Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Around the Round Hills of Round Valley Regional Preserve

Dates: February 5 and 10, 2018
Place: Round Valley Regional Preserve, Clayton, California
Coordinates: 37.867574, -121.751491
Length: 4.5 miles
Level: moderate

A couple of years ago a fellow member of the California Native Plants Society posted online photos from Round Valley Regional Preserve. Those photos were taken early in the morning and featured oak trees in the mist and dew drips hanging from leaves. I promptly added Round Valley to my hiking wish list.
This year I realized that to make this wish happen I needed some sort of commitment. I therefore added Round Valley to the list of hikes I planned for the Redwood 4-H Hiking Project that I lead. Comes February, and I dedicated a morning for a solo prep hike. Five days later I was there with the group. Most photos here are from my solo hike on February 5. The others were taken on February 10 during the group hike. Pappa Quail did not join us this time, but my elder chika is now a full-blown birder and is becoming better at taking wildlife photos with every hike. I included here some of her photos too.
Below is a mockingbird that my elder chika photographed by the parking lot.
Northern Mockingbird

A wide cement bridge across Marsh Creek leads to the main trailhead. There it's a dilemma: left or right? I turned left and started along the creek.

There are many oak trees at the Round Valley preserve, and nearly all of them deciduous. I was walking by completely naked trees. The buckeye trees however, were budding their leaves already.
California Buckeye, Aesculus californica 
The trail I was walking on leads away from Round Valley itself. Going on - it leads to what looked like a small farm area.
Marsh Creek
Not too far from the farm boundary the trail shifts westward and starts a mild ascend on the hill. The bottom part of the hill is holed through by ground squirrels. On the 4H hike my chika captured a photo of their wary sentinel.
California Ground Squirrel
The slope of the trail was mild and almost without noticing I was high enough to have a nice view of the low hills to the east and the farm below.

I continued on and before long I was walking into and up the narrow canyon of High Creek.
High Creek
A fellow hiked who was coming down the trail told me that there were buttercups blooming - spring was coming! I found them a bit further up the trail.
California Buttercup, Ranunculus californicus
I have lived long enough in the East Bay to know their chameleon-like colors change with the season. But it never ceases to amaze me. The intense green all over was was wonderful to see.
A dried pond behind a little dam. 
At that point I haven't yet seen the Round Valley itself but the hills were round enough - round and soft-contoured. Here and there though, the rocky bones of the hike were exposed by the curving creek.

I would have loved to see the creek running with water but the rains up to that day were not sufficient. Perhaps next time I could see the cascades of High Creek.
High Creek
The hike from Marsh Creek to the highest point of Hardy Canyon Trail is nearly two miles long. The grade isn't very high but the constant ascend can be tiring. On my solo hike I kept a steady and continuous pace but with the 4H group we stopped about two thirds of the way up for a short break.

While the youths snacked and chatted I found a pretty buckeye sprout to appreciate.
California Buckeye sprout
Rested, I prompted the children back to their feet and we moved on upward. At its higher part the trail became somewhat steeper. It also left the wooded canyon. All of a sudden I had view :-)
Looking back: Brentwood below 
Th trail leveled again. The green scene was broken with red algae covered rocks in the field.

Red stands out really nicely against the green background. Even if there's not much of it over all, it catches the eye immediately.
Fruit-bearing Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia 
The trail I selected for the hike doesn't go into Round Valley itself but circumvents the large hill southeast of the valley. The trail brought me to the highest pass around the hill and I could see ts summit to my right. A few cows were grazing on the green slope. One of them stood apart from the rest, way up the hill.

Over the pass i finally got to see Round Valley itself. I guess that with some loose geometry it can be taken for round. I was quite excited to see the double peaks of Mount Diablo peeking behind the next ridge.
Round Valley and Mt. Diablo. 
It was quiet and empty down below. I saw no people there, only cows. On Saturday of February 8 there were more people in the park but the valley was still fairly vacant of humans.
Round Valley, Murray Meadow
I started downhill. The descent into the valley was much steeper than the way I came up on. There were a few switchbacks to the trail and in the corner of one of these switchbacks a large valley oak was growing. It is a deciduous tree and its buds looked ready to pop. I photographed its budding branch on February 5.
Valley Oak, Quercus lobata, buds February 5. 
Three days later the young leaves were out, heralding spring.
Same Valley Oak, Quercus lobata, buds February 10. 
On a similar branch of a nearby oak perched a bluebird. My elder chika documented the pretty bird as we walked by. He didn't seem to mind one bit.
Western Bluebird, male
I walked down quickly. On my decent I passed the exposed rock face of the hill. These rocks were nicely weathered and had many crevices and holes. I was told by another hiker I met along the way that this area used to be a Miwok trading place. He was looking for relics. I just enjoyed the rock formations.
Going down
As I moved down and around the hill the view north opened up. I couldn't see the Sacramento River itself but I could see the area north of it. It was covered with those ugly wind turbines.
Wind turbines north of the Sacramento River
The near view was prettier: beautiful ak trees on a beautiful sky background.

I encountered more cattle on the way down. This time - bulls. Contrary to their reputations bulls are the least likely to be aggressive of all cattle. They didn't experience having their calves taken from them and they didn't experience the pain of castration. Calm and indifferent the bull went on with his lunch as I walked by.
At the bottom of the hill the Hardy Canyon Trail connected with the Round Valley Trail. This path was much wider and it was apparent that every now and then it serves farm vehicles.

There was a small bridge across the creek and a few small rocks near it. A air of wren were jumping and making funny dance moves on top of these rocks. My chika caught one of them on camera.
Rock Wren

On February 5 there was still a thin trickle of wate flowing down Round Valley Creek. By February 8 it was dry. On my solo hike I took a narrow hikers trail that rose somewhat above the creek. i got a nice view of the thin water line from there.
Round Valley Creek

There, vining around the small undergrowth bushes I spotted another early flowering plant - the California man-root.

California Man-root, Marah fabacea

From the upper trail I could see the white limestone layer just above the creek, standing out like a scar.

On the 4H hike three days later we were walking the wide, lower dirt road that followed the creek much more closely.

Nearing the end of the hike the trail curves up the hill and then down again. We took a lower shortcut that run near a fence - possibly the fence of a farm on the other side. There was an agriculture field over below, and beautiful- blossomed almond trees right at the fence. They are invasive plants here but their bloom smells wonderful.
Sweet Almond, Prunus dulcis
The complete loop we hiked is about 4.5 miles long but it feels much shorter than that. Almost without noticing I was back at the trailhead and the bridge over Marsh Creek where I started.

That would have been the end of excitement for the group hike too but my elder chika made a discovery: inside a hole in the ground, very close to the parking lot, was a large toad. We all crouched near the hole to appreciate the amphibian, who didn't even flinch.
California Toad
I got to check Round Valley Regional preserve on my list of wanna do hikes, but there is still much to see there. So this park is now on my list of wanna go back to hikes :-).

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Almost Flying: The Long Way Down Mount Diablo Western Slopes

Nov.1,  view northwest toward Walnut Creek

Date: November 1 and 5, 2016
Place: Mount Diablo State Park, Danville, California
Coordinates: 37.876652, -121.931139
Length: aout 4.5 miles
Level: Strenuous

Majestic and aloof, Mount Diablo stands alone in the Bay Area scenery. Not the highest peak, but it sure looks like it, so prominent a rise over its surroundings. From its summit the view is vast and far (when weather and air quality allows), indeed its double-dome can be seen from great distances. No wonder that the Native Californians of this region believed that Tuyshtak (Mt. Diablo in Miwok) was the place where the Earth was created.
Now a State Park, Mt. Diablo area has an extensive trail system, most of which is quite strenuous, so when I looked for a nice trail to take my family hiking group on I figured we'll hike it in one direction only - downhill.
Once arriving at this decision choosing the actual trail was easy. We would hike down the mountain's western slope from the Juniper Campground to the North Gate Rd.
On November 1 I went there on a solo hike. 4 days later I was there again, this time with my family hiking group. The photos posted here are from both these hikes, each labeled with the date taken.
My hike on November 5 as captured by my GPS.
Deer Flat Rd begins at Juniper Campground. True to the name, there were many junipers there, all bearing little gray-green 'berries'. It reminded me of the time when my elder chika was only 18 months old and we went camping at the White Mountains and as I turned back from pitching the tent I saw my baby munching on juniper 'berries'. Naturally, I freaked out. Since then I learned that juniper 'berries' (which are , in fact, cones) are not poisonous (they are actually used as spice). Still, they are of the wrong size and consistency to be baby food and forever I will remember my panic of that day. 
California Juniper, Juniperus californica
The high part of Deer Flat Rd is mild, descends softly between juniper bushes, open grassland, and exposed rocks.
November 1
 Wherever the rock face was cut the deep rust-colored layers of the Franciscan chert, which is part of the Franciscan melange which dates back to the Jurassic era, making the oldest rock core of Mount Diablo.
November 5, Franciscan chert
On the first morning of November, 2016, Mount Diablo was under a thick cover of clouds. And not just the mountain but all the area below too.
Shrouded in Clouds
So basically, all the clear view I had was of the slopes just below me.

As I slowly turned to the north I could see the cloud's edge and blue sky with brilliant sunshine over the lower lands. Even the Quarry at the edge of Mitchell Canyon was under the sun.

With every step the fog lifted, little by little. 'Lifted' may not be the best verb to describe it. More like, 'dispersed' or even, 'burned'. More of the view below was exposed, including the eye sore of the wind turbines north of Suisan Bay.
Wind Turbines
Deer Flat Road runs a fairly mild slope higher up. It drops for a short stretch, then continues almost level. It didn't feel like much, but after less than a mile I had lost some considerable altitude.

While I was still quite high up yet, I seemed to have made it below the clouds. Or that the clouds have risen higher, possibly.

Walnut Creek
It was still along way down.  I could see the trail winding below me, cutting through the grass that covered the southwestern slopes, moving in the wind like fur.

Almost without notice, the clouds were nearly gone and bright sunlight washed the slopes. Here and there a small grove of trees leaned their canopies over the trail, providing shade. The shade I might have welcomed on warmer days but on that hike I was actually feeling cold, so I passed quickly through the shaded tree tunnels.

Despite my relatively quick pace I was paying attention to details along the trail, not only to the vast views below. That's how I spotted this deer skull in the grass. Georgia O'Keefe came to my mind, but I'm no painter.  
Deer Skull
Further down the trail, in a soft, muddy patch, I saw deer tracks. Mount Diablo is deer haven. While I didn't see any on that particular hike, I did see many evidence of their presence. I do see them often enough on my East Bay hikes.
Deer hoof prints
It was early in November but the rains have already started, heralding the rainiest California winter in recent years. Responding to the rain, new green was apparent everywhere. Mostly grasses and annuals' sprouts, but also other plants - such as this wallflower rosette, nestles between small rocks.
Wallflower, Erysimum sp. 
The slope became steeper. Soon I arrived at a junction - ahead of me was the Burma Road, making a milder descend to the N. Gate Rd which was my destination. It also lead to the Moses Rock Springs site that I wanted to see. To the left - a steep shortcut to Angel Kerley Road - a lower extension of the Burma Road. I didn't have the time to take the long way, nor did I want to take the families there on the group hike, so I went forward on the Burma Road only to Moses Rock Springs, then headed back to the trail junction to take the shortcut down.

The biblical story tells how in the desert the thirsty Israelites demanded water from Moses and how he whacked a rock with his staff, creating a spring of fresh water for them. I don't know if the name of Moses Rock Spring was inspired by that story but there sure was a big rock there, and the spring water came out of the ground right at the bottom of that rock. (Yes, I did go all the way there to find that out.) The water flowed a little above ground but mostly muddied the soil downhill of the rock.
Moses Springs Road
Near the trail the water was pulled out of the ground and led by a pipe into a round cement basin surrounded by a wet area where rashes grew.
In that basin I found the least likely animal for Mount Diablo - goldfish. Placing fish in fresh water basins is a practice I'm familiar with - a natural approach for mosquito abatement. However, I have never seen goldfish in this job before.

As I mentioned above I walked over to the rock to explore a bit. The rock was of the Franciscan melange typical of the high region of Mount Diablo. It was nearly devoid of plants and those that did stick out from the cracks were dry.

At the rock edges it was a different matter. The presence of water was very evident in such greenery much larger than early winter growth. There were also some flowers there, to my surprise.
California Fuchsia, Epilobium canum
I partially climbed the rock. The view from there was fantastic. i felt very high indeed.
Moses Rock
From Moses Rock Springs I turned around and walked back up to the trail junction where I turned onto the shortcut that's called Mothers Trail. 

On the pole that marked the trails intersection perched a bluebird. I managed to get a recognizable photo of him before he flew away.
Western Bluebird, male
Near the intersection, a bit off the trail was another round cement basin filled with the local spring's water. It too was populated with goldfish.

I started down Mother's Trail. This trail is short - less than half a mile, but it was the most challenging part of the hike. It is very steep, and has loose gravel on much of its length. I had to walk there very very slow even with the aid of poles. A few days later, my family hiking group was struggling with that very same trail segment. Some resorted to butt-sliding part of the way, as I would have done if I had no poles.

Down on Angel Kerley Road I took a break to give my aching knees some respite. I found a lovely spot with nice rock piles to sit on and admire the view. I was much lower now, and the day had turned warm so I took my sweater off.

I thought this would be a perfect place to fly kites, so on the family group hike I brought dowels, plastic sheets, kite string, tape and markers. The children got busy with the help of their adults, and soon we had a flock of kites in the air. I remember this as one of the best children time we had on our family hikes.
November 5, kite flying
Some more tracks in the mud on the trail - this one canine. There were no adjacent human trails and the paw prints seemed to have continued from the nearby grass. A coyote perhaps?

More signs of early winter - soap plants growing their leaves from between last year's dry fibers.
Soap Plant, Chlorogalum pomeridianum
Before long I was down by the road. My plan was to walk the narrow trail that paralleled the road further downhill but on my solo hike my time was up. If I wanted to be home on time to pick up the chikas from school I had to finish my hike there and catch a ride back up to Juniper Campground where I had parked.
North Gate Road
On November 5 we had no such time limitation so I led my group northward along that narrow trail.

This trail was nearly level, and after the long descent down the mountain it came as a much welcomed relief.

We were hiking in open grassland still, but there were more oaks along our path. Some stood alone and aloof.

Other oaks were in small groves or a loose forest.

It was also the first place where we saw running water - other than the very short trick at Moses Rock Springs.

There were more rock piles along our path and in one place the rocks proved irresistible and within seconds all children mounted them. It was also the breaking point of many hikers in the group who felt too tired to go on. They chose to remain by the rocks, which were close to the road below, while I led an adult representative from each family plus others who felt good to keep on, and we continued down the trail to my parking spot.

With a smaller, more fit group we made quick pace. I didn't stop to photograph but snapped shots while walking. Some even came out right :-)
California Buckeye, Aesculus californica
At one point I caught a glimpse of yet another round cement basin, almost hidden in the thick vegetation. I took a few steps toward it to confirm: it too was filled with spring water and populated with goldfish. I must say that the goldfish were quite an attraction for other children in the group earlier on.
A bit further down the trail I did pause briefly to allow everyone to catch up to me and also to photograph a few freshly sprouted mushrooms. The earth smelled rich and thick. I love the early winter awakening in the East Bay!

On the last part of the trail we were walking through low chaparral, brushing against sage and sagebrush bushes.

We arrived at the road again right at the place where I have left my car. The key-wielding adults crowded my car and I drove up to Juniper Campground where everyone else was parking. I watched everyone disappear into their cars and followed them back down to where everyone else was waiting where we had left then near the rocks. They waved to me as i passed by slowly. Tired but beaming faces. It was a lovely hike in a most gorgeous park.