Monday, June 22, 2009

SOS hike (Berry Creek Watershed)

Last week when I did my hike to Mustang Peak, I had chosen the route only the night before. Otherwise, with some simple preparations, I could have used that hike as SOS weekend hike. Coe is a state park, but with our printer out of color ink, I did not have a sign to use. Lame excuse right? So anyway, this week four of us planned a hike at Big Basin for our SOS hike. After we had already met up with Dave and Diane, and we had left for an early start, and during the actual hike, we came up with some brillant and creative ideas, but too late to really use them. Too late for this hike anyway. But we did play around and get some photos and videos we can use by just using printed signs. It would have been nice to be better prepared, but we did our best with what we had to work with.

On the way there while we were still in the valley, it seemed really warm for 7:30 AM and I was de-layering in the car. But after we got up to skyline, the fog was lying there like a great grey blanket up on the ridge. Down in the basin we had overcast and cool temps all day and my layers came back out. The sun almost came out for awhile just as we reached Middle ridge on our return trip to park headquarters, but our hike was mostly in low light and cool temps. We didn’t expect to see much water flowing. Maddock creek was almost dead, but Kelly creek, and West Waddell creek both had marginal flow. At least enough volume to make nice gurgling noises over the rocks. I always love to savor the water noises. With the blockage on Skyline to the Sea, we used the Sunset trail to get up to Middle ridge, and used the little cutoff trail to get over to Skyline to the Sea. All the trails seem to be in good shape, but some of the wooden bridges along the falls loop are beginning to fall apart from age. None of these bridges would create a major hindrance if they were out, but could cause public trail closures if they get much worse. All the more reason to be advocating for the parks I suppose. Beginning early makes all the difference on these popular trails. We didn’t see any other hikers until we had reached the Berry Creek Falls area, and the people we ran into were backpackers who had camped the night before. As usually happens, we passed quite a few hikers headed out the other way as we were on our way back using the Sunset trail. Just in time for summer solstice there were yellowjackets around, and we got some stings. I got one partial sting, but I saw it and brushed it off before full penetration. Poor Diane got stung twice. Oh for summertime joys! Luckily, the camp store at headquarters carries some kind of commercial remedy for her to use. I forget the name of it.

The 3 falls along Berry creek are still looking good if flowing unspectacularly following another overall dry year. Still this hike is always a pleasure to the senses; a really great time. It’s interesting to study the rocks that are normally hidden behind the plummeting water at Berry Creek Fall. They are polished to a near gemstone quality finish in the areas where the water and debris have honed the surfaces to a fine luster. This is one feature of the fall you cannot even see unless the water is very low, or virtually stopped like in late summer. The redwood dominated groves, and the lush green understory, thick with fern species, sorrel, and lots of huckleberry never fail to evoke a fairytale like image. The trilliums and clintonia are all gone now, but there are still a few yellow and white violets and Ithuriel’s spears around, and azaleas are still blooming in places (Sue’s favorite). Sue has a very sensitive nose and she can pick up the scent of azaleas about a mile away. This route has always been one of my bay area favorites in any season. It’s a classic worthy of being saved.

Click here to see the photos on flickr.
(Added) Click here to see Dave's pictures on
Click the play button below to see a short video of Silver Fall.
(be sure to turn on your sound for theriputic water sounds)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Mustang Peak

I hadn’t been to the Dowdy Ranch visitor’s center before. About 3 years ago Henry Coe state park opened the new day use area and ranger station in the far southeastern section of the park. Dowdy is open only on weekends between May and mid October, from 8:00 AM to sunset. You cannot self-register before 8:00 AM to get an early start because the gate is locked. I’ve been meaning to go on a hike there, but the longer drive usually puts me out. But I really felt like hiking some new (to me) trails this week, and with Coe again under threat of being closed, I thought this would be a good time before the summer heat kicks in, and hopefully not the last. So I made plans to visit Dowdy.

To get there, you have to use the unpaved Kaiser Aetna road which is accessed from Hwy 152, Pacheo Pass Hwy, just east of the junction with 156. I found the on-line driving directions to be right on the mark. No worries. The seven miles of dusty, twisty, road is not too rough, but it is just bumpy enough to be very slow. My poor car accumulated a thick coating of dust by the time I reached the parking lot. They’ve done a nice job on the new visitor’s center there. There are no campsites, but there are some covered picnic areas with a really nice view out over the washboard terrain at about 1600 feet. I went inside and paid my day use fee, and checked out some of the suggested hiking routes the rangers had marked on copied maps. But I had already decided to head for Mustang Peak. Somehow a name like Mustang Peak just sounds really cool, so I had to go. In keeping with Coe’s reputation, you begin high atop a ridge, and to get anywhere you begin by dropping down. So how do you know you’re at Coe? When it seems like it’s uphill in both directions, right? Kaiser Aetna road is too developed to be the best choice for hiking, so Max’s Corral trail was the only other choice for going that direction.

Unless you use the developed roads, this overall section of the park has relatively primitive trail markings. The familiar printed signs and posts are few. The trails are only marked along the way with colored plastic tape tied around tree branches, bushes, and stakes. Even some junctions are only marked with colored plastic tape. The tape markings are reassuring when you see them because all of the trails on my intended route are single tracks with some quite obscure sections. One good thing is the mostly open terrain which allows for good GPS satellite reception. Rolling up, down, and around this knarly serpentine landscape could get confusing if not for those markings. You would need to use some serious orienteering skills or rely on GPS to keep from getting confused.

Max’s Corral trail begins immediately downhill through grassy hills showing signs of historical ranching. Down you go through the partial tree cover loosing altitude all the way to the North Fork trail which runs along North Fork Pacheco creek. The creek is not running and is already down to scattered murky ponds, some of which are hosting tadpoles, and tiny frogs. You need to watch for the markers along this moderately interesting creek section to keep from loosing the trail. The junction with the Tie Down trail has a marker, but it’s not a crossover like shown on the map. It’s more of a Y. I already knew that for my route I was going to keep bearing right. Heading up the Tie Down trail you get your first view of Tie Down Peak. There is no trail to the summit but I suppose it wouldn’t take much to scramble to the top of this jagged rock outcrop, but at only 1480 feet, it hardly seems worth it to slog through tick infested high grass to get to it. Heck that’s not even as high as Dowdy. You could be sitting around on your derriere in the shade scarfing burgers and get equally captivating views.

Continuing on, Tie Down trail transitions into the Yellowjacket trail almost without notice. The junctions are marked only by colored tape (see my pictures). It would be easy to miss if you’re not really paying attention. I continued to just bear right knowing I had a track log to get me out of trouble. Soon I crossed another little creek and began climbing up to 1632 feet. Monitoring my GPS, I could see I was headed in the right direction, and was undoubtedly on Dutch’s trail, even thought I was not sure where the exact junctions were. I really enjoyed Dutch’s trail as it followed along the ridge top headed north. It had an almost familiar quality with its rolling profile and long range views reminiscent of the Westridge trail in Big Basin or Willow ridge trail on the other side of Coe. As I turned around and looked south, I could just make out Dowdy Ranch behind me on the far hillside, and looking north I had the first view to Mustang Peak. Further along I could see the large pond marked on the map, and the rabbit trail leading down there marked only by an easily unnoticed stone duck. At the junction with County Line road there was a real marker, and the road is good enough to drive on. This road provided a nice change in perspective with the views now mostly north and south.

When I reached Mustang Peak I could see there was a little spur trail leading up to the summit. It was nasty steep with thick vegetation, but no scrambling required. The skies had cleared quite a bit, and I enjoyed a nice panorama. I had not seen a sole since leaving Dowdy, and there are really no suggestions of human habitation out here. There aren’t any radio or TV towers, weather stations, microwave dishes, or any man made structures visible anywhere. Except for a few old roads carved into the ridgelines, and the occasional aircraft noise, there is only you. If you really enjoy having some isolation, this is it. So why hike to Mustang Peak? At 2263 feet, it’s probably not high enough to be a peak bagger’s goal. Some might say “because it’s there”! But really this is a hike for the true rambler. For me it’s the journey more than the destination that makes a hike worthwhile. You could get here by using boring roads, but that is not really hiking the way I like hiking. And of course the roads could be used for cycling or horseback, not that the single tracks are restricted. They’re not. The next human I saw was the same ranger I had been talking to before back at Dowdy. He said other visitors were there that day, but I was the first person there, and the last to leave. I wouldn't clasify this hike as a butt-kicker, but my GPS logged 16.9 miles and 4539 feet of total elevation gain, making it a pretty good country stroll. Definately a typical Coe hike.

Click here to see my photoset on flickr

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Last Chance (maybe)

Just speculating, but this weekend may be the last chance to see prime Mariposa Lilies, at least in the Bay Area. I’ve been seeing lots of them since getting back from Yosemite. The Mariposa Lilies that bloom around the Bay Area are much more colorful than the ones that I’ve seen in the Sierras. Even the white ones have brilliant color fading like air brush work inside in yellow and purple. There are also yellow and rose colored Mariposas to be found, and those types I have never seen in the Sierra. There are about 50 species all together. Last Saturday we were hiking at Sunol and there were many white Mariposas along the eastern end of the Maguire Peaks loop. The Saturday before that I even saw some yellow Mariposas blooming at Wilder Ranch. There were nice displays at Coe a few weeks ago too. If the sun comes out this weekend, that could make a fine opportunity to see one of the Bay Areas best seasonal specialties. It won’t be long before they start to fade out and go back to the earth. For me they are far more pleasing than any form of cultivation. Good places to see Mariposa Lilies; Henry Coe, Sunol, Ohlone Trail, Sierra Azul, Almaden Quicksilver, Rancho San Antonio, and many other places with grassy hills, open space, and sunshine. Oh, and if you haven't done so already, please stop over at the California State Parks Foundation and help them stop the park closures. Anyone can at least write a letter. Believe it will help!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Water Conservation Update

(the results are in)
Toward the end of last winter Sue and I began thinking a lot harder about water conservation. Three years in a row of dry conditions, and the draining of one of our largest local reservoirs for an urgent seismic retrofit project, made the specter of drought very real. And indeed state-wide the situation is dire. Both of us had been practicing energy and water conservation in our home(s) since even before we had met. This was one of the common links that Sue and I have always shared; our deep concerns about environmental causes. Since being married and sharing a common household we have been evolving our techniques for how to live greener, and to practice conservation. But considering the bleak outlook for our local water situation this winter, we refused to behave like sheep and ignore the situation like most people seem to be doing. We decided that we needed to go way beyond our usual efforts. But we needed a way to help save water without spending a lot of money for a fancy new water system.

You can read about our solution in a post I did last March entitled Low Tech Grey Water. One of the links in that post doesn’t work anymore, but the information there is still good. I also did a follow up entitled Water Conservation Tips and Update. To be honest, using a system like this is not much fun. Its tedious carting water around in buckets like a couple of dusty pilgrims. But we do it out of passion.

Recently we got our first water bill that would reflect the full impact of our efforts, so we can now place a precise number on our efforts in order to make them tangible. No more speculation. And that number it 58%. Meaning a 58% savings in total water usage compared to the same time frame last year. Not too shabby considering that we really thought we were saving water before.

It would be easy to think that all this effort is useless, or backward, or that its undignified and demeaning. In our society we seem to have a this tendency to view ourselves as modern contemporary individuals who would not stoop to such things, or accept a different standard of living than we have been taught to believe is our birthright. After all we own a computer, a cell phone, and a car-nav, why should we lower ourselves to manually bail water? I completely disagree with these kinds of sentiments, and I think our results prove that everyone can in fact make a difference if they choose to.

So how much impact will our efforts have in the grand scheme of things? The truth is; probably very little. Unless a lot of people start getting serious, the impact will continue to be very small. And honestly, even if everybody did their level best to save water in their homes, it would never be enough to save agriculture from severe impact. It is after all, agri-business that is by far the largest consumer of our states water. They will need to learn how to save a lot more, and how to protect the environment at the same time. Perhaps agriculture as a whole is really just a big polluter, and needs to be cut back. But in any case, I still think its worth it. I plan to demonstrate with my lifestyle exactly what drives my passion. We need to rein in unfettered agriculture, practice conservation, and tear down O’Shaughnessy Dam, and Restore Hetch Hetchy to its natural state. That’s the ticket.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Yosemite Spring Wrap-Up

On our last day in Yosemite for our spring trip, as Sue and I start getting our gear cleaned up and dried out as much as possible before packing up, I am already looking forward to our high country trip in July. It’s hard for me to leave here and head back to modern reality, so the best technique for making it easier is to focus on our next trip. When we got the car packed up we still had time for a short hike before hitting the road. This is too early for the best wild flowers here, but I was thinking maybe Hetch Hetchy might be starting to show some early displays. The Hetch Hetchy valley is at a lower elevation, and starts getting strong sun earlier. I have seen awesome displays of wild flowers along Evergreen Road, and in the valley beginning in June. At least we had time to hike as far as Wapama Fall for yet another drenching with cool clean waterfall spray. There is a nicely constructed footbridge at the base of the falls, and during the spring flow, it’s really intense there. The valley walls seem to retain heat in the sun, so this display of pounding, hissing, and dancing water is a welcome sight when hiking this trail.

It’s easy to have mixed feeling about this place. After all John Muir absolutely loved Hetch Hetchy, and it was a monumentally difficult thing for him when the Sierra Club lost its battle to save the valley from being dammed.

"Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man."
-- John Muir

Making use of Tuolumne water could have been accomplished differently, but in those days, the technology of civil engineering was very backward. Despite ardent and widespread opposition, and alternative means, congress passed the Raker Act allowing the dam to be built in a national park.

Today there is a movement underway to demolish O’Shaughnessy Dam, and Restore Hetch Hetchy to its natural state, which is being supported by the modern day California Sierra Club. So there actually is a slim chance they might eventually reverse the ignorance of times past provided that the funding can be raised. That seems next to impossible in today’s economy, but I’m not going to give up hope. In my view the restoration would be well worth it, even though it would probably take many decades for the valley to return to its grand natural state.

Back to the hike now. Sorry for being sidetracked. I hate the fact that there is a dam here, but at least we can enjoy this place for the many qualities that ignorance couldn’t destroy. There is a popular trail head into the backcountry here, and those trails provide some day hiking possibilities as well. I have many fond memories of back packing with my old buddies from high school out to Lake Eleanor not far from here to camp and fish. The main trail is accessed by walking across the dam, and through a tunnel hewn from solid rock over to the north side of the reservoir. The trail follows a rocky ledge around the cliff profile with gentle elevation gain and loss, but a very rough surface. In season there are lots of wild flowers and butterflies around. The cliffs, rock features, and vegetation are all captivating despite the reservoir’s imposing specter, but the one most resilient un-transmutable feature is Wapama Fall. As awesome as any of the Yosemite falls, Wapama is a hidden treasure. From the dam area you can only see one lower section, but the actually height of the fall is revealed by hiking deeper into the valley. Falling in twisted crevasse-like sections from the upper rim, this fall is difficult to get a good look at. As you enter the fall area in peak water flow you are immediately pelted with thick spray. The sectioned footbridge gives you perspective but without protection, you are soaked in seconds. And good luck getting pictures. Even our Go-Lite umbrellas were almost useless. A fitting end to a whole week of water in motion.

Click here to see the pictures on flickr
Click here to see my 2005 pictures which include Hetch Hetchy