Category Archives: nature

Christmas Berry

Photo of Christmas Berry (Heteromeles arbutifolia)

A photograph of Christmas Berry (Heteromeles arbutifolia) taken on a run on Thanksgiving Day. My route was a pleasant 7.5 mile figure eight course that starts at the south end of Reseda Blvd. at Marvin Braude Mulholland Gateway Park, goes up to near Eagle Rock via Fire Road #30 and the East Topanga Fire Road, and then returns via the Garapito and Bent Arrow Trails. Here’s a Google Earth image and a Google Earth KMZ file of a GPS trace of the route.

Also see: Ferns Along the Garapito Trail

Topatopa Bluff

Fire Break on West Ridge of Topatopa Bluff

Fire Break on West Ridge of Topatopa Bluff

Crossing Sisar Creek, I debated running through the cool water. I had been running non-stop since White Ledge Camp, and had been pushing the downhill. It was a warm day and my feet were hot and my socks damp and gritty — it would feel great to dunk them. But gravity and the nearness of the trailhead pulled me across the gurgling creek and I continued to run.

Looking down Sisar Road I could see a couple of riders on horseback, accompanied by a hiker. As I approached them, I slowed and then walked. They asked me how far I had gone, and I replied, “Topatopa.” The hiker responded that she hadn’t been to the summit since the Day Fire threatened the area, and asked if it was open. I told her that I thought so. I had checked the updated closure map on the Los Padres National Forest web site, and the best I could tell, Topatopa Bluff (peak 6367) was just outside of the closed area.

Earlier, I had run up this road to trail 21W08, the Red Reef Trail, and then followed the recently groomed trail up past White Ledge, to Hines Peak Road.

On the way up the road, the view of the bluff had been deceptive. The highpoint wasn’t atop the the most obvious of the layered cliffs of 50 million year old Matilija sandstone, but was an indistinct summit on the left side of the formation. This Google Earth image gives a good overview of the location of the peak.

Above White Ledge Camp there had been great views of the Ojai Valley, the coast from Pt. Mugu to Ventura, and the Channel Islands. At the point where the Red Reef Trail met Hines Peak Road a large area had been cleared of brush, but had not burned. After running a few tenths of mile east on the road, I had seen hints of a trail switchbacking up through the thick brush on the west ridge of Topatopa Bluff, and left the road.

A fire break had been constructed along the crest of this unburned ridge, more or less on top of the right margin of the trail. Judging from the berms along the break, in addition to hand crews, a dozer had been used to the cut the swath. Given the steepness of the terrain, this must have been class V dozer-driving! Using the remaining segments of the trail as much as possible, I had worked my way up the final 1000′ of elevation and plodded onto the unburned summit.

It was sobering to stand at the edge of the fire area and see the full extent of the 162,702 acre fire. The day was clear, and Mt. Baden-Powell could be seen in the San Gabriel Mountains, some 75 miles to the east. To the east-northeast, past Hines Peak and in the direction of I-5 and Pyramid Lake, the earth had been burned and blackened, and nearly all vegetation appeared to have been consumed.

According to news reports, the month-long fire started on Labor Day near Pyramid Lake, more than 20 miles distant, and was not contained until October 2. Approximately 4600 firefighters from 39 states fought the fire.

Substantial portions of the Sespe and Piru Creek drainages were burned in the fire. Even without considering the effects of the fire, which generally increases runoff, these tributaries of the Santa Clara River have the potential to produce high flows. On January 10, 2005, the USGS gage 11113000 SESPE C NR FILLMORE recorded a peak flow of 85,300 cfs, and the USGS gage U11109600 PIRU CREEK ABOVE LAKE PIRU CA a peak of 40,000 cfs. Smaller creeks that extend into the burn area could also produce higher than normal flows.

In part due to a developing El Niño, an increased probability of higher than average precipitation is projected for Southern California. While an above average amount of precipitation is by no means guaranteed, the wet outlook is no doubt one of many issues being considered by the Day Fire Burned Area Emergency Response team.

Here’s a Google Earth image and a Google Earth KMZ file of a GPS trace of my route.

Deadly Nightshade

The shadow of a crab spider on the petals of a purple nightshade.

Fanged and clawed, death waits,
On a highland of lavender, near a saffron spire.

The silhouette of a crab spider on the petal of a back lit Purple nightshade (prob. Solanum xanti). The blossom is about 0.8 inch (~20 mm) wide, which would make the span of the spider’s crab-like grasping forelegs about 0.25 inch (~7 mm). From a run at Sage Ranch Park on November 2, 2006.

Note: This is not a photo of Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna).

Strawberry Peak Traverse

Josephine Peak from the northwest ridge of Strawberry Peak.

When I broke through the top of the stratus layer, bright sun glared from the jagged granitic rocks along the ridge. To the west, Josephine Peak (5558′) was nearly immersed in an ocean of clouds.

The route I was doing was a variation of the Strawberry Peak Circuit described in the posting Spring Growth. Instead of going around the peak on the Colby Trail, this 13-mile loop climbs up and over Strawberry’s summit (6164′), ascending the class 3 northwest ridge, and then rejoins the circuit at Lawlor Saddle. Although a couple of miles shorter than the circuit around the peak, this route has more elevation gain, and the class 2 and class 3 sections of the ridge require careful route-finding.

Class 2, class 3 – what’s that about? Basically, class 1 is hiking, class 2 is easy scrambling where the hands are used for balance, and class 3 is when the scrambling gets serious, and handholds are required. Another element of class 3 climbing is that staying on route can be important. Deviating from an established route may significantly increase the difficulty or hazard. This is certainly the case on the northwest ridge of Strawberry.

Like much of the San Gabriel Mountains, the rocks of Strawberry Peak are old and fractured. Large landslides have originated from the northwest face of the peak. (The Colby Trail passes through the moraine-like debris of one of these slides.) Because of its friable nature, extra care is required when climbing the northwest ridge. Hand or footholds can break, or footing can be lost on a sandy shelf. Or, as described in a story by pioneering aerodynamicist Paul MacCready, the climber can be trapped in a situation where they cannot climb up or down.

The northwest ridge of Strawberry is by far the most frequently climbed class 3 route in the San Gabriel Mountains. Done with care and appropriate skill, the climbing on the ridge can be an enjoyable and unique experience.

On the summit ridge, I admired the steep northwest face of Strawberry Peak as it plunged through the morning shadows to Strawberry Potrero nearly 1500′ below. Did I hear voices down there, or was it just the wind…

Here are a Google Earth image and Google Earth KMZ file of a GPS trace of the route.

Pine Mountain Juniper

Ancient Sierra Juniper (Juniperus occidentalis var. australis) on the rocky slopes of Pine Mountain.

Updated September 19, 2010.

This Sierra Juniper (Juniperus occidentalis var. australis) resides at an elevation of 9000′ on the rocky slopes of Pine Mountain in the Sheep Mountain Wilderness of Southern California. It is an impressive and aged tree. The question is, how old might it be?

Junipers are very slow growing and seem to prefer the dry and difficult conditions that can produce very long-lived trees. Two junipers more than 2000 years old are listed in OLDLIST, a database of scientifically supported tree ages maintained by Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research, Inc.

Both of these trees are located in the Sierra near Sonora Pass. OLDLIST lists the age of the Bennett Juniper, a living tree, at an extrapolated age of 2200 years. This estimate is based on a crossdated incremental core. The Scofield Juniper, a tree that died in 1165, has been crossdated at an age of 2675 years.

The Bennett Juniper is a massive tree. The National Register of Big Trees lists its circumference at 481 inches, and height at 78 feet. The juniper on Pine Mountain is not nearly as large, but it is still a sizeable tree.

Update 9/19/2010. I measured the circumference of the Pine Mountain juniper at 14′ 6.5″ or 174.5 inches. This works out to an average diameter of 55.5 inches. The tree is more or less elliptical in cross section, with the major axis aligned along the ridgeline. The tree’s diameter along the major axis is estimated to be 65-70 inches.

If the Bennett Juniper’s diameter is about 153 inches and its age is 2200 years, its average growth in diameter would be 0.0695 inch a year. Applying this same growth rate to the average diameter of the Pine Mountain tree, and its estimated maximum diameter, yields an age range estimate of 800 to 1007 years.

But relative size may not be indicative of relative age. The Pine Mountain Juniper’s shorter rain season and rocky, ridgetop location likely resulted in a slower growth rate than the Bennett tree. The Wally Waldron Limber Pine on nearby Mt. Baden-Powell is estimated to be 1500 years old, and some other Limber Pines on Baden-Powell are thought to be 2000 years old. Whatever its exact age the Pine Mountain Juniper is an extraordinary tree.

The photographs in this post (except for the Wally Waldron tree) were taken on the Mt. Baldy North Backbone Trail and North Backbone Trail Revisited run/hikes.

Google search: $g(old trees), $g(Sierra Juniper), $g(OLDLIST), $g(Mt. Baldy)