Choosing a Hike

How do you go about choosing a hike?

I have used various approaches which always involve careful map study, perusing the pages of hiking guides, and most importantly for me—studying field guides. As I get older, choosing a hiking destination is becoming more critical, with so much to see and even more to learn.

Hiking in the King Range.
King Range hiking.

Over time, I have gone about choosing a hike based more as a destination for discovery before any other factor. I think I first caught the hiking-for-natural-discovery bug while selecting a backpacking route exclusively to see condors in the Sespe Wilderness of southern California. When I moved to Humboldt in 2002, I graduated from bird destinations to plant exploring as I began searching out rare and unusual conifer species in our local mountains. This regular wilderness sideline blossomed into a Master’s Degree from Humboldt State University when I published my first book Conifer Country: A natural history and hiking guide to the conifers of northwest California in 2012. For 10 years I hiked to find and understand trees. These trees, and the places they grow, helped me develop a deeper passion for place and an understanding of the unique natural history of northwest California.

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Record Monterey pine (Pinus radiata)

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Circumference of Humboldt County’s record Pinus radiata

I have known about this Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) for years.

Pines in a redwood forest? Yep!
Pines in a redwood forest? Yep!

In 2004, I first took my 7th graders from Fortuna Middle School to make observations in their science journals in the forest surrounding this beauty. I always knew it was big, but did not know it could be the largest of its species.

Champion Pinus radiata
Champion Pinus radiata

The history of the forest at Rohner Park is not well documented, but as luck would have it I found a few answers while measuring the tree. With laser rangefinder in hand, an old-timer from Fortuna was coincidentally walking past me and asked what I was doing. His understanding was that Boy Scouts had planted a handful of pines in the area after the old-growth redwood forest was logged by cross-cut saw–in the years just before the invention of the chain saw in the 1920s. That would mean that these trees were, most likely, planted between 1900-1920. This makes the Monterey pines here, and the mature second-growth redwood forest, nearly 100 years old.

It is an impressive tree, competing with the forest giants of the North Coast like redwoods, Douglas-firs, and grand firs. Conditions must be right for this pine to survive among these other shade-tolerant trees. Pines, remember, are usually not shade-tolerant. That being said, if this tree was planted before the redwoods re-grew after logging in the early 1920s, then it got a head start and grew tall, in a race for light, against the other species in the park. Amazing stuff, to see a 160′ pine eking out an existence in the rainforest!

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San Gabriel Mountains Presentation

Plant Exploring in the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument

Wednesday, May 11, 2016 @7:30 p.m. at the Arcata Masonic Lodge

From the California Native Plant Society North Coast Chapter:

Explorer, writer, and educator Michael Kauffmann will lead us on a journey into the Transverse Ranges of southern California to explore the world of what John Muir called the steepest mountains in which he ever hiked. Michael’s explorations began because of a Bigcone Douglas-fir mapping and monitoring project he is leading in conjunction with California Native Plant Society, but these studies have allowed him to make more discoveries–from one of the world’s largest oaks to the most isolated grove of Sierra junipers in the world. Michael will take us on a photographic journey from the mountain tops to the river canyons across one of the nation’s newest national monuments.

San Gabriel Mountains

Klamath Mountain Snowpack

Pondering the 2016 hiking season…

I have tracked how Klamath Mountain snowpack is correlated with the beginning of summer hiking season since 2003. In 2009 I started the Bigfoot Trail on the summer solstice, and it worked out perfectly—I found the perfect mix of snow, open trail, and manageable river crossings. 2010 was a late snow year and June was only open for hiking in the Southern Siskiyous. In 2011 I began a section hike from the Trinity Alps to the Siskiyous on June 29th in a snowstorm and we trekked across snow for nearly two weeks while in the Trinity Alps and Marble Mountains. Our time also included numerous, often stressful, fords of raging rivers in the low-country. What follows is an analysis of the El Niño winter we are emerging from and what snowpack trends seem to be saying about the 2016 hiking season.

2011-Alps
2011 section hike — crossing Stuarts Fork in the Trinity Alps and snowfields in the Marble Mountains

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California’s Botanical Landscapes

A PICTORIAL VIEW OF THE STATE’S VEGETATION

By Michael G. Barbour, Julie M. Evens, Todd Keeler-Wolf, John O. Sawyer

I am very fortunate to have been a part of the book project now in print titled CALIFORNIA’S BOTANICAL LANDSCAPES: A PICTORIAL VIEW OF THE STATE’S VEGETATION (CNPS Press 2016, $39.95). Over the past 5+ years this book has evolved through volunteer efforts as a service to those passionate about California’s flora. The book is dedicated to Humboldt State University botany professor and North Coast CNPS founder John O. Sawyer. I am honored to have contributed time to the project with photographs for many of the ecoregions as well as coauthoring the Klamath Mountain chapter with Sawyer. This new book surveys our state’s native vegetation with photos and text exploring each of 14 ecoregions across the state. It includes a wide array of photographs of broad-scale vegetation patterns paired with in-depth, interpretive descriptions written by California’s top plant ecologists. 

California's Botanical Landscapes
California’s Botanical Landscapes

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Owen Cheatham Redwood Grove

Or…Why Star Wars fans should love conifers–especially redwoods

Return of the Jedi had a major influence on my experiences as a youth. I wanted to be able to use the force like Luke Skywalker, as do many children again in 2016. The Star Wars phenomenon has trickled down to our 3 year-old son from his Kindergarten classmates at Montessori as well, so we decided to seize the day and go for a hike that combined the legend of the force with the power of the redwoods, and explore where science fiction meets natural history.

redwood needles and cones

Redwoods might just be the grandest species in the plant world—from top to bottom they are the epitome of grandeur. The tallest redwood is 379’ (and still growing), while one of the most massive redwoods is a mere 320’ but has a basal diameter of nearly twenty-six feet. Those are some impressive beings! The largest redwoods grow in northwest California, where they favor mountain slopes and river terraces close to the ocean while also being situated in the summer fog belt. Across the coastal landscape redwoods domineer a highly specific range—when soil, water, and exposure are optimal. The Owen Cheatham Redwood Grove is a great place to visit these giants.

In search of redwoods and film history in the Owen Cheatham grove.
In search of redwoods and film history in the Owen Cheatham Grove.

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San Gabriel Mountains – A Photo Tour

Celebrating the Bigcone Douglas-fir of the San Gabriel Mountains

After nearly a month of travel through one of the gems of Southern California, I’ve had enough time to reflect on all aspects of the journey–including the wonders of the wilderness and forest, as well as the state of the region. The San Gabriel Mountains remain wild, in large part, because of isolation due to slope. John Muir called them the steepest mountains he ever hiked in! It seems to me that the forests here are doing as well as they are, while our climate is rapidly changing, because of this isolation in slope. Forest pathogens travel much slower through heterogeneous landscapes with mixed stands of trees. Many of the Bigcone Douglas-fir stands we visited were in isolated on slopes of greater than 50º. Isolation sculpts the ecology of the mountain’s biota  in many ways, and makes life for Pseudostuga both easier and more difficult. That balance defines the ecological amplitude of many of the species on the California Floristic Province.

I’m still working on the full report for our findings, but in general it can be said that within region 1 of the map below, Bigcone Douglas-fir are not doing well. Elsewhere, they seem to be doing fine at the moment–especially if the species has been able to avoid high intensity fires. Reproduction is occurring at variable rates but they seem to like disturbed areas, like landslides, which the San Gabriels have no problem offering.
map-PSMA

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Manzanitas of the San Gabriel Mountains

Botanical Wonders of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.

Manzanitas are most commonly found across the Angeles National Forest on south-facing slopes where they are restricted to various mineral soils (most often granites). A. glandulosa appears in the front range from ~2,000-5,000 feet, A. patula in the higher elevations above ~7,000, A. parryana on the north slopes toward the Mojave from ~5,000-7,500, and A. glauca is common across the range but mostly on the north slopes adjacent to the Mojave from ~4,000-6,000. I never found Arctostaphylos pungens but it is within the range according to various sources.

What follows is a photographic journey through the San Gabriel Mountains to enjoy the spectacular places manzanitas grow.

glandulosa
Arctostaphylos glandulosa ssp. gabrielensis decorate the beginning of the Devil’s Canyon trail near Chilao Flat.

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Record Bigcone Douglas-firs

Exploring the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument

In my search to understand Bigcone Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga macrocarpa) within the Angeles National Forest, I found myself in secret canyons and along steep hillsides that few people have ever explored. I thus took it upon myself to document more than just our selected data plots for Bigcone. In previous posts, I’ve shared some of the large angiosperms I’ve run across. Here is the documentation of the second largest Pseudotsuga macrocarpa yet measured — a record Bigcone Douglas-fir.

This Bigcone was found on the edge of a wash called Holcomb Canyon within the Devil’s Punchbowl Natural Area. The tree is nearly as big around as the record specimen in Baldy Village but just not as tall. I have heard a rumor  that the Baldy tree lost some of its crown — so I wonder if the numbers I have for this tree are still correct. Regardless, the tree in the Punchbowl is much more dramatic, being that it is within the Pleasant View Ridge Wilderness and not in the middle of town!

Devils_PSMA

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Alnus rhombifolia

Alnus-Rhombifoilia-Kauffmann-blog2
Record white alder within the Pleasant View Ridge Wilderness.

I need to start by clarifying something: in last post about a giant Canyon Oak, I mentioned that I was not a big tree hunter. This post, a few days later, is about a big tree. I think I have become a big tree hunter…

Every day for the better part of the last two weeks, I have been walking through the San Gabriel Mountains getting to know Bigcone Douglas-fir as part of a project with the Angeles National Forest and the California Native Plant Society. I’ll post more about that in the near future. For now, lets look at the white alder (Alnus rhombifolia) I measured in the Pleasant View Ridge Wilderness within the San Gabriel Mountain National Monument while working on that project. Stats on the past record tree can be found HERE.

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Canyon Live Oaks of Southern California

The Transverse Ranges hold some of the largest oaks in North America

I fell in love with this Canyon Live Oak (Quercus chrysolepis) in 2002 while training to prepare myself to hike the Continental Divide Trail. One fateful night I inadvertently camped near it along a stream called Prairie Gulch. The tree has lived in my dreams ever since. In November 2015, the opportunity to return, revisit and measure the oak was offered  while doing a botany project in the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.

The San Gabriel Oak
The San Gabriel Oak

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Del Norte County Manzanitas

A subduction event.

One of the most interesting geologic stories in western North America is told by the ultramafic  rocks that were formed deep in the ocean floor. As the Pacific Plate collided and dove beneath (subduction) the North American Plate, the bottom layers from deep oceanic mantle were scraped (obduction) onto the North American Plate. These depositions are referred to as ophiolites and the Klamath Mountains present some of the most extensive examples on Earth.

Serpentines of the High Divide with Jeffrey Pine and Knight's Pinemat Manzanita -- by John O. Sawyer.
Serpentines of the High Divide with Jeffrey Pine and Knight’s Pinemat Manzanita in the foreground– by John O. Sawyer.

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San Gabriel Mountains National Monument

Bigcone Douglas-Fir (Pseudotsuga macrocarpa) in the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument — Part two

The 346,177 acre San Gabriel Mountains National Monument was dedicated in October 2014 by a proclamation by President Obama after nearly 10 years of work to get it established.  It contains the Sheep Mountain Wilderness, the San Gabriel Wilderness, and Pleasant View Ridge Wilderness as well as most of the major peaks including Mount San AntonioMount Baden-Powell, and Throop Peak.

I’ve been contracted by the US Forest Service, in partnership with the California Native Plant Society, to map Bigcone Douglas-fir in the monument as well as write a technical report about our findings. We did initial reconnaissance last week and will return later this year to initiate the project’s data collection phase. What follows are images from our trip across the range to meet the species and the monument.

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Looking deep into the San Gabriel Wilderness.

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Bigcone Douglas-fir

Pseudotsuga macrocarpa

Because I will undoubtedly be making more posts about PSMA, as I embark further into a mapping and monitoring project in the San Gabriel Mountain National Monument, I thought a post that provides an overview of this amazing species would be in order.

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Bigcone Douglas-fir in the San Gabriel Mountains.

It has been called the desert fir (Jepson 1920), bigcone spruce (Munz 1959), false hemlock (Sargent 1884), and ultimately bigcone Douglas-fir (Abrams 1923). Clearly there was confusion as to this species relationship to other members of Pinaceae. It is now described as a Pseudotsuga, being ecologically distinct from its taxonomically complex western North American counterpart, Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). In addition to bigcone in Southern California, five other species of Pseudotsuga occur across Canada, USA, Mexico, Japan and China.

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San Dimas Experimental Forest

Bigcone Douglas-Fir (Pseudotsuga macrocarpa) in the San Gabriel Mountain National Monument — Part one

I have always wanted to visit the San Dimas Experimental Forest and as part of a mapping and monitoring project for bigcone Douglas-fir, I finally had the opportunity. The “forest” descriptor in the area’s title is a bit misleading, as the majority of the vegetation is chaparral–but there are trees and it was our mission to find them (or at least what remains). Six major fires have been documented here since 1914, with the most recent occurring about 10 years ago. These fire events, along with climate change, are rapidly reshaping the remaining stands of trees. What follows is a photographic journey into the front range foothills of the eastern San Gabriel Mountains.

Cucamonga Wilderness from the San Dimas Experimental Forest.
Cucamonga Wilderness from the San Dimas Experimental Forest.

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The Maine Woods

This was one of the most relaxing vacations I’ve had since we visited Hawai’i several years ago. There was no work to be done, no agenda to maintain–just time to swim, rest, and of course botanize and bird the Maine woods (click HERE for my bird list). I had one target plant to find in Maine–Kinnikinnick. I wanted to see a manzanita on the East Coast. This might have been the most difficult part of the vacation, being as it took me nearly 10 days to find the species! But on the second-to-last day, in Acadia National Park on the summit of Cadillac Mountain, we found it under a layer of fog. What follows are some images from the trip. Happy Plant Exploring.

Kinnickinick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) in Maine.
Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) in Maine.
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Yolla Bolly Permutations

pərmyo͝oˈtāSH(ə)n

The action of changing the arrangement, especially the linear order, of a set of items (what came first, the conifer or the cone?)


Wandering Devil’s Hole Ridge, miles from anything human, the landscape shifts as quickly as the juncos dancing across the trail. Walkabouts bring a level of focus not found in civilization. Walking offers time to hypothesize about the world at a slower pace…How recently did the vegetation patterns I see come to be? When did the Ash-throated flycatcher arrive from its tropical winter-land? How did I find myself in this desolate, isolated place–seven years after I last visited–and so far from my family? Like the undulating contours on the ridgeline, I ponder my place in this dynamic world. Walking further I realize, while out of place, I am fortunate to be here with time to think.

Along the Bigfoot Trail in the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness
Along the Bigfoot Trail in the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness

Seeing the trees through the forests, the birds in those trees, and then this vast landscape through my astigmatized-wide-angle glasses; thoughts swirl through my mind. The first few hours allow time to come to terms with my isolation and my body’s age (I’m moving slower than when I was here in my 30’s). Slowly my mind settles into place, in the wilderness. I ponder plant migrations and vegetation patterns as a student of biogeography. A few miles later my mind drifts towards systems of order (and disorder) that are established out here. This is where true place-based interpretations begin to solidify: my understanding of wilderness and how I’ll never truly fit in among it. Then comes the delineation of rarity. I am a rare human here–among the trees, sky and soil–but this fanciful journey is for the rare plants of the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel.

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San Bruno Mountain Manzanitas

Manzanitas of San Bruno Mountain County Park – An island of Artctostaphylos endemism

This region is the epicenter for “localized endemism” in manzanitas. Two manzanita species are found on this mountain and nowhere else (A. pacifica and imbricata) and both share space and time with a distinct form of bear-berry (A. uva-ursi), the equally rare Montara Mountain manzanita (A. montaraensis) and the more common brittleleaf manzanita (A. crustacea). The San Francisco Bay area is at the center of the range of biodiversity for the genus Arctostaphylos–which extends from just north of the Oregon-California border southward to northern Baja California, Mexico. Other nearby Bay Area rarities include the Franciscan manzanita (A. franciscana), Presidio manzanita (A. montana ssp. ravenii), and Marin manzanita (A. virgata) to name a few.

Downtown San Francisco, seen from San Bruno Mountain County Park.
Downtown San Francisco, seen from San Bruno Mountain County Park.

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Manzanitas of San Luis Obispo County

SLO down and botanize

Excerpts below from Field Guide to Manzanitas

In the California Floristic Province, the genus Arctostaphylos is a particularly fine illustration of how long-term dispersal events lead to colonization and consequent adaptive radiation in a group of plants. Fossil records show that this genus has been migrating and adapting to climatic shifts for at least 15 million years. However, only in the past few million years has Arctostaphylos, commonly called manzanita for its berries’ resemblance to small apples, found its promised land. The California Floristic Province’s exceptionally diverse range of habitats, particularly of ones that provide a taste of the suboptimal, is perfect for manzanitas. A synergistic mix of climate stability, soil variability, topographic volatility, and fire frequency provides the perfect alignment of biotic and abiotic factors. Like many other California evergreens (including my beloved conifers!) these hardy plants have benefited from inhospitable environments wherein competition from many plants is reduced and their own adaptability to poorer growing sites allows them to thrive. This, somewhat ironically, has made the unassuming “little apple” the most species-rich shrub genus in the California Floristic Province.

Arctostaphylos pilosula
Arctostaphylos pilosula – an endemic species to the San Luis Obispo region.

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Cone Peak Conifers

Los Padres National Forest – Ventana Wilderness

The Santa Lucia Mountains offer a magical landscape. Uplifted dramatically above the Pacific Ocean, sculpted by frequent fire return intervals throughout the Holocene, and decorated with interesting plants–the landscape tells stories reflected in deep time. Plants both evolutionarily new and old can be found across a variety of vegetation types. Steep north-facing mountainsides offer a rarity here: the absence of high-intensity fire. This happens because the steepness inhibits fuel loading in the understory. These cool microsites nurture two relict conifers–the Santa Lucia fir being one of the rarest firs in the world.

Cone Peak is in the Los Padres National Forest on the edge of the Ventana Wilderness
The Los Padres National Forest on the edge of the Ventana Wilderness.

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