Wednesday, September 30, 2020

A Small Climb to a Huge View: Up Moro Rock

Date: August 16, 2019
Place: Sequoia National Park, Three Rivers, California
Coordinates: 36.546959, -118.765595 
Length: 0.5 mile in and out
Level: strenuous

Following our casual stroll at the Generals Grove I brought my friends to the nearby Moro Rock to make the best use of the remaining daylight. It has been many years since I myself had been there and I didn't quite remember how many steps of a climb that was. I did remember that it wasn't long and that the view from the top was spectacular. 
The first surprise was actually right there at the parking lot, in the shape of a very interesting fir tree. 
White Fir, Abies concolor

In fact, I have seen this particular fir from the Generals Loop Trail. It had caught my attention because of its very unorthodox apex shape. A full zoom photo revealed that this tree's odd-looking top is due to branch reiteration that occurred after the tree lost its original apex. Reiteration is a repetition of the same structure as fractals, and in this case - the side branches developed in the shape of the missing tree apex, giving its canopy this unique look.

Reiteration in White Fir, Abies concolor

My friends were less interested in the botanical wonder, and the day was getting short so, without further delay we started up Moro Rock.

Moro Rock bulges out of the forested mountain side and so almost immediately the wonderful view opens up.

A narrow trail cut in the rock and augmented with cemented walls made to look like the original rock with slide slopes and many many stairs (400, according to the National Park web site), lead up and around the rock face. Turning the switchbacks I had a wonderful view to every direction. 

A turn to the southeast had opened up the view to the magnificent High Sierra skyline. My heart leaped inside my chest, I was longing so bad to be there.

I turned my attention to the rock face itself. Moro Rock is a granite dome, but the garish granite was painted all over with lichen. 

The trail is steep but not long at all. Looking up I could see the steep railed staircase. Visitors have been climbing Moro Rock since the 1800s but the stairs were put in place only in 1917, making it easier to reach the rock's summit. 

About mid-way up the trail I turned around to look at the forest below. I had just hiked in that forest but it is from above that I could see how sick and damage this forest really was. I estimated about 30% of the trees were dead, fallen victim to the combination of drought and the boring beetle. 

I turned my gaze to the area of the Generals Grove. It is really not difficult at all to pick out the giant sequoia in the canopy line. 

Turning around the rock again, and the southwest view opened before my eyes. The deep valley cut by the Kaweah River leading down to the San Joaquin Valley where until not that one ago it used to feed the now extinct Tulare Lake. 
The air was murky with pollution. A sign post by an observation deck along the trail explained that this was pollution coming all the way from China, carried by east-bound winds. A satellite image of the pollution cloud was shown to support the claim. 

From the observation deck I could glimpse the summit. My friends had enough rest and I prompted them along to the top. 

Near the summit the trail narrowed considerably. That east that every time someone came down the stairs we had to squeeze ourselves to the rock to allow them to pass. At one of the switchback corners I found a small tree that grew in a crack in the rock. Coming closer I was much surprised to identify this tree as a California laurel! I had to actually tear a leaf and smell it to confirm the identification. Such an unusual location for that species. 
California Laurel, Umbellularia California 

The final flight of stairs, orange with the setting sun, and we had to wait for a couple of families to make their way down before we could squeeze our way up to the summit. 

The day was coming to its end. We stood at the summit of Moro Rock and enjoyed the peaceful scenery all around us. The wind picked up and I wrapped my arms around my body in the sudden chill. I could no longer look to the west because the setting sun was shining directly into my eyes and the Kaweah Valley was obliterated by the evening glare. I averted my eyes and enjoyed the northwestern view instead. 

The sky above us was very busy with swallows flying fast and displaying intense aerobatics. Photographing them with the camera I had was futile but I tried nonetheless. 

We were no longer alone at the summit. A small group of young visitors came up the flight of stairs. We had seen them earlier at the Generals Grove. Apparently one of my friends had already chatted with them and was happy to greet them again at the top of Moro Rock. They were tourists from Italy and they were having a lot of fun in California. I was glad to give them a few pointers on what there is more to see in the area. 
We didn't stay longer at the summit. Saying goodbye to our Italian friends we started descending down the narrow path. Turning again to the west-facing slope I stopped to look at the rock face again. In that spot the rock decoration was not lichen but moss. The moss was lush and moist, indicating a great deal of dew or fog condensing on the west-facing granite. 

Somehow looking down seemed scarier than the view up ...

The sun sunk below the horizon while we descended from Moro Rock, and the last evening rays were painting the tree tops gold. 

Silently we came down the last few stairs. As we made our way to my car, now almost alone in the parking lot, a new car came speeding down the road, stopped and a noisy family spilled out of it, brushing against us as they sped up the trail, attempting to catch the last day light ay the summit. The sunset they had already missed. 
A bit shocked by the sudden burst of someone else's energy we got in the car and drove off in silence to our campground down at the Kaweah Reservoir. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

The True Awe-Inspiring Generals, at Sequoia National Park

Giant Sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum 

Date: August 17, 2019
Place: Sequoia National Park, Three Rivers, California
Coordinates: 36.580704, -118.752025
Length: 2.5 miles
Level: easy

In my opinion the giant sequoias are a must see to anyone visiting California. These extraordinary trees grow only in California in a few groves on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. It was no surprise then that when we get visitors from overseas we do our best to work into their schedule a trip to see the big trees. On August 2019 I took a couple of friends on a two-weeks road trip

It was a busy summer and when we arrived to the General Sherman parking area we found it full. Every parking area within walking distance was also full. We were lucky to find a spot at the Wolverton Picnic Area and take the shuttle from there to the Generals Highway at the point closest to General Sherman, the individual giant sequoia that's the largest tree in the world. It was a couple of minutes walk to General Sherman, which we found surrounded by many park visitors. I couldn't get a people-free photo of this amazing tree. Not that it's an easy thing to fit it into a single frame even with no people present. Giant Sequoia are really difficult to capture in perspective. 
Giant Sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum

My friends started circling around General Sherman along with the crowds. After telling to them what they aught to know about giant sequoia I let my attention drift from the big trees to the little beings closer to the ground. 

The ground user the sequoia trees was mostly bare of vegetation. There were patches of young conifers and a shrub here and there, but no significant cover of annuals, certainly no blooming carpets. Here and there however, I saw a blooming wildflower of one of the common conifer forest species. It was nice to see that there was still a touch of spring even later in summer. 
Toothed Wintergreen, Pyrola picta

Wetter spots, between large rocks or where a small creek trickled by the trail, showed more greenery and a bit more bloom. 

After circling General Sherman and taking all the photos we could of the mighty giant we started on the Generals Trail, a short and easy loop through the grove of giant sequoia.

The scars of past fires were evident all around us. Old giant sequoia trees are more fire resistant than most trees, having a very thick bark packed wit tannins which are fire attenuators. Very much like their relative, the coast redwood, a quick moving forest fire leave these giants scarred but alive. 

Intense blazes do kill even giant sequoia. Sadly, we have also encountered the charred remains of trees that succumbed to a fire more intense that even the mighty sequoia could withstand. 

The giant trees were growing mostly well apart from each other but very little direct light was making it down the tall trunks all the way to the forest floor. There was very little undergrowh between the sequoia trees. I was therefore, surprised and pleased to see a cluster of what looked to me like sunflowers in a small depression off the trail. It was too far for me to get a clear shot but there were enough of them to make a beautiful colorful patch. 

I wasn't about to give up on trying to fit an entire giant sequoia into a single frame. This is one way it can be done.

A smell of smoke stood in the air. It wasn't very strong but it was an indication that the most recent fire was in fact, quite recent. I remembered having smelled the ashes of a fire scar several months old in the Grand Grove area, so I thought that this fire could have been days to weeks ago. It was only when I saw actual smoke swirling from beneath a still smoldering charred pine log that I realized how recent this recent fire actually was. So recent that it wasn't completely out and cold.

In the beginning of sequoia tourism the big trees were given names in honor of men of high status. In the Generals Grove, the trees are named after US military generals. Not very familiar with US military history, most names were unfamiliar to me. Some were, though, and one surprised me - one of the big trees was named after general Lee. 
I cannot say I'm too hot about naming sequoia trees after people, but if so, I'm sure they could have had better choices.

Did I mention that giant sequoia get really big? One wouldn't expect such giants to grow too close to each other, but it's not rare at all to see two or more giant trees growing very very close to one another. Knowing this species fuses roots underground it is probably possible to see them as a single unit even if they did sprout from separate seeds. 
Giant Sequoia twins, Sequoiadendron giganteum

A past fire left this duo scarred enough to have a room for a person to walk between them, and so I did. I like to get a different perspective on things. 
Giant Sequoia twins, Sequoiadendron giganteum

As big as these trees are, their root system is actually quite shallow. They would have collapsed more often if not for supporting each other by fusing roots underground. A connected root network also allows the sequoia to pass water, nutrients, and hormone signals between them. 
The root crown might be small for the sequoia but it's certainly huge by any human standard.

A big part of the generals Loop Trail is paved and accessible, making it an easy trail to stroll along and forget about the passing time and the lengthening shadows. We took our time meandering between the trees and occasionally stopping to chat with other park visitors.  

There were so few wildflowers in the thin forest undergrowth that I was very excited with any dot of color I happened to chance upon along the trail. 

Of course there were other interesting sights in the Generals Grove, such as the long, beautiful cones of the sugar pine trees that grew alongside the giant sequoia. 
Sugar Pine cone

As we curved around the big trees, making our way back to the General Sherman area we came upon a large, fallen sequoia log where a passage was cut through for visitors on foot. It was clear in this case that the 'tunnel' was cut after the tree fell but I couldn't help remembering all the big trees, both giant sequoia and coast redwood, that were cut int tunnels while alive and erect only to provide amusement for the visiting spectators. Most of the tune trees are no longer alive and erect - cutting the tunnels had compromised their stability and rendered them vulnerable to the elements, much more so than their intact neighbors. 

Around the curve we came upon a patch of baby sequoias and I broke into a big smile. This amazing species that had survived the Ice Age and had withstood intense challenges is still kicking new life. It's great to see the next sequoia generation coming up and I hope they'll get to be as big and old as the Generals. 

The baby sequoias as well as other young trees were growing in clearing areas where the big trees had fallen down, leaving holes in the forest canopy for the sunlight to stream though. Near the baby trees other shrubs took advantage of the more abundant sunlight. 

We completed the Generals Loop. I waved goodbye to General Sherman and led my friends back to the shuttle stop. While waiting for the shuttle I amused myself by checking out some of the local herbaceous plants that were blooming in the sunny patch near the road. As it turned out, this wildflower was a lifer for me - it was the first time I've seen it blooming :-) 
Draperia, Draperia systyla 

The Generals Loop Trail is a very nice easy hike to get acquainted with the giant sequoia at Sequoia National Park. Although my friends usually enjoy more challenging hikes, I wouldn't have let them skip on that one. I see it as a personal mission to introduce all my visitors from overseas to the wonder fo California's Big Trees!  

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Needn't Go Far: Hiking near the Little Truckee River Campground

Little Truckee River 

Date: June 21, 2020
Place: Upper Little Truckee Campground, Truckee, California
Coordinates: 39.491291, -120.244932
Length: 3 miles on and out in both directions
Level: easy

After hiking for two days at the Plumas-Eureka State Park The last day of our first COVID-19 era camping trip I planned to simply hike along the Little Truckee River. It wasn't where we had planned to stay and hike but since that's where we ended up camping there we decided to explore the immediate vicinity.
Our hike as captured by my GPS

In the morning we took our time breaking camp and getting ready to hike. Even before setting out however, the elder chika was busy birding by the campground. She had already sighted an osprey's nest nearby and was avidly taking photos of the nest and the birds flying back and forth with nesting materials. 

Smaller birds were bolder coming near our campsite, mainly this little nuthatch that apparently resided on the tree right by the campsite's parking spot. The little bird would drop to the ground and hop between the cars, checking the ground for little bugs and giving my chika plenty of photo ops. 
White-breasted Nuthatch 

The day before I picked the brains of the campground host about what's there to see in the area and he was very excited to tell us about a large beaver that resides upstream and was visiting the campground at nights. He suggested we'd hike to see the beaver's lodge about a mile and a half upstream. We weren't fortunate to see the beaver herself on her campground visit but we jumped on the idea of hiking along the beautiful river we camped by for three nights.
Little Truckee River 

One the campsite was clean and the cars loaded we started our hike upstream the Little Truckee River, due north. My two birders were at the lead and I at the rear, looking for wildflowers. 
Northwest Cinquefoil, Potentilla gracilis

The trail north of the Upper Little Truckee campground isn't an official trail but a path maintained by the casual foot traffic of dog walkers, anglers, and lay hikers. The path veers between proximity to the river and the road, depending on whatever obstacles there are along the way.  

My birders paused at the edge of the campground just before entering the trail proper. They had spotted a bird that to me looked just like any other little gray bush bird but apparently this one was something more special - a solitaire. 
Townsend's Solitaire

I, however, found something special indeed - a peony that was still blooming, albeit so late in the season. 
Peony, Peonia brownii

In no time at all we arrived at a wide area of the river where the current was very slow. It was too close to fit the description of the campground host as to where the beaver lodge was, and indeed, there were no signs of beaver activity there. 

My birders found a dipper there, which I was very excited about. I love dippers and I am pleased whenever I get to see them.  
American Dipper

Upper stream the river narrowed and the current sped up. The sweet sound of rushing water that lulled me to sleep at my nights there was caressing my ears now as I walked along the bank. 
Little Truckee River 

There were plenty of wildflowers along the path. Some were growing as individuals here and there but many were growing in large, colorful patches. 
Sulphur Buckwheat, Eriogonum umbellatum

I've also seen some wildflowers that I don't get to see often, not even in the Sierra Nevada. They aren't rare, I guess I just happen to miss their season most of the time.
Sierra Nevada Pea, Lathyrus nevadensis

The river side wasn't heavily forested but there were plenty of trees between the water and the road, especially pine trees. The pines were at the peak of their bloom too, and yellow clouds of pine pollen streamed from the trees whenever the wind moved them. 
Pine, Pinus sp. 

An excited call from the people at the head of our little group told me that we had arrived at the beaver's territory. Sure enough, there were plenty of gnawed trees all over the place. 
Beaver Chow

The trail sort of disappeared there and we made a slow progress across felled trees and rocky ditches until we arrived at a pond by the side of the main river. We have reached the beaver pond and her lodge. The beaver herself was probably sleeping inside her hut.  
Beaver Lodge 
The hike back from the beaver lodge didn't last long. I took a moment here and there to look at flowers I'd brushed by before but didn't really see any new sights on our walk back to the campground.
Broadleaf Lupine, Lupinus latifolius

At the campground my friend told me that she needed to start back home, and she took the boys with her. We waved goodbye and watched their car disappearing down hwy 89 toward Truckee. 
Large-flowered Collomia, Collomia grandiflora

I wasn't ready to leave just yet. It was still early and I wasn't at all eager to go back to unloading camping gear and doing laundry, so I convinced the rest of my family to hike some more along the Little Truckee River, this time downstream, to the south. 
Little Truckee River

Switching direction, we had to first cross the campground again. Common birds seen at the campground are the Steller's jays, always looking for something to eat when humans aren't paying attention. This one in the photo stuck to a more natural diet.
Steller's Jay

There is a maintained forest trail linking between the Upper and the Lower Little Truckee Campgrounds. Exiting the Upper campground on it's south end we were now walking south on this trail to the Lower campground. Almost immediately I found that there were plenty more wildflowers on this side of the campground than on the north side.
Oregon Checker Mallow, Malva oregana

I saw flowers blooming there that I haven't seen on the north side. I don't know that they aren't there, I simply didn't see them.
Low Phacelia, Phacelia humilis

Even flowers I've already seen on the north side of the campground seemed more numerous on the south side. Walking leisurely along the easy, flat path, I had ample time to enjoy the entire display of mid-summer colors. 
Silvery Lupine, Lupinus argenteus 

The trail neared the river where Pappa Quail and the elder chika saw some birds in the trees and stopped to take a better look. I walked to the river bank and looked at the water flowing gently as a silver strip between the pine trees. 
Little Truckee River

My birders took their time going round the tree where a few of those little brown birds where doing their best to keep just out of sight. Meanwhile the younger chika and I got fascinated by red ants that were busy below our feet. 

Insects were plentiful everywhere around us. For the most, it's butterflies I pay attention to. They are colorful, and often pose on top of flowers so I get two subjects in one photo. Many other times however, the insects provide their own show of nature, like these nest of caterpillars.  

After what I thought was enough time waiting I started edging away on the trail. Not quite turning away but hinting that it might be time to move on. 
Whiskerbrush. Leptosiphon ciliatus

Pappa Quail and the elder chika were pleased  when done circling that little pine grove by the river. There were plenty of birds there, and a ew even showed themselves and posed for the cameras. 
Red-breasted Sapsucker

June is a busy season for the birds in the Sierra Nevada and that was certainly evident with all the singing, chirping and twitting that was heard from the canopies. Gathering nesting materials was also a commonly observed activity, and of course - gathering food (which of course isn't an activity restricted to early summer). 
Brown Creeper

Back on the trail we kept going south between the trees. The pines gave way to poplars and other broad leaf species, but none were casting any decent shade on the trail. It was mid day now, and getting pretty hot. 

Thoughts of perhaps turning back early vanished from my mind when we came upon another patch of wildflowers, including more such as I haven't seen yet that day. 
Scarlet Gilia, Ipomopsis aggregata

I did see the pussypaws along the trail already. In fact, I see this species so frequent on my Sierra Nevada hies that I hardy ever photograph it any more. As we got near the Lower Little Truckee campground however, we came upon a large path of pussypaws that was so beautiful that I had to stop and gasp with delight. I took several photos of the patch, none of which actually delivers the intensity of the color of these flowers. 

The campground tents were visible behind the next grove of pines and we decided that it was a good place to turn around. 

As we crossed the patch of pussypaws again I took a few closeup photos, each featuring a different pollinator insect. There were many, many of them there. Like the birds, they were all busy enjoying the bread offered them by the early mountain summer. 
One-seeded Pussypaws, Calyptridium monospermum

The way back north was fairly quick. It was hot and, knowing that this is our last walk before heading home had quickened our pace. Having walked the same trail south also meant that we've already seen what there was to see along the way. 
Red-breasted Nuthatch

Going back on the same trail also gives the opportunity to try again for shots that didn't quite came right the first time around. 
Leichtlin's Mariposa Lily, Calochortus leichtlinii

Back at the Upper Little Truckee campground we said goodbye to the helpful camp host. I looked at the river flowing gently southward - we would follow that flow all the way to the town of Truckee. Past the town we'd be splitting direction as we would turn west. 
Little Truckee River

Even in COVID-19 days, our trip west on I-80 was dammed by a traffic jam near Davis. I changed seats with Pappa Quail and slept all the way home.