Plant Trail Reports, San Gabriel Mountains

27 April 2004: Manzanita Trail (see Plant Guide)

Finally! A place where annuals have germinated normally. In fact, so many annuals have germinated on the trail itself that I unavoidably literally stepped on thousands of baby plants as I walked.

Today's trip to and on the Upper Manzanita Trail was fantastic, made even better since I expected to find only a few species that were the earliest to bloom.

Driving along SR138 just west of I-15, I was first treated to a large number of blue Ceanothus in full bloom along the road. I had no idea there were so many Ceanothus in that desert-y area! My guess at 55 mph was C. leucodermis.

At the higher elevations along SR2, I sampled the willows along the way to see if I could find a Scouler's willow in the SGM, verified for sure from the flowers. Jane Strong had found some good candidates last fall, but they were in the inaccessible area behind the closure gates on SR2.

I stopped first at Big Pines Nature Center, where I had nabbed leaves last fall for the comparison to the leaves on the Devils Slide Trail. I really wanted to get the id of these willows from the flowers, since the leaves were dead ringers for what turned out to be Scouler's on the Devils Slide Trail.

As I had originally expected both for the plants here and the lowest set of plants on the Devils Slide Trail, the willows here turned out to be arroyo, S. lasiolepis, even though the plants on the Devils Slide Trail turned out to be S. scouleriana. (For a discussion of what this means for the Jepson Manual leaf key, see the Devils Slide Trail discussion.) The id here was simple, since I found pistillate plants, so all I had to do was look to see if the ovary was hairy or not.

My next stop was a drainage about a half mile west of Grassy Hollow Visitor Center. This drainage is the highest elevation on this stretch of SR2. Bingo! The ovary was hairy, and the willow was Scouler's! I can't believe that in a year of looking for Scouler's, I passed by this willow many times and never looked at it.

I sampled one more drainage just below this one, which had arroyo willow.

So even before my botanizing on the trail began, my day was already made. (;-)

As I got near Vincent Gap on SR2, I was shocked to see a few plants of Lupinus excubitus austromontana beginning their bloom. This turned out to be a portent for the blooms on the trail.

Near the trailhead, the Phacelia curvipes were in full bloom, a month ahead of their bloom in previous years. A few other species were in bloom in the first half mile; then the surprises began.

First, I came across what I was sure had to be a field of showy linanthus. When I saw that it was miner's lettuce, I had a hard time believing my eyes. I'd never seen miner's lettuce looking so showy!

Then, beginning at around mile 2, there were tons of Linanthus in full bloom. L. breviculus appeared in many places, but the showy white blooms of L. concinnus at about mile 3.9 were the star of the Linanthus show.

The showiest display on the trail was in Dorr Canyon. The Purshia tridentata was gorgeous! There were almost one hundred plants, most of them about five feet tall in full bloom, producing masses of yellow flowers.

I was hoping that the shrubs at mile 2.50 would be in bloom, since I previously had been unable to identify them from the leaves alone. When I first saw them, I was disappointed, since all I saw were very short new shoots with leaves. But then I saw other branches with sessile tiny flowers. The keying of this plant using the Jepson Manual and Munz was very difficult from just the male flowers, but Jane Strong used her magic and found the id, Forestiera pubescens, desert olive, using McMinn's key.

Even the weather cooperated. Despite the record heat at the coast and coastal valleys today, the temperature here was perfect. I hiked in a T-shirt the entire day, and never sweated or need a sweatshirt. The temperature was probably in the low 70s on the way down, and 60s on the way up.

Although gnats were present the entire time, they were just annoying, and didn't bite. They didn't really detract from a very pleasant botanizing day.

Plants in bloom: Manzanita Trail (To be supplied later)

FamilyLatin NameCommon Name% of Full BloomBeginning
/ Ending

b = beginning
e = ending
1 = full bloom

14 August 2004: Baldy Notch to Mt. Baldy (see plant guide)

Ka-boom! Oh, no, here we go again! (:-(

You wouldn't think anyone would be dumb enough to hike in a lightning storm twice in four days, would you? But here I am again, counting the number of seconds between seeing the lightning flash and hearing the thunder. Here's the story behind that sad fact.

On Wednesday, my hiking buddy Craig Cheetham and I had planned to do this trail on Saturday. This was the day after my experience with a thunderstorm in the Mount San Gorgonio area.

The monsoons were supposed to be gone by Friday, making Saturday look pretty safe for hiking to the highest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains. By Friday, the forecast was for a slight chance of rainfall, and it looked like any rainfall would be to the east and north of Baldy.

So here I was, driving up I-15 toward Baldy, seeing a monstrous cumulus cloud that looked like it was exactly over Mt. Baldy. However, I felt pretty confident that any thunderstorms would be to the east and north, since I had seen that pattern on Tuesday at Fish Creek, and every radar map since then.

Hence I wasn't too worried, even when a few drops fell on us in the parking lot of the ski lift. The trail was wet except immediately under trees, so apparently it had rained a bit earlier.

The first half of the ascent was uneventful weather-wise, and I was feeling pretty good that things were working out. Yes, there were cumulus clouds, but apparently the monsoon was not strong enough to produce much rain, and surely the clouds would be going away as forecasted.

Then came the first distant thunder. A dark cloud was over the Wrightwood area and points east, just where I thought any activity would be. (I later learned that Victorville and surrounding areas got over an inch of rain from this storm, causing flash floods, and that a tornado touched down in Phelan, ten miles away.) I timed most lightning strikes as being three miles away, a very safe distance. We got a few sprinkles here and there; nothing to complain about.

As we neared Mt. Baldy, the sky overhead was looking pretty good, like the sun might break through any minute and allow us some decent views. Yeah, there was this report from a group coming down that they felt their hairs stand up and scattered quickly to avoid the lightning, and reports from others that there was lightning at the peak. But hey, it looked like the sun was about to break through!

Then, just as we were minutes from the top, a lightning bolt was within 1000 feet of us! The huge clap of thunder came before I could even count one second. I had no idea where the lightning bolt was. Another hiker who was just south of the peak reported that he heard the sizzle from the lightning bolt, and it sounded like he was closer to it. But he didn't see where it hit, either.

Like foolish hikers everywhere, especially those only a few minutes from the peak, we hit the peak, and then hot-tailed it down to some trees on the south slope of Mt. Harwood. We had intended to sit on some rocks in the open, while being surrounded by much higher trees that would presumably draw the attention of the lightning.

But then it started to rain lightly, so like foolish humans everywhere, we took shelter under a tree, and ate our lunch there while it rained lightly around us. After all, the odds that lightning would choose our particular tree, on a slope, were small, even if they were currently much larger than the odds of a mountain lion attack at that point. (;-)

The rest of the hike was uneventful, weather-wise.

My botanizing on this trail was severely limited, since we learned that the ski lift closed at 5 pm. We just barely had enough time to hike to the peak and back, given our start just before noon. We couldn't even plan to take the fire road down, since they closed the parking lot at 6:30 p.m. But I did as much "drive-by" botanizing as I could do on a relatively-fast-paced hike.

I was amazed at the relatively small number of species on this trail, and even more amazed at the vast expanses of rock rubble that was devoid of plant life. It didn't surprise me that the steep slopes had no plants on them; heck, I was surprised they could retain the small rocks that were on them. But one flattish area, the saddle between Mt. Harwood and Mt. Baldy that looked like a shallow bowl, was also devoid of plant life, and I'm not sure why.

The trail had its share of beauty. This is probably the favored spot for rock buckwheat, Eriogonum saxatile. It was very abundant, and the plants were larger and more floriferous than I'd seen anyplace else. It was accompanied by very showy plants of Wright's buckwheat, Eriogonum wrightii var. subscaposum, also abundant and in full bloom. Interestingly, the other species putting on a good show was one I don't usually associate with the previous two species: California fuchsia, Epilobium canum. Large patches were covered in its beautiful red flower. The only other show was from prickly poppy, Argemone munita, in full bloom in the single area of the trail on which it was found.

But the plants were the side-show here. At center stage were the rocks. The north face of Mt. Harwood loomed as a somber gray fortress of massive rocks as we approached from the east. In contrast, on the way back, its western slopes were smoothly contoured with small rocks, with various shades of brown and gray, looking more like sand dunes than rocks.

I had done my homework before this trip, and compiled a list of all the species observed in the area from vouchers. I saw no species new to me, and was able to compile a plant list for the trail from memory afterward.

Since my hike finished well before sunset, I had time to botanize along Mt. Baldy Road. My primary object was to measure some of the giant needlegrass, Achnatherum coronatum, to collect data to use to see if A. parishii really is a separate taxon or not.

I will try not to make it three thunderstorms in a row for my next hike!

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Copyright © 2004 by Tom Chester.
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Updated 15 August 2004.