Friday, October 20, 2017

Wetlands Walk Trail in Cosumnes River Preserve

Potato-shaped gall growing on valley oak tree
Wood duck illustration on bridge plaque
At the north side of the visitor center of Cosumnes River Preserve is the trailhead for the Cosumnes River Walk and the Wetlands Walk Trail. A bridge with metal plaques on its handrails, illustrating local animals and plants, crosses Willow Slough. Turn left when you get to the open land with rail tracks in view.

Bridge over Willow Slough
Turn left again at the next junction, from where another bridge (see picture) takes you across Willow Slough to an “orchard” of valley oaks: these trees were planted by preserve volunteers in 1988. They are much younger and smaller than the majestic valley oak you will encounter while exploring the River Walk Trail farther south.

At the branches of some oak trees you will notice yellowish brown or dark brown galls—often ball-shaped, occasionally potato-shaped like the one shown above. They develop when wasps lay their eggs in the bark. I saw  numerous valley oak trees with dense clusters of galls. Judging by tree appearance they do not harm the growth or well-doing of the trees.   

The valley oak trees populate most of the area north of the slough between the railroad tracks and Franklin Boulevard. The trail loop intersects with Franklin Boulevard and continues southwest toward the boardwalk and back to the visitor center. At the end of the half-mile-long boardwalk you will find a viewing platform. Wildlife viewing here is most interesting when the ponds are flooded and the area turns into wetland, providing opportunities to see ducks, geese, swans and shorebirds. Wading birds such as ashy gray sandhill cranes with their bare red-topped heads roost in the ponds of the preserve. The significance of the preserve as a crane stop is highlighted by featuring them in the Cosumnes River Preserve logo and in the crane sculpture in front of the visitor center.  

Boardwalk with viewing platform during the dry season

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Cosumnes River Preserve

Cosumnes River Preserve sign next to Franklin Boulevard

Cosumnes River Preserve logo
The Cosumnes River Preserve is a valley oak and wetland preserve in California's Central Valley [1-4]. About 90% of the original grasslands and wetlands in the Central Valley have been lost by conversion mostly to agricultural land. At a preserve kiosk you will find the interesting information that there were times when one could travel by boat all the way from Sacramento to Bakersfield. Efforts are now taken to enlarge preserved areas and restore others to ensure lasting water supply, support migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway and generally benefit recreation and agriculture.

Middle Slough
Within the Cosumnes River Preserve hikers and birders can experience wetland habitat and a band of riparian oak forest turning into oak tree savanna with increasing distance from the Cosumnes river and adjacent sloughs. Boardwalks, interpretive panels, various loop trails and occasional benches invite visitors to stroll, hike and picnic at a scenic point. My favorite spot is the tree site with the majestic valley oak (marker 22 at the River Walk Trail). Paddlers will enjoy the free-flowing, forest-lined river.
Cosumnes River
As the Cosumnes River Preserve signshown in the top picture—indicates, this nature preserve is the result of a dedicated conservation partnership. Jordan Summers writes (page 90 in in [1]): “The Cosumnes River Preserve is managed by the Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Ducks Unlimited, the California Department of Fish and Game, the State Lands Commission, the California Department of Water Resources, Sacramento County, and private landowners.” Indeed a diverse partnership highlighting the importance and many interests in preserving wetland resources.


Getting to the Cosumnes River Preserve visitor center and trailheads

The preserve is located about twenty miles south from Sacramento. From Interstate 5 take the Twin Cities Road exit and turn left on Twin Cities Road. Continue east for about one mile, then turn right on Franklin Boulevard and go south. After passing the Cosumnes River Preserve sign continue for another mile to find parking space and the visitor center at 13501 Franklin Blvd. on the left. No fees or permits. The trails start on the left side of the visitor center. Half-way between the Cosumnes River Preserve sign and the visitor center is another parking area off Franklin Blvd. to do the Lost Slough Wetlands Walk. If your goal is the Cosumnes River Walk, you want to start at the visitor center trailhead, cross the bridge and then turn right to walk south alongside Middle Slough. This path guides you to the loops with Cosumnes River views and access on both sides of the railroad tracks.

References and more to explore

[1] Cosumnes River Preserve Trails in “60 Hikes within 60 Miles, Sacramento” by Jordan Summers. Menasha Ridge Press, Birmingham, AL, 2008.
[2] Sacramento County Regional Parks: Consumnes River Preserve. Link:
[3] The Nature Conservancy: California > Cosumnes River. Link:
[4] BirdWatching: Cosumnes River Preserve, Galt, California. Link:

Sunday, October 8, 2017

A coiled, tongue-flicking rattlesnake

Coiled rattlesnake showing her split tongue
Coiled rattlesnake throwing its forked tongue
Rattlesnake's split tongue
I've run into quite a few rattlers in the Reno-Tahoe area, mostly at lower elevation in the non-forested brush landscape. Always, I had been warned by the distinctive rattle buzz, before I saw the reptile body. Recently I had a near miss. I came close to a coiled rattlesnake that was hiding behind a low bush on Halo Trail west of Keystone Canyon in the Peavine foothills north of Reno. She (or was it a he?) warned me just in time. Maybe she was as surprised as I was. Maybe he was at high alert since mountain bikers were speeding past her trailside hangout a few minutes earlier.

When I heard that one-of-a-kind rattling—about four feet away—I froze and immediately stepped backwards. I continued to slowly move backwards without turning around, so I could watch. The rattler undulated a short distance away from the trail; then coiled up again. This was when I took pictures like the one above—keeping a safe distance. She started rattling in intervals and kept flicking the forked tongue in and out. Saliva was dripping. I remember being told once that rattlesnakes were believed to lick their prey all over to facilitate swallowing it, but this now being considered a myth. Certain rattlesnake behavior may be shrouded in myth. But rattlesnakes are real—from tongue to tail.   

Rattlesnake's rattle

Friday, September 29, 2017

Mt. Houghton Trail

Lichen patchwork dressing a rock on the top of Mt. Houghton, Nevada

Mt. Houghton Trail is a 0.75-mile-path—off the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT)—to the top of Mt. Houghton in the Mt. Rose Wilderness, southwest of Reno, Nevada. With an elevation of 10,490 feet (3,197 m), Mt. Houghton is the second highest peak within the wilderness, next to Mt. Rose with 10,776 feet (3,285 m). Like its sister peak, Mt. Houghton offers great panoramic views of the Lake Tahoe area. Typically, the trail to Mt. Houghton's top is much less crowded than the Mt. Rose Trail. The rock-strewn peak plateau is a great place for “lichen hunting.”  

On the top of Mt. Houghton

The one-way hiking distance from the Mt. Rose Summit Parking Area (often referred to as Mt. Rose Trailhead) to the top of Mt. Houghton is about five miles or more depending on which route you are going to chose. On a first time visit, I suggest the hikers-only TRT route via the Tamarack Peak Waterfall. The waterfall is located 2.4 miles northwest of the parking area. While the Mt. Rose Trail continues northward, you want to head westbound on the TRT, climbing uphill and around the north side of Tamarack Peak until you get to a trail intersection after 0.8 miles, where a trail post indicates both directions of the TRT. Follow the TRT that switchbacks up to the Relay Ridge for less than two miles—first through forest, then across open slopes with varying views of rock outcrops and cliffs. Once on the ridge, follow the short trail winding further up to Mt. Houghton. 

Mt. Houghton Trail
From Relay Ridge and Mt. Houghton Trail, you will have magnificent views of the Carson Range, including Mt. Rose, and many Sierra Peaks around Lake Tahoe. Looking north-northwest from Mt. Houghton's top, you can see Truckee, Donner Lake, Stampede Reservoir, Boca Reservoir and, on a very clear day, Sierra Buttes, Lassen Peak and Mt. Shasta.

You may want to return along other trails to make your trip a lasso-round or a complete round trip. The map below shows alternate trails, including service roads, and distances.

Trails of the Mt. Rose-Relay Peak area

References and more to explore

[1] Emily Peltier: Mt. Houghton And Relay Peak Hike. Forever Adventuring, June 27, 2017. Web:
[2] Peakbagger: Mount Houghton, Nevada. Web:

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Triangle Lake Trail

Triangle Lake, Desolation Wilderness, California
The Triangle Lake is a small, shallow lake surrounded by trees and rocks. In contrast to many lakes of the Desolation Wilderness that can be overviewed from stretches of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), Triangle Lake is hidden away in the forest between Echo Peak and Keiths Dome—north of the PCT.

The hiking distance from the Echo Lakes Chalet to Triangle Lake is 4.2 miles (6.8 km). The Triangle Lake Trail has been rated as moderate: requiring some skill and challenge to travel [1]. The challenge comes with the final dead-end descend to the lake, where the trail is not marked (except by occasional stacks of stones) and where you want to make sure to know your return path through the rockscape.

Triangle Lake trailhead
To get to the “Triangle Lake trailhead,” follow the westbound PCT from the Chalet or its water-taxi-serviced access points to the Desolation Wilderness boundary—see The Echo Lakes trailheads for details. Just after passing the boundary sign, a post (shown in left-side picture) indicates where the Triangle Lake Trail forks off the PCT—uphill and northbound. Proceed this single-track trail through dense forest with occasional meadow openings until you reach the flat saddle after less than one mile. On the saddle the Triangle Lake Trail intersects with Lily Lake Trail (here coincidenting with Echo Peak Trail). Triangle Lake Trail continues northwest-bound. Jeffrey Schaffer instructs [2]:
Ascending Triangle Lake Trail

Take this trail northward, first through a meadow [shown in the picture below] then across ducked quartz-monozonite bed rock above the lake, and have an excellent view of Mt. Tallac and its southern slopes. The trail then makes a steep, 40-yard [36.6 m] descent east.

An alpine meadow north of the Triangle Lake Trail/Lily Pond Trail intersection
Schaffer mentions that—from this point—one could “side-track” toward Lost Lake, but says that most hikers opt for the more appealing Triangle Lake by continuing downhill:

From the bottom of the short [40-yard], steep descent, you reach a creeklet and follow a duff trail  down to the shallow, grassy south end of Triangle Lake. From the lake's northwest shore one can look down into the water and see brook trout swimming lazily in this [relatively] deep arm of the slightly cloudy lake. Small, fair campsites can be found in nooks among the ice-fractured rocks above the lake.

There is a good chance you or your party will be alone at Triangle Lake—especially on week days. Or you may meet backpackers and anglers around the lake. A few anglers are said to come up via the strenuous path from the Fallen Leaf Lake/Lily Pond area for fishing.

I couldn't figure out whether Triangle Lake is named for its shape (which deviates from school-book triangle geometry) or for its approximate location in the center of the triangle defined by the west tip of Upper Echo Lake, the east tip of Lake Aloha and the south tip of Fallen Leaf Lake—or for some other feature? Anyway, it is a beautiful, tiny lake worth a visit.

Map at PCT trailhead showing only the dead-end section of the Triangle Lake Trail, but not the section between the PCT at the wilderness boundary and the Triangle Lake Trail/Lily Lake Trail intersection

Reference and more to explore

[1] USDA Forest Service: Desolation Wilderness: Echo Lakes Trailhead. Internet: page.
[2] Jeffrey Schaffer: Desolation Wilderness. Wilderness Press, May 10, 2010. Internet: book page

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Lake of the Woods in California's Desolation Wilderness

Lake of the Woods
The Lake of the Woods—sometime simply called Lake Woods—lies northwest of the Echo Lakes. The one-way hiking distance from the Echo Lake Chalet is 5.3 miles. You can shave off a few hiking miles by starting at one of the Echo Lakes trailheads that are accessible via water taxi service. From any of the Echo Lakes trailheads follow the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) into the backcountry toward Lake Aloha.

After 4.8 miles from the Chalet you will arrive at the trail junction with the trail post shown on the left. There are other options to get to Lake of the Woods farther ahead on the PCT. Various loops, including a hike alongside the eastern shores of Lake Aloha, are possible. But to head straight toward the featured target lake, you want to leave the PCT and take the westbound lateral. This gently ascending single-track trail—much less traveled than the popular PCT—leads over a ridge, intersecting Ralston Peak Trail on its crest. From the intersection, a few switchbacks descend to the posted campsite overview and to the northeast corner of Lake of the Woods.
Map with trails and campsites around Lake of the Woods
Trail and campsite overview

At an elevation of somewhat above 8,000 feet (2,450 m), Lake of the Woods is a glacial lake in the subalpine zone close to the treeline. The northeast-facing slopes of the Crystal Range with Pyramid Peak northwest of the lake look almost barren; with only a few trees sustaining themselves on the glacier-polished granite surface.
Crystal Range with Pyramid Peak seen from the northeast shore of Lake of the Woods
Lake of the Woods with the Crystal Range including Pyramid Peak in the far background

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Echo Lakes trailheads

Riding a water taxi toward the Upper Echo Lake pier and PCT trailhead
The Echo Lakes feature three starting points for hikers and backpackers heading from the east toward the Desolation Wilderness. The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) traverses the northside granite slopes above the Lower Echo Lake and Upper Echo Lake. The single-track PCT is accessible from those lake-level, pier-side trailheads.

The main trailhead is located next to the Echo Lake Chalet at the eastern tip of the lower lake, from where the southbound PCT leads via Echo Summit to the Meiss Meadows and Carson Pass and the northbound PCT connects the Chalet with lakes in the Desolation Wilderness, including Tamarack Lake (3.8 miles), Lake of the Woods (5.3 miles) and Lake Aloha (6.1 miles). For other lake destinations and distances, see the USDA Echo Lakes Trailhead table.

An on-demand water taxi service is offered by the Chalet (current one-way fees: $14.00 per person, $5.00 per dog and free for non-walking infants); shaving 2.5 miles (one-way) off your trip into the Desolation Wilderness. The water taxi takes you to a pier in the northwest corner of Upper Echo Lake, connected with the PCT via a short lateral. 

The Echo Lakes channel requires navigation skills

The offered boat rides across the Lower and the Upper Echo Lake are speedy and fun. My favorite part of the ride, however, is the slow, scenic passage at five miles per hour through the shallow and narrow channel connecting the two lakes—connecting them until the water level falls too low. When this happens, typically at the end of summer, the boats land at an alternative pier in the northwest corner of Lower Echo Lake. There as well, a lateral connects the pier with the PCT, about two miles northwest from the Chalet trailhead.

Our captain safely maneuvered the boat through the channel
Inside our boat, which we took on a July 2017 hiking trip, I noticed a small plaque saying “Our Captain is always right. Misinformed perhaps, sloppy, crude, bullheaded, fickle, even stupid, but, never wrong.” Never mind. We had a great experience: Our captain was nice, smart and informative, making the taxi ride a perfect start out into the lake-rich wilderness

An Echo Lakes channel scene: wild hair, rustic cabins