Saturday, August 31, 2019

Where Gold Set the Tone of the Town: Hiking the Dragoon Gulch Trail at Sonora

Date: February 10 and April 6, 2019
Place: Dragoon Gulch, Sonora, California
Trailhead address: 680 Woods Creek Dr, Sonora, CA 95370
Length: about 2.5 miles
Level: moderate

After conceiving the idea of taking my family camping group to California's Gold Country I set out scouting for nice family-friendly hiking trails. I found plenty beautiful trails and I already wrote here about two of them - the lovely Red Hills Area of Critical Ecological Concern and about the wet adventure of the Natural Bridges Trail. But perhaps the most surprising discovery I made was of the Dragoon Gulch Trail which goes out directly from the town of Sonora and provides some of the most beautiful sights I've seen on my trips to this area.
The trailhead is right in the middle of town, within walking distance from the historic downtown. The first time I got there the parking lot was icy and I had to watch my step to avoid slipping. The air was crisp and refreshing and a thin layer of snow rested on the ground like a white angelic mantle.
Woods Creek
I crossed Woods Creek and found myself an another, large parking lot. It took me a long moment to figure out where I was supposed to go - there were trail signs painted on the asphalt but they were partially covered with snow ... When I figured out what I needed to look for I followed the trail signs along the city streets for about a third of a mile until I found where the trail enters Dragoon Gulch. The lower part of the trail near the creek was too paved with asphalt and to my relief it was clear of ice.
I still had to cross an occasional patch of soft snow. Receding snow dusted the trail sides, revealing deep, earth colored layer of fallen leaves.
Dragoon Gulch Trail, February 10, 2019
I insert here a photo I took f that very place on the following April, merely two months later. How big was the change in appearance and over all colors!
Dragoon Gulch Trail, April 16, 2019
Back in February, the creek was flowing nice and strong, fed by the melting snow. The temperature rose as I walked and I too was heating up and took off my coat, shoving it into my backpack.

After less than half a mile the pavement ended and the trail turned in a sharp switchback uphill. Through the thick mat of composting fallen leaves poked the early greens - mosses and lichen.

Lichen covered also rocks and branches, and there were many types of them, in many colors. They are very fascinating entities - a symbiotic bonding between algae and fungi, each bond creates an independent biological entity with distinct traits and appearance. Thy are probably the most enduring eukaryotic beings, and the likely ones to begin it all again should our current ecosystem collapse.
I made quick progress uphill along the mildly-sloping trail. For the most part I was walking under the canopies of oaks and tall manzanita bushes but every now and then the canopies opened up and I was bathed by sunlight. Light clouds passed overhead but over all the day was clear and bright.

There wasn't much greening yet other than the mosses but I could see the early signs of spring in the germinating acorns of the live oak.

Jumping two months forward, the place was alight with early spring bloomers.
miner's Lettuce, Clayton parviflora , April 6, 2019
On the later, April hike I was there with my chikas and a family of friends, and I was happy to show them the beauty of this place and the pretty flowers that grew there.
Sierra Shooting Star, Primula jeffreyi, April 6, 2019
Although further into spring there were not very many wildflowers along this trail.
Common Water Buttercup, Ranunculus alismifolius, April 6, 2019 
But back in February the intense red color came from Manzanita stems and from the brilliant crimson berries of the toyon.
Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia 
One of the things I cannot really convey here is the rich fragrance of the soaked earth, spiced by the composting leaves and the mushrooms that popped all over the place. Its a special kind of winery perfume that is unmatched by anything else and what makes wet winter hikes a very special treat for me.

Cushions of dark green moss softened the rocks in appearance and to touch. Where the earth wasn't covered by fallen leaves it was patched by the lush winter moss. 
Manzanita is classified as a bush because it has multiple stems and branches rather than a single trunk but they can grow quite tall, much taller than me. Their bright red bark stands in beautiful contrast against the snow background but nearly blends with the ground cover of fallen leaves. 
White Leaf Manzanita, Arcrostaphylos viscida  
The trail was meandering, turning north and south in a few wide switchbacks. I followed the curves until I arrived the highest trail intersection and the choice of going uphill further to the summit or down and back to the creek. Up till then I was alone on the trail but there I came across a young couple who were debating between them where to go next. Eventually they decided to go downhill.

I continued uphill where there was still much snow left on the ground. The air did warm up however, and I no longer was able to see my own breath. The manzanita bushes seemed lower and sunlight washed the spring-hungry plants and me.

Finally, when the manzanita were at my height level, I could see that they were blooming. The only blooming plant there at that time, but they sure were making up for the lack of others with the mass quantities of their bloom.
White Leaf Manzanita, Arcrostaphylos viscida

I arrived at a small side loop trail with an bench and a vista point. Finally I could see the view around.
Sonora doesn't get snow all that frequently. The winter of 2018-2019 was unusual in that sense - much snow fell on Sonora and it stuck for a while. Much of that snow was there still as I looked over the town from the vista point up the Dragoon Gulch trail. Every now and then the clouds to the east would part a bit and I could glimpse the white-clod peaks of the High Sierra.
Sonora, February 10, 2019
Up at the summit there is another bench and a somewhat different view. the bench was too wet and shaded so I sat on one of the rocks in the sun and ate my snack. A sole biker came by, huffing and puffing still from his uphill strain. He passed by me without stopping and continued downhill, splattering wet snow and mud as he went by.
The summit 
After the biker passed I was back in my solitude and enjoyed the peace and beauty of the place. Eventually I got cold from sitting and started downhill on the rounding trail which by now was all clear of snow and very muddy.

At the turn of the trail I got another view of the snow-covered Sierra foothills. A cool and refreshing sight that now doubt is missed there right now when late August temperatures reach the triple digits there.
Snowy Sonora
Then I hit snow on the trail once more. I was walking down the north side of the hill where the snow hasn't thawed all yet. The white below was matched by the feathery white of the manzanita bloom above the trail.  

But going down the trail had become a strain. I had to be slow and careful nut to slip in the mud. My shoes soon got covered in in mud and my eyes were down on the ground rather than around on the views.
I made the final turn down to complete the circle. Going uphill were three dog walkers with a group if at least fifteen dogs running about them off-leash and having a lot of fun. The dog walked and I exchanged greetings and got into some smalltalk while a few of the dogs approached me for a good sniff.

After our paths separated I continued downhill with very few photo stops. By then I started to be pressed on time - I was expected back early in the afternoon and the long drive home was awaiting me.

I paused briefly just above the tail merge with the creek  to take a goodbye look and capture the small triple cascade that merged down at the gulch. I would be back there in two months when wildflowers were blooming, the water level lower, and all snow gone and replaces with spring greens.

Dragoon Gulch got its name from the soldier miners of the town's gold rush past. This place also saw some gruesome robbery turned murder that went down in Sonora's history of wild western violence. Now, all surrounded by the neighborhoods of this pretty town is this beautiful nature getaway where the sights and sounds of the city don't really penetrate and where I could feel calmest completely immersed in nature, just a short walk from downtown. 

Monday, August 26, 2019

On A Botanical Treasure Hunt at Lake Margaret

Lake Margaret

Date: August 3, 2019
Place: Lake Margaret, Kirkwood, California
Coordinates: 38.704396, -120.069563
Length: about 5.5 miles round trip
Level: moderate +

A few months ago when I was just beginning to formulate my annual backpacking trip I saw an announcement on the California Native Plants Society page about a botanical guided hike planned in the area of Kirkwood on the Saturday of August 3, right at the end of the week I had planned my backpacking on. I did a quick assessment in my mind and promptly signed up to participate in that hike.

And so, after completing a wonderful five-days backpacking trip in Yosemite my friend and I drove up to Kit Carson Campground where we had spent the night before the group hike and, on the following morning drove up to the small Lake Margaret parking lot off rte 88.
Near the Trailhead

A small group of people was already waiting at the parking lot. We had a short round of introduction, then headed off to the trail right away.
The hike as was captured by my GPS
Knowing nothing about the trail (I failed to do my homework ...) I wondered aloud how long is the hike expected to be. The tail, I was told, is not very long - just under 3 miles one way. but we're botanists, and we walk slow because we stop at each flower, I was informed.
Dwarf Larkspur, Delphinium depauperatum 
I immediately felt comfortable with this group of people I have just met for the first time.
Broad leaf Lupine, Lupinus latifolius 
The trail goes up and down a lot, over rocky ridges and through small meadows and patches of forest, and a small creek here and there, flanked by wetland areas.
California Corn Lily, Veratrum californicum var. californicum 
The official botanist of the group kept pointing at plants and reciting their latin names. I tried walking close to him so I could catch those names but in the end I could only remember a few, meaning at home afterwords I had to look everything up again. This one I did remember, and when fruiting it is quite memorable:
Twinberry, Lonicera involucrata
He said to stop when we see something interesting ... so we stopped a lot.
Sierra Tiger Lily, Lilium parvum 
In between the blooming meadows we crossed some rocky ridges. That involved some rock scrambling and occasionally when I got separated from the leaders, trying to guess where the trail continued. Every now and then I would raise my gaze from the ground and the wildflowers and took in the view of the surroundings. Having spent the previous five days in Yosemite's high country didn't diminish any of the area's striking beauty in my eyes.

But then again, wildflowers were the main item on my agenda for this hike.
Pretty Face, Triteleia ixioides 
Our group wasn't big yet soon we stretched over a big distance with large gaps in between. The botanist lingered with the slow people and elaborated on the wildflowers we've seen on the way.
Dusky Onion, Allium campanulatum
So, by the time we arrived at the first crossing of Caples Creek most of our group had already crossed it and continued on.

But those of us who took it slow were treated to a pretty flower, one which Ive never seen in bloom before: Lewis' Monkeyflower. Not long ago all monkey flowers were grouped in the Mimulus genus. Recently however, they were split into several genera and now I have a hard time figuring out which is what. I was glad to have been told the species name of this one.
Lewis' Monkeyflower, Erythranthe lewisii 
Near the water were also much more common wildflowers. I usually don't even try to identify yellow composites to the species level but once again the botanist came to my aid, divulging the plant's identity.
Groundsel, Senecio triangularis 
We crossed the creek and followed the group. At that point we were walking in the shade of a nice conifer patch and the forest floor was matted with the small, velvety lupine that I've seen in Yosemite on my backpacking trip.
Brewer's Lupine, Lupinus breweri 
By the time we caught up with the people before us we had all come to stop: someone had spotted a small patch of coral root orchid and everyone circled the plants to get a good look and if possible, good photos too.
Summer Coral Root, Corallorhiza maculata
A little further we were out of the forest and in a lovely meadow lit with sunshine and painted with bright-colored wildflowers.

Soon our group stretched into a long string of people again, each of us looking at different plants.
Alpine Shooting star, Primula tetrandra
An important goal of this hike was to learn to use the Claflora app to upload plant observations to the Calflora website. Because I use Calflora frequently to identify plants I thought it would be a good idea to learn to contribute. Besides, how often do I get a chance to hike with wildflowers expects?
Sierra Beardstongue, Penstemon heterodoxus 
I sure made a good use of the experts' presence and willingness to educate me. But I couldn't get anyone else in the group excited about the grasses and sedges I saw. I do think they're beautiful, though.

Having hiked this trail before, the group's botanist knew where to find wildflowers off the trail and he beaconed us to follow him to the base if the rocks to take a closer look at some of them.
Pink Alumroot, Heuchera rubescens 
By the time I saw some paintbrush plants across the meadow the group had already moved on, so I took a quick shot and run after them.
Scarlet Paintbrush, Castilleja miniata 
Caples Creek makes a wide arch and we crossed it again a second time. All the crossing were on fallen logs, strategically places across the stream. It was far easier todo this without the huge backpack that I had to carry for the previous 5 days!
Crossing Caples Creek 
The meadow on the other side was much wider. The botanist took the group aside to show them a patch of lousewort flowers. My friend and I stayed behind to spray ourselves - the mosquitoes were much more numerous here than anywhere else along the trail.
Going off trail to see wildflowers
Soon after we rejoined the group in admiring the lousewort flowers too.
Little Elephantshead, Pedicularis attollens ssp. attollens
Back in the forest we stopped for a brief snack and water break and chat to get to know each other better.
Oceanspray, Holodiscus discolor 
I tried to take mostly people-free photos but at times it was quite challenging, because there were many other hikers on the trail that day, including two large groups of boyscout backpackers, one returning from the lake after having spent the night there, and another just going in.

There were many other hikers there as well, and some had dogs with them. I was fortunate to hava had the chance to photograph some of the multitudes of butterflies that were flying all over the place.

One can imagine that with all the wildflowers blooming there would be a lot of butterflies (as well as other pollinators) flying around. There weren't sitting still though. The heat and the presence of so many active people and dogs walking on the trail (or off it) had limited my chances of getting good butterfly shots. I did manage a few, though. What was impossible however, was to get a butterfly-free photo of the coyote mint, which was very prevalent and in peak bloom too. Well, I didn't try too hard at that :-)
Coyote Mint, Monardella villose 
The Penstemon genus is a large one, with many species look very much like one another, and having an expert botanist in the group was really helpful. This one is another wildflower I'd have never been able to identify by myself:
Regel's Mountain penstemon, Penstemon roezlii 
We were getting near our destination but first had to go up another, higher rocky ridge. I love the sleek granite slabs of the High Sierra and admire the majestic trees that take root and thrive in the thin crevices of the hard rock.

Passing a small forest pond I stopped to look at the perfect reflection of the calm water.

The wetland surrounding the pond was another colorful bed of colorful mountain wildflowers.
Brewer's Fleabane, Erigeron breweri 
Here too I was grateful for the presence of our group's botanist to show me the differences between two species of yellow monkey flowers that to see looked all the same ... I hope I got their names memorized correctly.
Larger Mountain Monkeyflower, Erythranthe tilingii 
Not all monkey flowers are the same, even if they look alike.
Primrose Monkeyflower, Erythranthe primuloides
We came upon Kitrkwood Creek. The trail followed the creek for some distance and we enjoyed the lush riparian vegetation that grew on its banks.

Near the creek - a familiar mountain shrub, the rose meadowsweet in bright pink bloom and lots of bugs buzzing around it.
Rose Meadowsweet, Spiraea splendens
Our botanist identified for us a pretty red flower that someone in our group had spotted. Many of us got close to take  good image, one good enough to upload to Calflora.
Scarlet Gilia, Ipomopsis aggregata

The scarlet gilia was very pretty but there was a lot more excitement over a single mariposa lily that was spotted near our trail. Many of our group lined up to take a close up photo of the lily. I had seen many of them on my preceding backpacking trip so I settled for photographing the photographers :-)
Leichtlin's Mariposa Lily, Calochortus leichtlinii
We arrived at the crossing of Kirkwood Creek. A large group of boycott backpackers filed along the log bridge and balanced one by one across the stream.

Meanwhile our much smaller group assembled on the side of the trail and looked at what was blooming nearby.
Streamside Bluebells, Mertensia ciliata 

Of those there were many. Group participants who had done this very same hike at this exact time of year last year said that there were much fewer wildflowers then. This year the snow stuck late and everything was peaking when we were there.
Sierra Larkspur, Delphinium glaucum 
It was really very fortunate. In fact, one of my challenges was to keep this post to an acceptable size - many good wildflower photos had to be cut from this post.
Horse Mint, Agastache urticifolia 
But although this was a wildflower hike, the trees captivated me just the same.

The last part of our trail ascended up through a crevice in a a steep rock face. From there we descended in a single file into the basin of Lake Margaret. (Full view of the lake at the top of this post).
Lake Margaret, view from above
There were many people at the shores of the lake. Most of the shoreline was rocky and set well above the water. We found a low rocky ledge and sat down to have lunch. While all the day hikers in our group had sandwiches and snacks, all my friend and I had was backpackers food. We therefore pulled out the stove, filled a pot with lake water, and cooked a tasty hot chilly and miso soup. While cooking I kept my attention on the pretty blue damselflies that swooped by, and caught some of them on camera as they came to rest.
A few people were swimming in the far side of the lake. The water must have been cold otherwise I thought there would be more swimmers on such a warm day.
A mamma mallard swam by, accompanied by three ducklings. They didn't come too close and i was glad to see that they didn't seem habituated on human food. I didn't see any other waterfowl.
Mamma Mallard and one of the three ducklings I saw with her
Our group leader didn't waste any time. She disappeared behind a bush and returned wearing swimsuit and goggles, and she was holding an underwater phone case. Without further ado she jumped into the water and started swimming away. Her goal was to find and photograph a rare water plant, the white-stemmed pondweed.
Our hike's organizer diving for White-stemmed Pondweed 
She had done several dives, changing to another phone case and also trying an underwater go pro camera, and got some nice photos of the water plant. I regretted having missed in her email the part about bringing swimwear, the water looked so inviting!
After getting photos to her satisfaction she joined us on the rock ledge to have her own lunch and dry up before changing clothes again. It was a beautiful, calm time of day and I gazed onto the water and daydreamed. 

Our way back from the lake was much quicker. Naturally, we did not stop an each wildflower we saw, having appreciated them all on the way in. I did however, take the opportunity to get another try at flowers that I didn't think I captured well the first time.
Monkshood, Aconitum columbianum 
Now that it was past mid day the trail seemed more quiet. We run into fewer people on our way back, but some of them were known to people in our group so everyone stopped to have a chat. Me and my friend too got into more social and less plant-focused chats with other group members. It was an easy and relaxing hike.

Not that we neglected the wildflowers - I spotted a pine wood lousewort that was in bloom and pointed it out to the others. This we've seen on the way in were not yet in bloom and it was nice to see one that was.
Pine Woods Lousewort, Pedicularis semibabata
And I didn't forget the trees. Not the big and majestic ones,
Sierra Juniper, Juniperus grandis 
And not the small, shrublike ones.
Huckleberry Oak, Quercus vacciniifolia

It seemed easier scrambling down the rocks rather than going up. This time also, I found myself in the group's lead, pressing on forward. Now I wanted to finish the hike quickly because I hoped to get back to the Bay Area in time to pick up my elder chika from her 4H camp drop off place and space Pappa Quail the extra trip.

But eagerness to get home did not come in place of wanting to stay some more in the mountains. I wish I could.
It was my first time joining a botanical group hike. I learned a lot and met nice, knowledgeable people who share a similar passion with me. We had a fantastic weather and were fortunate to be there at peak bloom.

I also learned about this beautiful trail and the lovely lake at its end. I don't know that I would have ever found out about it by myself. The trail is beautiful, and while fairly well marked, it is quite rugged at places and involved creek crossing on fallen log bridges and some scrambling up and down rocks. It's well worth the time to go and explore this pretty corner of the forest.
Coming up to the trailhead

I was sorry to say goodbye so quickly. This hike was the perfect encore of a beautiful and adventurous backpacking trip about which I will post later this year. I have been uploading photos to Calflora since and I hope to go once again on one of those organized botanical hikes!

Many thanks to Cynthia, Matt, and Mona of Calflora for organizing this hike and for sharing their immense knowledge and love of wildflowers with us!