Saturday, September 30, 2017

What's Cookin' at the Devil's Kitchen?

Devil's Kitchen

Date: June 2016
Place: Lassen Volcanic National Park, Chester, California
Coordinates: 40.443145, -121.397180
Length: 4 miles in and out
Level: easy to moderate

last year I visited Lassen Volcanic National Park with a group of families.We were there in mid-June and the trail to Bumpass Hell was buried in snow so we went to see Devil's Kitchen instead.
Two days before our group hike I was there with only my chikas, and at that time I took most of these photos.

It is a long and partly dirt forest road from the town of Chester to Warner Valley where the trailhead is, and a tiny dirt lot for parking at the end of it. The park rangers have been diverting people to Warner Valley so the tiny lot was nearly full. I managed to squeeze into a shady spot, prompted my chikas out of the car and headed down the trail.

The trail begins in the woods, and in the beginning it is mostly level. I could hear the creek flowing below us and here and there also caught glimpses of it between the trees.
Hot Springs Creek
After a short distance the trail exits the woods into a meadow and becomes a boardwalk.  It was so green there it almost hurt my eyes :-)

A robin perched on a rock in the meadow was eyeing us warily, barely remaining put until was all passed his rock.
American Robin
The trail led us to the creek crossing. Just before going on the bridge I noticed something gray in the water. My elder chika burst forward exclaiming, "Dipper!"
There were, in fact, two dippers, hopping about near the water. We stayed there for a while observing them, then crossed the bridge and moved on.

After the creek crossing the trail continues on the hillside slope. Little brooks were flowing downhill, crossing our path and muddying the trail. One of these brooks seemed to be flowing right to a pool next to a group of buildings down below.

A close inspection of the water revealed why. It was hot! To hot to dip a finger in it for more than a second. This little brook was feeding the hot springs pool at the Drakesbad resort below.

The plants growing right by the water were obviously tolerant of the heat. Yellow monkeyflowers were blooming there, some yarrow, and this selfheal plant, a relative of sage.
Selfheal, Prunella vulgaris
Along the trail there were many other wildflowers blooming, most of them very small.

Violet, Viola sp.
I would have walked with my eyes on the ground if not having to see where I was going. The ground was covered with little wildflowers.
Nevada Lewisia, Lewisia nevadensis
Not all flowers were miniature. The larkspur stood out both in height and in its brilliant blue color.
Larkspur, Delphinium sp.
Our path lead us into the woods again. On the day I was there with the family group I held everyone behind me for a few long minutes while we all admired a fearless Tanager that was busy collecting nesting material right on the trail ahead of us. It was my elder chika that spotted (and identified) it and we all waited patiently until the pretty bird was done and flew off with a beak full of straw.
Western Tanager
We arrived at another creek crossing. The water was visible only from the bridge because of all the lush willows that bent over the creek, creating a narrow, green tunnel.
Hot Springs Creek
On the other side the trail continues along the creek for a short distance. Then it meets the trail from the Drakesbad Resort in a weird T intersection. We turned left, in the direction of the Devil's Kitchen.
We were walking in a field of grasses and rushes but corn lilies were still present. Not in a huge pasture like before, but in pretty, round cushions. None were blooming yet.
California Corn Lily, Veratrum californicum
Coming out of the last of the trees we were looking up a beautiful meadow, lush and green. The path was well hidden in the fresh growth, visible only when directly on it.
A mild smell of sulfur hang in the air. Somewhere ahead there were volcanic hot springs :-)

A small rivulet crossed our trail. This one had cold water flowing through. 

A moving contraption caught my eye: in the water, just off the bridge, was a handmade waterwheel. There was no indication of who put it there and why. I wondered if it was some sort of a boy scouts project left behind.

My thoughts didn't linger in the waterwheel for there were far more attractive things to look at near this brook, such as blooming bog orchids.
Sierra Bog Orchid, Platanthera dilatata 
The meadow trail continued on, leading to the forest ahead. In parts the trail was a narrow boardwalk, protecting the wetland underneath and the hikers too, no doubt.

Our day turned quite warm so we welcomed getting back into the shade of the woods. We did, however, started ascending almost immediately. The slope was mild, but continuous.

We walked uphill slowly, enjoying the shade and the fresh smell of the conifers forest. The trees weren't very crowded and there were quite a few wildflowers on the forest floor.
Northern Bog Violet, Viola nephrophylla 
Some of these forest wildflowers I was really happy to see and took the time to crouch down and get a good close-up.
Mountain Fritillary, Fritillary atropurpurea
The red candle-like blossom of the snow plant dotted the forest floor with brilliant red. Not as numerous as I've seen in the northern region of the park, but very conspicuous nonetheless.
Snow Plant, Sarcodes sanguinea

The chikas found a snow patch and that made them very happy. Of course we had to spend a few moments there for some snow play.

As we were going up the smell of sulfur strengthened. Then the slope became a steeper uphill, and just as the chikas were asking for another break we reached the top. From there it was a steep drop into Devil's Kitchen.

Devil's Kitchen is an active volcanic springs area, one of five within the park. The first time I've seen it was from far above, during my hike to Kings Creek Falls and Sifford Lake, a year before. Now I was seeing it up close. It isn't as big as Bumpass Hell but it's certainly very active, and it is very beautiful.

The Hot Springs Creek runs through Devil's Kitchen, collecting the heat and the minerals and waters the vegetation. The gasses that seep from the volcanic ground into the sallow water at the edge of the creek, giving it a pretty fizz.
Fizzy water
Devil's Kitchen is at a much lower elevation than Bumpass Hell, and it is covered with lush vegetation. And much of it was blooming when we were there.
Western Labrador Tea, Rhododendron columbianum
The smell of sulfur became heavy, even choking at times. The exposed ground surrounding the bobbing holes was colorful with minerals and thermophilic bacteria.

We strolled around the small loop trail that meanders between the volcanic features, inhaling the odors and swallowing the sights.

And then we had to walk right through the clouds of smelly steam. Quite an experience it was. I think the smell clung to my shirt for quite a while after that.

We completed the loop through the Devil's Kitchen and climbed back up to the forest. After a short break we started back down the trail.
Not a sequoia. A massive cedar tree on the trail to Devil's Kitchen. 
Getting out of Devil's Kitchen I told my companions that "it's all downhill from hear". But it wasn't accurate because we still had to cross that flat meadow on our way back. That gave me another chance to appreciate also the less assuming but way more prolific flowers of that meadow.

July 23, 2017
Last summer, a year and a month after our first visit to Devil's Kitchen I came there once again with a family hiking group. Our original plan was to hike to Bumpass Hell, but the heavy winter snowfall had left the trail buried and closed even as late as the end of July. Not to miss the geothermal feature of the park we drove to Warner Valley and hiked once again to Devil's Kitchen.
Located at a lower elevation, there was no sign of any leftover snow on our way. The tail was pretty much the same as I described above - no big changes there, except for that the waterwheel contraption was no longer in the creek.
The wildflowers, however, were different. Only a month later into the hot season (and it was very hot!) and what I've seen blooming was completely different.
Grayswamp Whiteheads, Sphenosciadium capitellatum 
The change throughout the season isn't surprising, but it was quite a sharp change for only one month. It was on a different year though, and after a different amount of precipitation.

The new wildflowers were mostly in the meadow area where I've seen also some plants that were completely new to me.
Swamp Thistle, Cirsium douglasii 
Many were familiar though, but now in their peak bloom time.
California Corn Lily, Veratrum californicum

And others, even though not new, still not a common sighting for me. This cute flower I've seen last only two weeks before at the South Warner Wilderness up in the Modoc Country. 
Columbian Monkshood, Aconitum columbianum 
The color combination was very much the same, only with different players at the scene. 
Penstemon sp.
And there were butterflies - many butterflies. Must have been caterpillars still in June because I don't remember seeing any on my visit here on 2016.

Another difference was the state of the grassy meadow. It was already drying up. There was still a lot of green around, but it was already mature green. And a green that's interrupted with patches of other bloom colors.

Another difference was the forest. The trees were there of course (although that's not trivial, considering how many forest fires have been raging throughout California during the past year). The forest floor, however, was brown, empty of bloom. All the forest floor wildflowers were already done for the season.
The Devil's Kitchen had not changed and was as beautiful and as odorous as last year. We hiked the loop and once again appreciated the sights and smells. I noticed that the Rhododendron was no longer blooming. It, too, was done.
On our way back my chika noticed something slithering on the trail. I manages to get there fast enough to capture its image - a garter snake - before it vanished in the grass.

Our way back was quick - it was our last day of the trip there, and everyone was eager to get out and go home. Just before the creek crossing I turned around and looked behind me with longing. I wasn't eager to leave but I also couldn't stay - the chika's schedule dominated mine and they were due in the 4-H camp by the end of the week.

I'll be back in Lassen next summer, but whether I'll visit Devil's Kitchen again remains to be seen. It's really up to the elements. I won't be disappointed to, that's for sure.

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Up Close With Alturas' Wildlife

Date: July 5 and 6, 2017
Place: Modoc National Wildlife Refuge and near area, Alturas, California
Coordinates: 41.461836, -120.508371
Length: about 1 mile
Level: easy

We came out of Pine Creek Basin fairly quickly. Although at the tail of a 4-days backpacking trip we were energized still and ready to see more. Besides, it was still very early in the afternoon when we made it back to Alturas. So after eating lunch and reserving a hotel room for the night we headed to the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge to see what we can find there.
It was nice to see all the ponds full of water.
The Pond is Full
There is a nice auto tour road that loops around the main ponds area and in the middle  there is a parking place and a mile-long foot trail.
We started on the auto tour sitting in our usual arrangement: me at the wheel, cPappa Quail beside me with his camera in his lap, and the chikas in the back, the younger trying to engage the elder in some sort of discussion and the elder hushing her because she is looking for birds. The first animal that we stopped for, however, wasn't a bird but a muskrat in the canal near the road.
Musk Rat

The muskrat didn't linger around and after it went away we continued our slow drive with the windows rolled open.
We've been at this refuge once before. It was April and spring has just begun at the Modoc Country. Many of the birds we saw then were wearing their courtship plumage. Sandhill cranes don't have special courtship plumage but they were busy nonetheless. On that visit we got to see a mamma crane sitting in her nest on a tiny weeds island in the pond.
On this visit we got to see the outcome of this year's nesting: many bird babies were about with their parents. We were most excited to see crane families too. A mom, a dad, and a young crane colt. The first colt we saw was nearly fully grown with only its colors and behavior setting it apart from his parents. 
Sandhill Crane Family. The colt is the bird on the left. 
We didn't drive far before having to stop: right in the middle of the road was a large gopher snake. It was a warm day, but the snake didn't bother to move. I killed the engine and we all went outside to take a closer look. The snake didn't move even when we were all on top of it. It didn't move when we tried to scare it away. Eventually I had to pick it up and move it off the road. Only then it tried wriggling away. I put it down by the roadside and it slithered off into the vegetation. We could go on driving.
Gopher Snake
The road wasn't clear for too long, though. Ahead of us was a small covey of California quail. Adults and young. They, however, did move away as we slowly approached.
California Quail
We arrived at the small parking area were the foot trail started and went out for a little hike. The birds were everywhere and didn't mind us a but.
Red-winged Blackbird
The trail meanders around the ponds which, unlike at our first visit there, were full to the brim. The sun rays of the now late afternoon lit the water surface and the algae clumps glittered as if made of gold.

Uo close the water surface didn't look as impeccable. Birds were swimming in it, creasing the surface and sending ripples that bounced off the floating vegetation.
Pied-billed Grebe with a snack
Birds were prowling in the shallows as well. We walked very slowly, inspecting the area carefully for any movement.
(Greater) Yellowlegs
This is how Pappa Quail caught sight of a deer that was moving in the reeds. And then another one crossed the shallow pond behind us. Late on we saw a third deer hiding in the bushes.
Black-tailed Deer

We circumvented the small pond and took  the right turn to the road between the small and the large ponds. The larger pond was deeper and with less vegetation. And the ducks that swam in it were not just mallards.
Scaup, female
Pappa Quail stopped behind me. He was following a bird that was active on the far shore of the shallow pond: a yellow-headed blackbird, busy gathering nesting material. Every other bird we've seen there was already with babies and I was wondering if this nest was the second round or that only now he found his mate and was having a ate start.
Yellow-headed Blackbird
We continued along the road, completing the foot loop hike back to the car. On our way we saw another gopher snake sunning itself on the road but it hurried and slithered off as we approached.
We got back in the car and continued to drive around the large pond.

As we were approaching the visitor center area Pappa Quail called me to stop with great excitement: there, on an island go tule in side the pond were two sandhill cranes. Next to them was something tiny and orange that was moving - a baby!
The young colt was bobbing up and down between the reeds and its parents  and it was difficult to get a clear view but Pappa Quail did a fine job of capturing a photo/ Meanwhile I had to fight my elder chika over the single pair of binoculars that we had with us. Eventually I prevailed (Muahahaha). Not to worry - she got a good long time looking through the binoculars at the baby crane.
Sandhill Crane Family
We completed the car tour and on our way out I stopped and had Pappa Quail photograph a lupine bush in full bloom that stood against the dry grass background off the path. It was nice to see some bloom down in the valley where it was already late in season.
Silvery Lupine, Lupinus albicaulis
Just outside the refuge Pappa Quail saw a harrier standing on a fence post, so we stopped again, one last time that day.
Northern Harrier, male
The hiker that we'd met on our way up to Pine Creek Basin had told us about good places to view wildlife. On our previous visit to the area we'd seen pronghorn antelopes in the fields south of Alturas and the local hiker suggested that we drive on Westside Rd: the road parallel to SR-395, between the fields and the hills to the west of Surprise Valley. We decided to do so first thing in the morning, and after we spent a nice, restful nigh at a local hotel we went driving south down that road.
We sure did see pronghorns there. A bunch of them - adults and juvenile.
Most of them kept a good distance from the road we were diving on, and those that were close quickly dashed away. One lone male, however, did remain close and kept us under his watch.
Pronghorn Buck
A few dirt roads split from the road and extended toward the hills. We turned on one of them, hoping to get a different point of view on the pronghorn, but without much success. We did see a jackrabbit, though.
Jack Rabbit
Pappa Quail noticed a papa quail standing on a bush, got out of the car and got busy photographing him.
California Quail, male
Meanwhile I appreciated some sunflowers that were blooming by the roadside.
Common Sunflower, Helianthus annuus
Eventually it was time to head back. We found a dirt road that connected Westside Rd with SR 395 and started going back east. The path was flanked by fields and as we approached SR 395 we were about to cross a canal, marked by tall vegetation growing on both its banks.
The canal was fenced and on a fence pst was a red-tailed hawk. Behind it were a couple of sandhill cranes. All three were pretty far off. What was closer though was  horned lark that perched on the fence just ahead of us.
Horned Lark
At a safe distance from the horned lark perched a dragonfly.
After crossing the canal Pappa Quail called for me to stop: a large raptor was circling the sky. He got out of the car and I raised the binoculars to my eyes: a golden eagle, way up high!
Golden Eagle
We were all very excited seeing the eagle. Not eager to leave the area too soon, Pappa Quail suggested we go back to the Modoc NWR and drive the auto tour again. So back on SR 395 I turned north back toward Alturas.
Canada Geese in the field near the refuge
As we got near the refuge we saw another raptor standing on the fence post - this time a red-tailed hawk. And it was busy eating.
Red-tailed Hawk
Our main objective for the second tour of the refuge was to see the young crane colt again, but we didn't see it this time around. We did enjoy seeing other baby birds there.
American Coot
As common as coots and mallards are, seeing them with babies is always a treat. And ducklings are cute even when observed for the millionth time.
We didn't see any 'special' wildlife not previously seen on that second round auto tour, and we did go through the path fairly quickly, not going on the foot trail this time. Nonetheless it was a very rewarding drive.
Black-necked Stilt
I looked at the mountains to the east, where was the South Warner Wilderness. Only yesterday were were there, enjoying the lush spring of the high mountains and the solitude of a healthy wilderness. Now it was a past captured in photographs and memory cells and chips. I looked longingly at these mountains, wondering when will I see them next.

We completed the auto tour and after a quick lunch in town we started southwest toward Lassen Volcanic National Park, where we planned to stop on our way back to Redding. When we arrived at Fall River Mills it was time to fuel the car but we stopped less than a mile short of the gas station: once again there was an eagle in the sky and this time it was a bald eagle.
Bald Eagle at Fall River Mills

We completed the day with a stop at hat Creek and a walk around Manzanita Lake before which I asked the ranger about the schedule of the SR 89 snow removal and the date of the road's opening. Mid July, I was informed, and I was glad to hear that because I was planning to go back there for a family group camping two weeks later.
By the time we arrived in Redding my mind was already busy planning the next camping trip. But at night I closed my eyes and let my mind take me back once more to the Warren Peak and to Pine Creek Basin, and to the sight of cranes in the fields of Modoc Country.