Friday, June 17, 2016

The True Treasures of Bodie

Date: May 30, 2016
Place: Bodie Hills, Bridgeport, California
Coordinates: 38.194218, -119.050138
Length: about 1.8 miles
Level: moderate

We left Bodie State Historic Park without seeing a sage grouse. The attendant at the park's gate informed us that these grouse are very shy and skittish and that we can't expect to see them in mid-day with all the people about. He instructed us to come back late in the evening or very early in the morning. "They come out to the road," he said.
We did go back that evening. The park was closed but we hanged around on the dirt road that leads to the park and strained our eyes for naught.
We agreed to return to the area on the morrow. While sighting a sage grouse was highest on our wish list, I had another perfectly good reason to go back there: the wildflowers I had seen on our visit to the park had left me with a strong taste for more.
Getting there at first light was out of the question. I did toy with the idea of waking up at 5 am and getting the chikas into the car still in pajamas and sleeping bags, but Papa Quail got me off it pretty quickly. We would be driving home after that and it would be too much for one day.

We still had our hopes to see sage grouse. We drove past the paved road and onto the dirt road that leads to the state park. We selected a dale that seemed accessible and parked the car on a gravel pullout.
No name creek
The chikas sat on the curb to put on their hiking shoes and a little excitement broke when they discovered a small scorpion that was heading toward little chika's shoe, looking for a refuge from the open sunlight. Little chike hastily pulled away and elder chika suggested capturing the creature, an idea I got her off of quickly although I used to do exactly that as a young chika myself.
The shunned scorpion dug itself into the ground and we begun walking down into the dale.
The hills near the park are covered with low sagebrush scrub. On first glance it looked like nothing was in bloom. That impression had changed within the first few steps into the dale when I saw the first wildflower - a bunch of intensely purple penstemons.
Meadow Penstemon (Penstemon rydbergii) 
There were many birds around, most of them blackbirds. Very common, but pretty nonetheless.
Brewer's Blackbird, female
Most violets I've seen in California are yellow. At Bodie Hills I finally saw a violet species that justifies its name. 
Northern Bog Violet (Viola nephrophylla)
Thick grass covered the creek bed and we soon discovered that it covered deep, watery mud. What looked from afar an easy, grassy hike turned out to be a slushy, muddy affair.
Our natural reaction was to go on  the hillside where the ground was dry. If that was good enough for the squirrels ...
Least Chipmunk
But there was no proper trail on the hill. There were a few narrow paths suggesting that people have passed through before us, but no actual trail with a clear path for us to walk on.Soon we were pushing through the thorny scrub and rubbing against rocks. I had kept my eyes down for the ground had many little wildflowers blooming under the bushes and boulders' shade.
Popcorn Flower (Cryptantha sp.) 
Eventually going through the scrub on the hill became too challenging so I went back down to the creek, trying to walk on the edge between water and slope.
I soon got another affirmation that my so called water proof shoes were only water proof from the inside out. I also found many lovely flowers that didn't mind the water the least bit. On the contrary.
Toad Lily (Montia chamissoi)
Papa Quail and the chikas continued struggling through the scrub up on the slope and Papa Quail started to make sounds of unenjoyment that bordered on  hopelessness. I was hopping the habitat seam, looking out or rather, down) for more wildflowers and trying to keep more water from getting into my shoes.
Low Phacelia (Phacelia humilis var. humilis)
At some point Papa Quail stopped progressing. he was focused on a little dot far away on some rock.
For ever so long the green tailed towhee was at the top of Papa Quail's desires, having seen floating glimpses of it here and there but up until that morning it has always evaded photo opportunities. Now it was a prime opportunity :-)
Green-tailed Towhee with nesting material
After that Papa Quail gave in to the scrub and joined the chikas who were already treading the creek bed, hopping from one side of the little brook to another, trying to avid getting wet.
A willow at a strategic place. 
After some more time of negotiating the non-existent path we came upon a place where the water went underground and the slopes were much milder. Papa Quail announced that we had walked a mile and that it was time to turn back if we wanted to make it home at a reasonable hour.
A bright, red spot beckoned me from the slope. Papa Quail had seen it too and pointed it out to me. I knew that it must be an Indian paintbrush shrub and I said I was going to go there to get a good close-up shot of the plant.
So Papa Quail and the chikas sat down to rest and I clambered uphill through the scrub.

It took me a long time to get there, and not because the way was particularly challenging. It's just that there were too many pretty plants in bloom on the way, all of which so close to the ground that they were invisible to me from the creek below.
Humboldt River Milkvetch (Astragalus iodanthus)
Many of these wildflowers were completely new to me. They were also very small. I spent a lot of time on my knees trying to get decent shots.
Curvepod Milkvetch (Astragalus curvicarpus)
My solo hike uphill was a series of hops from one colorful cushion to another, with an occasional halt to remove all the thorns that got into my socks.
Cushion Phlox (Phlox pulvinata)
Fellow members of the California Native Plants Society call it 'Belly Botany'. It means having to lay down on the ground to get level with the plant. If I didn't do that it was only because there was no space there to lie down. Still, I managed to get quit low.
Brewer's Navarretia (Navarretia breweri)
The slope does add the advantage that every now an then a flower of interest is found level with my eyes simply because it's a bit uphill from where I stand.
Suksdorf's Monkeyflower (Mimulus suksdorfii)
Either way, I was making a very slow progress. Every now and then I looked to the creek below, but the chikas and Papa Quail were already out of sight.
I increased my pace.
Blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia sp.)
When I finally made it to the red spot I found that it was indeed an Indian Paintbrush, of a species I met (in bloom) for the first time merely two days before near the Travertine Hot Springs. It was as spectacular sight indeed: such an intense color!
Desert Paintbrush (Castilleja chromosa)
But my most surprising find was next to the bright-colored chromosa. It was another Indian Paintbrush, but cream-colored rather than red. It didn't stand out at all and blended shyly in the background. I thought at first that it was and albino version of the red species but no - it is a different species altogether. Needless to say, it was my first time seeing one.
Parrothed Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja pilosa)
I made it back to the creek bed. Papa Quail gathered the chikas and was ready to go but I pouted and sat down to eat. Eventually Papa Quail did start back with the chikas, leaving me to finish my snack and look forlornly at the downstream part of the creek that I wouldn't get to explore that day.

Eventually I got on my feet and followed my family up the creek. On my way I came across dish-like leaf rosettes, many of which had a dandelion blooming on their side. The dish-like plants are the native dinnerplate thistles. The dandelions are immigrant weeds.
Dinnerplate Thistle (Cirsium scariosum var. americanum) with non-native common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
On the way back I got the chanch to explore more closely the willow that was growing in the middle of the creek. I was not able to determine the species, however.
Willow (Salix sp.)
Looking closely I saw another bush growing inside the willow: a golden currant that was in full bloom.
Golden Currant (Ribes aureum)
Papa Quail was tracking some birds on the slope and the chikas were waiting for me in the puny mid-day shade cast by the willow. Upon seeing me they got up and started up the creek again.
After some walking I noticed a shallow cave up on the hill and I informed Papa Quail that I was going up there to explore who might be living there. On the way up I came upon many little beauties, like this dwarf monkeyflower.
Skunky Monkeyflower (Mimulus nanus var. mephiticus)
There were two subspecies of it blooming around, each more beautiful than the other.
Dwarf Purple Monkeyflower (Mimulus nanus)
It was the west-facing slope and there were so many little flowers there that I had a very slow time going up, doing my best not to step on any of them.
Small-flowered Blazingstaer (Mentzelia albicaulis)
The cave itself turned to be a bit of a disappointment: campfire leftovers left no doubt that the latest inhabitant of that rock cavity was of the species Homo sapiens.
The space in front of the cave, however, was carpeted by a species of Phacelia that I had never seen before: the beautiful and delicate Twocolor Phacelia.
Twocolor Phacelia (Phacelia bicolor)
Papa Quail called from below and I stepped down grudgingly. I really didn't want to leave the place as it seemed to me that I had only been scraping the surface, as far as wildflowers were considered.
Nevada Gilia (Gilia brecciarum)
But Papa Quail was right: our progress was very slow (we were treading as lightly as we could) and time was running out for us. So off we went up the creek once more.

Once we stopped worrying about wetting our shoes we were making a faster progress on our way back. I was striding at the tail of my family, stopping now only infrequently for a quick shot here and there. Like these nice-looking old iris fruits that dotted the wider segments of the creek bed.

Eventually we got back to the dale we had started at. Papa Quail and the chikas headed directly to the car and started changing their shoes. I took my time and enjoyed the views.
Sagebrush (Artemisia cana)
This creek does not extend uphill on the other side of the road: it begins south of the road where the water seeps out of the ground in a shallow spring that gives life to everything below it. 
I went up to the car in slow unwilling steps, the soil turning drier under my feet and the lush grass remaining behind. Stooping to say a last goodbye to one of the tiny residents of the Bodie Hills Sagebrush I got into the car and we drove off.
Purple Mat (Nama densum)
On our way to Bodie State Historic Park the day before I saw much bloom by the road side. Now I had the opportunity for a few quick stops to capture the sights.
Sulphur Buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum)
I was interested in one plant in particular: a large bush near the road that looked so pink that based on the quick glimpse from the moving car I wasn't sure if that was a natural bloom. It was, however, natural and also very fragrant. The sweet, heavy smell of the rose family.
Desert Peach (Prunus andersonii)
It was a busy weekend in Bodie, but on occasions the road cleared for a few moments. As we were gliding back down toward Hwy 395 and Bridgeport we caught the sight of the Sierra Nevada range with all its majestic glory.
Mount Dunderberg
We did not see any sage grouse, but botanically speaking this trip was a mind-blowing success: we got so see so much bloom and nearly all of it was new to us. And we got a taste of an area that clearly has many more natural treasures for us to discover.
We will be back.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Gorgeous Gorge of Arroyo Seco

Date: May 18, 2016
Place: Ventana Wilderness, Los Padres National Forest
Coordinates: 36.234113, -121.487442
Length: 6 miles
Level: moderate

My friend was going to defend her research proposal on mid May. She wanted to go on a long wilderness trek after that. As usually happens with plans that depend on schoolwork, our time was filled up with other pressing business and so our plan was altered and our trip had shrunk into a night and a day.
I took the opportunity and selected a destination that was completely new to me in an unfamiliar area:  the Ventana Wilderness. A quick scan of the options got me focused on the Arroyo Seco region.
My friend had no idea where I was taking her, but when she realized we are going south on 101 to the vicinity of Soledad she suggested going to the Pinnacles National Park instead - she had never been there before. I, on the other hand, had been there many times, including quite recently and I preferred exploring a new place. Anyway, it was already late and after a little discussion my friend agreed to continue along my original plan.
It was 11 at night when we arrived at the arroyo Seco campground. As we were pitching the tent I noticed something bustling through the shrub not bothering to keep quiet. It was a skunk. After a few moments it went away and I let out a sigh of relief and continued setting camp. Within a short time we were tucked in and sleeping.

I had planned to hit the trail shortly after first light. We woke up early enough, but it took us quite a while to find were the trailhead was. I wanted to go down the Santa Lucia Trail but we didn't find the actual trailhead and so we went on the Arroyo Seco Road, a wide dirt road that leads down along the river.
It was well after sunrise when we actually started our hike.
Almost immediately I had stopped: an intense sweet fragrance filled the air and my nostrils. Ceanothus! I was excited and beckoned my friend to get closer and inhale.
As it turned out, that bush wasn't ceanothus and the close-up sniff made me sneeze. I'd do it again, though :-)
Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor var. discolor)
It was a beautiful morning. The sun was shining brilliantly and I was amazed by the abundance of bloom so late in spring. It was clearly the last wave - the perennial shrubs and bushes. 
Bush Beardtongue (Keckiella breviflora) 
We were walking down a well packed dirt road. According to the map there should have been a narrow foot path parallel to the road but we didn't find it so we went on with the road.
Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja affinis) and Golden Yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum)
Someone called me from the roadside - a male California Quail standing atop a bush, heralding the new day.
California Quail
By the trailside I saw a small penstemon shrub. It was a penstemon species I haven't seen before so i approached for a closer inspection of the plant. It looked strange - unlike any other penstemon I've seen before, this one had its flowers plugged with something striped yellow and black.
I took a closer look and gaped. These plugs were insect behinds. Almost inside every flower rested a bee-looking insect. They were very quiet and my friend suggested they might be dead. I couldn't think of any cause that would have dead bees stuck inside penstemon flowers. I assumed they were asleep (I did hear before of instances where insects sleep inside flowers to keep warm).
I touched a plugged flower and out crowded ... a wasp!
I jumped backward. Bees are one thing but wasps scare me. The wasp, however, was very slow and appeared dazed. I apologized profusely to the wasp for waking it up and hurried down the trail, my friend following closely.
Foothill Penstemon, (Penstemon heterophyllus) with night guests. 
Soon the wasps flew out of my mind. We were walking now on a north-facing slope and the vegetation was thick and lush. Buckeye trees were blooming like precious chandeliers and underneath them celebrated the herbaceous wildflowers, including the rich, velvety purple of the hummingbird sage.
Hummingbird Sage (Salvia spathacea)
My friend directed my attention to a large, white, candle-like thing on the opposite slope across the creek. I identified it immediately: a chaparral yucca. Soon we saw more of them, some were quite close to us. Tall and erect, they carry their bright bloom like a massive, impressive torch.
Chaparral Yucca in the sunlight. 
We were walking up high along the Santa Lucia Creek. We could hear the water flow and often see it too. It looked very inviting and we were looking for an opportunity to go down to the water.

Orange threads covered some of the shrubs on the slope.  There wasn't as much of it as I've seen last year at similar places but it was still very prevalent - the parasitic dodder plant. 
Dodder (Cuscuta sp.)
My friend was very impressed by the yucca plants and soon we found one close enough to the trail so she could pose for a photograph underneath it. My friend is reasonably tall, but the high plant dwarfed her as it would any other human standing below it.

The trail led us down in a steady mild slope. The day grew warmer and warmer and soon we begun to feel the heat in ernest, and it was early still.
The wildflowers seemed to glow even brighter under the strong sunlight.
Purple Chinese Houses (Collinsia heterophylla)
Before long the hills shade subsided and we were walking in direct and very hot sunlight.

We were getting closer to the creek now. On our way down we run into a couple that had stayed the night down by the creek and were now hiking back up. They strained under the weight of their packs and were eager to be done but they did stop and exchanged a few words with us, informing us where we could get down to the river.
Deerweed (Acmispon glaber)
And soon we saw it too - the gorge.

We continued on our way. The thought of getting to the cool water was an enticing one. Still, there was much to see along the trail, too.
California Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon californicum)
And not all of it were flowers - a little ground squirrel darted from our path, running to hide away in the bushes.

We spotted the river access and made our way over there, ready for a break.
A bright clarkia patch welcomed us at little trail down to the water.
Clarkia (Clarkia sp.)
The water was cold. We didn't go inside but sat down in a shady spot and enjoyed the relative coolness of the creek and the shaded white rocks at its bank.

After a long and refreshing break by the water we climbed back up to the Arroyo Seco trail and made the right turn to continue on the Indians Road, leading to the Last Chance Falls. The sun was really beating down on us now.
But I found a blooming snapdragon. Life is good.
Chaparral Snapdragon (Antirrhinum multiflorum)
The trail narrowed and lead us down to an area of oak savannah. The grass was completely dry but the majestic oaks were green and lush. I glimpsed a  sole chaparral yucca between the trees.

We came upon the old adobe where the old park's ranger station used to be. Behind it was the creek and we crossed it, hopping on the makeshift stones bridge laid across.

We continued just a bit further down the trail before finally giving in and giving up. There was no chance we would make it all the way down to the Last Chance Falls that day. Not when the heat was in the triple digits.
Whiskerbrush (Leptosiphon ciliatus) 
So we sat by the water and had out lunch. Then we crossed it again and lingered just so much as to enjoy the butterflies that were fluttering near the water.

The heat was perfect for the butterflies, who were very active that day. I was lucky enough that some of them stood still for a second or two, enough time for a photoshoot.

After giving up on finding the shortcut trail we started back on the same trail we had arrived on - but them we found the original trail we were looking for - the Santa Lucia Trail, so we went on that heading toward the trailhead and parking area.
Soon we found ourselves plowing through tall, dry grass that also included many thorny thistles. The trail wasn't walked on much and at some points it was difficult to make where it continued. We pulled in the general direction we needed to go and eventually picked it up again, right by that same sole yucca we'd seen from below.
Chaparral Yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei)
The Arroyo Seco trail goes high above, and mostly parallel to the Santa Lucia Road we had walked on when going down along the river. I was glad we took the higher trail now because it felt like we were hiking a loop trail rather than going in and out on the same one.
And a different trail, even though in close proximity to the other, still features different sights. In this case - the fragrant coyote mint.
Coyote Mint (Monardella villosa ssp. villosa) 
We took a while going back. The heat was intense and we had stopped several times to rest and rehydrate. Eventually we came upon a beautiful sight - the river bend where the water strip widened into what was labeled in the map as 'The Lakes'.
Apparently we were arriving at the parking lot from behind.

to and tired, we made it back to the car. There at the parking lot we saw a fellow getting ready of a hike. He was going down to the gorge to rock dive, he told us. Taking a dip in the river sounded very good right then, and the guy invited us to join him. But we were too hot to go down to the gorge all over again. Besides, my friend was set on seeing the pinnacles, so we wished the fellow a good hike and drove off.
But the river was beckoning ...
Just before leaving Arroyo Seco we found the day use area and took some time to enjoy the river. The water was very cold, which was exactly what we needed after our lovely and very hot hike.