Monday, July 17, 2017

Sierra Buttes Lookout Trail

Rugged Sierra Buttes cliffs with lookout far back on top
Sierra Buttes Lookout Trail connects the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) with the lookout perched on the ridge of Sierra Buttes (8,587 feet; 2,617 m), northeast of Sierra City in Sierra County, California [1,2]. This trail may also be addressed as Sierra Buttes Trail, depending on which map, trail guide or hiking post you consult.

The 2.5 mile-long climb to the fire lookout starts at the Sierra Buttes Trailhead steel gate shown below. As you can see, the PCT here coincidences with the Sierra Buttes Trail. After about one mile you will arrive at the Y-junction, where the left-side trail, winding up from the Tamarack Lakes, meets the Sierra Buttes Trail and PCT. At the next Y-junction the Sierra Buttes Trail and the PCT split apart. Ascend the left-side trail that follows the forested ridge. At various trail points you will experience grand views of the Tamarack Lakes and, higher up, of the Sardine Lakes and Young America Lake.

Young America Lake seen from Sierra Buttes Lookout Trail

As you are getting closer to the top of the Buttes, a set of switchbacks are leading uphill until the trail merges with the jeep road, which usually is closed for motorized traffic. A few more switchbacks on the road and you will find yourself between cliffs and pinnacles. A series of sturdy stairs with handrails connect the trail-end with the lofty lookout.  A plaque honors the five Tahoe National Forest employees who made it possible for visitors to easily and safely climb up to the lookout by constructing the metal stairs and platforms in the summer of 1964. It has been noticed that parts of the stairs hang over empty space [3]—and that the stairway is not for hikers with vertigo! But safe they are.

A wooden board at the bottom of the stairs provides a basic background of the geology and history of Sierra Buttes and its fire lookout:

The majestic Sierra Buttes tower nearly 5000 feet [1524 m] above Sierra City and is the gateway to the Lakes Basin Recreation Area. The Sierra Buttes are composed of metamorphosed rock called quartz porphry [porphyry] which was exploded from undersea volcanoes about 350 million years ago. These volcanic deposits are highly resistant to erosion. Gold was first discovered here in 1849. And by the late 1800's eleven mines were operating on or near the Buttes. In 1869 a 106 pound nugget was uncovered at the monumental mine near the Buttes. A forest service fire lookout tower is perched on the Buttes. During periods of high fire danger the lookout keeps a constant watch for wildfires.

Sierra Buttes fire lookout
When I was at the lookout with a friend on July 14, 2017, we didn't notice any fire-lookout personal. But the fire danger was high. The same day, the Cold Springs Fire between Bordertown and Stead (near Reno, about 50 miles east of the Buttes) developed enough smoke such that Highway 395 was shut in both directions.

Getting to the Sierra Buttes Trailhead

From Bassetts Station at Highway 49, drive uphill on Gold Lake Highway to its junction with Packer Lake Road. Turn left on Packer Lake Road and proceed past the Packsaddle Campground to the Tamarack Lakes Trailhead, 0.2 mile past the turnoff for Packer Lake Lodge. Consider the Tamarack Lakes Trailhead as an option to hike—past the Tamarack Lakes—uphill to access the PCT and Sierra Buttes Lookout Trail. To start your hike from the Sierra Buttes Trailhead, continue on the steep and narrow road toward Packer Saddle (a PCT access point).  Past the saddle, drive south on the paved. After 0.4 mile, veer left onto the dirt road to arrive at the Sierra Buttes Trailhead after 0.1 mile. Begin your hike on the old jeep road beyond a closed steel gate, shown in the following picture. 

Sierra Buttes Trailhead


References and more to explore

[1] JoshMc: Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout Hike. California Through My Lens. June 28, 2016 [].
[2] Tom Sienstra: Sierra Buttes lookout climb takes an act of faith. SFGATE, August 14, 2011 [].
[3] Stepping Back in Time. Sierra Foothill Magazine [].

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Native Bay Area plant garden at Mitchell Canyon Visitor Center

Blue oak leaf life: What is accompanying the lady bug?
The Mitchell Canyon Visitor Center has displays about various aspects of  the natural history of Mount Diablo and beyond. By the visitor center is a well-maintained, interpretive botanical garden of native Bay Area plants. Mamma Quail has written—augmented by beautiful nature photography—about her pleasure to wander in this garden before and after hiking in the Mount Diablo foothills [1].

A California State Parks panel in the interpretive botanical garden says:
The diversity of California's native plant life, about 6,000 species, is unequaled by any other state. This results from the state's varied climate, soils, and geology. Nearly one-quarter of these plants live naturally only in California.

In addition to the insect-populated blue oak (Quercus douglasii) leaves shown in the top picture, here are some more snapshots of flowering plants, which I saw in the garden during my visit in May of this year.

Bush Monkey Flower (Mimulus aurantiacus), lopseed family.

Narrowleaf Goldenbush (Ericameria linearifolia), sunflower family.

Blue Elderberry (Sambucus nigra), muskroot family.

Black Sage (Salvia mellifera), mint family.

Wavy-Leaf Silk Tassel (Garrya elliptica), Garryaceae.


Getting to the visitor center and botanical garden

The address of the Mitchell Canyon Visitor Center in Contra Costa County is: 96 Mitchell Canyon Road, Clayton, CA 94517 (phone: 925 - 837-2525).

From the intersection of Ygnacio Valley Road and Clayton Road, go southeast on Clayton Road for a little less than a mile and turn right on Mitchell Canyon Road.  The interpretive center is located at the south end of that road. There is limited parking on the right side of the road before passing the gate and more parking space in the park's fee area.

More to explore

[1] Mamma Quail: Mitchell Canyon, Revisited. December 7, 2015 [].
[2] Mount Diablo Interpretive Association: Mitchell Canyon Visitor Center [].

Friday, June 16, 2017

Madrone Canyon Trail

Thick, peeling madrone branches next to Madrone Canyon Trail at Lower Rock City

The one-mile-long Madrone Canyon Trail in Mount Diablo State Park lives up to its name. Alongside this trail you will find old-grown madrones on the steep canyon sides reaching for the sky . Unless you start climbing the granite walls of the Boy Scout Rocks at Lower Rock City, you will find yourself in the shade of evergreens all the way through Madrone Canyon. At one point a bridge crosses the creek at the canyon bottom.

Bending trunk of a Pacific Madrone
Madrone Canyon Trail

Madrone Canyon Trail connects the Rock City Area with Devil's Slide Trail. In Lower Rock City, you will find a picnic table next to an old madrone tree with one heavy branch supported by a post (top and bottom picture). As you continue downhill through Madrone Canyon, you will immerse in a jungle of peeling bark and waxy green leaves.

In the canyon, the Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii) trees rarely grow a straight trunk. The tall trees display bending, often slightly winding trunks and branches. Many of them survived on slopes with slowly sliding ground, depending on rain fall and water flow. Over time, the trees that slowly moved along with the soil—or shifted downhill during an avalanche—and so got out of balance, may have adjusted their growth from tilted to upright in trying to maximize their capture of sun light. If this is the case, each tree has conserved its own canyon history in the trunk curvature. Whatever the reason, standing or walking in a madrone forest with curved and sometimes entangling trees, which feature peeling red-brown bark and expose the inner, pinkish green wood with a satin sheen, is a unique, almost haunting experience.

Climber exploring a Boy Scout Rock on the west side of Madrone Canyon Trail


Getting to the Madrone Canyon Trail

Drive South Gate Road uphill to Rock City. Find parking at Lower Rock City in the Rock City Live Oak area. Walk downhill to the Trail Through Time or to the picnic table with the post-supported madrone branch, from where a single-track trail continues downhill into and through Madrone Canyon.
Little Rock City picnic table with supported madrone branch

Keywords: hiking; madrone grove; Arbutus; Ericaceae.

More to explore

The Outbound Collective: Hike in Mount Diablo's Madrone Canyon [].

Monday, June 12, 2017

Peak to peak: from Mount Diablo Summit to North Peak

North Peak Trail between Devil's Elbow and Devil's Pulpit
From the Observation Deck of the Mount Diablo Summit Visitor Center, one has—on a clear day—the perfect view of North Peak and between-peaks Prospector's Gap. Farther northeast one can see the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. To get a closer look at this expansive inland estuary—also known as the California Delta, or simply the Delta—the three-mile-long hike across the Diablo slopes and ridges to North Peak is a worthwhile exercise.

From the visitor center, the Summit Trail leads you to the Mary Bowerman Trailhead, where, across the Summit Road near the Lower Summit Picnic Area, a short downhill trail connects with the Devil's Elbow.
Summit Road with Devil's Elbow
The elbow tip is the trailhead of North Peak Trail. You will see the pleasant path of the single-track trail traveling eastward, traversing an open slope with occasional gray pines toward Devil's Pulpit. Once half around this Franciscan-chert monolith, you will enter chaparral and then a low forest of oak, bay laurel and pine trees.

Gray pines partially damaged by a wild fire
On a cold and windy day in May 2017, a hummingbird was “greeting” me at a point where creek water was still flowing over the trail. Nearby, I saw red larkspur flowers, “trying” to attract hummingbirds for pollination. Various other flowers, including California poppies and Chinese houses, displayed their vibrant spring colors alongside this lush section of North Peak Trail.

The northbound trail descends in switchbacks to Prospector's Gap. From this trail junction, North Peak Road ascends to North Peak. After half a mile of climbing, you will arrive at a V-junction, from which North Peak Trail continues to Mount Olympia.
Rusty graffiti tank between Prospector's Gap and North Peak

On the left side of the trail you will be face to face with a rusty tank featuring white graffity. To get the top of North Peak, stay on the right-side gravel road and follow the steep incline up to the rugged top with its transmission towers. The posted elevation for North Peak of 3557 feet matches the number given in my “Trail Map of Mount Diablo State Park” designed by Rita Ter Sarkissoff, 2012.

At the northeast corner of North Peak you may want to carefully climb onto “vista rocks” that allow undisturbed views of the Delta and the ridges of the Diablo Range edging Central Valley.      

Northwest-facing slope of North Peak's rugged ridge

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Prospector's Gap

View from Prospector's Gap into Mitchell Canyon toward Clayton (Mount Diablo State Park, California)
Prospector's Gap (often written Prospectors Gap) is a trail junction between Mount Diablo Summit and North Peak. Several hiking paths are coming together at this point, which can be considered as an intersection of Prospectors Gap Road and North Peak Trail; the latter leading from Devil's Elbow around Devil's Pulpit and continuing on North Peak Road to the summit of North Peak and to Mount Olympia. Bald Ridge Trail connects Prospector's Gap with Eagle Peak Trail and Back Creek Trail—all within the Mount Diablo State Park.

An interpretive board at Prospector's Gap informs about what prospectors once had in mind before the ridges and canyons became recreational open space: Mining at Mount Diablo. Mercury (quicksilver), copper, coal and travertine (a form of limestone) were mined around the mountain peaks. Traces of gold and silver were found, but not enough to also find investment. A few quarries still provide rock for construction work.

According to the board, during World War II, when the demand for mercury increased, the Diablo quicksilver district became the 9th most productive U.S. source of the slippery metal. The mining activities left their traces:

While mercury mining on Mt. Diablo stopped by 1952, residues remained—mercury, lead and arsenic used to extract the [other] metals [such as gold elsewhere]. The hazardous byproducts still leach from the mines or from mine “tailings,” piles of broken rock or gravel left behind. The materials break down, ecpecially in the rain, and contaminate some park streams and near reservoirs.

And the winter of 2016/2017 saw a lot of rain, which also broke down sections of park roads and caused wash-outs along hiking and biking trails.

Keywords: Mount Diablo, mining history, mine tailings, quicksilver, environmental pollution.

Cones of gray pines at Prospector's Gap in Mount Diablo State Park

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Hunter Creek Falls

Bottom of Hunter Creek Falls
Wild water at the bottom of the Hunter Creek Waterfall
Hunter Creek Falls, near Reno in Nevada, are the northernmost falls in the Carson Range. Other scenic waterfalls, farther south and arguably easier accessible, include the Tamarack Peak Waterfall southwest of Mt. Rose, Kings Canyon's Lower and Upper Waterfall west of Carson City and the serene Genoa Waterfall in Genoa Canyon—all with their falling water rushing down into the Great Basin.

Hunter Creek Falls hidden within bushes and trees
Many years just a trickle, even in spring, this year the waterflow is spectacular everywhere. The Hunter Creek crossing downhill from the Michael D. Thompson Trailhead is still flooded by forbiddingly surging water. I am not even sure if we are past peak surge.

Hunter Creek Waterfall Trail impassable near its trailhead
To cross the creek, you will find a provisional footbridge with no handrails about a quarter mile uphill. Follow one of those tracks along the leftside sagebrush slope and you will see the bridge to your right in the lush riparian band of green.

Crossing over surging Hunter Creek
More water, more people! Wild water and splashing falls always attract crowds. On weekend days, the Hunter Creek Waterfall Trail can get busy. Currently (early June, 2017), there are still a few trail challenges ahead as you get close to the main waterfall: slippery rocks or logs to cross side creeks without getting your shoes wet—maybe.

Hunter Creek Waterfall Trail in the Mt. Rose Wilderness
When the water is not blue (but white or muddy), the blue belly's bellies are.  

Find more waterfalls on my Pinterest waterfalls board.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Meeks Creek Waterfalls

The falling water of Meeks Creek taking different paths
The Tahoe-Yosemite Trail (TYT) connects Lake Tahoe's Meeks Bay with Tuolumne Meadows at Yosemite. Never been on this trail? What about exploring the first three miles of the TYT at its Meeks Bay beginning (or terminus). A hike to the Meeks Creek Waterfalls makes for an exciting spring outing, especially during the snow-melting season after a snow-heavy winter. 

Tumbling and splashing Meeks Creek
From near the Meeks Bay Campground, the TYT follows a gently ascending dirt road, which may still be wet—saturated with meltwater in May or June. Here, you will have a good chance to spot some snowplants that like to grow in the forest of various pines, white firs and incense cedars. Long cones fallen off sugar-cone pines can be found on the forest floor, which is covered with manzanitas and other brushes at certain places and almost barren at others. Corn lilies add their fresh green to areas with moist soil. 

At a marked junction next to a shallow lake or pond—after 1.5 miles from the Meeks Bay tralhead—the TYT starts a slightly steeper ascend through lush forest. The canyon of Meeks Creek is to your left. While you continue climbing you will get closer to the creek. The single-track trail runs roughly parallel to it. Follow the sound of rushing water and find the unmarked side-trip path that switchbacks down between boulders and brushes to where Meeks Creek is cascading through its rocky bed. Watch out for loose rocks and slippery spots. Expect droplets of water spray coming your way, which can be pleasant on a hot day. The mist also sustains the mosses you see hugging tree trunks and hanging from branches.

Zooming in on the down-streaming whitewater of Meeks Creek
There are no round-trip option. Return the way you came or continue on the TYT farther upstream to the Tallant Lakes, beginning with Lake Genevieve, followed by Crag Lake

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Galena Creek Nature Trail

Large granodiorite boulder fractured by frost wedging
My favorite season to walk the Galena Creek Nature Trail (GCNT)—southwest of Reno, Nevada—is spring, when the snow cover is receding and white water is rushing down Galena Creek. Consider the nature loop for a warm-up hike to get ready for the Jones White Loop Trail or an out-and-back trip to Church's Pond—or grab a Trail Guide brochure at the Galena Creek Visitor Center and simply explore the evergreens and trailside attractions along the nature path. Discover split rocks and trees with forked trunks and entertain in speculations on how bifurcation happens in nature.

The trail loops off and back to Bitterbrush Trail through forest of Jeffrey pines and various brushes. Along the trail you will find 18 sites with a marker referencing the interpretation section in the brochure. Let's have a look at some of the sites.

At the nature trail/Bitterbrush Trail junction next to the Galena Creek bridge you will see tobacco brush. This evergreen is common on open-forest slopes of the Carson Range; found, for example, alongside Kings Canyon Upper Waterfall LoopSnowbrush, its other name, highlights its inflorescences of long clusters with white flowers during bloom.

Ascending the nature trail alongside Galena Creek, which cascades downhill through the Mt. Rose wilderness from Tamarack Peak, you will soon get to the sites comparing Jeffrey pine and white fir. The brochure explains that Jeffrey pines are the dominant pine tree species in the park, distinguished by 8 to 10 inch long needles in bundles of three and 5 to 10 inch cones with in-turned prickles. Notice all the pine cones laying on the forest floor.

Jeffrey pine cone
Fallen-off cone of Jeffrey pine with in-turned prickles
The fir cones remain on the tree for a much longer time: after maturing, their scales are shed, leaving a central axis. Many seeds never germinate, but end up in the stomach of a squirrel.
Forked trunk of white fir

The right-side photo depicts trunk forking observed with several Galena Creek firs. According to the brochure “this is a rather odd coincidence. They usually grow tall and straight. Several other trees near the creek also have forked trunks. One possible explanation is that debris from past floods took the tops off these trees. When the top of a tree is cut off, growth occurs from remaining branches which fork into two or more trunks.”

From trees to brushes: continuing your round walk along the upper section of the nature trail, you will learn about sagebrush, Sierra willows, curl-leaf mountain mahagony, greenleaf manzanita and bitterbrush.

Bark and leaves of curl-leaf mountain mahogany
Bark and leaves of curl-leaf mountain mahogany shrub developing curled-up fruit tails in fall
Cinnamon-red bark of greenleaf manzanita branches
Descending back toward Bitterbrush Trail, you will pass the frost-wedged boulder shown in the top picture. This boulder is described in the brochure as a large granodiorite rock that “is fractured in several straight planes. If you squeezed the pieces together, they would fit very closely. This was probably caused by minute quantities of moisture getting into cracks in the rock and freezing. As the water turned to ice it expanded and exerted pressure on the inside of the rock great neough to cause it to split. This process is known as frost wedging. If you wonder where the trail went, just continue walking through the rock.”   

Walk through, don't get stuck and have fun with split-boulder squeezing!

GCNT map
Map with 0.7-mile-long Galena Creek Nature Trail (GCNT)


Getting to Bitterbrush Trail and the adjoining Nature Loop

Get to the South Entrance of the Galena Creek Recreation Area. Find the entrance about three quarters of a mile south (uphill on NV-431) from the North Entrance. The South Entrance is near the junction of Douglas Fir Drive with Mt. Rose Highway  (NV-431). For details and facilities, consult the zoomed-in map above or the Galena Creek Recreation Area map. To pick up a Galena Creek Nature Trail brochure, you want to first stop at the Galena Creek Visitor Center near the North Entrance. Galena Creek Park phone number provided on brochure: (775) 849-2511.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Kings Canyon Falls: Upper Waterfall Loop

Upper Waterfall Loop trail
Upper Waterfall in North Kings Canyon

The Kings Canyon Waterfalls are a series of falls cascading down North Kings Canyon west of  Carson City, Nevada. The most scenic sites: the lower waterfall accessible via the 0.3-mile-long, hikers-only Waterfall Trail off Kings Canyon Road and the upper waterfall (shown above), which is the main attraction of the 4.4-mile-long Upper Waterfall Loop—a trail open to hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding.

From the trailhead at the end of paved Kings Canyon Road go uphill on the dirt road. Enjoy the view of the land of the former Borda Ranch to your left. Manage those rough wash-outs along the dirt-and-gravel path caused by all the water rushing down the road and across it during rain storms of the wet 2016/2017 winter season. After climbing for a little less than one and a half mile, you will arrive at the south end of the Ash To Kings Trail. For the next 1.8 miles, this single-track trail coincidences with the Upper Waterfall Loop. Leave the dirt road behind and travel the less demandingly ascending single track.  

A notice at the trail junction indicates that this is black bear and mountain lion habitat. A small herd of deer was crossing the trail further up when I came to a forested area. A mountain lion may have watched the deer. Most sections of the trail traverses sagebrush slopes featuring widely scattered pine trees, open enough to view spreading Carson City, the Virginia Range and the blue surface of Washoe Lake, which we missed last year.
Kings Canyon Road snaking eastward into downtown Carson City
View of Kings Canyon Road snaking eastward into downtown Carson City
Mingling with sagebrush and bitterbrush scrub is tobacco brush, also know as snowbrush.

Curled snowbrush leaves
Curled leaves of tobacco brush (snowbrush)
On the April day I hiked the loop the snowbrush evergreens were still weeks away from showing their fragrant white-flower inflorescences that often give the appearance of snow blankets. Instead, real snow fields were still shining on the ridges and upper slopes of the Carson Range. And patches of snow covered the forest trail near the upper waterfall. However, a few manzanitas, associating with the snowbrushes, were flowering: their clusters of hanging, rose-pink urns were moving back and forth in the cold wind.

Upper Waterfall Loop trail
Carson Range slope with switchbacks of the Upper Waterfall Loop trail
Above the upper waterfall, a wooden bridge crosses North Kings Canyon Creek. Soon, the trail reaches the junction, from where Ash Canyon is accessible via a 5.4-mile-long section of the Ash To Kings Trail, while the Upper Waterfall Loop starts descending on a steep dirt road with loose gravel. After 0.8 downhill miles, the trail meets the North Kings Loop. It takes another half mile to complete the loop hike. 

Accessing the Upper Waterfall Loop
Get to the waterfall trailhead at the end of the paved section of Kings Canyon Road, as described at the bottom of my previous “Kings Canyon Falls: Waterfall Trail and North Kings Loop” post.
The trail map below gives a nice overview of the waterfall trails and the locations of the lower and upper fall.

Kings Canyon Falls trail map
Map with trails to the waterfalls of North Kings Canyon Creek

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Kings Canyon Falls: Waterfall Trail and North Kings Loop

Lower Kings Canyon Waterfall
The Kings Canyon Falls trail system west of Carson City consists of loop trails and connector trails. The 0.3-mile-long Waterfall Trail connects the waterfall trailhead with a scenic fall of North Kings Canyon Creek. To see other falls and creek-sides, hike the 1.8-mile-long North Kings Loop or the 4.4-mile-long Upper Waterfall Loop. The latter loop trail has a junctions with the Ash-to-Kings-Trail.

The Kings Canyon area has seen a couple of devastating wildfires in the past. One happened on July 5, 1976. The Fallen Firefighter Memorial at the trailhead commemorates three firefighters that lost their lives during this fire, which was started by a careless camper who failed to fully extinguish his camp fire. The firefighters belonged to a crew of five. They died when their helicopter crashed approximately two miles west of the memorial site.

Across the memorial board you will find the Carson City Parks, Recreation and Open Space board with a map showing North Kings Canyon Creek and the surrounding trails. It reminds us that “clean drinking water begins here: The waterfall is an important source of drinking water for Carson City.”

The short Waterfall Trail is a single-track, hikers-only trail that switchbacks uphill to the lower Kings Canyon waterfall; the most easily accessible waterfall of the Kings Canyon Falls. On your way to this fall you will have passed the trail junction from where the North Kings Loop winds further uphill and into the canyon above the lower waterfall.

North Kings Loop: trail with view of Carson City and Virginia Range

Most sections of the loop trail lead over slopes with views of Carson City and the Virginia Range. Where the trail crosses the creek, you will encounter shrubs and cattails.

Cattails at North Kings Loop creek crossing

After a quarter mile from the creek crossing, the trail meets the Upper Waterfall Loop and continues 0.5 miles downhill on a dirt road, back to the trailhead.

Getting to the waterfall trailhead
From the Nevada State Capitol Building in downtown Carson City, take West King Street and go west. West King Street continues as Kings Canyon Road. Stay on the latter until it changes from paved to unpaved. Find a parking spot and walk up a few steps to the kiosk and firefighter memorial.