Sunday, October 30, 2011

Prescribed burns completed at Big Basin

Looking over Big Basin from China Grade
This time of year is a perfect time to initiate prescribed burning plans. The weather has been just dry enough, and yet the soil conditions have been just moist enough to allow for controlled burn projects. With the temperatures cooling at night, right about now is not only the best opportunity, but is really the only opportunity all year for getting it done. A couple of weeks ago we found a team of CDF firemen preparing to conduct controlled burns at Henry Coe. They had waited for the right conditions, and by now should have completed those plans. Last week prescribed burns were carried out in Big Basin. About 460 acres in the area of Johansen Road was burned to clear out excessive debris and overgrowth. Johansen Road is a fire road along the northern boundary of the park. The remains of the blaze were still soldering on Saturday which was producing noticeable smoke and odor in some areas, but the project was carried out without a hitch, and completed.

There is also some construction work being carried out at Big Basin headquarters. Most of the areas around the headquarters complex including the main office, store, museum, and restrooms have been blocked off because the walkways have been torn up (see photos below). It seems that even though the state is planning to close 70 parks because of lack of funding to keep them maintained, the remaining parks like Big Basin, which are to remain open, still need to comply with the latest ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) demands for improvements. And of course these improvements have to come from the state park budget which has been slashed to the bone already. Parks like Garrapata, Castle Rock, and Portola, have to close completely in order to make compliance improvements at other parks that benefit less than 1% of the population. I am now beginning to wonder whether some of the parks that close may never be able to reopen unless additional funding is found for similar legal requirements.

Store complex
Main office

Trail Closure at Garrapata

(Will not be repaired)

View from Rocky Ridge summit
 It seems the California state park closures are already having an effect on some of the really great little parks on the coast. We drove down to Garrapata State Park last week hoping to get in a quick little half day autumn hike in the ocean air. The reports were showing good likelihood of clear weather, and with Garrapata being on the infamous closure list, it seemed well worth the rather long drive. When we arrived the conditions seemed almost perfect with mostly clear skies and gentle warm sunshine. That was until we crossed the highway and saw the sign at the gate indicating a trail closure. The back side of the Rocky Ridge Trail from the junction with the Peak Trail down to the top of Soberanes Canyon Trail has been closed (see photo below). The sign says its because “potentially hazardous” trail conditions. This means that you cannot hike the loop up through Soberanes Canyon, continuing up to Down Peak, then return by way of descending down Rocky Ridge Trail, which incidentally is our favorite way to hike Garrapata. I suppose you could still hike the canyon trail to the closure point, and then double back before hiking the Rocky Ridge Trail up to the summit. That would still allow the experience of the diversity of the canyon verses the rest of the park.

Trail closure notice
We decided to just hike Rocky Ridge to the summit of Dowd Peak as an out-n-back, but later I wished that we had just ignored the signs and done the hike we wanted to do anyway. The conditions are very likely not nearly as bad as the signs might lead one to believe. This is usually the case because the State has a really annoying, dysfunctional, over-inflated sense of liability. They think they have to treat the public like children. The parks actually belong to the people who have lived here, worked here, and paid taxes in this state all their lives. The trail conditions at Garrapata have actually been less than ideal for years. To make matters worse, I was talking to another hiker who is local to the area and hikes Garrapata regularly, and he told me that he contacted the parks department to ask about repairs. They told him that no repairs are being planned because the park is on the closure list.

At this point this post turns into a little bit of a rant. The state is supposedly closing parks because they say there is no money to maintain them. In fact the state is all but bankrupt mostly thanks to the incompetence of the state legislature. So why then, with the economy in shambles, and all these people out of work, with more going on unemployment every day, and many in peril with their mortgages; why then has the governor signed new legislation that requires taxpayers to fund college education for the children of illegal aliens? Why are we paying for their health care when people who are natural citizens, and have jobs, often have little or no coverage at all? I have to say that I am infuriated by this idiotic state legislature and their pathetic pandering to special interests and unions in order to keep getting elected. I say kick them out on their overstuffed butts! Our parks are not theirs to close, and this is really beginning to hit home with this trail closure.

Don’t worry; I’ll be alright after I’ve had the chance to chill with a good meal and some chamomile tea.I have all but given up on making sense of all this.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Mono Pass and Spillway Lake

Lower Sardine Lake and Mono Basin
I’m doing some back posting again from our Labor Day trip to Tuolumne Meadows. I had an interesting talk with one of the rangers as we were walking around on our first day there. We happened to be taking a leisurely late afternoon walk along the river as a young ranger was leading a group on a nature walk. I heard him talking about the various wildlife species in the area, and I paused for a moment to listen in. Noticing us taking an interest, the ranger invited us to tag along. I resisted my initial notion that this would be too “touristy” and we took him up on it. After all, Yosemite’s rangers are generally very knowledgeable folks as well as personable.

Yearling black bear
His presentation was very good, and when his subject turned to bears, I had shared with him about the little yearling cub that was trying his darnedest to sneak into the campground earlier that day. The ranger calling himself B-rad (x-gen for Brad) was very interested to hear the story. He immediately recognized the bear from my description. It was a yearling male cub, a black bear (Ursus americanus), dark brown in color, with blonde streaks in his coat, and a blue ear tag #51. We had tried really hard to do the right thing, discouraging the cub from hanging around the campground, loudly chasing him out of several sites, but B-rad had a story to tell about that little bear. He told us about how that bear’s mother had trained her cubs to look for food around people, recognizing and breaking into any unprotected areas likely to contain food. A tragic story really, because as cute as he is now, he will eventually become a serious nuisance when he grows larger, stronger, and probably more aggressive. That will eventually spell trouble. With the cubs on their own now, the mother, sadly, has already been euthanized as a “dangerous” bear. But B-rad, recognizing my interest in wildlife, had invited me to come to the campfire meeting that evening to hear his discussion about bighorn sheep. After working through the same misgivings about being too “touristy”, I took him up on that as well.

Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep (photo courtesy of Lewis & Clark Wiki)

It was actually a very engaging little talk, interesting as well as entertaining, during which B-rad, who is an avid backpacker, shared about his personal multiple year quest to spot the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis sierrae) that were reintroduced to the Yosemite backcountry years ago. This subspecies of bighorn was once thought to have vanashed from the Sierra range that gives it its name. It is thought that they had fallen victim to diseases from domesticated sheep which once grazed the high meadows. That was until a healthy herd was discovered in a very remote section high in King’s Canyon years ago. Some of the King’s Canyon herd was later reintroduced to the Yosemite area. B-rad was also willing to share some tips about where someone might go to find likely places to spot them. One of the places he mentioned was surprisingly close by, which really peaked my interest. The prospect of spotting bighorns had me excited, even though the odds of success were low. The area of interest was the various rocky slopes visible from Mono Pass. I figured the worst case would be to have a beautiful high country hike, spend some time sitting around studying the knarly slopes, and not see any sheep. This is a hike I had done before years ago, and I remembered looking east from just beyond the pass and having some really nice views down to Mono Lake, and gazing at the stark beauty of the surrounding peaks, and inviting meadows, but I had no idea there might be wild sheep roaming the area. According to B-rad, they don’t spend much time in the high peaks as he originally thought. They tend to move along on the rocky slopes, some of which are visible from the Mono Pass area. And so it was due time to head back there.

Parker Pass Trail
There is a trailhead along Tioga Road about 3 miles west of the Tioga Pass entrance station. The trail begins within a dense forest of lodgepole and white bark pines which is still sprinkled with some late season wild flowers. Along the way there are some really picturesque open meadows and a couple of creek crossings, all of which are tributaries to Dana fork Tuolumne. Soon the trail leads alongside Parker Pass Creek, which flows directly down from Spillway Lake. Several access points make great places to filter water, and admire wild flowers. Even this late in the year, all the creeks are still flowing well, and all of the water we were using on our hikes was pure snow melt we had filtered out of streams. It really makes the treated water at the campground taste like crap. After a few miles we passed the junction for Spillway Lake which was a tempting diversion, but I would save that for later. After the sun came out, Mariposa lilies were blooming which are one of my favorites, along with a host of other species (see my photos). We also saw ruins of some old mine shacks, called the “ghost mines”, and lots of small critters.

Summit Lake with Mammoth Peak in the background
After the junction for Parker Pass the terrain becomes very open, exposing vast meadows and lots of high peaks, and the views are tremendous. Along the trail to Mono Pass you hike along the shores of several crystal clear high lakes. The smaller lakes have no names, but I took photos of Summit Lake, and Upper and Lower Sardine Lake. They're not huge, but make a great foreground for the looming peaks. Further down the canyon is Walker Lake. The sign at the pass reads elevation 10,599 feet. From here you begin to have commanding views of the high sierra crest dominated by Mt Gibbs and Mt Dana to the north, with Mt Lewis to the south. We hiked beyond the pass a couple of miles into Bloody Canyon, named after a huge Indian battle between the Mono and Ahwahnechee peoples. We found some negotiable rock outcrops that made fine viewing locations to sit and have lunch and keep a lookout on the surrounding slopes for wild sheep. We could see all the way down across Mono Basin part of Mono Lake, and a section of the While Mountains. This trail can take you all the way down into the Mono Basin eventually bringing you into Devil’s Postpile national monument thousands of feet below. These jagged layered rocks off trail were a great place to just spend some quiet time gazing into clear lakes, scanning the peaks, breathing the air, and catching some gentle rays. We never actually spotted any sheep, (curses....), but we paid some dues in trying, and eventually we will succeed, perhaps in a different location. With scenery like this, this hike is far from a wild goose chase, or actually a wild sheep chase. It’s actually very rare to spot them. B-rad had tried for years before finally spotting any, but they are there. But even without any sightings, the hiking is really a fine time.

Spillway Lake
When we started heading back to the trailhead I really wanted to get down to check out Spillway Lake. It seemed like a long way back to the junction, but one of our old maps shows a trail heading down there from the Parker Pass trail. Sue decided to head back on her own while I would hike down to the lake, and then find the trail back to the junction, and back to the car, arriving no more than about 1 hour after she got there, or so I promised. I headed up toward Parker Pass, and could see down to the lake, but the trail shown on the old map was not to be found. At least it was not marked. Looking over the terrain, I could see that I could easily reach the lake by just hiking cross country following down along the little creeks, so that’s what I did. I made my way to the shores of the lake at the foot of Kuna Crest south which obviously gave the lake its name. The snow packs into the cracks and crevasses of the high rocky crest and flows down forming the lake, which in turn feeds into Parker Pass creek, and ultimately into Dana Fork Tuolumne. It was such a beautiful and tranquil setting, and with no one around, I wanted so much to just hang out for awhile and enjoy it. It was very hard to leave, but I needed to stay on pace as promised. So I snapped a few photos, then quickly found the trail alongside the creek leading back to the junction with Mono Pass trail, and headed back. I had an amazing time, and would recommend this hike to anyone, whether or not you have the patience to sit around trying to spot the highly elusive Yosemite big horns. Maybe you’ll have better luck.

Click here to see my track log at EveryTrail 
Click here to see my photos on flickr
Click here for more information on the Sierra bighorn @ SNBSF

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Travertine Springs Loop

View south from Travertine Springs Trail
  Today I was out for a quick solo hike using an old favorite route that I had not been back to for some years. This little 9.7 mile route is great for a quiet, shady, mountain walk under the trees. The hike really lifted my spirits today, so I thought it was worth sharing. I began at Saratoga Gap and hiked down Skyline to the Sea to the junction with the Saratoga Toll Road. The toll road trail is one of those trails that is largely underutilized, but is really a beautiful trail. It stays further away from the highway so you are never consciously aware of the road traffic higher up. This trail also provides many more great view opportunities along the way than does Skyline to the Sea, and it’s much quieter. I made my way down to the Travertine Springs Trail which provides a route back up to Castle Rock State Park. This trail is also a seldom used trail which is really quite beautiful and peaceful. As you hike toward Castle Rock, before long you begin to notice the horsetails and other leafy green vegetation indicative of a water source, and resulting in very moist soils. The area around the actual spring looks almost tropical except for the tall conifers that tower above. It’s an interesting area to check out. Along the way you also cross over the San Lorenzo River at a point very near its origin. This is the same river that runs past Henry Cowell and ends out at ocean passing right through downtown Santa Cruz. The river still has a very nice current even this late in the year. You will also pass over other tributaries over foot bridges along the way before heading back uphill to the trail camp at Castle Rock. From there you can use the Loughry Woods Trail to get up to Skyline. This trail is also very pretty, but you cannot help being a little bothered by the noise from the private rod and gun club adjacent to Castle Rock where locals go to play with their guns. After crossing the highway you can pick up the Skyline Trail back to Saratoga Gap to complete the easy 9.7 mile route which requires only moderate elevation change. It would be worth checking out soon with the status of Castle Rock still in grave peril as it is on the infamous closure list.

Controlled Burning at Coe

We hiked at Henry Coe on Monday, and it turned out to be hot and dry, even though there was a lot of low fog in Morgan Hill. There was a CDF crew up there preparing for some prescribed burns. Thanks to the excellent wet season of last winter/spring, wild fires in California have been pleasantly absent from the news. This year’s usual allocation of funding and resources for fighting fires has not needed to be depleted for emergencies. This means that the State parks and CDF are free to team up, using those resources for proactively preventing future damaging wild fires. On Monday, the team was at Coe headquarters contemplating starting a controlled burn on Middle Ridge. As it turned out the day was too hot and dry to proceed at that time. Instead, they utilized the time preparing by cutting breaks around some of the beautiful old growth manzanita groves on Middle Ridge to further protect them during the controlled burn process. There was a similar manzanita section near the Jackass Trail that burned extremely hot during the 2007 Lick Fire, and it was reduced to an ashen moonscape. They told us that the team will begin later in the week when the weather is expected to get cooler, or perhaps light it at night. They plan to light controlled fires on Middle Ridge and parts of Hobb’s Road pending approval from the Bay Area Air Quality District. If you are planning hiking in that region in the near future you may want to reconsider. Check on conditions before departing.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Gaylor Lakes Basin

Gaylor Lakes Basin
I’m doing some more back posing here. I had let my blog go into hibernation for a couple of months, but we did some really nice hikes during the week after Labor Day while we were camped out at Tuolumne Meadows, so I thought they were worth writing up. A funny thing happens in Yosemite right after Labor Day. People start leaving in droves. The weather might actually be great, and the conditions may be superb, but most of the public packs it in and heads home right on schedule as the off-season officially begins. We were passing entire trains of cars and RVs going the other way as we were driving up highway 120 to Tioga Road. There are still services open at Tuolumne Meadows like the grill, store, mountaineering shop, and gas station, but overall, it’s much more peaceful.

Middle Gaylor Lake
The winter of 2010 - 2011 had bumper crop snowfall, and even this late in the season, the upper Tuolumne is still flowing strong. The snow melt filtering down from the high Sierra crest is still actively feeding the myriad of lakes and creeks with fast moving crystal clear water. If we only could get several years in a row like this one, we would begin to see the re-establishment of the Yosemite glaciers that have receded into extinction in recent years. All things considered, it was a great time to be in the high country. This trip was amazing because most of the hiking we did was on trails that neither one of us had ever been on before, which proved to be like a new awakening to the Tuolumne area. Some of the trails that I had bypassed on previous trips turned out to be really fantastic inspiring hikes. Gaylor Lakes Basin was one of them.

Dana Meadows
Being Santa Clara Valley (anthill) dwellers who live at virtual sea level, we had planned this hike as an acclimation day because it seemed like the trail would not present a major challenge. We were interested in the trail that begins at the Tioga Pass entrance station to the park. There is a route to the lower Gaylor Lake that follows the Dana fork Tuolumne, crosses the river, crosses Tioga Road, and heads out across the moraine flat. That route is tempting, and would get you to the shores of the lower lake in about 5 or 6 miles. We decided on the other trail after one of the trail guides we read characterized that trail as “viewless”. So we used our car to get to the small parking area at the Tioga Pass trailhead, elevation about 9943 feet.

Leichtlin's Mariposa Lilly (Calochortus leichtlini)
The trail begins by climbing about 600 feet up a small ridge system. The lower section is mostly populated with stunted lodgepole pines, but there is plenty under-growth and some wild flowers are still lingering. Among the most interesting were Leichtlin's Marisposa Lily (Calochortus leichtlini), Pine Forest Larkspur (Delphimium gracilentum), and some kind of yellow cinquefoil I still have not verified, and a few others. Climbing up the switchbacks you get a few glimpses of Mt Dana through the trees. The trail never gets very steep, even though I was feeling the altitude a little. This was only our first full day above 9000 feet. As you get close to the top the trees thin out to almost barren rock. Hiking along the side of the ridge, the openness provides the first view opportunity as you get unobstructed vistas down to the lush green Dana meadows, and a cluster of little ponds around the Tioga Pass area. You can see Mt Dana and Glacier Canyon, and lots of the Sierra Crest. After you crest the top, you can then see over into the Gaylor basin. The trees up here are mostly stunted white bark pine. The growing season is short up here.

Lemmon's Painbrush (Castilleja lemmonii)
As you begin to descend into the basin, the middle Gaylor Lake, largest of the 3 Gaylor lakes, spreads out along a flat plateau with the wind buffeting the surface like an inland sea. In the background the still partially snow packed Sierra Crest stretches across the horizon in the distance. After walking along the middle lake, the trail then continues up a little eroded creek through lush grasslands dotted with wild flowers. We saw some brook trout in the creek, and assumedly they are in the lakes too. The trout are introduced. No fish can naturally spawn up this high because of all the waterfalls. There’s miniature lupine still popping up all around, and lots of Lemmon’s Paintbrush (Castilleja lemmonii), with it’s distinctive pinkish-purplish coloration. A few Sierra Wallflowers (Erysimum capitatum ssp. Perenne) are still around too. Sue really loves the fragrance of those. See my pictures for more species, some of which I still have not identified. Continuing up the trail following the creek, and gaining about 400 more feet, the upper lake comes into view. There was still some hard snow pack along the trail and we walked over that rather than sink into the marshy soil along its edge, which almost had the consistency of quicksand. The lake is surrounded by barren rock slopes with Gaylor Peak right across reflecting in the clear waters. The trail begins to climb again, headed up into the rocks to a plateau at 10,780 feet where the remnants of a long abandoned silver mine lies, called the Great Sierra Mine. The views from this place are simply superb. An intricate variety of peaks, some green, some barren, some still with packed in snow, and stunning clear lakes with melt water flowing down the course of the creeks. You can walk around and see the various ruins of the old mining camp including an old filled in mine shaft. You can also walk over to a little rock ledge for a fantastic view down Lee Vining Canyon and enjoy a great view of Mt Conness, the highest peak in Yosemite. It’s a short hike of only about 8 miles round trip, but is worth spending some time here enjoying the quietness and stark beauty. More energetic hikers can walk cross-country to over to Granite Lakes, or explore off trail further back in to the rocky terrain beyond the mine site. I didn’t record a track log, but I do have a photoset on flickr.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Henry Coe gets a Reprieve

The specter of the 70 California park closures announced last year, scheduled for July 2012,  have been looming on the horizon like a flock of vultures circling a mortally wounded carcass ever since. On June 30th, newly elected governor Jerry Brown approved a budget deal that cuts an additional 22 million dollars from the already gutted state Department of Parks and Recreation. Most notable on the closure list for me was one of my favorite wild land preserves; the former ranch lands of Henry Coe State Park. But lately, there was a welcome glimmer of good news. Assembly bill 42 has passed! AB 42 is the bill that allows non-profit groups to help operate state parks that might otherwise be closed, and was signed and passed on September 6th. Not wasting any time, on September 9th, the Coe Park Preservation Fund, and the California Department of Parks and Recreation have signed an agreement that will allow for the park to stay open through at least 2015. The CPPF will provide funds to continue the staff salaries (3 full time employees), and the DPR will ensure that revenue generated by the park will be returned to the park to cover the costs of its operation and maintenance. This could only be possible because of the dedicated cadre of volunteers that are already doing most of the work it takes to keep the trails in shape, and staff the visitor’s center. So for now, the closure list is officially down 69.

What happens in the future will depend on the viability of funds that can be provided by the CPPF, and that the ranks of volunteers can stay strong. Perhaps at some point in time in the future, provided that better times are ahead for California, the parks and recreation budget can recover, but for now there are ways for individuals help. 1) Go on a hike or some other activity at Henry Coe. You will be charged a day use fee of $8.00 per vehicle if you park at headquarters. If you want to camp in a headquarters campsite, the fee is $20 per night. Senior rates are $7 day use parking and $18 for camping. 2) While you are there, patronize the gift shop at the headquarters complex. 3) Donate directly to CPPF. 4) Contact the Pine Ridge Association and ask about becoming a volunteer. 5) Have a great time at Coe and tell other people how awesome it is.