Saturday, April 21, 2018

Martis Creek Loop: in-between and beyond

Map of Martis Creek Wildlife Area: the social and official trails that branch off from the loop into pine forest and Northstar neighborhoods are not shown on this map
The Martis Creek Loop is an easy, 4.1-mile long round-trip trail around the Martis Creek Wildlife Area, located between Truckee and Northstar, California. For a nature stroll, you may want to try Martis Creek Trail, which leads from the Trailhead at Highway 267 (southeast from Martis Dam Road junction) through boggy habitat alongside Martis Creek to Pappe's Bridge. From there, you can walk back to the trailhead on the loop trail by either taking the shorter section (continuing clockwise) or the large section (anti-clockwise). The Tompkins Memorial Trail (TMT) and the Martis Creek Loop share trail sections. Off-loop trails connect with the Porcupine Hill area, the Northstar neighborhoods and Martis Camp.

Before presenting hiking suggestions and a few snaphots based on my mid-April hikes in the Martis Creek/Northstar area, I like to start with some notes about the very popular Martis Creek Trail.

Martis Creek
Martis Creek on a spring day

Loved to Death?

This question is asked on the “Martis Creek Trail” interpretive board at the trailhead, which tells us that the original trail along the creek was never properly constructed:

It originated as a cattle path and was converted to a hiking trail. Sections of the trail have fallen into the creek, leading to an excessive amount of sediment in the water. This can adversely affect aquatic insects and fish.

The most affected trail sections have been rerouted away from the creek through a cooperative restoration effort. Since this very popular, heavily used trail traverses such fragile habitat, biking the trail is prohibited and visitors are asked to stay off of the old trail sections, avoid the trail when it is muddy and also consider other trail options when bringing dogs during the prime bird nesting season from May to mid-July.

Tomkins Memorial Trail (TMT)
Tomkins Trail: downhill alongside pine cones and over boardwalk to Pappe's Bridge

Get your feet wet

So, skip Martis Creek Trail—when really wet—and get your feet wet on the perimeter loop. Early in the season, the loop trail often is partially flooded. As you walk on Tomkins Trail downhill to its junction with Martis Creek Trail, you will arrive at a boardwalk that may partially or completely be under wet snow or meltwater. 

Water-plantain buttercups

Explore wildflowers

Buttercup flowers like creeksides and wet meadows. Alongside the trail between Pappe's Bridge and Jake's Bridge I found various patches of water-plantain buttercups. With their bright yellow, shiny petals, they can't be missed. Less abundant, Beckwith violets were growing nearby at drier spots between sagebrushes. Each flower was showing its yellow throats below the two dark-purple upper petals.

Beckwith violets

Pappe's Bridge

Martis Creek staff gauge (April 20, 2018)
Pappe's Bridge crosses Martis Creek. Look out for the staff gauge with its 1/50th foot graduation marks, which allows to measure the water level quite accurately. A picnic table invites you to rest at the creek bank.

Jake's Bridge

Next to Jake's Bridge is a bench with a memorial plaque: Leslee McElroy loved to take her dog, Dusty, to Jake's Bridge and watch him play in the creek. This point is a trail T-junction. Either path alongside the creek will lead you to Jake's Bridge.
Jake's Bridge and Dusty's pleasure ground

Take the northeast-leading trail, which is the Tomkins Memorial Trail section, to follow the perimeter loop. Take the southwest-leading path towards Martis Camp if you like to explore a side-loop. Before getting to Martis Camp, you will arrive at an easy-to-miss junction. Take the right branch uphill into the pine forest. The trail bends and meets the TMT (the Y-junction shown below) a short distance away from Pappe's Bridge.

Y-junction southeast from Pappe's bridge with two options to Jake's Bridge: TMT bends left

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Hidden Cave Tours and Trails east of Fallon, Nevada

Path between boulders and walls with tufa formations, to the left from the Hidden Cave entrance
Hidden Cave is located south of the Stillwater Wildlife Refuge east of Fallon in Churchill County, Nevada. Hidden Cave is not just hidden—it is locked! But entry can be arranged: on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month (with the exception of federally recognized holidays) the BLM offers free public tours. Before going on tour, visitors typically watch a special video at the Churchill County Museum and then caravan out to the cave site. When I visited the cave with a Reno geology group, we were lucky to have—in addition to our knowledgeable group geologist—an enthusiastic and well-versed BLM tour guide, who brought to light the history and archaeological significance of this Ice-Age cave.
Hidden Cave entrance: Bend down and watch your head
Wooden walkways allow access to the archaeological excavation sites. Stratigraphical structures are clearly visible, marked and described. Found items and placed labels have been left for educational and interpretive purpose. Visually, we get an idea of how the history of the cave and the Lake Lahontan area unfolded during the excavation days. For example, a distinct layer of deposited volcanic ash—the Mazama ash layer—indicates the 6,900 BCE eruption of Mount Mazama, resulting in the caldera of Crater Lake, Orgeon.

Distinct layer of Mazama ash
A handout that we received at the Churchill County Museum provides a brief chronology of events in relation to what came to light by studying deposits and items preserved therein. The cave is said to be formed by wave action from Pleistocene Lake Lahontan. Between 21,000 to 10,000 BCE, the cave was alternately submerged beneath and exposed above the fluctuating Ice-Age lake. During the following three millenia, Lake Lahontan was receding and the environment of the cave changed from marsh to a more desert-like land. From 3,800 BCE to the near present, the cave was use as a “cache” site by Native Americans. Archaeologist uncovered both tools and food. We were told it was never used for shelter.
Mustard-colored lichen on red-white scoria
Visitors to Hidden Cave get a lot to explore. Even without joining a scheduled tour, the interpretive trails and views are worth a visit. The system of short trails includes loops and dead-end trails connecting Picnic Cave, Hidden Cave and Burnt Cave. Picnic Cave actually is a rock shelter. Its walls and ceiling feature interesting tufa formations. Alongside a path between the trailhead and the Hidden Cave entrance you will come across scoria, a large mass of reddish gravel from Lake Lahontan's shoreline. These vesicular basal gravels are cemented together with tufa. Often, colorful lichen patterns introduce more structural complexity to the scoria mosaic. Some petroglyph images that you can spot from the trail are assumed to depict the wildlife of the Hidden Cave area. Others look like doodles, but you may wonder if you are standing in front of alien art or ancient cryptography—messages, reminders, pointers or pins on boulders.  

Petroglyphs next to the trail leading to Picnic Cave

Getting to the Cave-Tour Trailhead

Hidden Cave is part of the Grimes Point Archaeological Area. From the Churchill County Museum on 1050 S. Maine St., drive north through the historical downtown district and turn right onto US Highway 50. Follow the highway for approximately twelve miles and turn left, where a sign points to the archaeological site. There are restrooms and picnic tables available at Grimes Point, from where you may explore petroglyph rocks. To continue to Hidden Cave, follow the well-graded dirt road (eastbound for 1.5 miles) and find the signed trailhead on your right.

Hidden Cave Trailhead seen from Picnic Cave

Suggested reading

[1] Hidden Cave, Nevada. Division of Anthropology. Link:
[2] Hidden Cave at Grimes Point. Atlas Oscura. Link:
[3] Grimes Point/Hidden Cave Archaeological Site. BLM. Link:

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Palomarin Beach Trail: from eucalyptus stands to foreshore cobbles

Foreshore rocks at Palomarin Beach: smooth and mollusk-sculpted cobbles

Palomarin Beach Trail
Palomarin Beach is located at the southern end of Point Reyes National Seashore, California. To get to the beach, hike the 0.6-mile-long Palomarin Beach Trail downhill from its junction with Coast Trail. The junction is found in the shade of eucalyptus trees. See the elongated eucalyptus leaves around the signpost in the picture farther below. Some trees show multi-trunked growth. Once leaving the eucalyptus grove, the trail winds down through coastal scrub and clearings with views of the cliff and ocean scenery. After managing a short, but steep trail section to finally be at beach level, you probably want to switch from hiking into beachcombing and rockstepping mode. At low tide, tidepooling at Abolone Point farther north makes for a great foreshore experience.

A cobble with cavities carved out by mollusks
Along the pebbly beach, one not only finds polished and textured rocks of different size, but also sculpted rocks. Those shale and sandstone rocks have a surface with an often dense coverage of thumb-size drill holes—not made by human sculptors, but by rock-boring pholad clams, which, while holding on with their foot, rhythmically move the toothed edge of their shell back and forth and thus excavate a circular cavity [1]. A boring mollusk finally settles, continues to grow and becomes tied to the cavity. Some of the cavities in the cobble shown above still contain shell parts of once-encased living mollusks.
A crab using a turban snail shell for protective armor

While certain mollusks escape predation by boring themselves into a soft rock, a crab such as a hermit crab may occupy an empty gastropod shell for protection. Near Abalone Point I saw a crab with a four-whorl turban-snail house wandering on the ground underneath the surface of the gently forward-swashing and backwashing shoreline water.

Signpost with eucalyptus leaves

Getting there

From Stinson Beach, drive north on Highway 1. At the northern tip of Bolinas Lagoon, turn left onto Olema-Bolina Road and after 1.5 miles turn right onto Mesa Road. Drive to the Point Reyes Bird Observatory bend. Continue on the dirt road section of Mesa Road. Depending on your vehicle clearance and possible wash-outs, you may either want to look out for parking (and walk the dirt road) or continue the last one mile to the end, which is the trailhead for Coast Trail. Start out northbound on Coast Trail and find the signed Palomarin Beach Trail junction after less than a mile.
Palomarin Beach
Palomarin Beach: a place for relaxation and exploration

References and more to explore

[1] Jules Evens: In the Splash Zone at Point Reyes. Bay Nature, May 26, 2012 []. 
[2] Learn About Crabs & Relatives:
[3] Point Reyes Mollusks:
[4] Jon Erlandson: 12,000 Years of Hunan Predation on Black Turban Snails (Chlorostoma funebralis) on Alta California's Northern Channel Islands [].


Saturday, January 27, 2018

Take a walk through the Cypress Tree Tunnel at Point Reyes and explore the “wireless giant of the Pacific”

Cypress Tree Tunnel to KPH Station

Ornamental work at KPH entrance
Looking for Monterey cypress trees north of the Monterey peninsula? What about the Point Reyes peninsula north of San Francisco? There you can find weatherproof cypress trees branching out next to the trail leading to the lighthouse. And just off the Sir Francis Drake Boulevard—between Inverness and the lighthouse headlands—is the “tunnel” of giant Monterey cypress trees. This is the driveway to a historic wireless telegraph station—the civilian RCA/Marconi Station, also named KPH Maritime Receiving Station [1-3].

Everything intact? The KPH backside (November 2017)

As Morse code messaging declined and new technologies advanced, the station was retired in the late 1990s. It is currently preserved and cared for by the National Park Service and volunteers from the Maritime Radio Historical Society. A flyer posted onto the station's front door summarizes the history of and the current activities at the KPH station:

KPH began providing telegram service to ships at sea in 1905 from the Palace Hotel in San Francisco (thus the PH in the call sign). It continued that service until operations ended at this location on 30 June 1997.

There were hundreds of stations like KPH around the world. KPH was one of the biggest, called by some the “wireless giant of the Pacific.” One by one the lights went out at these stations. Bulldozers were waiting to demolish the buildings and antennas and build condominiums and golf courses. But KPH remained intact.

In 1999 the Maritime Radio Historical Society, in cooperation with the Point Reyes National Seashore, began a project to restore KPH to operation - the first and only a coast station left for dead has been returned to life.

Today KPH is on the air every Saturday from 12:00pm to 4:00pm. Please join us to see the only remaining civilian coast station in the world in full operation.

For more information call 414-990-7090 or send an email to:

Getting there

From Olema or the Bear Valley Visitor Center, follow the direction given to get to the lighthouse trailhead. Halfway between Inverness and the end of Sir Francis Drake Blvd.—past G Ranch—look out for the sign reading “North District Operations Center - Historic RCA Building Established Circa 1929.” Find parking. The Cypress Tunnel is on the right side of the road.

References and more to explore

[1] JoshMc: Cypress Tree Tunnel in Point Reyes National Seashore.  “California through my Lens” blog post:
[2] National Park Service: Historic KPH Maritime Radio Receiving Station and Cypress Tree Tunnel. Web-page:
[3] Roadside America: Cypress Tree Tunnel. Web-page:

Friday, December 29, 2017

Point Reyes Lighthouse Trail

Point Reyes Lighthouse
The Point Reyes Lighthouse stands on a small platform on top of windblown rocks. Expect salt-spray and fog. In this harsh environment only specialized plant species survive. An interpretive panel tells us:
The wife of a lighthouse keeper once planted a small garden nearby, but with no success. As soon as the carrots sprouted the wind blew them away. Few plants can face up to the ocean's harsh influences.

On a foggy morning, your approach to the Lighthouse Visitor Center may include a short walk under water-dripping cypresses.

Fern plants growing on branches of wet cypresses alongside lighthouse trail

On an outside wall at the visitor center, you will find an offshore map showing the undersea topography of the continental shelf with Cordell Bank, Rittenburg Bank and Noonday Rock.

Discover an Oceanscape Under the Sea
Undersea map with continental shelf and Cordell Bank: Discover an Oceanscape Under the Sea

Skull of a gray whale
On their spring migration, California gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) pass Point Reyes close to shore and—when the fog lifts—you can see spouting whales breaking through the ocean surface over the shelfscape. The skull of a female gray whale, found in February 1985, is on display next to the Point Reyes Conglomerate peak.

Steps alongside conglomerate
After passing the conglomerate outcrop,  you will find yourself on top of the stairway with 300-plus steps. The stairway sometimes is closed when winds are getting too strong to descend/ascend safely. Gusts exceeding 100 mph have been recorded. A panel summarizes the lighthouse history:

Point Reyes Light has guided and cautioned mariners along this hazardous coast for over 100 years. Built by the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1870, it came under management of the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939. Resident personnel operated the station until 1975 when the conversion to automated lights and electronic equipment was completed.

The National Park Service maintains a very detailed Visit the Point Reyes Lighthouse site, which further highlights the lighthouse history and links to information on accessibility and road-closure/shuttle-bus policies during whale-watching season.

Getting to the lighthouse trailhead

From Olema or the Bear Valley Visitor Center, drive north on Bear Valley Road and turn left at its junction with Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Follow Sir Francis Drake Blvd. for about 20 miles to its end—first northwest along the western shore of Tomales Bay to Inverness, then westward over the Inverness Ridge and finally southwest through the Pastoral Lands.

Don't miss Chimney Rock!

Returning from your lighthouse visit, you may want to explore the east-side spur of the headlands by hiking through grassland, enjoying views of Drakes Bay and overlooking surf-zone rocks such as Chimney Rock and the natural bridge at the end of Chimney Rock Trail. To do that, turn right on Chimney Rock Road (before passing again through the “A” Ranch). Find the parking lot and trailhead after about one mile from the Sir Francis Drake Blvd./Chimney Rock Rd. junction.

California Coast: Point Reyes headlands map with lighthouse tip and Chimney Rock tip

See more: Point Reyes National Seashore, California.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Point Reyes Conglomerate

Outcrop of Point Reyes Conglomerate
Point Reyes Conglomerate is exposed on the Point Reyes peninsula. It can be found at the end of the Chimney Rock Trail around the overlook of Chimney Rock and the cliff arch. Next to the Lighthouse Visitor Center—at the other tip of the ocean-surrounded headlands—the conglomerate formation is exposed next to the lighthouse trail (shown above and below). There, on a display panel, and also on a web page it has been described with the following words [1,2]: 

The intriguing rock exposure in front of you is part of a formation that caps the highest hills in this area. The Point Reyes Conglomerate is a formation consisting of a sandy matrix embedded with pebbles, cobblestones, and boulders. Geologists estimate that the formation may be over 50 million years old.

Using less formal terminology, the conglomerate has been described as geologic cookie batter [3].

Features of exposed sandstone and Point Reyes Conglomerate

Watch out for similar conglomerate outcrops and sandstone features while taking a rest on your way down to or up from the lighthouse plateau.

 Lighthouse plateau downstairs

References  and related posts
[1] Point Reyes Lighthouse:
[2] Point Reyes Conglomerate:
[3]  Lighthouse, Point Reyes National Seashore, National Park Service, Marin Count:

Chimney Rock Trail

Map of the Point Reyes headlands with Drakes Bay and Chimney Rock 
Chimney Rock Trail is a short Point Reyes headlands trail between Drakes Bay and the Pacific Ocean around the Farallon Islands. As you can see on the map above, several rocks and sea stacks dot the south-side coast of the eastern spur of the headlands. Chimney Rock is one of them. To get to the overlook, from where you can see Chimney Rock and the nearby natural bridge, follow the well-marked path from the trailhead (red arrow) to the end of Chimney Rock Trail.

Chimney Rock and cliff arch
Chimney Rock and natural bridge (cliff arch)

Point Reyes Lifeboat Station
Historic Lifeboat Station (Drakes Bay)
Several social trails lead close to the edges of steep cliffs of mostly Point Reyes Conglomerate, which frequently crumble and slide. Keep a safe distance! On your return walk, you may want to take Underhill Trail to get a close-up view of the historic lifeboat station, constructed in 1927. An interpretive panel at the trailhead “introduces” one of the U.S. Coast Guard crews commissioned to save ships and lives:

These seemingly ordinary men were the heroes of this coast. Like the men who served before and those who served after them, surfmen risked their lives to save mariners in distress. They were always on duty, always prepared and always willing to sacrifice.
Members of a coast guard crew
Surfmen prepared to save mariners in distress
On your final steps back to the parking lot, you will pass through a residence. You will find a plaque in the wall at the property's south entrance commemorating Francis Drake—an earlier “hero of this coast”—who landed on these shores on June 17, 1579 and took possession of the country, calling it Nova Albion.

How did these shores look then? Were the natural bridge and Chimney Rock already pounded by waves and what were their shapes?

Getting to the Chimney Rock Trailhead

From Olema or the Bear Valley Visitor Center, drive north on Bear Valley Road and turn left at its junction with Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Follow Sir Francis Drake Blvd. for almost 20 miles and turn left on Chimney Rock Road after passing through the “A” Ranch. Find the parking lot and trailhead after about one mile at the end of this narrow two-way road.

If you are on your way back from a Point Reyes Lighthouse visit, turn right at the Sir Francis Drake Blvd./Chimney Rock Rd. junction before getting to the “A” Ranch.

Eastern spur of the Point Reyes headlands with Drakes Bay on the right side
Keywords: Point Reyes coast, steep cliffs, heavy surf, sea stacks, historic site, surfmen, coast guard.