Fauna of the PCT: NorCal

When we started the stretch from Echo Lake to Truckee I had no idea what to expect for wildlife.  This is the stretch where you can drop the bear canister, but that does not mean you’re out of bear territory.  At 7,000-9,000 ft there was a chance of seeing pika and marmot who are right at home in alpine environments. And wouldn’t you know, in our first couple hours on trail we spotted a marmot in a patch of snow.


Yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventris) are members of the squirrel family and one of the largest.  They live in colonies at high elevation and dig elaborate burrows. Marmots spend over half of their lives in hibernation and have developed some pretty cool adaptions to survive. Their body temperature can go down to 41 degrees F, their heart rate decreases to 30 beats/minute and they only need to take a breath or two/minute.

We did not see any pika, but I imagine there will be plenty when we make our way back to the High Sierras.

Unfortunately we didn’t encounter much else in this 60 mile stretch other than this curious evening grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus).

Evening Grosbeak

This female bounced around camp for a while searching for food before tiring of me following her.  Evening grosbeak have been observed eating 96 sunflower seeds in five minutes.

The following night at camp we endured a rainstorm and some hail.  Once the sky cleared we heard the territorial call of a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus).  The most widely distributed common owl in North America, they have adapted to live in in various climates from desert to tundra.

Hat Creek Rim and into Burney was full of birds. We took a break at Baum Lake where we spent our time cooling down and watching osprey (Pandion haliaetus) and white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) fishing about the lakes.  As we neared the junction for Burney Mountain Guest Ranch we scared off a barred owl (Strix varia) perched for its nightly hunt on the edge of the woods.

At Burney Mountain Guest Ranch we relaxed in the shade by this pond while we waited out the heat to hike.

It might not look like much, but this pond was full of life.  Dozens of species of dragonflies and damselflies darted back and fourth above the water after prey.  Pairs of acorn woodpeckers patiently waited in branches above the pond for their opportunity to strike an insect.  Beyond the pond a pair of California quail and their chicks scurried about the shade foraging for insects. Not an uncommon sight on the property as it used to be a quail farm.

While I had better luck capturing photos of birds this stretch, they can’t all be close ups.  So think of these next couple as an I spy type game…answers provided at the end!

This American goldfinch repeatedly perched in the willows and then flew off. It may have been foraging for insects, however these songbirds primarily feed on seeds.

American goldfinch

A few days later in the Shasta Trinity National Forest we stumbled upon one of the cutest and my personal favorite owls, a Northern saw-whet.

Northern saw-whet owl

These small owls are only 5-9 inches in height, but when threatened will elongate their body to appear like a branch.  When prey is plentiful it is not uncommon for them to eat only the head.  It may seem wasteful, but they also exercise food caching, meaning they will hunt prey and hide it in a safe place for winter.

Though we didn’t see nearly as many reptiles as we did through Southern California, there were more of them than I anticipated.  One very familiar species being the western fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis) and this one was actually on a fence!

Western Fence Lizard

A relative of the western fence lizard, but slightly smaller, is the sagebrush lizard (Sceloporus graciosis).  There are three different sub species of sagebrush lizard, western, northern and southern. My best guess is that this is the northern subspecies (Sceloporus graciosis graciosis).

Sagebrush lizard

During mating season males of both species perform push-ups to display their bright blue patches and ward off other competing males.  I wish I got a video that shows just how fascinating it is to watch two competing males run around in circles doing push ups.

Locals kept telling us to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes in this northern section of California.  It wasn’t until coming across this juvenile northern pacific rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus oreganus) that we realized we really should heed these warnings.

Northern Pacific Rattlesnake

Surprisingly, this is the only rattlesnake we came across in this section, but it was not without alarm.  While a juvenile rattler might not seem too frightening, at this age they have not shed enough layers for their rattler to be fully developed.  Not to mention it takes juveniles some time to learn how to control their venom sacks.  This means a bite could be dry or it could unload its entire venom sack.  Based on my trekking pole experiment, a bite from this guy or gal might have been dry.

Amphibians and insects were far more common in this stretch, something I’d attribute to seasonal changes more than location.  The most common amphibian we came across was the western toad (Anaxyrus boreas), more specifically the boreal toad subspecies (Anaxyrus boreas boreas). This northern section of California is where the geographic range of the boreal toad and California toad (Anaxyrus boreas halophilus) overlap.  These toads are easy to recognize from the light, sometimes yellow, dorsal strip running down their back.

Boreal Toad

Males of these species don’t have well developed vocal sacs, giving them a call similar to that of a peeping chick.  However unlike most frog and toad species, this call is less of a mating call for females than it is a territorial call for other males during mating season.

One of the first frogs we came across was the Sierra chorus frog (Psuedacris sierra), also commonly referred to as Sierran treefrog.

Sierra Chorus Frog

The latter name is not entirely accurate due to them primarily being ground dwellers.  Although they mostly reside at ground level, their large, sticky toe pads do allow them to easily climb trees and cling to branches.

Common throughout the United States and the largest frog in North America is the American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus).  While many might think of this as a native species, it’s historical range was actually east of the Rocky Mountains.  Bullfrogs became common throughout much of California (with the exception of deserts and high elevation) during the 1920’s when they were being farmed for legs.

American Bullfrog

​American bullfrogs have voracious appetites, eating anything they can swallow such as crustaceans, fish, small birds/mammals and other frogs (including other bullfrogs).  Sacs on the bullfrogs skin create toxins that make it unpalatable to many predators, making it one of the most successful invasive species in the west.

There were a few nights we were lucky to camp by water and fall asleep to the sweet serenade of calling frogs.  Although we didn’t get to camp at this small alpine lake it was bursting with frog life!


Frogs are semi-aquatic in that they spend half of their time in water and half of their time on land. ​ Toads are also semi-aquatic, however after morphing into adults they are primarily land dwellers.

Similarly to frogs and toads, caddisflies larva are aquatic.  Adult female caddisflies lay clusters of eggs on the underside of vegetation, just above the waters surface.  Once the eggs hatch, they fall into the water where they live out their larval and pupal stages.

This is a case building caddisfly in the order Trichoptera, they build cases out of rocks and/or twigs to protect their fleshy abdomen.  Caddisflies are shredders/scrapers/collectors, meaning they feed on algae and plant debris found in the water.  As a relative to moths, their final phase of complete metamorphosis involves attaching themselves to a submerged object and spinning themselves in silk.  Once fully developed, they float to the top of the water where they molt and emerge as terrestrial adults.

While we saw very few adult cicadas, we heard plenty and saw numerous casings.  This casing likely belonged to a dog day cicada (Tibicin canicularis), a species of cicada that emerges every year mid-summer.

Adult cicada lay their eggs on the branches of trees.  When the the nymphs hatch, they fall to the ground where they burrow under and feed on the juices of tree roots.  Nymphs will spend 3 years underground before emerging to molt their exoskeleton.  As adults cicadas do not feed, instead focus their energy purely on reproduction.

While we ate lunch one afternoon this California sister butterfly (Adelpha bredowii californica) joined us to feast on some salt from our backpacks.  Caterpillars of this species utilize oak trees as their host plant, particularly live oaks (Quercus agrifolia, wislizenii and chrysolepis).  As adults they are attracted to dung, puddles, rotten fruit, sap, and some flowers including California buckeye, dogbane, and goldenrod.

California Sister

Many species of butterflies “puddle” or seek out moist substrate to extract nutrients and minerals.  In most species it is just males that puddle, seeking out salts and minerals that get incorporated into their sperm.  In the case of the California sister butterfly, both sexes puddle.

Stay tuned for the much delayed flora and fauna of Oregon!

Flora of the PCT: NorCal Wildflowers Part II

Northern California exceeded my expectations in so many ways. The lush coniferous forests are home to an incredible number of flowers, some more familiar than others. 

Often seen as an ornamental, Washington or Shasta lilies (Lilium washingtonianum) are easily recognized peaking out a hillside. 

Shasta lily

This wonderfully fragrant lily is named after Martha Washington, it is not found in the state. We started seeing them around the time we saw views of Mount Shasta. I’d guess that explains the second common name, but can’t say that with certainty. 

Shasta lilies are found in montane forests and meadows, habitat they share with the Columbian lily (Lilium columbianum). 

Columbian lily
Known to many as tiger lily, a common name shared with several other species of its genus. 

A less recognizable species of lily we came across was Kelley’s lily (Lilium kelleyanum).  This species is distinct by the drooping tips of its whorled leaves and long red anthers. 

Kelley’s lily

Kelley’s lily is endemic to California where they grow primarily in wetlands and are pollinated by swallowtail butterflies. 

Another member of the lily family endemic to California is the Sierra Nevada fawnlily (Erythronium purpurascens). 

Sierra Nevada fawnlily

These small perennials grow at high elevations and bloom early in the season after snow melt.  Also known as purple fawnlily becuase the tepals turn purple with age. 

What are tepals you ask?  Before we can really talk about tepals, it’s important to know that one of the main characteristics of the lily family is that their flower parts are arranged in threes. While it may look like the previous species of lily have six petals, they have three petals and three sepals. When these parts are indistiguahable they’re referred to as tepals. 

This naked mariposa lily (Calochortus nudus) provides a good example of distingushed petals and sepals. The petals being the large white rounded parts and the sepals being the pointed white parts in between. 

Naked mariposa lily

This lily is named becuase of the lack of hairs on the petals that many other species of the genus have.  It is native to mountains of California and southwestern Oregon where grows in wet areas. 

Tolmie’s mariposa lily is a good comparison to show hairs on the petals as is common to the genus. 

Tolmie’s mariposa lily

Like many Chalochortus species, the bulb is edible and can be consumed raw or boiled. Not only were various species of these bulbs harvested by Native Americans, Mormon settlers ate them during their first couple years of settlement in The Great Salt Lake Valley after crop failure. 

Less readily recognized as a lily was Queen’s cup (Clintonia uniflora). Native to mountains of the northwest, this small flower can be found in the understory of coniferous forests. 

Queen’s cup

In late summer a single small blue berry develops. These berries are a favorite of ruffed grouse, but are poisonous to humans. 

These long stretches of coniferous forest were home to numerous species of the Heath (Ericaceae) family.  Members of the  heath family have alternating evergreen leaves and red or white bell shaped flowers with 4 or 5 parts. Plants in this family tend to grow in acidic or infertile soil which gives way to some cool adaptations. 

Pipsissewa or Prince’s pine (Chimaphilia umbellata) grows throughout the US in cool, moist forests.  This ground cover was traditionally used by Native Americans as a medicinal tea. 


Today it is commercially harvested in the Northwest where their leaves, stems and rhizomes (roots) are used for cola and root beer flavoring. 

While pipsissewa have green leaves, they do not receive a significant portion of their nutrients from photosynthesis. Rather they are partial myco-heterotroph, gaining nutrients from parasitism of fungi in the soil. 

Species of the genus Pyrola, like this whiteveined wintergreen (Pyrola picta) are also partial myco-heterotrophs. 

Whiteveined wintergreen

There’s a bit of controversy in the botanical world regarding the number of Pyrola species found in the US due to the following leafless member.

Leafless wintergreen
Some taxonomists recognize two species of wintergreen whiteveined and bog (Pyrola asarifolia) as being highly variable in their morphology.  Thus giving way to morphs such as this pink/white leafless wintergreen. But where does the controversy arrive you may ask?

Whiteveined wintergreen has greenish-white flowers, while bog wintergreen has pink.  This leafless variety tends to have both, therefore some consider it an entirely seperate species. I bet you can guess what’s it’s called…leafless wintergreen (Pyrola aphylla). 

Leafless wintergreen is a true mycotroph, obtaining all of its nutrients from mycorrhizae, the fungus conifers use to procure additional moisture and nutrients.  Botanists are working to sequence DNA and isatopes in order to determine if it is truly its own species. 

Another fully mycotrophic member of the Heath family seen frequently after snow melt is snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea). 

Snow plant

Although it is fairly uncommon, this plant is easy to spot growing out of forest litter.  Native to California, Oregon and Nevada, they can be found in colonies near the base of conifers. 

Over lapping range in the northern Sierra Nevada with snow plant is pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea). 

 Found primarily in coniferous forests of the western United States, there are also populations in the Black Hills, Great Lakes and a few states out east. This unique parasite grows in association with some species of Rhizopogon, more commonly known as false truffles. 

I’d hoped since first seeing California groundcone (Boschniakia strobilacea) in my wildflower app that we would come across it.  I can’t tell you how many upright pine cones I was sure were this parastite before finally stumbling upon one. 

California groundcone

California groundcone is a member of the broomrape family.  Like it’s relative, Indian paintbrush, it has haustoria instead of roots. These root-like organs penetrate the roots of madrone (Arbutus spp.) trees and manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.) shrubs. 

One of the more common parasitic plants in these stretches of forest were Pacific coralroot (Corallorhiza mertensiana).  As you can see from the photos, this species of orchid can be variable in color.

Pacific coralroot

Once thought to be a sub species of spotted coralroot (Corallorrhiza maculata), it was given species rank in 1997. Pacific coralroot only parasitize mutually exclusive species of fungi in the Russulaceae family and will never share fungus with spotted coralroot. 

Much less colorful, but equally as mycotropic is the snow orchid (Cephalanthera austiniae).

Snow orchid

This species of orchid is unique as it is the only species of its genus native to the Western Hemisphere. It is also the only species of its genus that is fully mycotropic. 

Although the slender-spire orchid (Piperia unalascensis) is not a mycotroph like the previous few, it can be found in the same woodland habitats. 

Slender-spire orchid

Native to much of western North America, parts of eastern Canada and the Great Lakes.  The flowers become fragrant in the evening releasing a musky, soapy, honeylike scent. 

A widely spread member of the sunflower family, broadleaf arnica (Arnica latifolia) can be easily distinguished by its oppositely arranged, heart-shaped, toothed leaves. 

Broadleaf arnica

Broadleaf arnica is found in montane forest and meadows throughout the western United States.

Another common flower that barely waits for snow to melt is western spring beauty   (Claytonia lanceolata). 

Western spring beauty

Also known as Indian potato, due to the cooked stems resemblance. This member of the purslane family is commonly found in forests and wetlands. 

The most widespread forest plant we’ve come across is plumed Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum). This false Solomon’s seal can be found in every state but Hawaii. 

Plumed Solomon’s seal

Young shoots can be simmered and are said to be reminiscent of asparagus.  Like many plants, onceflowered and seeded it becomes too bitter and fiberous. The Ojibwa soaked them overnight in lye to remove the bitterness and strong laxative qualities. 

A new wildflower for me, California harebell (Asyneuma prenanthoides) is tall and slender with tiny purple flowers. 

California harebell

With more limited distribution from northwest California to southwest Oregon, California harebell is found in coniferous forests. 

Another coniferous forest dweller native to the west coast is western white anemone (Anemone deltoidea). 

Western white anemone

This anemone is another example of a flower with tepals, five to seven in this case. 

Bigelow’s sneezeweed (Helenium bigelovii) might look familiar as there are numerous cultivars raised for landscaping. 

Bigelow’s sneezeweed

A single plant can produce up to 20 flower heads, likely part of its horticultural allure. This member of the sunflower family is found in moist meadows and marshes of California and Oregon. 

Primarily a wetland species, white bog orchid (Platanthera dilatata) is widely distributed throughout Canada and the United States. 

White bog orchid

The stem can bear up to 65 fragrant flowers that are pollinated by skippers and owlet moths. 

One of my personal favorites, alpine shooting star (Primula tetrandra) is a member of the primrose family found in wet montane environments. 

Alpine shooting star

All species of shooting star require buzz pollination, or sonication. This is a technique that some bumble bees employ in order to release pollen firmly held by the anthers.  It is done by grabbing onto a flower and rapidly moving their flight muscles. This causes the flower and anther to vibrate, therefore dislodging pollen. 

To my knowledge, the only carnivorous plant we’ve come across is California pitcher plant (Darlingtonia californica).  Pitcher plants are really fascinating, but I’ll try and keep this brief…

California pitcher plant

Native to northern California and southern Oregon, this species of pitcher plant can be found in bogs or seeps of cold running water. Due to the lack of nutrients in these soils, pitcher plants supplement nitrogen through carnivory. 

This species of pitcher plant is unique due to the placement of its exit hole and the numerous false exits as can be seen in the bottom left photo.  The top right photo shows the flower, it is oddly shaped and complex which is indicative of a close pollinator relationship.  However at this time no pollinators have been witnessed or identified.  

A little less recognizable flower found in many similar moist montane environments is white rushlily (Hastingsia alba).

White rushlily

Native to Northern California and southern Oregon, this species was once considered part of the lily family due to the black coated bulb it grows from.  It has since been classified as part of the asparagus family along side desert agave (Agave deserti) and Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia). 

Common to moist montane meadows of the west is California corn lily (Veratrum californicum).

California corn lily
Contrary to the name, this poisonous plant is also not a member of the lily family, but the trillium/death camas (Melanthiaceae) family.  This species exhibits mast seeding, meaning in most years few populations bloom and seed.  In the occasional season they they bloom and seed heavily in synchrony. 

Also native to the mountains of the west is subalpine fleabane (Erigeron glacialis). 

Subalpine fleabane

In the Sierra Nevadas it can be found in moist, mixed conifer forests up to 11,200 ft in elevation.  This, along with the next two species were found in very close proximity to each other on a rocky cold water seep. 

Fivestamen miterwort (Pectiantia pentandra) is more restricted in elevation being found only between 5,000 and 8,300 feet in the Sierra Nevada. 

Fivestamen miterwort
It is most often found in shady, moist habitats. Although not very showy, the flower is very distinct with its saucer shape and five green petals. 

Perhaps a more commonly recognized riparian flower is white marsh marigold (Caltha laptosepala). 

White marsh marigold
Widely distributed in mountainous areas of the west, this is another plant that’s quick to bloom after snow melt.  Some references suggest the leaves to be a potherb, however others warn against its toxicity to both humans and livestock. 

So many plants we came across went unidentified or had pictures that didn’t do them justice. Lucky for me, some of them have been in southern Oregon.  

Flora of the PCT: NorCal Wildflowers Part I

At the end of our trip in San Francisco we were faced with the difficult decision of going through the Sierras or skipping ahead to less treacherous trail. While the choice to interrupt our continuous thru hike was not an easy one, the potential of continuing to see more wildflowers eased the pain. And boy have we seen wildflowers!  

Meadow of mule’s ear in Lassen Volcanic National Park

But first we started at Echo Lake near South Lake Tahoe where there was still a lot of snow. Who’d a thought a place famous for skiing would have so much snow…

A small section of exposed trail before Donner Pass

Recently melted saddles are where we saw most wildflowers in the 63 miles from Echo Lake to Donner Pass. One of the biggest bloomers and most recognizable being broadstem onion (Allium platycaule). 

Broadstem onion

This member of the onion family is native to northeastern California, south and central Oregon and northwest Nevada. Named for its thin and strongly flattened scape. 

Another common flower in these areas was California valerian (Valeriana californica). 

California valerian

Not to be confused with common valerian (Valeriana officinalis) used in valerian root herbal supplements. It is native to the same regions as broadstem onion, often favoring a little more shade. 

More of a sun lover, and anexciting new plant for me, was the longhorn steer’s-head (Dicentra uniflora). 

Longhorn steer’s-head

Had I known that’s what the flower was, I would have taken this picture from the opposite angle to really show the steer’s head…but hindsight’s a bitch. This dwarf perennial is related to the common garden plant, bleeding heart. It is one of the first flowers to bloom after snow melt and can be quite difficult to spot. 

We haven’t seen much of the aforementioned plants since jumping ahead, but one that has remained common is woolly mule’s ear (Wyethia mollis). 

Woolly mule’s ear

Named for he woolly hairs on its leaves, this member of the aster family is found on east facing slopes of the Sierra Nevada. It thrives in volcanic soils thanks to its deep roots. The seeds are edible and said to taste similar to sunflower. 

Another common, but much less showy flower has been one-seeded pussypaws (Cistanthe monospermum). 

One-seeded pussypaws

It is native to western North American from Oregon to Baja California. Grows in various habitats, from forest to rocky talus in April-September. 

After too much snow and not enough flowers we jumped ahead again to Chester, CA.  This beautiful snow free stretch of coniferous forest could not have been more uplifting.  It was full of flowers, many related to plants commonly found in Midwest gardens like this western columbine (Aquilegia formosa). 

Western columbine

Native to much of the western United States, this flower is attractive to hummingbirds and sphinx moths.  Flowers are are edible with a sweet taste. Seeds and most other parts of the plant can be leathal due to the presence of cyanogenic glycosides. When chewed these enzymes break down into hydrogen cyanide, so beware!

In the same genus as longhorn steer’s-head and another common garden relative is pacific bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa). 

Pacific bleeding heart

Native to the pacific coast (as you might infer from the name) this is another plant that’s attractive to hummingbirds and a food source for butterfly larvae. It blooms in the spring, goes dormant during summer heat reemerging to bloom again in fall. 

Like in the desert, there continue to be various species of lupine, many too tedious to identify. But there have been two that we’re distinct enough to identify: narrowflower lupine (Lupinus angustiflora) and saffron-flowered lupine (Lupinus croceus). 

Narrowflower lupine

Endemic to volcanic soils of Northern California, narrowflower lupine is tall and slender with a deep red stem.  The saffron-flowered lupine is also endemic to Northern California growing in dry, rocky habitats. 

Saffron-flowered lupine

Both species of lupine are extremely dangerous if ingested. 

Another recognizable wildflower loved by monarch butterflies is heartleaf milkweed (Asclepias cordifolia). 

Heartleaf milkweed

This species of milkweed is found in Northern California, southern Oregon and Nevada and is named for its milky sap and heart shaped leaves. The sap contains alkaloids that caterpillars ingest and continues to make them unpalatable to predators into adulthood. Miwok Native Americans used to dry the stem of these milkweed and process them into cordage. 

Milkweed is a member of the dogbane family. The term is suspected to have originated from its use on dog bites.  Characteristics of this family include oppositely arranged leaves and the milky or latex sap. Both are characteristic of spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium). 

Spreading dogbane

Spreading dogbane is native to most of the United States. It’s interior flower parts are lined with barbs, making it common to see small dead insects hanging from the proboscus, or mouth parts. 

Another member of the dogbane family, but much less common is Sacramento waxydogbane (Cycladenia humilis). 

Sacramento waxydogbane

This species is found scattered at high elevations. A subspecies of it, Jones waxydogbane, is listed as a threatened species. 

Mountain beebalm (Monardella odoratissima) remained common through this section and showed great variety in coloration. 

Mountain beebalm, white variety
Another member of the mint family that has been quite common is nettleleaf horsemint (Agastache urticifolia). 
Nettleleaf horsemint

Both species of mint are attractive to butterflies. Nettleleaf horsemint can make good forage for sheep, deer and elk while also having seeds edible for human consumption. 
Grand collomia (Collomia grandifolia), a member of the phlox family,  has become a common garden plant in the west. It readily self seeds and will take over under moist conditions. 

Grand collomia

This species of phlox is attractive to bees, butterflies and hummingbirds and found in variable habitats.  This specimen was found in partly shaded coniferous forest. 

Another species fond of partially shaded forest is diamond or forest clarkia (Clarkia rhomboidea). 

Diamond clarkia

This is a small species of Clarkia not exceeding a meter in height. It is native to western North America and common in forest and woodland habitats.  

Native to the same parts of North America, but more variable habitat, such as sagebrush chaparral, is the sagebrush mariposa lily (Calochortus macrocarpus). 

Sagebrush mariposa lily

Traditionally, First Peoples of southern British Columbia harvested these bulbs from April to June. They can be eaten raw or cooked. 

Two other wildflowers found in sagebrush chaparral, are rough eyelashweed (Blepharipappus scaber) and bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus). 

Rough eyelashweed
Bachelor’s button
While rough eyelashweed is native to California, bachelor’s button is native to Europe. It has been naturalized in much of North America and is considered a contaminant in seed crop mixes.  These flowers were discovered in King Tutankhamen’s tomb woven into wreath on top. 

Next we entered the Shasta Trinity National Forest.  This was a beautiful stretch of trail, dense old growth forest with some amazing talus, rocky area that gave way to views of Mount Shasta. One of the most prolific and drought tolerant bloomers we saw in these rocky, exposed areas was scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata). 

Scarlet gilia

This flower is a biennial, meaning its first year of growth is just a basal rosette of leaves followed by stalks and blooming flowers the second year. Another plant that’s incredibly variable in its native range from the Rockies west, it is well adapted to herbivory from elk and mule deer. It is a favorite of hummingbirds, sphinx moths and long tounged bees. 

Another flower that is endemic to California is the sierra iris (Iris hartwegii). 

Sierra iris

This iris was common in some of the more exposed stretches on low elevation slopes. 

Though the yellowleaf iris (Iris chrysophylla) is not endemic to California, it ican be found in Northern California and southern Oregon.  

Yellowleaf iris
This iris is most commonly found in open coniferous forests. It is easily distinguished from the sierra iris by the deep purple veining on the petals. 

Another plant with many edible parts is fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium). Young leaves and shoots can be eaten raw or cooked while the root requires much cooking. 


The name stems from its ability to recolonize areas after fire. It’s rhizomatous root system allows it to grow in large colonies. Seeds of fireweed are wind dispersed allowing them to travel great distances. 

Thriving in disturbed areas and another rapid colonizer after fire is blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum). 

Blue dicks

Like many wildflowers, seeds of blue dicks will remain  dormant in the soil for decades until conditions are favorable for growth. 

Growing in large colonies in burn areas is beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax). 


Native to the western United States, beargrass is found in subalpine meadows and coastal mountains. It’s rhizomes are capable of surviving fire when other plants at the surface burn. 

Found in damp, grassy regions of the Great Basin is meadow penstemon (Penstemon rydbergii). 

Meadow penstemon

One of the most widespread species of penstemon, this species is adapted for pollination by small bees. The bees crawl into the small opening that is the corolla tube to drink nectar and in turn pick up pollen. 

While purple penstemon has been very common along the trail, this northern section has been home to more pink penstemon like mountain pride (Penstemon newberryi). 

Mountain pride

This species of penstemon grows on rocky, talus slopes and was John Muir’s favorite flower. 

Native from California to Alaska, Drummond’s anenome (Anenome drummondii) is found in coniferous forests and alpine elevation. 

Drummond’s anemone

A member of the buttercup family, Drummond’s anemone is related to western columbine.  Though the flowers are very different in appearance, members of the buttercup family characteristically have multiple simple pistils at the center of the flower. 

Something I was not anticipating to see much of in Northern California were succulents.  There have been several species of sedum occupying the sunny talus slopes. One of the first we spotted was coast range stonecrop (Sedum radiatum). 

Coast range stonecrop

Sadly, we were a little late to catch it flowering, but it still adds some wonderful color to the landscape. 

We were more lucky to see some Sierra stonecrop (Sedum obtusatum) flowering, but it too was mostly past its peak. 

Sierra stonecrop

This sedum can be a host for variegated fritillary butterflies and is common to high elevation sunny talus. 

The most exciting plant for me in this section was cliff maids (Lewisia cotyledon).

Cliff maids

I’ve been seeing this plant in my app for weeks and finally on our last stretch into Etna they were everywhere on talus slopes. The basal leaves are fleshy, similarly to a succulent, however this flower is a member of the purslane family.

Stay tuned for some more exciting flowers in Part II coming soon!

Flora of the PCT: Desert Wildflowers Part II

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

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.