Seasons of the San Gabriels

August 2, 1999

Mt. Williamson
Return by way of Buckhorn and Chilao Campgrounds

The Steepest Slopes
So steep, so much rubble, all is angular broken rocks, how can the plants survive here? Yet, survive they do, massive-trunked Jeffrey pines with sweetly-scented bark when heated by the sun; sugar pines, branches gently drooping with clusters of long syrupy cones glistening in the sun; prickly scrub oak and spiny snowbush ready to spear the unwary who venture too close on the narrow trail. Yes, there is sun, lots of it, undiluted by moisture or by smog. Plants like greenleaf manzanita protect themselves with sun-tracking leaves that are angled vertically to the sun to minimize exposure.

Unbelieveably, scarlet penstemon grow profusely, seemingly out of the rubble on the steep slopes. Alumroots fill in the crevices wedged out by alternate freezing and thawing during the winter. Buckwheats, red-flowered with round fuzzy leaves and pink-flowered with minute pointed leaves, form ground-hugging gray mats. Pine drops poke through the litter under the trees.

Rufous hummingbirds play chase amongst the red flowers, sometimes resting on dead branches. Families of hermit warblers and golden-crowned kinglets circulate in the tops of the Jeffrey pines, young begging for food. Summer reigns in this high mountain kingdom.

Primary Colors
Cool, refreshing, beautiful Buckhorn-under-the-trees, is pristine today, the first day open after the road repavement.

The slopes here are somewhat, but only slightly, less steep, and there is even a little bit of soil as we know it. Late summer asters, sulfur flowers, and penstemon, soft lavender blue, brilliant yellow and scarlet red in turn, brighten these hillsides.

This year, this time, the stream has ceased flowing. Lemon lilies, lovers of moisture, are finishing up their gaudy display that enlightens the dark shady places. Pretty bluebirds fly back and forth over the wet meadow. One lone wallflower still blooms.

At Chilao, which is lower still in elevation, and flatter yet, but by no means level, the stream bed is also very dry. Tall spikes of mullein with soft and velvety leaves inhabit these dry washes. Prickly, sapphire-blue woolstars, vinegar-smelling, yellow-flowered Lessingia and lavender-colored musty-smelling monardella line the road banks. Great Basin sagebrush is putting forth buds. Chamise flowers are browning. Dried seedheads of golden oats shimmer in the sunlight. The main summer show slows down.

At all elevations, along the road, the orange-red flowers of the California fuchsia are beginning to glow and the rabbitbrush is in bud with its peculiar color combination of chartreuse buds and turquoise leaves.

© Jane Strong, July 1999

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Seasons of the San Gabriels

July 30, 1999

Gabrielino Trail
Red Box to Switzer's Picnic Area

The trail follows the San Gabriel Fault visible from Red Box to beyond Clear Creek separating the rugged peaks of Josephine, Strawberry and Lawlor from those of Disappoinment and San Gabriel. It is a trail of contrasts.

Between Rocks
Sheer cliffs are juxtaposed against flat alluvial tablelands. A wall of black rock protrudes into the more common light-colored, feldspar-rich granite changing the texture of the trail from coarse and crunchy to fine and dusty. Streams with huge boulders and banks cut so steeply that the roots of the tenacious trees are exposed, transition into wide, flat, dry stream channels. Rocks rounded and smoothed by tumbling streams contrast with rocks, sharp and angular, riven from their source by frost.

Between Wet and Dry
Lush, tall growth surrounds clear, brown pools of remaining water. Tremendous bigcone spruce, cottonwoods with leaves trembling in the breeze, shade-giving alders, spicy-smelling bay trees, gangly stalks of tarragon and mugwort, dark green sword ferns, crimson monkeyflower contrast with spear-pointed yucca, spiny scrub oak, thick-leaved yerba santa, leather-leaved ceanothus and waxy-leaved manzanita on the hotter, drier south-facing slope.

Between Seasons
The green leaves of summer are giving way to the seeds of fall, the translucent plumes of mountain mahogany not yet ready to fly away, the shiny, sticky seeds of rock rose, manzanita's "little apples", and virgin's bower's feathery fountains. Some late bloomers telescope the season. Whorl-leaved penstemon show fresh scarlet flowers and leaves, burgundy-red at the base, then golden yellow, then green at the top. Poison oak has some leaves, large and shiny green in the shady areas, and others, more exposed to sun and drought, turning rose-red, scarlet and crimson.

The most beguiling sight is buckwheat in bloom. One cannot really appreciate this plant when it is seen only along the roadsides. But in masses, in fields, in late summer when nothing else is in bloom, there's no plant that can match it for beauty. This is "bee pasture" territory: the hum of multitudes of California bumble bees at work rumbles like a distant, pleasant thunder.

© Jane Strong, August 1999

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Seasons of the San Gabriels

July 21, 1999

Throop Peak from Dawson Saddle

High Country Habitats
These mountains are so unique, so distinctive, little in books describe their habitats, so small are they in area.

Here in the San Gabriel high country, an unusual set of characteristics exist: Mediterranean climate bringing little summer rain when plants are growing and most precipitation as snow when they are not growing; high elevation with narrow, sharp ridgecrests but unglaciated; and an east to west alignment making the north side cooler and drier and the south, hotter and moister.

Snow Melt Gullies
One looks in vain for mountain meadows; here there are, instead, snow melt gullies, essentially vertical meadows. One wonders why some of the steep canyons are clothed in green, while others are barren swaths of rock tumbled down, not a green leaf in sight. It might be the angle of the slope that differentiates between a canyon that becomes scoured clean, an avalanche or rock chute (Dorr is such a one), or a hanging garden like the one at mile marker 67.6 that drains into the South Fork of Big Rock Creek.

In these gardens, plants grow tall, lush and green, from the melted snow conserved in the layers of rock. The moisture remains throughout the brief summer bubbling forth over mossy stones, tinkling down little crevices, nourishing willows, gooseberries, and more the profuse bloomers like potentilla, sneezeweed, and corn lilies.

Corn lilies have the largest leaves, like the better known skunk cabbage. The flower in bud looks like a small ear of corn and the leaves in late summer take on mellow shades of antique gold.

A fine collection of scarlet-red flowers--columbine, monkeyflower, paintbrush, penstemon, and California fuchsia--are alive with darting, dashing, zooming rufous hummingbirds.

The Dry North-facing Slopes
On the north-facing slopes between the gullies and the snow chutes, grows a forest of pines, Jeffrey and sugar and, at the top, lodgepole. The lodgepole pine is first noticeable along trail by the small size of the fallen cones, then the cornflake bark on the trunks and, looking more closely, by the short needles in bundles of two. Jeffrey pine needles are bundled in threes and sugar in fives. This is an open forest. At ground level, limbless tree trunks, fallen logs, and blankets of pine needles.

The busy lodgepole chipmunk with its brightly-colored, reddish sides, which at this elevation (+9,000') is the most common of visible animals, scurries around the fallen logs.

Few flowering plants grow through the leaf litter and under the shade, but what evocative names they have--lousewort, pincushion, wintergreen.

Chinquapin, one of the more interesting shrubs in this area, near the top is prostrate and spreading, farther down the slope in more protected areas, taller up to five feet and bushier. It is a form of oak and has toothy leaves, green on top with a golden-orange fuzz underneath, easily recognizable. Also easy to know, is the seed which has a covering looking like a spiky chestnut and opens to reveal shiny dark brown kernels.

The Rocky Ridgecrests
Here the action of frost is most evident in the outcroppings with vertical slots like books on shelves, the building block piles of granite, and the wide areas of very small, irregular, broken pieces of rock called rubble.

Almost overlooked and always stepped on, cushion plants grow through the finely broken fragments of rock. These plants adapt to adverse conditions of intense sunlight, strong winds, and cold temperatures by growing prostrate, close to the ground, with leaves either intricately dissected or densely packed along a short stem.

You have to sit down on a log or rest on a rock to see them, they are so small, under four inches mostly. Colors of leaves are grayish from hairs like the many forms of buckwheat--rock (Eriogonum saxatile) with wedgelike gray leaves, one with minute leaves and big pinkish flowers (E. kennedyi var. alpigeum) and yet another, a localized form of sulphur flower (E. umbellatum var. minus) with round leaves and red flowers; or reddish from anthocyanin which is said to protect the growth from the intensity of the sun. Anthocyanin provides the reddish-purplish color that's seen in early spring, the color of new growth, before the green chlorophyll has formed, or in the fall, after the green has gone. These plants are slow growers, perennials, and probably quite old. They have curious names like mousetails, pussy paws, silver mat and quite large flowers to attract insects during short season of bloom.

Working up from the cold, protected gullies to the sunny, open slopes to the windswept rocky ridgecrests, the plants change drastically from soft-leaved, bright-colored, short-lived, flowering annuals to tall, needle-leaved evergreens to the flat, small-leaved, perennial cushion plants.

© Jane Strong, September 1999

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Seasons of the San Gabriels

July 15, 1999

Icehouse Canyon

All is light at the beginning of the trail. It is midday, midsummer. The rocky canyon walls radiate heat and reflect sunlight. Granite glares. I hesitate, take a deep breath, and quickly cross these hot places on the hard rocky trail.

In the shade of the tall trees, the trail becomes soft and spongy. At first, all I can make out is a forest of tree trunks--trunks of incense cedar with spicy-scented bark like a cinnamon stick in color but fibrous and shreddy in texture, trunks of bigcone spruce, with dark-brown bark, thick and soft, ridged and furrowed, trunks of white alder, smooth, light gray with upside-down V-shaped marks like eyebrows, grayish-brown bark with long sinuous ridges on bigleaf maple trunks and whitish-gray bark in smooth, thin strips on canyon oak.

Green Light
After my eyes become adjusted to the lesser light, I see many plants with soft, yellow-green leaves, not at all like the hard dark-green leaves of the plants on the sunny hillsides just a few yards away. These plants in the streamside shade are moisture dependent, late bloomers. The uncommon roundleaf boykinia has buds like little fuzzy green grapes. Nettles have with green flowers in drooping chains and California blackberry has delicate white flowers resembling small single roses.

A Study in Scarlet
Then, spotlighted by a ray of sunlight, a scarlet columbine glows like an ember along the stream. More. And more. Until they cover the hillsides. The finely dissected leaves grace the waterfalls flowing over rocks furry with moss. The gorgeous red and yellow flowers, a cluster of five spurred tubes, provide nectar for western tiger swallowtail butterflies. The beauty of it all, fairly takes my breath away.

Further on, a brick-red breasted robin sings and dances on a fallen log. Scarlet monkeyflowers bloom at a nearby spring. Picture these, intermingled with the columbine, spots of scarlet above green leaves all over the shaded slopes.

Water Play
The trail in places is burdened with duff and debris which, lubricated by the heavy monsoonal downpours of earlier this week, slid down the slope. There are sloppy stretches of grit, mud and oak leaves; water crossings over fine, old bridges, rails worn smooth by the touch of many hands; and lively, talkative falls tumbling down the canyon walls.

At one large wet patch in the sunshine, butterflies are sipping the moisture, a behavior called "puddling", California sisters, identifying blue lines clearly visible in their stillness, satyr commas, wings closed, looking like golden leaves with small silver commas on the underwings, spring azures reflecting the blue of the sky above, duskywings, Acmon blues, all imbibing salts just inches from my feet.

Masses of black-spotted, scarlet-backed ladybugs ooze over a damp log; the log drips with them like hot fudge on a sundae. Others are flying in the air, sparkling; their translucent wings catching the sunlight. They land on leaves, on rocks, on me. They move on. So do I.

© Jane Strong, July 1999

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Seasons of the San Gabriels

June 22, 1999

Mt. Hillyer from Santa Clara Divide Road on to Horse Flats

A Special Mountain
A complex area, an area of contrasts, is this mountain between the coastal plain and the desert. From the tall pine trees--Jeffrey, Coulter and sugar (Pinus lambertiana) with syrupy cones dangling from the tips of its branches to the supple, graceful grasses waving in the wind, from the large jumble of boulders piled high on the peak to the small grains of sand softening the trail, Mt. Hillyer is its own special place.

A Place of Contrasts
There are uncommon plants such as Swertia neglecta, a member of the gentian family with thick light green stems, pairs of white-edged leaves enclosing the stalk, heads of multiple flowers with four purple-spotted, white petals opposite four green sepals in a cross pattern, growing in the hot sandy soil. There are common plants such as golden yarrow which, here, above six thousand feet, are considerably shorter stemmed and woollier than their foothill counterparts. There are soft, smooth-petaled mariposa lilies on thin wiry stems next to prickly, cobwebby woolstars (Eriastrum sp.); succulent yellow-flowered wyethia, or mules-ears, and diminutive purplish-red monkeyflowers. Blaring trumpets of scarlet bugler. Nearly invisible white popcorn flowers.

Silver, White and Gray
White prickly phlox grow in mounds on top of gray granite rocks not far away from flat gray rugs of buckwheat spreading over the white sand. Canyon oak and yucca from the coast mingle with flannelbush and Great Basin sagebrush from the desert. Imbricate phacelia (Phacelia imbricata), silver leaved and white flowered, line the road along with a neon-pink-petaled, blue-throated gilia.

Oh! Deer!
Surprised by a two-legged wanderer, a dappled fawn bounces up and bounds away. A few miles further on, a doe watches warily from across the dry streambed. Larger and smaller relatives of the deerweed found at lower elevations, buck lotus (Lotus crassifolius) also called big deervetch, with small red and yellow flowers and large maroon seed pods, and silvermat lotus, (Lotus argophyllus) also called silver deerweed, grow on the road banks, food for the fauna.

© Jane Strong, June 1999

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Seasons of the San Gabriels

June 17, 1999

Mt. Lowe from Eaton Saddle

Rock is what comes to mind when thinking about the trail to Mt. Lowe from Eaton Saddle. Rock walls, rock falls, rock slides, each forming a different zone, each zone with its own distinctive plant association. When the zone repeats, so do the plants.

The Precipitous Cliffs
This is most barren zone, this area between the trailhead and through the tunnel at the head of Eaton Canyon. Bright, glaring, reflective at all seasons of the year; it is steep, without soil, without water. Few plants grow here. On top, where it is flatter, are canyon oaks and bigcone spruce (Pseudotsuga macrocarpa). Aromatic brickellbush, easily ignored, struggles to find a toehold in shallow cracks. At the base, long-stemmed, white-flowered phacelia with round purplish green leaves and tiny white popcorn flowers grow out of the fine talus. Occasional intense indigo California bells (Phacelia minor) and light purple filaree add spots of color. Overhead the white-throated swifts, acrobats of the air, twitter constantly.

The Rocky Ledges
The trail follows the shady oak-covered north-facing slope. Rock falls of angular large gray boulders break the oak canopy. Little grows on them. But on the stable ledges left behind by the ice-plucked rock, are hanging gardens. Coralbells (Heuchera elegans), a rare local kind with stalks of tiny pink flowers, drape over the edges. Paintbrush lends its vibrant orange-red to the scene. Cool-looking sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) splash out of the rock. Across the trail in more sun, white blooms of deerbrush (Ceanothus integerrimus) scent the air, sometimes entwined with Virgin's bower.

The Rock Slides
The slides are gravelly, not bouldery, sunny, facing northwest overlooking Bear Canyon. The assemblage of plants here is similar in profile to alpine areas like the Olympic Mountains--short and small, colorful, ground-hugging. A purple-red monkeyflower, the length of my index finger, has a yellow-throated, purple-spotted flower the size of my fingernail. A stemless wild onion has pink-lined flowers and a single long succulent leaf. Agoseris, yellow flowers smaller than dandelions, clocks much larger, is much more fun to blow away. Red-topped grasses nod their star-like seedheads. Across the trail, tall, elegant golden eardrops (Dicentra chrysantha) and golden yarrow shine on the slope.

The Bald Top
Emerging from the shade of the dark-green oaks, I am dazzled by the brightness and the movement.

The brightness is pure rock. Rocks big enough to sit on, rocks broken up for soil, rocks falling down the slope, all reflecting the sunlight back into the sky.

The movement is butterflies. What a congregation! Pale swallowtails, duskywings, fritillaries, checkerspots, and spring azures. Their silver spots aglitter in the sun, chasing, tagging, investigating each other and the scantily-flowered plants. Plants with leaves, small and leathery, sticky and woolly, plants like rock buckwheat (Eriogonum saxatile), whose leaves resemble a red-edged gray ribbon tied up in a bow, or golden yarrow, the odds-on favorite for nectar, and thickleaf yerba santa, another popular nectar source.

A memorable experience it is, to sit on top of this mountain on a boulder a little below the brow on the leeward side and observe these beautiful creatures nectaring within hand's reach. They chase each other until they recognize their own species. Then they begin a little dance in a column going up in the air about twenty feet. Some of them have silver spots or other iridescent colors that flash in the sun. Lifting my eyes a little, I see, too, the high peaks surrounding me.

I am on top of the world.

© Jane Strong, June 1999

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