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.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A continuous fence split and opened up a 20-feet-wide gap

A fence at right angles to the fault line split by the 1906 rupture of the San Andreas Fault

The lore of the 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco spread around the world. Along the 0.6-mile-long Earthquake Trail within the Point Reyes National Seashore park in rural west Marin County, Northern California, you can see a split fence that still provides evidence of the 1906 fault movement.

Alongside the Earthquake Trail, interpretive signs describe the geology and earthquake history of the San Andreas Fault, which separates Point Reyes on the Pacific Plate from the North American plate. Tomales Bay and Olema Valley cut through the landscape of the joining plates. The Earthquake Trail is located in the rift zone between the Bear_Valley_Visitor_Center and Olema. Here, as elsewhere between San Juan Bautista and Cape Mendocino, the rupture of the San Andreas Fault during the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake on April 18 left its mark. As an interpretive panel tells you, Point Reyes moved northwest up to twenty feet and the fence split by this distance. Blue posts indicate the active fault trace. 

Another interpretive panel explains that the two plates move, on average, two inches annually. We—and those fences we like to build—are only around for a geologic moment and “if lifetimes were measured in eons rather than years, we would witness tremendous movement and change along the western edge of North America. The San Andreas fault, the boundary between the North American and Pacific plates, is part of a 30 million-year geologic story that is still unfolding. 10 million years from now, the plate boundary will likely shift inland east of the Sierra. The Gulf of California will expand and most of California will be transferred to the Pacific plate.” I guess, Nevada will then be the prime state of ruptures, slips and shakes.   

Getting there (not to Nevada, but to the Point Reyes Earthquake Trail)
Go to the Bear_Valley_Visitor_Center at Point Reyes National Seashore (see park map). Find the picnic area just across the street & parking strip next to the visitor center. The Earthquake Trail loops through the fault zone east of the picnic site. It takes less than half a mile to get to the split fence. And even if earthquake history does not belong to your main interest, this short and scenic loop trail is worth a walk. Looking for another short trail nearby? What about the Kule Loklo Trail northwest of the visitor center?
Earthquake Trail crossing a creek in Olema Valley

Sunday, July 17, 2016

From Ayala Cove to the top of Mt. Livermore: Sunset Trail

View of the Golden Gate from Mt. Livermore summit

With an elevation of 788 ft (240 m), Mt. Livermore is anything but a tall mountain. Yet, as Angel Island's tallest peak in the middle of San Fracisco Bay—east of Sausalito and north of Alcatraz— the top of Mt. Livermore offers spectacular views of the central bay, surrounding mountain ranges, the Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and the skyline of San Francisco and Oakland.

View points along Sunset Trail
The Sunset Trail begins at its junction with the Perimeter Road near the Visitor Center and Hill Group Picnic Area above Ayala Cove. At first, the trail leads through a hillside forest of non-native eucalyptus tress as well as cypress and pine trees. Once you are arriving at the west-side ridge, the forest opens up. From here, the panoramic view includes Raccoon Strait, Tiburon, Belvedere Island, the Marine Headlands and the Golden Gate. As you continue uphill, more of the skyline of San Francisco will come into view. Once at the summit, your view may start spinning. Relax, take a breath, enjoy and slowly start identifying the places you know or want to go to next.

If your plan is to make the summit trip a loop hike, walk downhill through the chaparral on the east side of Mt. Livermore. The North Ridge Trail will take you back to Ayala Cove. Halfway downhill you will enter a forest of oak, madrone and bay trees—providing some shade, but having enough openings to still get a glimpse of a historic garrison building here or a sailing boat there.

The summit of Mt. Livermore seen from the North Ridge Trail

Angel Island State Park map: scroll down the California State Park hand-out to find an annotated, topographic map of Angel Island showing trails, campsites and points of interest.

References and more to explore
[1] The Outbound Collective: Hike Mt. Livermore [].
[2] BAHIKER: Angel Island State Park, California State Parks, Marin County [].
[3] SOCALHIKER: Angel Island Mt. Livermore Loop [].

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Angel Island State Park

In the midst of the bustling Bay Area, there is a natural island that, with the exception of service and TramTours vehicles, is free of motorized traffic: Angel Island. The green and hilly island makes for a great escape from the urban surroundings. However, on week-end days the island's coves and trails may turn into recreationally busy sites. The small harbor often bustles with boats and on a clear-view day quiet a crowd may head uphill to enjoy the spectacular bay panorama from the top of Mount Livermore.
Ayala Cove with harbor and a section of the Perimeter Trail above the ferry terminal
Angel Island has many faces and offers a multitude of spectacular vistas, both from its hillsides as well as from the Perimeter Trail. By circumnavigating the island on water or coming across Raccoon Strait, one experiences different currents, wave patterns and microclimates. Ayala Cove on the north side of the island is typically the warmest spot, with the least amount of wind and the lowest chance of fog. Most visitors arrive at the small Ayala Cove terminal by ferry from Tiburon or Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. Ayala Cove is named for the Spanish navigator Juan Manuel de Ayala, who—out of New Spain (Mexico)—explored San Francisco Bay in 1775 and then gave Angel Island its name [1]. In missionary Zeitgeist euphory he named it “Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles,” meaning “Our Lady of the Angels” [2]. Not the only Californian place associated with angels, the place name was later shortened to Angel Island.

Segway riders on Perimeter Trail with view of Belvedere Island
Organized rides, Segway tours and bikes for rent are available. But any place on the island can also be reached on foot while getting around on a day hike; or even a half-day hike. Environmental Campsites exist on the west and on the east side. There are various historical landmarks and now-abandoned army places to explore. The newly renovated United States Immigration Station (aka North Garrison), a National Historical Landmark, is open to the public. It only takes a short walk along the Perimeter Trail east of Ayala Cove to get to the immigration station, through which thousands of mostly Asian immigrants were “processed” in the late nineteenth century. On most days, docent-led tours are available to learn more about this site.

An abandoned building next to the Perimeter Trail through Fort McDowell
Head south from the immigration station, to see a ghost army post: Fort McDowell (aka East Garrison). This post served many purposes and became a military embarkment center during World Wars I and II. Japanese and German POWs were held here during the second World War. Just south of Fort McDowell is Quarry Beach, a delightful stretch of sand—a half-mile-long strip of shoreline away from the main visitor routes, great for picnicking, wading and bird watching. Seals are often swimming by and dive close to the beach. 
Quarry Beach on Angel Island, California
Quarry Beach with a ship passing Quarry Point east of Fort McDowell

References and more to read
[1] California Explorers: Juan Manuel de Ayala and San Francisco Bay [].
[2] Legends of America: Fort McDowell (Angel Island) [].
[3] Angel Island Conservancy: Ft. Mc Dowell (aka East Garrison) [].

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Suisun Hill Trail

Suisun Slough labyrinth north of Rush Ranch
Not many people hike Suisun Hill in summer. Although this two-mile-long loop trail is not very challenging, visitors often are satisfied with views of Suisun Slough and surrounding marshlands from overlook hills along Marsh Trail and South Pasture Trail near the barn and visitor center of Rush Ranch. Suisun Hill Trail, however, is the only Rush Ranch trail that allows dogs. And if you and your dog(s) enjoy scanning open-space wetlands, Suisun Hill Trail is a treat all year round.

From the trail gate on Grizzly Island Road, head northeast toward the hill (or should I say hills) and turn left at the trail fork to begin your 500-foot climb. Marsh vistas are coming up soon. Depending on the air quality, you will see Mount Diablo in the south and the range of hills contouring northwest Solano County. The blue and green colors of the low Suisun Slough terrain are nicely contrasting with the straw-yellow hillsides. To complete the loop hike, continue down the other side of Suisun Hill and follow the well-maintained trail, which bends back toward the Rush Ranch entrance on Grizzly Island Road.

Suisun Hill
Suisun Hill Trail through dry grassland toward the top of Suisun Hill

Getting to the Suisun Hill Trailhead
Instead of driving all the way to the barn and visitor center, as described at the end of my ranch site post, park your car at the Rush Ranch entrance (without blocking it); for example, close to the Solano Land Trust gate post. Access the trail by walking across Grizzly Island Road and through the marked gate.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Rush Ranch's Marsh Trail: overlooking and approaching Suisun Slough

Suisun Slough winding through marshland
The Suisunes were a tribe of Native Americans living in and around a marsh area in what is now Solano County in Northern California. Suisun City is named for the Suisunes. Other geographic names also refer to the people who once resided in the land next to the estuary of the northwestern section of San Francisco Bay: Suisun Bay, Suisun Slough, Suisun Marsh and Suisun Hill. The Bed Rock Mortars (Indian grinding rocks) along the South Pasture Trail on Rush Ranch give evidence of Native American activities around the tidal marsh with plenty of fish, ducks and other wetland species.

Marsh Trail west of Rush Ranch's visitor center leads to a nearby overlook with vistas of Suisun Slough, Suisun Marsh to the south and Goat Island Marsh to the north. An overlook panel underlines that this is a rare sight today:

A huge wetland, like the one before you, is a rare sight in the San Francisco Bay Area. Most of the wetlands that surrounded the San Francisco estuary have been drained or filled for agriculture or development. Suisun Marsh was saved from filling and development, in part, by duck hunters who valued the wetland for the hundreds of thousands of ducks it attracts each year.

Bulrushes growing in the shallow marsh water
Marsh Trail loops around the Goat Island Marsh. The Marsh Trail Guide hand-out—available at the visitor center—points out local plant and animal life as well as constructions made by man over time to manage the wetlands. Cattails and tules (see picture above) grow abundantly where the depth of the water is less than four feet. River otters and hawks hunt for fish and rodents in the Suisun Marsh. Grizzly bears that once roamed the marsh are now gone.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Rush Ranch's South Pasture Trail

Bed Rock Mortars along South Pasture Trail

Rush Ranch's blacksmith shop
The South Pasture Trail mostly traverses Rush Ranch grassland east of the Suisun Marsh. The trail begins south of the barn between the blacksmith shop and the antique farm equipment. First, you will pass an Aermotor Windmill (702 Model); or, maybe, you want to spend some time at the windmill and read about its history and technical details. This farm windmill was made by Aeromotor, a manufacturer in Kansas in 1932. The structure is moderate in size, compared to a tall tower of a modern wind turbine. It actually is a windpump, employed to fill the ranch's stock water tanks. This windpump converts the rotary motion generated by the wind-blown wheel of steel blades into a steady up and down pumping stroke. An informative panel on-site explains: “The piston-pump cylinder pulls the water out of the well and pushes it through the distribution lines to the stock water tanks. The modern water-pumping windmill has gone through very little evolution in the past century and serves as a testament to its perfect design.”

A windpump south of Rush Ranch's barn complex

As you continue southbound on the trail, you will cross Spring Ranch Creek and come to an overlook. Follow the path where a sign announces that the trail is maintained by the employees of Kiewit Infrastructure West Co. to get to the Bed Rock Mortars. Soon you will stand in front of the Grinding Rock used by local Patwin Indians for food grinding. What kind of diet did they grind on this rock? According to a panel next to the mortars, Patwin Indians may have ground dried meat, which they prepared from waterfowl and salmon they successfully trapped or speared. The Suisun Slough and its surrounding marshlands certainly must have been an excellent hunting ground.

While you are completing your South Pasture loop trail hike, you will find other points of interest described in the South Pasture Trail Guide hand-out available at the visitor center. While studying the objects next to the trail, don't miss the views of the nearby tidal march—Suisun Marsh—and Mount Diablo further south.  

Monday, July 4, 2016

A treasure house of rare biota: Rush Ranch in the Suisun Marsh

Woodcraft owl watching Rush Ranch
The Suisun Marsh is a brackish marsh in the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary system, California. This ecosystem includes bays, sloughs and tidal wetland. Today, the large, open marsh space attracts visitors with interest in both natural and human history. At its center: Rush Ranch, the first property that the Solano Land Trust purchased in 1988 to serve as a hub for scientists, historians, birders, hikers and anyone who loves outdoor & community activities.
Rush Ranch horses with marshland in the background
Upon my first arrival at Rush Ranch on a hot and sunny summer day, a friendly ranger immediately introduced me to the barn owls spending their time in the dark corners underneath the barn roof. An owl crafted out of wood pieces can be found at the visitor center (top picture). There are several hiking trailswell-marked loop trails—to explore the marshland, pasture land and the open hill sites east of the ranch buildings.

Cream-bush flower cluster in summer
In front of the visitor center you will find the Native Plant Garden of Rush Ranch, dedicated by the Solano Land Trust Board of Directors to Marilyn Farley (Executive Director, 2005 to 2009).  Featured plant species include sticky monkey flower, coast live oak, white sage, toyon and cream bush. The drought-tolerant cream bush (Holodiscus discolor) is named for its creamy-white drooping flower spray. In summer, the showy flowers loose their flirty creaminess and age into stiff, brown clusters, as shown in the right-side picture.

The kiosk next to the stable area provides an overview of rare and endangered species that may be spotted in the habitats around the ranch:

The Rush Ranch is notable because of the occurrence of at least twelve rare or endangered species. Endangered animals include the salt marsh harvest mouse, the Suisun shrew, the Suisun Marsh song sparrow, the black rail, and clapper rail. The waterways of the Suisun Marsh area support populations of Delta smelt, an endangered fish species restricted to the California Delta and upper Bay. Rare plants found here include the Suisun aster, Jepson's tule pea, hispid bird's beak, Suisun thistle, Contra Costa goldfields, and Mason's lilaeopsis. In this regard Rush Ranch is a treasure house of rare biota.

Getting to Rush Ranch
The Rush Ranch is located between Suisun Slough and Suisin Hill south of  Fairfield/Suisun City. When at the intersection of Highway 12, Sunset Avenue (leading north) and Grizzly Island Road (leading south): turn south on the latter road and head south for two and a half miles to the ranch entrance (picture above) on your right, from where a gravel driveway leads to the ranch buildings.
To get to the Hwy 12 intersection from Interstate 80 in Fairfield, take the Hwy 12 East exit toward Rio Vista/Suisun City and proceed for approximately three miles.

More to explore
[1] Solano Land Trust: Rush Ranch Open Space [].
[2] San Francisco Bay - National Estuarine Research Reserve: Rush Ranch [].
[3] Trailhiker: Rush Ranch Open Space - Marsh and South Pasture Trail [].

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Jepson Prairie Preserve in summer

Jepson Prairie Nature Trail near Olcott Lake with Mount Diablo far back
The Jepson Prairie Preserve is a National Natural Landmark at the western edge of the Central Valley in Northern California, preserving vernal-pool habitats, mima mounds, native perennial grassland and some threatened grass, insect and aquatic species [1-4]. Also called Jepson Prairie Reserve, the (P)reserve is found northwest of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. From the preserve, you will not be able to overview this inland delta, but you can see across it, for example, to spot Mount Diablo in the south—often amidst a layer of haze.

The preserve is almost treeless, as expected for prairieland. A few non-native eucalyptus trees are growing within its picnic and lecture square. Further, “tall, non-native towers” that suspend sizzling overhead power lines are part of the prairie terrain, which today is surrounded by agricultural land. A Self-Guided Nature Trail with numbered posts allows visitors to explore the grassland and the northern shore of Olcott Lake [3].

Olcott Lake and other, nearby vernal pools exist as alkaline water bodies during and shortly after the rainy winter season. Olcott Lake is larger than a typical vernal pool and is sometimes called a playa pool. When filled with water, the vernal pools teem with microscopic organisms, shrimp, salamanders, wading birds and migratory waterfowl. The bottom of Lake Olcott consists of water-impenetrable clay-like soil, such that rain runoff gets seasonally collected in the shallow pool—without seeping into the ground and maintaining a long-term water reservoir.

A lecture canvas fixed to the fence near the The Nature Conservancy plaque says that on rare occasion a coyote, racoon or beaver may be observed here. The canvas includes illustrations by Ann Ranlett showing the Fairy Shrimp. This shrimp species is legally protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, as are the Vernal Pool Tadpole Shrimp and the California Tiger Salamander.

Shoreline of dried-out Olcott Lake with plant distribution pattern
When I visited the area in early summer of this year, the water of Olcott Lake had evaporated completely. Since its shoreline is successively moving down into the lakebed while the water is receding, a banded shoreline pattern evolves each spring with plants distributed in dependence of the changing water level and the accumulation (precipitation) of dissolved salts. I am hoping to learn more about the interesting ecology of vernal pool plants on one of the guided tours next spring.

The preserve is named for botanist Willis Linn Jepson, who first described the vernal pool flora in 1892—80 years before enough momentum was gained to protect Olcott Lake, the surrounding prairie and its diverse plant- and wildlife [4].

Getting to the Jepson Prairie Preserve

The Jepson Prairie Preserve is located south of Dixon and east of Fairfield in Solano County, California. 

From I-80, on your way southwestbound from Sacramento, take the Dixon/Highway 113 exit and go south on Hwy 113 for about twelve miles. Where Hwy 133 turns east, continue south. Carefully cross the railroad tracks and find parking space next to the fenced eucalyptus square on your left.

From I-80, on your way northeastbound from the Bay Area, take the Suisun City/ Highway 12 exit and go east on Hwy 12. About eight miles east of Suisun City, turn left on Lambie Road. At its junction with Goose Road, turn left. At the Goose/Creed Road junction turn right and go east to the T-junction, at which Creed Rd. meets Hwy 113. Go north and then west on Hwy. 113, until you get to the point where Hwy. 113 turns north toward Dixon. Here, you want to turn left, go south, cross the railroad tracks and park at the eucalyptus square.

The Nature Trail gate is across the gravel road, west of the eucalyptus trees.

Gate of Nature Trail in Jepson Prairie Preserve
References and more to explore

[1] Katherine F. Mawdsley: Jepson Prairie Preserve Today. Fremontia January 2000, 27 (4), 52-55 [].
[2] UC Davis Natural Reserve System - Jepson Prairie Reserve [].
[3] Jepson Prairie Self-Guided Nature Trail:
[4] Solano Land Trust: Jepson Prairie Preserve []