Monday, September 26, 2011

Saguaro National Park

For most people, the Giant Saguaro (pronounced "saw-WAH-roe") is the universal symbol of the American West even though these majestic plants are only found in a small portion of the United States. Saguaro National Park protects some of the most impressive forests of these sub-tropical giants, right on the edge of the City of Tucson. To further protect these cacti, the Saguaro Wilderness Area was officially designated as wilderness in 1976. This large, roadless backcountry consists of 57,930 acres within the Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro National Park, bounded on three sides by the 38,590 acre Rincon Mountain Wilderness Area which lies within the Coronado National Forest.

The park's two districts offer more than 165 miles of hiking trails, ranging from a stroll on a short interpretive nature trail or an overnight backcountry trek through the desert wilderness from 3000 feet in elevation to 8000 feet.  But even a drive on the park's paved and gravel roads gives you a good feel for the scenery and topography as seen below...

The oldest saguaros can go taller than a four story building and weigh seven tons. Their arms and main stem expand like an accordion to store water collected through the roots. The saguaro may only be 12 inches tall after 15 years and can take up to 75 years before developing arms. Their life span can approach 200 years and the largest saguaros can reach 45 feet in height and 10 feet in girth. The food-making process of photosynthesis normally carried out by leaves is performed in the trunk and branches.

Rather than a place fostering little life, the Sonoran desert is often described as a "desert jungle" because it is habitat for such a huge diversity of flora and fauna, namely 200+ species of animals and 600+ species of plants dominated by the namesake saguaro. Over 25 species of cacti join the saguaro on the desert floor.

Saguaros are able to support their succulent water-filled bodies and attain tree-like heights due to their internal support structures containing a ring of 12 to 30 vertical wooden ribs that remain standing even after the cactus dies and its flesh has fallen away, as seen below...

Biking Skunk Creek Trail

Glendale, arizona's Skunk Creek Trail follows the namesake creek for 4.2 miles, passing several parks including Foothills Park with its water park and skateboard park, as well as residential and commercial areas.

I saw the trail while driving along Bell Road and parked in a shopping center lot by Carl Jrs. at N.73rd Ave. and rode the trail not realizing how short it was. I tried to find the connection to the longer Arizona Canal Trail but didn't find it. Checking Google map now, I see that what I took for a half mile to the west was not just an access trail.  It turns south, crosses Grandview and then West Sandra Terrace (looking like a sidewalk more than a bike trail and with no signage at all) gets you to a continuation of Skunk Trail to the west and the lengthy Arizona Canal Trail to the east.

Most road crossings are via underpasses, and the lack of signage in places got me on several access trails ending in residential areas instead of on the main trail, though there are many signs reminding you that these underpasses flood during storm season as seen below...

The Phoenix area has done a marvelous job utilizing the canals and flood arroyos for recreational trail use. The local residents no doubt learn the routes by using them, but we visitors passing through town would appreciate better signage to direct us to the the trails and keep us on the correct trail.

Biking Arizona's Grand Canal Trail

The Grand Canal Linear Park is a partnership between the cities of Glendale and Phoenix and the Flood Control District of Maricopa County. The Grand Canal Trail is advertised as 23 miles in length and being partially paved and partially dirt. I began at West Regional Park in Glendale and biked both directions through the lovely and well-landscaped Grand Canal Linear Park and stopped where the pavement ended, not realizing it continued along the canal on the dirt dike, and I had biked about 11 miles round trip. (Phoenix's website says you can ride the trail from 75th and Camelback to Papago Park.)

The trail has access trails to all neighborhoods it passes and was getting quite a bit of use the day I biked it.

The western terminus is at Loop Highway 101 by the University of Phoenix Stadium.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Joshua Tree National Park

First established as a national monument in 1936 due to the efforts of desert enthusiast Minerva Hoyt, Joshua Tree National Park was elevated to national park status in 1994, so 2011 is its 75th anniversary as protected land. Nearly 558,000 acres of the park's 790,636 acres are designated as wilderness. Its elevation, dry desert air, and isolation make it a favorite of astronomers and stargazers.

Humans have occupied the area encompassed by Joshua Tree National Park for at least 5,000 years. The first group known to inhabit the area was the Pinto Culture, followed by the Serrano, the Chemehuevi, and the Cahuilla. In the 1800s, cattlemen grazed stock on the ample grass available at the time and built water impoundments for them. Miners dug tunnels looking for gold. Homesteaders built cabins, dug wells, and planted crops. All left their mark on the land and added to the rich cultural history of the park.

Below is the namesake Joshua tree.  It was used extensively by American Indians for baskets and sandals as well as for food, by eating the flower buds and the raw or roasted seeds. Legend says it was named by early Mormon immigrants who likened its outstretched arms to the biblical figure Joshua in supplication.

Joshua Tree National Park's nearly 800,000 acres protect three ecosystems which meet here, the Sonoran Desert, the Mohave Desert, and the Little San Bernadino Mountains at 4000 feet elevation. The biodiversity protected in these distinct ecosystems include ocotillo, jumping cholla cactus, Joshua trees, juniper and pinyon pine, bighorn sheep, lizards, frogs, tortoises, toads, kit fox, squirrels, chuckwillas, six species of rattlesnakes, coyotes, jack rabbits, kangaroo rats, and migratory birds.

An interesting area is Hidden Canyon, a 55 acre canyon accessible on a mile+ loop trail that circles the inside of the canyon and is surrounded by high rock formations. Legend has it that cattle rustlers in the 1870s used this hidden canyon and its box canyon at the end to hide themselves and their stolen cows.  Rock climbers now use the rock cliffs which enjoy world-class reputation.  In fact, the trail signs also direct climbers to the various popular climbing formations.

The Coacheela Valley extends 50 miles as seen below, though pollution from Southern California often impairs the panorama from up here at Keys View, elevation 5185 feet. The Salton Sea is just beyond peaks in the middle of the photo, and the infamous San Andreas Fault runs through the valley.

Edward Abbey wrote, "It seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert, by the comparative sparsity of the flora and fauna: life not crowded upon life, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock."

Indeed, deserts are not deserted but teeming with life -- insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, algae, fungi, cactus, flowers, shrubs, and trees, all well adapted to conserve water, cope with temperature extremes, escape predators, and survive the sun and wind and sometimes torrential rains. Appreciation and eventual love of arid desert panoramas may be an acquired taste, but give it a try! There is great beauty and wondrous solitude in the desert.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Biking Ojai Valley Trail

California's Ojai Valley Trail travels 10 paved miles from Foster Park in Oak View to Ojai, the smallest city in Ventura County, which is surrounded by the peaks of Los Padres National Forest.  Ojai has long been known as a haven for artists, musicians and outdoor enthusiasts. The Chumash Indians were the first known residents of Ojai, and the town's name derives from their word for moon, "A'hwai." The Ojai Valley Trail follows the former Ventura and Ojai Valley rail line and runs along the Ventura River into the valley.

I began at Foster Park.  If you want to avoid the $2 day use parking fee, you can park just outside the gate on the gravel under the freeway overpass.  From the underpass you can go either direction -- to your left for the Ventura River Trail, or to the right for the Ojai Valley Trail.  The trail has a gradual uphill as you head to Ojai, giving you a nice coast back downhill on your return.

Don't be fooled by description of the trail saying it follows the Ventura River, because here it is.  According to a local resident I talked to at this valley overlook, even during the rainy season there isn't much water below due to irrigation farther upstream.

The only water I saw was this scenic stream that you cross just after you begin the uphill.

When you reach Ojai, the trail appears to end in a shopping center parking lot, but if you look to your right across Highway 33, you'll see a sign for Rotary Community Park and the continuation of the trail. You then go through the park, past the golf course, and begin crossing residential streets. When the trail again appears to end at a storage facility, look across the street to your right, and between the storage place and the Ventura County Humane Society grounds, you'll see the trail continues alongside the storage facility.  Don't get too excited though, for the trail does end at the end of their building in a gravel alley.


To reach the Foster Park trailhead from downtown Ventura, take Highway 33 heading north. Exit Highway 33 at Casitas Vista Road. Turn right on North Ventura Avenue, and then right again on Casitas Vista Road. The entrance to Foster Park is on the north side of Casitas Vistas Road. Parking is available here.

You can also park in Rotary Community Park at Highway 33 and 150.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Channel Islands National Park

Channel Island National Park is close to the California mainland, yet worlds apart. It encompasses five remarkable islands, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara, and their ocean environment, preserving and protecting a wealth of natural and cultural resources. Isolation over thousands of years has created unique animals, plants, and archeological resources found nowhere else on Earth and helped preserve a place where visitors can experience coastal southern California as it once was.

Concessionaires offer ferries and flights or you can use a private boat to get to the islands. Island Packers has been the only boat service for as long as this has been a national park, and I rode with them to Anapaca Island, 12 miles of the mainland.  The rugged coast of the island requires some deft boatmanship to back up to the dock in a tiny inlet, and when waves are too fierce, no passengers can be dropped off or picked up. After landing, you then have to climb 157 stairs to reach the island's top.

Anacapa Island is five miles in length (737 acres) and is composed of three islets, East, Middle, and West, with the last two set aside for wildlife.  In fact, West Anacapa is the country's largest rookery for brown pelicans during breeding season. About two miles of trails are available on East Anapaca as well as a campground.  There is no water on the island, so bring plenty, and there are no services as far as restaurants.  Four pit toilets are available, and you must carry all your own trash off the island.

For over 10,000 years, the Chumash people, who lived on the larger islands, stopped at Anacapa on their way to the mainland. They called the island "Anapakh" or "mirage" because it was ever-changing. In the summer fog or afternoon heat, the island seems to change is shape. Also, this was dry season and much of the vegetation was brown, but Kathy, our naturalist/volunteer guide explained how during the rainy season, many of the plants are lush green and blossoming, another change.

The farthest point west on East Anacapa is inspiration point, and from here you are looking at Middle and West Anapaca in the distance, islands so steep and rocky they are far more suited to wildlife habitation than by humans...

A shipwreck in 1837 instigated the eventual construction of a light beacon in 1912 and finally this 1937 lighthouse, with a foghorn added later...

Over 150 species of flora are on the island and over 69 species of birds have been documented. Western Gulls have covered the island with their white droppings which is not so affectionately called "Anacapa snow."  The raucous cacophony of California sea lions and seals can be heard from most places on the island since they favor the rocky shores for breeding and living.

Twenty percent of the island is covered by a succulent green-leaved, red-flowered plant called iceplant.  But it is an invasive that negatively affects the fragile ecosystem of plants and animals, so a large contingent of dedicated volunteers are diligently removing the invasive iceplant and replacing it with native plants grown locally in this facility from seeds collected on the island...

As you arrive at or leave Anacapa, the signature feature of Channel Islands National Park, the famous Arch Rock, is unmistakeable...

During the summer, park rangers scuba dive in East Anacapa's Landing Cove with a video camera, and visitors watch on monitors on the dock and back at the mainland visitor center, and the divers even answer questions while underwater. Also, archived video of dives is available on the Channel Island NP webpage.
(I just watched an episode and it is very informative and presents a wealth of information on the underwater  kelp forest and the creatures dependent upon it.)

The park includes not just the five islands, but also a mile around each island. Furthermore, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary extends six miles from the shore of each island, protecting over 2000 species of plants and animals, 145 of which are found nowhere else on Earth!

Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara Islands are reputed to be just as wonderful as  Anapaca, and each has unique characteristics to distinguish it from the others. I've been told that any of the islands would be a good choice for exploration.

Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park became the second national park in 1890 and now extends over 404,000 acres and its land mass spans over 13,000 vertical feet, capped by Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet in altitude. Kings Canyon NP, Sequoia NP, and Sierra National Forest (and the Sequoia National Monument) abut and intermingle here in this most rugged segment of the Sierra Nevada Range.

The General Sherman Tree is the largest tree on Earth by volume and is in the section of the park named by John Muir the "Giant Forest" which is home to five of the ten largest trees in the world. The park's giant sequoia forests are part of 202,430 acres of old growth forests shared by Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. 84% of the park is designated wilderness and is accessible only by foot or horseback. In fact, only one road, Generals Highway, leads into the park and is shared with Kings Canyon NP. No road in either park crosses the Sierra Nevada to the east.

The Sherman Tree (below) is 275 feet tall.  Like many sequoia, the top is dead, but the tree continues to add to its huge cylindrical trunk. In fact, they estimate this tree adds as much bark to its bulk annually to equal another large tree of most other species! Its current circumference is 103 feet. If its volume were filled with water, it would contain enough water for 9844 baths, one a day for 27 years. Its largest branch is nearly seven feet in diameter.

This is called "Auto Log," a sequoia that fell in 1917 and for years was used to photograph autos driving on its surface...

Moro Rock is a wonderful overlook of the park and is accessible via this 400-step stairway, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, that takes you up 300 vertical feet to the rock's top. The stairs are cut into and poured onto the rock, and the stairway is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The view from the top encompasses much of the park, including the Great Western Divide, and is at an elevation of 6,725 feet.

Here's the view from atop Moro Rock...

Tunnel Log is a tunnel cut through a fallen giant sequoia tree in Sequoia National Park. The tree, which measured 275 feet tall and 21 feet in diameter, fell across a park road on December 4, 1937, due to natural causes. The following year, a crew cut an 8-foot tall, 17-foot wide tunnel through the trunk, making the road passable again, as seen below...

Kings Canyon National Park

In 1891, John Muir wrote, "In the vast Sierra wilderness far to the southward of the famous Yosemite Valley, there is a yet grander valley of the same kind."  He was exploring the wondrous Kings Canyon along the Kings River. 

Kings Canyon NP, Sequoia NP, and Sierra National Forest (and the Sequoia National Monument) abut and intermingle  here in this most rugged segment of the Sierra Nevada Range.  Visitors drive down from 6500 feet to 3000 to reach the valley of Kings River, from where the road then takes you upriver and uphill  to 4500 feet elevation at Roads End, from which backcountry hikes are available.  There are no exits to the east as the mountains are impassible. Here's a view from high above before the road descends...

...and here's a view as I drive the road to Roads End...

Make sure you stop at Grizzly Falls and hike back to the falls...

Off in the distance are those impassible mountains...

The giant sequoia are the largest living trees on earth. One other tree species lives longer, one has a greater diameter, three species may grow taller, but none are larger by volume. Most tree species can be killed by disease, insect infestation, or fire, but giant sequoias are resistant to all of these. Chemicals in the bark and wood provide resistance to insects and fungi, and thick bark and water-based sap insulates from most fire. The main cause of death is toppling, Their shallow root system with no taproot, added to extreme heights and weight, can allow falling from high winds or heavy snow load.

The General Grant Tree in the Grant Grove is so wide it would take about 20 people holding hands to encircle the trunk. If the trunk of this tree were a gas tank, a car getting 25 mpg could drive around the earth 350 times. The tree trunk could hold 159,000 basketballs or 37 million ping-pong balls. This makes its 40 foot diameter the third largest tree in the world by volume.  It is 1700 years old, is 268 feet tall, and weighs 1254 pounds. (The world's largest tree by volume is down the road and is on my post for Sequoia National Park.)

This "Fallen Monarch" toppled well over 100 years ago and remains on the forest floor, on display for visitors to walk through to see the inside of the tree.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Biking the Fresno-Clovis (CA) Bike Trails

This 13 mile paved trail runs from Fresno to Clovis, California, combining two former rail corridors into the Fresno Sugar Pine Trail and the Clovis Old Town Trail. I began in Fresno, parking behind the cinema at River Park Shopping Center on Nees.  The trail begins under the freeway underpass. The first mile runs along office complexes and then a residential area. You'll notice the thousand of trees that have been planted along the trail.

Being an urban trail, there are many, many road crossings, most protected by underpasses, traffic signals, or stop signs, but not all, so use caution. After the underpass beneath Willow Road, you'll know the Sugar Pine Trail ends and the Old Town Trail begins by this gateway...

When you reach the statue of the walking doctor and Tom Stears Station, it appears the trail ends. You can turn left and go to the next street, Hughes, which has a bike lane to get to the next block where the paved trail resumes.  Or even better, go straight ahead into the Clovis public parking lot for Old Town, and at the first street go right and you'll find the old main street seen below...

The Clovis Trail, at about mile 10.5, the trail ends at a white fence blocking the trail with railroad tracks starting on the other side of the fence. If it continues beyond somewhere, I saw no indication of it resuming.

Two trails branch off from the Old Town Trail. Spud's Spur is a short access trail from a neighborhood, but the Dry Creek Trail adds a lovely 5 miles or so to your ride as it runs along the creek as seen here...

... then at Clovis Road take the sidewalk to the left past Cottonwood Park, then cross both Alluvial and Clovis Roads at the intersection, and continue as the trail runs through Dry Creek Park, past the botanical garden, and then by an upscale neighborhood. After about 2.75 miles, the pavement ends, but it appears you could bike on the dirt dike along the canal/creek across the street.


To reach the southern trailhead in Clovis, from Highway 99, exit at CA-180E, proceed 7 miles to exit at 63 (Clovis Avenue) and then head north for 2.5 miles. The trailhead is on Clovis Avenue, 0.3 mile south of the intersection with Dakota Avenue. There is no parking at the trailhead, but users can park along Dakota Avenue or any of the stores along Clovis which the trail parallels.

To reach the northern trailhead in Fresno, from Highway 41, exit at CA-135 (Friant Road/Blackstone Avenue). Go south on Friant/Blackstone 0.5 mile, and turn left on West Nees Avenue. The trailhead will be on your left, under the freeway overpass. There is no parking at the trailhead, but you will find ample parking at River Park Mall, on your right.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Biking and Hiking Yosemite National Park

"Yosemite is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter."
--John Muir-


I concur with Muir whole-heartily! 

Yosemite became a national park in 1890 predominantly due to the efforts of John Muir and it is one of our first wilderness parks, with 95% of its 1200 square miles designated as wilderness. Though it has 350 miles of roads, it is mainly a hiking park with 800 miles of trails. And though best known for its spectacular waterfalls, its majestic granite peaks and deep valleys, its lush grand meadows, its crystal clear streams, and its stately, immense sequoia trees are all just as awesome.

I visited all the areas of the park by vehicle over the four days I was there, and I found the best way to see the popular and heavily congested Yosemite Valley is by bike, since 7.3 million people visit annually and most concentrate on the seven acres within Yosemite Valley.  The park rents one-speed, balloon tire bikes and many visitors availed themselves of their availability, but I travel with my bike and used it. You can also avail yourself of the free shuttle bus system in the park. Your best bet in finding free parking for the day is at Curry Village with its large paved and unpaved lots.  

The the first part of this post regards the sights you can reach from the bike trail, a 12 mile paved loop circling much of the valley. It is well marked in the Yosemite Village area and less well marked elsewhere, but just consider it an adventure and see where a path takes you.  

In places, the trail abuts the road as seen to the left of the trail here...    (click to enlarge photos)...

 ...but several lovely segments take you through deeply forested sections or alongside lovely meadows, often with glimpses of the river or surrounding cliffs and peaks...

A side pedal to the historic and ultra-expensive Ahwahnee Hotel is a must.  Everywhere except here provided bike racks, but a tree did just fine for locking the bike as I walked the lovely grounds and checked out the lobby and sitting areas.

In the Village area, you can get a meal at the Degnan Cafe or Degnan Deli, visit the Visitor Center (and don't miss the free "Spirit of Yosemite" movie in the theatre), the Nature Store, the Museum, and walk through the replica Indian village seen here...

All paved trails and roads are available to bikers except the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail, but the half-mile hike to the base of the Lower Falls is worth the stroll (consider it cross-training!)

As the trail parallels Southside Drive, you'll get a great view across a meadow of Upper Yosemite Falls in the distance and the top of Lower Falls in the bottom left of this photo...

This view is from the bike path as it crosses over the Merced River. The trail loop takes you on both sides of the river and there are a number of bridges available so you can make loops of various lengths. Carry a camera with you as you bike because spectacular scenery abounds!

The road to Happy Isles and Mirror Lake and is closed to private vehicles, making it a good bike venue.  The lake is called a seasonal lake, though hydrologists now believe it is not a lake at all, but actually a large temporary pool of water during spring rain and snowmelt season.  Whichever is right, the fact is that even in its much reduced volume as when I saw it, you can still get a feel of the reason for its name as you see it mirror the mountain peak in this photo below...


Bridalveil Falls is also in Yosemite Valley, but the bike trail doesn't reach it.  You can bike the road if you don't mind vehicles driving at 35 mph on a twisting road whose drivers are probably distracted by the scenery. Instead, I drove to the parking area, the first you come to as you enter the valley. A short hike gets you to the base of this impressive falls...

Another spectacular section at Yosemite's northwestern entrance requires you briefly leave the park and venture a few miles to the Hetch Hetchy region. The name is from the Sierra Miwok language and refers to a grass with edible seeds that grows in the valley. The dam that creates this reservoir has been fought over for a hundred years and was considered by John Muir and the Sierra Club as one of their biggest regrets, calling the flooded valley "a wonderfully exact counterpart of Yosemite Valley."  The dam provides water and power for San Francisco and was authorized after the city's water and power were destroyed by the earthquake of 1906. Here's the reservoir from the trail along the shoreline...

Another must-see area is Mariposa Grove at the southern entrance, the largest stand of Giant Sequoia trees in the world. Its 500 acres offer 500 mature Giant Sequoias which are among the largest living things as well as nearly the oldest, some living to be 3000 years of age.  Nothing can kill them -- not diseases, insect infestations, or fire. They die when they can no longer support their own great size and weight under the burdens of snow and wind, and thus come crashing down. Imagine the roar when one falls with a diameter of up to 30 feet! There are two other smaller stands of these trees in Yosemite, too.

Glacier Point is another spectacular area.  A four mile hike up a strenuous trail from Yosemite Valley will get you there, or a drive on Glacier Road. After having been in the Valley, it is interesting to look down on both the Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls, as well as Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, Half Dome, and a dozen mountain peaks, a 360 degree vantage they claim will have you looking out over 1/4 of Yosemite National Park.  Here's the view of Yosemite Valley from high above the valley floor. When up there, you can spot the Ahwahnee Hotel, the Yosemite Lodge, Curry Village, Yosemite Village, Mirror Lake, the Merced River, and even Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls.

The Toulumne Meadows region in eastern Yosemite gives a different vision of Yosemite, and a hike on the John Muir/Pacific Crest Trail to and through Lyell Canyon provides vistas like this...

"I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I do so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in "creation's dawn." The morning stars still sing together, and the world, not yet half made, becomes more beautiful every day."

 John Muir on Yosemite.