Thursday, September 22, 2011

A gooseberry slope north of Donner Lake in the Sierra Nevada

Their name gives a hint: Sierra gooseberries grow at places in the Sierra Nevada, California [1]. The steep slopes and lush creeks north of Donner Lake make such a location, where low-growing  gooseberries spread between occasional pine trees, manzanitas and other shrubs. Gregory Creek and the chaparral-like stretches of the Donner Lake Rim Trail (DLRT) are excellent areas to find gooseberry bushes next to the trail. During mid-September this year, I found juicy red, ripe berries at low elevation and soon-to-be-ripe ones at higher elevation. The level of ripeness is indicated by color change from yellow to red (see pictures). The berries look like little spiny balls of fire. You don't want to pick them without gloves. The German name for gooseberry is, perfectly fitting, Stachelbeere, meaning spine-berry. Yet, German Stachelbeeren—being hairy, but not spiny—can be touched and eaten without pain, while the Grossulariaceae species of the Sierra need some elaborated techniques.

Not afraid of giving Sierra gooseberries a try? Hank Shaw wrote a mouth-watering article about berries in the Sierra Nevada and how to prepare and taste them [2]. He raves about the delicious, fruity pulp and the intoxicating aroma of ripe Sierra gooseberries and provides—assuming you have a potato smasher at home—some ideas of what can be created from those prickly balls, including berry tarts and pink gooseberry sorbet. What about a gooseberry electrolyte sports drink for the next field trip?

Sierra gooseberries are wind pollinated. Their flowers are bisexual and their seeds are dispersed by animals such as black bears and rodents. Sierra gooseberry plants also regenerate asexually by layering and sprouting from the root crowns [3]. Their scientific name is Ribes Roezlii, referring to Benedikt Roezl (1823-1885), a Czech gardener and botanist, who traveled around the Americas to collect orchids and other plants, some of them now named in his honor [4,5].

Reference and more to explore
[1] USDA Plants Profile: Ribes roezlii Regel - Sierra gooseberry [].
[2] Hank Shaw: Berries of the Sierra Nevada [].
[3] Ribes roezlii [].
[4] Jan Vytopil: Benedikt Roezl 1823-1885 [].
[5] Wikipedia: Benedikt Roezl [].

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Anderson's thistle along Donner Lake Rim Trail

Anderson's thistle (Cirsium andersonii), also named rose thistle, is a flowering plant in the sunflower family (Asteraceae), native to California and parts of Nevada and Oregon [1]. In the Tahoe Basin and surrounding areas in the Sierra Nevada, the thistle occasional occurs at mid elevation on dry flats and forest openings [2]. The posted plants were found in mid-September along the open stretch of Donner Lake Rim Trail (DLRT) between its junction with the Wendin Way Access Trail and Summit Lake. The tall plants occur in small groups, often in the neighborhood of some shrubs. The slender flower heads display an explosion of white, pink and rose. The green leaves should be handled with care: they contain a couple of small spines around their edges.
Note: There are about 200 Cirsium species worldwide (North America, Europe, Asia and Africa). Some of them look alike and I tried my best to match and identify the shown ones with rose thistles described in the literature and on websites—excluding other classifications. Still looking for a local thistle expert.

References and more
[1] USDA Plants Profile: Cirsium andersonii (A. Gray) Petr. - rose thistle [].
[2] Laird R. Blackwell: Tahoe WildflowersA Month-by-Month Guide to Wildflowers in the Tahoe Basin and Surrounding Areas. A Falcon Guide, Morris Book Publishing, LLC, 2007; page 84.
[3] Go on a photo tour:  Adam R. Paul | CalPhotos | Wikimedia.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Crimson columbines at streambanks northwest of Donner Lake

Crimson columbine plants are native to Northwest America from Southern Alaska south to Baja California, and east to Montana, Wyoming and Utah. They prefer open or partly shaded sites in moist habits such as seeps, streambanks and meadows. The shown flower and leaves belong to a plant seen along the
Donner Lake Rim Trail (DLRT) west of Summit Lake at a bank of a small stream flowing through coniferous forest. This and neighboring plants were tall (as high as 80 cm). While some closed flowers were found in upward position, the long-spurred open flowers were all hanging upside down: five sepals, five petals and many yellow stamens. The green leaves are divided in leaflets—being deeply pinnately lobed.

The beautiful flowers attract hummingbirds as pollinators and humans as photographers

The crimson columbine is a species of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). Its binomial name is Aquilegia formosa and other common names are western columbine, red columbine and Sitka columbine [1-3].

References and more
[1] Richard Spellenberg: North American Wildflowers. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2001; page 707.
[2] Laird R. Blackwell: Tahoe WildflowersA Month-by-Month Guide to Wildflowers in the Tahoe Basin and Surrounding Areas. A Falcon Guide, Morris Book Publishing, LLC, 2007; page 68.
[3] USDA Plants Profile: Aquilegia Formosa Fisch ex. DC. - western columbine [].
[4] CalPhotos:

Monday, September 19, 2011

Summit Lake near Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada

Summit Lake is surrounded by forest and some big boulders. The Donner Lake Rim Trail (DLRT) passes by along its south side. The lake is accessible from Donner Summit via Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and Summit Lake Trail and also via DLRT from the three-way junction at the upper end of the Wendin Way Access Trail, coming uphill from the Gregory Creek Trailhead (see sign-post and map on DLRT page).

The distance from this junction to Summit Lake is about 2.5 miles. Just to the left of the junction, after crossing Gregory Creek on a wooden bridge, you'll see a small rock to your right with a plaque saying “In Memory Of Our Parents Charles & Eunice - Happy Trails To All Who Cross Here - From The Quinn Family.”  The trail continues along open stretches with nice views, passing two more bridges. The first one is shown here, the second one has to be detoured, since it was severely damaged over winter (but is going to be fixed this fall by the Truckee Donner Land Trust and the United States Forest Service). Occassionally the trail merges with Summit Lake road (a dirt road) for short stretches and then veers off again, what is always indicated by a DLRT sign with a directional arrow posted at some tree. When the trail seems to get lost between rocks and trees, you have arrived at the south shore of Summit Lake.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Hiking and biking on Donner Lake Rim Trail (DLRT)

Donner Lake Rim Trail (DLRT) is currently surrounding about half of Donner Lake, located west of Truckee in California. The part north of the lake is open for hiking, mountain biking and equestrian recreation. The western section coincidences with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and is closed to bicycles. The 2008 printing of Mike White's hiking guide Afoot & Afield (Trip 5 of Chapter 2) says that “the remaining part of the DLRT is realistically many years away from completion.” And in 2011 it still seems to be many years. The TrailLink DLRT website has more details, but searching the recommended Truckee Donner Land Trust site at does not yield any results for keywords “DLRT” and “Donner Lake Rim Trail.”

The existing DLRT sections are easy to reach: for example, from the Gregory Creek Trailhead at the end of Donner Lake Road just north of Interstate 80. A climb on an access trail for about one mile takes you 
to the DLRT. At the intersection you'll find the shown sign that directs you westward to Summit Lake (another two and a half miles) and eastward along the 2009 completed DLRT section connecting with the Glacier Way Access Trail. Either choice offers excellent views of Donner Lake and surrounding Sierra Nevada peaks.

Getting to the Gregory Trailhead and the DLRT
The Donner Lake Rim Trail Area Map posted at the trailhead shows how to get there (see photography below: Wendin Way Access Trail east of Negro Canyon). From Interstate 80, take the Donner Lake interchange exit between Donner Summit and the west-most Truckee exit. Or, from Donner Pass Road near the western tip of Donner Lake, take Donner Lake Road, drive uphill, underpass Interstate 80 and continue on the dirt road for a short distance until you see two boards at the trailhead. Walk or bike around the gate to the east and find the uphill trail to your left after 100 feet.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On the Emigrant Trail: the Donner Party Memorial at Donner Memorial State Park

The Donner Party was a group of emigrants from Springfield, Illinois—or immigrants to California, from a West Coast viewpoint—who was heading west in the summer of 1846. They took the Hastings Cutoff through Utah and Nevada. This rugged trail caused delays and they did not reach the Sierra Nevada crossing until November, when they were trapped by snow and forced to make a winter encampment near Donner Lake. Thirty-five of the party died and the last survivor was not brought out before April of the next year [1].

The Donner Party Monument is dedicated to memorize this fateful event of 1846 and 1847; as the plaque on the back says: “In Commemoration Of The Pioneers Who Crossed The Plains To Settle In California.” The tall and erect sculpture shows man and wife with children. Looking west they do. Not frightened, but hopeful, caring for each other, touching hands. She is holding a baby and he is equipped with pioneer gear at the waist belt. 

Getting there
The Donner Party Memorial and the Emigrant Trail Museum are located next to the entrance of Donner Memorial State Park at the eastern tip of Donner Lake, where Interstate 80 and Donner Pass Road are next to each other. From central Truckee, drive west on Donner Pass Road. The monument is visible from the road to your left, just before you reach the Donner Memorial State Park entrance and Donner Lake. Coming from Sacramento, going east on I-80, you have two options: (1) leave I-80 above the western tip of Donner Lake and continue east on Donner Pass Road along the lake past the Donner Memorial State Park entrance until you see the monument to your right, or (2) take the next exit, which is very close to the monument, and turn west onto Donner Pass Road to find parking and access to the memorial and museum on the left side. Note: unexpected snow is possible in May, June or October and winter enthusiasts expect snow from November to April.

Donner Party Reference
[1] William Bryant Logan and Susan Ochshorn: The Smithsonian Guide To Historic America - The Pacific States. Stewart, Tabori & Chang, New York, 1989; pages 148-150.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Lobb's buckwheat on the Sierra Nevada Crest south of Roller Pass

Lobb's buckwheat (Eriogonum lobbii), also named granite buckwheat, grows on rocky slopes and outcrops of the northern Sierra Nevada at mid and high elevation [1-4]. The shown plants were found during this year's Labor Day week-end along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) south of Roller Pass, where the PCT closely follows the apex of the mountain range over volcanic rocks and soil towards Mt. Anderson and Tinker Knob.

The white to pink and beige colored flowers are located at the end of long greenish purple stems around a cluster of leaves. The round flower heads typically hug the ground. The leaves are covered with a layer of woolly fabric one can easily rub away to expose the red or green leave surface (see picture below).

I haven't yet found any information on the function of the felty leave material: is it protective or does it adsorb and channel moisture to the plant?

Keywords: Northern California, alpine environment, botany, buckwheat family (Polygonaceae), dicot

References and more 
[1] Laird R. Blackwell: Tahoe WildflowersA Month-by-Month Guide to Wildflowers in the Tahoe Basin and Surrounding Areas. A Falcon Guide, Morris Book Publishing, LLC, 2007; page 88.
[2] USDA Plants Profile: Eriogonum lobbii Torr. & A. Gray []. 
[3] ITIS Report: Eriogonum lobbii Torr. & A. Gray [].
[4] CalPhotos:

Monday, September 5, 2011

On the Sierra Nevada Crest between Roller Pass and Mt. Anderson

A hike on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) between Roller Pass and Mt. Anderson, south of the Donner Pass in California, offers amazing views of the Sierra Nevada including the Carson Range to the east, Castle Peak to the north, and peaks of the Granite Chief Wilderness in the south. The trail passes old volcanic terrain between Cedar Creek and Coldstream Valley. Endless meadows of mule ears are spreading out over the volcanic slopes. Forest patches of pines, firs and mountain hemlocks are found in-between. A small section of the PCT along the slope of Mt. Lincoln was still covered by snow during this year's Labor Day week-end.

Getting to Roller Pass and beyond
The Roller Pass is located about two miles south from the PCT trailhead near the Alpine Skills International (ASI) Rock Climbing Center at Donner Pass ( south of the old Donner Pass Road. Cross the ASI parking lot and continue on a dirt road until you see the trailhead (a short distance away to your left) with a board displaying a trail map. Along the PCT, pass both left-side junctions of the Mt. Judah Loop trail and continue southward. You know when you have arrived at Roller Pass by finding a metal post with a historical marker plaque (T-39), saying Truckee Trail - Roller Pass and quoting Nicholas Carriger (September 22, 1846) of the ill-fated Donner Party: “We made a roller and fasened chans to gether and pulled the wagons up white 12 yoke oxen on the top and the same at the bottom.”
You may want to follow the directions and detailed descriptions of Trip 16 Mt. Judah Loop Trail and Trip 17 PCT: Donner Pass to Squaw Valley in chapter 2 of Mike White's hiking guide A foot & A field. The 3.5-miles-long Roller Pass - Anderson Peak section of the PCT provides for an easy-going, pleasant hike (no climbing skills are required here) and scenic picnicking, assuming that most of the snow is gone (usually after mid-July) and the breeze over the crest is tolerable or even refreshing on a hot and sunny day.