Sunday, July 31, 2016

Hiking the Shoreline at Estero Bluffs State Park

Date: May 2015 and April 2016
Place: Estero Bay State Park, Cayucos, California
Coordinates: 35.449825, -120.932640
Length: 2 miles
Level: easy

On May of last year my mother came with a close family friend to visit us. Naturally, we took them traveling around California. The beautiful Morro Bay was on our itinerary and as always, was a great boon. We visited the usual places, like the Morro Rock and the El Moro Elfin Forest, and took a boat on the bay water to see marine wildlife up close. But then, I was also looking to expand my knowledge the area, and so I lead everyone on a couple of trails that were new to us. One of them was at the nearby Estero Bluffs State Park.
Ester Bluff is right by Hwy 1, There are several pullout gravel parking areas along the road and we selected one randomly and looked around. Late in May, after a painfully short rainy season, the scenery was nearly all dry.

We took the shortest trail to the water. I didn't expect to see anything blooming but here and there, hidden in the tall dry grass, low morning glory was blooming, adding its beautiful color to the otherwise dormant view.
Morning Glory (Calystegiaw purpurata) 
The cliffs of Estero are nothing like the Big Sur, but are low, vertically-eroded alluvium soil. There are some rocks, too, leftovers of a harder, more primal past.

Many rocks are off shore, creating little islets that are safe haven for birds. Some of them are seriously white-washed, but others are low enough to be washed by the high tides.
Cormorants and Gulls at rest
The rocks also make a perfect nesting place for swallows. Cliff swallows, naturally.
Cliff Swallows
We stood at the edge of the cliff and looked down. The coastline there comprised of narrow strips of sandy shores separated by clumps of rocks. Some of the sandy areas are wide and deep where a creek flows into the ocean. A small gaggle of geese was wandering about on one of those sandy beaches. Papa Quail looked through his binoculars, exclaimed with excitement and raised his camera - those were Brant geese, not the Canada geese we're so used to seeing around the Bay Area.
We strolled along the cliff edge until we came upon a convenient place to descend to the beach. It was a hot day and we sat there for some time, mesmerized by the sound of the waves and the light spots dancing on the water.

The chikas didn't feel like sitting down. They had a ball exploring the tide pools. Within a few minutes I took off my shoes and joined them in the tide pools.
The little cove we were at featured a colorful display of algae. I didn't post all of them here but just the iridescent one that gleamed at me from the water.

The chikas were more into the animal life and they called me to check out the anemones and hermit crabs. There were plenty of them on the submerged rocks.

The off shore rocks are a safe haven for pelagic birds but also for seals to sleep on away from sharks and orcas.
Harbor Seals and Cormorants
The chikas were busy with the local wildlife, of which one of the most common were hermit crabs. These little crabs live inside vacated snail shells and replace them as they grow. It is funny to see what looks from above like snails running about quickly with legs extended out. Most of the shells there belonged originally to the turban snail.
Hermit Crab
After a nice tide pooling time we climbed back up to the trail and continued south.
While generally the Pacific Ocean lies west of the California coast, the Estero Bluffs shoreline actually faces south. And looking south, there is the view of Morro Rock standing guard at the mouth of Morro Bay.

Papa Quail focused his eyes on the sky. Many birds were flying here and there, nearly all of them over the water.
Pacific Brown Pelican
While the pelicans are impressive for their size and their flight patterns, the terns show beautiful aerobatics and sleep flight. And they are just plain beautiful, too.
Caspian Tern
But not everything in the air was a water bird. Turkey vultures also crossed the sky, lilting over the shoreline looking for goodies. On a subsequent visit I have found that they were particularly fond of dead seals that were stranded on the beaches of Estero Bluffs.
Turkey Vulture
Meanwhile, my eyes were on the ground. While most vegetation was bone dry there were a few wildflower species blooming, some of them in large numbers.
Coastal Tarweed (Deinandra corymbosa)
Another thing we found were little plastic-like ghosts tangled in the dry plants. Looking closer I recognized them as desiccated Valella valella - ocean invertebrates that were swept to shore in large quantities several months before. Their flake-light remains were carried on the wind over the cliff edge and some were trapped in the vegetation.
Vallela vallela
We strolled a bit longer to the south but eventually wrapped up our hike and went back to the car. We had planned to see the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas that day before going home.
I did, however, plan to go back there as soon as I could, and 11 months later I had the chance to go there twice - by myself and with a group.

Last April I took a group of Bay Area families on a camping trip to Morro Bay. Remembering how lovely my time at Estero Bluffs was, I added the park to the group's itinerary as well. In preparation to the camping trip I took a solo hike in that park and was amazed at how different it looked from my  hike there of the previous year.

Without a company attached I found myself roaming here and there on the alluvial flat that stretches from the hills to the ocean. I had my GPS on during my solo hike there and below is the path I took on that day, overlaid on a satellite image of the area (taken during the dry season, obviously).

The most striking thing I saw there during my April hikes was the greenery. Last April came after a long and blessed rainy season. It even rained on the day I was there.
And embedded in the green - wildflowers. Many, many wildflowers.
Sky Lupine (Lupinus nanus)
The most eye-catching flowers there are invasive weeds, originated from the old world. Plants I am very familiar with from the Middle East have been brought to California, some intentionally and others as hitch-hikers, and have made California their thriving home. Needless to say, this happened at the expense of California native plant species.
One of the best examples of this take over is the black mustard, the Brassica nigra. Brought overseas and intentionally sowed by the Spanish missionaries along El Camino Real - 'The King's Highway', the dense mustard bloom now paints the coastal hills and mountains with intense yellow every spring.
Mustard Patch
While mustard along with other invasive weeds dominate the bloom scene at Estero Bluffs, there are still many native California species to see and appreciate. Some of them are very local species, too, like this one below.
Obispo Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja densiflora sip. obispoensis)
My solo hike took place during high tide and I remained on high ground nearly the entire hike. On my group hike, about two weeks after, we timed our arrival with the low tide and although I hadn't planned it, we all went down to the tide pools almost immediately. It was a brilliant, sunny day. The water sparkled in the light and the colorful algae shimmered underneath the water surface.

The children in the group spread themselves on the rocks, searching for sea treasures. And they found them too - many, many treasures. They did, of course, leave everything where they had found it. Collecting is forbidden there.
Skeleton of a Sea Urchin 
There were a few other people there, and one of them had spotted an eel. Within seconds the man and the eel were surrounded by a group of excited children and I had to shove my way through the crowd to get a shot. It was the first time I've seen an eel in the wild.
The rocks didn't host as many birds as I've seen in May. Perhaps they were all busy foraging. The whitewash, however, stood witness for the ever presence of the pelagic avian life there.

It was completely overcast on my April solo hike there. I made my way on the criss-crossing paths along the edge, looking over the crumbling cliff and enjoying the greenery and the occasional spring sprinkle.

Then I came upon a wall of mustard. It is a good place for mustard to grow there, because the mustard was monstrous size. A narrow path was cut through the mustard thicket and I walked it, getting petal and pollen-yellow as I passed through, rubbing against the blossoms.
Mustard Tunnel (Brassica nigra, non-native, invasive weed)
There is a small hill standing near the pullout where I parked and as I was walking along the cliff edge I went around that hill until I had a clear view of the other side. A few separate rocks stood away from the hill. Red in color, they stood out against the green backdrop.
A small bird stood at the top of the most prominent rock. I couldn't see what it was but had no difficulty identifying it by its song: it was a male red-winged blackbird.

I approached until I was close enough to confirm the bird's ID by sight. As I circumvented the rock the bird rotated on its spot, constantly training his eye at me.
Red-winged Blackbird, male
Below, in the mustards, I spotted his mate. Drab and quiet, and holding a beak full of nesting material. I wished them both success and took my leave.
Red-winged Blackbird, female
From a little more distance I found that it wasn't only yellow painting the ground: I was happy to discover a decent patch of California poppy next to the dominant mustard. I can only imagine how the California coast springtime looked like before the mustard replaced much of the local flora. I got a hint of that on the following week when I traveled with my family to Figueroa Mountain.
A Poppy Patch
The spectacular broad views drew me in toward the poppy patch again. Looking down I saw there the little beauties that were hidden under the taller plants.
Red Maids (Calandrinia menziesii) and Alkali Heath (Frankenia salina)
Eventually I pulled away from the hills and rocks and made my way back to the cliff edge, moving south. Soon I came across the San Geronimo Creek where it meets the ocean. On the sand below I saw little dark dots moving here and there. I raised my binoculars: they were shore birds.

The trail lead me down to the sandy beach and I carefully approached the birds. They didn't fly away, just looked at me and moved a bit sideways.
Black Turnstone

And some allowed me to get quite close before moving out of my way.
Least Sandpiper

The path goes up again on the other side of the beach. There I got a good view of the rocks adjacent to the cliff edge and the cormorants that were roosting there.
Pelagic Cormorants
Not only pelagic birds I saw there. Another singer was in the low shrubs on my left - land side. A small savannah sparrow. It became silent as I turned my attention to it and resumed its song as soon as I went on my way.
Savannah Sparrow
Two weeks after, the cormorants were much further away. Down near the water I got to see more interesting plants that I had missed on my previous hike, like this milk vetch with balloon-like pods.
Milk vetch (Astragalus sp.) 
Growing so close to the ocean the coastal strand plants must have adaptations for saline conditions. The delicate Salt marsh sand spurry is a bit succulent and is covered by little hairs - adaptations for minimizing water loss in response to the saline wind and ocean spray.
Salt Marsh Sand Spurry (Spergularia macrotheca)
The group I was with on my last April hike there was walking slowly, enjoying the full coastal experience. And so was I. Although I was familiar with the place I was still seeing it as if for the first time. There were many things there that I did see for the first time that day. Like this dudleya below.
Blochman's Dudleya (Dudley blochmaniae)
And I wasn't the only one there that enjoyed the wildflowers. 
Common Buckeye
Eventually I arrived at the point where I had planned to turn back around. There I found a convenient path down to the beach and descended to the sand. I was amazed at the variety of pebble colors I've seen there. On my group hike I challenged the children to find as many pebble colors they could.
The ocean was very green in April. And it wasn't all that pacific. In fact, the waves were quite high. As my group made its way south to that colorful beach the tide was coming in. As we were sitting on the pebbles the waves came closer and closer until one rogue wave washed someone's shoes away. The shoes were eventually redeposited back on shore, completely soaked. We got the message and got up to leave. 

On my solo hike I had walked all the way back to where I had parked my car. On the  group hike, however, I had parked my car at the south parking lot. Some only had to take the quick path to Hwy 1 where everyone waited while I shuttled the drivers of each family to our starting spot. On the way to the car I took a final, longing look at the green field to the north: it was girdled with bright yellow mustard and dotted with blue-eyed grass. If I had any crafting talent I'd paint it or quilt it. Being who I am I simply photographed.
Blue-eyed Grass

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

Friday, July 22, 2016

A Challenging Anticlimax: From Franklin Lake to Mineral King

Date: August 22, 2015
Place: Mineral King, Sequoia National Park, Three Rivers, California.
Coordinates: 36.422040, -118.562655
Length: 5 miles
Level: Strenuous

We woke up at the crack of dawn. I was in not hurry to leave the sack but my chika was up and ready to get out. She wanted to go back to the lake.
It was our third day backpacking in the Mineral King area. It took us 2 days to backpack up a strenuous 5 miles trail to Franklin Lake and this was the morning of what would be our final day of this trip.
The crack of dawn
The sun rays were slowly sliding down the western slopes. To the northwest I could see the dense smoke filling the valley we hiked up from, a reminder of the Rough Fire raging at Kings Canyon National Park, only 30 miles away. Where we were, at least, the air was clear enough to breath without choking.

We started with going to the creek to wash up. The weather wasn't nearly as cold as was forecast. The creek water, was very chilly, however. And very refreshing too. As we cleansed ourselves and filled our bottles the sunlight was coming down to meet us.

Franklin Creek
There were little alpine wildflowers between the rocks and the shrubs. I saw them the evening before, but now I had the time and lighting to take some photos.
Little Elephant Head (Pedicularis attollens)
There were quite a few flowers there that I saw for the first time up there, near Franklin Creek, at 11,000 feet. It was easy to forget the goals of the day and just enjoy the High Sierra beauty that surrounded us.
Bog Laurel (Kalmia polifolia)
Some were of familiar genera I knew from the lower elevations. It was splendid to see their alpine relatives up in the High Sierra.
Alpine Shootingstar (Primula tetrandra)

My chika, however, was goal-driven. So after a quick oatmeal and tea breakfast she grabbed her fishing rod and we went up to the lake. I had improvised a sinker from an old, rusty nail I found at the campsite and it worked just fine. My chika was successful this time too, and within seconds she caught herself a breakfast amendment in the shape of an orange-bellied trout. This time she had no qualms about killing and consuming it. (I had to make true of my promise and fix it for her. I made a promise to myself that before next time I'm make sure she knows how to do it all by herself). The bright side of this experience was that she was thoroughly satisfied with that one fish and didn't wish to get any more.
Now that my chika was satisfied, all she wanted was to go back home and tell her older sister who stayed behind that she had caught a fish. There was no talking her into staying another night at this place, let alone continue on further. Since I also promised her in the beginning that we would go back whenever she wanted, I resigned into breaking our little camp and repacking everything.
Our way down from Franklin Lake to Mineral King as captured by my GPS
I looked with longing at Tulare Peak. It didn't look all that high above where we were. This trip, however, it would remain unattainable. I finished packing, spot-checked our vacated campsite, and then we hoisted our backpacks.
So Close: Tulare Peak
It was about 11:00 am when were all ready to go. A few steps down the trail we stopped short: a small squirrel was running around, gathering dry vegetation. Was it squirrel nesting season?

After taking the time to admire the squirrel properly we were on our way in earnest.

We started off with a good pace, and quickly descended to the small meadow vale where we had stopped for lunch on the day before. The valley below was filled with smoke, and we were heading down that way.

Our trail down was the same one we came up.
I have taken the opportunity of this third day blog post to add some flowers that didn't make the cut for the previous posts. Their photos were better on the way back :-)
Lupine (Lupinus sp.)
We hiked down without stopping almost the entire distance we hiked up on the second day. And it was easier to breath with each step despite our descent into the smoke.
We were also coming back into the woods.

Before long we were at the intersection of trails again, looking down on the hill behind which we had camped on the first night. It was there we took our first break.

From the trail intersection down to the meadow of our first night camp it is a narrow, slippery path. On the hike up I had to hold my chika's hand there. This time she went down on her own, albeit very carefully. This time I took more notice of the geology wherever it was free of the vegetation cover.

We made it to our first night's campsite and sat down for another break. My chika wanted to have soup for lunch but I didn't want to waste time and energy climbing down to get water from the trickle of the Franklin Creek tributary so I offered her a snack and promised her soup at the first creek crossing. She was fine with that.
Long-lived Hawk's Beard (Crepis acuminate)
Munching away, she pointed at the slope above. I saw what she was pointing at and raised my camera. The deer was far, but wary. After only a couple of clicks she hopped away and disappeared from our sight.

Perhaps I should have taken the time to fetch the water and cook soup. After the first break there were more breaks to follow, and they became frequent. It seems that after the first big effort to get down from the lake my chika had hit her energy ceiling. All of a sudden her backpack needed frequent adjusting, her pants needed to be pulled up, the straps needed to be tightened or released with every step, and then, of course, little stones crept into her shoes.

Our original plan had another day for the trip and I offered my chika to finish the hike and remain for the night where we had camped on our first night, but she declined my offer. She wanted to go all the way down today. Moreover, she wanted to make it all the way home that night.
I sighed. Getting down to Mineral King was one thing, but getting all the way home meant hours of driving for me. I was not sure I could do it. I certainly didn't want it. I agreed that we hike down to Mineral King, but informed my chika that we will stay the night there and drive home on the morrow.
Giant Blazingstar (Mentzelia gracilenta)
We continued down at a much slower pace. My chika was leading, leaning heavily on her hiking poles, and I followed her, trying not to get to close or appear pushy in any way. I took the chance to take better shots of wildflowers that came out too blurry when we were hiking up two days before.
It was Saturday, and a good day to begin a backpacking trip. On our way down we crossed paths with many backpackers that were heading up to the Farewell Gap or Franklin Lakes. Some asked me how it was up there. Many raised their eyebrows at my chika. One approached us and congratulated my child, calling her 'Tough Cookie". My chika was too tired to react much but she understood that it was a compliment. On the way down, however, she kept asking what 'tough cookie' meant and why was it considered a compliment. She wondered how come going up a mountain was considered an achievement. I tried to explain but it really isn't a concept easy to put in words. It has to be felt through to the core.

Once again we were on the switchnbacking part of the trail, this time going down the serpentine. Although we didn't stop this time at every turn, we did go very slow.
Horsemint Giant Hyssop (Agastache urticifolia)
As we descended into the valley the air became murkier with smoke. It clouded all of my wide shots. My flower close-ups, however, remained clear.
Naked Buckwheat (Eriogonum nudum)
We kept moving, slowly approaching the creek crossing. We could hear the cascading water and even catch glimpses of it with every turn. Soon, also, the switchbacks ended and we walked a straight stretch of trail that took us to the water.
Perennial Grass (Stipa sp.)
We stopped by the water and dropped our packs to the ground. My chika went to play by the creek and I pulled out the little stove and started boiling water.

The surrounding rocks didn't look like granite to me. They had an almost marble quality to them, but I'm not sure what they were. They were very colorful, though.

And these rocks were endowed with mountain California fuchsia that had bunches of bright, happy red flowers.
Mountain California Fuchsia (Epilobium canum ssp. latifolium)
I took the time while the water heated up to admire the scenery and the other flowers I saw there. When the water finally boiled I mixed in the instant miso soup powder and we both sat for humble lunch. We had plenty of food left in my backpack - a combination of having planned for an extra day and overestimating our appetite. I was eager to transfer some of that weight from my back to our stomachs. My chika, however, didn't have much of an appetite. She ate the soup and snacked a bit on some other stuff but all in all didn't eat much. She wanted to move on.
Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja affinis)
And so we did. We crossed the creek and continued down to the smoky valley.

Despite the long break we had our pace was very slow. My chika walked in short, almost hesitant steps. She also kept complaining that her pack was too heavy. While it wasn't any heavier than when we began, it didn't get any lighter as mine had, because I was the one carrying all the food to begin with. I, too, felt weighed down by my pack but I did stop and took some of my girl's backpack contents and transferred them to mine.
Common Phacelia (Phacelia distans)
After a long hour we came upon the last creek crossing and sat down again. My chika was worn out and asked if we could stay where we were for the night. But that was the no camping zone and I thought  she could pull through the last mile and a bit that we had to go (downhill) to Mineral King. To encourage her I said that if we'd made it down by 5 pm I would drive us down to Three Rivers and take her to the restaurant where we dined on the evening of our arrival and she could have their chocolate cake again.

My chika accepted the deal. I helped her hoist her backpack and we continued on.
Redding Buckwheat (Eriogonum spergulinum var. reddingianum)
We didn't get very far when I noticed that my chika was zigzagging, almost stumbling. I realized with a start that she really didn't eat much since breakfast. She didn't have the appetite and I don't normally push food on my daughters but this time I had her sit and consume a pack of dried fruit snack. And that sugar boost was exactly what she needed. After we were back on our feet she continued walking without other problems, even if slow.
Tough Cookie
We were back down in the valley, the Mineral King area. The air didn't seem all that smoky but the odor was still there.
Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)
Now, on the final stretch of the hike, I took the time and we walked down to the water and rested for a few minutes. It was clear that we won't make it back by 5, but we wouldn't be too late and I meant to drive down to Three Rivers anyway. My little girl had earned her chocolate cake.

We made it back to the car and my chika slammed on the hood. I helped her remove her backpack, take off her shoes and had her sit inside while I got our stuff arranged in the trunk, changed to sandals (whoa, what a relief!) and had a short, cheerful chat with a park ranger who happened by. She also updated me that the Rough Fire was still going on. Not only it was not yet out, but it was nowhere near getting under control.

And then we drove away. I was sure my chika will crash into sleep but she remained awake, watching the giant sequoia appear and disappear and the road winding endlessly downward to the Central Valley. We stopped only once - for a big tarantula that was crossing the road.
Black Tarantula

We made it in time to that restaurant in Three Rivers and my chika got the chocolate cake she desired. I, on the other hand, didn't have much of an appetite. I called Papa Quail and updated him of our earlier than planned departure from the wilderness. I wasn't all that thrilled about driving all the way back home that night and Papa Quail agreed that we should check into a hotel for the night. But then I started driving, my chika fell asleep almost immediately, and I was gliding smoothly on Hwy 99 due north, and couldn't bring myself to stop. After spending time in the wilderness, even if only three days, it didn't feel right to check into a hotel. Yes, we needed a shower, but I preferred the one at my home. Despite the long day we've had, I was now wide awake. It was only when I approached the Bay Area, about 5 hours later that I begun to feel sleepy, and then, of course it was pointless to stop, so we made it all the way back home that night, much to Papa Quail's surprise.

Afterthought 1. On hindsight it was an unsuitable trail for my 8yo child. It had cost us the fourth planned day of the trip. She was pushed to her limit and a bit beyond it. On the other hand, she rose to the challenge and more, and her memories of this trip are happy ones. She does want to go back there again, 'when I'm older,' that's how she put it. Most importantly, this trip had put her ahead of her older sister in several ways. It was a big thing for her, because most of the time she feels overshadowed by her sister. It was a big boost to her confidence.

Afterthought 2. Last summer it seemed that everywhere we went, a large wildfire was developing nearby. This was the third time it happened: the Rough Fire that broke near Kings Canyon National Park blew out of control and raged for over three months, burning over 150000 acres and forcing the park's closure. A few months later I visited the area with a friend and we hiked to the edge of the fire, observing the sad remains.

Afterthought 3. This trip was a milestone for me too. It was the first time I went out to the wilderness being the only adult there, bearing the full responsibility. Having gone through that, planning and carrying out the next backpacking trip for my entire family was a nearly smooth ride.

The mountains still beckon me. It won't be long now.

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