Friday, December 23, 2016

A Christmas market walking tour

Christmas market (Weihnachtsmarkt) in downtown Bremen, Germany

Christmas markets are popular throughout Germany and other European countries. Visiting one can be like stepping into a fairy tale setting and leaving the real world behind. But Christmas markets exist in this world and a horrifying, deadly attack on a Berlin market on Monday, December 19, of this year interrupted the joyful pre-Christmas tradition of socializing with a mug of mulled wine or shopping for holiday-inspired, handcrafted goods. With the slogan “Jetzt erst recht!” (“Now more than ever!”), people keep returning to the joy- and colorful world of Christmas markets.

Warm welcome to the Christmas market in Bremen
For those who have never visited a Christmas market in Germany, here is a random walk through the downtown market in the City of Bremen in northern Germany. This tour is not meant to be a historical trip around Bremen's St. Petri Dom (St. Peter's Cathedral), the Bremer Rathaus (Bremen's Town Hall) and the Liebfrauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), where the market spreads out. The tour focuses on selected items you will find and may enjoy on a typical “Weihnachtsmarkt” (Christmas market).
Christmas market hut

Christmas markets are not religious events. They just happen to take place before Christmas. Since this is the time of cold weather, snow, ice and only short periods of day light, Christmas market themes derive from seasonal traditions and desires including the wonder of light, sparkling illumination, warmth, sweets, hot drinks, candles, incense, toys, gifts and handcrafted art. People bring their kids, reunite families and will meet with friends or strangers—often both. In the evening, markets can get crowded when visitors are drawn in or snuggling up under the roofs of market huts, which offer local food specialties and hot non-alcoholic or alcoholic drinks.

100% beeswax
100% Beeswax
Classic favorites are candles; in particular, those made from beeswax. The old custom of lightening a Christmas tree with “Bienenwachskerzen” (beeswax candles) can still be found in Germany. Beeswax candles were “mandatory” with my folks—not only for the tree, but also in stand-alone holders to light up the room without electricity and, at the same time, aromatize the air with church-like incense smell.

Mulled-wine bar
Mulled wine mug
To warm up physically, a mug of  “Glühwein” (mulled wine) definitely helps. Feuerzangenbowle is doing the same or more. However, many consider it too sweet. Especially, if you already got sugared up by “Klaben” (Christmas bread with dried fruits), “Kluten” (black-and-white sugar-chocolate dominoes), candied almonds or whatever else you consumed alongside the cake & candy rows. There are also sweet goods that you can eat, but, instead, may want to hang around your neck as a souvenir or save as a greeting to someone else: gingerbread hearts saying “Frohe Weihnachten” (Merry Christmas)—the sweetest way to promote the message of love & peace.

Christmas market huts next to Bremen's Liebfrauenkirche (Church of Our Lady)

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Hiking between walls of moisture-dripping ferns and mosses: Fern Canyon

Fern Canyon, Humboldt County, California
Slippery, foot-bridge-enhanced trail through Fern Canyon, Humboldt County, California
When visiting the coastal redwood forests of northern California, you are getting used to tilt your head far back to scan the giant trees from root to crown. You want to tilt your head for something else? What about an excursion to spectacular Fern Canyon within Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park? This is a deep gorge, where you will experience a unique botanical adventure by tilting your head (and camera) for California native ferns and mosses clinging to steep cliffs. And if your neck gets stiff, there are plenty of ferns to approach that hang from the lower walls alongside the creek bed.

From the trailhead at the end of Coast Bluff Beach Road, you will arrive at the opening of the stream canyon after a short northbound hike between the beach and bluffs. Level Fern Canyon Trail follows Home Creek, which carved out the canyon through sedimentary soil. River sandals or waterproof boots are the footwear of choice. The creek trail is generally passable; but after a rain storm, especially in winter, a flood may rush through. Foot bridges are installed over the creek during summer months. Year-round, water is dripping down the rock faces, creating a fern paradise, which is the home of dippers and amphibians, including the Pacific giant salamander and the northern red-legged frog.

Fern with radiating fronds at canyon cliff
The natural history of Fern Canyon is briefly summarized on an educational panel near the trailhead:

Millions of years ago, a retreating sea left these coastal bluffs behind. Waters draining to the ocean sculpted the rocky formations into sheer canyon walls. Some of the exquisite ferns now clinging to the steep, shadowy cliffs are ancient species whose ancestry can be traced back 325 million years.

The canyon is now shrouded with lush five-fingered ferns, dark green sword ferns, and delicate lady ferns. Scouring winter floods periodically rush through the canyon, sweeping debris from its floor. Spruce and red alder saplings often survive for a few years on small terrace ledges, but they rarely reach maturity before falling off or being swept away.

Seeping waters supply year-round dampness for the dense foliage and provide habitat for a diverse mix of moisture-loving creatures such as salamanders, frogs, and dippers. Several perennial waterfalls cascade from the canyon rim, adding to the cool, moist canyon microclimate.

Fern Canyon, Humboldt County, California
Visitors entering Fern Canyon at its opening near the coast

The Fern Canyon Loop Trail offers round-trip hiking—including a creek and a rim paths. After flooding or a landslide event, however, visitors will find it advisable to return via the route they walked into the narrowing canyon.

Getting to the coast-side trailhead for Fern Canyon
The coast-side trailhead is accessible via unpaved roads. It is located at the midsection of Gold Bluffs Beach. Take Davison Road, which connects Hwy 101 north of Orick with the beach. Find the Entrance Kiosk at the ocean side after driving about 3.5 miles northwest-bound along Davison Road. The kiosk is about half-way between the Davison Road/Hwy 101 junction and your destination. Once through the entrance, follow Gold Bluff Beach Road north toward its dead-end, which is the trailhead to the Gold Bluffs Coastal Trail and the Fern Canyon Loop Trail. Although a relatively remote location, Fern Canyon (and the road and short coastal trail section leading to it) often gets overcrowded in summer.
Fern Canyon can also be reached from the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park visitor center via a five-mile-long hike (one way) on James Irvine Trail.

References and more to explore
[1] California's Redwood Coast: Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods SP [].
[2] Phil Rovai (park ranger): Fern Canyon: The Real “Lost World” at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park [].

Ferns with waving fronds clinging to a steep wall of Fern Canyon

Friday, October 28, 2016

Shorebird Loop Trail in Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Board walk: beginning of the Shorebird Loop Trail
Beginning of the Shorebird Loop Trail at the visitor center
The 1.75-mile-long Shorebird Loop Trail in the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge is one of many short trails that can easily be reached for a nature stroll in coastal northern California [1]. It is a level lasso-loop trail: it includes an out-and back section to Long Pond and a loop section (the lasso nose) that surrounds the pond and brings you close to Hookton Slough and Teal Island in the South Humboldt Bay. November through April are the best months to watch the impressive variety of waterbirds, including migratory shorebirds. The best day hours for wildlife watching are when dawn or dusk coincidences with the one to two hour window before or after high tide [2]. 

The visitor center and trailhead is at YOU ARE HERE

The trail begins as a board walk at the visitor center. I recently walked the trail one afternoon in summer, not the recommended season for bird-watching. Various interpretive panels along the trail are dedicated to the natural history and the human history of the marshlands. For example, one panel features northern harriers, formerly called marsh hawks, which hover low over marshes and sloughs in search of prey. Then there are peregrine falcons who dive down on their prey at speeds of up to 200 mph (322 km/h).

Marsh lotus, an invasive species from Europe
From the loop trail, I saw strips of yellow pillows, which I was informed at the visitor center are mats of marsh lotus (Lotus pedunculatus). This freshwater-marsh flower from Europe is on the list of invasive species [3].

The Humboldt Bay is a stopover for fuel and energy—not only for tourists, but for migratory birds as well. The latter typically fly north to breed during the Arctic summer and return to warmer wintering regions far south from Humboldt Bay.

Eroding bucket of the Jupiter dredge, once used to dig through marshes and mudflats

The marshlands of Humboldt Bay were changed by dredging. The eroded metal bucket next to the trail along the slough south of Teal Island is a left-over from the marshes-to-pastures days:

This piece of metal is a bucket from the Jupiter dredge [built in 1926 by the Stockton Iron Works in California's Central Valley]. From the 1930s through 1970s, it was used to dig through salt marshes and mudflats to create a system of dikes in the South Bay, transforming wetlands into pasture. This practice reduced the bay's estuary by 40 percent.

Since 1971, when the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex was established, the agricultural development trend has been reversed to habitat restoration “to conserve precious habitat for the great diversity of birds, mammals, fish, amphibians, invertebrates, and plants that occur in the Humboldt Bay area” [4]. The Shorebird Loop is a relaxing trail, along which to catch a first glimpse of both the restoration efforts and the estuary biodiversity.

Long Pond

Getting to the Shorebird Loop Trailhead
From Highway 101 south of Eureka, take exit 695. Go north on Refuge Entrance Road, parallel to Hwy 101, for about two miles, to where the roads bends west. After another mile, you will see the visitor center to your left. Walk through the open passage onto the board walk and begin your hike on Shorebird Loop Trail.

References and more to explore
[1] Jim Hight: Seven Trails In Your Backyard [].
[2] Humboldt Bay Wildlife Refuge [].
[3] U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Humboldt Bay: Invasive Species Management [].
[4] See the section Refuge History at

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Beach-combing near the North Jetty at the Humboldt Bay Entrance west of Eureka, California

Ocean wave spectacle at the Humboldt Bay Entrance at the south tip of the Samoa Peninsula
A sandy strip of land extends west of Eureka between the Pacific Ocean and Humboldt Bay—the only deep water bay between Coos Bay in Oregon and San Francisco Bay. At the tip (south end) of the north strip—the Samoa Peninsula—is the Samoa Dunes Recreation Area with the North Jetty. Once US military property, this is now a multi-use land run by the Bureau of Land Management. Beach-combing, bird-watching and wave-watching are just a few low-key activities visitors enjoy to do here.

Waves crash over the North Jetty

In case you are walking or picnicking on the beach between the jetty shore line along the bay entrance and the sand dunes, you want to watch the incoming waves for your own safety and pleasure. Usually, they make quite some splash. As with the Crescent City harbor jetty, this jetty line should never be considered completely safe. Often, it is a dangerous place to hang out at. Approach a jetty at low tide and only if no water is spraying over its top. An informative board recommends to “Be swept Away By the Beauty Not By the Sea” and continues:

People have died while walking on the jetties. Beware of sleeper sneaker or rogue waves. They can appear without warning often coming up on the rocks with deadly force. Never turn your back on the ocean!

A wave flowing and foaming over the jetty

Getting there
From Euraka, take Highway 255 across the Samoa Bridge and turn left onto New Navy Base Road. Drive south for about four miles to the Samoa Dunes Recreation Area. At the junction with Bunker Road, from which the latter leads to an OHV staging area with historic ammunition bunkers, stay on the main road until you reach its dead-end. There is parking space in a dry and safe distance from the Humboldt Bay Entrance and the North Jetty.

References and resources
[1] BLM: Samoa Duenes Recreation Area [].
[2] Humboldt Bay recreational map: Humboldt Bay Area Beaches and Dunes [].
[3] Surfline: Humbold Harbor Entrance HD Cam & Surf Report [].
[4] Humboldt Bay Entrance, Califirnia Tide Chart [].

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Exploring dolosse: walking on and off the perilous Crescent City jetty

A pair of dolosse reinforcing the harbor jetty of Crescent City, Del Norte County, California
The Crescent City jetty is a long and reinforced breakwater with excellent views of the harbor and the Battery Point Lighthouse islet The latter can be reached on foot at low tide. Low tide and a calm sea is what you are looking for, if you cannot resist the temptation to stroll or jog on the jetty. A danger sign warns about deadly waves at any time. In general, walking out onto the jetty is discouraged. It literally is a walk on the edge—with powerful waves unexpectedly crashing over. Unfortunate visitors have died or were badly injured here. This makes me wonder how safe I was when walking on the nearby isthmus between Battery Point and the lighthouse islet to visit the picturesque lighthouse.

During summer month, waves typically are not so hazardous. Fishermen, recreationists and tourist then take the risk. Go out when the tide is going out and the seawater level drops to its low.

The jetty was built to protect the harbor of Crescent City. The dolosse you will see in great numbers toward the end of the jetty provide further protection by dissipating the energy of strong ocean waves and weakening their erosive force. A paper posted next to a path on the lighthouse islet informs about the dolosse (using a different spelling: doloes): they were put in place on the jetty in 1986 to break up the force of the water during tremendous winter storms (when you definitely do not want to be on the jetty). Each dolos (spelling on post: dolo) consists of concrete with steel rods, weighing 42 tons (84,000 lbs.). 750 dolosse are in place, 20 red ones with transmitters to monitor possible movement. Note that even a dolos with 400 times your weight (or more) may fail to stay in place when hit by a really forceful wave. Therefore, dolosse are individually numbered to track their displacement.

A single dolos: H-shaped concrete block engineered with one side turned through 90 degrees

Invented in South Africa, a dolos roughly has the geometry of a letter H with one side turned through 90 degrees to create the distinctive shape that ensures interlocking with each other when arranged by a crane. Although entangled, a “dolos wall” leaves holes such that wave energy gets dissipated. Depending on position and wave action, it happens that one dolos hammers a neighbor dolos into pieces. 

End of the walkable jetty: turning around at the dolos jungle
Near the end of the jetty you can marvel at the geometric shape of the concrete blocks and their odd-looking assemblies.

References, resources and more to explore
[1] The full story behind the dolos and its SA creator. IOL, August 2016 [].
[2] Gary L. Howell: Measurement of Forces on Dolos Armor Units at Prototype Scale [].
[3] Diana Tolerico: Crescent City. Life on the Open Road, September 2010 [].

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Low-tide walk to Battery Point Lighthouse islet

Battery Point Lighthouse islet at low tide

The Battery Point Lighthouse is located on a rocky islet off Battery Point in Crescent City, California. The islet is connected to Battery Point by an isthmus that becomes visible and crossable at low tide (see picture above). With rising sea level, the daily time window for walking across without getting wet will narrow. When the lighthouse was built in 1856, the islet may have been a peninsula most of the time, only shortly disconnected from the mainland.

A posted flier summarizes the early history of the light station:

Battery Point Lighthouse was built in 1856 at the cost of $15,000. It was the 10th Lighthouse built on the west coast and is one of the 16 Cape Cod style lighthouses that were built in the 1800's. At that time, it was known as the Crescent City Light Station.

The lighthouse played a major role to develop and sustain the coastal economy by sea travel.  For almost one hundred years, the lighthouse was manned:

The first keeper was Theophilus Magruder. He started Christmas Day, 1856. The last keeper was Wayne R. Piland, who served at the time of automation and was transferred in 1953.

The picturesque lighthouse is now a California Registered Historical Landmark. It is well preserved. With donations and Coastal Conservancy funding, the tower was restored in 1987. Further restoration work was done in 2012 as a cooperative project of the County of Del Norte and the Del Norte Historical Society.
Battery Point Lighthouse tower

Around the lighthouse you can find spots to view and explore intertidal and marine life. Plovers, sandpipers and willets feed on invertebrates exposed at low tides. An interpretive panel is getting you focused on tidepools:
Walking along the coast at low tide, you might at first miss the incredible variety of organisms that make their home here. Stop, scan the rock walls and quiet pools, and you will begin to see things move. Formed in rocky depressions, tidepools retain enough water at low tide to shelter an abundance of marine life: snails, urchins, anemones, crabs, sea stars, nudibranches, limpets, and many other.

As you are scanning the ocean from the lighthouse islet, you will see smaller islets, sea stacks and rocks. They support rich marine habitats, but turn the coast into a dangerous environment for navigation—even during daylight with the lighthouse tower and harbor entry in view.  

Offshore rocks near Battery Point

Getting to the Battery Point Lighthouse
From Highway 101 in Crescent City, turn west on Front Street. Turn left on B Street or on Lighthouse Way at the Oceanfront Lodge and find parking. Follow the smell of the sea and check out the wave and tide situation to safely walk to and back from the light house.  

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Cleetwood Cove Trail

Illustration of Cleetwood Cove with trail accessing the dock, where to embark a boat to Wizard Island
All around Oregon's Crater Lake you will find spectacular lookouts to get a bird's eye view of the deep blue lake. At the Sinnott Memorial Overlook at Rim Village the lookout experiences is enhanced by exhibits and ranger talks. The only place to actually access the lake shore is found at Cleetwood Cove located opposite to the village at the northeast corner of the lake. There is a tour boat dock, from where boats connect with Wizard Island and cruise the waters around Phantom Ship
View of Crater Lake from Cleetwood Cove Trail
Lake view from Cleetwood Cove Trail with Mount Scott in the far back
To get to the boat landing, you have to descend along the switchbacks of Cleetwood Cove Trail. The trailhead is next to the Rim Drive. The down-and-up round trip takes 2.2 miles (1.7 km).  A board at the trailhead introduces Cleetwood Cove Trail as follows:

Due to extreme instability of the steep walls of the caldera surrounding Crater Lake, Cleetwood Cove Trail is the only access to the lake shore. The route is strenuous, with a steep grade made even more difficult by the high altitude. Because of the difficulty of this hike, it is recommended only for those in good physical condition. It is not recommended for people with heart, breathing or walking problems. The switchbacks wind through a forest of lodgepole pine, mountain hemlock and Shasta red fir, with lake views along the route.

No pets. No bikes. And no rock throwing. Expect a lot of visitors despite all the warnings of loose soil and falling rocks. Some are hiking down in swimsuits. Other are in a hurry to get to their tour boat in time. Actually, not the route is so challenging, but the way you manage it can make your hike less enjoyable as it should be. The trail is not as strenuous as the above description would have it. William L. Sullivan writes in his book Trails of Crater Lake (Hike 10):

If you are an experienced hiker, you won't find this hike particularly difficult. But people unaccustomed to the rigors of the outdoors often stroll downhill to the lake, only to be surprised that the climb back up to their car seems hot, steep, and difficult indeed. Bring plenty of water, rest often, and take your time. Sunscreen and a hat can be important too.

If you are not embarking a boat to Wizard Island, you may want to look for a spot on the rocks at trail end, test the water temperature and get ready for a dip or swim.

Cliff rocks ready to break and slide down near the end of Cleetwood Cove Trail, where a sign says: FALLING ROCKS - NO STOPPING IN THIS AREA

Getting to the Cleetwood Cove Trailhead
From Crater Lake's Rim Village, the 10.7 mile-distance along West Rim Drive is shorter than the distance via East Rim Drive with its multiple off-rim inland loops. From the park's north entrance, drive south to the North Junction west of Llao Rock. Turn left and follow the Rim Drive for 4.6 miles. Trailhead parking is to your left.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Crater Lake Rim Village: strolls and trails

Crater Lake's south rim with forest-hidden Rim Village, Garfield Peak (left) and Crater Peak (background)

Staircase to Sinnott_Overlook
The Rim Village is located above the southwest corner of Crater Lake. This is a great place to start a tour around the lake on Rim Drive. Many first-time visitors do, getting their initial Wow! moments at the many overlook points and interpreted sites at the scenic village. Hiking trails leave the village in both rim directions and also towards the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which traverses Crater Lake National Park west of the crater.

Shore of Crater Lake below Sinnott_Overlook
National parks are lately seeing spikes in visitation and Crater Lake is no exception. Rim Village can get crowded on summer days. The popular village hubs include the Rim Village Café, the Visitor Center & Book Store and the historic Crater Lake Lodge. The Sinnott_Memorial Overlook is easily accessed by descending a stone staircase next to the visitor center. This roofed viewing platform and study forum houses exhibits and features ranger talks around a relief map of the park.

Rim promenade with Crater Lake Lodge
At the village, the rim trail is a paved promenade. Looking for an elevation gain that puts you above the crowd? What about a 3.4-mile-long round trip from the panoramic lodge, eastbound, to the top of Garfield Peak (8054 ft, 2455 m) and back? To enjoy the west rim with its spectacular vistas of Wizard Island, consider hiking about one mile to Discovery Point. Easy! From Discovery Point the trail along Crater Lake's rim continues to Watchman Overlook and Merriam Point allowing for a closer look at the massive dacite cliffs of Llao_Rock.

Wizard Island and Llao Rock cliffs (upper right)
While planning your hikes around Crater Lake, remember that you are at high altitude. The Park Service map gives an average surface elevation of 6173 ft (1882 m) for the lake. The Rim Village is at about 7000 ft (2134 m).

Friday, August 26, 2016

A “relatively young” spatter-cone volcano: Black Crater

Trail sign for horizon-spanning Black Crater, Lava Beds 
Multiple eruptions from surface vents created most of the lava tube caves and spatter-cone volcanoes in what is now Lava Beds National Monumentthe land of burnt-out fires. Looking at the Lava Beds map, you may wonder what to explore first. Besides having many hiking options along various trails and trail loops, you may want to step down into some caves, such as Mushpot, Skull & Merrill caves, or walk around some spatter cones, such as the Fleener Chimneys. Another spatter cone, much younger then the three chimneys, is Black Crater—estimated to be around 3,025 years old, whereas the Fleener Chimneys are given an age of over 10,000 years (see William Hirt).

The rugged rim of Black Crater with fractured red-brown features
A level trail proceeds from the FS-10 roadside trailhead to a fork. To the left, a 1.1-mile-trail leads to the Thomas-Wright Battlefield—a historic site famous for a victory of the local Modoc people with their knowledge of the surrounding landscape over the US Army. The right-side fork takes you to the rugged rim of Black Crater, a short uphill hike of about 0.3 miles. Despite its name, you will see lots of red-brown patches. From the rim, your view will spin around the high-elevation, semi-arid desert lands inhabited for many centuries by the Modoc people.    

Getting to the Black Crater Trailhead
The “Black Crater Trailhead” is located about four miles north of the park's visitor center on the right side of FS-10. The parking strip there is the trailhead for the Thomas-Wright Battlefield Trail with access to the Black Crater. The massive spatter cone can be seen from the trailhead.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The three chimneys at Lava Beds: Fleener Chimneys

Fleener Chimneys, land of burnt-out fires, California
The Fleener Chimneys are volcanic vents and spatter cones created by globs of lava. They are located in the Lava Beds National Monument park and are easily accessible via a short trail from a parking and picnic area west of FS-10.

A spatter-cone volcano forms from lava that is ejected from a vent. Active spatter-cone volcanoes are known from Hawaii. Their study helps earth scientists understand past events at Lava Beds. During a spatter cone event, a hurled-up lava fountain of very fluid particles (spatter) causes the formation of air-born lava clots that fall back to the lava surface around the vent and plaster themselves together to chimney-like structures.

Dragon's Mouth

From the turnout and picnic area, walk the short Fleener Chimneys Trail uphill. The first part is paved. Climb a few stairs to get to the Dragon's Mouth—a surface lava tube probably formed by low-viscosity lava channeling its downhill path underneath a hardened lava crust. While continuing your surface trip, you will arrive at an interpretive panel that describes the formation of the Fleener Chimneys as follows:

You are on a fault, a crack in the earth's crust, that extends for many miles. For nearly two million years lava has erupted periodically through this weakness., slowly building the Medicine Lake volcano [farther west]. Lava did not flow up through these chimneys, as you might suspect. Instead, it issued from a vertical conduit, much like water from a garden hose that is held straight up, and flowed downhill. You are standing on the hardened surface of that flow. The three chimneys were formed over the opening as thickened clots of lava were spattered higher and higher around it.
You may want to climb around to get to and look into the chimneys, which are protected by metal metal railings and also protect you from falling in. Do not drop anything into the holes to keep the (once spoiled, now cleaned) chimneys unspoiled for future generations.

Getting to the Fleener Chimneys parking and picnic area
From the visitor center, drive north on FS-10. Pass the junctions with roads to Skull and Merrill Cave and Schonchin Butte. Find the marked road to Fleener Chimneys halfway between the Balcony Cave/Boulevard Cave area and the parking area to access the Black Crater and Thomas-Wright Battlefield trails. Head west until the road bends north and ends in front of the chimneys, about half a mile west of FS-10.

Searching for more?
William Hirt: Geology of Lava Beds National Monument. Department of Natural Sciences, College of the Siskiyous, 800 College Avenue, Weed, CA 96094 [].
Geotripper: Want to see classic volcano features in California? [].
Trail Run Project: Fleener Chimneys [].

Spatter-cone lava rocks of Fleener Chimneys

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Getting started with Lava Beds caves

Daylight flooding into Skull Cave
Lava Beds National Monument, dubbed the land of burnt out fires, has over 700 caves. Lava Beds park is a high desert wilderness. It can get very hot here in summer. You want to take cool dip? You can have it right here. The air temperature in the caves is about 55 °F (13 °C) year-round and the temperature in ice caves is even lower. There are caves to be entered via staircase or ladder. Each step downcave increases the physical chill. The handrails almost turn icy. Then, climbing up and out may give you some sort of a heat shock.

Mossy rocks at Mushpot entrance
A nice cave to start your hot-cold experience is the Mushpot. This 770-foot-long underground tube is only a 524-foot-walk away from the visitor center—where you should stop first to get informed about the diverse caves in the park and their various levels of challenge. The Mushpot has a relatively smooth, paved path. If you are tall, be prepared to duck-walk in some places. A hard hat may protect your head, but also makes you taller. While stepping down into the Mushpot hole you will notice the spongy and soft moss covering the surface of the upper-cave twilight zone. Inside the lava tube, you will walk along a lighted path guiding you through and back between narrowing walls and interesting formations—assisted spelunking

Don't expect other caves to be illuminated. Bring good flashlights. Skull Cave (2.4 miles from the visitor center) has a relatively large entrance. Daylight “lasts” for a while along the downhill path past its opening mouth (see top picture), but you need artificial lighting towards the tube's end to explore the ice floor. The cave is named for bones found inside: two human skeletons, bighorn sheep skulls and bones of antelope and mountain goats.

Staircase into Merrill Cave
Another cave with an ice floor is Merrill Cave (2.8 miles from the visitor center). Rather than being a cave of the dead, this ice cave has seen lively entertainment. Visitors in the early 1920s skated on its ice floor by lantern light. Today, global warming is dimming the chances of cave ice parties in the future. We learn this, while we come to recognize the projection put down on a panel at Merrill Cave's entrance:  

In 2000, Merrill Cave's massive, thick “ice rink”  began to rapidly melt. The more ice melts, the warmer the cave becomes. Consistently cold winters, along with rain and melted snow dripping from above, are necessary to sustain ice throughout the year. Though natural shifts in conditions play a role, you can now see the effects of global climate change in ice caves at Lava Beds. Average annual surface temperatures have risen about two degrees over the last six decades, while average precipitation levels have fluctuated greatly. These factors have contributed to a dramatic loss of ice in the majority of monitored caves. If trends continue, could the ice caves at Lava Beds someday lose all their ice? 
Global climate change can be monitored right here at Lave Beds. Or is it only a limited microclimate change in a remote area of northeast California?

References and more to explore
[1] National Park Service: Lava Beds Caves [].
[2] The Path Less Beaten: Lava Beds National Monument  [].
[3] Edward Brook, Lacey Little and Shane Fryer: A Preliminary Investigation of Cave Ice at Lava Beds National Monument, norther California [].

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The land of burnt-out fires

Red-colored rock “glowing” before sunset at the fractured rim of Black Crater in Lava Beds National Monument park

The land of burnt-out fires is an area of northeast California that formed long ago, when flowing lava from volcanic eruptions cooled and shaped the landscape. Today, this is Lava Beds National Monument—a park of lava blankets, caves, catacombs, cones, chimneys and craters.

According to the park service hand-out, there is evidence of over 30 separate lava flows throughout the park. Multiple eruptions from volcanoes and surface vents created the current structure of holes, tubes, caves and underground labyrinths. The hand-out informs:

Eruptions occurring 30-40,000 years ago formed over 700 lava tube caves found in the park. Lava tubes form when streams of hot, flowing lava start to cool. The center of the stream stays hot and continues to flow as the outside begins to cool and harden. The hot lava drains out, leaving a pipe-like cave. Multiple eruptions can stack caves on top of one another, creating multilevel caves. When a lava tube ceiling collapses, it opens access to the cave below.

Entrance of Skull Cave, 2.4 miles north of the visitor center
Visitors to Lava Beds typically explore the park underground and between the rocks on its surface. Some of the 700 caves have inspiring names. Skull Cave with its wide and open entrance, for example, is named for the two human skeletons and bones of pronghorn, bighorn and sheep discovered inside. A special caving hand-out lists selected caves, classified as least challenging, moderately challenging and most challenging. In some caves you can walk completely upright, in others you may have to duck-walk or crawl in some places. Certain caves feature stairs you can use to step down and in. The cave or tube length varies from 150 to 7000 feet. The generally given advice: Cave softly and safely!  

Above ground, you will find short-and-easy as well as long-distance hiking trails leading to caves and other points of interest. The 9.4-mile-long Lyon Trail connects the Skull Cave area with Hospital Rock near Tule Lake Sump. The 7.5-mile-long Three Sisters Trail connects the Indian Well Campground near the visitor center with the Lyons Trail and provides for a loop hike of about eleven miles by including a section of the Bunchgrass Trail and the Missing Link Trail. The 3.3-mile-long (one-way) Whitney Butte Trail leads from the Merrill Ice Cave parking lots to Whitney Butte. A 1.2-mile-long (one way) trail from the Black Crater parking site provides access to the historic Thomas-Wright Battlefield between Hardin Butte and Black Crater.

The descriptive term “land of burnt-out fires” is derived from what the Modoc people called the lava-bed lands in their language. A perfect name—over 30,000 years of volcanic history compacted into a few words.The Modoc and their ancestors lived here for over 10,000 years. Some ancestor generations must have witnessed volcanic events; for example, the giant explosion further north that turned Mt. Mazama into Crater Lake. Or volcanic activity to the southwest including eruptions of the nearby Medicine Lake Volcano or in the Lassen Volcanic area. The ragged and rough terrain of the lava beds was, to generations of Modoc, a sacred landscape and a resourceful homeland.

Nature's glass: obsidian
Obsidian—nature's glass—shown along the path from the visitor center to the Mushpot cave

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Sunset Beach Trail

The mouth of Drakes Estero with the tip of the Pastoral Lands in the background
Sunsets are a common theme among visitors to the Californian coast. The Sunset Trail on Angel Island, for example, offers great views of the Golden Gate—and chances of a golden sunset to be watched after the last ferry for the day has left. Further north at Point Reyes there is a Sunset Beach Trail. This dead-end trail through grassland to rocky Sunset Beach west of Drakes Head follows the coastline of Drakes Estero. South of Sunset Beach Drakes Estero joins Estero de Limantour. Together these two marshy estuaries meet Drakes Bay.

Coastal gum plant next to Sunset Beach Trail
You will start out on Estero Trail, which traverses a pine forest, crosses Home Bay along a narrow isthmus and then leads southwest, up and down over undulations. Once you are getting to the junction where a trail leads eastward over the Drakes Headland, you will have arrived at the beginning of Sunset Beach Trail, which continues above Drakes Estero's eastern shores. While scanning the bay for marine mammals and seabirds, also watch out for deer and free range cattle.

Home Bay crabs: becoming bat ray diet at high tide?
The Estero Trailhead kiosk informs visitors that bat rays are common in Drakes Estero, which—along with Tomales Bays and Bolinas Bay—serve as nursery and feeding spots. Maybe you have noticed some crabs crawling around while walking along the Home Bay isthmus. These crabs are part of the bat ray diet. But the bat rays forage on other invertebates as well. Most of the muddy bottom of Home and Estero Bay is exposed to air and to your views at low tide. I am wondering if rays can be spotted with binoculars from Sunset Trail at high tide, when the muddy floor is submerged by enough water to accommodate bat ray movement and their foraging activities?

Sunset Beach Trail coming down to sea level
The final section of Sunset Beach Trail drops toward a coastal lagoon. Across a narrow isthmus, you should be able to see the tip of the Pastoral Lands (top picture) and Chimney Rock further out, unless coastal fog is moving in and between. The intertidal zone at Sunset Beach is teeming with life. Animals typical for such saltwater pool habitats—including sea stars, urchins, barnacles and anemones—can be observed.
Estero Trailhead, Point Reyes, California
Estero Trailhead kiosk
Getting to the Sunset Beach Trail
From the Bear_Valley_Visitor_Center at Point Reyes National Seashore (see park map) head north on Bear Valley Road to its junction with Sir Francis Drake Boulevard (SFD Blvd.). Follow SFD Blvd. to Inverness and continue on. SFD Blvd. eventually turns left (west). Pass its junction with Pierce Point Road and Mount Vision Road. Then turn right where a sign gives direction toward the Estero Trailhead. Find trailhead parking after about one mile.The hiking distance between the trailhead and Sunset Beach is about 4.5 miles. Plan for a round trip of nine or more miles, including estero and beach side steps.