Saturday, December 31, 2016

A Magical Place, Transformed.

Mono Lake in the snow

Date: January 15, 2016
Place: Mono Lake, Lee Vining, California
Coordinates: 37.938774, -119.027170
Length: 1 mile
Level: easy

Mono Lake is a magical place. Seriously. That's why we take every opportunity we get to stop there whenever we travel in the region of the Eastern Sierra. I have already posted here about the story of this lake and of the little loop hike there, and lately I also had the opportunity to visit it's northern shore as well. This post is about that very same trail - but with a very different look and feel.
Last January my good friend came to visit me from overseas and both of us went on a week-long road trip, visiting some of California's prettiest winter-accessible places, and Mono Lake was on our must see list.
We were drawing to the end of our road trip when we were on our way to Mono Lake, driving north on Hwy 395 after a couple of lovely and somewhat adventurous days in Death Valley and Panamint Valley. We had planned to camp for the night in one of the National Forest campgrounds south of Mono Lake. On our drive, however, a snow storm rolled in, blowing down from the Sierra Nevada mountains, dumping quantities of now on the ground. During the final, grueling lag of our drive we dropped the idea of camping and continued straight away to the town of Lee Vining where we checked into a hotel room for the night.
In the morning we woke up to a changed world - everything was white with fresh, pure snow. Moreover - the sun was shining brilliantly and the sky was bright blue. It was the beginning of a splendid day.
Down to Mono Lake
Hwy 395 was plowed and clear of snow. East 120 to Mono Lake however, was completely covered with snow. We were the first to drive there on that morning after the storm. After some driving I stopped to admire the tracks we left. 
Being the first
We were the first humans there that morning, but certainly not the first to leave tracks in the snow. Every now and then we came across rabbit tracks crossing the road. However, we didn't see the rabbits at all.
Rabbit Tracks
We entered the vacant parking lot, exited the car and looked around. It was a place I've been at many times before, yet now it looked wholly new to me. In a weird way it reminded me of my time in Wisconsin. Yes, it was the snow. And the bright winter sunshine. Nothing else was similar, just the sensation that the world was transformed overnight into a winter wonderland.
But Mono Lake is in California's Eastern Sierra, and the whipped cream-like snow covered plants were desert shrubs, not bare, wintering apple trees. And while the air was chilly, no icicles formed on my eyelashes when my exhale steamed past them.
At the trailhead
And, of course, there were mountains all around, and the mountains too were white with snow. 
View northeast from the south tufa trail
Although the morning air was chilly the sun was bright and warming and it was clear that much of that beautiful snow would melt throughout the day. We didn't spend too much time admiring the parking lot scenery. Wrapped well in our coats and warm hats we started down the trail to the tufa formations and the lake shore.
It was easy to follow the trail to the lake. We saw more rabbit tracks crossing it, and also footprints of other animals, possibly birds, that had crossed the trail before we had arrived there.
Quail tracks?
My friend was seeing Mono Lake for the first time. I was observing her as much as I was observing the lake and its surrounding - it was a great pleasure to see her discovering its charms.
I too was discovering it again - to looked so different under all that snow!
No, this isn't cotton :-) 
It was also the first time I've been alone in Mono Lake. My friend and I were the only humans there and the silence and stillness were voluminous and very, very powerful.
Every step we made was fresh. It felt odd to be leaving footprints in the pristine scenery, almost a sense of desecration, in a way. But there was also a great joy of pioneering, of being the first one there to see this new world of winter magic. It was like walking through a wardrobe, only one made of greasewood or saltbush.
A fresh morning
We arrived at the lake shore and wandered along the edge of the water. The clouds of brine flies that I had always seen there and thought were an integral part of the lake's experience were absent now, and I could see nor hear any birds, and the silence was very strange to me, yet not unpleasant, or eerie. And it was very, very beautiful.
Mono Lake
I was quite surprised to see that the edge of the water was frozen. The night must have been very cold indeed for the salt water of Mono Lake to freeze, even to a thin and narrow film of ice.
The tufa formations, like the plants, had a whole new image under the snow cover. My friend too the time to approach and appreciate each of the tufa near our trail. 

I was looking less at the individual tufa and more at the over all scenery. My gaze kept turning to the mountains to the west - the Sierra Nevada. The peaks closest to us were those of Yosemite. CA-120 and Tioga Pass were closed for the winter, but I knew we would not try that evening any of the other passes north of Yosemite. Yet, I wished I could go up there too that day.

We meandered along the snow-covered tufa and shrubs, passing from one small bay to another going east along the lakeshore. Once off the boardwalk leading to the water the trail was much more difficult to identify under the snow cover.

It was much easier to walk along the water whenever possible. I loved seeing the contrast of the white snow with the brown tufa and the blue water, and the blue sky with the white clouds. It was like the world was distilled into these three wavelengths only, leaving all other colors off the palette. 

My friend, too, liked seeing shapes in the tufa formations. We had a great time playing imagination games with them. 
Mono Lake, a home or a migration stop for many waterbirds was also unusually quiet and empty of fowl. I scanned the water surface but saw none.

It was only when we were getting ready to turn back toward the parking lot when I saw another living creature for the first time on that hike. It was a loggerhead shrike that sat atop a tall tufa and ignored us completely, even though we passed quite close below its perch.
Loggerhead Shrike
We made it past the main are of the tufa and looked southeast in the direction of the Navy Beach. There too we could not see any sign of human, or other being's activity.
View southeast from the trail's turning point
But wait ... there was something moving way far near the water ... 
I looked through the binoculars and saw emitted a soft, 'eureka!'. There were a few ducks sitting on the shore. When they saw us approaching they flew further down the shoreline. I tried my best but the best image I got was from a great distance still. 
Green-winged Teal
We turned the corner and started making our way towards the parking lot, following a narrow pass between the bushes that we guessed was the trail. I kept looking for rabbits, or any other wildlife, but the shrike and the ducks were the only wildlife we;ve seen on the entire hike that day.

From that part of the trail we had a nice view of the little volcanic butte to the south. It was also covered with snow which eliminated all the other colors of the volcanic soil comprising it.

The clouds kept shifting along the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, but never floated eastward over our heads.

We made it back to the car. It was nearing mid-day and we were still the only humans there. Not that we minded it in any way. We decided to drive a bit along the dirt road that continued eastward, hugging the lake from south and see what was there, but the drive was very slow and somewhat precarious, and soon we turned about and drove back to the main access road were we were spoiling our original car tracks with a new set on our way out. 

By the time we were leaving Mono Lake much of the snow on the bushes had melted and the 'whipped cream' look was gone. After we returned home another visitor had posted online a photo of Mono Lake two days after our visit there - there was a bit of snow still on the ground, but the vegetation, as well as the tufa, were all brown again and much of the winter wonderland magic was gone.
Leaving Mono Lake
Mono Lake is always a beautiful and unique place, worthy of visiting and revisiting. It's just that this time I had the unusual privilege of being there right when it emerged from Nature's bridal salon all dressed in virginal white. And these images of beauty I will remember forever.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

An East Bay Landmark Checked: The Maguire Peaks at Sunol Wilderness

Date: December 2, 2016
Place: Sunol Regional park, Sunol, California
Coordinates: 37.533137, -121.832930
Length: About 6 miles
Level: moderate

On Friday, December 2, I realized that I had missed the deadline to turn in my East Bay Regional Parks Trail Challenge log. Oh, well. I know I had fulfilled the requirement, and that's what matters. So I went to celebrate my little achievement checking out a new trail - the Maguire Peaks Trail at Sunol Regional Wilderness.
I had wanted to hike this trail for some time now, ever since I had realized that the Maguire Peaks are within the boundaries of Sunol Wilderness. When recently the chance came I jumped on it and went on this hike.
Upper Peaks Loop access trail
The Maguire Peaks Loop Trail is accessible from three different trailheads, two of them are on Welch Creek Road outside of the park's gate. It is a narrow two-way one lane road running through the deep Coal Mine canyon. This road has very few pull outs and parking places, and any car that parks there has to have a proof of park entry payment (meaning the EBRPD parking tag or a receipt acquired at the park's main gate on Geary Road).
The lower access trail isn't marked and there is no obvious parking area near it, so I missed it completely and parked at the upper access trail. There is a small and very inclined pull out area and a gate marked as fire lane behind which started a wide gravel going uphill.
My hike, labeled yellow.
I was a good 100 yards into the trail before I remembered to rush back down and display the parking tag in my car.
Upper Maguire Peaks Trail
The air was filled with calls of acorn woodpeckers. It didn't take me long to spot them too. One I saw in action, stuffing an acorn into a hole in his family granary tree.  
Acorn Woodpecker, male
Some distance up the trail I saw a surprising sight - a couple of coast redwood trees. Surprising because these trees aren't naturally found separated from their grove, and the exposed hillside isn't a niche where this species thrive. The trees I saw didn't look more than a few decades old and while green and cone-bearing, they didn't look particularly thriving. While I cannot rule out the possibility that these two trees had sprouted there on their own I think it is quite likely that they were planted there, like other redwood trees I see growing in urban landscapes.
Coast Redwood, Sequoia sempervirens
Supporting my hypothesis that these redwood were planted and possibly cared for by human settlers in earlier years I got from other trees that grew adjacent to the redwood. These were olive, tamarisk, and eucalyptus, all of which are introduced species brought hither by European-descent settlers.
Exotic Tree Grove
Following the wet beginning of winter the hills were aflame with fresh green growth that didn't skip the trail. The cows didn't skip the trail either, and so I found my path blocked by three cows (the third is off to the left) with their young calves next to them.
I'll share here that throughout all my years of hiking solo, the only times I experienced hostility from anyone was from mother cows. I therefore took the situation seriously and left the trail, circumventing the cows while maintaining a safe distance between them and myself.
Free Ranging
I rejoined the trail past the cows and sighed with relief. A few steps further and I felt reassured enough to stop and focus my attention on some juncos that hopped in and out of the trail side bushes.
Dark-eyed Junco
The slope was mild but I constantly gained elevation. At some point the view opened up and I could how high I already was. 

I went on and turned the curve. Around it I saw my first view of the Maguire Peaks from the trail.
The Maguire Peaks
The trail stopped ascending, and then continued down into a small, forested valley. My eyes caught a slight movement on the slope above me and when I looked up I saw two deer that were observing me from a distance.
Black-tailed Deer
In that small Valley the trail connected with the Maguire Peaks Loop Trail. I decided to walk it counter clock-wise, so without a stop I continued to the right into an avenue of wintering oaks.

On a lower branch of one of these naked oaks stood a Say's Phoebe. I managed to get a few photos from a distance, but as I advanced up the trail the bird flew away.
Say's Phoebe
Striding along I slowly curved around the peaks, constantly gaining more height. Eventually I could once again see the taller of the double peaks, towering over me still.
Maguire Peaks
And the view to the north opened up, revealing Mount Diablo and a glimpse of the San Antonio Reservoir in the Pleasanton Valley below.
Mt. Diablo
As I continued circling the peaks more views opened up before me. I was especially fascinated by the ridge to the north, outside of the park's boundaries, that featured a lovely display of the East Bay hills' scene, where the convex surface is and open grassland and the concave densely wooded.
Those are the lines of runoff.

As I hiked the northern part of the loop the higher peak was now within my view constantly. I admired the cliff rocks, visible under the top soil and vegetation. The rocks had quite a few cavities - I assume that there are those beings who would call these home. 

And right by the trail - a single coyote brush covered with tiny parachute seeds. A very pretty sight
Coyote Brush, Baccharis pilularis
Presently I arrived at the northwestern tip of the loop trail and I found a bench there on which I had no time to sit - it was already getting late and I wished to go up to the peak too.
The map doesn't show any trail leading to the peak itself but there is a trail - a narrow and steep one that begins right at that bench. I started up the trail and soon found it wet enough still to be quite slippery and potentially dangerous. I continued slowly and carefully, but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who isn't sure-footed.
Along the way I saw many rocks protruding through the topsoil. Here and there there were also some plants blooming, the most conspicuous of them was the red-flowered hummingbird trumpet.
Hummingbird Trumpet, Epilobium canum
The Maguire Peaks are a prominent landmark, most noticeable when driving south on I-680 between San Ramon to Sunol. These would be the double points that stick out westward of the ridge east of I-680. Once seen, they cannot be missed or mistaken.
The higher of the double peaks is 1688 feet high and is prominent indeed. Standing there I had a magnificent view all around. I could only wish that the air was clearer.
View northeast from the upper peak. The three peaks on the horizon left to right are Mt. Diablo, the Morgan Territory, and Brushy Peak. 
It was also quite windy up top and as soon as I caught my breath after climbing I had to don my sweater.
View north and slightly west from the upper peak. The bulge in the center past the valley is Pleasanton Ridge.
I decided that I could spare a few minutes to snack and so sat down to eat and enjoy the magnificent view.  
View northwest from the upper peak. Below are the Hayward Hills and past them are the city of Hayward and the San Francisco Bay. On the horizon - the San Francisco Peninsula with the peak off the center to the right being San Bruno Mountain. 
I could see more distance to the north and east, where the ridges are lower. In the other directions the peaks are close and more prominent. They were quite a sight as well.
View west and slightly south from the upper peak. Under the antennas is Mission Peak. 
I walked around the peak a little bit, looking in at all four winds (and some more).
View to the south and slightly east from the upper peak. Somewhere at the bottom a bit of the San Antonio Reservoir is visible. The shadowy peak on the horizon belongs to the Mt. Umunhum, south of the city of San Jose. 
From the top of Maguire's higher peak I could see almost all the other prominent peaks of the Bay Area. I could even see (barely) Mt. Tamalpais. Interestingly, the one peak I couldn't see was that of the highest mountain in the Bay Area - Mt. Hamilton. That peak with it's distinct observatory dome was hidden behind the ridges on the southeast.
View to the east from the upper peak, featuring the rest of Sunol Wilderness. The tiny peak on the horizon is Rose Peak in the Ohlone Wilderness area. 
A crown of small live oaks decorated the upper Maguire Peak. Underneath the oaks I found some pretty mushrooms that had sprouted following the recent rains.
Mushrooms on upper Maguire Peak
We had very good rains so far, but a pitiful mushroom show. I wonder if that's because there was so much mushroom bloom in the last three years and now these organisms are spent and need to put their energies into vegetative growth. Still, the few a saw I thoroughly enjoyed.
More ushrooms up upper Maguire Peak
Eventually I checked the time and gasped. I might be able to be at school on time to pick up the chikas if I'd run all the way back. But there was no running that steep and slippery trail down Maguire Peak, not if I wished to get down in one piece. So I walked down as fast as I could with care, stopping only once to photograph another plant that was blooming on the slope.
Bristly Goldenaster, Heterotheca sessiliflora ssp echioides
Once I reached the Maguire Peaks Loop Trail again I broke into a brisk stride. The trail was wide and convenient at first, but soon I had to slow down once more: I had reached a trail segment where cattle had trodden there while it was still muddy from the rains. The result were that the trail was completely plowed and hardened as a jagged surface were there was no hope for even steps and a steady speed.
At least the view remained fantastic.

I curved again around the peaks and was walking on the south side of loop, going in and out of narrow gullies covered with oak trees. The peaks, that towered over me, I could not see at all.

The trail improved some distance later and then the peaks came into my view again. At least their southern cliff side. What caught my eye was the grove of wintering oaks (possibly black oaks, but I don't really know), that covered the slope just below the cliffs.

Oak trees have a majestic quality to them, and are revered in many world cultures, including the native East Bay Ohlone people. Being key species in the area, oaks are an essential part of local habitats. They are also very beautiful and awe-inspiring.
Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia
Throughout my hike I did not encounter a single human being. Ignoring the trail itself, it was easy to imagine I was walking in a complete wilderness. I was very dismayed, therefore, to see one of those accursed mylar balloons, partially inflated still, tucked under one of the oak trees I passed on my way. I don't know who that princess was, but she should have done a better job keeping it from escaping and desecrating the wilderness.
Yes, I did remove it.
I was nearing the turning point to the Upper Peaks Trail that would take me back to Welch Creek Road when I saw the cows again. They were the same three cows that I met on my way up. Since I saw them they had moved up too and were now grazing to not too far from the trail on my right. Great, I thought. They're not blocking my way now. But then, where are their calves?
I looked around and to my horror I spotted all three calves in the trees left of the trail. The hills sloped sharply on either side so there was no going around this time - I had to stick to the trail - that run between the calves and their mothers.
I walked slowly, trying to keep eye contact with the nearest cow yet not ignoring the other two. The cows too eyed me suspiciously, and started moving towards their calves. The calves got nervous and were edging towards their mothers, so all of us were now converging onto the trail ...
At one point one of the cows started trotting towards me. I locked my gaze on her and raised my hiking poles. She stopped. Another cow was coming from behind and I waved my other pole at her. All the time I kept moving slowly, talking calmly to them, and stopping whenever it looked like the calves might reunite with their mothers. Eventually the cows crossed the trail and joined their babies and I passed through. It was a very scary experience, and it cost me some dear time too.
Down the trail back to Welch Creek Road
It was exactly time for school release when I finally reached my car. I was lake picking up my chikas but finally the forth mother in this story was reunited with her young as well.
A note to myself - revisit this trail in the spring. I look forward to seeing the poppies bloom on the Maguire Peaks.