Sunday, April 26, 2009

Grizzly Gulch

I seemed to have some renewed vigor after last weeks sunny roaming at Sunol. I couldn’t help feeling a subtle excitedness about getting back out into the wild lands this week. At the risk of being too sappy, the full manifestation of springtime unfolding along the trails of our parklands and open spaces draws me every year like a magic song. As a coincidence, we have a Yosemite camping trip planned for the middle of May, before the throngs of tourists storm in on Memorial Day weekend. Needing to update some of our camping gear we had made on online order from Wal-Mart out on Monterey highway, so we needed to plan a stop there. So it was that, plus that "magic song", that drew Sue and I back to Henry Coe. Actually the Wal-Mart purchase (cheapest price we could find), and the combining of the pick up with hiking somewhere south, was Sue’s idea (magic song), but Coe is always ok with me.

I decided we should head to the Coyote Creek entrance because I thought the timing would be just right for finding Chinese houses in bloom. They’re one of my favorites, but they don’t just bloom everywhere. I’ve seen many along various trails in this area of the park, and last week at Sunol a few were just starting. We made our pickup right at opening time 8:00, and then quickly stuffed our new gear in the trunk, and headed south on 101. We arrived at the trailhead just as the morning chill was lifting.

We passed through the gate and headed up the road leading to the first junction. This is actually the very end of Coit Road. We hadn’t been hiking five minutes before it became apparent that my plan was right on the mark. Along the hillside adjacent to the road, we saw the first blooms of Chinese houses. Not just a few, but clusters of them. In this area they seem to grow almost pure white. Most of the time a fully blooming Chinese house will have purple and white pedals layered in rows, but these had very little color. As you progress further into the park you begin to see the more traditional looking blooms, with varying shades of deep purple to pinkish pedals layered in rows with white pedals in separate rows. And sometimes they have subtle patterns.

We hiked up Coit Road to the Anza trail. Our route consisted of a loop around the Grizzly Gulch zone of the park. I was not using GPS so I do not have a track log. I plan to incorporate track logs in my blog entries soon, but for now, I only have boring text entry trail lists. We used the Anza to the Jackson, Elderberry, Tower Rock, and Jackson Road to wind up on Wasno Road on top of the ridge. These trails are graded fairly well, and this is actually a much easier way to climb this ridge than going straight up Grizzly Gulch, but we chose the route for the flowers. We then followed Wasno Road to Tule Pond trail and from there to Grizzly Gulch trail, and back to Coyote Creek.

I chose this route specifically because I was looking for Chinese houses, and was not disappointed. I found profusions of them at the bottom of the Anza trail, and on the Jackson and Elderberry trails. We also found some ground Iris, and lots of Blue Larkspur. Lots of deep purple lupine was everywhere, and we found many Blue Dicks, Ithuriel’s Spears, and a host of others. Plenty enough to keep us smiling, and make for a really interesting hike. Wild flowers have an indescribable effect on my psyche. Cultivation doesn’t impress me, but nature makes my heart glad.

We had stopped to have some lunch right near the top of the Dexter trail. There are usually nice open views from this point on a clear day, but we sat just down the lee side to get out of the chilling wind. While we were just finishing, some people were hiking up the Dexter and asked us to take picture of them. I said “sure” and used their camera to aim and take a shot. I then realized that I had my first sighting of Rambling Rebecca Bond in the wilds of Henry Coe. It was nice for us to meet her and two companions as they were on their way out for a backpacking trip. Coe may be among the largest State parks, but sometimes it’s still a small world.

Click here to see my photoset from this hike

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sunol Saunter

Refusing to be discouraged by the slow start to the wildflower season, I continued to seek out promising bloomage venues this weekend. Soloing this week, I decided on Sunol Regional Wilderness. Other reports are that the flowers have been really good there, despite the cloudy and cold conditions I’ve mostly been exposed to so far. The weather on Saturday was much more like the traditional clear sky and sun bathed fare of a NorCal spring day. By 8:00am I was already down to a single layer, and the sun was kissing the back of my neck. Fearing a sun burned collar area; I looked in my pack for my trusty, anti-fashion sense, boonie hat and discovered an odd circumstance. I had forgotten it! I could hardly believe that I didn’t have my old floppy boonie hat. The weather must have me psyched out. With temperatures rising north of 80 I realized what had been lacking in my previous hikes this year. Sun! Lots of sun! Flowers like sun! Resourceful as usual I rooted around and found the white bandana Sue bought for me last year at Denali. It has a map of the national park printed on one side. Kind of a tourist thing, but hey; bandanas come in handy sometimes. I wrapped it around my head and let it drape the back of my neck offering protection, but making me look a bit silly I’m sure.

I headed up Flag Hill trail and began seeing lots of Miniature Lupine, Winter Vetch, and Owl’s Clover. But up at the top there were many tall clusters of Silver Lupine in full bloom right near the bench. The clear skies offered fantastic views over the emerald green expanse of hills and dales. Lots of Golden Poppies, Indian Paintbrush, and Blue Dicks were also found in patches near the rocks. I could see Maguire Peaks rising to the north, and decided to head over there even though I didn’t expect to see many flowers. I continued on down the other side of Flag Hill trail to High Valley trail, which is the only trail access to that area of the park. Hiking out that way I came to a downhill switchback and could hear some mooing below. I looked down at the lower trail and there was a whole heard of cattle headed slowly up the trail. There must have been 20 or more. There wasn’t really any way to deviate off trail. Too much brush with poison oak among the offerings. I didn’t like the close proximity of the narrow trail and all those damn cows, so I scrapped Maguire Peaks and turned around. This is the down side of grazing. Damn cows and cow poop everywhere.

Instead I headed up Vista Grande trail, but was glad I did. The trail is quite steep in places, but not as steep as Flag Hill. Once you have the altitude, the views open up like no other place in Sunol. Well, except for Maguire Peaks, but you know that story. You don’t realize how abrupt this little ridge is until you are up on top looking down at the trails below. The views are well worth the climbing. The air is great, plus it’s amazingly peaceful and quiet. There is a bench at the highest point where I sat and watched two large Red Tailed Hawks gliding over the terrain seemingly acting as a team in search of anything meal worthy. This area must have hundreds of burrowing squirrels per square mile. I saw some nice displays of Royal Larkspur, Blue-Eyed Grass, Blue Dicks, Lupine, Poppies, Paintbrush, and many others. I also saw some Chinese Houses beginning to bloom on Eagle View trail near the creek. I returned on the Indian Joe trail, which seems to be very popular with the casual strollers. Lots of people on trail, but not many flowers. It’s a pretty trail though. I even ran into some kind of impromptu bible study in the shade of a group of trees along the trail near the rock caves. I was happy to have them completely ignore me as I passed by smiling and waving. I found it so boringly ironic that they could be surrounded by such inviting natural beauty, and perfect weather, and yet be sitting around attempting to seek “the creator” inside an old book. I think if I were God I would be mildly offended, or perhaps amused.

Click here to see my photoset on flickr

Trail Miscommunication

All hikers can tell you their own unique stories about various mishaps that have occurred on the trails, or perhaps off trail, and some great discussions can be had about how they overcame the situation. These are good opportunities to learn ways to deal with adverse situations, and to prevent repeat mishap scenarios. I’ve often heard it said that, if you do a lot of nice challenging hikes, it’s not a question of “if” but a question of “when” something goes wrong. I’m not fatalistic, but it’s true enough. This little story isn’t even close to Hiker Hell material. It doesn’t involve anyone getting killed, near death, eminent injury, or grievous suffering. It’s really just a simple scenario that snowballed into a rather strange afternoon. I thought it would be worth writing up because the same type of scenario could have been more serious if we had been in a more isolated area, and further away from a trailhead.

The story goes like this. My wife and I decided to hike the Skyline Trail last Saturday to hunt for wildflowers. This is usually a great route to find seasonal frolicking blooms of all types. We’ve hiked this trail together numerous times in all kinds of weather. It’s a nice hike at any time. We parked at the Grizzly Flat trailhead of Upper Steven’s Creek County Park, and originally planned to do a big loop by crossing highway 37 over to Long Ridge to pick up the Skyline Trail, and return by way of the Canyon Trail in Upper Steven’s Creek to Grizzly Flat trail and back up.

The weather was unseasonably cold, windy, and overcast (see photo),and given the spotty displays we had been seeing the past few weeks, right away I began having doubts that the wild flower viewing would be very good. I found some really nice giant trilliums which kept me interested, but not much else until the sun came out. Anyway, we hiked all the way through to Russian Ridge which was a severe disappointment. We hiked down the north side of Borell Hill to get out of the chill and have some lunch. We were sitting behind some rocks to shelter from the wind, with a nice clear view of the bay below. During lunch, we decided that because of the poor conditions, we would scrap the loop around to Upper Steven's and just make a loop around Russian Ridge preserve and then return to our parked car along the same trail we hiked north on. This would eliminate the 1000 foot climb back up Grizzly Flat trail from the Canyon trail. This also gave us the opportunity to take a second look at the more promising west side of the ridge after the sun had finally come out. We could see that many flowers were simply not blooming due to the earlier overcast. We also noted that the Nature Center near the pond on the other side of Alpine road would be open by then, and we could take a look inside. So we finally made our way around on the Ancient Oaks trail and back to where the parking lot is for Russian Ridge. We decided to take advantage of the restroom there. Sue went first, and when she came out I was waiting behind some other people. So she told me that she would meet me back at the Nature Center a short distance away. I said ok, but I didn't really watch which way she was headed. I just assumed she knew where it was. We do not carry cell phones, and were not carrying walkie talkies.

Anyway I got finished there and headed back under Alpine road using the tunnel. I headed over to the Nature Center, but Sue was nowhere to be found. Backtracking, I could not figure out where she could have gone. I remembered that sometimes Sue will hike on ahead of me on the trail if I stop to take photos or something, and I will eventually catch up. She always says she likes to keep moving. Without finding her, I began to think she must have headed out southbound on the Skyline trail. So I began hiking briskly to catch up. My assumed familiarity with her habits was working against me here. After I rounded the last bend before the Skyline Ridge parking area, it struck me that I should have caught up to her by then. I was confused, and began thinking I should go back to find her behind me. I hiked almost all the way back to the Nature Center, but without finding her, I stopped and was thinking if she was back there I should have found her by then. I got confused again and turned around and headed south thinking I must now be way behind her. I hiked all the way south beyond the Christmas tree farm until I again began wondering why I had not caught up. I had been hiking a good strong pace. I waited for about 20 minutes there where I could see north about a quarter mile. Sue did not appear on the trail. I sat there on a stump trying to think what had happened.

I was now totally confused about where Sue could have gotten lost. I knew she was familiar with the trail and knew where the car was, and I had confidence in her skills at following maps and general hiking competence. She's been hiking all her life. I also knew she had plenty of gear and food. The one worrying thing was that I was carrying all the water, but it was not a hot day. I was not using very much water, and so this was not a critical point. But I did begin to wonder if she had gotten hurt some way, or was a victim of some foul play. I put that stuff out of my mind, and instead began thinking about what to do next. I decided to head for the car, and thought there may be a fairly good chance that she would be there waiting for me, even though it didn't seem like her at all to get that far ahead. She was not at the car! I began to get worried.

I was now spitting mad at myself for letting this happen. I got in the car and drove up to where the Nature Center is to see if anyone had seen her, or was asking about seeing me. The guy at the center said a woman had been looking for someone fitting my description and had headed south. I then got back in the car and drove back to Grizzly Flat, parked at the same spot, left the car unlocked just in case she showed up there, and began hiking back to the north looking for her. I was asking everyone I happened to pass if they had seen Sue, and finally someone said they had passed someone back about half a mile. I kept hiking north until I finally found Sue just south of the chestnut farm along the trail. She had been behind me the whole time.

We were too glad to see each other to be mad, but we did have a quiet discussion about it, and pieced together what happened. Apparently Sue had forgotten about the tunnel under Alpine road. That started the confusion. She had walked around to the far side of the pond before realizing that she was not where she should be. I did not see that she did not go down to the tunnel and assumed she knew where to go. While I was looking for her at the Nature center, she was trying to figure out how to get there. Thinking I knew her habits, I headed off looking for her on the trail. I was wrong to think she wouldn't stay at the Nature Center like she said, and apologized. But not to let her completely escape blame, I explained to her that her past habits had led me think she might be ahead. Something for us to learn from. We will likely change our habits somewhat to prevent this from happening again. Maybe we will start using walkie talkies, or perhaps not let ourselves get separated. But more likely we will have a policy of always saying where we will be going, and then waiting there, and waiting at all junctions ala Sierra Club.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Elusive Bay Area Wildflowers

We’ve been out hunting wildflowers for the past few weeks. This is the time of year when nature rolls out its secret festival of regeneration by displaying its mysterious seasonal artisanship for the private enjoyment of its true admirers. Of course, this merriment is only private in the sense that only those who are willing to seek it out will ever discover it, or indeed appreciate it. However this year’s celebration is proving to be a bit more muted than other years, at least in the local areas. If it’s true that “Earth Laughs in Flowers” as quoted by Ralph Waldo Emerson, then it seems that Earth is finding it difficult to have much of a sense of humor right now. I don’t know if it’s still just too early, or if this is just not a good year. But so far, the displays I’ve been seeing are a far cry from the joys of times past.

Two weeks ago we found ourselves up on Empire Grade with some time to kill so we decided to hike some areas of Fall Creek and UCSC that have been good prospects in past years. Fall Creek usually has quite a few Western Trilliums and lots of Milk Maids and blooming sorrel amking it a fine spring venue. We are also accustomed to finding fairly interesting displays of wildflowers at UCSC, even though I never hear anyone else says so. These coastal hillsides, meadows, and groves usually produce a good mix of species, making for an interesting spring stroll. The dirt road trails there are wide and fairly smooth without much elevation gain making them very popular with mountain bikers. The wildflowers are really wasted on them though, as even when displays are much better, they all seem to just fly by without even noticing. This year was very sparse though. I usually find prime examples of Siskiyou Iris scattered around in the more shaded areas. This year I spotted exactly one that was in full bloom. All other varieties were also sparse and disappointing. Fall Creek had a few fledgling trilliums near the creek only. The Milk Maids and sorrel are always a pretty decent show to catch, but apart from that, not much happening.

I had been talking to Dave, my brother in law, about the wildflowers at Henry Coe. They don't usually go there, but after my brilliant reomendation we made plans for a hike first week of April which is usually quite good. We can usually do a nice casual headquarters loop to see great displays of many species. Middle ridge, Flat frog, Fish trail, Spring trail, and others can be used to bring hikers past profusions of Ground Iris, Larkspur, carpets of Gila and Goldfields, and a whole tantalizing variety. These trails in close to park headquarters are all easy trails which anyone can hike. But, this year’s hike was quite disappointing in comparison. We saw most of the same varieties, but far less than I have ever seen there. Many species were in evidence, but still not blooming despite the fairly good sunshine. My reputation in tatters, we made the best of it and had a good time.

This week Sue and I chose to hike the skyline trail through the south skyline region of MROSD, also part of the BART. This route is also quite interesting when in full bloom. I can usually spot many Giant Trilliums among the mix as we hike through oak woodlands, open hillside meadows, and forest groves. I’d have to say this is the scarcest offering I can remember. It didn't help that the sun didn't really come out until well after noon. The temp was 38 degrees when we parked the car at Grizzly Flat, it was overcast, and the wind seemed unseasonably chilling. I did find some really nice trilliums, and there were scattered flourishes of Red Maid, Meadow foam, Miniature Lupine, and other common species. But overall I am left wondering what to think. We also had an interesting little misadventure which I will write up in a different post. I collected some of the more interesting photos from these recent hikes in a single photoset on flickr. Click here to view.

Click here to view photos from our Coe headquarters hike in 2007
Click here to view photos from my MROSD hike in 2007