Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Storm Door

It seems that no sooner had I begun to become seriously pessimistic about our seasonal rainfall totals before the pacific system that brings us most of our rain had begun to awaken. The one good storm that we got at the end of last week was followed by two more even bigger systems this week, with more on the way. According to weather reports for the bay area, Saturday (Valentine’s Day), was the only likely clearing before even more intense storms move in for Sunday, continuing on into next week. Our storm door is open. This is great news for California, and to some extent for everyone, since about 70% of the green produce purchased in grocery stores across the country comes from California. Many other agricultural products from almonds to strawberries were in danger being cut off from water completely in order to service the burgeoning population. For us it means less likelihood of imposed rationing, and for others, lower prices. And of course the timing of the break between these heavenly displays was perfect for getting out for a hike.

This was the week that would have been better for doing the falls loop at Big Basin, but maybe I’ll hike that route again next week. I decided to head for Mt Diablo hoping to get a visual update on the sierra snowpack. I hate to wait until spring when they take the official measurements. If you have visited, or if you have at least hiked up high enough to see for yourself, you can get a good read on the conditions while treating yourself to the elements of seasonal change. Another way is to check out the webcams at the Yosemite Association website from any computer.

I packed my rain gear just in case, and anticipating muddy conditions, I decided not to use my trusty lightweight Lowa Renegades, and opted for my old trail beaten REI Monarchs (Merrell). When I arrived at Mitchell Canyon trailhead, it was obvious that the summit(s) were shrouded in low clouds, which would really mess up any hope for views if it didn’t clear later. I headed up Mitchell rock trail, to Eagle peak trail, to check out Eagle peak. These rocky trails have a lot of character, and many good viewpoints. Eagle doesn’t have any snow except for a few traces on the side that doesn’t get sun. The short range views were pretty good because at 2369’ I was still well below the cloud cover. To the west looked mostly clear, but to the east there were a lot of low clouds.

I didn’t hit any appreciable snow until I went up Bald peaks trail. In the shadow of the summit the slushy snow and mud made for slippery, slow, going on the steep parts. After passing the high point at 2645’ the snow was at about 5-6 inches. With snow at a measurable depth I almost wished I had snow shoes. At Prospectors’ gap, I was amazed to see 3 mountain bikers slogging through the snow. While talking to them I had asked “so – you’re able to get traction in this snow?” They looked at each other and just laughingly said “No!”, “not really”. Apparently one of them had crashed just earlier, after sliding off trail, going over the handle bars, landing flat in the snow with his bike on top of him. Luckily, no one was hurt.

By that time North peak had cleared a bit, so I headed up there, slogging through 6 inches of virgin snow on the trail. At this point I realized what I had forgotten about my old worn out boots. The gore-tex linings leak a little bit. The short range views were ok, but not as clear as I would have liked. There was no chance of seeing past all the clouds and mist to the Sierra. I had some lunch waiting for the main summit to clear, but it didn’t. While sitting there, I could hear the snow falling from the radio towers, melting in clumps, making pounding noises on the equipment below. This made me think of what the cataracts in Donner canyon would look like having some fresh snow melt. So I scrapped my original plan to make the summit, and decided instead to hike down Middle trail to the Falls loop. In any case it was good to get out of the snow and let my feet dry out and warm up.

This was the best part of the hike as Donner creek and all of its little tributes were all running well. The rough terrain and dense vegetation make it hard to see much, but you get partial views to various segments all along the trail. The cascading water makes a beautiful noise after being concerned about the dry conditions. It is raining again as I write this, so surely the Sierra snowpack is getting a major boost, and the water situation will not be as bad as it could have been.

Click here to see my pictures on flickr.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Our First Good Storm

This past Thursday and Friday our heavens opened up and gave us the first really good storm since last spring. This is turning out to be an incredibly dry year for California. We’ve had worse, but this is the third year in a row of below average rainfall for the Santa Clara valley. This new storm brought us up to only about 50% of normal rainfall total for the season to date. February and March are typically the wettest months here, so there’s still hope for improvement. But, without a lot more rain, agriculture will take a big hit, and some water rationing looks very likely.

One of my favorite winter hikes is the classic falls loop at Big Basin. Normally this time of year the string of falls along Berry Creek are showing their best displays, fat with runoff water, especially just after a good storm. Naturally waterfall activity has been less than spectacular this season, and not great for the last three years in a row. Despite the grim water outlook, and the meager runoff, somehow I couldn’t do without hiking the falls loop after this last storm. I’m still not sure if I feared that this would be the best we’d see until next year, or if I simply could not deal with missing my seasonal tradition of doing this hike in the peak of the wet season. It was probably both.

I arrived at park headquarters early and hiked on out to the falls using Skyline to the Sea trail. I always make a point to get there early to avoid crowds in the main area of the park. Some of the parking areas were closed because of construction to accommodate wheelchair access to the redwood trail. I found the expected low flow, but with the sun coming out by then there was some interesting interplay with the sunlight and the dancing water.

I can remember back in 2004 when I was doing a lot of volunteer trail maintenance with SCMTA on the Big Basin crew. During February we had worked all morning in ankle deep water to improve storm diversion on the Skyline to the Sea trail heading up out of the headquarters area, which was completely flooded in places. Footbridges were being washed out of their locations, mudslides were damaging trails, and many trees fell. During that year, Berry creek fall was actually making a pounding noise, and churning up mist. This year it sounds more like a desktop water feature.

After visiting the fall, I scrapped my plans to do the rest of the falls trail. I decided instead to hike up Henry Creek trail. This is the kind of hike that only experienced hikers should attempt. It’s classified as a horse trail, but I would think it would be hard to get a horse to walk that trail. There is no bridge at the creek, and the trail can be hard to discern at the double crossing. If you search along the creek, there’s a place where a crossing is possible because of a large sheet of rock that spreads out the water flow. The rocky trail tread up higher has heavy erosion damage, and it rolls up and down fatiguingly. I like it because it’s somewhat of a challenge, and offers sweeping views down to the unique little valley between this ridge and Chalks road. It’s also a much less traveled route. It’s rare to encounter other hikers on this route. The valley floor is thickly populated with beautiful mature Douglas firs providing some contrast to the redwood dominated areas. The higher more arid areas are mostly exposed with sparse populations of scrubby pines, with lots of Manzanita and array of native plants, lichens and mosses. This section also provided a glimpse of spring. I spotted some fledgling Milk maids, and also a few very rare Fetid Adders Tongue. There's a photo link below.

A rocky outcropping at a high point along the Henry creek trail made a great lunch spot among the blooming heather before heading back using the same little wildcat trail I used for my last trip to Chalk Mountain. After that I had an uneventful return trip to park headquarters using the Sunset trail.

Click here to see my flickr pix

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Skyline Rocks

Ever heard of that? Even if you live in the Bay Area and you do a lot of hiking you've probably never heard of that. It’s not some music festival, not an adjective, or even a park. Don’t google it, I’ll save you the trouble. I made it up! Sometimes I like to use my imagination a little when I’m out hiking. I suspect most avid hikers have a similar process of suspending modern reality for a time and allowing themselves to walk freely as though they hadn’t a care in the world. I like to imagine that the boundaries of any given “park” or tract of wildland didn’t exist, and that I might just walk forever. I really like the high degree of connectedness that exists between many of our bay area parks that allows for planning unusual, less traveled, hiking routes that cross over into other lands. I often try to invent different route variations, but sometimes I make up names for my favorite routes that only I or my wife might actually know, and she probably thinks I’m a little nuts. Skyline Rocks is one of them. I call it that because the best view points along the way are from various sandstone rock outcroppings along California highway 35, or “Skyline”.

Considering the close proximity of the trailhead to our house, this route is kind of a gas saver special for me. It begins in Sanborn County Park. With park headquarters located just a few minutes out of Saratoga off of highway 9, it’s almost in our back yard. Sanborn is another of those places that hikers tend to associate more with family picnicking than serious hiking, but it seems that most hikers don’t bother to consider all the possibilities. The map shows you can hike all the way to skyline, but doesn’t show that if you can do that, then you can connect with the skyline trail and the BART. And if you can do that, you really could almost walk forever. The Sanborn Trail is actually a much underappreciated trail. The beginning section is steep for about the first mile or so, but then becomes more gradual climbing up through a nice diverse tree canopy including stands of redwood, Douglas fir, tanoak, and madrone. This is one place where you can see many examples of old growth Douglas fir. I have to laugh, or perhaps cry, when I think that most children in America think of Douglas fir as some little 6 foot shrub that you buy at the supermarket for Christmas, and then pitch it out like trash. Here you get to see the grand-daddies. You get some fairly good views in places, if through tree cover. The canopy is dense enough to keep you cool in hot whether, and to partially shelter you in a drizzle. In one section called Todd creek there are a few old growth redwoods amongst the second growth and the stump remnants of their majestic grandfathers. In a few places you can begin to notice the unusual sandstone formations jutting from the hillsides.

Near the top of the ridge is the junction with the skyline trail which runs roughly adjacent to highway 35. Sometimes a little too closely adjacent if you can hear the cars, but most of the trail remains far enough away from the highway not to notice its there. Here too there are broken views down across the valley below partially obstructed by tree cover. After just over 2 miles of gently rolling trail you approach the junction with Indian rock trail and the main entrance to Castle Rock State Park.

Castle Rock is very popular with the general public, and on this day it was as popular as ever. The main section of the park makes a good outing for families with children, and the parking areas were all full. Here too however, getting off the beaten track will avoid most of the crowds. And because I hiked up from Sanborn, I didn’t need to park. I have a favorite little rock outcrop that I go to sometimes which is not on the maps. This point provides great views out toward the San Lorenzo valley, and weather permitting, out to the ocean and Monterey bay. It’s a good place to enjoy some quiet time. From there I found my way up the Ridge trail to Goat rock, which is a popular practice rock for climbers. There’s lots of knarly sandstone and tafoni around for the curious to keep busy, and more awesome views westward and to the south. To avoid more crowds, I took in some quick views from the overlook, but didn’t hang around there. I continued northwest on the Ridge trail all the way to the trail camp, enjoying various west looking view points along the way including Varian peak. The Ridge trail and the Saratoga Gap trails are both excellent. At the trail camp I walked up the service road and found the Loghty Woods trailhead in order to loop back around to the other side of the ridge. This is also pretty trail, but it’s a little strange to hike because it encircles the private rod and gun club lands adjacent to the park. You have to put up with a lot of racket from the sport shooting.

Back across highway 35 is a connector to easily get back onto the skyline trail to head southward again back toward Sanborn. Along this section of trail are some more good viewing rocks which provide fantastic views on the other side of skyline ridge looking down to the Santa Clara valley, and weather permitting, north up the channel of the bay. Some of these rocks are also popular with climbers as practice and training rocks. Summit rock was actually closed by the County because of “endangered species nesting”. The signs were not specific, but I heard from some climbers that some peregrine falcons have nested there. No word on when it may re-open. I have some old pictures which I will link below. The other big rock along here is called Indian rock. Both places have fantastic inspiring views. From Indian rock use the skyline trail back southbound to the Sanborn trail. After making your way to the next junction below you can choose to descend on the Sanborn trail which is quicker and steeper, or to take the Y to the left to use the San Andreas trail which has a lot of switchbacks. It’s a matter of preference. I usually climb steep and descend on the more graded route. That’s one version of the Skyline rocks hike. Imagination can dissolve boundaries.

Click here to see my photos
Click here to see my Sanborn/Castle rock photoset from July 2008