Redwood Parks in Spring


Rhododendron, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

I set off into the darkness, toward the sound of the creek. Though I hadn’t been here in a long time, there was a familiar feel to a trail in a redwood forest. My feet knew the surface below me, and I smiled to myself hearing the sound of my footsteps on the wooden footbridge as Godwood Creek, shallow but swift, moved below me.

I might have hesitated on a dark night, but tonight with the moon above nearly full it was bright enough to read an interpretive sign on the reflective metal: New Growth.

I had come to Prairie Creek Redwoods multiple times, but never in the spring. Even in the darkness, I could see small white flowers adjacent to the trail. At an opening, I watched for bats and saw a few.

New growth. I couldn’t recall so much water here before, audible from a good distance away at Elk Prairie adjacent to the visitor center.

I knew this was a well-groomed, flat trail without obstacles or anything to trip on, but I placed each foot carefully. Not because I was afraid I would stumble, but because each footstep connected me with this forest of ancient redwoods.

There is something ironic about writing about an inherently wordless experience. It was about natural silence. Eventually, I tore myself away from the darkness and the creek to head back to my campsite. But I laid myself down on the same soft earth, to the soothing sound of the smaller Prairie Creek before it flowed into the bigger one.

More delights awaited me when I visited the trail in daylight. I had walked right past a large cluster of rhododendron blooms adjacent to the bridge, now just beyond where I could reach with my fingertips, and snapped the picture above. The new growth referenced in the sign was the vibrant green and delicate leaves of vine maple. The small white flower I’d seen was one of many, the blooms of redwood sorrel. This was the beginning of days meandering among the giants above me and tiny beauties below me.

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What a treat to visit in the spring after a near-record wet winter. I had never been there when so much was blooming.

Western azalea

 
Bleeding heart

Giant trillium

Hairy buttercup

Salal

Coast twinberry

I meandered through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and neighboring parks, Redwood National Park and Jedediah Smith State Park, collectively managed together to best protect them. Trail damage was extensive from the winter storms with some trails still closed. For the ones that were open, they still had a lot of downed trees and limbs to climb over, under, or through.

Since May was still a bit rainy before the tourist season, I had little human company. The Ten Taypo Trail in Prairie Creek in some places was a carpet of moss from little use.

I was fortunate to observe lots of wildlife. Previously I had seen Roosevelt elk in the fall breeding season, when the bulls have their enormous antlers and aggressively vie for the cows. This time of year, instead the males herded together and the cows stayed as a separate group with juveniles. The young bulls had their new antlers for the season covered in velvet, and many of the elk had a patchwork of hair as they were shedding their winter coats. I watched them from a safe distance.

However, just because I gave them space didn’t mean they did the same. One day, I pulled my car over on the shoulder of the road to watch a herd, and they calmly strolled by just a couple feet away. I took the following photo through the open window.

It was nesting season for birds. This barn swallow glared at me when I got too close to his nest under the eaves of the bathroom at the Trillium Falls trailhead.

Everything was so lush, a tangle of green upon green, with every available spot occupied by something growing, including the dead logs that provided a home for everything from moss to whole trees that sprouted out of them.

Trillium Falls

Even the picnic table at my campsite had a couple tiny plants sprouting where rainwater had soaked them. I transplanted them where they wouldn’t get trampled, and gave them a drink from my water bottle before I reluctantly headed home.

Happy blogger in Redwood National Park

Time and Textures – The Company of Old Trees

Bristlecone pine portrait White Mountains 9-2015Bristlecone pine, Inyo National Forest

Craving the company of old trees, in September last year I ventured to the land of the world’s oldest living things—the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in California’s White Mountains. I’d fulfilled a dream to visit with my first trip but at the mercy of altitude sickness, I was only able to stay for a few hours. The place beckoned me back. This time I had medication that enabled me to camp for several nights at 8,600 feet and hike the trails as high as 11,000 feet.

The bristlecone pines’ gnarled trunks speak to their endurance, through fires and thousands of winters in blasting wind, and snow that sustains them through the dry summers. Many parts die back with just a few branches sprouting needles and cones. They grow in nutrient-poor soil at a profoundly slow rate, sometimes reflecting 100 years in tree rings that are only an inch across.

The oldest known tree, Methuselah, is more than 4,600 years old. The trail winds through the grove where Methuselah grows anonymously among its neighbors that are 3,000 and 4,000 years old. Their shapes and textures are striking.

Bristlecone grove on Methusaleh Trail White Mountains 9-2015Bristlecone pines siilhouette White Mountains 9-2015Bristlecone fire-scarred bark White Mountains 9-2015Even after they die, bristlecone pines can take thousands of years to decompose.

Fallen bristlecone that died in 1676 White Mountains 9-2015Log from a bristlecone pine more than 3,200 years old that fell in 1676

Along the Methuselah Trail, I came upon a tree that was about my height and I wondered about its age. Certainly it must have been at least a few hundred years old, perhaps 1,000 or more. I held its young green needles in my hand, a contrast in old and new.

Bristlecone branches White Mountains 9-2015

Walking among the bristlecones is a journey of awe. I am moved by their persistence.

Moonrise at Patriarch Grove White Mountains 9-2015
Moonrise over the Patriarch Grove at 11,000 feet

Acorn Woodpecker Season

Acorn smallerFor my birthday yesterday, I headed to my redwood retreat, twin giants in the Santa Cruz Mountains that I described in a previous post here.

This is a busy time of the year for the acorn woodpeckers. They gather their stash of fallen acorns from the live oaks and tan oaks and hammer them into their granary trees for the coming months. While other birds are pretty quiet this time of year since it’s past nesting season, yesterday the raucous family groups of acorn woodpeckers chatted away as they flew above me in flashes of black and white wings.

I settled in leaning against one of the two ancient redwoods. The young tan oak that had been a footrest in recent years looked dead, most likely another victim of the sudden oak death that has been ravaging California in recent years. The trunk was only as wide as my foot, and I lightly pushed my toes against it to see if was in fact dead. To my surprise, the entire thing toppled over, with its trunk rotten where it broke at the bottom.

I nested in the hollow that the former oak tree occupied, with the slope creating a headrest above me and the tangle of fallen branches providing a place to prop up my feet. I curled up and watched and listened.

I wonder how much of nature I miss by moving through it instead of being still. In that one spot for a chunk of the afternoon, I became a part of the landscape for a while. A tiny spider tried to use my shoulder as an anchor for her web. I could hear what sounded like a small mammal moving around beneath the layer of dead leaves and twigs. I watched the leaves of the tan oaks above me and the redwood needles even higher move in the wind that preceded the fog, then watched their colors change as they became still again once the fog arrived. All to the accompaniment of the acorn woodpeckers, which you can listen to here.

The light would be fading soon. I reluctantly sat up, disentangled the pieces of redwood and tan oak duff from my hair, and retraced my steps back up the trail. I snapped this photo of a fallen leaf from a big-leaf maple, the one deciduous tree around here that provides fall color.

Big leaf maple leaf 9-2014

Exploring Eastern Oregon’s High Desert

In September of 2013, it was a good thing I was already planning to depart when I did from Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in California. As described in my previous post, unseasonably heavy rain rolled in the day before, with a brief break in the evening.

Then it poured all night. I stayed dry and wouldn’t know until I got up in the morning that a pond had formed overnight under my tent. Note to self: spending extra on quality camping gear was worth it. When I took the tent down, it was such a soggy, muddy mess that I just stuffed it into garbage bags, one each for the groundcloth, tent body and rainfly. At that point it was hard to believe that this had been my bedroom for six days.

Tent wet in bags in car Prairie Creek 9-2013Fortunately, after my six-day camping trip, this part of my trip to Oregon involved staying indoors with friends and family. It was the beginning of what would be the wettest September in Oregon’s recorded history. But cool, wet days outside aren’t a big deal with a house to dry out in afterward. “It’s never like this in September” was the refrain I heard from everyone.

I was scheduled to visit my ranger friends at Crater Lake National Park, but with the entrances at 6,000 feet, all of the access roads were closed due to snow. Instead I went to their home in Bend, joining Liz there while Jason was at Crater Lake. We waited out the storm. And waited another day. And another one. The snow closure was making the news. It was even raining sporadically in arid Bend, with high temperatures barely breaking 60.

A positive about traveling on my own was the ability to spontaneously change plans. I had never explored eastern Oregon and in a hike with Liz, I discovered the beauty of the high desert in the US Bureau of Land Management’s Oregon Badlands Wilderness Area. We walked five miles on the Ancient Juniper Trail to the Flatiron Trail. After my time in the lush redwood forest, it was a contrast walking through the sparse landscape.

Rock formation-Oregon Badlands 1 9-2013With an environment shaped by volcanic rock, little rain and warm summers, the high desert is taken in only with close attention. It’s all about subtlety. In the Oregon Badlands, you could easily walk by the state’s oldest western juniper at 1,600 years because it wouldn’t look unusual. I may have done that myself. But I did stop to check out this one.

Beverly under Juniper-Oregon Badlands 9-2013Portrait with one of the largest junipers I’ve ever seen – Photo by Liz Ballenger

Juniper bark-Oregon Badlands 9-2013

Juniper bark

Juniper berries-Oregon Badlands 9-2013
Juniper berries

Much of the ground’s surface is nearly bare. A dead tree that can take hundreds of years to decompose in this dry climate provides important nutrients and shade that support little gardens. To discover the wonders of this landscape requires going slowly to observe closely. The beauty is in the textures and small signs of life.

Rabbitbrush and lichen-Oregon Badlands 9-2013Lichen on dead log with flowering rabbitbrush

Lichen-Oregon Badlands 1 9-2013Lichen close-up

Beverly in juniper tree near Bend Oregon 9-2013
Migratory wildlife – Photo by Liz Ballenger

Camping Retreat in the Redwoods – Part 2

Prairie Creek tiny portrait 9-2013There is nothing like an old-growth redwood forest for a reflective silent retreat. During my six days living at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in September 2013, I spoke only when needed, at the visitor center or giving someone directions. After walking a number of trails, I looked forward to the route I had saved for this final day here, my birthday.

It was sunny as I made breakfast, typical for late September and a reason why I had selected this time of year for my three-week trip in Northern California and Oregon. But I knew from the weather forecast posted at the visitor center it was supposed to rain, odd this early in the season.

Today I planned to revisit a magical spot I photographed in 2011 on the James Irvine Trail. I usually have no particular craving to have my own photo taken, but today I wanted to have a passing hiker take my picture in this redwood grove, to look at later when I needed a reminder of keeping perspective.

I hoped the weather would hold clear long enough for me to nest in that enormous redwood circle for a good long time, but I was also prepared if the rain came. In my daypack—rain jacket, rain pants, fleece jacket, fleece hat, all in a plastic bag. I wore my long-sleeved wicking synthetic turtleneck instead of the tee-shirts I’d been wearing the last few days.

My seven-mile loop began on the James Irvine Trail. Stunning, huge orange fungi grew on a trunk beside a bridge. I stopped to admire them and wished I could reach them to touch, but settled for sitting on the bridge and taking photos instead. Two band-tailed pigeons flushed, the sound of their wing beats unmistakable.

Orange fungus group Prairie Creek 9-2013Hiking on, the wind picked up and the sky darkened as the storm moved in. I knew I would recognize that special grove of interconnected tree trunks when I saw it. I stopped and looked up into it. So far the weather had cooperated and fortunately a couple other hikers happened by from the other direction. I asked one of them if he would take the photo of a wee human under the towering ancients. And the first raindrops fell just as he was taking the photo, creating an image of a dark blur covered in spatters. Time for the raingear.

The light rain quickly became a vertical flood, the kind of torrent usually seen in December, not September. I saw no other hikers as I continued on the Clintonia Trail. The birds and squirrels that had been chattering earlier were all hunkered down and silent now, with just the sound of the downpour.

I recalled the advice of my friend Ray in Alaska describing spending time outside there—you’re going to be wet, it’s just a matter of being wet and cold or wet and warm. My breathable raingear meant that I didn’t sweat like crazy like I would in waterproof materials, but with the surprisingly intense rain, the fabric eventually became completely saturated. My fleece jacket and hat would keep me warm even if they got soggy. The lower half of my body was a lost cause. I was soaked to the skin through my nylon pants under my rain pants. The Gore-Tex boots were the only thing that stayed mostly dry and gave me good footing.

I continued up and over the Miner’s Ridge Trail, grinning as I slogged through the huge puddles, dodging the numerous tree roots that make great footholds when dry but are slick when wet. I got to see the whole forest glistening without the distraction of other human company. I was in awe at my good fortune to be in the redwoods during the first major storm of the year. All the debris of the dry season came down with the raindrops like snow, a cascade of brown needles and twigs. The thirsty earth after the months of drought surely must have been happy. I swear I could feel it.

Banana slug Prairie Creek 9-2013
Banana slugs liked the rain

It was early afternoon. Had I not known better, I would have thought I was racing to get back to the campground by nightfall, as it was that dark under the forest canopy. I was warm and even hot as I moved quickly up and over the ridge, but soaked as I was with the rain not letting up, I wasn’t about to stop to eat my sandwich and cool down. I pulled an energy bar out of a side pouch of my pack without stopping, gulped some more water from the tube of my water bladder, and pressed on. Then ate the second bar en route, too.

Eventually, I got to the junction back at the James Irvine Trail. I realized I could get to the visitor center to dry off a bit before they closed. The park staff had gotten a fire going. I joined two parties of soggy cyclists from Germany, South Africa and Canada as we took turns warming up and hanging our wet gear around the fireplace.

There was a timely break in the rain when the visitor center closed. Back at my campsite, I found a pond in the parking area behind and beside my car, so I moved it forward to avoid the moat that was clearly here to stay through tomorrow. My tent was in good shape as expected, but I got a sense of how hard the rain had fallen when I saw the splatter of duff and dead needles fully a foot above the ground and completely under the rainfly, with bits of duff stuck to the mesh part of the tent body. I changed into dry clothes and finally ate my sandwich, pleased that I had hustled for the last four miles up and over a ridge with no break, not bad 10 months after my knee replacement.

I knew whose company I wanted for my birthday evening, so I drove a few miles down the road looking for the local herd of Roosevelt elk. I parked by the road and headed down the footpath. Peering over the bushes, there was the big bull and the herd of cows. It was rutting season so I wanted to give the bull a wide berth. They were far enough away that I could creep down into the edge of the meadow. Given my distance, it was a surprise when the bull looked up and started walking toward me. I darted up the path and then looked to see if he was behind me. He was slowly herding the cows closer together, and I then saw it wasn’t me he was concerned about. When I got back into my car, another bull walked 15 feet away and into the meadow.

I arrived at my campsite just before dark. After dinner, I celebrated with cookies and sang the happy birthday song to myself, grateful to have a spectacular birthday in the perfect place for the fluke of the first storm of the year.

Prairie Creek giant redwood grove 9-2011 smallerThe 2011 image of the grove I revisited

Camping Retreat in the Redwoods – Part 1

Redwoods and ferns looking upIt has been nearly a year since I took my three-week trip to Northern California and Oregon to connect with nature, family and friends. My journey in September and October 2013 included peaceful solitary time in nature, getting soggy in the season’s first rainstorm, and a bit of drama, the natural one of the wettest September in Oregon history and the human one of being in a national park when the federal government shut down. So here begins a belated series of posts including stories and photos about my travels from last year.

At a time of a difficult transition in my life, I was irresistibly pulled toward a solitary camping retreat for my birthday and the fall equinox, and knew where I needed to spend time to reflect and recharge—the old-growth redwood forest of the North Coast. I headed to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, home to some of the world’s oldest and tallest trees in the remaining 3% of pristine redwood forest. After a long period of recovery from my knee replacement and being restricted from hiking, arriving at the campground felt like coming home.

Picking the ideal campsite was important for a six-day stay and the campground was largely empty when I arrived. I lucked into Site 44, surrounded by a canopy of trees and shrubs to minimize the moisture that would inevitably be all over everything and act as a windbreak. The best feature of this site was the private creekside spot accessible down a short path through the trees, where I would be able to watch the daily show of bats feeding over the water at nightfall.

Prairie Creek campsite 44 9-2013This was the kitchen, living room and bedroom. The sign on the table reminds campers to properly store food and remove crumbs to keep wildlife wild.

 Prairie Creek campsite 44 creek view 9-2013My campsite’s bonus room

There is something about the company of such enormous trees that always inspires slowing down and being introspective. On my arrival day, I was drawn to an open area in the campground for a walking meditation beside two giant redwoods. I naturally slowed down so much that I barely moved with each step, focusing on the feel of the earth beneath me, conscious of deep roots, and feeling my awareness widen.

We are always of this earth, we just forget it. So began my personal journey of remembering and restoring. For more from Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, see Part 2.

Images of Wood in a Little Known Park

A favorite outdoor place is in the heavily populated San Francisco Bay Area, but even those who are familiar with regional trails usually don’t know what I’m talking about when I say I’ve gone for a hike at Phleger Estate. Truth be told, I had never heard of it either and would not have been able to find the hidden trailhead if a friend hadn’t shown me where it was. Phleger Estate is the southernmost segment of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a second-growth redwood forest that is only occasionally accessed by hikers from the more heavily visited Huddart Park near Woodside. I go in a different way to a more remote section, where it’s common for me not to see another human all day even on warm, sunny weekends. On a recent hike there, I was appreciating the patterns of wood and took these photos.

Circular shape on madrone 10-2013Bark patterns on a madrone tree

Phleger Estate bark beetle gallery 10-2013

Bark beetle gallery on a fallen Douglas fir

Phleger Estate bench 10-2013