbed regularly. We followed these marked up to the base level where we could appreciate closely the rocks and the lichens. The few plants that grow within the pinnacles were mostly dry but new germination was visible everywhere - a promise for a nice, colorful spring bloom. 
The local shrubs had a head start on blooming, the desert holly being the most prominent one there. 
Desert Holly (Atriplex hymenelytra) 
Most desert holly there grows on the soil base of the pinnacles. I photographed one that was growing out of a crack and posted it online. I have learned from members of the California Native Plants Society group, it is unusual for desert holly to grow in this way. 
Desert Holly (Atriplex hymenelytra) 
As we circumvented the main cluster of pinnacles the further ones came into view. They were not as many, as large or as clustered, but just as strange and interesting. 
Exploring the Trona Pinnacles is like visiting a Tim Burton movie set. The rock figures inspire the imagination in wild ways. My friend and I enjoyed playing with the figures and naming them. 
Dragon's Spine
Coming around the main cluster also gave us a nice view of the southern end of the Slate mountain range, east of which is Panamint Valley. 
Frozen in Time
As we approached the farther group of pinnacles we saw the wide Searles Wash below and headed down that way, hoping to see some wildlife. Tracks of ORVs were everywhere - this must be a popular playground for them. 
Perfect Strangers
Searles Wash had flowed very recently. The wash bed was still very wet and flow marks were fresh. Still, we detected no wildlife. Not out in the open, anyway. Burrows and feces were plenty, but the air must have been to cold for the local animals to be out. Or perhaps they are too shy of people there, where they're not really protected.
Searles Wash
The shrubs, still showing the marks of the long drought, were already greening up beautifully.

After giving up on finding wildlife we made our way back to the pinnacles, rounding from the north.
Holy Padre
The sun was getting low by then, and the shadows long. It was the perfect illumination to bring out the best features of the rock formation's fantastic shapes.
The Castle
But the late hour also meant that we had to hurry up. We had planned to camp at Surprise Canyon near Ballarat and we wanted to get there with some daylight to spare.
Pinnacles Reflection
By the time we came around back to the western side of the main cluster there was one more car moving into the pinnacles area. They, too, were explorers. And they were the only other human beings we saw the entire time we were there.
The sun was setting when we completed our hike. I said a quiet goodbye to the rock formations. On my next visit there I'll bring the chikas too - they's love it there.
Sunset at the Trona Pinnacles
One last word: Tufa is the first sediment of a drying lake (because carbonates are the least soluble minerals). Searles Lake has been dry for a long time, and had dried naturally. New, young tufa can be seen at Mono Lake today. It is the sad outcome of diverting Mono Lake's Eastern Sierra tributaries to the use of the City of Los Angeles. While Owens Lake is already lost to the LA Aqueduct, the struggle to save Mono Lake is still going on. The dusty basin and bare, dry rocks of the Trona Pinnacles are a wonderful place to see, but their eerie beauty is also a large warning sign for what might become of Mono Lake should its tributaries remain enslaved.

Many thanks to members of the California Native Plants Society for the desert holly information!