Natural Wonders

Backpacking in the wilderness yields a score of new sights and marvels, some of which make you stop and wonder — how they came to exist, or how they persist.

View from Summit Pass, Hoover Wilderness

Landscapes like this view from 11,000+ foot Summit Pass, in the Hoover Wilderness in the eastern Sierras are a natural wonder to me.

Life exists and persists in the harshest of conditions at these high altitudes, making me appreciate what I see even more.

Wild flowers in the Hoover wilderness, eastern Sierras

Wild flowers were especially vibrant this year after the mammoth snowfall in the mountains last winter.  This year they will leave a lot of seed behind, which may take years to germinate depending on conditions in the next years.

Fireweed

Fireweed is a colorful pioneer in disturbed areas until other bushes and trees eventually outcompete them for light and water.

Lichen on red fir

life growing on life — fruticose lichen on red fir

Lichen on red fir

The lichen combination of Cyanobacteria and Fungi is also lush this year, after a banner year of snowfall.

Pinedrops

You wonder how life can spring up in the middle of rocky dirt. But Pinedrops plants are parasitic and derive their energy and carbon from the mycorrhizae fungi that surround the roots of other plants.

Our hikes took us through lush meadows, over or through rushing creeks, dark pine forests, and occasionally along broad swaths of sheer granite, a place where it is easy to lose the trail.  The trees here seem to be growing right out of the rock.

Glacial polish on granite

Small rock cairns mark the trail on exposed granite surfaces. In some areas the granite has been polished smooth by glacial movement of sand and rocks.

Rockbound wilderness

Up, up, and more up — the pack gets heavier every year.  One grandson (13) carried a pack as heavy as mine but went up the steep trails far faster than I could.  Well, I was there to admire the views, and take some photos, so no wonder I was so slow.   🙂

Bayview Trail, into Desolation Wilderness

Actually all four grandkids were faster hikers than I was. They had lots of time at rest stops to run around and climb rocks.  We’re half way to the first campsite, Middle Velma Lake in the Desolation Wilderness — 7 miles uphill and a 2000 (more or less) foot climb.

Middle Velma Lake, Desolation Wilderness

There was still mostly forest at the elevation of our first campsite, but the trees thinned out as we kept climbing.

Desolation Wilderness, Sierra Nevada

The next day, the granite slopes of the higher mountains came into view as we climbed

Desolation Wilderness, Sierra Nevada

Looking back at the lakes we camped at the previous night, and Lake Tahoe in the far distance. A nice little waterfall along the trail was a welcome stop for replenishing our water.

Fireweed, Desolation Wilderness

Fireweed was still blooming at high elevation.

Mountain Heather, Desolation Wilderness

Mountain Heather was also fully in bloom. I think this is a close relative of the heather plants we saw in Scotland last spring.

Indian Paintbrush

Bright orange to red Indian Paintbrush was blooming in some of the still wet meadows or wet seeps from recent snow melt.

Mountain Ash berries, Desolation Wilderness

The berries of Mountain Ash were turning a bright orangey-red.

Sierra Gentian

Intensely blue Sierra Gentian flowers made a striking contrast to the red berries of the Mountain Ash growing right next to it.  We only saw them in the late melting, wet meadows.

And another nice campsite for the second night — poised just below the pass we would have to climb over the next morning.

Desolation Wilderness, Sierra Nevada

Fall color in the Sierras

Nights are cold enough now in early September at 8-10,000 foot elevations in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California to produce some beautiful color in the vegetation there.

The aspens glow yellow on the slopes above Bishop, California.

The aspens glow yellow on the slopes above Bishop, California.

Aspen prefer cool, humid sites and were distributed in a tight band

Aspen prefer cool, humid sites and can be found at 5,000-12,000 foot elevations throughout northern North America.  However, along the shore of South Lake above Bishop California, the trees are restricted by the sheer rock walls above them.

Interesting note about Aspen trees:  they propagate from their roots, forming clumps of clones (identical individuals).  Thus one individual may be made up of dozens of stems, weigh many hundreds of pounds, and be thousands of years old (see Wikipedia’s record of largest organisms).

But unlike the towering fall color displays of the midwestern and eastern forests, most of the color is at ground or eye level.

A mat of orange-red Squaw's carpet covers the rock surface, finding just enough soil and water in the rock crevices to survive.

A mat of orange-red Squaw’s carpet covers the rock surface, finding just enough soil and water in the rock crevices to survive.

squaw's carpet in fall colorWestern Mountain Ash really stands out at this time of year, with its clumps of bright red berries hanging down from long stems of yellow-red leaflets.

Sorbus scopulina

Mountain ash were common along this trail down a steep canyon.  Yes, I wondered where exactly the trail was.

The leaves of Western Mountain Ash are just beginning to turn yellow-red at higher elevations.

The leaves were just beginning to turn yellow-red at higher elevations.

The berries of western mountain ash are bright red, but are not ready for picking.  In fact, they may contain high levels of cyanide that will leach out during the freeze and thaw of early winter.  Birds will probably harvest the berries later.

The berries of western mountain ash are bright red, but are not ready for eating yet. In fact, they may contain high levels of cyanide that will leach out during the freeze and thaw of early winter.  A variety of birds and mammals will utilize this food resource during the winter.

A few late blooming perennials added to the colorful landscape.

These Scarlet Gilia flowers look made to order for any hummingbirds passing by (but I didn't see any).

These Scarlet Gilia flowers look made to order for any hummingbirds or moths passing by.  It’s preferred habitat is exactly what you see here on the north side of this rock:  little water, sandy soil, and some shade.  Flower production is actually stimulated by herbivory!  What a survivor.

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Fireweed, so named because it is an early colonist of burned areas and produces great quantities of seed that can remain dormant in the soil for many years.  If that area should burn, the seed quickly germinates in the next growing season, leading to a carpet of these purple wildflowers.

So much color in a landscape dominated by rock and a few lofty evergreen spires.