Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Rain Cometh

I’ve been groping back and forth to work every day this week in driving rain as the SF bay area got pummeled from a bountiful pacific storm system. Not quite biblical proportions but very sustained for this region. This deluge was a welcome addition to the local water table, but when it rained almost all night Friday as well, that made the weekend trail conditions highly questionable for hiking. It would have been easy to write off the day, especially having somewhere else to be in the afternoon, but we decided to go for a short hike at Mt Diablo. We could see that the highest peaks around the area had a covering to fresh snow which always makes a really nice visual effect, so if we had been lucky enough to find a clearing in the weather, we knew the potential views would be awesome. If nothing else we could at least toss a few snowballs around until our fingers got numb and our clothing soaked.

What we saw were scattered and broken views as clouds and fog drifted through all day. The summit road was closed because of the snow, which only made us smile because neither one of us could remember being at the summit when no cars were allowed. The upper portion of the summit trail had turned into watery slush and we had to mush through it because much of the trail was over grown with varied varieties of prickly brush. With the road closed, many sections of the summit road were being used for sledding. The snow was about 6 to 8 inches and very wet, so the conditions for having good sled runs were actually pretty bad, but the kids were having fun. Spontaneous family snowball fights were breaking out all over the summit. Early in the afternoon the road got plowed up to the lower summit lot and a flood of cars headed up creating a crowd. On the way back down we used the paved road to get as far as the Juniper campground. That was where the rangers had been parking the cars until the road got plowed. Once below the snow line, we found the Juniper trail and used that to head down. There were hang gliders at the ready from the launching point near the campground but they didn’t seem to like the conditions for flying that day. The trails lower down were in good shape, and we had a nice hike back down to our car.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Two Fav Peaks

The weather here remained consistently grey, chilly, and overcast with lots of clouds and haze. All the reports have strong rain coming in for the next few days. But we still had an opportunity to ward off cabin fever on Saturday, even though the conditions aren’t the best. We decided to do a 2 peak hike from Ed Levin County Park in Milpitas. The Sandy Wool Lake trail head provides access to two different trails that can take you up to Monument Peak. We like to go up the Monument Peak trail, and sometimes return on Agua Caliente tail. These east bay hills have a lot of serpentine rock which have been showing a lot of interesting multicolored lichen in the wet season. The coloration becomes much more vivid when the conditions are moist. I’ve been seeing a lot of this lichen in Henry Coe lately too, and it gives the rock outcrops an interesting sort of seasonal airbrushed look. The Monument Peak trail makes good use of the terrain, and provides lots of opportunities for checking out the rock formations. On the way up the views out over the bay are usually good depending on the conditions, but at times you can’t help but notice a bit of low vehicular noise from route 680 far below. A few sections take you amongst some old stately oaks and sycamores near the little creeks. Sometimes there are cattle grazing, and there’s a resident flock of turkeys usually found in here. We saw a couple of groups of hens foraging around together. Coyote and deer are commonly sighted along here too.

We hiked up to the summit of Monument Peak but the wind was strong, so we found a place on the lee side just out of the blast to take a break with a view to the northeast. I was grateful for having my soft shell jacket back from last week. The views of the bay were mostly hazy and obstructed by drifting clouds and fog anyway. We didn’t hang around long before hiking on headed to Mission Peak. The trail passes behind Mt Allison which kept us mostly out of the wind. Burrowing ground squirrels are everywhere through here, and they seem to attract a lot of raptors looking to make a meal out of them. Along this section the views shift to the east to the grassy ridges along the Diablo Range. You can easily spot Maguire Peaks in Sunol Regional Wilderness, and trace the terrain all the way to Rose Peak in the Ohlone Wilderness. As we were approaching Mission Peak the trail runs alongside some rocky serpentine outcrops. As we were hiking up a golden eagle appeared above the rocks soaring close to the surface, probably searching for food. We did not see it until it appeared over the rocks about 10 feet above our heads. It cocked its head downward and I could swear I made eye contact. At that distance, the visual detail was awesome. We could see it using its tail and feathers to navigate in the stiff wind. I immediately struggled to get photos, but it was cold and I couldn’t get my gloves off and camera powered up in time to get a close up photo. The magnificent raptor circled a few times and I was able to some dark, slightly blurred, photos at distance. We had seen a golden eagle in Sunol a few years ago. I also noticed that some INCH hikers recently got photos a golden eagle sitting in a tree near Rose Peak. Wouldn’t it be great if eagles were making a comeback in the east bay hills? Wow. This was definitely the high point of this hike.

On the summit of Mission Peak it looked like some kind a youth convention. I think there must be some local youth group that does regular hikes up there. I frequently see large groups of kids up there. The views were forgettable this trip due to the poor conditions, so we headed back down without spending any time. I snapped a few photos just because, ….well, to ignore them later I suppose. Somehow it just seems wrong to leave a peak without any photos. On the way back we noticed that we were being watched by a coyote high atop a tall hill off trail with his ears pricked up. I couldn’t get photo of him either. There were a lot of hang gliders and parasailers making flights during the afternoon. I did get some photos of them. We were watching rain falling in the Santa Cruz Mountains and we hoped we would make it down to the car before it moved in here.

Click here to see my photos

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Soft Shell SAR

How many times have you ever had a gaff and said to yourself “I can’t believe I did that”? If you’re like me, and probably like most people, it’s more times than you are willing to admit. My latest one starts like this. I got up early on Saturday morning and began getting ready to embark on my favorite pastime, hiking. Sometimes I have not even made a final decision on where to go yet before I have already eaten some breakfast, put my gear on, checked the weather reports, and packed up to go. In that case I usually have some tea and peruse our collection of maps. This time of year I am sure to be using my trusty, well broken in, REI branded soft shell jacket, along with what ever other layers I think I need underneath. It’s great for being active because it really does breathe pretty well. It repels moisture, does a very good job of cutting the wind, plus it’s light and durable. I went to find it in my closet, but it was not there. I looked around and it was not in my gear storage or in my car either. This didn’t make sense at first, but then it finally hit me. Last week I did my Happy New Year hike to Vasquez and Rock Spring Peaks in Henry Coe. During that hike I had gone off trail a bit and taken a little siesta by leaning against some rocks up on Vasquez Peak, and I remembered using my folded up soft shell as a pillow. Doh! It became apparent to me then that I must have left it there. Curses! Of course this could have been a fairly good excuse to buy a new one. The technology keeps getting better and the newer ones even look better. I know the prices on soft shells have been coming down as popularity has risen, but I bought mine at least 6 years ago when the soft shell jacket was still a fairly new concept. I remember paying somewhere north of $200 for it, so I am loath to donate it to the squirrels and spiders, or the next passer by. Besides, it’s kind of like an old friend.

I thought about the place where I had left it. I had picked a nice quiet spot which was not real close by the trail, so it would not have been immediately visible. Also the color of the jacket is actually very close to the light greenish lichens covering those rocks camouflaging it quite well, which probably helped me miss it when I was leaving. Besides, that trail is not a busy route. Occasional long range hikers might use it, but it’s not a normal day hike route, and it’s kind of out of season for back packing. Anyway, all things considered, I figured that the odds of finding it still there were very good if I went back. So I decided to attempt a rescue.

The weather was overcast and foggy. I decided to use the most direct route to the peak where I hoped the jacket would still be. I went to the Hunting Hollow trail head and used the Lyman Wilson Trail, to the Bowl Trail, to connect with Vasquez Road. I began hiking briskly up the ridge to build heat. It would have been really nice to have a soft shell. Duh! But I made due with what I had. I paused for a moment to watch a young bobcat, which was also intently watching me sitting under a tree. I didn’t realize it but its mother was nearby too. I tried to move a little closer to take better pictures using the bushes as cover, but it didn’t fool the cats. They began moving away into the thick brush down in Coon Hunter’s Gulch. I had not seen the larger cat until they moved, and only got the one photo of the young one at about 25 yards. I made good time, reaching the junction at Vasquez Road by 9:00 am. I marveled at the sight of a blooming gooseberry bush. I have never seen gooseberry in January before. There were also some cattle grazing right along Vasquez Road. They kept moving away from me as I approached, but only further down the trail. I kept encountering the same group of cows who seemed to think I was after them. I tried to be careful not to startle them too much, and finally got past them. When I reached the place where the rocks were, there was my jacket right where I left it a week ago. I considered it a kind of a victory, even though it was quite stupid of me to have left it there in the first place. Plus I have now lost my excuse to get a new one. But I just like the way this one feels. Ok, here it comes; I can’t believe I did that! On the way back it warmed up so the jacket was just extra bulk in my pack, but I’m glad I found it again. I also spotted a lot of milk maids blooming just like last week. January wild flowers. Wow! I added some additional pictures to my photoset from last week.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Happy New Year

This is the 2nd of January and I am happy to report that I have been on a hike every day of the year so far, and if only I could keep up that ratio throughout the year, I’d be an incorrigibly happy man. The holidays are winding down now, and soon I will be returning to the anthill, with my next paid holiday being a full 5 months from now. But at least I’m lucky enough to still be employed. I will be salving my psyche with vacation planning and local hiking until I can get away again.

I really wanted to see some long range views, but with the weather reports being mostly cloudy I put those thoughts on hold for now. I decided to get back out to Henry Coe, utilizing the Hunting Hollow trailhead for a hike to Vasquez Peak, and Rock Springs Peak. My wife and I have a big loop route that we like to hike from here, but today being solo, I wanted to hike some of the other trails in the area just for some fresh perspective. Sorry, no GPS data this time. I just wanted to keep it simple, and didn’t even think to charge the batteries. The route I used was to hike up the Lyman Wilson Trail to Bowl Trail, and on to Wilson Camp. From there crossing over Wagon Road to Vasquez Road, descending into the gully to transition over to next ridge. Vasquez Road could take you all the way up into the area near Dowdy Ranch, but I was not going that nearly far. It was a cloudy cool morning, lousy for photography, and I was happy for the uphill to build up some heat. The creeks along Hunting Hollow Trail are starting to get water in them now so as the season gets wetter, and I hope it will, you need to be prepared to deal with that. Generally some trekking poles are enough to help me use the rocks to get across. I was really enjoying hiking up Lyman Wilson Trail because the variation in route provided unique views making it seem like a different place. With the loop we usually hike I tend to think of this area as being just one sweeping ridge, but actually there are several distinct ridge systems leading up to it, each with their own perspective. I was enjoying the views down into Braen Canyon and Coon Hunters Gulch as you climb amongst the mossy oaks. I could see a massive fog bank over Monterey Bay which stayed there all day, and there was also a bank of glaring white mist way amongst the far away peaks off to the northeast. I spotted a bobcat using the trail which scampered off the other way before I could get a good shot. I got a photo of its hind end as it pranced away only tepidly fearful. These handsome felines always seem prudently cautious, yet supremely confident in their abilities to move and evade. I’ve seen them make some really awesome moves.

These 2 peaks along Vasquez Road really are really not “peaks” the way I think of a peak being a distinct high formation. The term is somewhat misused here, as they are really just the highest points along a rolling grassy ridge top with a few moderately interesting lichen covered serpentine outcrops. The most distinct peak in the area is actually on private property, and therefore not hike-able. I had spotted it from a distance and thought it was Rock Springs Peak shown on the map as the highest. But this section passes right along a park boundary. Denied! But I had a nice time, and the Coe style up ‘n’ down route provided some good muscle burn. I had time for a brief little back country siesta as the sun made a fleeting attempt to provide some warmth. I was hearing to a lot of hawk cries, but only spotted a few, and witnessed some sort of aerial battle between to Red Tails from a distance. I’m not sure what behavior that was, but it was impressive. My return route was back to Wagon Road, to the Serpentine Trail, over Steer Ridge and a very steep decent down Middle Steer Ridge Trail while savoring the views. On the way back I was actually seeing a few Milkmaids blooming along some of the trails. It seems they are always the first wild flower out of the ground any year, but I was amazed to see them on the 2nd of January. I was seeing a few the previous day hiking with Sue at Rancho Canada Del Oro, but I was thinking that must be some kind of fluke occurrence. Wild flowers on New Year’s Day! Wow! Never would have thought that would happen. It was also interesting that Rodeo Pond was teaming with life. There were no waterfowl, but I could hear large toads croaking loudly as I approached, but then would quiet down and hide as soon as I approached. I could hear their splashing as they bolted away timidly, and I could also spot what looked like newts slowly swimming around in the murky waters, and little dragonflies were buzzing around. Once over Steer Ridge, I broke out my trekking poles for this knee-killer of a downhill along Middle Steer Ridge.

Click here to see my photos on flickr