Mount Linn–also called South Yolla Bolly Mountain–is the highest point in the Coast Range of northern California. It is located to the west of Corning but the area might as well be a world away from the population centers of the state; it is rarely noticed by travelers as they drive Interstate 5. Once off the interstate, scenic forest service roads still take nearly 2 hours to wind to the trailhead. I revisited this fine mountain in July of 2016 to set up a photo-monitoring plot along the Bigfoot Trail and took the time to also map the vegetation on the mountain–particularly the grove of foxtail pines near the summit. This is one of the smallest (12 acres) and most isolated groves for the entire species and one that I am very much concerned about due to climate change. Shasta firs are encroaching upon the trees as snowpack declines and temperatures warm. I was happy to see the trees doing well and many young foxtails sprouting up–just not as many as there are young firs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My high school biology teacher inspired my love for natural history. After hiking the Continental Divide Trail, I fell in love with long-distance hiking. The The Bigfoot Trail combines the two.
Eminent botanist John O. Sawyer and I once discussed the lack of connectivity between the wilderness areas in the Klamath Mountains. This led us to pour over maps, talk rare plants, and plan a path that would connect these wild places. In 2009, I first walked this route and over the past few years have re-hiked various pieces to “finalize” the trek I call the Bigfoot Trail. This project combines long-distance hiking and natural history by defining a thru-hike in one of the most species-rich temperate coniferous forest on Earth.
I recently launched a Kickstarter Campaign to fund the establishment of the Bigfoot Trail Alliance (BFTA) as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. The BFTA will create a community committed to constructing, promoting, and protecting—in perpetuity—the Bigfoot Trail. I am asking you, noble reader, to become a founding member of this organization.
In my time living in northwest California, I have fallen deeply in love with the uniqueness of the Klamath Mountains. So much so that I wrote a natural history and hiking guide called Conifer Country which documents and celebrates the region. While writing that book, I hiked thousands of miles in search of wild trees.
The trail begins on the subalpine slopes of the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness, traverses the Klamath’s most spectacular peaks, crosses all its wild rivers, and ends at the edge of the continent in the temperate rainforest. It highlights all that Conifer Country has to offer.
I believe that by establishing this route—and ultimately the BFTA—a deeper understanding and awareness will be fostered for this region. This trail, and organization, is about the other biota who live in the Klamath Mountains—ultimately to function as stewards for their protection.
Please follow this link to join the campaign to establish the Bigfoot Trail.
This info-graphic explores the long and storied history of bringing evergreen conifers into our homes near the end of each calendar year. From the tradition’s beginnings in northern Germany as the Yule Tree to the creation of the artificial tree, read on to explore the origins and evolution of our unique love affair with conifers.
When choosing destinations for exploration, isolation has always been an important element in the algorithm. At this point in my Western explorations I’ve been to most mountain ranges in search of solitude and biological uniqueness. So, when the opportunity arose for a fall trip with some college friends, I keyed in on a mountain range I’d never visited mid-way between Arcata, California and Livingston, Montana—deep within Nevada’s High Rock-Black Rock desert.
North America holds two of the most species-rich temperate forests in the world: those of the southern Appalachian and Klamath mountains. What do these locations have in common? Glaciers and seas did not completely cover them during the Cenozoic and the mountains were monadnocks, or islands above the plains, offering temperate refuges to plants and animals over time. Both locations have historically maintained a moderated climate. These areas are beyond the southern terminus of the enormous continental ice sheets of the Pleistocene. Some plants undoubtedly remained in these regions through historic climatic change, while other species repeatedly moved in as climate cooled and glaciers pushed southward and then moved out following glaciers northward. These dynamic fluctuations have cradled plant diversity in these two unique regions.
The current consequences of these historical patterns are that the Klamaths and southern Appalachians have grand floristic diversity, a concentration of endemic plants, and a fundamental importance to the forest floras of nearby regions (Whittaker 1960). Per unit area, the Klamath Mountains and the southern Appalachian Mountains hold more plant taxa than any others in North America. Plant genera such as Cornus (dogwoods), Asarum (wild ginger), and various conifers (Pinus, Abies, Thuja, Chamaecyparis) grow a continent apart while providing a comparative glimpse of an ancient flora.
My family and I made a Connecticut “migration” in July of 2014 to visit family near New York city. While I was looking forward to family time, I wondered if there could possibly be and natural, wild space anywhere near the largest population center in the country. A google search revealed that Connecticut does indeed have a few Natural Landmarks that preserve and celebrate the states geological and ecological heritage. I picked one to visit that was relatively close to our “home” as well as one that celebrates one of the most ancient lineages of plants on Earth – a conifer!
There are celebrated regions of the Klamath Mountain–preserved and maintained for our enjoyment as monuments or wilderness–and there are others with little or no designation beyond National Forest land. How does the outdoor enthusiast find these little-known places? In the case of the isolated botanical areas of the Scott Mountain Crest, the main route in and out is on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Walker Ridge has been on my plant exploration list for many years. I had repeatedly heard about the rare plants, serpentine landscape, and epic wildflower displays that could be found along the ridge and in the adjacent Bear Valley. I also read about a proposal to designate the region as Serpentine National Park which, at the time, was a radical approach to try to halt a major wind turbine project slated for the ridgeline. I was excited to finally explore this place and to locate what has been called the largest stand of McNab cypress in the world. What I found was something entirely different.
Part two of whitebark pine negative reports in the Trinity Alps Wilderness
As mentioned in my last post, part of last summer’s whitebark pine conservation assessment and mapping project involved predicting location where the species might occur but was not yet documented. While I found success with some predictions, others turned into negative reports with “ground-truthing.” One negative report was in the Trinity Alps Wilderness around Stonewall Pass, another was in the Foster and Lion lakes region where I based my prediction on the significant landmass above 7,500′.
Part of last summer’s whitebark pine conservation assessment and mapping project involved predicting location where the species might occur but had not yet been documented. While I found success with some predictions, others turned into negative reports with “ground-truthing.” One of these areas was in the Trinity Alps Wilderness around Stonewall Pass where I predicted WBP would occur because there is significant landmass above 7,500′.
The geology of the Stonewall Pass region is built from a majority of mafic and ultramafic rocks. Granite and Gibson peaks are themselves granite, but the remainder of the landscape is composed of serpentine, which makes survival difficult for many species. Interestingly, whitebark pine are found on the serpentine of the Scott-Trinity Mountains around China Peak and Mount Eddy, but it turns out they are absent from the Stonewall Pass serpentines. Whitebark’s absence on the granite of Gibson and Granite peak is most likely due to the size of the inhabitable area offered by the small granite plutons here as well as the increased competition from granite-loving species like mountain hemlock and Shasta fir.
Timbered Crater has been on my list to visit for some time now. Exploring the Medicine Lake Highlands at the end of a week of field work searching for whitebark pine (more coming soon on this one), I found myself close enough to justify a stop here on my return to HWY 299 and ultimately the coast. It is a difficult place to find in many ways, since signs are all but non-existent, but the extent of the Baker cypress groves (7,000+ acres!) make the trees easy enough to find with a small amount of adventure.
Timbered Crater is the type-locality for Baker cypress, an exotic location for relict vernal pools, and ultimately a crossroads for Cascade and Great Basin species. Read more by Todd Keeler-Wolf in his Research Natural Area report. It is also recommended as a wilderness study area–probably because of the lava flows make penetrating road-building nearly impossible. Hopefully wilderness designation will come to fruition, especially since there aren’t too many topographically flat wilderness areas–anywhere.
What follows are a few pictures, tinged by drifting smoke from the Salmon River and Oregon fires.
AUTHOR: Joyce Mary Mary
DATE: 8/13/2013 4:12:43 PM
These pictures are great. You have chosen to live such an interesting life. You mother must be very proud of you!
With love and admiration, Mom
AUTHOR: Michael E. Kauffmann
DATE: 8/14/2013 2:18:41 PM
Aw, geez, thanks Mom.