Saturday, October 7, 2017

Regrown Beauty: The Forest of Nisene Marks


Date: September 2, 2017
Place: The Forest of Nisene Marks, Aptos, California
Coordinates: 36.985961, -121.904619
Length: About 2.5 miles
Level: easy

I was looking for new places to take my family hiking group to early fall. Considering the heat wave we California was going through at the time I was left with one of two options: the ocean coast or the redwood forest. Naturally I was drawn to the Santa Cruz area that features both fantastic beaches and some marvelous forests. It didn't take a long time to select a destination. I called a couple of my friends and together we went to The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park to explore.
My first hike there was a very beautiful one, but too challenging for a group of families with small children. So a few days later I was there again, this time with my own family, to hike one of the lower loops close to the park's entrance. We hiked a loop trail that combined sections of the Old Growth Loop, the Live Oak Loop, and the Terrace Loop trails, and we hiked it clockwise. A day before the planned group hike I snuck back to the park and did a solo hike of the same trail, counterclockwise. Most of the photos I share here are from those two hikes, with a few additions from the group hikes of the following week.

Finding parking on nice weekends can be challenging there. On Labor Day weekend the place was jam-packed. We got there early enough to sneak unto the last legal spot and by the time we gathered all our things and were ready to hit the trail there was a long line of cars parked in little pull outs along the road and many more waiting at the gate.

Our family hike as captured by Pappa Quail's GPS
I took a moment to decide which loop to start on, but not before long, we were on the trail.

We didn't get very far before our first stop: the elder chika found some ripe blackberries. Naturally, we all stopped for a snack and got our fingers stained with berry juice and blood.

As surprised as I was to see blackberries so late in season, I was even more surprised to see some still blooming. I guess there will be fruit even later this fall.

I didn't expect to see much bloom if any. But I did see a few redwood sorrel flowers, almost completely hidden in the foliage. 
Redwood Sorrel, Oxalis oregana 
Our path took us across Aptos Creek. A narrow wooden bridge transversed the water and almost underneath it was a 'dam' of rocks and driftwood. Upstream the dam the water flow was slow, almost unnoticeable. The water surface was very calm, mirroring perfectly the canyon image. 
It was tempting to sit near the water and we did stay there for some time, but before long I prompted my family along, reminding the chikas of our plans to go to the beach after the hike. On my subsequent hikes there with the family hiking groups we hiked the loop in the opposite direction and so finished the hike at this lovely spot, allowing plenty f time to hang out and have fun there. 
I had one more reason to lead my groups clockwise on the following hikes: the trail west of the creek is quite steep for s good distance and I assumed most people would find it easier to walk it downhill rather than uphill as I did with my family. 
Going uphill west of Aptos Creek: a Five Fingers Fern and Redwood Sorrel
The slope west of Aptos Creek was a sad sight: a huge area was almost completely taken over by English Ivy: an extremely aggressive invasive plant. Once taking root, this plat cannot be eradicated, It flourishes in the Bay Area, covering large areas and choking the local vegetation, including tall trees upon which it climbs. I've seen this at Mt. Tamalpais and Henry Cowell Redwoods State Parks, and now here. I recently learned of a plan to make biological warfare on the ivy, and my feelings are mixed because it involves releasing another foreign species - an insect that's supposed to feed specifically on the English Ivy. It's a good thought, but what if the bug mutates to broaden its palate to  native species? 
English Ivy
Near the slope's apex there was a side trail leading to the Advocate Tree - a 1000 years old redwood that was spared when the forest was logged 150 years ago. I went down that trail and my family followed. 
I was saddened to see the this majestic tree on the ground. A card with the tree's historic timeline was attached to the tree roots. On the card it said that the tree collapsed during last winter.
The Advocate Tree
After a few minur\tes I noticed the fresh redwood growth that was sprouting from the fallen tree trunk in several places. The Advocate Tree was downed, but not dead! Not yet, anyway. I am amazed at the resilience of this species. These trees are truly awesome.
The Advocate Tree New Growth
We returned to the main trail and continued uphill. My elder chika found a strawberry and after getting my approval she ate it. This is an exotic strawberry species, one that is used in gardening and now escaped to the wild.
Indian Strawberry, Duchesnea indica  Non-native.
They found a banana slug too. A bit surprising, considering how hot and dry the day was.
Banana Slug
A redwood forest isn't the ideal place to look for fall colors but nonetheless they are apparent to those who look for them. And I did look for fall colors. None better wearing fall reds than the good old poison oak.
Poison Oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum
Meanwhile Pappa Quail found a butterfly and managed to capture a nice photo when the critter paused its flight for a second.

He also got a nice capture of the California Sister that the chikas had sighted further up the trail.
California Sister Butterfly
Up on the hill the trail leveled and then started down in a mild slope. We were walking among tall and thin redwoods, young fairy rings that sprouted from the base of the logged old tree that was there before. All these thin redwoods are the young scions of the old growth ancient trees that are now beams and walls of houses in San Francisco and other area towns.

Young as they are, these redwoods are immensely tall. Given time and the right conditions they will become even taller, and as massive as their progenitors.
Coast Redwood, Sequoia sempervirens 
We could hear many birds in the canopy, but those we saw on the ground and in the undergrowth were the common dark-eyed juncos. They were looking for seeds.
Dark-eyed Junco 
We kept descending and eventually arrived at the Vienna Woods Trail. There we turned back south, parallel to the Aptos Creek.
While the creek was flowing still, the forest itself was dry, ready to receive the expected rains. There were spiderwebs everywhere, of every kind. We weren't the first people on that trail so we didn't have to walk through the cobwebs.

Everywhere around us were the stumps of the loved old trees, with or without the new stump-sprouted young redwoods. On on of those stumps I was surprised to see growing a completely different tree - a tan oak, as if grafted onto the redwood stump.

Still high above the creek we found a beautiful view point on the canyon and the flowing water. A thin rope was hanging from a tree limb high over the creek and I wondered at what point did people feel inclined to swing over the stream.

The creek of course, had been flowing much higher and stronger not very long ago. As we made our way down to the valley floor we could tell by the wash signs and the huge pile of driftwood just how high the flow was last winter, even without considering the pole that was stuck in the sand as a marker.
there too was a rope hanging over the sand. It was over the water at some point, that's for sure.

I don't think I'd have risked myself going into the water while the current was strong enough to carry theses logs.

We arrived at the second crossing of Aptos Creek and found that there was no bridge there. The creek was shallow now, and the current week. Pappa Quail and the elder chika balanced on the rocks while me and the younger chika took our shoes off and waded across. The water was cold, very refreshing in the heat of the day. On my subsequent hikes I brought my hiking poles along and used them to balance on the rocks as well.
Aptos Creek
We connected with the Aptos Creek Fire Road and continued south toward the entrance station where we were parked. On our way we came across a nice observation deck. I had not realized how much height we had gained over the creek in such a short distance. But come to think of it, it is probably the creek that had dropped its altitude.
Observation Deck
By the time we had made it back to the car the day had turned sweltering hot. From there we drove to Natural Bridges State Beach and topped our day in the wonderful tide pools there and refreshed ourselves in the cold Pacific Ocean water.

On my solo hike a few days laterI took the time to look around a bit more and I found more ripe blackberries to snack on.
I also found more lovely fall colors. We're definitely ready for the rain here.
Fall Colors

Saturday, September 30, 2017

What's Cookin' at the Devil's Kitchen?

Devil's Kitchen

Date: June 2016
Place: Lassen Volcanic National Park, Chester, California
Coordinates: 40.443145, -121.397180
Length: 4 miles in and out
Level: easy to moderate

last year I visited Lassen Volcanic National Park with a group of families.We were there in mid-June and the trail to Bumpass Hell was buried in snow so we went to see Devil's Kitchen instead.
Two days before our group hike I was there with only my chikas, and at that time I took most of these photos.
It is a long and partly dirt forest road from the town of Chester to Warner Valley where the trailhead is, and a tiny dirt lot for parking at the end of it. The park rangers have been diverting people to Warner Valley so the tiny lot was nearly full. I managed to squeeze into a shady spot, prompted my chikas out of the car and headed down the trail.

The trail begins in the woods, and in the beginning it is mostly level. I could hear the creek flowing below us and here and there also caught glimpses of it between the trees.
Hot Springs Creek
After a short distance the trail exits the woods into a meadow and becomes a boardwalk.  It was so green there it almost hurt my eyes :-)

A robin perched on a rock in the meadow was eyeing us warily, barely remaining put until was all passed his rock.
American Robin
The trail led us to the creek crossing. Just before going on the bridge I noticed something gray in the water. My elder chika burst forward exclaiming, "Dipper!"
There were, in fact, two dippers, hopping about near the water. We stayed there for a while observing them, then crossed the bridge and moved on.

After the creek crossing the trail continues on the hillside slope. Little brooks were flowing downhill, crossing our path and muddying the trail. One of these brooks seemed to be flowing right to a pool next to a group of buildings down below.

A close inspection of the water revealed why. It was hot! To hot to dip a finger in it for more than a second. This little brook was feeding the hot springs pool at the Drakesbad resort below.

The plants growing right by the water were obviously tolerant of the heat. Yellow monkeyflowers were blooming there, some yarrow, and this selfheal plant, a relative of sage.
Selfheal, Prunella vulgaris
Along the trail there were many other wildflowers blooming, most of them very small.

Violet, Viola sp.
I would have walked with my eyes on the ground if not having to see where I was going. The ground was covered with little wildflowers.
Nevada Lewisia, Lewisia nevadensis
Not all flowers were miniature. The larkspur stood out both in height and in its brilliant blue color.
Larkspur, Delphinium sp.
Our path lead us into the woods again. On the day I was there with the family group I held everyone behind me for a few long minutes while we all admired a fearless Tanager that was busy collecting nesting material right on the trail ahead of us. It was my elder chika that spotted (and identified) it and we all waited patiently until the pretty bird was done and flew off with a beak full of straw.
Western Tanager
We arrived at another creek crossing. The water was visible only from the bridge because of all the lush willows that bent over the creek, creating a narrow, green tunnel.
Hot Springs Creek
On the other side the trail continues along the creek for a short distance. Then it meets the trail from the Drakesbad Resort in a weird T intersection. We turned left, in the direction of the Devil's Kitchen.
We were walking in a field of grasses and rushes but corn lilies were still present. Not in a huge pasture like before, but in pretty, round cushions. None were blooming yet.
California Corn Lily, Veratrum californicum
Coming out of the last of the trees we were looking up a beautiful meadow, lush and green. The path was well hidden in the fresh growth, visible only when directly on it.
A mild smell of sulfur hang in the air. Somewhere ahead there were volcanic hot springs :-)

A small rivulet crossed our trail. This one had cold water flowing through. 

A moving contraption caught my eye: in the water, just off the bridge, was a handmade waterwheel. There was no indication of who put it there and why. I wondered if it was some sort of a boy scouts project left behind.

My thoughts didn't linger in the waterwheel for there were far more attractive things to look at near this brook, such as blooming bog orchids.
Sierra Bog Orchid, Platanthera dilatata 
The meadow trail continued on, leading to the forest ahead. In parts the trail was a narrow boardwalk, protecting the wetland underneath and the hikers too, no doubt.

Our day turned quite warm so we welcomed getting back into the shade of the woods. We did, however, started ascending almost immediately. The slope was mild, but continuous.

We walked uphill slowly, enjoying the shade and the fresh smell of the conifers forest. The trees weren't very crowded and there were quite a few wildflowers on the forest floor.
Northern Bog Violet, Viola nephrophylla 
Some of these forest wildflowers I was really happy to see and took the time to crouch down and get a good close-up.
Mountain Fritillary, Fritillary atropurpurea
The red candle-like blossom of the snow plant dotted the forest floor with brilliant red. Not as numerous as I've seen in the northern region of the park, but very conspicuous nonetheless.
Snow Plant, Sarcodes sanguinea

The chikas found a snow patch and that made them very happy. Of course we had to spend a few moments there for some snow play.

As we were going up the smell of sulfur strengthened. Then the slope became a steeper uphill, and just as the chikas were asking for another break we reached the top. From there it was a steep drop into Devil's Kitchen.

Devil's Kitchen is an active volcanic springs area, one of five within the park. The first time I've seen it was from far above, during my hike to Kings Creek Falls and Sifford Lake, a year before. Now I was seeing it up close. It isn't as big as Bumpass Hell but it's certainly very active, and it is very beautiful.

The Hot Springs Creek runs through Devil's Kitchen, collecting the heat and the minerals and waters the vegetation. The gasses that seep from the volcanic ground into the sallow water at the edge of the creek, giving it a pretty fizz.
Fizzy water
Devil's Kitchen is at a much lower elevation than Bumpass Hell, and it is covered with lush vegetation. And much of it was blooming when we were there.
Western Labrador Tea, Rhododendron columbianum
The smell of sulfur became heavy, even choking at times. The exposed ground surrounding the bobbing holes was colorful with minerals and thermophilic bacteria.

We strolled around the small loop trail that meanders between the volcanic features, inhaling the odors and swallowing the sights.

And then we had to walk right through the clouds of smelly steam. Quite an experience it was. I think the smell clung to my shirt for quite a while after that.

We completed the loop through the Devil's Kitchen and climbed back up to the forest. After a short break we started back down the trail.
Not a sequoia. A massive cedar tree on the trail to Devil's Kitchen. 
Getting out of Devil's Kitchen I told my companions that "it's all downhill from hear". But it wasn't accurate because we still had to cross that flat meadow on our way back. That gave me another chance to appreciate also the less assuming but way more prolific flowers of that meadow.

July 23, 2017
Last summer, a year and a month after our first visit to Devil's Kitchen I came there once again with a family hiking group. Our original plan was to hike to Bumpass Hell, but the heavy winter snowfall had left the trail buried and closed even as late as the end of July. Not to miss the geothermal feature of the park we drove to Warner Valley and hiked once again to Devil's Kitchen.
Located at a lower elevation, there was no sign of any leftover snow on our way. The tail was pretty much the same as I described above - no big changes there, except for that the waterwheel contraption was no longer in the creek.
The wildflowers, however, were different. Only a month later into the hot season (and it was very hot!) and what I've seen blooming was completely different.
Grayswamp Whiteheads, Sphenosciadium capitellatum 
The change throughout the season isn't surprising, but it was quite a sharp change for only one month. It was on a different year though, and after a different amount of precipitation.

The new wildflowers were mostly in the meadow area where I've seen also some plants that were completely new to me.
Swamp Thistle, Cirsium douglasii 
Many were familiar though, but now in their peak bloom time.
California Corn Lily, Veratrum californicum

And others, even though not new, still not a common sighting for me. This cute flower I've seen last only two weeks before at the South Warner Wilderness up in the Modoc Country. 
Columbian Monkshood, Aconitum columbianum 
The color combination was very much the same, only with different players at the scene. 
Penstemon sp.
And there were butterflies - many butterflies. Must have been caterpillars still in June because I don't remember seeing any on my visit here on 2016.

Another difference was the state of the grassy meadow. It was already drying up. There was still a lot of green around, but it was already mature green. And a green that's interrupted with patches of other bloom colors.

Another difference was the forest. The trees were there of course (although that's not trivial, considering how many forest fires have been raging throughout California during the past year). The forest floor, however, was brown, empty of bloom. All the forest floor wildflowers were already done for the season.
The Devil's Kitchen had not changed and was as beautiful and as odorous as last year. We hiked the loop and once again appreciated the sights and smells. I noticed that the Rhododendron was no longer blooming. It, too, was done.
On our way back my chika noticed something slithering on the trail. I manages to get there fast enough to capture its image - a garter snake - before it vanished in the grass.

Our way back was quick - it was our last day of the trip there, and everyone was eager to get out and go home. Just before the creek crossing I turned around and looked behind me with longing. I wasn't eager to leave but I also couldn't stay - the chika's schedule dominated mine and they were due in the 4-H camp by the end of the week.

I'll be back in Lassen next summer, but whether I'll visit Devil's Kitchen again remains to be seen. It's really up to the elements. I won't be disappointed to, that's for sure.

Many thanks to members of the California Native Plants Society for their help in identifying plants!