Friday, May 31, 2019

The Ultimate Nature Discovery Trail: Hiking Around Crescent Meadow

Crescent Meadow

Date: May 19, 2018
Place: Sequoia National Park, Three Rivers, California
Coordinates: 36.554856, -118.748997
Length: about 2 miles
Level: easy

Years ago, when Pappa Quail and I visited Sequoia National Park we were told that bears were seen active around Crescent Meadow, not far from the General Sherman Tree area. We hiked that trail and enjoyed it much, but the bear we saw when we made it back to the parking area, where we saw it turning logs over and a group of excited tourists following it with camera until a ranger showed up to chase the bear away and disperse the excited tourists. More than 15 years would pass before I would hike this trail again, this time with my friend, good cameras, and a better sense of what we wished to see and experience.
When my friend Anenet and I embarked on our big California road trip one of our goals was to see a bear. It was Anenet's third visit to California and although she had traveled many a bear habitat already she hasn't seen one yet. As for me, the most success I had in seeing bears in nature was in Sequoia National Park. This park made it on our itinerary for many good reasons (the giant sequoia trees being the strongest), and hopes of seeing bears was one of them.
It was lunch when we arrived at the Crescent Meadow parking area so we sat to eat at one of the numerous picnic tables there and watched the disturbingly close deer that wandered through the picnic area. We took a good care to clean and stash away all our leftovers: bear awareness is always high in this park. But not only bears get habituated on human food - other wildlife  do too and its really bad for them and can lead to danger to people as well. Deer and squirrels too.
One of the deer we saw at the Crescent Meadow Picnic Area
Crescent Meadow is one of these gorgeous little alpine meadows that form when a forest pond fills up. It is surrounded by a beautiful forest of conifers of which many and the most majestic are the giant sequoia.
Giant Sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum
We started our hike by edging to the meadow and looking around. Across the crescent-shaped meandow the sequoia trees were standing out, huge and russet-red against the other conifers which, not very little themselves seemed dwarfed by the forest giants.

At first glance the meadow itself looked uniform green but quickly we discerned the different types of greens.
California Corn Lily, Veratrum californicum var. californicum
We couldn't see flowers deep inside the meadow but at the edge bloomed many violets.
Pine Violet, Viola lobata 

The delicate white flowers of the mountain strawberry told of a sweet summer to come. I was sorry to not have had a visit there a month later to pick some of the fruit.
Mountain Strawberry, Fragaria virginiana 
Back at the trail we begun circling around the meadow. The trail meandered between the trees and for some time we seemed to be following a busy woodpecker that almost on purpose was pecking at the trees right by the trail.
Hairy Woodpecker
Sequoia trees are very hardy and can withstand many natural woes such as lightning strikes and fire. Nearly every old sequoia bears the marks of a past fire. Some heavier than others. It's always impressing to see the resilience of these marvelous beings.
Giant Sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum
Although our eyes were rising to the tops of giants, we kept on the lookout for the littler treasures of the forest too.
Repand Rock Cress, Arabis repanda 
Gooseberry bushes bloomed by the trail, their beautiful flowers hanging like ornaments from the fresh green branches.
Sierra Gooseberry, Ribes roezlii 
I caught a glimpse of red some distance from the trail and motioned my friend to get down there. A snow plant! We wanted to see these ever since we begun our road trip and now we finally have. We went down to get a closer look.
Snow Plant, Sarcodes sanguinea 
It was only when really close to the snow plants that we discovered the well-camouflaged morel mushroom that grew right next to it.

On the way back to the trail I spotted a pretty rush or at least I believe it's a rush ...)

Back on the trail, we were trying to make some good time. We had planned to go see General Sherman after this hike and we were taking a lot of time looking at everything.

Plans aside, we stopped again to look at a marmot sitting atop a large rock. Later, as I progressed down the trail my friend was lucky to catch the marmot gathering some nesting material.
Yellow-bellied Marmot
Turning one of the narrow corners of the meadow we saw a swampy area and stopped to check it out. Little white violets were growing right out of the dark, mucky water.
Small White Violet, Viola macloskeyi 
We kept moving slowly despite our best intentions. There were simply too many pretty sights along the path.
Giant Sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum
The trail brought us closer to the meadow and the seem line between the dark forest and the sun bathed grass provided endless delightful discoveries.
Brewer's Mitewort, Pestiantia breweri 
Not all colors flashing between leaves were flowers. Some turned out to be pretty bugs.
Lady bug

But there were plenty of little flowers all over the place. It seemed as if the eastern side of the meadow was far ricer with bloom than the western side where we had begun our hike. 
Miner's Lettuce and Stream Violet
There was also another species of gooseberry blooming along that art of the trail. This one I would later learn, had berries that were really good to eat.
Sierra Currant, Ribes nevadense 
The day was mostly sunny but large clouds did pass over our heads every now and then, darkening the day and shadowing the meadow. We enjoyed the warmth of the sun whenever it broke through the moving clouds.
Crescent Meadow
Spring in the mountains is a busy time for the little critters. Junco birds, who are quick to fly and hide from view, were much less shy than I remembered. Perhaps they too were already much accustomed to human presence.
Dark-eyed Junco
A little chipmunk was also busy at the forest floor. A pregnant female, gathering nesting material before giving birth.
Lodgepole Chipmunk
As we came to the mid point of the hike we saw the large old trunk of a toppled sequoia that had fallen onto the meadow, almost half way across the grass. I actually remembered that one from my first visit there and it appeared to have not changed at all in all those years. I wonder hw long does it take for a dead sequoia to decompose.
The root crown of a fallen giant sequoia
Near the mid point of the eastern part of the trail I could see well the shape that gave it its name. The north and south corners were both hidden from our view. I guess that much of the meadow's area must have been flooded between the plants because a little brook fas flowing into it.

Near the brook there grew different vegetation: the poplar trees and willow bushes that make a riparian (creekside) community.

The shadows had deepened by the time we came around the south corner of the meadow. It was getting late.

We quickened our pace and made it to the final bit of trail that was actually paved. Another busy bird, an American robin, was hopping alongside our trail, catching insects and swallowing them. The photo below was taken right after it swallowed one.
American Robin
We returned to the picnic area where we had found that the deer had taken over and were licking the tables, trying to ingest whatever people had left there.
Little flowers by the parking lot which I had missed earlier now caught my eye. We spent a few minutes looking at some of the little roadside flowers before saying goodbye to the meadow and driving over to see General Sherman - the biggest Giant Sequoia known.
Phacelia congdonii
We were also hoping to get lucky and see a bear near General Sherman because we had not seen any at the Crescent Meadow. But bear or no bear, this was a lovely hike at a very beautiful and special place! 

Many thanks to my friend Anenet for identifying the plants we saw that day. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Stepping Into Another World: The Arch Trail at Alabama Hills

May 18, 2018
Place: Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, California
Coordinates: 36.611840, -118.124910
Length: 1.5 miles
Level: easy

The Alabama Hills is one of those places I always make the time for to stop by whenever in the area. I've been there many times, but never got around to write about it here. Maybe it is because I don't really hike there, just roam around and climb the rocks.
Last year, however, I did arrive there with the intention of hiking the Mobious Arch loop trail. I went there with my friend Anenet, the morning after the day we hiked around Convict Lake.
We first stopped by Brenda.
Well, no. We first stopped by the creek near the Whitney Portal Rd. to look at a patch of lovely white flowers that bloomed there. Then we continued to Brenda. My friend raised her eyebrow - painting rocks in Nature is defacing them. Brenda, however, has been painted there for as long as I remember, and probably longer than that.

 Below Brenda bloomed a few buckwheat shrubs. This species is pretty common in many areas of California but in the desert it has very little competition and stands out nicely in its spring coat of flowers. 
California Buckwheat, Eriogonum fasciculatum

 Little lizards run here and there on the sand and rocks. They didn't seem all too alarmed by our presence. Perhaps they could sense we meant them no harm.
Side-blotched Lizard
Alabama Hills are part of the remains of a very old mountain range, predating the Sierra Nevada of today. The assortment of crumbled, weathered rock formations, very reminiscent of some rock areas in Joshua Tree National Park, are what's left after millions of years of weathering.

If not for the vegetation (scant as it was) and the blue sky dotted with white, fluffy clouds, the scenery would look like the moon.
After paying our visit to Brenda we got back in the car and drove to the Mobius Arch trailhead.

Outside the car we saw the delicate yellow flowers of the desert trumpet plant which is another buckwheat species.
Desert Trumpet, Eriogonum inflatum. 
I took a sweeping look around. To the southwest I saw the now familiar sight of Horseshoe Meadow Road to the Golden Trout Wilderness where I had backpacked the summer before. That was a hard trip but now I looked longingly at the switchbacking road. Later i would drive up there with my friend to see if any spring bloom had started yet (very little has).
Horseshoe Meadow Road

Alabama Hills area is a desert, and there was more exposed soil than vegetation-covered. But many of the plants that do grow there were blooming at the time.
Little-leaf  Horsebrush, Tetradymia glabrata 
Some of these I recognized only on hindsight, remembering seeing them in other places, other times. Like this winterfat that I remembered seeing on that fantastic unplanned drive that day we tried to bypass an enormous traffic jam near Boron.
Winterfat, Krascheninnikovia lanata 
Alabama Hills host a plethora of pretty rock formations, including nice rock arches and rings. The trail we were on meanders between some of these. We started, however, by dipping into a dry wash then climbing up a higher plateau from which rounded slabs stood erect, rubbing the sky.

The rocks let precious rainwater collect below them, making the crevices at the bottom of the rock formations the perfect place to a cactus to thrive. We were there a bit too early to see these in bloom.
Cottontop Cactus, Echinocactus polycephalus 
But we had the perfect timing for the herbaceous plants bloom.
Fleabane, Erigeron sp.

We strolled slowly between the rock formation, looking for the small dots of color shining brightly between the reddish brown stones.
Mono Ragwort, Senecio flaccid var. monoensis

The rock formations are the work of weathering - water and winds curve holes and dig ruts, turning rock into sand and beautiful sculptures.

These rock formations were an inspiration to many artists over the years. Alabama Hills are also known to be a backdrop for many movies. There is a museum in Lone Pine about the cinematic history of this place. So far, however, despite many visits to Lone Pine, I had never seen the inside of this museum. I had always preferred the outdoors ...

My previous lengthy visit to Alabama Hills was shortly after having a knee surgery, which had diminished much my ability to enjoy the rock formations in a 3-D manner. This time, however, I was taking every opportunity to climb the lovely rocks. Still carefully, though.

A few birds flew in and out of the crevices and the dry washes that curved the rock masses. I caught one of them on camera as it perched on a small rock buttress holding on to its catch of the day: a Say's Phoebe.
Say's Phoebe
The trail led us to the rock formation that we've seen from afar when we just started our hike. What looked like a simple hole in the rock from far away now looked to me like a loving couple fused together in an eternal kiss.

Here too we found the desert globe mallow in bloom. It wasn't as advanced as the one we saw the day before on our way to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest but we were no less excited to see it.
Desert Globemallow, Sphaeralcea ambigua 
In between the ridges, buttresses, and rock piles stretched small alluvial flats dotted with Creosote bushes. Look as hard as I might, I saw no roadrunners.
Not focused on the little things, the view was spectacular. The high, snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada made the perfect backdrop for the bare, smooth formations of Alabama Hills.

Directly to the west we could see the partially clouded sharp teeth of Mont Whitney. At 14505 ft Mount Whitney is the tallest peak in the contiguous U.S.A.
My friend pointed out that a huge, ancient fish has come to rest on the nearby rock pile. It took my imagination but a second to see what she meant :-)
Rock fish formation and Mt. Whitney in the background. 
I zoomed my camera on the mountain. I do have aspiration to summit it one day. It is not an easy feat, however. And I don't mean physically - I'm totally up for that. I mean my chances of securing a permit ... It has become such an attraction in recent years that getting a permit to ascend Mount Whitney can be as probable as reserving a campsite in Yosemite (that is, going into a lottery with pretty bad odds). And then there's sharing the trail with a gazillion other peak seekers. One day, however, I will put my efforts into getting that permit and ascending this pinnacle of nature.
Mount Whitney

Throughout the hike my mind and eyes kept wondering to the peaks of the Sierra Nevada. So close! So inviting! If not for the strange beauty of the old rocks of Alabama Hills I would have taken us directly into the mountains.

Later that day we did go up to the Whitney Portal. But this was still morning and we were meandering along the narrow trail, appreciating the lovely rock formations.

My friend stopped by a plant and I went down one of the cracks between the rock piles. It was there that I spotted a large lizard sunning on the rock. I made sure to snap a few shots before sneaking back and becoming my friend down that rock crack. Thankfully the sunbathing reptile was still there. It was the second time for either of us to see a chuckwalla. Our first time was also when the two of us hiked together, to the Lost Palms Oasis at Joshua Tree National Park on my friend's previous is it to California.
The trail crossed another dry wash. While no water was flowing through it, it was clear that the wash bed held more moisture than the higher areas above it. The vegetation was more dense along the wash bed, and many of the plants were blooming in sweet colors.
California Bee Plant (with a bee proving the point), Scrophularia californica 
We took a break, relaxing and enjoying the wildflower display. While it wasn't as spectacular as desert superbloom can be, it was very lovely still.
Cobwebby Hedge Nettle, Stachys albens 
And there were also plants among them that I couldn't recall ever seeing in bloom before.
Mojave Eriastrum, Eriastrum densifolium 
We wandered of the trail and up the wash a little bit to see what else we could find there.
Desert Tobacco, Nicotiana obtusifolia

We also met some familiar flowers - the desert paintbrush, common along the Eastern Sierra 395 route. 
Desert Paintbrush, Castilleja chromosa
And we spotted another lizard on the rock! A nice, sunny day is perfect for them. And for us as well.

Eventually though, we made our way back to the trail and out of the wash bed. A few steps more and the Mobious Arch came into our view.

The trail didn't go directly to the arch but curved around and up the larch rock pile. From up there we had a wider view of the nearby rock ridges. My friend pointed out to me the big rock giant sleeping his siesta. This wan took me a bit longer to see. I suppose I'd never make a good Hobbit.
Sleeping Rock Giant
Eventually we made it to the arch and took turns climbing up to it and taking photos of each other sitting inside. We also too the classic image of Mount Whitney framed inside the arch (heading this post).
Other rocks look just as fabulous through the arch.

It's called the Mobius Arch because it looks like a mobius ring. Twisting or not, it is pretty in every direction.

Near the arch we found a blooming beavertail cactus. Almost blooming.
Beavertail Cactus, Opuntia basilaris 
The Mobius Arch isn't the only arch along this trail. The other one, however, is smaller, lower, and harder to spot from the trail.

I had to climb the rock and wedge myself in an awkward position to get this see-through shot. I felt like a 10 years old all over again.

We had much fun climbing on and around the arches but eventually we got back on the trail. One more dip through one more wash ...

And we were back up on the plateau, heading toward the area of flat dirt set aside for trailhead parking.

There my friend found red ants which, surprisingly were the only ones we've seen on this hike.

My friend wished to take a look at the filming site of the movie Gonna Din so we drove by there, then we exited the Alabama Hills on the southern side. We tried to find a shortcut to the Whitney Portal Rd through one of the numerous dirt roads that criss crossed the desert there but we reached a dead end and had to go back and drive on the official road. We did stop for a long while, however, to appreciate the desert bloom in the sandy wash delta close to the mountains. There it was indeed gorgeous.
Desert Dandelion, Malacothrix califrnica
The rest of the day we spent visiting the Whitney Portal, then Manzanar National Historic Site, and we even went up Horseshoe Meadow Road to see if anything was blooming there (wasn't much). But the best part of that day, in my opinion, was the visit and hike at the Alabama Hills. 

The end of that day was also the end of the Eastern Sierra part of our trip. After descending the long and winding Horseshoe Meadow Road after sunset we had a long and tiring drive through Mojave and across the Tehachapi Mountains to the west side of the Sierra Nevada. On the morrow we would go up to Sequoia National Park, and into a whole different world yet again.

Many thanks to my friend Anenet for the identification of plants!