Hiking among the Pinnacles

The last stop on our recent CA adventure was the Pinnacles National Park, just southeast of San Jose. Aside from its natural beauty, two interesting things about this park are the massive and eroded spires of an extinct volcano (i.e., the pinnacles) and the California Condors that can often be seen on the High Ridge trail of the park in the winter. On this day, however, I had to settle for views of just the volcanic spires because the Condors had already left the park to breed elsewhere.

We were greeted on the trail by a Beechey’s Ground Squirrel
A Stellar’s Jay rested in the bushes along the trail

The Pinnacles are the eroded remnants of an extinct volcano that has been sheared in half by the movement of the San Andreas fault.  Its other half is located 150 miles to the south, in the desert of southern California, while the part we hiked in now resides within the coast range bordering the Salinas Valley.  The area is composed primarily of  exposed lava flows, paler volcanic rocks called rhyolite, and a type of conglomerate rock that looks like you threw rock chunks into cement and then stood the mass up on end to weather.

We chose the trail that climbed to the peaks through a series of caves along a stream, ducking our heads around rocks and squirming through narrow slits in rocks (in the dark).
This was the easy part of the trail.
Emerging from one cavern and about to enter another on our way up.

The caves here provide roosting and nesting spots for at least 13 different species of bats. In addition, the 26,000 acres of the park are home not only to the Condors, but attract the largest density of breeding Prairie Falcons in the U.S. A study done in 1990 found that the Pinnacles have the highest density of bees (per unit area) of anywhere in the world (for which there is similar data). Quite a unique and interesting place!

At last we completed the cave path and headed up the steep stairway up to a very nice lake.
A delightful sunny afternoon and a beautiful lake view was the reward for our climb.
The trail back to the parking lot was an easy walk with incredible views.
Lava outcrops along the trail were sometimes covered over with vegetation.
Silver Bush Lupine lined the side of the trail.
Sticky Monkeyflower can apparently grow right out of the rock.
A good example of the volcanic spires that loom over the trail.
Looking back at the parking lot (center white spot in the far distance) from the trail
Purple Chinese Houses — great name for a flower.
A striking yellow lily — member of the Triteleia genus
Indian Paintbrush and sunflowers were common along the trail
And so were Beechey’s ground squirrels.

Wildflower bonanza in San Luis Obispo county

We left the verdant green of the outer coast range to drive inland toward Santa Margarita to a place we had heard was a hotspot for wildflowers.

Sure enough about 20 miles east of Santa Margarita on highway 58 and right at the intersection of Shell Creek Road, there were more than 50 cars parked on the roadside, and several dozens of walkers spread out over an enormous field of wildflowers. This was a veritable carpet of intense color — so vibrant the camera didn’t really capture it as well as my eyes saw it. So, here’s a look at what the rain produced in the central coastal mountains this year.

The panorama view doesn’t do the scene justice — the grass has grown up and over a lot of the flowers, dimming their brilliant color. Walking paths through the field made it easy to see the flowers without stepping on them.
This part of the field was dominated by a yellow and white daisy called Tidy Tips.
Looking in a different direction, there were more poppies and fewer daisies and a lot more grass.
Big, healthy clumps of poppies were everywhere in the middle of this field and ranging up to the hills beyond.
Looking back toward Shell Creek Road where the cars were parked, the field was dominated by poppies and lupine. Here there was also a solid ground cover of a small flower called California goldfields that formed a solid mat along what would have been bare ground.
The mat of Goldfields flowers surround the Lupines and daisies. No grasses here.
Looking toward the west was a beautiful field of poppies and lupines stretching over to the shady oak trees at the base of the hills.
Just like a huge bouquet…
More flowers along Shell Creek, where the Goldfields flowers again form a mat of yellow color.
Owl’s clover and lupines among the Goldfields flowers.
Further up Shell Creek road, the hills were covered with drying grasses, and a stand of Larkspur.
The brilliant purple of one of the western Larkspur species really stand out in the reddish tinge of the grasses.

What a treat to walk around this place that some kind rancher has managed so well and generously allowed passersby to explore.

Birding on Point Buchon

There is more to see along the coast of Montaña de Oro state park than just the park’s generous 8000 acres. The utility company (PG&E) maintains land on Point Buchon that abuts the park to the south. It is open to only a limited number of hikers daily, but has some of the most dramatic scenery and abundant wildflowers in this area.

Rocky crags line the coast here, and they make perfect roosting/resting spots for Cormorants and pelicans.
A few Brandt’s Cormorants (distinguished by their brilliant blue throats) gathered on this particular rock top.
Brown Pelicans were interspersed with the Brandt’s Cormorants on one end of this rock. The birds must have been feeding earlier because most of them were busily preening their feathers.
Wave action on these rock faces creates indentations that widen into caves and eventually break through into arches in the rock slabs. Look above the peak of the arch at the white streak running down the rock face. This is a sign that some seabirds have sat here long enough to decorate the rock with their excreta. A closer look at the rock face reveals what made the white “stain”.
There are at least three nests in this crack in the rock. These are Pelagic Cormorants (white spot on their flanks), which unlike what their name would suggest, actually do most of their foraging close to the shore. So these rocky crags offshore are the perfect place to nest. These birds hunt fish and invertebrates in deep water near the rocky shore, while the Brandt’s Cormorants hunt for prey in the water above the rocky bottom. Ecologists call that niche partitioning.
A better view of the rocky coastline habitat, with its isolated rocky crags, tide pools, sea caves and arches. Brown Pelicans are flying overhead.
Pelicans can “coast” over the water gaining lift from the air pressure changes in the wave surge.
Another inhabitant of the rocky shores here are Pigeon Guillemots, a member of the auk family. They are medium-sized seabirds with sharp bills for catching fish, short, stubby wings that help them “fly” through the water when diving for fish, and brilliant red feet that they show off to females when courting them.
I’m not sure who is who of this pair of birds, but this individual was perched perfectly to show off its feet. Guillemots forage for fish in the same areas as the Pelagic Cormorants, but as you might expect, they pursue smaller individuals than the cormorants. Another example of niche partitioning!
And back on land, some of the frequently encountered birds that wander through the grassy “heath” (scrubland) are small coveys of California Quail (male in front, female behind).
Probably the most common bird in this area — a sub-adult White-crowned Sparrow singing with great enthusiasm to stake out a territory and attract a mate.

California’s color explosion

The last time I visited the central California coast in the spring flower season was more than 50 years ago when I was a college student. But I never witnessed a mega-bloom spring flower season like the one going on here this past month. A dozen or more “atmospheric rivers” of rainfall this past winter have apparently promoted the germination of seeds accumulated over many years. The result is a vibrant carpet of color in grassy fields, roadsides, deserts, seasides, and foothills everywhere in California. Here are some highlights of our hike last weekend in Montaña de Oro state park, located just south of Morro Bay on the central California coast.

Even ordinary mustard and wild radish flowers create a colorful scene along the rocky coast in the park.
It truly is a colorful carpet with fiddleneck flowers so dense you can’t see bare ground between them.
The carpet of flowers is almost overgrown with grasses now, but there is still plenty of color in the mat of California Poppies.
The diversity of wildflowers was amazing. Looking closely at one square meter, you could see at least a dozen species, packed closely together, growing over each other.
And just as many clumps of flowers in the fields stretching away from the coast toward the hills.
Tall spikes of hedgenettle grew in clumps in some of the depressions. It doesn’t form a hedge, and it doesn’t sting like true nettles, so the name is a mystery. But it does have very attractive purple and white spotted petals, making it quite distinctive.
Some kind of milkvetch (white stalks) among the poppies
Orange-colored bush monkey flower, so named for their resemblance to simian faces, were common on the drier hillsides.
But the overall dominant plant here, in color and in profusion, was the Poppy. And it must be the namesake of this Mountain of Gold park.

Birding on the beach, part ii

Here are a few more photos at the local beach in Cayucos CA of some of the shorebirds darting in and out of the waves. The birds seem to be used to the people walking the beach, but not the dogs running in and out of the waves. However, dogs chasing birds gave me a chance to get some good flight shots.

Willets are medium-sized shorebirds with stubby black beaks, and striking black and white wing patterns. They joined the Marbled Godwits (previous post) in the receding water to probe into the sand for invertebrates.
I usually see Willets in the winter, when they are dressed in their “blah” plumage of drab gray, but at this time of year, the birds are transforming into their much more attractive speckled gray, like the bird on the left.
Willets really are very attractive birds at this time of year.
This is a composite image of one Willet in flight, as it shows off it’s black and white wings.

A third and regular visitor to this particular beach in Cayucos was the Whimbrel, easily recognized by its bold striped head and long, down-turned beak.

Unlike the Godwits that foraged in small flocks together, the Whimbrels were often solitary and probed both the wet sand as well as the seaweed higher on the beach, looking for something to eat.

The series of images below shows one Whimbrel’s successful capture and ingestion of a small crab it found in the seaweed. Use the arrows on either side of the image to advance (or reverse) the slideshow. (Note: if you’re reading this post in your email, the slide show may not be accessible, so click on the title of the post in your email, to go to the blog website.)

After swallowing the crab, I think I see a lump and ruffled feathers along the side of the bird’s neck. I always wonder how birds manage to avoid punctures in their gut after swallowing creatures with spines or pincers.
Whimbrels in flight — thanks to an adventurous canine.

Birding on the beach

We’re on a short excursion to CA to celebrate a birthday and hopefully experience the amazing super-mega-wildflower bloom that is taking place there this spring. But first, a trip to the beach where we found some shorebirds probing the sand for invertebrates.

Marbled Godwits assembled in twos, three, and small groups vigorously probing the wet sand after each wave receded. It was a gray, foggy morning at Cayucos beach on the central coast of California.
Whatever they found was too small to see.
One pair in their breeding plumage finery went everywhere together.
Another trio flittered from wet patch to wet patch looking for breakfast.
A graceful exit in the tiny glimmer of light through the morning fog.

Sunset in the Superstition mountains

The final campsite of the trip was at Lost Dutchman State Park in the easternmost suburbs of Phoenix and a very popular spot for both locals and visitors in the Phoenix area. We didn’t really have time to hike very far into the Superstition Mountains, although there are a myriad of hiking trails right from the campsite. But we did get to enjoy an incredible sunset — something Arizona is famous for.

An hour before sunset, on the trail that leads to notch between the two sets of cliffs. Hikers coming down the trail told us it was an amazing view.
A short while later, as the sun dipped past the horizon — “golden hour” threw gorgeous light on the peaks of the mountains and lit up the yellow flowers of the bitterbrush bushes.

How did these mountains get the name Superstition?

Apache Indians living in this area believed that a prominent hole between the tall spires in these mountains led directly to hell, because hot, dusty winds were known to emerge from the gap in the rocks. Their name for the mountains led early settlers to refer to the mountainous area as “superstitious”, and later the whole wilderness area of 250 square miles was then given the same name.

Looking the other direction toward the campground and the town of Apache Junction.
The final glow of the sunset —farewell Arizona, we’re headed back to Las Vegas and the flight home.

Spring beauties

We made brief visits to the Paton Center for Hummingbirds in Patagonia and the Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson while camping at Catalina State Park to enjoy some of the spring delights of southern Arizona.

Granddaughter got a chance to photograph hummingbirds and other birds coming to the feeders at the Paton Hummingbird Center in Patagonia.
She got a very nice photo of a Broad-billed Hummer and a bee friend at one of the feeders.
A Green-tailed Towhee perked up his crest while singing to us.
Tiny Inca Doves were easy to photograph at the stream.

Desert wildfowers were plentiful, especially along the roadside where we saw dense swaths of orange Globe Mallow, yellow Bitterbush, pink Parry’s penstemon, and short purple lupines.

The penstemon was by far my favorite flower in the roadside displays.
At the Sonora Desert Museum, we had a brief encounter with a Pipevine Swallowtail on one of the penstemons.
The desert museum’s wildflower gardens were in full bloom.
Dry arid desert scenes are greatly enhanced by the brilliant colors of the wildflowers.

At our spacious campsite in Catalina State Park, we had room to spread out and time to take a walk before sunset. Quite a few birds were singing and displaying right at our campsite.

Sunset in Catalina State Park featured a giant saguaro surrounded by leafless mesquite shrub/trees.
A most cooperative male Vermillion Flycatcher posed on a few of the mesquite trees around camp.
I’ve never seen this species before — A Rufous-winged Sparrow. Several of them were flitting around camp, and some were singing. This is primarily a Mexican species and its range barely extends into southern Arizona.
A pair of Phainopepla, mistletoe berry specialists, hung out around the campsite also.
The diggings and burrows of the Round-tailed Ground Squirrel ran through our campsite, but only one individual showed up to check us out.

Another hike at Chiricahua National Monument

We drove over to Chiricahua National Monument from our campsite at Kartchner Caverns state park near Benson, AZ, to show elder daughter and granddaughter the amazing rock formations there. We had visited the monument for the first time two months ago but took only a very brief hike into Echo Canyon because a huge snowstorm was headed there in early afternoon. So this time we hiked a loop trail down into the canyon which put us at the exposed base of many of the hoodoos, looking up at them instead of down.

It was chilly and windy in mid February when we first visited the Monument. We only had time to see this unusual landscape from the top on this trip.

On this visit, we hiked a loop trail that took us down several hundred feet to the base of the “hoodoos” for an up-close and personal look at the amazing weathering process that has created these structures.

Unlike the Grand Canyon, this massive (1200 square mile) deposit of hardened rhyolite tuff from successive volcanic eruptions about 27 million years ago, has been exposed only to freezing and thawing actions on the rock that has resulted in jointed columns, pinnacles, spires, and ungainly and precariously balanced rocks. As a result, there are no “really old” rocks exposed here like those in the Grand Canyon.

We found this formation, called “balanced rock” right on the Echo Canyon trail (during the February visit)
The Grotto, is a slot-canyon in the making, but without powerful water surges to help carve a canyon, this slot will evolve only very slowly.
The trail down wound in and out of the rock formations, treating us to different views of the canyon below us.
There’s the trail on the next switchback below us.
More balanced rocks — they sometimes look like they could fall at any time.
Once we got near the sides of the gigantic spires, we could appreciate just how massive they were. They are continually being eroded with freezing and thawing actions, which widens existing cracks and creates ever more unstable-looking columns.
Down at the bottom of this part of the canyon, a stream trickled through. This was a warm day, but there were no insects, no birds, no squirrels, nothing moving, and nothing making any noise at all, except us.
The lowest point of the trail before we start back up the loop to the top.

What we saw here was a couple hundred feet of exposed columns in a field of rhyolitic tuff that is estimated to be about 1600 feet deep. The volcanic explosions that created this field were predicted to be 1000 times greater than the one from Mt. St. Helens in 1980.

A very pleasant and relatively easy hike (compared to the Grand Canyon), and a delightfully smooth trail back up to the top of the canyon.

We heard from other hikers that there are even more spectacular views of the formations in this park at the Heart of Rocks loop — I guess we will have to save that for next time. For anyone interested in hiking in this area, here is a good map.

The Grand-est Canyon

Just to say it’s a grand (meaning big) canyon is not nearly enough exclamation about the size of this amazing abyss in the earth’s surface, north of Flagstaff, AZ. It’s grandiose, or colossal, or humongous, or something like that. Anyway, the first glance at the landscape we will explore is stunning, especially in evening light.

Looking toward the North Rim of the Canyon, one arm of the plateau to which we will descend is visible in lower left corner of the photo. It’s about 3000+ feet lower than the top of the south rim.

After a cold night of sub-freezing temperature on recently unfrozen ground at Mather campground in the park, we packed up our stuff, parked the car in the backcountry lot, and set off down the Bright Angel Trail. It was chilly and windy on the top of the rim that morning, but we soon ditched the coats a mile or so down the trail.

Once on the trail (snow-covered) we got a glimpse of our final destination at Havasupai Gardens (used to be called Indian Gardens), the green trees in the far distance under the arrow. From the trailhead it’s a little under 5 miles to the campsite.

I should probably have titled the blog post something about Traveling Back in Time, because we would be walking through deposits of ancient seas, from 250 million years ago in the Permian period to about 540 million years ago in the Cambrian period, roughly the time at which the incredible Cambrian explosion of animal body types took place in ancient seas.

The formations derive primarily from deposits of mud, silt, and sand from an ancient inland sea that were laid down over hundreds of millions of years and then uplifted during successive collisions of plates over the course of the past 80 million years to form the Colorado Plateau. Erosion and exposure of the layers of rocks by the Colorado River only began about 5-6 million years ago, occurring rapidly at first as the river whittled away the top layers of more recent, softer sediments, and proceeding more slowly now as the river cuts through the oldest, metamorphic rocks at the very bottom of the canyon.

So, let’s take a walk back through time, from the end of the Permian period, when unknown cataclysms caused the extinction of 95% of animal life on land and in the sea, to the beginning of the Cambrian period when life exploded in ancient seas. Below is a guide to the names of the layers we will walk through as we descend.

Image from Roc Doc Travel showing the layers of deposits on the south rim of the Grand Canyon and the their associated geologic time periods.
The first 1.5 miles of the trail through the Kaibab limestone and Toroweap was ice covered and extremely slippery. We used crampons on this part of the trail, but there were plenty of day hikers making their way gingerly down the slope with just tennis shoes. Not recommended!
Here we were almost through the Coconino sandstone layer, the lightest colored layer which you can see in the extreme right side of the photo and also across on the north rim of the canyon. We have already descended about 1000 feet. You can just barely see the bright green spot on the lower plateau (extreme left center) that is our destination.
Further down now in the Supai formation above the steep cliffs of the redwall limestone, we can clearly see the lush valley of the Havasupai Gardens.
The first stop on the trail is midway through the Supai formation at the Mile 1.5 Resthouse, where we could finally remove our crampons. There are bathrooms and telephones here (most used by summer visitors overcome by the heat), but no water at this time of year.
A little further down the trail we can see the winding switchbacks that lead to the Mile 3.0 Resthouse (small structures with green roofs) at the top of the Redwall limestone formation.
Now on the home stretch to the campsite, with the towering expanse of the redwall behind us, we are in the Muav limestone formation dating back to 530 million years ago, and the trail has become much more walkable and less steep.
Another look at the Redwall limestone and the trail down to Havasupai Gardens. This is when you really begin to appreciate just how far down you’ve come (and how far up you’re going to have to go the next day)!
The trail to the campsite is almost level! and there is abundant green vegetation around us on this level of the Bright Angel Shale layers, which dates to approximately the time of the Cambrian explosion of life.
At the campsite, ring-tailed cats and mice are well acquainted with the treats to be found inside packs, so the NPS has constructed nifty pack hangers to remove the temptation. There are also lock boxes on the picnic tables to put away all foods and other aromatic compounds that would attract the pests. The campsite has 16 tent sites, 2 groups sites, pit toilets and creek water available at taps, as well as a ranger station, emergency phone, etc. And the night air is much, much warmer than the previous night at the top of the rim!
Looking back on my evening walk below the campsite, I couldn’t even see the top of the south rim — just the expanse of the giant Redwall limestone.
It’s still another 1.5 miles across the plateau for a view of the river.
The “garden” is the riparian vegetation filled with tall cottonwood trees, lush grasses and willows growing along the spring-fed creek, which runs most of the year.

After a pleasant night, and pretty good sleep, we got up really early (dawn) to start hiking up again. The exposed sections of the trail would be very hot in mid-morning sun, so we wanted to get a good start on the way up.

Farewell, easy part of the trail, now it’s all hard work to the top. I was amazed to meet a couple of early morning hikers on their way down from the top who were fast-walking the trail down in just over 2 hours (it took us 4.5 hours to get down the previous day).
It’s a loooong way up through the Redwall Limestone section, with the Supai formation, Hermit shale, and Coconino Sandstone clearly shown above it. At the very top, we can just barely see the columns of the Kaibab limestone at the top of the south rim. Whew, a long way to go yet.
But his time we didn’t stop at Mile 3.0 Resthouse at the top of the Redwall, but just kept going to get to the 1.5 mile marker where we would stop and put on the crampons again.

Some of us (the older ones) struggled to get to the top in 6 hours — and others arrived earlier, triumphant and happy.

A new thing to add to granddaughter’s bucket list. The other three of us have hiked to the bottom of the Canyon (i.e., the river) in the past, and I think I remember saying — I don’t want to do that again. But here we are…