Tuesday, April 30, 2019

A Bonbon of a Hike: Spring along the Interpretive Trail of the Red Hills Area of Critical Ecological Concern

April 6
Date: March 1 and April 6, 2019
Place: Red Hills Area of Critical Ecological Concern, Jamestown, California
Coordinates (of the N. Serpentine Rd. intersection where I started my hike): 37.856819, -120.453556
Length: 2.5 miles
Level: easy

When I was selecting suitable trails to take my family camping group on in California's Gold Country I was looking also for a nice wildflowers area. The camping trip was planned for April but I did my first preparation hike at the Red Hills Area of Critical Ecological Concern (RHACEC) early in March. The area, which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was all nice and green after the heavy rains but of the wildflowers to be were only the very beginning signs. When I returned in April, however, the area was a celebration of colors and the air was dense with the scent of Ceanothus.
March 1, on the way to the Interpretive Trail
The Red Hill area is an area of critical ecological concern because of the local, iron rich serpentinite/dunite soil which supports a unique community of plants.
April 6, 
There are a number of hiking trails in the area, and many more 'unofficial' paths criss-crossing the place, making navigation a bit challenging. Volunteers from the local chapter of the California Native Plants Society established a mile and a bit of an interpretive loop trail  along the North Serpentine Rd and I was looking for that trail.
April 6, N. Serpentine Rd. on the way to the Interpretive Trail
This proved somewhat challenging too because the navigator app leads to the main staging area where there are ORV trailheads but not the interpretive hike trail. I found a description of the place in a  book about Tuolumne County hiking trails that a friend of mine who lives in Sonora had given me. The book's description, however, was not very accurate when it came to measuring driving distances.
March 1, N. Serpentine Rd. on the way to the Interpretive Trail
I eventually found the spot and marked the exact coordinates. I parked my car where N. Serpentine (dirt) Rd. splits off the Red Hills (paved) Rd. From there it was about a mile and some of an easy walk to the interpretive loop trail.
March 1, Stillman's Coreopsis, Leptosyne stillmanii
I didn't expect to see much bloom so early in the season, and indeed there was very little of it, but everywhere there were signs that spring would bring a splendid bloom here.
March 1, Common Fringepod, Thysanocarpus curvipes
The manzanita bushes were blooming, they are of the early ones.
March 1, Manzanita, Arctostaphylos sp. 
In contrast, the Ceanothus shrubs which dominated the scenery there, were still in their winter gray.
March 1
I did my best following of the book's trail description but even so I ended up doing several excursions, following rogue trails that took off an obviously wrong direction, or otherwise simply disappeared in the thicket.
March 1
When I finally found the actual loop trail I hiked it on the opposite direction of what the people who set up this trail had intended. I found that out when I discovered that the interpretive sign posts were in descending order.
March 1, A pretty flower not yet identified.
Some of the signs were already weathered. A few, sadly, were vandalized. But most were still in an ok to good state. The information on those signs was fascinating, and in some cases made the plant identification much simpler than it could have otherwise been.
April 6, Rawhude Hill Onion, Allium tuolumnense
Seeing the view as it unfolded before me, however, made me repeat the hike in that same direction when I returned there in April with my companions.
April 6, snow-capped Sierra Nevada peaks
When I returned in April the Red Hills were alight with bloom, just like I expected. It was a joy to see.
April 6, California Goldfields, Lasthenia californica 
This time I didn't have to spend time figuring out where the trailhead was. Me, my chikas, and the other family started on our hike up the North Serpentine dirt road toward the interpretive trail. My friends too were impressed with the lovely bloom.
April 6, Blue Dicks, Dichelostemma capitatum
When we started our hike the sun was high in the sky and the air was warm. Lovely flowers bloomed everywhere and the kids caught on to my enthusiasm and were happy to point out to me each new flower they've seen.
April 6, A pretty flower not yet identified.
While I knew many of these flowers, at least to the genus level, many others were new to me. Many plants growing there are unique to that area because of their special adaptation to the high in iron but otherwise poor in nutrients serpentinite soil.
April 6,  Lomatium sp. 
Although we did not see huge space-visible fields of orange poppies as observed in Southern California, we did see a lot of dense patches dominated by one species or another.
April 6, a patch of Bird's-eye Gilia 
The butter n' eggs that had barely started in March was now at its peak, displaying lovely carpets of pale yellow laced with crimson.
April 6, Butter n' Eggs, Triphysaria eriantha 
In some places it looked like creeks of flowers flowing downhill.
April 6
In other places those were the real creeks that were flowing, and the flowers line their banks.

April 6
What was growing at the creek banks was a yellow species of monkeyflower. This species is unique to the Sierra foothills.
April 6, Cut-leaved Monkeyflower, Erythranthe laciniata 
As we continued walking the clouds started gathering above. Our group was supposed to be much bigger but the forecast that predicted rain deterred most of the families that had planned to come. Now I looked at the sky with some worry. But although the sky was turning gray, no rain came down.
April 6,
We got to the top trail and soon had to cross the creek, balancing on strategically-placed rocks. The water level seemed a bit lower than in March. Our trail continued on the other side of the creek.
April 6 
The ceanothus bushes dominated the perennial vegetation community. In March they were still dormant. In April, however, they were nearing their peak bloom and their sweat scent filled the air.
April 6, Buckbrush, Ceanothus cuneatus 
I had everyone in the group get their noses to the clusters of delicate white flowers and inhale deeply. To be honest, the perfume was stronger when standing between the bushes than when sniffing the flowers directly.
April 6, Buckbrush, Ceanothus cuneatus
The soil had an iron-rendered red color which contrasted artistically with the greenery.
April 6
This color was even more accentuated in the puddles that we encountered on the dirt road leading to and from the interpretive trail. These puddles were there in March and shrunk only a little bit by April.
March 1
It is this beautiful soil that gave this place the name of Red Hills. But the soil now wasn't the only red thing in the place. Lovely bloom of the Indian Paintbrush poked from under the buckbrush  bushes.
April 6, Wavyleaf Paintbrush, Castilleja applegatei 
We came out of the interpretive trail at its intended beginning and after a quick water break she started down the dirt road. Almost immediately we had to cross the creek again, and at a place where it was considerably wider.
April 6
Although prosectors did comb this area during the Gold Rush years, no gold was found in the Red Hills. The rocks, however, looked like true gems when washed and polished by the creek water.
Serpentinite in the creek. 
We followed the creek down the dirt road to the place where we had originally diverted to get on the interpretive trail. The youngsters wanted to stop and play in the water but I encouraged them to move on. Down he creek, I knew, was a cute little water hole adorned by a small cascade. It was there where I wished to stop. Meanwhile, we appreciated the beauty of the reflections in the calmer section of the creek.
April 6
By the time we reached the little pool and the waterfall the sky was completely overcast and the air chilled. It didn't deterred the kids even by a bit. As soon as we got down to the water the shoes were off and the youngsters were wading in the cold water.
April 6
I too got my shoes off and dipped my feet. I guess that in a warmer day I might have gotten more wet, but then again, in the hotter season this creak nearly dries completely. I knew that from the description of a local fellow that I met on my March solo hike there. So it was quite a surprise to me when two of the others in the group had discovered little fish in the pull below the waterfall.
April 6, fish. 
I suppose that this water hole doesn't dry completely? otherwise, where would the fish survive the dry season?
Fish weren't the only critters there. I already seen the water bugs on my previous hike but I always find them amusing.
March 1
It was getting late. After a good time at the water hole we managed to gather all the kids and go back up to the trail and continue our way to back on the dirt road. Nearing the ed of the hike I noticed the the large pine tree that I saw there on my March solo hike was broken and its larger limbs pushed down to the ground. It must have experienced some nasty storm to have been flattened so.
March 1, Bull Pine, Pinus sabiniana
The storms may have broken that pine but they certainly didn't kill it. By April it too was blooming prettily.
April 6, Bull Pine, Pinus sabiniana, male cones 
The Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental concerns is a new discovery for me.I only sampled a tiny bit of it but I am hungry for more. I may not get there during summer (hot, dry, and plenty of rattle snakes, according to the local fellow I talked with) but I sure am planning to get back there and explore some more as soon as the opportunity arrises.
April 6
The interpretive trail offers a bonbon of a hike in spring time when the bloom is at its peak, and the area is fairly unknown outside of the local communities. It may not share the glamour that places like Carizzo Plain and the North Table Mountain of Oroville have received in recent years, but for the lovers of botanicals and of wild, minimally disturbed and not overrun places, this offers a sweat treat of a hike.

Many thanks to the volunteers of the California Native Plants Society who prepared this interpretive trail and are working to preserve its unique community of special plants. 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Imbibing Spring at Pacheco State Park

Date: March 30, 2019
Place: Pacheco State Park, Hollister, California
Address: 38787 Dinosaur Point Rd, Hollister, California
Length: 2.5 miles
Level: moderate

This is a great spring in California! Winter was good and wildflower superbloom seems to be almost everywhere, especially in Southern California. Unable to go and see the spectacle in person I took to drooling over pictures posted online by people who did.
Then Pappa Quail offered to watch the chikas on the next Saturday so I could go out and find the suer bloom. And I would have, but the prettiest superblooms were too far a way for single day out. Besides, why should they miss it? In the end I found an almost hidden add online about a wildflower event happening that Saturday at Pacheco State Park, near the San Luis Reservoir. The name seemed familiar to me and a quick search located the park off hwy 152 between Gilroy and Los Banos, in the hills right above the reservoir, only 105 minutes drive away from our home.
Pappa Quail was happy to go. The chikas took a bit more convincing, but on Saturday morning we all got in the car with our cameras and drove south.
Rolling hills of Pacheo State Park
When we arrived at the park we found that the guided wildflowers hike had already begun. The event itself seemed small, involving only a few booths of different organizations with information, some with kids activities. We chatted a bit with one of the park rangers to get information and suggestions of where to go and what to do. Meanwhile the elder chika found a rabbit, boldly hopping between the display booths.
Cottontail Rabbit
Heeding the ranger's advice we set out on the same trail where the guided hike was going on. We passed the narrow gate into the green pasture area and almost immediately found that what seemed like a uniform green grass field was actually variegated with lots of short wildflowers of many different kinds. 
Butter n' Eggs, Triphysaria eriantha 
The dominant color was yellow. Tall buttercups poked their lovely blossoms above the grass and as always, I had to take a hundred photos of them to get one reasonable image of that yellow on bright yellow flower.
Common Buttercup, Ranunculus californicus 
We followed a narrow trail to a gap between the hills leading to a dry creek bed. The path was decorated by the lovely little orange fiddleneck.
Fiddleneck, Amsinckia sp. 
There was something different about this hike than previous ones - this time the elder chika showed clear interest in flowers as well as birds. It started with the violets - her favorite flower.
California Golden Violet, Viola pedunculata 
She didn't stop at the violets but kept on photographing other wildflowers as well. She really is getting to be a good photographer.
Dwarf Checkerbloom, Sidalcea malviflora 
We floppend the narrow path out of the pasture and up the hill along the creek. I was surprised that the creek wasn't flowing - with all the rains of late I was expecting to see some water there.
Dinosaur Lake Trail 
But water has been present there earlier, that was clearly evident from all the lush greenery and the colorful bloom.
Padre's Shooting Star, Primula clevelandii var. insularis  
Blue dicks, an early bloomer, dotted the hillside in lovely pinkish blue.
The old world grasses that covered the hills are clear enough evidence for the cattle-grazing use of this land but here and there were were more direct proof of the park's ranching past.
Blue Dicks, Dichelostemma capitatum 
Although invasive weeds were pervasive there, many California native plants were showing nice, strong presence. Among them, the delicate California saxifrage.
Greene's Saxifrage, Micranthes californica 
A little further up the creek the trail widened into a dirt road. Protected in the gulch, green live oak trees and toyon bushes lined along the road.
Dinosaur Lake Trail
The trees shaded a lush carpet of miner's lettuce, well into their bloom, like little gourmet stars served on a large shiny green plate.
Miner's Lettuce, Claytonia parviflora 
It was around that pace where we caught up with the guided group tour. Most of the group members listened attentively to the naturalist's explanation about this plant or that. A few others were busy looking at birds that were active on and about nearby shrubs. Pappa Quail and the elder chika soon trained their cameras on those bushes as well.
Dark-eyed Junco
We stayed for a little with the group but soon the chikas started moving on so we continued at a faster pace. As the trail rose higher up the hillside, the view opened up, revealing San Luis Reservoir below.
San Luis Reservoir
The group caught up with us and joined me in appreciating the beautiful deathcama that bloomed by the trailside.
Meadow Deathcamas, Toxicoscordion venenosum 
Then the naturalist leading the group pointed at some yellow-flowering bushes higher uphill. They were at their season start.
Bush Groundsel, Senecio flaccidus var. douglasii 
A red-tailed hawk flew overhead, causing a minor stir among the birders in the group.
Red-tailed Hawk
I don't remember if the naturalist said anything about the Lomatium that was blooming right in the middle of the trail, but I wasn't about to ignore it.
Lace Parsley, Lomatium dasycarpum 
Once again we moved on before the rest of the group, and this time we stayed ahead fro a while.  The trail narrowed again, and after a steady climb we begun descending into a dry creek down below.

A small group of birders whom I though were part of the interpretive group hike split off and moved ahead as well. Pappa Quail and the elder chika chatted with them a little and also got some lovely photos of the bluebirds that posed on a nearby tree.
Western Bluebird, male
They found also a tiny hummingbird observing his territory.
Anna's Hummingbird, male
As our trail descended into the canyon we were turning to face the south and our side of the slope suddenly was carpeted with goldfields, those tiny yellow composite that more than anything else give me the sense of the true California gold.
Goldfields, Lasthenia californica 
There were also some nice patches of the shootingstar flowers. They seemed much larger than those we saw before, and had a pale green stem. I remembered the naturalist saying that these were a different species but checking that out afterwords they seemed to be only a different variant. Most of them wore pink flowers but some were white. The prettiest one was to far for my camera but Pappa Quail got it nicely with his birding zoom.
Padre's Shooting Star, Primula clevelandii
I did have better success with the smaller, closer flowers, such as the almost unnoticeable tiny Collinsia below.
Few Flowered Collinsia, Collinsia sparsiflora 
We reached a trail intersection and without much thought took the right turn. As it turned out the group went left. It didn't matter much because that part of the trail was the start of a loop.

The small group of birders stayed behind, but not before sharing with Pappa Quail and the elder chika their excitement over spotting a Cooper's hawk. 
Cooper's Hawk
They also found a cute little oak titmouse on the nearby now fully foliaged valley oak.
Oak Titmouse
We were ascending once again. The trail was a wide dirt road that led us up the creek between two round grass-covered hills dotted with large valley oak trees.

The grass was full of flowers, mainly fiddleneck and blue dicks. We saw some poppies here and there but not many. We started seeing butterflies flying around.

Occasionally the butterflies would land on a flower long enough for a photograph.

As we went higher other wildflowers became more dominant, painting the hills with patches of color, such as the blue lupine.
Lupine, Lupinus sp. 
It is interesting that some whiledflowers seem more dispersed and some grow in tight patches. By that point I was able to identify a patch of a single species of wildflowers from a distance just from its general hue.
A patch of Bird's Eye Gilia, Gilia tricolor 
But those individuals which don't make large patches also got my special attention.
Tomcat Clover, Trifolium willdenovii 
We reached the high point of the Dinosaur Lake trail and found the intersection with the trail leading back to the starting point. There we sat down for a break. The group we had left were coming up that trail, confirming that we had started the upper loop from the opposite direction to what was directed by the naturalist guide.

After a snack break we started down that trail. A bit down and around the curve to the east and suddenly the San Luis Reservoir came into view. And what a magnificent view that was!
San Luis Reservoir. A large patch of shootingstar flowers in the foreground. 
We were now walking on the hill crest, heading back north. Until then we enjoyed the views, the spring greenery, and of course lovely patches and fields of wildflowers. But then we came upon one particular wildflower patch that looked as if it sprung from an artist's palette. It appeared as if all of the park's wildflowers and all of their colors were represented there. I was awe-struck and stopped to photograph.

I took many photos of that rainbow patch, but the pretties composition photo was actually taken by the elder chika, who passed near me and snapped only a couple of shots.
California Poppy, Eschscholzia californica, and Sky Lupine, Lupinus nanus 
After I managed to tear my gaze from the flowers and look up and away I noticed that I could see the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada from the trail.
San Luis Reservoir
We completed the southern loop of the hike, returning to the intersection where we had deviated from the interpretive hike. I started leading my family up the hill to complete the northern loop of the hike. A sign was posted there allowing access to park personnel only but the map and directions we got at the staging area were directing to that trail. By then there were plenty of other hikers walking there as well, not connected to the interpretive hike.

The chikas complained a bit about having to go uphill again. I ignored their complaints and enjoyed the magnificent oak tree at the beginning of the ascent.
Valley Oak, Quercus lobata 
Nearly all the trees there were oaks but here and there I saw others, such as this outstanding buckeye.
California Buckeye, Aesculus californica 
When I though I already saw all that was blooming at Pacheco SP that day I found yet another one.
Meadow Nemophila, Nemophila pedunculata 
Photos posted from Southern California showed vast areas of poppy fields, so intense that they are visible from space. We have seen it once, at the Figueroa Mountain area. I was hoping to see many poppies at Pacheco. Maybe not as vast fields of them but more than an occasional patch here and there. But on this bloom time, however, poppies were taking the back seat. Still, there were those pretty orange patches of California poppy that made me smile and feel that everything is good.

As we descended back into the pasture where we had started our hike I noticed the red maids flowers which were closed in the morning hours and were now open in the bright afternoon sun.
Red Maids, Calandrinia menziesii 
Many people were walking along the arrow paths through the pasture, going on or coming back from the wildflower hike. We arrived back at the staging area and while the chikas explores he activities offered at the various booths Pappa Quail and I compared notes with other hikers and the rangers. As we got ready to wrap things up and head out of the park the birders in my family spotted a lark spray near the parking lot. It is very pretty for a sparrow, Pappa Quail told me as he handed me the binoculars. Indeed it is. 
Lark Sparrow