Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Back to the Modoc: Emerson Lake Trail

Emerson Lake Trail at the South Warner Wilderness, Modoc County

Date: July 4, 2020
Place: The South Warner Wilderness, Eagleville, California
Coordinates: 41.263677, -120.138940
Length: 7 miles in and out
Level: strenuous

Our first family road trip in the COVID-19 pandemic time was to central Oregon. On our way back we stayed a couple of nights in Alturas, already back within the California borders. We planned to visit the Modoc NWR and to do a hike at the South Warner Wilderness (SWW), an area where we have hiked, and even backpacked, a couple of times before, but really didn't have enough of. 
On the morning of the 4th of July, after spending some time watching the holiday parade in Alturas, we headed east to Cedarville and then south to the Emerson Lake trailhead. On the way the elder chika spotted an eagle on a power line pole by the rode, so we had to stop for the family birders to get their satisfaction. 
Golden Eagle 

From the main road we took a long and winding dirt road to the trailhead. The dirt road was a single lane cut into the slope with no side space or pullouts. When Pappa Quail spotted the mariposa lilies on the roadside I squeezed the car as much as I could to the hillside, then had to climb a few steps up the crumbling soil of the slope to get a good view of the lovely flowers. 
The first time I've seen this species of mariposa lily was in Lava Beds National Monument, not too far from the SWW. It was great seeing it again in bloom. 
Sagebrush Mariposa Lily. Calochortus macrocarpus  

We arrived at the small campground where the trailhead was. There were a few vehicles parked there and I assumed that we'll see more hikers on the trail. We got our packs and cameras and started along the dirt road up the hill. 

Our hike as captured by my GPS

We walked for abut 5 minutes before we figured out we were on the wrong side of the creek and had to come down and cross the water to find the actual trail on the north side of the creek. 

As usual, the birders of my family had moved forward, looking to spot the chirpers in the trees. The first sighting wasn't actually a bird though, but an empty nest that fell from the tree. 

When they did find the first bird there was much delight - it was the colorful western tanager. 
Western Tanager

A bit further up the trail I made my next exciting discovery of a rein orchid, a patch of them, in fact, right by the water. 
Scentbottle, Platanthera dilatata 

The lower part of the trail was under the forest canopy, right along the Emerson Creek. The slope was mild at first, with only a few short steep segments here and there. We had to cross the creek back and forth a couple of times, but eventually the trail settled on the north side of the creek and rose above the creek bed.
Emerson Lake Trail

Two years ago, when we went backpacking at the SWW at exactly the same week of the year, there were snow patches on the ground still. This time there was non left. The soil however, still retained the dampness, and under the pine needle cover there were mushrooms blooming.

As the trail rose above the creek bed, so did the slope steepen. Out in the sun now, there were other kinds of wildflowers blooming along the trail. 
Low Phacelia, Phacelia humilis

The trail we were walking on isn't marked on any of the navigation instruments we had, nor in the AllTrails app. It is marked on the SWW topo map, and we had used this paper map as we used to in the pre-GPS navigation stone age to figure out our location. Not that it was very critical because the trail was pretty obvious. The important point was to know when we would come across the water so we could fill our bottles. We were very close to the creek still, but already inconveniently high above it. And it was a hot day. 
Emerson Creek

Heat is good for insects and there were many of them buzzing all over the place. The butterflies of course, grabbed most of our attention. 

Even Pappa Quail and the elder chika who were focused on finding birds were enchanted by the colorful butterflies. 

The trail steepened and the day heated up. We were walking mostly under the sun, which was now directly above us. Our pace slowed down and soon we had our first rest stop in a small patch of shade cast by a pine tree close enough to the trail. 
Hot Rock Penstemon, Penstemon deustus var. pedicellatus

Not all pollinators are butterflies, of course. Although less photogenic, flies wee pretty common flower visitors that day as well. They are harder to photograph, but I managed to catch a few shots. 
Cinquefoil, Potentilla sp.

I kept checking the map to see when we will cross the creek again. When we came near it, we were still too far above it. I wasn't worried though. According to the map the trail was to cross one of the creek's tributaries a bit further up. I just hoped it wouldn't be dry when we get there. 

Meanwhile, I kept stopping every yard or so to appreciate the wildflowers. 
Onion, Allium sp.

At least for one plant however, I stopped because of its strange, hairy fruit rather than the wildflowers. 

Pursh's Milkvetch, Astragalus purshii

My family already knows my passion, so when they saw a mariposa lily blooming they yelled to me so loud and urgent that I had to run up ahead to see it. It was the Leichtlin's mariposa lily I was familiar with from my Sierra Nevada hikes but I was excited to see it in the SWW nonetheless. 
Leichtsinns Mariposa Lily, Calochortus leichtlinii 

They were good at spotting even less glamorous flowers for me. Already familiar with the violet genus, my young chika made sure I wouldn't miss any of them on this hike. 
Violet, Viola sp.

It seemed that the higher we ascended, the more numerous and more colorful the flowers were. Patches of  paintbrush shrubs dotted the mountainside with brilliant contrast to the brownish-gray soil and the matted green leaves of the mule-ears.
Great Red Paintbrush, Castilejja miniata

The mule-ears were the most common wildflowers blooming at the time. Only a few here and there at lower elevation but carpeting entire areas of the upper slopes along the trail.
Woolly Mule's Ears, Wyethia mollis

I named my young chika after this gorgeous genus of flowers, and whenever I see any of its wild species blooming on our family hikes I point it out to here with delight. Roses make me happy.
Woods' Rose, Rosa woodsy, pollinated by a long-horned beetle 

The trail took a curve away from the creek, up and around the mountainside contour. It was pretty hot now, and our water was getting low. On the other hand, we were already quite high up the trail with not much distance left to get to the lake. 

Still, we could use another rest stop during which I was busy exploring the nearby vegetation and pollinators. 
Varied Leaf Phacelia, Phacelia heterophylla var. virgata 

Brilliant yellow buckwheat bloomed in large patches near where we stopped and attracted many bees that made the young chika a bit nervous. I was fascinated by all the insects that wre bussing around the flowers, many of which were flies, too. 
Sulphur Buckwheat, Eriogonum umbellatum 

The south facing slope bathed in brilliant sunshine. A few trees, keeping good social distancing from one another, avoiding competition over the limited water on the drier side of the mountain. 

Not shaded by trees, the drought-tolerant shrubs dominated the south-facing slope. As we continue our ascent up the trail I was checking out all these pretty beauties with every step. 
Morning Glory, Calystegia Occidentalis 

Another common color along the trail was the lupine blues, like feathery bits of summer sky that descended to the earth. 
Silvery Lupine, Lupinus argenteus

When we finally came upon a tributary that was running we stopped to filter some water and there I found some veronica flowers, dotting some more blue at the creekside. 
American Brooklime, Veronica americana

After crossing the tributary we were back inside the forest, walking underneath the trees. It was a relief to be in the shade for a change. Eased by the shade and eager to get to the lake, we quickened our pace. 

In the forest - there are forest birds to be found, and my family borders indeed found them. Some of them, anyway. 
Western Wood Pewee 

A little higher up and the familiar and much welcomed fragrance of the coyote mint is mixed in the air we breath, now heavily once again.
Pale Mountain Monardella, Monardella odoratissima ssp. pallida

Closer to the ridge now, the slope became milder again. We were still under the trees but the heat was heavy and we stopped for yet another breather and a drink of water.

Right there under the trees, really close to the trail I noticed an interesting wildflower that I have never seen before. The flower looked very much like a tomato flower, placing it in the Solanaceae family, but other than that, I had no idea. Only later at home I found out that was indeed a lifer for me.
Dwarf Chameasaracha, Chameasaracha nana

At last we were out of the forest and on the final ascend toward the lake, Making our way under the hot sun and between the little suns of the mule-ears flowers we made a slow progress toward the basin, expecting to see the lake at any step.
Woolly Mule-ears, Wyethie mollis

At the final stretch before reaching the lake I paused to enjoy the brilliant green shine of the cornlilies, growing asked in the shallow depression between the trees. 

A few more steps, and there it was - person Lake. Pappa Quail and I joked about Palmer not being around (I actually checked the map to see if there was any feature with that name in the area, nerdy me). We walked around a bit looking for a good place to sit and surprised three hikers under the trees above the lake. The hikers seemed a bit jarred by our arrival and cleared off shortly after. 
Emerson lake

I went down to the water to look around and to fill the bottles. It was difficult to get to the water without sinking in smooth, silty mud and stirring the mud in the water. I found a stable enough patch of vegetation to stand on while filling the bottles. A bird started screaming and jumped from the nearby shore vegetation, and as I walked carefully away the bird hopped away, screaming like mad, and dragging it's wing on the ground, as if broken.

This behavior (pretending to be injured) is a way for birds to distract predators from the nest. I didn't see where the nest was and I wasn't about to look for it or to follow the screaming bird. Indeed, after a few more seconds the bird ceased the show and flew off. I went back to our stilling place and sent my family birders down while I sat down to filter the lake water. They came back with images of spotted sandpiper - the bird has performed for them too.
Spotted Sandpiper

But hey, I got a winged creature on camera too!

We sat by Emerson Lake for nearly an hour, but finally it was time to head back down. It was past mid day but the heat was still intense. Hurrying to get in the shade we half walked, half galloped down the trail.
Emerson Lake Trail

We were going down the same trail we came up on, and still there were more wildflowers to see and appreciate. 
Pussy Paws, Calyptridium umbellatum

Going down, however, gave me a fantastic new point of view on the view. The air wasn't too hazy and I could see quite far into the horizon. Within a few months we would be heading east into that high desert scenery on a different road trip, in search of wintering birds. 
View east from the South Warner Wilderness

From the height of the trail I also had a better view of the beautiful features of the ancient lava flow that makes bedrock of the mountain range. 
Way far in the crevice I could even see a straggling snow patch, and it brought me memories of our backpacking trip to the SWW when we got trapped behind a snow field. It was the same time of year, yet way earlier in the season. 

The day got older and the shadows were lengthening. Looking up at the north slope I had the vision of green flames licking the sky. These were the pine trees, shaped like beautiful condensed drops because of the space between them, not needing to compete with one another over sunlight while reaching to forest canopy heights. 

A little surprise waited for me on the way down - a milkweed plant that I noticed on the way up but had all of its flowers closed, had now a few of them open. Especially for me, I guess. I didn't pass on the opportunity.
Purple Milkweed, Asclepias cordifolia

I don't mind in and out trails. Each time I pass the same trail, even on the same day, I get to see new sights that I haven't seen the first time around. 
American Dogwood, Cornus sericea

The way down was much quicker, naturally. Before long we were back at the lower part of the trail, the part where we needed to weave back and forth across the Emerson Creek. The heat seemed to break a bit too. 
Emerson Creek

We slowed down again, enjoying a lazy stroll back to the little parking lot, looking at the busy squirrel. 
Douglas Squirrel 

At the campground near the parking lot a little party was going on. We got into the car and drove back into Alturas for the last night of our summer road trip. 
Crimson Columbine, Aquilegia formosa 



  1. ooh, what lucky people you are ;-)
    really a beautiful hike!
    the first butterfly is Aglais milberti - also called tortoiseshell
    the second one - I think - is Chlosyne palla - Northern Checkerspot
    the dark bugs approaching the Cinquefoil look like small bees, not flies. the antennas are of bees and not flies.

    1. Thanks for the insects ID! I'll edit those in soon. It was a very nice hike, I wish you were there with us!

  2. very nice trail - flowers, birds, views... we don't need more than that :-)
    But of course the one thing missing was really Palmer :-)
    I liked the "pre-GPS navigation stone age" term

    1. I did look for Palmer ... tried very hard ... he was a no show. At least we had a nice hike :-)