Pyramid Creek Geological Area

On the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, Hwy 50 follows the American River Valley on its way up to Echo Summit before dropping precipitously into Lake Tahoe Basin. A few miles from the summit and 13 miles east of the quaint mountain town of Strawberry lies a spectacular gorge – born of glaciers and boasting one of California’s top ten waterfalls. During the warmer months, the small Forest Service parking lot that provides access to the gorge is constantly choked with cars, and throngs of people can be seen milling about. I have passed this place many times during the five years I lived in Sacramento, and though the crowds suggest that the area truly is spectacular, the idea of sharing a visit with so many strangers and their dogs was always out of the question. Yesterday, as daughter Madison and I drove down Hwy 50 to that very spot, I wondered what crowds we might encounter, hopeful that during this winter “off-season” we might luck out and enjoy at least some fragments of the kind of solitude that befits such a magnificent example of California wilderness.

At 6,200 feet elevation, there was still plenty of snow on the ground, and unbeknown to me this USDA Recreation Site is officially closed during the winter months. The parking lot gates were locked, and there was not a car nor a person to be seen anywhere in the vicinity. That did not deter us – despite the many “No Parking” signs along each side of the highway – necessary during the summer months to prevent the throngs from creating chaos – we found a small turnoff in which we were able to tuck away the car and begin our little adventure to see Pyramid Creek Geological Area and its main attractions – Horsetail Falls and Cascade Vista. The gorge – named for the creek that originates at the base of the falls – was formed during the same late Pleistocene glaciations that formed Emerald Bay in Lake Tahoe. Vertical cliffs of granite tower above the U-shaped gorge, whose smooth granite domes remain littered with glacial scree (boulders and smaller rocks of assorted sizes). We lost the trail almost immediately due to snow, but since we knew we could not get lost (with a mountain on each side of us) we decided to bushwhack as far as we could. It was rough going, and with a hiking partner only 4′ in height the deep snow was a formidable obstacle. Still, we soldiered on, zigzagging from this granite exposure to that, testing (and often sinking) into the snow-covered plains between them, and splashing along the many meltwater streams that were gushing on this warm, early-spring day, until finally we could go no further. We were still a quarter mile from the falls (only a 1.25-miles hike from the trailhead if one uses the established trail), yet still the view was mesmerizing! As a father, I should probably be glad we did not make it all the way to the falls, as a number of people have been killed over the years when they got too close to the edge of the constantly wet rocks. On the way back, we spotted some granite exposures that we hadn’t seen earlier that suggested we might be able to get all the way up next to the Cascade Vista, and in this we were successful. We scrambled over the rocks and snow, ever careful but proud for giving the effort, before retracing our tracks back to a clear shot out of the gorge.

Words cannot express the overwhelming beauty of the landscape we explored, the joy in doing so without ever encountering another human being and the expansive feeling of solitude that that allows, and the exhausted satisfaction that results from hiking over rough, snowy terrain for more than 5 hours. Daughter Madison did great, and I almost had to rip her from the area she was having so much fun. She asked question after question as I showed her cracks in the rocks and explained the carving actions of water over the millennia, how water can create such a landscape. “Water always wins,” I told her. My botanizing trip to Emerald Bay two days before had also prepared me well for this trip, as I was able to recognize every single woody plant I encountered in the gorge (the mosses and ferns will have to wait for another day).

Of the many photographs I took during the day, I share with you here some of my favorites:

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Jeffrey pine and white fir soften the stark, towering granite walls

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Evidence of glacial carvings can be seen in the American River valley below.

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A small waterfall flanked by Jeffrey pine and Sierra juniper previews what is still to come.

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Another view south into the American River valley from a little higher up.

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Horsetail Falls is gushing from the snowmelt.

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A distant view of Horsetail Falls.

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Looking down on the Cascade Vista and the American River valley.

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A distant view of Horsetail Falls from the Cascade Vista.

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Pyramid Creek sheets in a continuous cascade over the granite bedrock.

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Deep snow was a continuous obstacle for myself, and for 4'-tall Madison.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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The 12 Years of Christmas

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Merry Christmas - from our backyard to yours!

They came from completely different backgrounds.  She had grown up in a middle class family, her father an educated professional, her mother a professional homemaker – “Ward and June”, as their now-grown children jokingly call them.  He grew up on welfare, the family breaking up while he was still in elementary school.  She was a popular student – cheerleader, debate team, gymnastics.  He was the introverted science nerd, invisible to the popular, living quietly with his books.  Religion was an important part of her life, growing up Catholic and remaining devoted to the church.  He grew up Catholic but knew even as a child that religion would not provide the answers he was looking for, eventually finding a private spirituality in the creation itself.

Despite these separate paths they found each other and fell in love, and despite their different lives they both wanted the same thing – a family.  Such a simple desire, however, would prove to be difficult to achieve.  When fertility drugs didn’t work, they turned to adoption.  The first match failed.  So did the second.  They understood completely how the birth mothers could change their minds, but that didn’t ease their pain or calm their fears.  Ultimately, they looked to Russia, a new democracy with old attitudes about orphans.  In the fall of their 6th year of marriage, they learned that little Anastasia was waiting for them.  They traveled to Russia before Christmas and became a family after New Years.  In between, they visited little Anastasia every day – one hour at a time – and experienced the joy of being a parent, a feeling they had feared would ever elude them.  On Christmas Day, they could not see little Anastasia, but in a small, gray apartment on the outskirts of Moscow, they celebrated her coming with their gracious host family.  Ten days later, their family was born, and twelve months later they celebrated their first Christmas together at home.

Christmas meant little to me for much of my life.  Yes, it was a time to relax and enjoy the company of family and friends, and the presents were nice.  But my own approach to spirituality has little in common with traditional reflections of the season.  Tonight, as I watched 12-year old Mollie Anastasia laughing with her cousins, hugging her nanny and papa, and teasing her uncle and his partner, I thought back to those cold, snowy days in Russia when my heart became warm for the first time.  I recalled our second trip to Russia six years later, when she and little Madison Irina each met their sister for the first time.  On this Christmas Day, as I have done for 12 years now, I thought about how lucky we are to have these two beautiful little girls that are unquestionably our own.  Christmas means a lot to me now, and that is a gift that not even five golden rings could beat.

“My favorite bettle”

Today’s essay is by guest blogger (and perhaps future entomologist), Madison MacRae. Currently a 3rd grade student at Pond Elementary School, Madison’s interests include ice skating, tetherball, basketball, piano, dancing, singing, and hiking/bug collecting with her dad. Next year they will be something else. Madison would like to be a grade school teacher when she grows up. She would also like to be a nurse… and a fire fighter… and a football player. This is Madison’s second guest contribution to Beetles In The Bush, the first appearing on February 6, 2008 where she discussed the job responsibilities of a professional entomologist. For today’s contribution, Madison will be discussing one of the insects she saw on a visit to Missouri’s sand prairies back in early September [Ed. note: the insect in question appears to be an intergrade population of Cicindela scutellaris, characterized by their green coloration (unicolor influence) with variable maculation (lecontei influence)]. The original article was submitted as school work (with no prompting or prior knowledge by her dad!) and is reprinted here by the kind permission of its author.

MacRae, M. I.  2008.  My favorite bettle.  Privately published, 1 p., 1 color pl.

A sand prairie autumn

Splitbeard bluestem seed headsAsk any astronomer when autumn begins, and they will likely tell you it begins at the autumnal equinox – when shortening days and lengthening nights become equal as the sun crosses over the celestial equator. According to them, fall began this year on September 22 – at 11:44:18 A.M. EDT, to be precise. I agree that autumn begins at a precise moment, but it is not at the equinox. Rather, it is that unpredictable moment when a sudden crispness in the air is felt, when the sky somehow seems bluer and shadows seem sharper, and hints of yellow – ever so subtle – start to appear in the landscape. Butterfly pea blossomIn Missouri, with its middle latitudes, this usually happens a few weeks before the equinox, as August is waning into September. It is a moment that goes unnoticed by many, especially those whose lives and livelihoods have lost all connection with the natural world. To plants and animals, however, it is a clear signal – a signal to begin making preparations for the long cold months of winter that lie ahead. Plants that have not yet flowered begin to do so in earnest, while those that have shift energy reserves into developing seeds. Animals take advantage of their final opportunities to feed before enduring the scarcities of winter, digging in to sleep through them, or abandoning altogether and migrating to warmer climes. Insects begin hastily provisioning nests for their broods or laying eggs – tiny capsules of life that survive the harsh winter before hatching in spring and beginning the cycle anew.

Sand prairie in early September.Sand prairie in early October.  Note abundance of splitbeard bluestem seed heads.Across much of Missouri, in the Ozark Highlands and in riparian ribbons dissecting the northern Plains, autumn brings an increasingly intense display of reds, purples, oranges, and yellows, as the leaves of deciduous hardwoods begin breaking down their chlorophyll to unmask underlying anthocyanins and other pigments. Small southern jointweedIn Missouri’s remnant prairies, seas of verdant green morph to muted shades of amber, tawny, and beige. This subtle transformation is even more spectacular in the critically imperiled sand prairies of the Southeast Lowlands, where stands of splitbeard bluestem (Andropogon ternaries – above) turn a rich russet color while fluffy, white seed heads (1st paragraph, 1st photo) appear along the length of each stem, evoking images of shooting fireworks. Small southern jointweed (Polygonella americana – right) finds a home at the northern extent of its distribution in these prairie remnants and in similar habitats in nearby Crowley’s Ridge, blooming in profusion once the cooler nights arrive. Butterfly pea (Clitoria mariana – 1st paragraph, 2nd photo) blooms add a gorgeous splash of soft purple in contrast to the muted colors of the plants around them.

Kent Fothergill, Ted MacRae, and Rich ThomaAfter first becoming acquainted with Missouri’s sand prairies this past summer, I knew a fall trip (or two) would be in order. The extensive deep, dry sand barrens were ideal habitat for sand-loving insects, including certain spring/fall species of tiger beetles that would not be active during the summer months. The cooler nights and crisp air of early fall make insect collecting extraordinarily pleasurable, so it took little effort to convince friends and colleagues Kent and Rich to join me on another excursion to these extraordinary remnant habitats, along with my (then 8 yr-old) daughter Madison (who would likely characterize this as “tallgrass” prairie). Madison MacRae, age 9 (almost)I was, as ever, on the lookout for tiger beetles; however, temperatures were cool, skies were overcast, and the fall season was just beginning, greatly limiting tiger beetle activity during this first fall visit. We did see one Cicindela formosa (big sand tiger beetle), which cooperated fully for a nice series of photographs. We also found single specimens of the annoyingly ubiquitous C. punctulata (punctured tiger beetle) and a curiously out-of-place C. duodecimguttata (12-spotted tiger beetle), which must have flown some distance from the nearest dark, muddy streambank that it surely prefers. Of greatest interest, we found two specimens of C. scutellaris (festive tiger beetle), which in this part of Missouri is represented by a population presenting a curious mix of influences from two different subspecies (more on this in a later post…). Despite the scarcity of tiger beetles, other insects were present in great diversity, some of which I share with you here.

Ululodes macleayanusThis bizarre creature, sitting on the stem of plains snakecotton (Froelichia floridana), is actually a neuropteran insect called an owlfly (family Ascalaphidae). Looking like a cross between a dragonfly and a butterfly due to its overly large eyes and many-veined wings but with long, clubbed antennae, this individual is demonstrating the cryptic resting posture they often assume with the abdomen projecting from the perch and resembling a twig. The divided eyes identify this individual as belonging to the genus Ululodes, and Dr. John D. Oswald (Texas A&M University) has kindly identified the species as U. macleayanus. As is true of many groups of insects, their taxonomy is far from completely understood. Larvae of these basal holometabolans are predaceous, lying on the ground with their large trap-jaws held wide open and often camouflaging themselves with sand and debris while waiting for prey. The slightest contact with the jaws springs them shut, and within a few minutes the prey is paralyzed and can be sucked dry at the larva’s leisure.

Ant lion, possibly in the genus Myrmeleon.Another family of neuropteran insects closely related to owlflies are antlions (family Myrmeleontidae, sometimes misspelled “Myrmeleonidae”). This individual (resting lower down on the very same F. floridana stem) may be in the genus Myrmeleon, but my wanting expertise doesn’t allow a more conclusive identification [edit 4/12/09 – John D. Oswald has identified the species as Myrmeleon immaculatus]. Strictly speaking, the term “antlion” applies to the larval form of the members of this family, all of whom create pits in sandy soils to trap ants and other small insects, thus, it’s occurrence in the sand prairie is not surprising. Larvae lie in wait beneath the sand at the bottom of the pit, flipping sand on the hapless prey to prevent it from escaping until they can impale it with their large, sickle-shaped jaws, inject digestive enzymes that ‘pre-digest’ the prey’s tissues, and suck out the liquifying contents. Finding larvae is not easy – even when pits are located and dug up, the larvae lie motionless and are often covered with a layer of sand that makes them almost impossible to detect. I’ve tried digging up pits several times and have failed as yet to find one. Larvae are also sometimes referred to as “doodlebugs” in reference to the winding, spiralling trails that the larvae leave in the sand while searching for a good trap location – these trails look like someone has doodled in the sand.

Bembix americanaThis digger wasp, Bembix americana (ID confirmed by Matthias Buck), was common on the barren sand exposures, where they dig burrows into the loose sand. Formerly included in the family Sphecidae (containing the better-known “cicada killer”), members of this group are now placed in their own family (Crabronidae). Adult females provision their nest with flies, which they catch and sting to paralyze before dragging it down into the burrow. As is common with the social hymenoptera such as bees and paper wasps, these solitary wasps engage in active parental care by providing greater number of prey as the larva grows. As many as twenty flies might be needed for a single larva. I found the burrows of these wasps at first difficult to distinguish from those created by adults of the tiger beetles I so desired, but eventually learned to distinguish them by their rounder shape and coarser, “pile” rather than “fanned” diggings (see this post for more on this subject).

Stichopogon trifasciatusRobber flies (family Asilidae) are a favorite group of mine (or, at least, as favorite as a non-coleopteran group can be). This small species, Stichopogon trifasciatus (ID confirmed by Herschel Raney), was also common on the barren sandy surface. The specific epithet refers to the three bands of alternating light and dark bands on the abdomen. Many species in this family are broadly distributed but have fairly restrictive ecological requirements, resulting in rather localized occurrences within their distribution. Stichopogon trifasciatus occurs throughout North America and south into the Neotropics wherever barren, sandy or gravely areas near water can be found. Adults are deadly predators, swooping down on spiders, flies and other small insects and “stabbing” them with their stout beak.

Chelinidea vittigerPrickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa) grows abundantly in the sandy soil amongst the clumps of bluestem, and on the pads were these nymphs of Chelinidea vittiger (cactus bug, family Coreidae). This wide-ranging species occurs across the U.S. and southward to northern Mexico wherever prickly pear hosts can be found. This species can either be considered a beneficial or a pest, depending upon perspective. On the one hand, it serves as a minor component in a pest complex that prevents prickly pear from aggressively overtaking rangelands in North America; however, prickly pear is used by ranchers as emergency forage, and fruits and spineless pads are also sometimes harvested for produce. In Missouri, O. humifusa is a non-aggressive component of glades, prairies, and sand and gravel washes, making C. vittiger an interesting member of the states natural diversity.

Ammophila sp., possibly A. proceraThis wasp in the genus Ammophila (perhaps A. procera as suggested by Herschel Raney) was found clinging by its jaws to a bluestem stem in the cool morning, where it presumably spent the night. One of the true sphecid (or “thread-waist”) wasps, A. procera is a widespread and common species in eastern North America. One of the largest members of the genus, its distinctive, bold silver dashes on the thorax distinguish it from most other sympatric congeners. Similar to the habits of most other aculeate wasp groups, this species captures and paralyzes sawfly or lepidopteran caterpillars to serve as food for its developing brood. Females dig burrows and lay eggs on the paralyzed hosts with which the nests have been provisioned. Adults are also found commonly on flowers, presumably to feed on nectar and/or pollen.

Dusty hog-nosed snakeRich is a bit of herpatologist, so when he brought this hog-nosed snake to our attention we all had a good time pestering it to try to get it to turn upside down and play dead. I had never seen a hog-nosed snake before but knew of its habit of rolling over and opening its mouth with its tongue hanging out when disturbed, even flopping right back over when turned rightside up or staying limp when picked up. We succeeded in getting it to emit its foul musky smell, but much to our disappointment it never did play dead, instead using its shovel-shaped snout to dig into the sand. Dusty hog-nosed snake - head closeupWe had assumed this was the common and widespread eastern hog-nosed snake (Heterodon platirhinos); however, in our attempts to turn it over I noticed its black and orange checker patterned belly. I later learned this to be characteristic of the dusky hog-nosed snake (H. nasicus gloydi), only recently discovered in the sand prairies of southeast Missouri and regarded as critically imperiled in the state due to the near complete destruction of such habitats. Disjunct from the main population further west, its continued survival in Missouri depends upon the survival of these small sand prairie remnants in the Southeast Lowlands.

My Dad

My dad had knee replacement surgery a couple days ago. The surgery went off without a hitch, and he’s doing very well. All signs are that he will bounce back quickly and suffer few, if any, complications. I’ve spent much of the past three days here at the hospital – sometimes providing support and encouragement, other times just keeping him company. He should be released tomorrow, and I’ll spend the rest of the week with him at his house – hopefully he’ll be able to get around okay by then.

Some thirty years ago, my dad got an infection that settled in his left hip. By the time doctors found it and figured out what was going on, his left hip socket had degenerated badly, and the only medical option after cleaning up the infection was a year in a full body cast that resulted in fusion of the socket with the femoral head. This left him with a left leg two inches shorter than his right, a bad limp, and a lifetime of pain medications. His right leg became his ‘good leg’ and his left became the ‘bad.’ Decades of walking with a cane and favoring his bad leg put a lot of pressure on his good leg, and at age 73 his right leg had had enough. Now, his good leg is his bad leg, and his bad leg is, well, still his bad leg. This will add a wrinkle to his recovery, since he won’t have a healthy leg to carry the load while his good leg recovers. But I will be there to help, if needed, and in a few weeks his good leg should be good as new.

My dad is not only my dad, but also my best friend. We have a relationship that is based on mutual love and respect, and I don’t know which of us appreciates more what we have with each other. It wasn’t always this way – my dad and I were estranged for 25 years starting when I was 10 years old. My parents married far too young, and each had their own issues – they were but children themselves. Having first me, then my brother and sister, only delayed but could not prevent the inevitable break up that resulted in my fathers absence. I paid a heavy price by not having a father during those crucial, formative years as I finished growing up, but I seem to have turned out okay regardless. It would take many years before I would be ready for something so bold as reconciliation, but maturity and the support of a loving wife eventually made it possible. There were difficult questions to answer, but through it I realized that my father had paid a heavy price as well. Not the selfish irresponsible man I had been taught about, instead I saw a sensitive, deeply introspective man who had lived a life of hard knocks, suffered the consequences, learned from his mistakes and turned his life around.

My dad loves to ride bikes. I do too, but I did not learn the love of cycling from him. My dad is simple yet elegant, with an understated class that people adore. I, too, try to show respect and modesty, but I did not learn these things from my father. We both love classical music (he can live without the metal), listen to NPR, and enjoy humor with more than a touch of irreverance – tastes acquired by each of us before we knew each other. What I have learned from my father during these past 15 years is why I am me – a gift I didn’t know I lacked. I don’t mourn the loss of those 25 years spent without my father, rather I rejoice at the very special relationship that we now have – perhaps possible only because of our separate pasts. My father describes that year in a body cast as the darkest period of his life. I did not know him then, so I could not be there to help him through it. While his recovery from knee replacement will not be near that ordeal, neither will it be easy. But I am here with him, and I know in my heart that whatever difficulties he faces during his recovery, he will look back on this as a small part of the best time of his life.

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!