Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A New Found Land: Up Pine Creek at the South Warner Wilderness

Date: July 2, 2017
Place: South Warner Wilderness, Alturas, California
Coordinates: 41.35829, -120.284187
Length: 2.5 miles
Level: moderate

After our first and very successful family backpacking trip on spring 2016 to the Manzana Creek we agreed to go again, this time during the 4th of July week. Inspired by a trip I had with my friends last fall I aspired to backpack in Yosemite National Park. On the very day the lottery of the coveted wilderness permit opened I sent forth my application, but I didn't win the lottery. I moaned about being unlucky, but as it turned out, had I won the lottery it would have been useless for us now because the high Sierra is still under a thick layer of snow.
It didn't take me long to decide our plan B. A quick call to the local ranger office and the decision was made  we were going to the South Warner Wilderness at the Modoc Country.
We had visited the Modoc only once before, for 3 days during the spring break of 2014. Spring was just beginning there and the weather was somewhat challenging. Still, we had a nice discovery walk at the Modoc NWR, an interesting camping experience at the Stough Reservoir, and a lovely hike around Clear Lake. When we left the area it was with every thought of going back there when the chance came. And now the chance had come.
I selected for us the Pine Creek Basin to Patterson Lake Trail, which looked very promising on the map and from internet images I looked at. The ranger I talked with before going had told me that they expected the trail to be clear of any snow. So we packed our gear and after a day's travel and a night in Alturas we arrived at the Pine Creek Basin Trailhead.
Already at the trailhead I found lovely flowers to photograph, in between getting our packs ready and making final decisions as to what stays in the car and what goes along with us.
Sticky Starwart, Pseudostellaria jamesiana
Being there in a full family format it was a given that we'll take it easy. Our destination for the first day was Pine Creek Basin - only 2.5 miles of a mild uphill hike.
Day 1: To Pine Creek Basin. Captured by Pappa Quail's GPS. 
We started walking late in the morning. It was sunny but not too hot. Before long we plunged into a pretty conifer forest.
Pine Creek Trail, near trailhead. 
We quickly fell into the same walking pattern that we assumed at our first family backpacking trip to Manzana Creek last year: the elder chika in the lead followed closely by Pappa Quail, the younger chika dragging her feet a considerable distance behind them, and me bringing up the rear. At the pace we were going I had all the time in the world to photograph the numerous wildflowers that decorated the forest floor near the trail.
Slender Beardtongue, Penstemon gracilentus
What I didn't have was the will to kneel down for a better close up while carrying a heavy backpack. Hence, many of my photos show looked down upon flowers ...
Ballhead Waterleaf, Hydrophyllum capitatum

But before royalty I did kneel down, heavy pack and all. There were orchids along Pine Creek. Many of them. And all of the same species. 
Bog Orchid, Plantathera dilatata
We walked along Pin Creek the entire hike. Much of the time we were very close to the water and the lovely flora that bloomed in and near the water. 
Yellow Monkeyflower, Mimulus guttatus
We walked at a good pace. My younger chika, who normally stops to check every stick or pine cone along the way found it difficult to stoop with the backpack on so we were making nice progress.Including my flower-appreciation pauses.
American Brooklime, Veronica americana
I met some old acquaintances along the path, and was very pleased to see them.
Crimson Columbine, Aquilegia formosa
And then, there were flowers there that I saw for the first time. Turns out that the one in the photo below grows in California in Modoc County only, and its range there is limited pretty much to the South Warner Wilderness. I didn't know that at the time, otherwise I'd make more effort to get a better image of it.
Tailed Kittentails, Synthyris missurica 
At time the trail separated from the creek and we were flanked on both sides by the trees. The forest looked healthier than those of the Sierra Nevada. Their remoteness surely helps. Perhaps they suffered less from the drought too.

Below the trees bloomed the usual forest floor crowd: false lilies, violets, blue eyes Mary, and others.
False Lily of the Valley, Maianthemum sp.
For most of them I didn't bother to kneel or even bend over - my oack was just too heavy.
Astoria Violet, Viola praemorsa 
But some could not be photographed from any distance. On one of our breaks I sat down properly and took a close up photo of the tiny Blue-eyed Mary that I wasn't sitting on.
Blue-eyed Mary, Collinsia sp.
And then - surpris!  the chikas found a tiny snow patch near the trail. My elder chika was absolutely thrilled. She had yearned for snow play for a while and was exhilirated when I told here that there was likely more snow to see at the higher elevations. Little did I know how much grief this lingering snow would bring us on the following day.
Snow Patch
I was happier to see different types of patches. Floral patches, to be exact. As the trail led us back near the creek the trees subsided and we were walking through narrow, sunny meadows, dotted and spotted with mule ear, larkspur, and other beauties.
Mule Ear and Larkspur
 These little meadows were dominated by the California Cornlily, which was just beginning to bud out. I bet that by now, a couple of weeks later, the entire area is alight with their bloom.
California Corn Lily, Veratrum californicum var. californicum
Those little meadows were a wonderful relief from the relative darkness of the forest. We probably would have lingered more in them if not for our urge to get to Pine Basin, and for the mosquitoes that plagued this pretty places.

Back in the forest for the last lag of hiking for that day. We had come across a gentleman who was hiking up to Pine Creek Basin. He was alone and he was walking at a great speed. But he did stop to chat with us as he overtook us from behind. He told us that he had grown up in the area and divulged many good ideas for future hikes at the Warners.
Sticky Currant, Ribes viscosissimum
The trail separated from the creek again, and the grade became steeper. In between the trees I caught glimpses of the lockal rocks: twisted layers of volcanic ash sediments.

And then I caught sight of something even more beautiful: a shiny emerald-colored pond way below, and a gashing creek cascading right into it. I looked up - my family were already far ahead. I Enjoyed the sight by myself and then hurried on to catch up with them. They had not noticed it on the way up but they would on our way down and out, three days later.
An emerald pond with waterfall
At the top of the steeper uphill segment we stopped again for a breather. The fellow that had overtaken us previously was now coming down. He informed us that Pine Creek Basin was just around the corner, what cheered the chikas quite a bit.
And I could tell that the area was different because the vegetation was changing. All of a sudden there were new wildflowers to see.
Sierra Bluebells, Mertensia oblongifolia
And then the creek was with us once more. There must have been a cascade along the way that we did not see because now the water was nearly level with the trail again.
The trees opened up once more and we were washed with brilliant sunshine. By now, however, we were hot and sweaty, so we sat down under a tree and enjoyed the scenery from within our shadedspot. 
California Groundsel, Senecio aronicoides
An amazing scenery was before us: a green round valley crowned by snow-capped gentle peaks, a wide creek accompanied by a network of narrow brooks marked by lush willows, open wetlands dotted by small groups of trees, and a shallow pond rimmed by rushes and wildflowers.  We had arrived Pine Creek Basin.
Pine Creek Basin
Despite the early hour of our arrival there we decided to remain there for the night as planned. We found a lovely campsite spot on the other side of the creek where we pitched our tent, and then we went exploring the Basin. Of our exploration I will write a separate post :-)

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

Friday, June 30, 2017

Who wants a Hug? A Tour of the Cholla Garden (and other Sonoran Pricklies)

Date: April 19, 2017
Place: Joshua Tree National Park, Twentynine Palms, California
Level: easy

There was still plenty of daylight left when we finished our little hike at Barker Dam, so we turned the car south and drove to Cottonwood Spring. Our plan was to hike a bit over there and then check out the Cholla Garden on our way back north to Twentynine Palms. In one of the yards in town there I saw an ocotillo in full bloom and I was all jazzed up about seeing the ocotillo blooming in their natural place.
We didn't cover much distance before I pulled over to admire a large lupine shrub in full bloom by the roadside.
Silver Bush Lupine, Lupinus albifrons
After a long linger at the Cottonwood Spring visitor center we drove to the trailhead and headed down to the oasis.
A small group of fan palms marked the presence of water. It is a short distance from the parking lot.
California Fan Palm, Washingtonia filifera
I wanted to hike the Mastodon loop trail but only the younger chika wanted to come along, so I set out on the trail with her and left the rest to rest in the shade of the palms at the oasis.
Desert Senna, Senna armata
On our way we run into by now old acquaintances - the caterpillars of the sphinx moth. There were many of them, and they came in all sizes, and ate pretty much everything plant.
A Sphinx Moth caterpillar
The first part of the Mastodon loop overlaps with the trail to the Lost Palms Oasis, which I first hiked with Pappa Quail over 13 years ago.
4 years ago I hiked it a second time with my friend Anenet. We were out to look for the big desert bloom I had promised her. That year however, the bloom was very weak and disappointing. That trail was at the end of our big desert road trip, and it was only there that we finally got a nice taste of what the desert has to offer.
Small Desert Star, Monoptilon bellidiforme
But although it was the best display we've seen that year it was nothing compared to what unraveled before us now.
Mojave Aster, Xylorhiza tortifolia var. tortifolia
There was colorful bloom everywhere. Every plant, be it a shrub or an annual herb, was putting forth its best and most spectacular show, and the overall effect was absolutely stunning.
Desert Bluebells, Phacelia campanularia

While many of them I have already seen earlier that day, I also found there species that were new to me.
Sand Blazingstar, Mentzelia involucrata
Nearly all of them had not been blooming on my previous visit there. Some of them were quite challenging to photograph.
Thomas' Buckwheat, Eriogonum Thomasii
Others didn't look like much, but I was photographing everything with exaggerated enthusiasm, and later I found out that some of these are really unique plants.
Brittle Spine Flower, Chorizanthe brevicornu
We were about half a mile into the trail and still swooning from the superbly display when Pappa Quail caught up with us, sweating and out of breath. He had run all the way to inform me that I misread the map and that the Mastodon Loop was 3.5 miles long and not 1.5 as I thought. Oops ... if we want to see the ocotillo and the Cholla Garden we had to turn back and drive north now, otherwise we would not get there in daylight.
Cottonwood Spring, viewed from our turning point. 
We hurried back to the parking lot. Papa Quail took the young chika's hand and sped up with her while I took it a bit slower to leave. 
But Pappa Quail did stop a couple of times on his way back, on on one of his stops he caught this lovely lizard on camera. 
Common Side-bloched Lizard
We drove back north and stopped at the roadside where we had seen the ocotillo blooming on our way south. They really cannot be missed: they are just about the weirdest looking plants in that part of the desert.

Ocotillo, Fouquieria splensens
And when the ocotillo blooms it looks like flaming red candles, standing out brightly against the desert backdrop.

And we also got to see the pollinators in action: sphinx moths that was fluttering about in a low-pitch buzz, looking almost like hummingbirds.
White-lined Sphinx Moth pollinating an ocotillo
Only a bit more north there is the Cholla Garden, and there we went next.
Teddybear Cholla, Cylindropuntia bigelovii

The Cholla Garden is a dense field of a cactus called teddybear cholla. And they do look very cute, almost inviting a hug.

There is a short and easy loop trail in the field and although the chikas complained (they said they had had enough hiking for that day), be managed to get them out of the car and onto the trail.

Our stroll at the Cholla Garden as captured by Pappa Quail's GPS
They cholla were magnificent. And their bloom was in its beginning, far from peaking yet.

It was obvious that the cholla field had sustained damage due to the long drought years, but they seemed to be on the mend  when we were there.
Recovering cholla
And while the cholla was the dominant species at the garden, there were other plants there too.
Fremont Indigo Bush, Psorothamnus fremontii

Some were really small,
Cryptantha sp.

and others really weird.
Climbing Milkweed, Funastrum cynanchoides

The ground was littered with segments of cholla that had fallen off the bigger plants. I believe this is one way that the cholla reproduce - when a detached segment set roots in the ground where it had rolled to after detaching from the mother plant.

I accidentally stepped on one of these founded segments when I strayed off the path to inspect more closely an interesting plant nearby. Serves me right.
Desert Lavender, Condea emoryi
The sun was setting and the chikas were getting anxious. They demanded dinner. We collected back at the car and as we drove off I took a longing look at the cholla patch. We checked out several places in the park that day, hiked the Hidden Valley and the Barker Dam trails, and drove all the way to the south entrance and back. We had covered much ground, but I felt rushed, and once again feeling that this was but a taste. I was not yet sated.

On the way out of he park I stopped once more to photograph a shrub blooming by the roadside, a datura this time. We had the morrow still, one last day at Joshua Tree National Park, and I was determined to make the best of it. Indeed, it was the trail to Pine City that we hiked on the morrow that I finally got satisfied. 
Jimson Weed, Datura wrightii

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