Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Long Anticipated Hike at My Neighborhood Park

Date: April 15, 2017
Place: Vargas Plateau Regional Park, Fremont, California
Length: 9 miles
Level: Strenuous

On a fine day in May of 2016 the East Bay Regional Park District opened the long-awaited Vargas Plateau Regional Park. On that very afternoon I was there with the Redwood 4-H Photography Project members, wandering near the Vargas Road staging area and snapping images of the beautiful sweeping views seen from the heights of the plateau. I made up my mind to go back there for a hike as soon as all my end of school year obligations were over. Alas! Just a few weeks later, by the time I could go hike at Vargas Plateau again, I found the gates shut, closed by a court order, until improvements were made to the access road to make it safe.
There followed a whole year of negotiations during which I saw the park's hills turn yellow and brown, then green once again, and scarred by several mud slides, and then burst into colorful bloom. (I live nearby so yes, I did see all of that). Then, just as the hills were fading back into yellow I was informed that the park was to be reopened on Monday, May 15.
I preempted that morning and a few minutes after dropping my chika in school I was by the Park's lower gate at Morrison Canyon Rd. There I run into a fellow parent from my chika's school who had planned to go up the hill too. Glad for each other's company we entered the park and started eagerly uphill.
My hike as captured by my GPS
It was a perfect day to go on an uphill hike because it was sunny and sry, but fairly cool. And it was early still. The sun was shining brightly and with early morning energy we sped across the bottom part of the trail which is of very mild grade, almost level.

Right at the first turn, however, the trail bended sharply eastward and upward. Not slowing for a heartbeat, my companion rushed uphill. She had already informed me that she was in it for the exercise and I could keep up with her, but was too short of breath to talk.
With the exertion came the heat, stemming from my body and steaming from my skin, fogging my glasses and condensing on my eyebrows, dripping down my neck. I bas grateful for the short relief provided by a grove of oaks that shaded a bit of the trail.
Oak Tunnel
We were gaining altitude quickly and my lungs were screaming murder but I didn't halt and I barely stopped to check out any wildflowers, of which I didn't see very many save for thistles. I did however snap some wide scenery shots of the views around, including the incredible view that unraveled below us. There, winding between the houses of the City of Fremont run the leveed Alameda Creek, flanked by the Shinn Pond and the Quarry Lakes and other ponds of the Alameda County Water District, all shining like sparkling jewels on the city's breast. In the background protruded the the remnants of the old Franciscan range that are now Coyote Hills. All this beauty now lay below me, fitting the palm of my hand.
View northwest from Vargas Plateau
We kept the fast pace all the way up to the heights of Vargas Plateau. There the trail leveled enough for us to resume our conversation. There also the view opened up all around: 360 degrees of vast, rolling hills of shimmering grass patched with dark groves of oaks all the way to the horizon.

Up on top my companion finally slowed down and I too slowed down, taking in the views. Vargas Plateau, like most East Bay hills, is now cattle grounds. Brought here by the Spanish missionaries along with numerous mediterranean grasses and herbs, cattle had brought a complete and irreversible changed over these hills.
Cattle pond 
The former, native grasses that once covered these hills have not evolved with the aggressive type of grazing done by cattle, and were nearly completely destroyed. Nearly all grasses and herbs now growing on the hills are non-native, invasive species, well adapted to cattle grazing pressure.
Cattle bottom-levelled oak. 
The native grasses that used to cover these hills were perennials and the hills would remain green and lush throughout the year. The new settlers from the old world are nearly all annual species, rendering the hills yellow and fire-prone throughout the dry season. The primary natural hazard in California thesis days isn't earthquakes but wildfires. Here in the Bay Area fire hazard is the work of modern settlement.
Black Elderberry, Sambucus nigra 
At the top I escorted my companion to the upper Vargas Road Staging Area where we said goodby and she exited the park to go downhill along Morrison Canyon Rd.
I went back down the trail bit, then took the turn to the Higher Ranch Loop Trail.

The local wildlife had to adapt to the change, and many did so splendidly, like the California ground squirrel.
A California Ground Squirrel stands guard
My hike around the loop was at a considerably slower pace than before. Now I took the time to enjoy the wildflowers that still dotted the late spring grassland.

The plant community change left many native California species still growing and blooming on the hills, including our state flower: the California Golden Poppy.
California Poppy, Eschscholzia californica 
As I made my way north the view opened up to Niles Canyon, carved by the Alameda Creek and now a busy commute route linking Femont with Sunol and Pleasanton, and where the old Niles steam train still runs.
Niles Canyon
I was descending along the contour of the hill, keeping in mind that I will need to like all of it back up. This trail is meant to be part of the Bay Ridge Trail, and I assume that it will be about this place where it would eventually descend town to cross Niles Canyon and connect with the Pleasanton Ridge.
Pond, Wood, and View
The little, mucky pond I passed on my way was the lowest point from which I started ascending once more. Again, I was grateful for the deep shade provided by the trees that grow on the north-facing slope of the hill. This time by old and venerable laurel trees.

All too soon I was out of the shade again, going uphill under the direct noon sun. I excused my frequent stops by checking out the wildflowers, which bloomed in much greater numbers on this side of the hill.
Blue Dicks, Dichelostemma capitatum
Keeping in mind that I had a thing or two to do still before picking up my chikas from school, I huffed and puffed uphill without further stops. By that time my legs were already complaining hard.

Near completing the Higher Ranch Loop I turned aside to the view point labeled on the map. From there I could see the bay below with the cities aligned along its shores, but I was less focused on the view on more interested with the killdeers that stood by the edge of the gravel flat of the view point. The killdeer blended so well in the background that I wouldn't have noticed them at all if not for their sharp, thrill calls, and their nervous, jittery motion on the line between gravel and grass. It is possible these were a nesting couple, but I didn't get closer to check if that was the case.

More interesting to me was the view southeast toward Sunol and beyond. I wish the air was clearer but that too would probably never get much better, now with all the industrial air pollution.

As I made my way down from the view point, completing the loop I noticed a somewhat yellowish gray bird on the wire fence along that part of the trail. I pondered weather to bother photographing it (it was quite far and I had only the wide angle lens with me). As I raised my camera to the bird there flew in another one - a bright yellow bird - and attacked the bird that was sitting there. The two birds had a violent and very noisy fight that lasted a few seconds. Then the intense yellow bird flew off, followed a few seconds after by the grayer one. I photographed the fight but the distance and unsuitable lens yielded only a few blurry shots. Enough, however, for my elder chika to later identify the birds: a female and male of Bullock's Oriole.
Below is a cropped image of these birds in mid-fight: the female is hanging from the top wire by the legs, pecking the leg of the male, and the male flapping upside-down under the female, pulling her wing with his beak.
Bullock's Oriole, female and male, fighting on a wire fence 
The red-winged blackbird I saw a little later standing on the park's trail sign was a bit more generous, allowing me to approach closer before flying away.
Red-winged Blackbird, male
 I reconnected with the Deer Gulch Trail, and started downhill back to the Morrison Canyon gate. If my uphill hike was unusually fast, my downhill pace was now unusually slow. My legs were aching badly and I eased heavily on my poles, more waddling than walking. I badly wanted to sit down and rest but I feared that I won't be able to get back on my feet again, so I waddled onward, letting gravity pull me down and my poles stop me from rolling down.
Milk Thistle, Silybum marianum, non-naive, invasive. 
Now, f course, every little thing became a huge interest and a perfect reason to stop. Especially wildflowers.
Hill Morning Glory, Calystegia subacaulis 
I even paid close attention to the tiny pink flowers that grew underfoot on the trail itself. I stooped over them, not wanting to kneel down (and having to rise up from kneeling).
Sand Spurry, Spergularia sp. 
Now that the sun has changed its position I had a better, clearer view of Mission Peak and its green slopes that from the distance looked milder than they actually are.
Mission Peak
If on my way up I had to turn my head to look at the view of the Bay, now it was in my vision all the time of my descent. As I lost altitude the tiny houses grew larger and I could even see the children in my chika's school running around during lunch recess, and even hear their shouts carried up the hill toward me. Below, to the south, I saw Lake Elizabeth, one of my regular haunts, looking so small.
Lake Elizabeth
A patch of color on the opposite slop round one of the trail curves caught my eye. They were all invasive species: wild radish, mustard, and milk thistle, but it was still nice to see a wildflower carpet, even so late in season.

Although mostly gone to seeds, many local lupines were still blooming too, hidden in the tall, drying grass.
Summer Lupine, Lupinus formosus 
On the western slope of the hills, well below the oak groves and completely alone grows a single oak tree. This oak stands out when seen from below, like a special landmark. At the end of the recent drought the oak looked withered and I worried that it might not have prevailed. Now, as I was walking past it on the trail I noted that it alive and well, and that made me very happy.

I made it to the lower, flatter part of the trail and my legs were shaking. It occurred to me that all that hike I not once did I take a sitting break. It was too late for that now, with less than half a mile left, so I trudged along with small, painful steps.

The lower entrance is but a short walk from my home, but it felt like many miles. After passing the doorstep I removed my shoes and collapsed on my bed. Surprisingly, a short 10 minutes rest revived me almost completely and after washing my salty face I was all back to my normal self.
Pacific False Bindweed, Calystegia purpurata 

It's so nice to have such a beautiful park so close to home. Now I only hope that Vargas Plateau Regional Park will remain open. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Desert Jewel Tucked Away: Owl Canyon at the Rainbow Basin

Date: April 18, 2017
Place: Rainbow Basin, Barstow, California
Coordinates (of Owl Canyon trailhead): 35.025079, -117.022433
Length: 2 miles in and out
Level: easy to moderate

On spring break with only 5 days to catch up on this spring's superbloom we whooshed through Carrizo Plain on our first day, and on the second we hurried south toward Joshua Tree National Park only to find ourselves stuck in a huge traffic jam near Boron. We bypassed the traffic jam by taking the long dirt road called Rosewood Blvd which turned out to be an amazing ride, deserving its own blog post. So it was than when we finally arrived at Barstow it was already way past lunchtime and we were all famished. After taking care of that we popped in the town's BLM office and inquired about local hiking trails. They sent us to Rainbow Basin Natural Area - a place I already noticed on the map and thought might be a good spot to check out. Turns out it was a great spot to check out.

Already on the way we had to stop for wildflowers. The prince plume with its bright candle-like bloom lit up the desert scenery.
Desert Princeplume, Stanleya pinnata
We didn't stop for the prince plume. There were so many of them that I assumed we'll see them on the hike (and we did). What made us stop the car was the bloom of the beavertail cactus. It was the first blooming cactus we've seen on out road trip and we had to check it out closely.
Beavertail Cactus, Opuntia basilaris
On that stop Pappa Quail photographed an orange flower from afar. At home when we looked at the photo enlarged on the screen we realized it was no poppy in the photo. We saw many of them later along the Pain City trail in Joshua Tree National Park, but the first we've seen was in fact at the Rainbow Basing, except we didn't realize it at the time.
Desert Mariposa Lily, Calochortus kennedyi
The directions we're clear and we had no difficulty finding the place. We did, however, overshot our turn to Owl Canyon, and instead of turning around right away we continued to do the short loop drive through Rainbow Basin Natural Area.

The dirt road we were driving on was on excellent condition, almost pavement compared with yesterday's Rosewood Blvd. Still, we were going slow, taking in all the beautiful geology around us.

There is a place along the loop with a wide parking space and a view point of the Rainbow Basin valley. We stopped there briefly to appreciate the rainbow colored rocks.

Of course we also stopped for wildflowers. Usually it would be me who would photograph the flowers on our trips, but this time Pappa Quail did a fair share of wildflowers photography. He too was very impressed by the lively awakened desert. 
Desert Larkspur, Delphinium parishii
But still, his primary focus was on the wildlife, birds especially.
Loggerhead Shrike
As for me, I enjoyed everything I saw there. And I made myself a mental note (and now a virtual one) to schedule Rainbow Basin into the plan of our next desert trip.
Nevada Gilia, Gilia brecciarum
But we were driving long enough already and we were aching for some walking relief, and so we finished the short loop drive, saying goodbye to the beautiful rock formations that make this place colorful even at times when the plants are not, which is most of the time.

After finishing the loop drive we turned to Owl Canyon campground where the trailhead was. Only a handful of the campsites were occupied and the campground, which looked really nice and inviting, was very quiet (which made it all the more inviting to me).
We drove to the end of the campground and found the trailhead there. There was no description of the hike on the sign but the trail leading down to the wash was very obvious.
Our hike as captured by Pappa Quail's GPS
We went down to the wash where the trail merged with the creek bed. From then on we simply walked upstream inside the wash, kept in line by the canyon walls.  

Every now and then we passed a flat sediment area which was covered with annual vegetation dominated by the yellow bloom of the desert trumpet. This plant look like a light yellow cloud and was very challenging for me to photograph. After many attempts I settled for the 'yellow dot cloud' look.
Desert Trumpet, Eriogonum inflatum 
In the beginning of our hike the sun was still high and lit the canyon floor. It was nice and warm and for the most part we were protected from the wind that raged still higher on the slopes. There weren't many birds about, but we did see the turkey vultures circling above.
Turkey Vulture
And below, i the gravel, little annual plants were making the most of the brief desert spring.
Clavate fruited Evening Primrose, Chylismia claviformis
Not all plants are green. A little up the canyon I found a poor ambrosia bush nearly completely covered by dodder - a parasitic non-photosynthetic plant that looks like an orange spaghetti spillage.
California Dodder, Cuscuta california
Tributary creeks opened into Owl Canyon with each curve. One of them looked particularly fascinating, but I didn't have the time to go inside and explore it further - I had to catch up with my family again.

Above us on the cliff we were watched by the iconic representatives of the Mojave Desert - the Joshua trees. There weren't many of them there, and those we've seen had only few branches (branching of Joshua trees occur only upon blooming).
Joshua Tree, Yucca brevifolia
Down in the canyon we saw a few tamarisk bushes. I am very familiar with tamarisk as it is very common and a refreshing sight in the deserts of the middle east. In America, however, it is a noxious weed that takes over an altered habitat, endangering native plant species and the wildlife which depend on them. As pretty as this plant is, it is not a good sight to see in a California desert.
Tamarisk, Tamarix sp.
Along the creek bed there were plenty of other shrubs. Some were already done blooming.
Borrowbrush, Ambrosia salsola
I was pleased to see that many other plants were still blooming strong, adding brilliant colors to the local desert.
Heliotrope Phacelia, Phacelia crenulata
About midway into the canyon we cam upon a cluster of boulders that collapsed from the canyon wall. The boulders effectively blocked the straight forward path on the creek bed leaving us with two choices: to by bypass the collapse area by climbing a bit on the opposite, mild sloped canyon side, or to crawl under the boulders and go through the dark talus passage, assuming it did go all the way through.

Not knowing for sure and with Grandma Quail not willing to crawl in the dark we took the first choice and assisting one another we passed the boulder obstacle and continued on.
Mojave Yucca, Yucca schidigera
Further up the canyon walls drew near and we were walking through a fine narrow passage. There, between the tall, straight walls it was already dim for the sunlight did not penetrate the narrows.

Every now and then we got a remainder that we were hiking in the Rainbow Basin area. Rocks of very different colors from their surrounding were carried over by long past flash floods and temporarily deposited were we had found them. Temporarily - until the next flood comes though.

Past the narrows we continued slower up the canyon. We didn't have a map nor a good description of the trail on hand, and we didn't know if it was supposed to be a loop or just an in-and-out trail. Therefore we kept looking for any potential trail branching that might lead us out of the canyon and over the hill.
We didn't find any side trails, but Grandma Quail and I did find the inconspicuous desert plantain blooming on one of the side sediment shelves along the canyon walls.
Desert Plantain, Plantago ovata
Then Pappa Quail checked his GPS and announced that we had walked a mile up Owl Canyon. The path ahead seemed to involve some more rock scrambling and Pappa Quail suggested that I'd go and scout ahead to see if the way remains passable or if I could see any signs that the trail loops back at some point.

Pappa Quail allotted me 3 minutes. I grunted and hurried up the creek while my family sat down for a break.
All thoughts of the time limit blew away with the next wildflower sighting.
Brittlebush, Encelia sp. 
It wasn't much further when I reached a series of dry waterfalls. There was no way around them, which meant climbing. I climbed the first one, peeked ahead and saw there were more climbing to do. I knew that was the end of our hike because Grandma Quail would not climb these waterfalls. I wasn't even sure about the chikas.

I climbed back down, caressing the beautiful rocks as I descended. There were nice rock formations to explore and a nice arch that let the sunshine through. I was loathe to leave so soon without a thorough exploration but I had to get back to my family. Besides, it was getting late and we still had a good chunk of driving ahead of us.

  I consoled myself with a good close-up photo of a pretty prince plume and a silent promise to myself to return one day to this promising canyon.
Desert Princeplume, Stanleya pinnata
I rejoined my family and gave a quick report, basically telling them to get up and turn back down the canyon.

We moved back down the canyon at a much quicker pace now, but when Pappa Quail saw a hummingbird he stopped short and stood there for a while, trying to get a good shot of the tiny, hyperactive bird that was doing its best to keep a good distance from us.
Costa's Hummingbird, female
Meanwhile my younger chika collected some nice colorful rocks and arranged them in a nice exhibit, providing another demonstration of the rainbow basin we were hiking at.

After Pappa Quail was satisfied with his photos we continued on. When we arrived at the rock collapse everyone went again over the side, but I chose to crawl under. Not that I found anything thrilling there, but it gave me a good feeling. I felt that although I had to settle for a short, quick hike, I could still get some extra thrill from it.
And at any rate, the rocks looked very pretty up close :-)

We caught up with the sunshine again as we neared the canyon mouth again, but the line of direct light was rising rapidly now.
As we made our way up to the campground I wished again to come back to this place. This time I voiced my wish.

Pappa Quail agreed with me. He even suggested that we could camp at the Owl Canyon campground. The desert beauty and its quiet serenity really does grab one's soul.

Before long we were in the car, heading southeast toward Yucca Valley, on our way to visit one of the most beautiful and unique desert areas in California and in general: Joshua Tree National Park.