Category Archives: santa monica mountains

Chasing a Sunrise, Taking a Moonshot, Los Padres Snow, and a Dark Line in the Sky

Colorful sunrise in the eastern Santa Monica Mountains

I was running up Calabasas Peak Mtwy fire road trying to get a better view of the eastern sky, but the view in that direction was blocked by a steep hillside. The road turned to the northeast up ahead, and I hoped the best moments of a rapidly-evolving sunrise would not be lost.

A couple of breathless minutes later, I rounded a corner and was rewarded with an unobstructed view of a vivid, pink-red-orange mackerel sky. Focusing on the ridgeline near Topanga tower, I shot several sets of bracketed photos.

Handheld snapshot of the Moon, using a Lumix ZS100
Handheld snapshot of the Moon. Click for larger image and more info.

Excited by the sunrise, I continued up the fire road, scanning my surroundings for another photo. My eye settled on the gibbous moon. High in the sky, it’s bright face was subdued by a thin veil of pinkish-gray cloud. I’d previously experimented with handheld shots of the Moon using my running camera — a Lumix ZS100. Zooming to an equivalent focal length of about 250mm, I held my breath, steadied the camera the best I could, and took a few shots. Here’s one of the images — cropped and sharpened — with enough detail to see craters, maria, and some other lunar features.

At the bottom of Topanga Lookout Ridge there were several bigberry manzanita bushes covered with flowers. A hummingbird was up before sunrise, buzzing about the blossoms, busily drinking the precious nectar. Although it had rained a couple days before, this rain year there had been little rainfall, and a corresponding scarcity of early season wildflowers.

As I climbed higher on the ridge, the mountains northwest of Los Angeles came into view, white with snow from the recent storm. The snow-covered peaks are south of Mt. Pinos and Frazier Mountain, in the area of San Raphael Peak, McDonald Peak, Sewart Mountain and Snowy Peak.

Contrail shadow near Los Angeles
Contrail shadow.

Like snow on a mountain, there is a purity in the form and appearance of clouds. When a long, dark streak appeared across a layer of high clouds, it was hard to miss. In this case, the dark line appears to be the shadow of a contrail of a jet flying above the clouds. At the time LAX was reporting scattered clouds at 19,000′ and 23,000′, with a broken layer of clouds at 28,000′. Given the height of the clouds and orientation of the contrail, it may have been from a flight from San Diego to San Francisco.

Topping out on the ridge, I smiled when I saw the masked couple dancing on the Lookout, and continued west toward Saddle Peak.

Some related photos: An Early Morning Dance at Topanga Lookout, Fallstreak Hole, Rainbow Colors in Cirrus Clouds Over Los Angeles

Pandemic Cool: An Early Morning Dance at Topanga Lookout

With the San Fernando Valley as a backdrop, a couple dances at Topanga Lookout, during the pandemic

As I neared the top of Topanga Lookout Ridge, I could hear music coming from the Lookout. It looked like there were people on top, but from my vantage point down on the ridge, it was hard to tell what was going on.

When I reached the isolated platform, I was surprised to find a couple dancing! Wearing masks, and with much of the San Fernando Valley as a backdrop, they had found a unique way to deal with the complications of the pandemic.

Some related posts: Topanga Lookout Ridge Loop; Malibu Canyon to Saddle Peak, Topanga Lookout, Calabasas Peak, and the Secret Trail

Musch Meadow Frost

Frost along the Backbone Trail at Musch Meadow

As I approached Musch Camp, a scrub jay flew from a trailside faucet and into a nearby eucalyptus. There had been a little rain the day before, but the birds at the closed camp were still thirsty. Less than a quarter-inch of rain had fallen, and nearby creeks were still dry.

Melting frost
Melting frost “steaming” at Musch Meadow

I was doing a run from the “Top of Reseda,” and on a warmer day would have topped off my water bottle at the camp. I stopped at the faucet and briefly turned on the spigot. Maybe that would make it easier for the jay.

Leaving the camp behind, I continued south on the Backbone Trail, across frost-covered Musch Meadow. Early morning sun had just reached the meadow, and water vapor from the melting frost steamed in the cold air.

In another mile I reached the Trippet Ranch trailhead, and then begin the six mile run back to the Valley. At several points on the run there had been wintry views of the local mountains. On the way back the best view of the snowy mountains was from the Hub, where Mt. Baldy could be seen gleaming white in the morning sun.

Some related posts: Garapito Trail Runs, Musch Trail Mule Deer, Musch Trail Morning

California Everlasting

California Everlasting along the Secret Trail in Calabasas
California Everlasting

While doing the Bulldog Loop earlier this year, I encountered an enthusiastic hiker who commented, “Aren’t the wildflowers amazing?”

He added, “There are so many, uh… What’s it called? You know, the one that smells like maple syrup.”

“Do you mean Everlasting?” I asked.

“Yea, that’s it! California Everlasting,” he exclaimed.

That’s what people remember about California Everlasting — the leaves smell like maple syrup.

The somewhat nondescript plant is especially abundant this year.

As suggested by its name, California Everlasting (Pseudognaphalium californicum) can be found along trails in Southern California chaparral and coastal sage-scrub just about any month of the year.

The plant looks like it is blooming in the title photo, but each “petal” is a botanical structure called a phyllary. The phyllaries form a protective covering around a disc of tiny flowers as they develop. Here is a closer view.

The plant dries out in the Summer, but the flower-like structures often remain – an everlasting dried flower arrangement.

The photos are from this morning’s run to Calabasas Peak on the Secret Trail.

Related post: Secret Trail to Calabasas Peak

Trees, Bees, and a Washed-Out Footbridge on the Bulldog Loop in Malibu Creek State Park

Looking along the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains from near the top of the Bulldog fire road.
View east of the Santa Monica Mountains from near the top of the Bulldog fire road.

With the reopening of trails in the Santa Monica Mountains, my list of “must do” trails is impossibly long. Today, I headed over to Malibu Creek State Park to do a variation of the popular Bulldog Loop, and catch-up on what was happening in the Park as it recovers from the Woolsey Fire.

The route I was running starts at the Cistern Trail trailhead on Mulholland and descends to Crags Road using the Lookout and Cage Creek Trails. After a side trip on the Forest Trail to see the coast redwoods, it continues counterclockwise around the regular Bulldog Loop. Here’s an interactive, 3D view of the approximately 17-mile variation of the Bulldog Loop.

Crossing Malibu Creek

As I ran along Crags Road toward the M*A*S*H site, I wondered how much water would be in Malibu Creek, and if the fallen tree used to cross the creek would still be there.

Washed-out footbridge on Malibu Creek
Washed-out footbridge on Malibu Creek

Since February 2019, hikers, runners, and riders doing the Bulldog Loop or headed to the M*A*S*H site have had to either get their feet wet or use a fallen tree to cross Malibu Creek. The concrete slab bridge is still there, but the stream now flows around the bridge, rendering it useless.

The bridge survived a canyon-wide flood in mid-February 2017. But two years later, and just 11 weeks after the Woolsey Fire, sediment-laden runoff from burned hillsides clogged the drainage pipes embedded in the bridge’s concrete slab. With nowhere to go, the stream simply circumvented the structure.

Nearly to the bridge, I turned right off of Crags Road and followed the well-trodden path along the creek for about 70 yards. The downed tree had not washed away. Not wanting to take an early morning bath, I carefully worked across the logs and limbs and then rejoined the Crags Road Trail, near a coast redwood.

Checking on the Malibu Creek State Park Redwoods

Whenever I do the Bulldog Loop, I usually stop by the Forest Trail and see how the 100+ year-old coast redwoods are doing. Several of the 16 or so redwoods were killed by the 2011-2015 drought, and virtually all the trees were scorched in the Woolsey fire.

New growth on a young redwood in Malibu Creek State Park
New growth on a young redwood burned in the Woolsey Fire

I’d last checked on the redwoods at Christmas and had been encouraged by the condition of the remaining trees. In Los Angeles, three of the past four rain years have recorded average or above-average rainfall. This seems to have really helped the surviving redwoods.

There are five or six trees that are doing well. They’ve added a lot of new foliage and look healthy. I was excited to see that a young, naturally-germinated redwood was thriving. It was burned in the Woolsey Fire and lost most of its foliage.

Leaving the redwoods behind, I continued toward the M*A*S*H site and then up the Bulldog climb.

Coast Live Oak Recovery

Live oaks are amazingly resilient. Oaks, more or less as we know them, have been around for millions of years. According to Cal Poly’s PolyLand web site, 25 myr-old fossils of coast live oak have been found in the Pacific Northwest. This suggests an exceptionally adaptable species.

Epicormic sprouting of a coast live oak burned in the Woolsey Fire
Recovering coast live oak

As I worked up the Bulldog fire road, I marveled at the number of live oaks sprouting new foliage on their burned trunks and limbs. On Mesa Peak Mtwy fire road, there is a grove of live oaks that used to provide welcome relief from the blazing-hot summer sun. On the crest of a ridge, the trees must have been fully-engulfed in fire when burned during Woolsey Fire. None the less, the trees are recovering. Compare this December 2018 photo of one of the larger live oaks, to what it looks like today. Incredible!

Digger Bees

Cruising along Mesa Peak Mtwy fire road, I took an auditory double-take. What the heck was all the buzzing around me? That’s when I realized the loud, resonate buzz was from thousands and thousands of bees. I’d just run into a huge aggregation of digger bees.

Digger bees in Malibu Creek State Park
Digger bees along Mesa Peak Mtwy fire road

I’ve encountered them before. Even though the males (reportedly) don’t have a stinger and the females (reportedly) aren’t usually aggressive, it was a little unnerving walking through so many active bees. Here’s a video snapshot of the bees.

Digger bees are not social in the same way as honeybees. Female digger bees build their individual brood cells in a communal area to efficiently reproduce. According to behavioral ecologist John Alcock, the males emerge slightly before the females and then fly low over the area, searching for females that are about to emerge. Using their antennae, the males can find the females in a burrow, before they emerge, gaining a competitive edge. For more info, see the article Desert Diggers, in Arizona State University School of Life Sciences’ Ask A Biologist web site.

Splendid Mariposa and Other Wildflowers
Splendid mariposa lily in Malibu Creek State Park
Splendid mariposa lily

At first I ran past it. I was descending the Tapia Spur Trail and nearly to the gravel parking lot in Malibu Creek State Park when a flash of purple caught my eye. My thought was that it was a solitary farewell-to-spring (Clarkia). But something didn’t seem right, and it would be unusual to see just one farewell-to-spring. So I went back to take a look, and it turned out to be a splendid mariposa lily (Calochortus splendens). Although it is common in areas south of Los Angeles, it is the first I have photographed in the Santa Monica Mountains. This one was not quite so splendid as it might have been since a beetle had been feasting on its petals.

Here are a few other flowers seen along the way:

Filaments of spider silk on Indian pink (Silene laciniata)
Indian pink

Indian Pink (Silene laciniata)

Wild morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia)

Canyon Sunflower (Venegasia carpesioides)

Bleeding heart (Ehrendorferia ochroleuca)

Large-flowered phacelia (Phacelia grandiflora)

Some related posts: After the Woolsey Fire: Bulldog Loop, After the Woolsey Fire: Malibu Creek State Park March 2019, Malibu Creek Flooding, Malibu Creek State Park Redwoods: Fighting the Drought