Pinnacles National Park – At a Distance and Up Close

After many years of drought, Northern California this spring was a vibrant palette of colorful plants. Back in April before the blistering heat of what is now summer, I spent a few days at Pinnacles National Park exploring the contrast of the rough rock and the graceful flowers and bright lichens.

The pinnacles are a geologic formation that grew out of two plates of the earth’s crust coming together, with an ancient volcano and erosion thrown into the mix. The humps and spires of the High Peaks Trail arise from the rolling hills below, and they are a frequent haunt of endangered California condors that have been reintroduced here.


View of the High Peaks from below

As I hiked up, the unique formations began to come into view.
The High Peaks Trail is not for the faint of heart with its overhangs and steep steps carved into the rockface. Some places have handrails.
In some places, the rock surface itself is the option to steady yourself.
Climbing up to the top rewards you with sweeping views.

As always when in nature, many of the wonders require a look up close. Spring life was everywhere, from lichens on the rocks to wildflowers.

Lizard in the sunshine

Bush poppy

Blue witch

Fiddleneck

Silver bush lupine

Pipestems

Wooly paintbrush

California poppy, the official state flower

Fremont’s monkeyflower

Gray mules ears

Bitter root growing on the trail, with the protection someone constructed around it

Unknown flowers

Lichen

Multiple species of lichen

Portraits of Spring Neighbors

Common merganser female right at Las Gallinas smaller
Common merganser at dusk

There’s a period early in the year in the Bay Area when the wintering birds overlap with the spring wildflower season, and I can hardly contain myself. Here are a few images from a couple months ago.

One of the best birdwatching sites nearby is the unglamorous Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District sewage treatment facility. Multiple ponds not only allow natural processes to break down waste, but provide habitat for waterfowl, songbirds and raptors. While some are residents year-round, the place really comes to life with the migrants present throughout the winter and spring.

Common merganser female left at Las Gallinas
A different view of the same common merganser

Canvasback at Las Gallinas smaller
Canvasback

On a different day, I headed to see forest-dwelling flowers at the Martin Griffin Preserve of Audubon Canyon Ranch. Posting these a couple months after the fact feels like waving goodbye to familiar friends that I’ll see again next spring.

Douglas iris ACR 4-2016 smaller
Douglas iris

Western columbine ACR 4-2016 smallerWestern columbine

Coral root ACR 4-2016 smallerSpotted coralroot

Miners lettuce ACR 4-2016 smallerMiner’s lettuce

Death Valley Landscapes

Mountain view 1 with desert gold Death Valley 2-2016 smallerMy Death Valley trip last month was so spectacular that it’s taken three posts to include everything. Well okay, part of it is is that I finally got a better camera and just took a lot of photos.

One of my hikes was a loop through Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch.

Zabriskie Point from Golden Canyon Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Zabriskie Point above Golden Canyon

Golden Canyon view toward Badwater 2-2016 smaller
View from Golden Canyon Trail toward the Badwater Basin,
the lowest spot in North America

Badwater view Death Valley 2-2016 smallerThe aptly named Badwater—no plants can grow in these salt flats

Beverly with Badwater sign Death Valley 2-2016 smallerDesert rat posing for a photo

The geology of Death Valley National Park is complex and it would take me a long time to figure out all the rock types. One of the places I meandered through was the red rock in Natural Bridge Canyon.

Natural Bridge Canyon Death Valley 2-2016 smaller                                     The trail through Natural Bridge Canyon

Natural Bridge Canyon looking up Death Valley 2-2016 smallerLooking up from Natural Bridge Canyon

On my final day in the park, I traveled to the north end for a hike at Ubehebe Crater, or Tem-pin-tta Wo’sah in the language of the Shoshone Paiute. Ubehebe Crater is a half-mile across. It’s at a higher elevation than the valley floor, so the wildflowers weren’t yet blooming. It has the kind of stark moonscape that Death Valley National Park is known for.

Ubehebe Crater rim view Death Valley 2-2016 smallerView of Ubehebe Crater from the rim

I had intended to take the rim trail around the crater, created by an ancient volcanic steam explosion. But having never hiked inside a crater, instead I chose to head down the very steep trail, a 600-foot descent in a quarter mile. I figured that since I’ve been able to grunt up from the bottom of the Grand Canyon with a heavy backpack, I could manage this short climb.

Ubehebe Crater view of the bottom Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
The other-wordly bottom of Ubehebe Crater

Heading down in loose scree was a blast, like cross-country skiing with my feet skating along in front of me. Of course, that meant the ascent was a beast. My feet sank up to my ankles. I’m convinced that whoever coined the term “two steps forward, one step back” took this hike.

Ubehebe Crater trail view Death Valley 2-2016 smallerThis might be the steepest trail I’ve ever taken.
See the people at the rim and the bottom of the trail for scale.

In concluding this series about my travels to Death Valley, it’s fitting to finish with more photos of this year’s extraordinary wildflower bloom.

Mountain view 2 with desert gold Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Desert gold carpeting the valley floor for miles

Desert gold close-up Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Desert gold

Desert five-spot multiple blooms Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Desert five-spot

Gravel ghost 2 Death Valley 2-2016 smallerGravel ghost

Golden evening primrose and notch-leaf phacelia Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Golden evening primrose and notch-leaf phacelia

Lesser mojavea close-up Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Lesser mojavea

Desert-star and scented cryptantha Death Valley 2-2016 smallerDesert-star at the top with tiny scented cryptantha in the lower left

Desert gold landscape 1 Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
For more about Death Valley, see the previous two posts featuring photos of wildflowers and my adventure in a storm.

 

Worth a Thousand Words – Wildflowers in Death Valley

Desert gold landscape at sunset 2-2016

Death Valley National Park has the hottest overall temperatures on earth, including the highest recorded air temperature of 134 degrees. With an average of less than two inches of rain a year, the plants there manage to eke out their survival in harsh conditions.

So during the rare years when several inches of rain show up in a few months in fall and winter, it’s miraculous for plants. The long-dormant seeds burst out in carpets of wildflowers across the desert floor. Luckily for me, for five days in February I was able to experience this spectacle.

I have stories to share about my journey in a future post. For now, it’s all about photos of the flowers.

Desert five-spot close-up 2-2016
Desert five-spot, an uncommon flower

Desert goldDesert gold, the showy and densely growing flower that turns entire landscapes yellow

Scented cryptantha
Scented cryptantha, easy to miss with its tiny blossoms

Notch-leaf phacelia 2-2016
Notch-leaf phacelia—I was glad a ranger warned me that touching it can cause a rash

Brown-eyed evening primrose at dusk 2-2016The night-blooming brown-eyed evening primrose, at sunset as blossoms opened

Lesser mojavea
Lesser mohavea

Golden evening primrose 2-2016
Golden evening primrose soon after sunrise, with the notch-leaf phacelia

Fremont pincushionPebble pincushion, the only one of this species that I saw

Purplemat 2-2016
Purplemat

Desert-star 2-2016
Desert-star, looking like miniature daisies

Gravel ghost 2-2016
Gravel ghost

(Two additional Death Valley posts feature my adventure in a storm and more landscapes.) For more of this ephemeral beauty, check out Death Valley National Park’s video about this year’s bloom.

Dreaming of the Canyon Country

Bryce viewed from the trailhead before descending into the canyon
The view from the trailhead of the Fairyland Loop, Bryce Canyon National Park

Recovering from an injury, this year’s spring hiking season came and went. Although it’s now summer, I’ve been yearning for a favorite springtime destination, the canyon country of the Southwest, so I poked around and found my photos of a trip to Utah. My explorations there date back to the 1980s, but this trip in 2004 was the first to include the new technology of a digital camera.

Although photo-sharing sites have been around a long time, I haven’t wanted to use them because the images alone convey an incomplete picture without a narrative. It’s the writer in me. Now I can unearth the photos and share them with the full story, bringing the experience to life until I can explore the canyons again in person.

Spring in the canyon country is my favorite time to visit. It’s also a gamble, an experiment in arriving late enough to avoid snowstorms but early enough for sufficient moisture to see wildflowers before the dry, intense heat bakes the high desert.

On this particular trip, it was warm and sunny when my friend and I set up camp in Dixie National Forest just outside Bryce Canyon National Park. Without the crowds that come in summer, we had lots of solitude, another reason to come this time of year. Hiking in our tee-shirts through the striking rock formations, we planned to spend at least a couple days there.

Bryce doorway with pine
Archway on the Fairyland Loop, Bryce Canyon National Park

The aptly named Fairyland Loop was stunning. Our eight-mile walk began and ended with a sweeping view for miles. When we returned to the canyon rim, we could see approaching clouds.

During the night at our campsite at 8,000 feet, it started to snow. There were already a couple inches on the ground when we awoke and it was coming down heavily. We broke camp and skedaddled out of there before we got stuck in the infamous muck that the red rock trails and dirt roads become when wet. We drove through the snowstorm on the paved highway to just outside Capitol Reef National Park, low enough at 5,000 feet that the snow had become rain. We spent the night indoors, dried out our wet gear, and waited for the storm to pass.

The next day was cloudy and cool, with ephemeral waterfalls gushing over the canyon walls above the valley in Capitol Reef. With our four-wheel drive car, we navigated the drying but sticky dirt roads to our backcountry campsite. A couple times, we stopped and stuck a trekking pole into the water flowing through the washes across the roadway, measuring the depth to make sure it was safe to drive through them.

At first, the arid environment dried the landscape so thoroughly that there was no sign of the previous downpour and the resulting flash flooding only a day earlier. But then we were lucky enough to be there for the burst of flowers that the high desert is famous for. Within a day, sprouts were visible. Within two days, the first flowers appeared. By the third day, the landscape erupted in color. For the rest of our trip in Utah, everywhere we went, the red rock country had been transformed by the rain.

Dwarf evening primrose blooming after Capitol Reef stormDwarf evening primrose, Capitol Reef National Park


Golden mariposa lily in Capitol Reef vertical croppedGolden mariposa lily, Capitol Reef National Park

Oak and sandstone in Capitol ReefOak and sandstone, Capitol Reef National Park

Common prickly pear near Moab cropped

Common prickly pear cactus, near Moab

Globemallow explosion after desert rain in southern UtahGlobemallow, near Moab

Prince's plume near Moab

Prince’s plume, near Moab

Claret cup cactus in Capitol Reef

Claret cup cactus, near Moab

Another great joy when visiting the canyon country is discovering the rock art by the native people who lived there up to 2,000 years ago. Yep, I need to get back there in the spring.

Petroglyph panel in ArchesPetroglyphs, Arches National Park
(I don’t know the era or tribe of the artists—I welcome that information by email)

Following Flower Season

Tiburon mariposa lily - 1

For years I’d heard about the threatened and protected Tiburon mariposa lily. A small population of individuals blooms for a few weeks on a single serpentine outcrop at Ring Mountain Open Space Preserve, and nowhere else in the world.

I at last decided to find the lily, researching its location online. I stumbled around on the crisscross of unmarked trails and found the general vicinity where the plant grows. I headed out alone, late in the day when the shadows were long and the trails were empty. I ended up on various side trails, poking around along the rocks. To protect them, there is no signage marking the exact spots where the lily grows. I had memorized the photos I’d seen, but realized since it’s not a showy flower and only the size of a quarter, I could easily miss it.

And there it was, right beside the trail. A single flower.

Tiburon mariposa lily - 2
Tiburon mariposa lily, Ring Mountain Open Space Preserve

It was deeply moving to sit beside one of the world’s rare living things. I reached to touch it as I do with most plants, but extra gently. In the silence I appreciated that it exists, and felt grateful to those who arranged for The Nature Conservancy to purchase and protect this property until it could become public land.

That first visit to Ring Mountain was six years ago. I still visit each June to see the flowers, as I did a few days ago. This season after years of drought, the plants could barely eke out their blossoms, noticeably smaller and paler than I’ve ever seen them.

There is a depth of connection that comes with returning to familiar places over time. I have come to know which trails to hike at which time so that I can visit particular flowers I’m fond of.

This year, I’ve missed nearly the entire wildflower season while I’m recovering from the sprain that accompanied my broken ankle in January. Except for the Tiburon mariposa lily, a late bloomer that grows not far from the trailhead, I’ve had to be satisfied with memories and photos from previous trips. I’m smiling, though, looking at these images and thinking about next year.

Oakland mariposa lily - Mt. Tam Van Wyck Meadow 5-2013
Oakland mariposa lily, Bootjack Trail, Mt. Tamalpais State Park

 Baby blue eyes at Mt Tamalpais 3-2009
Baby blue eyes, High Marsh Trail, Mt. Tamalpais State Park

California bead lily at Mt Tamalpais 5-2013 California bead lily, TCC Trail, Mt. Tamalpais State Park

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