Sunday, December 27, 2009

Welcome to Winter

And new toy report

It’s very encouraging to be getting some light weather systems in for early winter. Fall only brought minimum rainfall with the biggest system being the leftover remnants of a pacific typhoon. I didn’t get a chance to hike in the recent snow, but at least by now the ground has absorbed some moisture, and is primed for receiving more rain without eminent danger of slides.

I haven’t been posting much lately, but I have been getting some hikes in; mostly short loops close to home while keeping one eye on the weather. The skies have been mostly cloudy which plays havoc with me trying out my new toy. My recent hikes haven’t been much to talk about, so I might as well do a post about that.

Last year about this time I had done a blog post called Christmas Week, in which had lamented the lack of extended performance in my trusty little Cannon PowerShot SD 450. This tiny, inexpensive, point ‘n’ shoot has been a sweet little hiking companion; carefree, compact, lightweight, and always accessible. Perfect for carrying on my belt while hiking, and it delivers what I conisder to be exemplary picture quality for its class. The vast majority of the over 3000 photos on my flickr account, and virtually everything displayed on this blog were taken with this innocuous little “idiot” camera, which has never given me any problems. But despite its good points, I have missed countless photo opportunities because it does not provide much control, and because it has very little optical zoom. I recently created a wildlife photo set in my flickr account for all the half decent wildlife photos I have been able to get during my hikes in the past few years. Most of them aren’t really that great, but I have missed a great many more simply because I simply don’t have the capability to get better. And the ones I have gotten leave a lot to be desired. Anyway; after getting terrible photos of those vintage aircraft last year on Mount Diablo, I decided I would look for something better. However, I am far from being some professional photographer, and I don't want to lug a lot of equipment around. I'm just some guy who wants to document my hiking excursions, and other interests. I needed something affordable, and it had to be capable of riding on my belt during hikes so it’s instantly accessible. After some careful consideration, and reading a lot of reviews, and considering that I thought Cannon really deserved to get some product loyalty out of me, I bought a Cannon PowerShot SX200 IS. It’s a bit larger, and heavier, but is quite a bit more sophisticated. It allows me to preselect various shooting modes, and even go totally manual. It also has 12x optical zoom plus a wider angle available, and shoots 12.1 megapixels. I’ve been trying it out under the less than optimal conditions of late, but I am still waiting for some really clear weather. I have a few minor criticisms so far. I still don’t have the capability of using external filters for glare. And owing to the larger optics in such a compact body, it’s a little hard to grip properly. I am still refining my technique for pulling it out and holding it. The flash always pops up, even if you have flash turned off, and the tripod mount is not centered. But overall I like it and I can't wait to give it a real trial in clear weather and good lighting. The photos in this post are some "test" photos, which were mostly taken under challenging conditions, and it's also still new to me. I still have not even tried to use many of the features and modes.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Fall at Coe

Fall is a good time of year to be hiking the Diablo Range. With cooling temperatures the exposed high ridge tops and steep elevation changes are not quite the punishing ordeals they can be in the heat of summer. Long range views are usually better simply because of the effect of heat on the photochemical smog that normally permeates the air. The winds pick up a bit overall and there’s more moisture in the air which has a cleansing effect. And of course when the rains begin, the precipitation provides a through bathing of the airspace all the way down to sea level. On a good day the views you can enjoy from the high places are well worth stopping to admire, and you can notice the difference in air quality, especially when you’re breathing hard climbing up some trail.

We like to get out to Henry W. Coe State Park during this quieter time of year. We went to Hunting Hollow at the south end of the park to hike the Steer Ridge loop. We decided to go up the Steer Ridge trail mostly because we both prefer climbing a wicked steep trail section like this to steep descending. And it is quite steep, trust me. The consensus seems to believe that the Hobbs Road "short cut" is steepest, but this trail must be second. There was a bank of fog hanging around along the bottom of Hunting Hollow making it very chilly, but it didn’t take long to get some heat going once we began climbing. And soon we were above the fog which was isolated to that little valley. After that the weather was great as long as the sun was out, but if it moved behind a bit of cloud, then I would contemplate a warmth layer. The skies were mostly blue with thin scattered cloud systems moving slowly eastward. Overall it was just too nice to be inside.

On the way up Steer Ridge I finally spotted an illusive tarantula moving in the grasses. First one I’ve seen this year. This one had more of a brown coloration compared to most of the others I’ve seen in this area which are usually darker, almost black. It occurred to me that the only time we ever actually see the tarantulas is when they happen to be crossing the trail at the same moment we’re hiking past. You might spot something large like a deer or coyote off in the bush, but you could almost walk right over top of a tarantula and not see it when amongst the grasses. Plus this one seemed to be camouflaged fairly well. It was the only one we saw all day, but their migration will continue for a few more weeks.

The views up on the ridge were not the best I’ve seen, but were still a delight. We had a good time visiting Wilson Peak and hiking through to Wagon Road. The serpentine rock along the ridge has brilliant swatches of orange, green, and yellow lichens. The grassy hills in this area have green grasses from the last storm that passed through, the latent effects of a Pacific typhoon. We followed Wagon Road all the way down, giving back all the altitude, to Hunting Hollow trail at the bottom of the valley. A little bit of fall color is evident down here amongst the maple and sycamore, and many oaks are dripping with mosses. There's lots of green grasses that could almost rival even the best manicured lawns back in the city.

Click here to see photos from this hike

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Favorite Places

Surely everybody who hikes regularly has one or more favorite spots. Familiar places they keep going back to because they possess some special appeal on a personal level. I don’t mean some far flung location requiring travel and an overnight stay, but rather someplace you keep going back to once in awhile whenever the urge arises. A place you can visit on a spur-of-the-moment basis that you tend to think of as “your place”, or perhaps “our place”. It’s great to have the choices we do in the bay area, but wherever you may live there’s probably someplace that you think is just cool in a special way.

For me Chalk Mountain, in Big Basin, is one of those places. It’s not a marquee destination, but I suppose that fact accounts for some of its appeal, at least for someone like me. It’s extremely quiet and still there. In fact you rarely ever see other people there, whether mountain bikers, horseback riders, or hikers. The summit is only a shade over 1600 feet, but even still, it provides some of the best long range views available in Big Basin easily rivaling the more popular Buzzard’s Roost. The general area around it is mostly exposed making unobstructed viewing possible. On a good day you get an unbroken 360 degree panorama, which unlike Buzzard’s Roost, includes views of the Pacific Ocean off Ano Nuevo, and weather permitting, south to Monterey Bay. The surrounding ridgelines and valleys vary in character from dense mature coniferous groves, to scrubby open terrain having a shale-like quality.

The hike to get there can be challenging depending on which route appeals to you the most. The easiest way is to use the Whitehouse Ridge Trail originating in Ano Nuevo State Park. You will need to drive in to the trailhead using the unpaved Whitehouse Canyon Road. An easy to miss turnoff from highway 1. But I usually prefer to use one of the various more challenging and less traveled routes. And of course the route that Sue and I took on this day was the same one we used for our first hike (alone) together on which we shared our first kiss (blush). We had done an out-and-back along the Westridge Trail originating at Waddell Beach. Access is from the Skyline to the Sea Trail along the hiking only route that follows a little ledge high above the little farms near Rancho del Oso. Before re-joining the fire road past Twin Redwoods trail camp is the Clark Connector which switches back up through the trees allowing you to gain the ridge top. The Westridge Trail is designated as a horse trail. It’s ok to hike it, but I think it’s designated that way because it’s not properly graded for hiking. Rather than being carved into the terrain, it climbs up and over every rise and peak in the natural terrain, and conversely descends into all the little gullies. It’s a roller coaster of a trail, and much of the terrain is very susceptible to erosion damage, which is in great evidence. Some sections are wicked steep down, and then immediately wicked steep back up, and very rough. So to use these trails, you want to be well informed, and up for the challenge.

A funny thing happened when we reached the summit on this hike. We had not seen anyone since leaving the beach area, so were not expecting to. There is a little hill that has a picnic table out at the end. The little trail leading there is hidden by brush on each side. Out at the end is a great view, but you cannot really see down to the trail from there, nor see up to it until you get there. This spot makes a great place to rest up and have a nice trail lunch. This is also the very spot that is special to Sue and I that we remember from our first hike together. As we approached on the trail, there was some movement out at the picnic table. It seems that we had arrived at an awkward moment for some other couple who were not dressed. Hmmm, interesting. I won’t elaborate on what they were doing, but I’m sure you can imagine without much help (wink, wink). Obviously this spot is also quite special to at least one other hiking couple. They scrambled into the bushes grabbing for their clothing and looking sheepish. Sue and I turned around quickly, but didn’t quite know how to deal with this obviously embarrassing situation, so we just walked away over to the other view point near the famous Chalk Mountain outhouse-with-a-view. We took a break there while the others quietly slipped away.

We had a great day and returned to our car with time enough to check out the new location of the Santa Cruz New Leaf store on Fair Street. Just around the corner from their old location. Great place to shop for local produce.

Click here to see the pictures from this hike.
Click here to see the photos from last years solo hike to Chalk Mountain

Monday, October 26, 2009

Shy Spiders

Well, this should be the time of year that we have the opportunity to see the seasonal tarantula migration throughout the Diablo range. At Henry W Coe they even have an annual festival to celebrate the hairy arachnids in early October (already past). Of course it’s not really migration in the purest definition of the term. The spiders don’t pack up and move to a different geographic region. It’s more like a roving mating season. Every year the male tarantulas embark on an odyssey of searching throughout the terrain for available mates. The females rarely leave their burrows whether in the ground or in a tree. The males have the job of finding them, mating, and then escaping before they become lunch. They have been known to travel extraordinary distances in search of their partners. In the parks and wild land areas, they are protected, but thousands of them are killed every year by ignorant humans who mistakenly believe them to be dangerous. But like most any wild creature they are really no threat to humans if you let them be.

We were at Coe last Saturday hoping to get some new photos of large hairy spiders. We’ve been there before when you even had to be careful not to run them over on the road. A couple of years ago we moved several of them off the road to keep them from becoming road kill. This year however we struck out completely. The picture displayed above was taken in 2006. All day we didn’t spot even one tarantula. In talking to one of the volunteer rangers, he told us that at the recent Tarantula Fest, there was only one spider spotted during the whole event. I will not jump to any conclusions about why, but this year, it’s been hard to find them. Maybe some of you other hikers have had better luck. If so please feel free to leave a comment. Anyway it was a really nice day at Coe, with perfect weather. We got a late start, did a short headquarters loop, and were off the trail by about 2:00. Since I didn’t get any (new) spider photos, I settled for a few partial panoramas of Coe terrain.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

California’s state parks on the whole are vastly underappreciated. But this is especially true of a place like Prairie Creek. This north coast park is one of the tracts within the Redwoods State and National Parks system that contain most of the last remaining old growth coast redwood forests that exist in the world. The sequoia sempervirens, or coast redwood, once covered a range consisting of virtually the entire coastal region of northern California. Today, due to a lack of protection, overharvesting, poor management, and public apathy, old growth redwoods can now only be found in a handful of state and national parks, the creation of which represent the blood, sweat, and tears of a variety of private groups, individuals, donors, and volunteers, whom together had the wisdom and foresight to recognize their importance, and the fortitude to fight tirelessly for their establishment. I personally would be loath to take these things for granted. For me, coming to a place like Prairie Creek is like a pilgrimage. I always make a conscious effort to recognize the privilege of being here at all, and to mentally salute the dedication of that army of naturalists and preservationists who wrested these limited tracts from the jaws of greed and ignorance, preserving them for future generations.

And with that said, I am off my soapbox for now.

With fall beginning, this time of year makes a nice time to visit the north coast now that the tourist season has wound down, and things are quieter. As long as you get your visit in before the rains begin, the weather is still pleasant for hiking the woods during the day. With close proximity to the ocean, evenings during this time here were chilly, with a lot of dampness in the air. The sunny days help to produce a radiation fog (a.k.a. tule fog) in the meadows at night. The coldest temperature we recorded was 36, but it felt colder during the night. Daytime temps were in the 70s. Most of the campsites are closed for the season, and the campsites that remain open are first come first served.

As we rolled in the afternoon we spotted some bull elk grazing in the meadow along the Newton B. Drury parkway. There is a healthy population of Roosevelt elk in this area, and we had elk sightings every day. After snapping a few photos we found a campsite and got situated before going back out to look for more wildlife. The campground where we stayed is located right near the visitor’s center on the edge of Elk Prairie; a long open grassy meadow that supports a lot of the type of vegetation that attract the elk and black tail deer, so there are great opportunities for wildlife viewing there. In the morning this little microclimate produces fairly thick tule fog. The paved road that runs through the park is actually the old highway 101, which has been re-routed around the park. It has been re-named after Newton B. Drury. Many trailheads originate from the general vicinity near the visitor’s center and close by Elk Prairie campground.

On the first day we did a group hike out to the coast. I did not bother to use my GPS at all on this trip because it is notoriously unreliable under tree cover, and Prairie Creek is at least 90% thickly wooded. I would only use it for altitude and maybe the compass. Dave usually gets a nice track log and there is a link to his pictures and stuff below. We hiked along Prairie Creek (the actual creek) until we found the cutoff leading up to Miners Ridge Trail. This trail is an old prospector’s route used to reach the area called Gold Bluffs along the coast. This is former gold mining country. Not a huge strike, but that’s the history. This route passes through glorious virgin temperate rainforest with most areas dominated by coast redwood, accompanied by Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, hemlock, and some deciduous varieties like tanbark oak and big leaf maple. The forest under story is breathtaking in its density and greenery. Thick sword ferns blanket the forest floor everywhere you look. In some areas the sword ferns are as much as 6 feet high and intermingled with sorrel along the ground. I’m not very good with plant species, but the area is rich with greenery of all types. The vegetation is so thick that when you happen to cross a creek over a footbridge, you can hear water running, but can’t really see it. With so little sunlight penetrating, I took my hat off in order to increase my field of vision and better enjoy the scenery. One thing I noticed about the redwoods in this area is that they really do not possess the same rich coloration in their bark as the sequoias that we see in the bay area parks. I’m not sure why this is; maybe less tannin; but the bark seems rather grayish in color compared to the redwood you see here. The fallen trees do show nice coloration in the heartwood though. There are however a great many prime examples of old growth sequoias, and they are magnificent in stature. You can find scores of unique burls, and plenty of freakish looking multiple trunks, fire scared survivors, fallen giants, and trees that appear to be topped by lightning strikes.

The trail rolls up and down, but the elevation change is gentle, with the highest point on the trail being about 700 feet. As you begin to approach the coastal area the tree cover changes to mostly Sitka spruce. Out along the sandy coastal scrub we found more Roosevelt elk grazing the offerings there. A little further down the beach is the entrance to Fern Canyon. A sheer rock canyon with its walls literally covered with dense ferns of various species. The most prevalent of them was the maidenhair or five finger ferns. The creek was very low allowing us to walk its bottom by skirting over, under, or around the tree debris and rocks. This canyon was as a filming location for the movie Jurasic Park II - The Lost World. This canyon is also a popular short loop hike for people who are able to drive in along the unpaved beach road. This beach area is the only place we saw a lot of other people. Not crowds, but there were people around in contrast to the wooded areas where we were virtually alone throughout the day. We used another of the prospector trails called the James Irvine trail to loop back toward the campground. Another rolling hike through lush, green, wild rainforest.

I spent the next day on a solo hike in the areas east of the Drury parkway. The Rhododendron Trail winds around amongst stunning ancient forest with many dedicated groves of trees. I got some nice altitude in by hiking the 3.8 mile round trip C.R.E.A. Trail (California Real Estate Association) of dedicated groves reaching an altitude of just over 1400 feet. Along this trail I spotted a large owl, which flew off making a sweeping arc uppon hearing my footsteps, but the sighting was so brief that I was unsure of the exact species. It was most probably an endangered northern spotted owl. I spent most of the day enjoying the pristine forests and taking pictures, returning to the visitor’s center by way of the Prairie Creek Trail. The trail along the creek is interspersed with deciduous species like big leaf maple, some bay trees, and tanbark oak, and of course there are many prime examples of stately redwoods. I had a great trip, and as usual, I came away wishing I had more time.

Click here to see my photoset on flickr
Click here to see Dave's pictures on

Redwood conservation groups:

Save the Redwoods League
Sempervirens Fund

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Peter’s Creek Inverse

Conventional hiking wisdom says that the best way to plan a hike is to try to position your starting point so that you have a mostly downhill return. When you begin, your energy level is higher, but near the end of a hike when you may be more fatigued, downhill is good. Logical enough, but this isn’t always possible. Just ask anyone who’s been to the Grand Canyon. Or for that matter ask anyone who’s ever hiked out of Henry Coe headquarters. If you begin on top of a ridge, you have to go downhill to get anywhere else. As the saying goes, “if it seems like it’s uphill in both directions, you must be at Coe”. But still; seasoned ramblers really love the place. Sometimes it’s nice to break away from conventional wisdom, and do a hike that’s a little bit of a challenge.

Portola State Park has a quiet little off-the-beaten-track area called the Peter’s Creek loop. Peter’s Creek is the same creek that runs right past park headquarters and under the road bridge to join Pescadero Creek. The loop trail is down in a little ravine where Bear Creek runs into Peter’s creek. The area is very moist with lots of ground water; perfect for sustaining tall redwoods. The thickly wooded terrain has a dense and very tall canopy making it cool and moist even on a hot day. The waters make a nice background music of murmuring and babbling sounds, and it’s very peaceful and green. One of my favorite locations.

There’s only one trail in or out, but there’s more than one way to get to Bear Creek Trail which will take you there. The most popular hike to Peter’s Creek is from Portola using the Slate Creek trail to Bear Creek Trail. It’s funny how so many of the trails here are named after creeks. There’s a lot of natural water here, so it’s really no wonder that it supports deep forests hosting lots of redwood. The old time loggers have made their mark here, but after long years of modern protection, the recovery is encouraging. The more of these mountain tracts that get protected the better. But I digress. I decided to hike to Peter’s Creek a different way last Sunday. To get some good leg burn in, and to satisfy my green fetish, I thought I would hike there from a trail head in Long Ridge along Skyline. What makes this route green is the fact that I would not have to drive all the way down to Portola at 400 feet, using up extra gas and carbon credits to get back out. The leg burn would come mostly on the way back up to the highway at about 2600 feet. And of course there’s that pesky 1600 foot Doherty Ridge to get over as well.

All the forecasts were for an offshore flow over the weekend. The unavoidable result of that is always much hotter weather in the bay area. But at least for the weekend the off shore flow was a no-show. Otherwise I probably would not have tried this hike. Ward Road Trail has some wicked steep sections up near the top which are mostly exposed, and the section of Hickory Oaks Trail used for this route is completely exposed while rolling up and up and up. At the end of the day this would be tortuous in the heat. But with mild temps, off I went. I paused at a high point along Hickory Oaks Trail to marvel at the vaporous fog furrowed in amongst the tall trees populating the ridges and valleys to the west. A sure sign of air movement ON-shore. The previous day my wife and I got up super early to hike Black Mountain, and be off the trail before noon. But while we were reaching to top we could see north past Russian Ridge where Pacific style semi-liquid fog was rolling over the hills. What weather reports?

I headed down Ward Road using my trekking poles to save my knees on the steep downhill. The lower sections of Ward Road are nicely wooded. There are two points where you make a turn to stay on the trail. The first turn is easy enough to spot. The second turn is where you transition onto the upper part of Slate Creek Trail. The markers are not well placed and hard to spot when heading in this direction, but there is usually a closed gate on the road which clues you in not to go that way. On this particular day it wasn’t closed, and had opened up by gravity into the brush disappearing from view. Not paying attention as much as should have I missed the cutoff. I was maybe half a mile into private property before noticing that I did not recognize the trail anymore, and realized I must be trespassing. Opps! Time to turn back. Lovely property down there. Too bad it’s not part of the park system or open space district. Beautiful redwoods and even some nice views.

Undaunted, I turned back uphill and found the cutoff. I tried to close the gate, but it just swung open again burring itself in the brush like before. It had been left unlocked. I checked the time and decided to continue down to Slate Creek and the trail camp where the Bear Creek Trail starts. At this point you have lost somewhere over 2000 feet of elevation, so what you have to do now is climb up Doherty Ridge. Then hike down some fairly steep sections all the way down to the junction of the two creeks. But it is a pretty hike. For the daring there is a large fallen tree solidly lodged into the hillsides providing a short cut over Bear Creek. This saves not quite half a mile if you choose to use it. The loop trail is in good shape, and the pleasant sense of isolation provided by this location is palpable, even though you are actually only about 2.5 miles as-the-crow-flies from park headquarters. You are however isolated by steep terrain and deep tree cover. Peter’s creek is still flowing enough to serenade wanderers even this late in the year. The area is festooned with lots of ferns, sorrel, mosses, and fungi. A delight for native plant hunters. It’s cool and fragrant, and I could swear the towering trees are whispering to themselves.

Hiking back out is a nice aerobic climb back over the ridge to the trail camp. But if you’re doing the hike from headquarters, the rest of your return is an easy stroll through the forest. If you’re doing the inverse back to skyline, Doherty Ridge was just the warm-up. The trail along Slate Creek is serene and peaceful, but as soon as you cross the creek and head up, you immediately find an unrelenting steep slope. You still have tree cover though. A few sections level out somewhat, but it basically never stops climbing. When you finally hit Ward Road, another very steep section awaits. As you finally approach Long Ridge, and likely with tiring legs, the trail becomes mostly exposed, and the higher you get the farther away the patches of shade are. Buy the time you reach the BART again you will know you had a challenging hike. Oh, and don’t forget to pat yourself on the back for reducing carbon. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!

Click here to see more pictures from this hike
Click here to see my Peter's Creek photos from 2007

Friday, September 11, 2009

Skyline to the Sea Trail

In 1976 a feat of fairly enormous proportions was accomplished by a loose knit alliance of highly spirited individuals in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. Their efforts didn’t have any commercial, technological, or political value, so it didn’t get a lot of press. But the result of their combined enthusiasm and volunteerism was a gift of lasting value worthy of tribute from any rambling soul. So what am I talking about here? The 29.5 mile long Skyline to the Sea trail, which was completed all in one weekend during the inaugural year of the SCMTA. Other participating groups included the Sierra Club, and hundreds of local Boy Scouts. Portions of the trail were already there, but had never been connected. When I was a volunteer working with the SCMTA I spent many hours helping with maintenance and repair work on the Big Basin trail crew, and also the Skyline to the Sea crew. During that time I had become very familiar with the trail focusing on one small section at a time. I had also hiked the various sections time and time again both for enjoyment as well as trail reconnaissance. Discrete sections of it help facilitate some of my favorite hiking routes. But I had never hiked the entire distance of the trail all at once until Labor Day 2009. I was thinking about doing something kind of special for the holiday weekend so I decided that hiking the Skyline to the Sea would be a good personal tribute for Labor Day, and to finally add the full end to end trek to my trail log. There are other possible routes for getting out to the coast from skyline, but I wanted to stick to the official Skyline to the Sea Trail as my salute to the trail builders.

Many hikers do the trail as a backpacking trip. There are several trail camps along the way to facilitate that kind of hike. But if you want to hike the trail as a single day trek, you need to set up some kind of car shuttle, or arrange to be picked up. Since my wife was going to spend the day working on personal projects, I persuaded her to help me out. She would follow me to Waddell Beach so I could park my car, then shuttle me up to the trail head at Saratoga Gap. Of course this meant getting up at 5:00 am and driving for over 2 hours on a holiday morning. But she not only agreed to do it, but encouraged me. I knew there was a reason I married that woman. So we finally made it up to skyline, and I hit the trail at about 7:40 am.

I had hoped it would be cool, even foggy, but all indications were that it was a beautiful morning with clear skies, and potentially quite warm. I began hiking, already down to a single wicking layer even though the trail is under thick tree cover, but I was prepared for anything. I was feeling great and set my mind to savoring the day’s experience. My goal was to average at least 3 miles per hour including any resting time and lunch, and had planned to refill my water supply at Big Basin headquarters. As it turned out, it didn’t get very hot the whole day. Actually the weather couldn’t have been better. I was having fun just putting in trail miles, and checking out spots along the trail where I remembered doing repairs. It was great to see how well our sweat equity had held up over the years. Soon I came to the first good viewpoint at Sempervirens Point. This view out to Ben Lomond Ridge, and weather permitting, out to Monterey Bay, is great in the early morning. There are usually misty shrouds of fog furrowed amongst the tree lined ridges as the sun casts a subdued yellowish glow. There was no one there, and no cars passing on the highway to disturb the quiet display. I felt like it belonged to me.

Not lingering too long I continued on making up time on the mostly downhill section. The entire upper section stays pretty close to the road. It is after all the state owned easement for the highway that made it possible to build the trail. Most of the property along here is privately owned. The trail stays far enough from the road so it doesn’t become a constant distraction though. At several points the trail crosses the highway, and is sometimes above, and sometimes below it. There is still one short section, maybe less than ¼ of a mile, where you have to hike along the paved highway to the next gate. After passing Waterman Gap you begin gradually climbing uphill and the whole section between there and China Grade is mostly uphill, and still in close proximity to the road. There is one curving switchback along this section where I remembered spending almost an entire day manicuring the trail tread to running standards, and carefully grading to the recommended 7 degrees of slope for runoff. I made me proud to see my handiwork still holding up and in good shape. I hiked up and over China Grade Road and headed down toward park headquarters. I still had not seen any other hikers until then. A little ways down I passed some people hiking up, and happened to recognize someone; none other than Al Lisin of the SCMTA. Al is the crew leader of the Skyline to the Sea Trail volunteer crew, and a member of SCMTA since the 60s. I spoke with him, his wife, and a companion for a little while before continuing on, and like a dummy, forgetting to take a photo. Another great view opportunity is available along this section of trail before you descend into the tall conifers you pass along a lot of sandstone slick-rock and outcroppings which provide a nice vantage point through the sparse knobcone pines. If you have some binoculars you can pick out features like Eagle Peak along Ben Lomond Ridge. Once under the thick canopy of the basin you keep descending all the way down to Opal Creek. In springtime you can find lots of Tiger Lilies along this creek, but it’s really pretty any time. I began to encounter lots of people as I was approaching park headquarters, but this is normal for such a nice day.

I refilled my water supply even though I was not using as much as I anticipated. Bought a chocolate protein shake at the store and ate some lunch relaxing in the shade. I was right on schedule but still didn’t want to waste much time, so off I went at about 1:10 pm headed up to Middle Ridge. This trail had been blocked last winter, but repairs have been carried out. Really the whole trail has been surprisingly free of problems. The volunteer trail crew has been doing a fantastic job even though the parks budget is in constant peril. This is the last uphill section except for incidental nuances in the trail, and it passes by some really awesome ancient trees. After the crossing at the fire road it’s back to downhill for the run down along Kelly Creek and West Waddell Creek. Countless people have picked this section of Big Basin as the best hike in the Bay Area, and I have to agree. With the hillsides thick with ferns, sorrel, and assorted green ground cover, the awesome trees, murmuring creeks, and cool moist air, it’s very storybook like. When the falls are running that’s a huge bonus too, but this late in the year it’s just a trickle. The rest of the way out to the coast seemed really long as I began to feel my legs and feet beginning to tire. I began slowing my pace a little, but was still making enough headway to be within my schedule. I wanted to reach Waddell by no later than 5:00, and I just did make under that. There were a lot of people on the beach flying kites and a few windsurfers out. I was really tempted to jump in the water, but wasn’t sure I had enough energy left.

Clich here to see my pictures on flickr

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Hiking a-Fair

I’ve been to a lot of local art fairs. It seems that many localities have a version of it these days. Sometimes it’s combined with wine tasting, or food festivals, or may be connected to a holiday or some ethnic traditions. And sometimes they can all seem like clones of each other when they are strewn about on hot city streets. But there’s a special appeal when artists show their wares in a mountain air setting, and even more enjoyable if it’s literally under the trees complete with a light fog drip. The King’s Mountain Art Fair is held over Labor Day weekend, and is designed to benefit the local fire brigade, and local schools. The whole thing is put on by volunteers, and exhibitors are selected by jury, so it has an interesting sort of ambiance. This was my first visit to this particular fair, but my brother-in-law Dave had an idea for Saturday to combine a hike in Huddart County Park and Phleger Estate with a visit to the fair which made it seem more interesting. And of course hiking to it from below means not having the hassle of parking along skyline road and having to use a shuttle.

Huddart is mostly a popular place for picnicking and large outdoor type gatherings, but it does have a thickly wooded and versatile trail system. Hikes of almost any distance can originate from here, from short hikes with toddlers of no more than a mile, to longer treks reaching beyond the boundaries that connect with other properties and the Skyline Trail. We hiked up the Campground Trail to the Crystal Springs Trail. This route was mostly single track trail under thick cover, and the higher we got the more noticeable the morning fog became. Up on Skyline there was a light drip as the fog condensed in the trees, but it only seemed to add to the mountain ambiance.

When we got to the fair area around the King’s Mountain Community Center there were already cars lined up and down highway 37 with some of the vehicles parked in very irregular positions. One poor woman in a Prius had dumped one rear wheel completely off the road into a gully and was stuck. Someone else with a late model Jeep had parked at about a 60 degree angle to get off the road. Sue found lots of exhibits that peaked her interest, which was kind of funny because she was not really enthusiastic about the fair before we got there. We found a unique bell maker from Half Moon Bay, and I was amused as I watched Sue circulate around his space ringing every one of his bells like a kid. I think we spent about an hour or so before we hit the trail again. We used the Lonely Trail to take us back down into Phleger Estate, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, for a gentle return through its fragrant woods. Labor Day weekend provides this opportunity to enjoy a relaxing hike in the wooded hills above Woodside with this interesting little distraction in the middle of the day. A perfect excuse not to sit at home.

Click here to see my pictures on flickr
(Added) Click here to see Dave's photos of this hike

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Pleasanton Roller Coaster

With the Lockheed fire still causing havoc and air advisories on the coast we decided to hike somewhere in the east bay. In choosing a venue, I always begin by dreaming about getting away somewhere, but we rarely have the time to take long drives, so the scope narrows accordingly. We usually avoid hiking the east bay hills during summer, as notorious as they are for exposure and heat, but we’ve had a mild season this year. I thought of Pleasanton Ridge only because it’s been so long since I last hiked there, I really don’t remember much of it. Maybe it would seem like a new place? It couldn’t hurt to try. At least we would get some trail miles in.

After struggling a little to find our way there because I couldn’t remember the right exit, we finally arrived after a brief tour of the area around old Sunol. Pretty place. We headed up the Woodland Trail, immediately climbing up some switchbacks to get atop the ridge. There are a lot of little shortcut spur trails in this park, and Sue decided to take advantage of them to play one of her little tricks. Thinking she was behind me I waited at one switchback for her to catch up, wondering what she was doing, only to find out she was ahead of me up at the next turn laughing at me. Once out in the open we could see how bad the air quality was on this morning. A little haze would be normal for long range views, but this was much worse, and we wondered how much of that we should blame on local fires. We couldn’t smell smoke, and the air didn’t seem that bad. We hiked north on the Ridgeline Trail, and turned off to visit the olive grove that sits near the south end of the park. The olives all looked very immature and seemed behind the curve for their normal fall harvest. The groves are an interesting diversion though. The rows of trees make for a shady oasis. This would have been perfect if it were lunch time.

The park has numbered posts that correspond to exact locations on the map similar to the Ohlone Wilderness trail. This a great system, but in the middle of the park there is a transition into a City park called Augustine Bernal. The trail markers in the city park are good, but they do not use the number system. It resumes at the other end. The trail system at Pleasanton Ridge rolls along up and down like an attenuated roller coaster ride. Most of the transitions are gentle, but on the whole, expect them to be fatiguing if it’s hot. There’s very little tree cover and lots of dust. The scattered oaks aren’t much help in providing shade. The Bay Leaf trail is the only really shady trail. The California Bays also fill the air with a nice scent. The high route has pretty good views though. We could see south to Mission Peak and Mt Allison’s TV tower. The eastern panorama provides views down on several golf courses, the 680 freeway, over to Maguire Peaks, and to the east bay hills. To the west is another ridge system that eliminates any opportunity for views of the bay. From high points at the north end of the park you can spot Mt Tamalpias, but with all the haze and smoke I couldn’t tell if San Francisco or other details may be visible under better atmospheric conditions. And of course Mt Diablo cannot be missed. Up high the breeze is a welcome ally. We passed a couple of ponds that were teeming with tadpoles, frogs, and dragonflies. Late in the day the wind really picked up and the sky grayed up with some strange cloud formations like some kind of storm, but nothing came of it.

Click here to see more pictures from this hike

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Soothing cricket sounds

And green gardening in the midst of suburbia

We’ve been enjoying the melody of happy sounding crickets in the evening lately. They have evidently taken a liking to Sue’s natural gardening in our little yard. This year she’s been doing a lot of mulching in order to help retain moisture in the ground because of the drought. But this type of mulching is also very beneficial for the plants. She is also using worms this year to help condition the soil. She did some research and brought in some Alabama Jumpers. They are a very active breed or worm that is great for this type of clay-like soil. She’s been cultivating another kind of worm in the garage called Red Wigglers which are good for making mulch. The plants and flowers have responded, and are thriving even though we are actually using less water. And about 1/3 of it is reclaimed from inside the house. But one unintended benefit is the crickets and hummingbirds. I like the sound of crickets outside the window. Their songs help me sleep at night like a lullaby. Natural sounds can be very therapeutic. It’s actually kind of funny to walk around the complex of townhouses we live in, and everywhere else it’s silent, but we have cricket sounds both in front and in back of our unit. We often laugh when we think about what our neighbors must think. The rest of the property has been anesthetized with blowers and chemicals, but we lock them out. Our little space is a natural oasis complete with blissfully singing insects, contented worms, and buzzing humming birds. This spring there was only one cricket out back which I jokingly named Erving. Then there were more, so Sue named another one Ervina. We can’t really tell them apart, nor do we have a clue of their sex for that matter. It’s just in fun. We’ve also been noticing a lot more humming birds coming around than previous years. They have always liked the pepper tree just outside our fence, but this year they come in to investigate the flowers and foliage. Even though it isn’t practical for us to live in the mountains, at least we can create our own little green environment like an island right here in the midst of silly-con valley.

Click the play button below for urban cricket sounds

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Cathedral Pass

The last day of our high country trip began as I woke up about 5 AM and realized that we had all zoned out pretty early that night, and I had fallen asleep with only one blanket, and yet had been perfectly warm through the night. The early morning chill was easing dramatically. I had frost on our Biblar tent that first night at Tuolumne, and now less than one full week later it really felt like summer. Strangely, somehow it seemed more exciting to be wrapped up like a mummy in a tomb wondering whether or not my toiletries would freeze up inside the bear locker. I suppose nothing says summertime like partially frozen toothpaste. With weather this nice I decided to let the others sleep. I tossed on some clothes and boots and decided to scramble up the rocks behind the camp to see the sun rise. I suppose if you’re staying at a place called Sunrise, you can’t very well sleep in every morning. I described this little constitutional briefly in a previous post, but thought it was worth more detail here.

In the morning the mosquitoes were not out yet, so I did not need a head net. Walking out behind the dining hall you can pick your spot to begin climbing up. There were people camped out in tents near the base of the rocks so I tried not to make noise. It’s not like the pristine smooth granite of Half Dome or somewhere like that. The rocks all over this area are very coarse providing fantastic traction. The surfaces feel rough as though they were volcanic, but of course they are not. You could probably climb this stuff in any type of shoe even if it were wet. The cracks and separations between the rocks are festooned with brilliant penstemon, both mountain pride in a pinkish shade, almost fuchsia, and meadow penstemon in a purple radius. This gaiety was commonplace throughout this trip whenever hiking amongst the rocks. All of the lakes are lined with pink and white heather, and the rocks are all decked out in festive blooms just like this. As you reach the top of this formation in the fading starlight you have enough altitude to see the silhouette of the Cathedral Range now in view against the grey-blue horizon. Amazingly there were backpackers camped out up in some of the little plateaus high in the rocks. I thought that was an interesting site selection. I found a comfortable spot to sit along a ledge looking down on Long Meadow, with 3 distinct high ranges in my field of vision, and the sky lightening slowly. As the first sunbeams stream over Echo Peak (actually it wasn’t Cathedral as I said before) they paint the back side of Mt Clark creating a very tricky light balance. My poor little camera will never be able to do justice to this kind of dynamic visual effect. The angle then increases to accentuate the whole Clark Range with contrasting shadows and light before descending to the tree line surrounding Long Meadow. As the radiant heat begins touching your face, the full morning breaks on the grasses and streams, the still low angle creating long shadows. With daylight arriving I began to contemplate the fact that we were leaving that day, and my next night would be back in the totally familiar and annoyingly comfortable confines of our townhouse in the city. I couldn’t wait to hear that first errant car alarm.

After breakfast we all packed up and were ready to hit the trail. Our route was the John Muir Trail over Cathedral Pass and over to the Cathedral trailhead at Tioga Road. By this time the sun had fully risen prompting immediate de-layering. The mosquitoes were now out in force; so I used a long sleeved UV shirt to cover my arms, and a head net, with repellant applied to my hands. In camp I used either repellant or socks to keep them off of my feet while wearing sandals. The camp regulars insist that the onslaught will diminish in a couple of weeks. Hiking out along the meadow was an otherwise beautiful and tranquil morning stroll along easy open terrain. I was surprised that we had seen so little wildlife. One evening we watched a whole herd of deer out in the meadow, but since then nothing was around except a few marmots and ravens. At the far end of the meadow you can see Columbia Finger marking the way to the pass. The trail goes back under tree cover for the climb up to the pass. I didn’t bother to measure the exact elevation change from camp, but it was about 800 feet total up to an elevation of almost 10K. Dave made an elevation profile from his GPS. There is a link to Dave’s pictures at the end of this post. From the top there are good long range views, and of course everywhere you go up here there are endless rock scrambling opportunities for all levels. Curious barren rock formations abound from Mathis Crest to Echo and Unicorn Peaks. We took our time and had a nice lunch break under some shady pines alongside a moist green meadow just below Echo Peak. Further on, the trail passes by one of two Cathedral Lakes. The lower lake is a side trip of about 1.5 miles. I spent some time there a few years ago, but this time we skipped it. Instead, I wound up back tracking to try to find our lost photo mascot. A little stuffed bear, which we never found again. Returning it to the wild we continued on hiking down hill toward Tioga. There is one point along the way where there is a cool bubbling spring right alongside the trail. A perfect opportunity to enjoy some incomparably refreshing “real” mountain spring water. We filtered several bottles and took some with us for the trip home. After reaching the trailhead and a brief car shuttle, we were on our way home. On the way out I did notice that wild flower activity had picked up considerably. We had missed the optimum window by just about a week.

Click here to see more pictures from this hike on flickr.
Click here to see Dave's pictures from this hike.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cloud’s Rest

Waking up at Sunrise HSC I was feeling incredibly comfortable and peaceful. It was absolutely still outside, and I wasn’t sure if I should get up to greet he morning out in the elements, or just lie there and drift back into lazy sleeping. Remembering that a hot breakfast would be waiting at 7:30 the balance was swayed and I chose the latter. It’s so cool to get called for meals by someone flailing away on an old iron triangle while shouting across the camp just like back in the chuck wagon days. Often I like to get early starts, but this would be a blissful exception. As I usually do, I had studied the maps, and was entertaining some tentative ideas about hiking routes beginning from this location. I had also made lots of mental notes on the terrain around Long Meadow and the seemingly infinite rock scrambling possibilities right around Sunrise. It’s such a beautiful area I hated to waste the opportunities right in front of us. But talking to Sue, she really wanted to do Cloud’s Rest for some reason. The hike to the highest point in Yosemite Valley is a popular day hiking destination from the same trail head we hiked in on beginning at Tenaya Lake. We saw lots of day hikers on their way to Cloud’s Rest on the day we hiked in to Sunrise. We’ve both done that hike before but we haven’t ever done it together. It seems that this whole trip had somehow become about sharing our remembrances of past times as though to tie them to our lives together now. So vowing to come back some day for another stay we made plans to day hike Cloud’s Rest. What the hey? The views are unique and completely awesome. Who could complain?

We hiked the trail back past the 3 Sunrise Lakes still tempted to jump in. Also hard to resist was the opportunity to hike off trail over to the mysterious 2nd lake barely visible through the trees just to check out the area more closely. Lots of rocky high points that would have been fairly easy to scramble didn’t go unnoticed either. I almost could have sworn some of them were whispering my name, but I hung with the plan to hike with Sue to Cloud’s Rest. At the first lake we had caught up with the group that was doing the ranger led high sierra camps loop. We caught Adriana’s (the ranger) nature notes on the damselflies. She was the same ranger that was in camp the night before leading a star gazing talk, pointing out celestial bodies in the night sky with a laser pointer. Interesting stuff! That’s one big advantage of doing the loop. You get to listen to a real high country naturalist who can answer questions. One of the things I remember about Yosemite Association hikes that I’ve done was how we always had hike leaders, usually rangers, who were both knowledgeable and friendly. Yosemite has the best.

Back to the trail; we returned to the first junction at the top of a ridge, and took the left fork headed southwest. The route begins by heading downhill into a little wooded area which is humid and rocky with a lot of standing seemingly dead wood. Many trees in this area seem to be dead or dying as if by some disease. The terrain is also very moist in places with corn lilies, a few wild flowers, pink heather, and bushes blossoming in white that I still have yet to identify. We passed along the shores of another lake although not an especially pretty one, and filtered some of the clear water. Soon the trail begins the climbing that you knew was coming, all the way to the next junction mostly through tree cover. The final section to Cloud’s rest is the steepest, but you are able to get some really nice views through the trees. As we approached the barren rocky peak the views opened up and begin to dazzle our senses. The sun was strong, but the air smells very clean and the breezes are soothing. I found some Sierra Primrose amongst the rocks as we climbed up. Mostly easy, there is one section that is a little scary to some hikers because it’s narrow with a big drop off on either side. Called the “knife edge”, you want to be careful here, but anyone can do the hike without danger as long as you don’t do anything stupid. In a few places we used our hands (scrambled), but it was far from daunting. We were having a lot of fun on the knife and Sue even horsed around a little. There is another route to the top on the other side, but that would be a longer route for us.

At the top you have the unique experience of looking down on the summit of Half Dome. Awesome views down the abyss of Tenaya Canyon are dizzying, and the chasm of Yosemite Valley yaws open with its granite sentinels on either side. The panorama from the top is the best available; even better than Half Dome. From here you can look to the east and trace the exact route of the mighty Merced River the whole way from its origin. You can’t see the actual river but you can follow the canyon through which it passes. Yosemite’s congress of high peaks is all visible from here. If you have a topographical map and a compass you could spend hours just identifying terrain features. Looking back to the north you can see Tenaya Lake and Tioga Road carving its way along, and you can see way beyond Mt Hoffmann to distant peaks not even in Yosemite. We spent at least an hour up here contemplating, having lunch, and just playing a little. The sights are so uplifting I had completely forgotten all those other hikes I wanted to do. Next time – next time.

Click any of the images to expand.
Click here to see more photos from this hike on flickr.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sunrise High Sierra Camp

We spent one last night at Tuolumne Meadows with warming night and morning temperatures before switching over to backpacks for our hike to Sunrise HSC. We had decided to set up a car shuttle so we could hike in from Tenaya Lake, and hike out to the Cathedral trailhead. We broke up into different groups at different paces using walky-talkies to stay in touch. Our group would total 10 at the HSC. Tenaya Lake trailhead leads up a series of fairly steep switchbacks climbing up a rock strewn ridge with intermittent tree cover. Once you gain some altitude you begin to get fairly good views of the peaks to the northwest. Marmots, grouse, and lots of other small wildlife species are active amongst the rocks and vegetation and a few wild flowers were around. Its uphill switchbacks for 2.5 miles to the first junction before leveling out for awhile. Taking the right fork here will take you back downhill toward an eventual big uphill to Cloud’s Rest. We did a day hike to this peak during our stay at Sunrise, but that’ll be a different post. Not far beyond the junction the trail heads uphill again and brings you around to the first of the 3 Sunrise Lakes. The first lake has very calm waters with a glistening smooth surface. Not a mirror, but clear enough to dazzle with sky, cloud, and rock reflections. The broken, layered, rock cliff on the other side of the lake providing a backdrop to the majestic high sierra pines all picture framed in the waters. There’s a lot of submerged dead wood lying around, but still it looks clear and clean. Lots of brilliant blue damselflies are hovering around the surface near parts of the shore, their seasonally shed carcasses littering the grasses. Pink mountain heather and a few wild flowers add some zesty color to the dark greens and stark grayscale of the rock. I had plenty of time and was so tempted to strip off gear and jump in, but for some reason resisted, but I did spend a little quiet time here.

Continuing on and climbing a little higher the sounds of gently coursing water is heard on its way down from the third lake to the second of the Sunrise Lakes. You would have to go off trail to actually visit the second lake, and could easily miss it through the trees below as you pass. Hiking on by, soon the trail passes along side the greenish waters of the third lake. There’s lots of swampy and mossy vegetation around the lakes perimeter and quite a few mosquitoes. The waters surface looked ripped against the subtle breezes that are moving over the pass ahead, and down the length of the lake. Climbing still higher the trail eventually levels out over a dusty pass nearly reaching 10,000 feet before beginning to descend toward Sunrise at 9370 feet. Hiking down rocky switchbacks the terrain becomes much more moist and green, and after negotiating some of the interfering terrain high peaks are visible to the northeast beyond the trees. There is a backpack campground before you reach the HSC both of which are tucked quietly away situated amongst the high rocks just above Long Meadow, along which passes the John Muir Trail.

All the people we had passed along the way had spoken of mosquitoes when we mentioned that we were headed for Sunrise. This year they were really bad during the time we were there. We had packed head nets and repellant which we were to make very good use of during the entirety of our stay. The people that are up there every year told us that the mosquitoes will probably be gone in a few weeks, but at least for the time being they were pretty dreadful. We camped out in a tent cabin that was just steps away from some big rocks that provided a stunning overlook to Long Meadow below. At one end of the lush green meadow the treetops at the edge of the green grasses dip down to reveal a portal view to the Clark Range and the back side of Mt Clark. At the other end of the meadow a similar drop in the tree line opens up an outstanding view to the range that includes a partially snow covered Mt Florence; the only peak in Yosemite named after a woman. An un-named creek meanders through the meadow grasses cutting a winding pathway down the length of the meadow. It was the kind of a view that you can spend hours drinking in. In the evenings the orange glow of the sunset would illuminate Mt Florence with alpenglow. The first evening we were there we watched as the sun set from the rocks above to see a heard of deer grazing the meadow below. As we also discovered, this altitude provides excellent star gazing if you are lucky enough to get clear skies. Behind the camp is a high rolling rocky ridge that can be scrambled for better views. One morning during our visit, I turned out super early and scrambled up the ridge behind the camp and sat to watch the sunrise. From the top of this high place the Cathedral Range comes into view as well. In the morning as the sun creeps up, it first peeks out from behind Cathedral Peak. It immediately paints the back side of Mt Clark with the reddish glow of the morning before beginning to usher in daylight to the meadow area. My totally amateur photography will not do justice to it. The rocky creases in the rocks are brimming with penstemon of different hues; pinkish Mountain Pride and purplish Meadow Penstemon. There is also a little rock dome at the far side of the meadow which has a trail to the summit. We stayed here a couple of nights before packing up and heading over Cathedral pass to the trailhead on Tioga Road. I enjoyed every minute of our stay despite the mosquitoes and other small detractions that always seem to crop up. The HSC experience is one that totally harmonizes with my inner child. I wish I could spend a month here.

Click on any of the pictures on this page to enlarge.
Click here to see more pictures from this hike on flickr