The San Francisco Layover

So we’ve been off trail and in Morro Bay/San Francisco now for more days than I can count – thanks to Sara’s friend for a place to stay, we could easily stay here even longer.  The food is too good, especially with the added hiker hunger.  But the trail is calling and we’ve been itching to get back to the hiking and out of the big city.  

We’ve been vigilantly scouring Facebook, Instagram, WhiteBlaze, and messaging friends on the trail to consider our next move.  While the snow seems like a challenge we can deal with, the rivers are getting more and more dangerous and unpredictable day by day.  After hearing about many people bailing, skipping ahead, or just having miserable times, we’ve decided to skip ahead about 390 miles, to South Lake Tahoe (by the time this posts, we’ll be on the trail in that section).  We’re gonna bring some of our snow gear, but get to (thankfully!) leave our bear canisters for now and use Ursack’s instead.  The plan is to come back and finish the Sierra’s in the late season – as an added bonus we’ll hopefully skip the mosquitos.  This has not been an an easy decision, but my gut is telling me its the right call.  No sense in taking on too much unecessary risk, the only benefit would be to my own ego.

With that said, we’ve been keeping active here and haven’t fallen completely into binging on luxuries.  Sara’s parents flew in from Michigan for a few days and teamed up with us for some microadventures.  Over the past couple weeks we’ve tackled:

  • Morro Bay/Morro Rock

  • Alcatraz Island

  • Muir Woods National Monument

Baby fox!

  • Muir Beach

  • Sutro Baths

  • Coit Tower
  • Golden Gate Bridge walk

  • Golden Gate Park – Tea Garden, Botanical Gardens
  • Rosie the Riveter WWII Homefront NP

  • Various section hikes of the San Francisco Bay Trail

  • Anchor Steam Brewing Tour
  • Dogpatch Boulders

And so on.  I tried to only list the things that involved being active, the food could probably use it’s own post.  But since this is more or less an adventure/hiking blog, I’ll just give one special mention to Bellota where I had my birthday dinner – damn good paella!

Of course we also spent quite a bit of time preparing for and figuring out this next stretch of our trip.  We probably went to REI or Sports Basement every other day.  We cleaned our gear while catching up on some Netflix.  I even got a hair cut!

Thanks again to Danielle and Lu for hosting and providing us with a place to stay! 

Expect our next blog post to be in a week or two from Quincy, CA.

Flora of the PCT: Desert Wildflowers Part 2

We’ve finally made it 700 (702.2 to be exact) miles through the desert and could not be more excited for the snow to come!  This section of desert tends to wear on people and for good reason.  The sun and heat are relentless and there are so many miles of burn. 

As grueling as these burn areas may be, they’re are also beautiful and full of life.  It’s easy to notice the towering burned trees, not as easy to notice some of the dwarf flowers like desert calico (Loeseliastrum matthewsii) and cushion cryptantha (Cryptantha circumscissa). 

Desert calico
Cushion cryptantha

Many desert plants have trichomes, or hair on their leaves and/or stems.  Some, like desert calico and cushion cryptantha, are spiny and unfriendly to the touch. Others, like two-color phacelia (Phacelia bicolor) and creamcups (Platystemon californicus) are more wooly and soft to the touch. 

Two-color phacelia
While trichomes peak my tactile interest, they also serve a purpose. The hairs can restrict insect movement and herbivory on leaves. They also reduce the rate of transpiration, or water loss, by reducing the amount of air that’s able to flow across the leaf surface. 

There are over 50 species of Lupinus in Southern California which is very exciting for a lupine lover like myself. These flowers are one of the first to repopulate an area after fire and bring some much needed color to the landscape. 

One of the most exciting finds in this section was this butterfly mariposa lily (Calochortus venustus).  These flowers are endemic to California, meaning they’re native and growth is restricted to particular areas. 

Butterfly mariposa lily

The desert mariposa lily (Calochortus kennedyi) is native to California, but not endemic. They are common in the Southwestern US and come in a yellow and orange variety. See Part 1 for orange.

Desert mariposa lily
Clarkia are difficult to capture on a good day with my iPhone due to their small nature and the wind. But they’re beautiful and also uncommon so we just have to deal with the poor quality. 

Elegant clarkia

Elegant clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata) and two-lobe clarkia (Clarkia biloba) can most easily be distinguished by their flower petal shape. Elegant clarkia petals are paddle shaped while two-lobe clarkia have heart shaped tips. 

Two-lobe clarkia
Very few days passed that we didn’t come across a species of Indian paintbrush (Castilleja).  In fact there are so many species of Indian paintbrush and lupine that I could spend six months trying to identify individual species. But there are miles to be made and just not enough time for that. 

This is a particularly red Indian paintbrush. I wish I could give an explanation as to why it’s so red, if anyone knows I’d love to hear! This genus of flowers are pretty incredible. Not only are they capable of growing in unforgiving landscapes, they do so with very small leaves. So how do they photsythesize and get nutrients you may ask?

Castilleja species are parasitic plants. Their roots have tubes called haustoria that absorb moisture and nutrients from other plant roots it comes in contact with. 
There are many species of Penstamon, another species that seems to be one of the first to colonize recently burned sections.

Showy penstemon
Showy penstemon of a pink variety

This wishbone bush (Mirabilis laevis) is in the same genus and Colorado 4 o’clock identified in Part 1.  They are a wonderful pop of color in areas dominated by Joshua trees and sagebrush.

Wishbone bush

In our time out here I’ve only spotted this single red-rayed alpinegold (Hulsea heterochroma).

Red-rayed alpinegold

Scale bud (Anisocoma acaulis) is very common in the Southern California desert. It also happens to be the only known/identified species of its genus. 

Scale bud

This mountain beebalm (Monardella odoratissma) became more common as we approached Kennedy Meadows. 
Mountain beebalm
This flower has a wonderful smell and like all other members of the mint family, has a square stem. 

And last, but certainly not least beautiful, is this speckled fairyfan (Clarkia cylindrica). 

Speckled fairyfan

Day 50 – Mile 702.2, Kennedy Meadows, CA

Well, technically San Francisco – the post title is a lie, but we did hike to Kennedy Meadows.  Sara and I are taking a break to check out the city, visit with family and friends, and switch up some gear for the next segment. I’ll probably make a future post on whatever our San Francisco adventure brings as well.

Back to the trail stuff – we actually made it to Kennedy Meadows, the gateway to the Sierras.  Ian is pushing forward into the snow and we await his info.  We’re all looking forward to the snow and new challenges!  Feels good to be done with the desert especially. “Scribe” has come up as a trail name possibility for me, though I probably should be recording more if that’s gonna stick.  Anyways, here’s some ramblings and pictures from the past several days.

Day 38 – Tehachapi zero day.  Only our second of the trip and we probably could have used a couple more.  Didn’t do anything too exciting other than ice my right shin, play on my phone, resupply, and enjoy climate control during the 100 degree heat of the day.  And we drank a bit of course.

Sunset, walking to the grocery store.

Day 39 – Lazy day around town, ate a bunch more food and sat in a park most of the day waiting out the 100 degree heat.  Headed back to the trail after dinner then night hiked back up into the hills to mile 573.2, where we camped.

Day 40 – Could have easily kept sleeping until I thought about the heat.  Hiked from 6:30-10:30 or so and waited out the heat near the only water source in this ~40 mile stretch.  After several hours of napping and snacking we quickly covered another 10 miles and camped in a beautiful grove at mile 593.

When there’s only one water source for ~20 miles in either direction, a bubble of hikers form.

Day 41 – Good trail all day – started with a bit of climbing but by afternoon had mellowed out.  A few thousand feet change in a day is pretty typical.  Plenty of water about today, we took a long afternoon break near a stream, then continued on another ~4 miles.  Hit 600 miles today; another hundred down.  Camped at Landers Meadow Camp, a popular ORV trail campground at mile 608.9.

Nothing like watching the sunrise without having to do more than open my eyes…

Day 42 – Out of the woods this morning after an easy ~10 miles and back to the desert.  Took a detour off trail mid morning, down a gully, to access water.  Other than a little easy scrambling – enough to make me miss climbing – it was an easy hike to a plentiful water source in this long dry stretch.  It’s 25 miles before the next source, so I have 5.5L, my biggest carry yet.  After a siesta in a nearby Joshua Tree we hiked another few miles, camping at mile 625.8 in the wind.

Of all the water meant for livestock that we drink, this had to be the cleanest.
Joshua tree siesta.

Day 43 – Started out the day with a quick 5 miles followed by a steep ~1700ft climb back into the trees.  Took a break in the pines mid afternoon the continued on to McIvers spring for water.  Nice to be down to only a couple liters on my back at a time again.  After stopping for water, we cooked dinner and hiked a little further.  Camped at mile 644.1.

This cache was amazingly thought out – water, food, TP, duct tape, tools, anything you might need in a pinch.

Day 44 – Hiked ~8 miles to Walker Pass and immediacy got a ride from a trail angel into Lake Isabella.  After some breakfast at a diner we headed to the grocery store to pick up a small resupply, then headed to an hiker friendly trailer park for some showers and shade.

Heading down into Walker Pass

Day 45 – Sara’s birthday today!  We had a lazy morning at the trailer park, stocked up on more food and beer, then waited until we could find a ride to the Paradise Cove Lodge.  Once we got there, we were thrilled to have a big, clean, A/C filled room, but disappointed the restaurant and bar was closed until Wednesday – we’d heard their prime rib was incredible.  Walked down to the lake and ordered some pizza, which was damn good as well!

Probably the nicest room and view yet!
Obligatory picture of us.
Michigan beer in the So Cal desert?

Day 46 – Another lazy morning.  Hitched our way into town again, mostly to pick up Ian’s new tent at the now open PO.  After another trip to Vons for snacks we hitched back to the hotel.  Ian seam sealed his new tent and Sara and I lounged around.

Another picture of Lake Isabella – apparently this several mile long lake was just a trickle of a river last year.

Day 47 –  Yet another lazy morning!  At the pace we’ve been going it feels strange, but comes well deserved.  Got every pennies worth of our hotel then tried taking the bus back to the trail head.  After a few minutes at the bus stop, we got picked up by the same guy who had given us a ride the day before!  He was in town visiting his girlfriend who’s on the PCT, but since he rented a truck, he’s been doing the trail angel thing around town.  Can’t thank people like this enough!  Felt good to be back on the trail despite some rain as we hiked.  The rain and wind died down late afternoon and we camped on a saddle at mile 656.9.

Thru hikers typically look happy after a rest day.
Blue sky starting to show…

Day 48 – More hiking, more siestas and another normal thru hiking day.  Beautiful evening;  camped on a saddle again at mile 676.2.

Day 49 – Highs and lows.  Knee hurt like crazy all day out of nowhere.  Hiking was nice early in the morning but quickly turned to burn area and intense sun.  Coupled with a painful knee, my day wasn’t great.  But we hiked 17.6 miles and found a little shade that tuned into good campsite as the sun went down.  Mile 693.5.


Playing around with headlamps and cameras.

Day 50 – Hit mile 700;  arrived at Kennedy Meadows (South)!  Significant landmark on the PCT, the entrance to the Sierras.  No signal or wifi anywhere around but we got a ride over to Grumpy Bear’s for some breakfast burgers and beer.  Checked out Yogis new “Triple Crown Outfitters” across the street then hung out at the general store looking for a ride.  An awesome woman from Wisconsin offered to drive us to Lake Isabella – we got there with 5 minutes to spare before the last bus to Bakersfield, CA left!  Mid way to Bakersfield the bus broke down, but we eventually made it to a hotel and the start of our first PCT side trip.
Shortly after this we passed two more 700 mile markers, so who knows where it really is.

Fauna of the PCT: Desert

We’ve nearly finished with the desert section of California.  While we’re all looking forward to the Sierras, the desert has been its own kind of beautiful to us Michiganders. There’s been so much wildlife; herptiles (reptiles & amphibians), birds, mammals and insects. While they’re harder to capture than plants, some (mostly reptiles) have been quite photogenic. 

Like this little horned lizard cheesin’ harder than me
Many lizards we catch quickly scurrying away into some brush. However some, like these horned lizards (Phrynosoma spp.), tend to freeze as their predatory response. 

From a distance they blend in incredibly well and don’t seem to be afraid of trekking poles.  However they do seem to fear me picking them up and promptly scatter.  

Western fence lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis) are more common and much easier to spot. 

Light phase adult male with bright turquoise dorsal spots
I rescued this one from a trash can
It too has some bright dorsal spots
Dark phase adult
 Their blood contains a protein that kills Lyme Disease bacterium. Meaning infected ticks that feed on the lizards are cleansed of the pathogen. 

More common and skiddish than the fence lizards are common side blotched lizards (Uta stansburiana).  Males and females of this species exhibit different color morphs, each indicative of their mating and reproductive strategies.

Blue throated male on a cool morning
Yellow throated male with side blotch
Orange throated males are the largest, control the most territory and do not form strong pair bonds. They mate with numerous females and fight blue throated males for their mates. 

Blue throated males do not produce as much testosterone as their orange counterpart, making them smaller and able to form strong pair bonds. These males have smaller territories and are more guarded of their females. 

Yellow throated males are the smallest of the three morphs and mimic female coloration. This allows them to approach and mate with females while orange throated males are distracted. 

A gravid female
Female yellow morph breeding colors
This yellow morph female is gravid, meaning she is carrying eggs or pregnant in mammalian terms.  Color morph in this species, yellow or orange, determine the size of their egg clutch. 

At Eagle Rock I came across a more rare lizard species, the granite spiny lizard (Sceloporus orcutti).  They can be found basking on rock outcrops in their small range of Southern California. 

A second is hiding back in the shadows

On a sunny day their scales appear metallic and feature a wide range of colors. Though darker phase males and females may appear more drab. 

Perched high on a granite boulder

These lizards are apprehensive of other species (especially humans) and are very skilled climbers. 

These prehistoric looking alligator lizards (Elgaria multicarinata) have been much less common and generally don’t stick around long enough for pictures. There are three different subspecies with blue, yellow and red color morphs.  

Blue morph
Yellow morph 📷 courtesy of Ian Copenhaver
Unlike many other species of lizards, these lizards do not typically bask in the sun or perform elaborate mating displays.

Our first real animal encounter was a rosy boa (Lichanura trivirgata) that this gentleman ahead of us found. 

He said they’re rare sightings and seemed to know what he was talking about. A couple days later we came across some other hikers stopped for a snake they weren’t sure about. I was excited to inform them it was another rosy boa! 

Not as great a picture…

Somewhere around mile 200 I encountered my first rattlesnake.  We were equally startled by each other as I rushed past. I didn’t expect the rattle to sound like it does in movies, that almost fake sounding baby’s rattle. 

About a week later we encountered this rattler coiled up under a shrub right next to the trail. 

Rattlesnake #2

While we were able to easily skirt the trail around it, this was probably the most terrifying one we came across. At no point did it rattle, just sat there coiled in striking position.

That same day we saw this rattler crossing a dirt road below us. 

Rattlesnake #3
 But before we saw any rattlers that day, Josh and Ian walked right past a gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer) stretched out, tail in the trail. 

And then on our final push into Tehachapi they nearly missed another gopher snake. 

And finally, this scene was hard to miss…​​​​​​​

While I haven’t gotten any amphibian pictures, there are more of them out here than I anticipated.  There are 8 species of salamander is Southern California, but we have not been so lucky to see any. Around wet campsites we’ve heard frogs calling and seen toads hopping about. 

At mile 386 the trail has been closed to protect the endangered mountain yellow legged frog (Rana muscosa)
Birding while doing this kind of hiking has proven difficult. If I had more of an ear for calls I could rattle off numerous species of birds. But field ID is hard and my hearing sucks. 

On our way to Whitewater Preserve at mile 218 I caught a hawk soaring through the valley.

Then I rounded the corner and was surprised by said hawk. 

So I obviously took a selfie. 

Or tried to at least…

Here’s a short list of birds I’ve been able to identify:

  • American crow (and lots of them)
  • Mountain bluebird
  • American goldfinch
  • Tree swallow
  • California trasher 
  • California scrub-jay
  • Stellar’s jay
  • Pinyon jay
  • Northern harrier
  • American kestrel
  • Red tailed hawk
  • Cooper’s hawk 
  • Several humming bird spp.
  • Several woodpecker spp.
  • Several swallow spp.

Mammals have also been difficult to photograph, but there’s been plenty evidence of them in the form of scat. 

You could still feel the heat coming off this scat
This scat has been baking in the sun for a while
Most of the scat has been fox and coyote, but we have come across some very large ones that might suggest mountain lion.  We’ve heard many coyote yipping at night and finally saw one around mile 600. 

There have been a good deal of mice. Luckily none of them have tried to get into our food. When we set up camp after finishing our night hike of the LA aqua duct I must have seen a dozen kangaroo mice with my headlamp.

This pocket mouse was motionless in the trail and probably became an easy meal
We haven’t come across too many terrifying spiders, most small and semingly harmless. My single tarantula sighting came within the first hundred miles.  It was early in the morning and I think we were both too tired to understand what was happening. 

There have also been pretty things like butterflies. I’ve seen numerous monarchs, swallowtails and California sister butterflies, but most are skilled in evading my pictures. 

Variable checkerspot (Euphydryas chalcedona)
 I shared the trail with this Jerusalem cricket (Stenopelmatus fuscus) for a short jaunt. Not technically a cricket, this might be more familiar to most as a potato bug. 

While they’ll eat all the potatoes in your garden, they also eat other insects and plant material
Another deceiving insect was this female thistle down velvet ant (Dasymutilla gloriosa).

My initial thought was that it was a flightless bee. Further research led me to a velvet ant. Which isn’t an ant at all, but a wasp.  The females, unlike males, don’t have wings, but make up for that lack of defense with a painful sting. 

Their larvae are parasitic, meaning they feed on a host. For the thistle down velvet ant, those hosts are sand wasps. The female simply drops her eggs in the nest of a sand wasp and the velvet ant larvae consumes the sand wasp larvae before emerging. 

Another parasitic insect species we’ve frequently come across are great golden digger wasps (Shpex ichneumoneus). 

This was an unexpected and very exciting moment to catch.  This female digger wasp creates many small tunnels as she prepares to lay eggs. When ready she stalks, stings and paralyzes her prey (the caterpillar in this video).  Once immobile, she clasps onto the prey with her mandibles (mouth parts) and flys/drags them back to a tunnel.  After inspecting the tunnel, she drags the prey in, lays an egg on it, exits and covers the tunnel.  The wasp larvae then feed on the immobilized, living prey before gaining the strength to emerge. 

We’ve seen so much cool stuff so far and can’t wait to see what the Sierras have in store for us. 

Day 37 – Mile 566.4, Tehachapi, CA

After another twelve more days of camping we are ready for a break!  Passed the 500 mile marker this segment and have done an impressive (for me at least) +104901/-105810 ft of elevation gain/loss since we started.  I’m sure that stat will skyrocket in the Sierras…

Day 26 – After a lazy morning in Wrightwood and many cups of coffee, we headed back to the trail and up Mount Baden-Powell – a solid 38 switchbacks.  Good weather all day – sun, shade, and a cool breeze.  Camped a few miles past the summit spur trail, near Mount Burnham, at mile 379.5.

Day 27 – Started out the day hiking along the ridge, eventually dropping down to Hwy 2 for a ~5 mile road walk due to trail closure.  After taking the Buckhorn Trail back to the PCT we hiked another mile or so to Cooper Canyon Camp, at mile 395.2.

Day 28 – Started out the day with ~10 miles of shaded trail with many vistas… and road crossings.  Thankfully, the Angeles Crest Highway is pretty low traffic.  The afternoon brought us through more burn area with tons of poodle dog bush – more in this segment than any we’ve hiked yet.  We eventually descended down to the Mill Creek Fire Station area and camped nearby, at mile 418.5.

Day 29 – Started out the day at around 6:15am with some awesome trail magic – hot coffee, McMuffins, and apple fritters right to the rest area we were camped by.  Nothing like some extra calories and caffeine to start the day!  Good weather all morning and afternoon, walked through burn areas in various stages.  Another day filled with poodle dog bush and poison oak on the trail, but we rain into a trail crew working on removing it.  Arrived early afternoon at the North Fork Ranger Station where we camped, mile 436.1.

Day 30 – Stopped at the Acton KOA just off trail for some breakfast ice cream then hiked into Agua Dulce.  Cool and sunny, no more shade on the trail – back to the desert.  After some pizza and salad, we camped at Hiker Heaven, a famous landmark just on the edge of town.  Nice to have a shower and wash the socks!  Amazing and generous hosts.  Mile 454.5.

Day 31 – After a lazy morning in Hiker Heaven, we walked back into Agua Dulce and grabbed some delicious food at “Homemade.”  After a cool, cloudy, and rainy ~12 mile walk back into the hills, we camped at mile 465.9.

Day 32 – Woke up in the clouds, and packed up wet.  Walked a good 12 miles to Green Valley and got a ride into town.  Unbeknownst to us, there was a cafe in town and we promptly got all the hot food we could eat.  After stocking up on a few more meals/snacks at the store nearby, we dried out our gear in the sun and headed back to the trail.  After 8 or so more miles we camped in a valley at mile 485.7.

Day 33 – Partly cloudy and cool today, with a decent wind.  Made it to the 500 mile marker!  Or a few of them at least – there’s the official one, then the 500th mile according to Guthook/Hilemile apps.  Then whatever our personal 500th mile is/was, figuring in a fire reroute and some other blue blazing.  Saw a sand storm off in the distance.  Interesting rainwater bin as a water source – we skipped the previous one as it had a decomposing fox (?) in it.  By late afternoon we were ready to camp and found a sunny but breezy site at mile 503.

Day 34 – Easy ~15 miles in the morning through woods and down into the desert.  Stopped at Hiker Town, a unique hostel and refuge from the heat for the afternoon.  After picking up a few more days of food and a couple hot meals at the nearby market, we had a couple drinks and set out on the aqueduct.  Nice to see the sunset followed by some stars as we hiked the flat water way.  Camped by the aqueduct at mile 529.3.

Day 35 – Slept in a little then hiked to Tylerhorse Canyon, the last water before our hitch into Tehachapi.  Biggest water carry yet personally, at 5.5L.  After a few more miles in the evening, we camped at mile 545.1.

Day 36 – Hiked for a bit early morning then stopped at what shade we could find for the now routine afternoon siesta.  Pushed another 7 or so miles early evening, then camped amongst the wind turbines at mile 562.  Only a couple miles to go until town!  Looking forward to some coffee, breakfast, a shower, and laundry.

Day 37 – Nice sunrise view from the tent.  A quick four miles more of windfarm and we were at the highway.  A friendly gentleman was already there stocking a water cache with a couple gallons and happily drove us to our hotel.  Relaxing today in town and taking our second zero day here in Tehachapi, officially at mile 566.4 of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Note:  the WordPress app on iOS is pretty buggy, especially with longer posts containing more than a few images.  Due to this I am no longer able to caption images. Please excuse this and any other weird formatting errors!  And WordPress, please let me submit bug reports via your iOS app.

5/23 Update: WordPress has released an update to their app and we are able to caption images again!  Thank you!