Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Seekers

Male Tarantula at Henry Coe State Park
Fall in the Diablos means, among other things, its tarantula migration season again. It’s the right time of year for large, hairy, male arachnids to go on their mass journey quest to find available nesting females. Some of them will travel amazing distances as they abandon the safety of their dens in order to search for the opportunity to mate. Whenever I see one I can't help playing the gutair riffs in my head from The Who song "The Seeker". Once they are successful in finding a suitable partner they don’t hang around. If the male suitors are smart, they will take care of business, and then get away fast before the larger, stronger, females begin to view them more as protein than company. The right motto is, “if you snooze you loose”, because they can literally become a meal for the voracious female.

The tarantulas found in this region are not dangerous. They have large fangs used for hunting, but are not poisonous to humans. Their demeanor is timid, and passive toward larger animals. If possible they will stay hidden and out of sight. The best policy toward any wild creature is to observe at a reasonable distance, but to simply leave them alone, and not stress them out. The best chance you will have to spot one is when they decide to use the hiking trails. Many wild creatures will often use the easiest path to get somewhere, and tarantulas are no different. They will be nearly impossible to spot in high grass or foliage. The biggest concern I always have is that they don’t get run over by cyclists. So if you ride a mountain bike in the Diablos in fall, please remember to look out for them. They are fascinating creatures, and play an important role in the ecosystem.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Garrapata State Park

View from Rocky Ridge
Among the better kept secrets on the Big Sur coast is a great little tract called Garrapata State Park. Located just a few short miles south of Carmel Highlands, it’s easy to miss when you are admiring the coastline headed south toward Big Sur. It’s not marked very well, and the only available parking is in roadside turn-outs along highway 1. There is no staff or fees, and really no facilities at all except for one portable chemical toilet near an old dilapidated barn. The park is rustic with a trail system that is well used, and suffering quite a bit from erosion damage and neglect. It's easy to think this could be due to state park budget cutbacks, but some people actually like it better this way. Quiet and unspoiled. Garrapata is the Spanish word for tick, adopted from early settlers in the 1830s. That rather notorious sounding name seems undeserved though. Garrapata has some interesting trails leading down to a state beach, and to some scenic seaside areas, but on this hike I was using the inland trails heading up into the coastal hills.

The main trailhead is under a row of cypress trees which appear to have been planted along an old rough cut wooden fence adjacent to the highway as though to provide a windbreak, suggesting some agricultural history. I began by hiking up Soberanes Canyon Trail.
Redwoods along Soberanes Creek
After crossing the creek, the trail begins following the contours of Soberanes Canyon and Soberanes Creek. With the recent rains the creek is actively flowing water providing a nice auditory backdrop. At the time I started hiking, the morning haze was lifting, and the weather looked fairly clear. I was anticipating some very nice sweeping coastal views from the higher elevations in the park. Last time I was here we had clear weather, but the glare from the sun was so strong late in the day, it was hard to get decent looking pictures. I was thinking today would be a better opportunity, but meteorological conditions at the coast are always unpredictable, and this day was no exception.

The scrubby, open, hillsides along the lower section of the canyon trail host a diverse mixture of chaparral type vegetation which includes some non-native species. Especially conspicuous is the Prickly Pear cactus which catches your eye as it thrives and dominates some of the open slopes. This species is known to have been introduced by the early Spaniard settlers; ostensibly for its esthetic value, as the plant has no known practical uses. The trail continues winding along the creek with only mild elevation changes, and soon you can spot a very definite forest “edge”. An area where there is an abrupt change into or out of a wooded area. As you go deeper into the canyon, you discover a very nice riparian habitat with a contiguous grove of tall trees lining the course of the creek, with a shady canopy overhead. Redwood and other conifers are among the mix. Soon the grades begin to get steeper, and in some places there are washed out earthen steps, and badly eroded trail sections, which require cautious footing. After climbing higher, the trail begins to leave the cover of this beautiful wooded creek.
View south
There are some spur trails following further along the creek, but I have never attempted to explore them. Soon you are back out into the open grasslands and climbing very steeply. There are more unmarked and unmapped trails that can be confusing, but most of them lead back to the main trail. This portion of the trail is relentless, continuing to climb, with some very steep sections, until you reach the junction of the Peak Trail. The trail is unmarked, and so is Doud Peak. I’m not even sure just how far the Peak Trail goes. Unlike what the map shows, the Peak Trail seems to continue on climbing even higher toward far away ridges in the distance. The only half decent map I have for this park can be found here, but maybe it needs updating. One of the books I have shows a peak marked at 1997 feet, even though it isn’t clear exactly where Doud Peak is on the trail, but you get great views of the mountains to the east along the trail. By the time I had reached a point where I reckoned the peak to be, a very thick bank of fog had moved in from the ocean and drifted across this location obscuring any views to the west. That was really a downer, because the awesome views of the ocean while descending the Rocky Ridge Trail are really the highlight feature of this hike. I was hoping for the fog to lift some as I started back down using Rocky Ridge Trail, but it didn’t. As I got lower, I could hear breakers, but had no vision through the chilly void. My photoset for this hike includes pictures from a few years ago when I last hiked here. Total distance for this route was only about 7 miles, but on a good day, those are some very beautiful trail miles. The diversity of the scrub, cactus, and open chaparral, tall conifers along the creek, the sweeping views, and ocean air, all combine to stimulate the senses. Just remember that you’re always taking your chances on weather.

Click here to see my photoset