Category Archives: Further Afield

Scenes from Surprise Valley

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View of the Warner Mountains from Surprise Valley.

Rainbow obsidian scatter on the alkali flats.

Rainbow obsidian scatter on the alkali flats.

Geothermal action in Surprise Valley.

Geothermal action in Surprise Valley.

Boiling pool.

Boiling pool.

Although the rest of the valley had barely awakened to spring, Mimulus guttatus (common yellow monkeyflower) was in full bloom on the warm, moist pool edges.

Although the rest of the valley had barely awakened to spring, Mimulus guttatus (common yellow monkeyflower) was in full bloom on the warm, moist pool edges.

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North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve, 2013

DSCN8455You would think, that as a botanist, Table Mountain would have been a priority destination when I arrived in California eight years ago.  But spring after spring rolled by without a trip to see what many consider to be one of Northern California’s most stunning wildflower displays.   Finally, last weekend, we made the journey.  North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve perches above the Central Valley on a sprawling basaltic plateau.  Table Mountain is peppered with vernal pools and criss-crossed by basalt outcrops and ridges.  Grooved swales carry water west, where several end in waterfalls that plunge off the plateau toward the Central Valley below.

We walked northwest from the imposing valley oak at the parking lot, and made it to Fern Falls.  Not bad for a party that included four babes and preschoolers!  Our timing was perfect.  Above, A. checks out bright magenta owl’s clover (Castilleja exserta), pale bird’s eye gilia (Gilia tricolor), sunny goldfields (Lasthenia californica), and white and purple sky lupine (Lupinus nanus).  Other showy species included Kellogg’s monkeyflower (Mimulus kelloggii), johnnytucks (Triphysaria eriantha), bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva), and yellow carpet (Blennosperma nanum).  But hands down, the highlight for the girls was this California newt that we found at the top of Fern Falls.

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I had in hand a book that I purchased at the Chico Farmer’s Market the day before — Wildflowers of Table Mountain: a Naturalist‘s Guide, by Albin Bills and Samantha Mackey.  Gorgeous photos, with helpful text on blooming periods and microhabitats found within the reserve.  While most of the flowers were familiar to me, the geology was not.  I loved the helpful explanations and illustrations that told the story of Table Mountain’s formation in a way that even to a geology layperson like myself could comprehend.

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To Climb a Tree

Our yard is full of trees.  They are good, strong, tall, straight pines, but to M.’s chagrin the branches begin about four feet off the ground and they are quite impossible to climb.  Oh she tries, but usually ends up with sap on her hands and frustration boiling over.  Last weekend we spent an afternoon at the Heart K Ranch in Genesee Valley.  To her delight, we lunched in an overgrown apple orchard, and made another stop in a black oak grove.  Finally.  Trees with crooks and low-hanging branches; mossy trunks and footholds to spare.  She was a happy girl indeed.

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Blue Oak Woodlands

These blue oak woodlands near Finley Lake in Tehama County look pristine at first glance.  Gnarled oak trunks, a broad and leafy canopy, and verdant understory beckon, “Picnic here!  Put up your feet!”  But these blue oak woodlands have borne the impacts of several key landscape-scale transformations over the past few centuries.  Fire suppression, livestock grazing, and the introduction of non-native Eurasian grasses mean that this landscape, though beautiful, is not as it was a few hundred years ago.  To be sure, native vernal forbs are still spectacular as they make a run for it in May. Primed by spring rains, they bolt, flower, and set seed before summer’s heat sets in.  Goldfields (Lasthenia californica), sky lupine (Lupinus nanus), popcorn flowers (Plagiobothrys species), shooting stars (Dodecatheon hendersonii) and violets (Viola douglasii) and valley tassels (Castilleja attenuata) abounded on my visit last week.  But they are joined by several species of filaree (Erodium species), a host of exotic grasses, and a carpet of young yellow starthistle and medusahead that will dominate later in the season.  And scarcely an oak sapling in sight.  This time of year, it is easy to ignore just how degraded these blue oak woodlands have become, but as the vernal annuals fade from the landscape, this altered state will become hard to ignore.

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Deer Creek Falls

Deer Creek Falls is a worthy pit-stop midway down Highway 32 from Westwood to Chico.  There is a small, easy-to-miss pull-out on the south side of the highway roughly 1 mile west of Alder Creek Campground, then a short, steep trail downhill to a rocky outcropping that overlooks the falls.  Yesterday morning was misty and balmy, and the trail took us past canyon live oak (Quercus chrysolepis), Douglas-fir trees (Pseudotsuga menziesii), and California nutmeg (Torreya californica).  There was even a banana slug in our path.  The rocky overlook certainly invoked the mama death-grip on squirmy toddler forearms, but the girls appreciated the roar of the water and the chance to stretch their legs as we made our way down to the valley.

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Three Perfect Days on the Redwood Coast

Just back from three days at Northern California’s Redwood Coast.  Sure there were tears and pouts here and there.  But all in all, we had a blast and the girls were able to adapt to changes in routine and sleeping venue without hassle.  Here are a few highlights from our tot-friendly coastal adventures:

> handmade, asymmetrical bagels and fresh carrot juice at Susie’s Bakery in  Weaverville

> kite flying and wave splashing at Clam Beach.  A. chasing seagulls across a boundless expanse of sand

> our vacation rental, tucked into 5 acres of second-growth redwood forest south of Trinidad.  space to roam in the sword fern and salal.  a full kitchen that meant fewer restaurant meals to endure.  this trip we were all about picnics and the outdoor patio.

> banana slugs!

> chocolate croissants, a fabric store, and hula hooping on the sunny Plaza lawn at the Arcata Farmer’s Market

> the spotted owl that perched above the patio on an alder branch and watched us eat

> our two girls careening full speed down the Nature Trail at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.  across wooden bridges, footsteps muffled by thick duff,  in the shadow of massive slabs of redwoods.

> Papa frying up local lingcod and serving with purple artichokes.  A finer dinner couldn’t be had.

>plenty of downtime for all

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M. Takes the Lead: Colorado Hikes

We found a few little kid-friendly hiking gems during our brief Colorado sojourn.  Here is M. on the Miner’s Creek Trail, accessed just outside of Creede on the Rio Grande National Forest.  My Dad and I were a bit worried about stream crossings, but found quaint little footbridges tucked into the willows.  M. was delighted by ‘elephanthead’ (Pedicularis groenlandica) in bloom along the stream, and we also saw mountain bluebells (Mertensia ciliata), meadowrue (Thalictrum fendleri), and heart-leaved bittercress (Cardamine cordifolia) in bloom.

The next day, we waited out thunder and hail before taking a stroll around Big Meadows Reservoir, at the edge of the Weminuche Wilderness.  This time, we had 15 or so in our party.  And M. took the lead on a path through spruce-fir forest, crowing, “I’m the leader!  Follow my tracks!” And on she went, across meadows and talus slopes, while A. rode on my back.

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Aquilegia coerulea (Colorado columbine)

A change in landscape can be so refreshing.  Last week, the girls and I swapped out our local mountains for the Colorado San Juans and everything in-between.  Destination — Creede, Colorado, for a biennial family reunion.  The girls weathered the drive well, thanks to Grandpa’s iPad, a stomach flu that had little A. sleeping through the entire trip out, strategic playground stops, and a favorable adult:child ratio.

My last road trip across the Intermountain West was 7 years ago.  And this was the first time to have made the traverse with such newfangled amenities as Air Conditioning and CD Player.  And so we bobbed over Basin and Range, skirted the Pavants, shot through the Fish Lake Mountains, rose and fell on the San Rafael Swell, tracked the Colorado and Gunnison Rivers, crept up Slumgullion Pass (11,361 ft.), and toppled down the Upper Rio Grande into Creede.

I have many old haunts in this part of the country. A decade ago I had an internship at High Country News in Paonia followed by a summer at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, where I first learned to key out plants.  And so a return to the Rocky Mountain flora felt like a visit with old acquaintances.  Here is Aquilegia coerula (Colorado columbine), the state’s flagship flower.  As with other spurred and showy member of the buttercup family (larkspur, monkshood), the sepals are even more colorful than the petals.  The nectar is tucked into long petal spurs (see emerging flower on the left), where it is accessible by hummingbirds and hawk moths.

  • Species: Aquilegia coerulea
  • Plant Family: Ranunculaceae (buttercup family)
  • Where I saw it: Big Meadows Reservoir, Rio Grande National Forest, Colorado
  • Look also: throughout the Rockies from foothill to subalpine habitat

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Indian Creek Trail, Castle Crags State Park

And down the trail she bolts.  M.’s enthusiasm will carry her about a half a mile at a time, and she loved this little stone-lined path that crossed tiny wooden bridges on the Indian Creek Trail at Castle Crags State Park.  I struggle trying to balance her need to explore at her own pace with my own desires to log miles and views as in the pre-kid days of yore.  I could stuff her into a carrier and proceed as before, but she is at that age where she is no longer content to observe, but needs to touch and smell her way through the forest.

This beautiful Iris species was observed frequently along the path.  No time to stop and key to species.  I had to keep up with M.!  Also Pacific starflower, showy phlox, and plenty of poison oak.

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Castle Crags State Park

Our camping destination this year: Castle Crags State Park, where this towering mass of granite turrets is the star attraction.  We selected this park because it is one of 70 California parks facing closure this year.

As far as family camping trips go, this was a grand success.  A year ago, we camped off Caribou Road, high above the Feather River on the Plumas National Forest.  My strongest memories of that trip involve a two-year-old M. tearfully clutching a mug of hot cocoa and intoning, “Me no like camping.  Where toys?  Where books?  Where home?”

Intermittent rain and biting winds kept us from venturing too far along the trail system.  This photo is as close as we got to the actual Crags.  The girls, however, found plenty to do at camp, which was set underneath a canopy of white oak, black oak, incense cedar and Douglas-fir.  A. put her new walking skills to the test, motoring up and down steep slopes, clambering up rocks, trolling for shiny bits of litter, wielding flashlights with glee.  M. balanced precariously on stumps, rock-hopped, looked for critters (she found a caterpillar that she named after herself, then a worm that she named Caterpillar), roasted marshmallows, and enjoyed the company of 8-year-old twins who accompanied us.  This trip, we brought crayons.  And coloring books.  And a few select stuffed animals to provide some continuity with Home.

When we returned, I tossed both grimy girls into the bath, then expected they would embrace the toys and books from which they had been separated.  But what did they do?  Headed right back outside to dig in the dirt.  Success indeed.

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