Friday, May 29, 2020

The Hidden Treasures of Mount Diablo's Back Side

Date: May 23, 2020
Place: Old Finley Rd. Mt. Diablo State Park, Clayton, California
Coordinates: -37.851333, -121.847075
Length: 4 miles
Level: moderate

The original plan we had for this long weekend was to backpack with friends, but then the COVID-19 arrived and messed up this plan. encouraged by the opening up of some parks and public lands, I thought it would be nice to go on our own and Pappa Quail suggested a regular camping trip. Apparently this was not to be because our cat got injured and as soon as we brought him back from the vet I returned all of our camping gear back to the shed.
Pappa Quail tried to cheer me up, saying that we would go an day hikes instead but on Saturday morning I found it very difficult to move my family away from their screen entertainment.
Our hike as captured by my GPS
Eventually we went out - Pappa Quail, myself and the younger chika. (the elder insisted on having alone time at home). I chose the destination - the back side of Mt. Diablo State Park. We drove through the single lane winding road through the Morgan Territory and squeezed our car into the narrow strip of dirt road shoulder by the trailhead (there's no actual parking area there). We took our cameras and plenty of water and started up Morgan Creek Rd. up the dry Jeremiah Creek.
Morgan Creek Rd.
My original thought was to go to Mitchell Canyon again, as I do nearly every spring to see the spectacular spring bloom there, including that of the endemic Mt. Diablo Globe Lily. The park, however, like other state parks at this time, is closed to cars and I didn't feel like walking all the way there from the nearby neighborhood. Besides, it gave us the opportunity to see another side of the park which we haven't yet hiked at.
I didn't see any globe lilies on this trail, but not far into the trail I already saw some pretty wildflowers.
Chinese Houses, Collinsia heterophylla
On of the best flowers I like to find on these shaded East Bay trails is the fritillary. Fritillaries however, bloom in March, so naturally I didn't expect to see any fritillaries. Well, as a matter of fact, I did find a few. Not blooming of course, but their fruit is very distinctive and beautiful.
Fruit of Fritillaria

It was a hot day and the lizards were very active, even in the shade of the oaks and laurels. I was very grateful for this shade, it eased our ascent up the creek slope.
Western Fence Lizard
As long as we followed the Jeremiah Creek the trail ascended mildly. Then the trail separated from the creek line and sloped up at higher grade. Moreover, the shading trees were left along the creek and now we were walking right under the sun.

In the half-shade cast by a few thin-leaved oak trees bloomed a patch of clarkia, the first I've seen this spring. I was happy to see these bright pink beauties.
Red Ribbons, Clarkia concinna
Another familiar late spring bloomer I saw there was the Ithuriel's Spear, tall enough to tower over the grasses.
Ithuriel's Spear, Triteleia laxa
The trail made had a few twists and turns but generally lead us uphill to the southeast direction. As we climbed higher the view opened up. It was already the beautiful summer scene in those East Bay hills, of yellow grass with patches of dark green live oaks, and deep blue sky overhead.

It wasn't all just grasses and oak trees though. Every now and then we passed a bush or a patch of tall dead annuals of last summer. Little birds chirped in and between these and Pappa Quail would pause to take photos.
Lesser Goldfinch, female
Even the ubiquitous dark-eyed juncos captured his attention.
Dark-eyed Junco
Pappa Quail was up ahead and I trailed behind, keeping a view of my young chika who walked up slowly, fitting with a stick in her hands and telling herself fantasy stories. I started thinking that soon we'll need to take a break when suddenly Pappa Quail let out a sharp call - he\d seen a coyote cross our path and running down the grassy slope toward a nearby tree.

The coyote stopped by the tree and looked back at us. We got together and watched it silently for some time. It sat down in the grass, looking at us still, and appeard as if it was waiting for us to move on, so we did.
We arrived at the top of the Morgan Creek Road and sat down for a well deserved break to drink, eat our snacks, and make the next trail choice. There were two possible loop trails we could hike in the time that we wanted to spend in the park, and I was outnumbered 2:1 for the final decision to take the shorter loop. So after our break we turned left (south) onto Highland Ridge Road.

This trail segment was fairly level and although not as shaded as the creekside one, was going through a nice grove of healthy oak trees with an undergrowth richer than savannah grass.
Sticky Monkeyflower, Diplacus aurantiacus
Much of that undergrowth was of course, poison oak. There was no problem avoiding it though, as the trail was a wide dirt road.

A gap between the trees allowed us a view ti the southeast. There I could see the high rise of the online Wilderness and Rose Peak. This backpacking trip still awaits me.

There were buckeye trees at peak bloom dispersed between the oaks. I love their chandelier appearance at this time of year.
California Bauckeye, Aesculus californica
From Highland Ridge Rd. we turned right onto Crestview Rd. for a short distance. The view was indeed spectacular. From this trail we had a nice, clear view of Mount Diablo itself. I had no idea at the time that on the following day I'd be hiking to the summit from outside the park all by myself.
Mount Diablo
The view from Crestview Trail also indicated how high we really were over the Tri-City Valley to the southeast.
Another thing I noticed from that viewpoint was a large rocky area down at Tassajara Creek to the northwest. It seemed to me that the loop trail that we didn't go on would go right through that area and I regretted aloud that we didn't take that longer loop trail.

Pappa Quail replied to my complaints with a shrug. he was busy focusing on something else.
Turkey Vulture
After 1/5 of a mile we turned right a gain onto Walnut Trail, a narrow footpath that descended steeply to the Tassajara Creek below.
Walnut Trail
We didn't go down all the distance to the creek but turned right again, onto Amhitheater Trail, that meandered along the slope's contour above the creek itself.
The grass was completely dry and I didn't have much hope of seeing wildflowers there but I was soon surprised by a beautiful patch of harvest brodiaea at peak bloom. All the flowers had at least one pollinator inside it, usually several. One of then however, harbored a small predator inside - a crab spider, waiting for its meal to come flying in.
A Crab Spider (and tiny beetle) on Harvest Brodiaea, Brodiaea elegans
Behind the patch of brodiaea I spotted another flower and my heart skipped a bit - it was a mariposa lily!
While I was paying close attention to this magnificent flower Pappa Quail and my chika had already moved quite a distance onward. Suddenly I heard them shout for me to come quickly. I shouted back that I saw a mariposa lily but I'm not sure they've heard me because they kept on urging me to come over.

I thought they had sighted something that might run away so I headed over quickly only to find out that they saw an entire patch of those mariposa lilies .... magnificent, yes, but not the kind of sight that runs away.
Yellow Mariposa, Calochortus superbus
The trail curved around the hill's contour and pasted through an oak savannah area of interior live oaks and blue oaks. We enjoyed what little shade they offered.

The oaks are home to many wildlife species. We didn't linger long enough to appreciate much of that but the birds at least, made there presence known.
California Towhee
The oak savannah areas were interrupted by patches of high chaparral of which the chamise was dominant. It was also chamise peak bloom time, but the loom wasn't as full as I've seen it in other years.

Even though the chamise didn't wear the snowy look, its minute, delicate flowers were still captivating.
Chamise, Adenostoma fasciculatum
We reached one of the tributaries of the Tassajara Creek. The trail run along the dry tributary where large boulders of graywacke stone poked through the grass. Once again we were walking between oaks, with the occasional Coulter pine here and there.

Large graywacke rock poked through the grass like huge gray monuments. They were either smooth or had irregular cracks  and chipped surfaces. One of the flatter rocks had numerous round holes. Two sets  of these, in fact. I gasped at the sight - these were grinding rocks! It was here that the local native people, the coast Miwok gathered to pound their harvest of acorns into a fine meal that would sustain them throughout the year. I had the chance to see a single grinding stone here and there, one even at the nearby Morgan Territory Regional Park, but the only place where I've seen so many of them together before was at the Indian Grinding Rock State Park (a territory of the interior Miwok).
Miwok Grinding Rock
While I was looking at the grinding rock Pappa Quail and he chika had moved on. They didn't come back to look at my sighting but Pappa Quail asked me if I was happy now that we chose the shorter loop trail after all. Yes, I was.

I wanted to spend some more time in the grinding rock place but it was getting late and Pappa Quail was urging me to get going. A short distance from the rocks we connected with the Old Finley Rd. and turned right (east). Once again we were out of the trees and in open dry grass savannah. There were less flowers there but I did find a few coast larkspurs, smaller than their healthy size.
Coast Larkspur, Delphinium californicum
The dirt road led us uphill in a mild slope cutting through the curves of soft, rounded hills. Everything looked summer dry, but then - a patch of green mustard in full bloom. The bright, lively yellow of the mustard blossom rimmed by the fresh green of its foliage stood out nicely against the straw- colored slopes.
Old Finley Rd.
I didn't see any surface water where the mustard patch was, but I guess there was more of it there through the rainy season, and closer to the surface. A single male red-winged blackbird did his courtship/territory show in the mustard, trilling his song to no one in particular.
Red-winged Blackbird
After we passed the mustard patch I turned around and the liked the view behind me. It is now the photo heading this blog post.
There's a trail intersection at the crest of the hill where we needed to go straight on Old Finley Rd. I was hoping to take a break at that trail intersection but when we got there we found no shade and no convenient place to sit so we continued on a little further to where the trail got closer to the trees once again.

A hawk and a few vultures circled the sky. They are big birds, but not big enough to provide good shade.
Red-tailed Hawk
Further down by the trail I saw a patch of brilliant purple bloom. I knew this plant even before coming close - it was a patch of European Vetch, an aggressive invasive weed like the mustard we saw earlier, and like the dry grasses that surrounded it.
European Vetch, Vicia disperma, non-native, invasive.
Had the Miwok of 3000 years ago came alive now they would not have recognized the vegetation - so much it has transformed since the Spanish settled here.
Old Finley Rd.
Eventually we came near the trees again and sat down for a short break. As we got up to go again Pappa Quail noticed a single turkey crossing the path below us. The wild turkey too was brought to California by the American settlers who wanted game to hunt. The turkeys thrive here and are a common sight in the East Bay hills.
Wild Turkey
The road descended faster and once again we were walking in the shade of the oaks. At this time we were walking faster, stopping for less sightseeing. The shadows were deepening but the heat wasn't letting off yet.
Old Finley Rd.
I noticed a movement in the trees down the slope and called Pappa Quail's attention to it. I'm not sure he saw exactly what I saw but he did see a cute little nuthatch there.
White-breasted Nuthatch
Old Finley Rd ends with a gate at the park's boundary beyond which is private property and a big 'Keep Out' sign. S narrow foot path splits off and follows the fence back to the trailhead where we were parked. This little trail was the hardest to tread of the entire hike - it was eroded and slippery and flanked by poison oak that grew right into the path. I needed to walk down it very carefully. 

But there, between the leaves-of-three I also found the loveliest blue dicks flowers I've seen on that hike. It was a pretty sight to finish with a pretty hike in a less known a part of Mt. Diablo Park.
Blue Dicks, Dichelostemma capitatym
Mount Diablo State Park is a very surprising place. Within the park there's an amazing and diverse nature as well as human history. It has an extensive trail system of which I know only a little because I usually return to the same trails again and again. This time I had the chance to see a part of this park that's away from the beaten path and it was a very good one. 
Inspired, I was back in Mt. Diablo State Park on the next day too.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

A Nice Spring Retreat Hike in the Dublin Hills

Date: April 25 and May 9, 2020
Place: Dublin Hills Regional Park, Dublin, California
Coordinates: 37.700124, -121.974887
Length: 4.3 miles
Level: moderate

The days are Shelter-in-Place days. The parks are open for hiking and we make the best of what's possible. We yearn to see friends but gathering is forbidden. The solution: going on a simultaneous hike while maintaining safe distance.
Taking a friend's recommendation, we agree to meet late in the afternoon at Dublin Hills Regional Park.
Our hike as captured by my GPS
The first time I went there was on April 25. The air was cool and breezy, and the hills all green. We got there late and were advised that the parking lot's gate would close early so we didn't get very far before having to return. We resolved to try the entire Donlon Loop Trail on a different day, and that came about three weeks later, on May 9. By then, most of the bloom was gone and the hills were drying out and turning yellow. It was still breezy and nice though, and we did hike the entire loop. Most of the photos posted here are from the later hike but I did incorporate some from the earlier hike, especially those of wildflowers.
The first colorful thing we saw however, was not a flower but a male Anna's hummingbird standing guard watching his territory atop of a tall bush by the Donlon Point Trail.
Anna's Hummingbird, male
Although most of the blooming was done by our second hike, there was much to see still. The grass was drying out but the brilliant poppies still going strong.
California Poppy, Eschscholzia californica
The trail trail leading from the parking lot to Donlon Point is a wide gravel road worn down in places to the bedrock. A short distance into the path the kids discovered that the bedrock is a conglomerate of fossils. Once seen, it could not be unseen. Each rock we saw poking through the grass after that was a source of joyful exploration of the fossils.
Fossils, April 25
The area where this park now stands used to be ranch area. Part of which was developed into a neighborhood of Dublin and some of the area became the park from which we could look unto the big and fancy development houses.

The annual vegetation of the East Bay hills is of vastly invasive old world species. Grasses, mainly, but not just. Some of these weeds are quite beautiful.
Crimson Clover, Trifolium incarnatum. Non-native. April 25
On the way up to Donlon Point I had the chance to take a closer look at some of these blooming weeds, invisible from a distance because of the tall grass.
Mediterranean Lineseed, Bellardia trixago. Non-native. April 25
There's a short loop that diverts from the main trail and goes up the ridge to the top of Donlon Point. naturally, we went on it, enjoying the breeze and the great views.

From a distance all the vegetation appears to be just grass. A closer look between the grass blades revealed a few wildflowers closer to the ground.
Hill Morning Glory, Calystegia subacaulis 
By May most of the tall crucifers were already done with their bloom but in April the ridge of Donlon Point was covered with the feral radish plants and the hum of the honey bees was a dominant sound.
Jointed Charlock, Raphanus sativus. Non-native, invasive. April 25
Donlon Point is the high point of this park. There's a bench there, and a fantastic round about view of the area.
Dublin, April 25
On both times we were there the bench was already occupied by other people. Keeping the social distancing rules we stayed away from the bench and didn't linger at the Point itself. Besides, it was too windy there.
View to the Bay, April 25
I was amazed by the great difference in vegetation and color between the north-facing slope south of the freeway and the yellowish, grass-covered hills we were on.
It was also nice to have a direct view of the most prominent peak in the Bay Area - that of Mount Diablo. Second only to Mount Hamilton in height, but singled out in topography, geology, and natural and human history.

Pappa Quail did not follow us up to Donlon Point - he found something else to look at while the rest of us did the little detour up there.
Cliff Swallow
A few more low wildflowers caught my attention as we were walking down from Donlon Point back to the main trail. It was nice to see some representation of California native wildflowers there still, among all the invasive weeds.
Red Maids, Calandrinia menziesii, April 25
Naturally, I saw more of them on my April hike.
Bicolor Lupine, Lupinus bicolor, April 25
But even my May hike was not devoid of bloom - the common yarrow, which was only beginning to bloom in April, was now at its prime time.
Yarrow, Achillea millefolium 
Back on the trail - wildlife easier seen when unhidden in vegetation. I guess not everyone would get as excited as me for seeing a centipede but wildlife it is, and an interesting one to look at.
Centipede, April 25
We continued on the ridge toward the Donlon Point Loop trail. The poppies were quite a sight on the highest ground, forming beautiful mats on the otherwise uniform green of the hilltop.
April 25
Looking down to the northeast I could see the top of the next hill - it was a rocky mass adorned with a few live oak trees. It seemed like it would be a nice place to explore but unfortunately we didn't get close on the first hike and on the second hike no one else wanted too. I guess I'll have to go there on my own some time.
April 25
The gravel road we were walking on started descending toward the neighborhood where the map implies there was another park access point. Next to our trail was a cement drainage ditch, exposed to the late afternoon sun. Exploiting the warmth of the sunny cement were many fence lizards.
Western fence lizards, April 25
As we came down and around the hill the north-facing slope came into view and grabbed my attention - it was covered with silver bush lupine in full bloom. A very impressive sight.
Silver Bush Lupine, Lupinus albifrons, April 25
Everything was green way back in April, but on our May hike I noticed something interesting - the east side of the fence was yellow whilst the west side still green. I posed this question to the chikas and their friends: how come? They came up with several interesting theories. One of which however, was spot-on.

We reached down to where the second park access gate was, and there we turned east to where the loop trail begun. Below us was a cable watering pond, which in April was full, belted with lush, green vegetation, and harbored a pair of mallards.
April 25
On our May hike the view was very different: the water level was somewhat lower and the vegetation around the pond was all gone - eaten or trampled. Needless to say, the mallards were gone as well. I just hope they didn't lose a nest in the process.
The cause to all of this and also to the striking color difference between the two sides of the fence was the herd of cattle that was released to graze in this area of the park.

East of the pond there there was a small area fenced off to hikers and cattle. There was water there still and tall vegetation, and a nice place for birds to be.
Red-winged Blackbird
There also was where we started on the loop trail, going counter clockwise. We followed the strip of dark live oaks that lined along the creek that furrowed deep into the valley downstream to the cattle pond.

At some point we diverted from the trail and went to sit in the shade of these trees for a short snack break. There, in the fallen leaves Pappa Quail found an interesting lizard. The lizard stayed put and collaborated with the camera. It was very much alive, but didn't make any effort to go anywhere. We took some photos and left it where it was.
California Alligator Lizard
It was also at this point that on our April hike we turned around to go back, so all of the photos next were taken on May 9.
After the break we continued down the trail. The wide dirt road continued straight ahead out of the park and into Dublin and we continued on the loop trail that turned to a narrow footpath and plunged into a deeply shaded oak-laurel grove.

At the edge of the grove I saw some hedge nettle blooming and paused to take some photos. Everyone else went on forward and I had to run and catch up with them.
Hedge Nettle, Stachys sp. 
All of a sudden, we were out of the trees and in a neighborhood street. This was a bit weird. I looked at the map I carried with me and found that yes, the loop trail does go for a few years through the neighborhood. I pointed to where we should reconnect with the loop trail and we all went there ... almost. Pappa Quail and the elder chika lingered in front of one of the houses and took their time before joining us: they found a water feature and a few dark-eyed juncos enjoying a late afternoon bath.
Dark-eyed Junco
On the other side of the street we picked the trail again and once more were under the trees. There trail on this side was drier and the forest floor nearly empty of undergrowth. A pretty scrub jay was hopping on the bare slope, searching for something good to eat.
Scrub Jay
The trail soon started ascending and when I could see through the trees I could tell that the south-facing slope was indeed much drier and yellower than the north-facing slope we walked on earlier.

We exited the shade and almost immediately regretted it, because the sun was now directly on us, and the heat became uncomfortable. The trail switch-backed upward and right above us I saw a carpet of blooming mustard - a sight brooch to the California coast by the Spaniards.

A hawk's cry pierced the air. I didn't need to look up to know that this was a red-tailed hawk, the bird that dubs the eagle in movies.
Red-tailed Hawk
Across the valley and the dark oak-lined creek I could see the green, north-facing slope of the ridge we came down on, and the round bump of Donlon Point.
Donlon oint
It was there we would return to, but we still needed to hike up along a narrow trail of trampled wild oats.

The trail led us up the ridge we looked down upon from Donlon Point. I could see now that the north-facing slope of this ridge too was lined with oak trees and lusher vegetation.

Although dry and past its bloom prime, I still could find some wildflowers even on this ridge long the hard dirt trail.
Purple Owl's Clover, Castilleja exerta
And when I reached the top point of that ridge trail I had a nice view into the next valley to the northeast, where a hidden nook of live oaks was revealed to the eye. I'm not sure of the grove is within the park's boundary and I couldn't see any trail leading to it.

The rocky top of that hill was just ahead but the trail was leading down back to where the cattle pond was, and everyone else had already walked down except for me and my young chika, so we followed them down and missed the opportunity to check out the knoll we saw from Donlon point.

As I mentioned before, there was a small fenced area downstream of the cattle pond. As I came down the trail I saw Pappa Quail and the elder chika busy observing something there. What they were looking at were birds. A bluebird on the barbwire fence.
Western Bluebird, male
Apparently it was also high time for chewing cud because all the cattle we saw coming down to the loop trail were now lying down, lined along the trail, chewing cud and following us with their huge, watery bovine eyes.

They didn't budge as we passed by them in a single file. Neither did the cowbirds that were riding their backs, making true their name. 
We completed the loop and started uphill along the main Donlon Point Trail, back toward the staging area. From there it was a fairly fast walk during which we had to practice a great deal of people-avoidance because while we were on the loop trail the Donlon Point ridge filled up with numerous hikers and dog walkers. I didn't pause at all on the way back but Pappa Quail did - he spotted a kite passing overhead. 
White-tailed Kite
Although nit much different from other like-East Bay regional park areas, Dublin Hills Regional Park does have its charms, and all its uniqueness in the form of interesting geology and a set of roundabout views hat certainly makes it a worth-while hiking destination fr a nice afternoon hike.