Muir Woods National Monument

This is the best tree-lovers monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world. – John Muir

Coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) is the tallest type of tree in the world, with maximum recorded heights approaching 380 feet. This majestic conifer grows only along the Pacific Coast in a narrow strip from Monterey to Oregon. Most of the estimated 2 million acres of original redwood forest are now gone — victims of the saw! One of the small groves that managed to escape this fate due to its relative inaccessibility grows along Redwood Creek and adjacent slopes in what is now Muir Woods National Monument. At heights approaching 260 feet, the redwoods growing here are not the tallest to be found; however, their proximity to San Francisco (just 15 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge) makes them the most heavily viewed examples of this ancient tree. Lynne and I visited Muir Woods a few times in the 90’s after moving to Sacramento — today (3/20) was our first visit since then, and the first ever for Mollie and Madison. In addition to getting to see these marvelous trees once again, we were also treated to a spectacular display of spring wildflowers.

We began our hike on the main paved trail. This is where most visitors confine themselves during a visit to this place, so the picture here documents a rare sight — no people! I apologize for its lack of focus, a consequence of the limitations of my little point-and-shoot camera in the limited amount of light that makes it through these towering trees during late afternoon.

Standing beneath one of these trees and looking up is a lesson in insignificance — the feeling one gets looking straight up the trunk of one of these giants cannot be adequately captured on film (er… microchip).

We quickly tired of the crowds and decided to hike up the Ocean View Trail, which climbs quite steeply up the east side of the valley. This marvelous trail was nearly devoid of people, and we found ourselves winding through thick, dark, cool forest with numerous side ravines. The lower elevations of the trail were dominated by redwood trees and a spectacular array of spring wildflowers. Among the most common was California toothwort (Cardamine  californica [=Dentaria californica]), a member of the mustard family (Brassicaceae). I noticed that the leaves at the base of the plant were broad and oval, while those arising from the flower stalk were slender and lanceolate, often divided into 3 leaflets.

Wake robins (genus Trillium), belonging to the lily family (Liliaceae, sometimes separated into the lily-of-the-valley family, Convallariaceae), are among my favorite wildflowers. We soon noticed Western wake robin (Trillium ovatum) growing commonly in shaded areas along the trail. We were also seeing some purple-flowered wake robins — at first I thought they were a different species, but it soon became apparent that these were older Western wake robin flowers, which change color from white to purple as they age.

A little further up the trail we began encountering small patches of Mountain iris (Iris douglasiana, family Iridaceae). Flower color for this native species ranges from cream-white to lavender, but all of the flowers we saw were of the white variety.

We saw this fat Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum ssp. amplexicaule [=Smilacina racemosa var. amplexicaulis]) growing in one of the cool, moist, side ravines. This is another member of the Liliaceae (sometimes separated into the Convallariaceae). The large, oval leaves clasping around the distinct, unbranched stem were almost as attractive as the flowers, which apparently give rise to bright scarlet berries in the summer.

In the middle elevations the redwood forest transitioned to drier oak woodland containing a mixture of Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii), bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), and tan oak (Lithocarpus densiflorus). Some of the Douglas-firs were enormous.

Indian warrior (Pedicularis densiflora) is a member of the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae, sometimes separated into the Orobanchaceae). This plant, with its striking bright red flowers and finely divided, fern-like leaves, is a facultative parasite on the roots of other plants. Apparently, the genus name refers to an old superstition that sheep could become infested with lice if they ate this plant.

The juncture of the Ocean View Trail with the Lost Trail was closed, so we backtracked down the 1+ miles back to the main paved trail. By now it was fairly late in the afternoon, and the crowds had thinned considerably. Having gotten lots of good views of the giant trees, we began turning our attention downwards to the smaller understory flora. Ferns, of course, are a dominant component of this understory, especially along Redwood Creek. This large specimen may represent Western sword fern (Polystichum munitum) (family Dryopteridaceae), which can apparently be distinguished by small hilt-like projections from the base of the pinnae (leaflets), but I couldn’t get close enough to see for sure.

Abundant on the ground in the valley was redwood sorrell (Oxalis oregana), a member of the family Oxalidaceae. In places this plant covered the ground in thick carpets.

Among the more interesting plants we saw in the valley was California fetid adder’s tongue (Scoliopus bigelovii), yet another member of the Liliaceae or Convallariaceae. I wasn’t sure what this plant was at first, despite its highly distinctive, glossy, mottled foliage. We were too late to see the blooms, which apparently have a fetid odor to attract flies for pollination, but did find the maturing pods on their slender, drooping stems.

Close to the creek’s edge we saw this colony of horsetails (Equisetum sp.), primitive plants in the family Equisetaceae. Members of this group belong to one of the most ancient lineages of vascular plants, dating back to the Devonian period (416-359 million years ago). Their Paleozoic ancestors (Calamitaceae and Archaeocalamitaceae) were giants, reaching heights of 50 ft or more, and were major components of the Carboniferous swamplands. Along with lycopod trees (Lepidodendrales), they were important contributors to coal formation and, like the lycopods, became extinct by the mid-Permian (~270 million years ago). The genus Equisetum represents the only surviving descendants of this lineage. Unlike their extinct progenitors, these small, herbaceous plants rarely exceed 4 ft in height; however, they share many of the same characters such as articulate stems with microphylls arranged in whorls. Recent phylogenetic studies, using both molecular and morphological characters, suggest that horsetails, together with ferns, form a clade representing one of the three major lineages of vascular plants (Pryer et al. 2001).

Nearby we saw a patch of Giant wake robin (Trillium chloropetalum) in flower. These were taller than the California wake robins we saw on the slopes of the Ocean View Trail but similarly characterized by a whorl of 3 leaves and flowers composed of 3 erect petals. Mature flowers darken to a deep red purple, so it seems these plants had just begun flowering. Muir Woods appears to be a good place for observing a diversity of Convallariaceae!

Also along Redwood Creek we found this bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) in full bloom. As its specific epithet suggests, this maple has the largest leaves of any member of the genus — in this example the newly-expanded leaves were distinctly purplish. The picture below shows the greenish-yellow flowers (petals inconspicuous) produced on long, pendulous racemes.

Interpretive signs along the paved main trail pointed out a redwood “family group,” formed by sprouts growing from the base of a larger tree. Eventually, the central “mother” tree died and decayed away, leaving a ring of offspring that mature into an enormous, characteristic circle of trees. This apparently also happens with other types of trees, though on a smaller scale, as demonstrated in this picture of an oak (Quercus sp.) family group.

As the day drew to a close we found ourselves back in the parking lot, where this California icon, a clump of Coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), was spreading its wide, majestic crown from multiple, twisted trunks and gnarled branches.

Much too soon, it was time to leave this beautiful valley, but before heading back to Sacramento we stopped to take one last look down towards the valley and out to the Pacific Ocean from the Panoramic Highway.

Lake Tahoe, California

…at last the Lake burst upon us — a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft full three thousand feet higher still! It was a vast oval, and one would have to use up eighty or a hundred good miles in traveling around it. As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords. – Mark Twain, Roughing It (1872)

Mark Twain may not have liked the name “Lake Tahoe” – preferring its then-official, patronimic designation as “Lake Bigler.” However, he was clearly overwhelmed by its beauty, and surely no person who has ever seen this place can find fault with the words he so eloquently penned almost a century and a half ago. The view above of Emerald Bay, on the south side of the lake, may not be where Twain first viewed Lake Tahoe, but for me it is the most iconic place from which to view it. I first fell in love with Lake Tahoe almost 18 years ago, when my then fiancée and I first moved to Sacramento. We married up there, and for the 5 years we lived in California we spent many a weekend enjoying Tahoe’s 4-season charm. It has been 12 years since we moved back to St. Louis, and I hadn’t been back — until this past weekend. The reasons for the delay are many, but returning to this place reminded me why I consider it the most beautiful place in the world. I shall not let so long a time pass before my next visit.

Lake Tahoe is a relatively young lake, forming within the last several million years (in contrast, the block of granite that was to become the Sierra Nevada mountains – and in which Lake Tahoe lies – began forming during the Paleozoic Era and was then exposed by erosion beginning about 130 million years ago). The basin in which the lake lies was formed by fault-induced block slippage between two uplifted blocks, with the lake itself forming after magma upwellings dammed the northern part of the basin. Glacial action in more recent years (2 million to 20,000 years ago) caused additional damming, causing drastic fluctuations in the lake level — maximum levels reached nearly 800 feet higher than present. The most recent glaciations (~10,000 years ago) carved out Donner Lake (just east of Lake Tahoe), Emerald Bay (above), and nearby Fallen Leaf Lake (below — the frozen lake surface can just be seen above the trees in the foreground).

Emerald Bay is actually part of a glacial “staircase” featuring intermittent flat stretches containing lakes and meadows before ultimately ending at Emerald Bay. Eagle Lake lies immediately above Emerald Bay on one of these “steps,” and the 1-mile trail to it is one of the most popular hikes in the area — below is a view towards Eagle Lake from Emerald Bay:

On the day we arrived (Sat 3/15), a late winter storm was dumping new snow on the surrounding mountains, as seen in this view across the south end of the lake towards the city of South Lake Tahoe. Heavenly Ski Resort was shrouded from view on this day, but the fresh powder being dumped there would provide for some delightful spring skiing over the next few days.

In the meantime, there would be plenty of activities to keep ourselves occupied. With the amount of snow on the ground, one might think there would be little opportunity for botanizing. However, I favor the woody flora, and I was excited about the chance to begin reacquainting myself with some of the western conifers for a change. Of these, one of my favorites is incense-cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) — mature trees develop thick, deeply furrowed, brick red bark that stands out in beautiful contrast from the other trees. Even dead trees maintain a rustic and majestic beauty, and this large dead snag is as stately as any I’ve seen:

On Monday we rented snowshoes and hiked the cross-country ski trails at Camp Richardson. None of us had ever snowshoed before, but the girls quickly got the hang of it (note the live incense-cedar in the background):

We encountered a few cross-country skiers during our hike, but for the most part we spent the day in solitude. Shortly after beginning our hike, however, we came upon this impression in the snow. At first we thought someone had attempted to make a “snow angel,” but after studying it more carefully we realized it was made by a cross-country skier who had fallen and then struggled to get back up:

At this altitude, conifers dominate the flora. I was a little rusty on my knowledge of western U.S. plants, but I think I have things figured out (please let me know if you see any needed corrections to my identifications). The aforementioned incense-cedar was a conspicuous component of this lake-level forest, and its foliage – arranged in flattened, elongated, rumpled sprays – makes this tree easily identifiable amongst the other coniferous genera with which it grows:

Huge pine trees also dominanted the forest in this area. At first I thought they were ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa) due to their large size, irregular crown, and large plate-like patterns on the trunk caused by deep cross-checked fissuring of the bark. Eventually, however, I decided they must instead be Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi), a closely related species (that was once considered a variety of ponderosa pine), since the bark was more orange than yellow.

A closeup of the needles, which are in bundles of three and measure around 6-8 inches in length:

Another dominant coniferous component of this forest, also reaching massive size, was white fir (Abies concolor). The first photo below shows a large, mature tree in the distance, while the second shows a closeup of the foliage. At first I thought this might be Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), as the needles appeared to be irregularly 2-ranked; however, I asked Prof. Ronald Lanner to take a look, and he confirmed it is white fir. He said Douglas-fir needles are shorter, thinner, darker green, and have a skinny stalk, while fir needles have a fat round base and are wider and flatter. The latter also have a citrusy smell when crushed, which he describes as one of the best smells in the woods! Too bad I did not try it.

This decaying stump also represents white fir based on the scaly gray bark. I suspect the outer layers of the lower portion of the trunk (core still standing) were ripped off over time by animals looking for grubs and insects as decay progressed, eventually weakening it to the point that the upper portion (laying on the ground) finally broke off and fell:

As we hiked, I realized what an important part fire plays in the ecology of these forests. During the drive up from Sacramento, we passed several areas along Hwy 50 that had suffered severe damage due to the wildfires that swept through Lake Tahoe recently. One such area was even seen in the far eastern slopes of Heavenly Ski Resort itself. The forests around Camp Richardson had largely escaped these fires, and I wondered if fire management had contributed to this. Along the trail, evidence of fire was common on the trunks of trees, but few trees – even small ones – had been killed. I presumed the charring was evidence of fires that had been intentionally set and managed by the Forest Service with the objective of preventing fuel accumulation that could lead to the larger conflagrations that caused so much damage in other parts of the basin. These small incense-cedars trunks show obvious fire charring but otherwise looked healthy:

In a few areas it appears even these “cool” fires burned a little hot, killing some of the smaller trees but still avoiding the “torched-earth” damage seen in areas affected by uncontrolled burns:

I’m not much of a birder, but I do love woodpeckers. I got a glimpse of one during our hike, but I didn’t see it well enough to identify it. We did find this woodpecker hole in the trunk of a large, dead Jeffrey pine — a feather can even be seen clinging to the upper rim of the hole. The Lake Tahoe basin is home to several species of woodpeckers — whether this hole belongs to the black-backed woodpecker (Picoides arcticus), white-headed woodpecker (P. albolarvatus), or (more likely) hairy woodpecker (P. villosus) I can’t say for sure:

At the beginning of our hike, signs warning of bears and pleading not to feed them caught the girls attention. I told them it was winter and that they would be hibernating, but I wondered if at this late stage they might actually be starting to become active. It wasn’t long before we encountered these unmistakably bear tracks, made fresh in the new-fallen snow, and the more we looked the more abundant the tracks were to be found. I secretly (and the girls outwardly!) hoped we would see a live bear, but I don’t think the girls would have handled such an encounter very calmly:

I had intended to photograph some of the conifers seen at higher elevations while skiing at Heavenly Ski Resort, but I decided not to bring my camera. Pity, as I not only saw nearly pure stands of what I presume to be red fir (Abies magnifica), but also beautifully twisted and wind-gnarled pines at the highest elevations (+10,000 ft) that probably represent whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis), judging by their highly forked trunks and upswept limbs. These magically grotesque trees were made even more beautiful by the previous day’s storms, which had deposited thick cakes of ice on their windward sides.

We coudn’t leave Lake Tahoe without one final visit to Emerald Bay. Below is a close up photograph of Fannette Island, the only island to be found in all of Lake Tahoe, and its famed “Tea House”:

We concluded our visit to Lake Tahoe by driving up Hwy 89 to Tahoe City for dinner at the Bridgetender Cafe before heading back to Sacramento. Next up — Muir Woods!

Ozark Trail – lower Courtois Section

The Courtois Section is the northern terminus of the Ozark Trail (OT). Despite its proximity to the St. Louis metro area, it feels just as remote and wild as the more southern sections. Rich and I played hooky from work on Friday and made our first visit to this stretch of the Ozark Trail. At 40 miles in length, we’ll need to break it up into at least three parts, so for our first attempt we hiked the lower portion from Hazel Creek (where the Trace Creek section begins) north to the Hwy 8 trailhead. Apparently this portion of the OT is very popular with mountain bikers and equestrians; however, we didn’t encounter a single person all day.

I expected the terrain to be rather mild at this northern end of the OT, but the first few miles were quite up and down. There was still some snow on the ground from a big storm a few days earlier – mild temps and sunny skies since then had caused a lot of melt. As a result, south facing slopes were completely devoid of snow cover, while north facing slopes still had and inch or two of snow, creating “split” scenes such as this:

Right away we noticed a lot of fresh woodpecker damage on oak trees. This is likely the result of infestations by the red oak borer (Enaphalodes rufulus), a cerambycid beetle that preferentially attacks red and black oaks suffering from drought or other environmentally-induced stress. The larvae of these beetles mine beneath the bark on the trunks of these trees before tunneling into the sapwood to pass the winter. Overwintering larvae are tasty morsels for woodpeckers, who hammer into the trunks with their beaks and extract the larvae with their barbed tongues. Interestingly, conventional wisdom has it that the tongue “stabs” the larva, and the barbs aid in pulling the larva out of its gallery. However, recent experiments with a West Indian species suggest this is not the case. Rather, the larva “sticks” to saliva on the tongue, and the barbs help to grab the larva as the tongue is wrapped around it. This picture shows a small black oak (Quercus velutinus) tree with fresh damage, probably from a pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) judging by the size, going after one of these larvae.

A few miles into the trail, we came upon some curious “pits” covering one hillside. We speculated what they might be – sinks was an early thought, but I didn’t think that was so because the ground was mounded around the edge like they had been intentionally dug. Rich then remembered reading something about miners digging such pits in past years looking for minerals – we decided that must be what they were, and this was later confirmed in our Ozark Trail guidebook. Certain hillsides were literally covered with these pits, spaced ~10-15 feet apart.

After passing through Snapps Branch (where we noticed a small calcareous wet meadow, or fen – thankfully fenced), the trail leveled out for awhile before descending down to Boiling Springs Hollow where we stopped for lunch. Many of the larger valleys along the OT show some evidence of prior habitation – either by remains of old structures or by the stage of succession exhibited by the bottomland forest. Right at Boiling Springs, I noticed this large, old oak tree along with several large sugar maples (Acer saccharum) surrounded by younger forest – I suspect these “founder trees” were planted at some point when people lived near the spring (or at least spared from “the saw”) and remain as the only evidence of the people who lived here in the past.

I love bones and pick them up whenever I get the chance. After leaving Boiling Springs I noticed this half mandible of a white tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) laying on the trail, still partially embedded in the snow. It was remarkably clean and complete, containing all of its dentition and with no remaining tissue except for a small piece attached to the nerve fossa. It’s completeness begged the question – where was the other half? We looked around and couldn’t find it. We then wondered if it had been dragged there by a scavenger, although we thought that if that was the case it should show signs of gnawing or at least have lost some of its dentition. At any rate, I have a white tailed deer cranium in my collection but not a mandible, so this will be a welcome addition.

Eventually we entered Machell Hollow, where we followed a beautiful stretch through the upper reaches of the valley. In this area we noticed a large number of dead white oaks (Quercus alba) that were all about the same size (~4-8″ dbh) and in about the same stage of decay, as if they had all died about the same time (maybe 4-5 years ago). There were still plenty of larger living trees, and I began to suspect that a fire had moved through this area and began looking for the evidence. Soon we found several larger trees showing some blackening around the base of the trunk that seemed to confirm this thought. We had a lot of fun “pushing over” some of these trees, with one in particular probably representing our champion pushover to this point. I didn’t think it was gonna go, but Rich chipped in, and against our formidable combined weight the tree gave way and came down with a crash. I noticed evidence of tunneling by wood boring beetles (probably a species of Buprestidae) inside the trunk of this tree where it cracked upon falling and lamented that I could not take a piece with me for rearing. All of the dead white oaks had this one type of shelf fungus growing from their trunks, which were particularly numerous on this already fallen tree:

Climbing up (briefly) out of Machell Hollow, we saw this cut shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) laying by the side of the trail. Interestingly, the accumulated ice on the cut end of the trunk was not the result of water running off the trunk, but through the trunk, apparently through insect galleries and perhaps even the vascular bundles of the wood itself. The slow melt and freeze resulted in these interesting little ice columns joining the trunk to the moss-covered ground below.

Back down into the lower reaches of Machell Hollow, evidence of prior settlement was obvious, as the bottomland forest in this area was replaced by young successional forest comprised primarily of chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), and brambles (Rubus sp.). We saw this lone little fruticose lichen growing on a small honey locust. Apparently, of the three main groups of lichens, fruticose lichens are the most sensitive to environmental disturbance. Perhaps the existence of this one colony suggests that the health of this bottomland forest is returning as succession proceeds along the path to maturity.

Here’s a picture of Rich taking his own picture of the lichen. I don’t know why he didn’t just wait and steal mine once it got posted 😉

Much more abundant on the honey locust trees were these foliose lichens. Lichens in this group are probably the most commonly noticed lichens in the Missouri Ozarks (although the less conspicuous crustose lichens may actually be more diverse). If you click on the photo to see the full-sized version, you can see long, black “hairs” around the margin of each “leaf” – if anyone knows the identity of this or any of the other lichens pictured on this site please let me know.

While ascending out of Machell Hollow, we noticed this small canyon about a hundred yards off to the left and decided to go investigate. Along the way we noticed the small creek coming from it was actually a ‘losing creek’ – which means that the water flows into the ground at certain points and is ‘lost.’ This is another feature of the limestone/dolomite-based Karst geology so common here in southern Missouri that results in its abundance of caves and springs. When we got to the canyon we saw it was comprised of a layer of sandstone. This must be a rare western exposure of the LaMotte sandstones that are more common just to the east in Ste. Genevieve County (see earlier posts on Hawn State Park and Pickle Springs Natural Area). This sandstone layer overlying dolomite has created an interesting geological feature, where a losing creek originates from a box canyon. Ice stalactites were dripping from the north facing slope of the canyon walls.

Back down into another hollow leading to Lost Creek we saw more dead white oaks with shelf fungi growing from the trunks. This one was interesting in that the shelf fungi were themselves supporting the growth of algae on their surface – an exquisite example of the interconnectedness of life.

We had seen a flock of wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) moving through the forest earlier in our hike. We were too clumsily noisy to get close enough for more than a cursory look at them as they trotted off on high alert, but evidence of their activity was obvious as we saw their fresh “scratchings” over a wide swath through the forest as they searched for acorns to eat. Tracks were abundant in the snow around the area also, but I couldn’t get a good picture of them. Later, as we neared Lost Creek, I saw more tracks in the mud, so I was able to get a good picture of one. It looked fairly fresh (well defined, with nail holes evident):

Lost Creek represented the end of our hike, but it proved to be a more than insigificant final hurdle, as the water level was quite high due to all the recent snow melt. There was no choice, we would have to get wet. Rich is smarter than I and had thought to bring along some flip flops, so he took off his boots and socks, rolled up his pants, and forded the creek. I let him go first to see how deep the water was – it reached above his knees and got is rolled up pants wet. I decided to get my boots wet – I didn’t want to walk on those rocks barefoot, which would slow me down far more than I wanted in that cold water. I could handle wet boots for the final quarter mile in exchange for the comfort and speed they would provide on the rocks. Rich may be smarter, but I took a better line and didn’t even get my pants wet, so for me it was only a matter of changing into my comfy shoes back at the car, with no need for a change of clothes (which I also wasn’t smart enough to bring, either). We completed the hike in 7 hours – yes, we’re lollygaggers, constantly distracted by little things that most people either don’t see or don’t care about. It was a wonderful hike on another beautiful day, and we ended it with another traditional post-hike visit to the nearest pizza parlor before the short drive back to St. Louis.