Seasons of the San Gabriels

November 15, 1999

Big Rock Creek Revisited: The North Slope along the Manzanita Trail

The season's first rains have come and gone, settling the dust, cleansing the leaves. The sun shines on the north face no longer, not to glare again till spring.

The Shadows...
Bare gray branches of bigleaf maple point skyward, small red twigs that held the samaras remain on the tips, piles of brown leaves circle the base. Acorns from the canyon oak, cups separated from the nuts, so prolific, so profligate this year, litter the ground so thickly you can skate on them. Cones of the bigcone spruce fall and roll down the hill collecting like ripples on water at the the first obstruction. Pink cores of white fir cones, resembling empty spindles, lie under the trees, naked of scales the gray squirrels have removed in search of kernels. Flaxen blades of grass stand stiff and erect. Across the canyon, serviceberry bushes, barren of fruit and leaves, filter the weak sun creating a lavender haze.

Definitely November, no bright flowers, no green leaves, no sun, no heat on the north slope. But what a feeling of fall! seedpods to shake, leaves to scrunch, pine-scented air to breathe!

In the moist areas and under canyon oaks, a few black flies remain. But the ground squirrels are in their burrows hibernating, ready for the coming winter. The lizards no longer bask on the rocks. The juncos and fox sparrows have left for lower levels. The only birds heard are the warning raven and the ubiquitous chickadees.

The plume-like seeds of mountain mahogany collect on the ground and reflect like puddles of water in the sparse sunlight. Big sagebrush has spikes of scaly brown flowers easily overlooked. A brisk rub of its resinous leaves brings the scent of "cowboy cologne" to the autumn air. Leaves and seeds of flannelbush fall to the ground, crushed and broken amber. Only small leaves at the ends of the stems remain behind for next year. Maroon manzanita fruits, dried and puckered, provide food for the hungry coyote. In preparation for its early bloom, potential flowers hang in pendant bracts, waiting.

...and the Glories
The color of yellow spills down the canyon darkening as it progresses. In the high narrow recesses, lemon-pie-yellow of willows, the faint buff of scarlet monkeyflower leaves, wild rose's apple-cider-colored leaves, and currant's ecru ones garnish the banks of the remaining spring-fed streams. Further down in the broad rocky wash, brilliant golden Lombardy poplars, trembling egg-yolk-yellow leaves of Fremont cottonwood, and sycamores in shades of tobacco brown hold the lingering light in the early sunset.

The pale quarter moon waxes luminous in deep turquoise skies. Flowers, fruits, seeds gone to ground, leaves fallen to blanket them, next year's generation produced and protected, the woodlands rest.

© Jane Strong, November 1999

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Seasons of the San Gabriels

October 26, 1999

Pine Canyon Road

The calendar says late October, but the leaves say fall has only just begun. Today's trip in this remote rift valley was just a tad too early for great color; but what a teaser it was! What promises of treats to come!

The weather, however, was perfect; clear blue skies, temperatures in the low 80s, and wind enough to see the sun's sparkle on the quivering leaves, wind enough to smell the fresh scent of pine needles and wind enough to hear the dry rattle of autumn's leaves.

Valley Views and Valley Oaks
The sign east of Quail Lake points to the Old Ridge Route. Take it. The road climbs revealing the western Mojave Desert / Antelope Valley bounded by the grassy-patched, forest-quilted Tehachapi Mountains. Stop at the first turnout in the shade of the valley oak, yes, valley, as in Great Central Valley. The leaves are lobed, rounded without prickly tips, and will fall off later in the month of November; some are amber already. The elongated, deep-brown acorns explode when the tires roll over them. Pop, pop, pop; many have fallen to the ground on this quiet back road.

Rabbitbrush, rabbitbrush, rabbitbrush. Some are full blown in seed, some are in youthful bud, but most are in mature bloom, glorious, golden-yellow mounds blanketing the hillsides. Bladderpod from the southern desert, California buckwheat from the coastal sage scrub, tumbleweed, an introduced plant from Russia that indicates overgrazed rangeland, and Great Basin sagebrush from Nevada line the road and fill the remaining spaces on the slopes. For here at the base of Liebre Mountain is a hub where all these varied habitats meet.

The Northern Influence
Further on, is a small grove of digger pine, with blue-gray needles drooping downward, divided trunks, unusual for a pine tree, and sparsely-leaved crowns giving an ethereal, insubstantial effect. The Indians called it "the ghost pine". Now, it is called, more deferentially, gray or foothill pine--both acceptable names, one indicates the color correctly, the other, the location.

Continuing past the intersection on the Old Ridge Route, a stand of blue oak soon appears. An exceptionally large and beautiful specimen grows at the forest service pass sign. Blue oak is deciduous and has blue-gray-green leaves with shallow lobes and slightly wavy edges. Western gray squirrels, acorn woodpeckers, band-tailed pigeons, western bluebirds, mountain chickadees, and white-crowned sparrows all find this area very much to their liking.

Back at the intersection, take Pine Canyon Road, County N2. Pine Canyon Road follows the San Andreas Fault, and delineates the northwesternmost edge of the San Gabriel Mountains. At the little settlement with picturesque dilapidated barns, the California buckeyes start. They're the contorted gray-barked skeletons with dessicated, beige-colored, pear-shaped fruits and rust-colored leaves, sere and withered, hanging like limp bandannas from the ends of the branches.

This complex of plants, here in Pine Canyon on the north face of Liebre Mountain--blue oak, valley oak, foothill pine, and California buckeye with grass underneath--is what you would find in the Sierra Nevadan foothills farther to the north.

The Edge Effect
Around a bend, a hillside seems slightly out-of-focus, but in reality, is covered by the leafless interwoven branchlets of fuzz-covered, anglestem buckwheat with minute pink-and-white flowers giving a gauze-y effect like pink chiffon. Next you pass through a handsome woodland of valley oak from the riverlands and Great Basin sagebrush from the slopes of the deserts. Great Valley meets Great Basin.

This is an edge; an ecotone, which is a meetingplace of plants, an intersection of two very different vegetation complexes giving a much greater variety.

You get yet more variation: The mountain top shows golden splotches of black oak. Much, much more can be seen if you want to test your car's suspension and clearance on the old Ridge Route to the forest road that goes to the top of Liebre. The black oaks up there are magnificent--huge and spreading--many acres of them and oddly, not found again in the San Gabriels until the Blue Ridge.

The Southern Counterpart
Manzanita, chamise, scrub oak, California buckwheat--the familiar southern California chaparral--begin again.

Things interweave in the same place (instead of being in separate patches) and grow very large in this canyon, the fullest extent of their range--the biggest foothill pines, the largest manzanitas, the tallest Great Basin sagebrush. The color of the California buckwheat is eye-catching. Grand bushes with full russet-red bloom dot most slopes, often interspersed with the brilliant yellow rabbitbrush. Stunning, stupendous, wonderful, amazing color! These two plants paint the early fall scene in rust-red and golden-yellow.

Water Fall
Freshwater marshes! Hidden lakes! Sag ponds! Call them what you will, these earthquake-caused features have cattails--cattails now showing their unique beauty: Red-brown, cylindrical spikes of mature flowers darkened and dense, leaf blades, striped yellow-brown, glowing in the sun and vibrating in the breeze, slender light brown tips swaying gently. The whole gorgeous stand surrounds the season's coffee-brown water rippling in the wind.

Hints of color highlight the green foliage of the deciduous trees along the presently dry, rocky stream bed. An egg-yolk-yellow branch on a Fremont cottonwood and an overall lemon tint on the willows. A golden-brown leaf or two on the sycamore and a faintly yellow one here and there on a walnut. Alder thins dropping its leaves without coloring. A rush of wind brings down showers of brown oak leaves. The lovely shades of pretty poison oak--pinks, scarlets, roses--enliven the shadows. Just glimpses of things to come.

© Jane Strong, October 1999

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Seasons of the San Gabriels

October 3, 1999

Big Rock Creek

A journey through the changing habitats along the watercourse from the deep, dark recesses of the mountains to its junction with several tributaries in the desert

Summer Preserved
On Big Rock Creek Road above the campground, the bigcone spruce have branches on their trunks all the way down to the ground and large, up to ten inches, pendant, flexible-scaled cones. The equally healthy canyon oak have round, snub-nosed acorns, now full and black.

In this shady, moisture-retentive habitat, black flies are abundant and California sisters sip the minerals at roadside puddles. Indian paintbrush and water speedwell still bloom along the bubbling brook. Only a few leaves on the water-dependent, bigleaf maples suggest the brilliant display of gold to come.

Meeting Pinyon Ridge
The stream takes a turn at Fenner Canyon, going northwestward instead of northward. Now one side of the canyon is in sunshine, while the other one is still shaded. Rounded silhouettes of pinyon pines stand out along the ridgecrest. Their small cones open wide in the heat and dryness of late summer exposing the oily "nuts". Dry yucca stalks point skyward toward the deep blue.

Feathery seeds of mountain mahogany gleam, translucent in the sunlight. Glowing masses of gray sagebrush, mounds of bright yellow rabbitbrush and goldenbush, red heads of buckwheat, and clumps of golden grass spot the rocky slopes. Even rattlesnake weed thrives in the asphalt cracks at the edge of the road.

Small cottonwoods in the wash with a tenuous water supply have leaves green, like slices of lime, soon to be yellow, like slices of lemon, in the weeks to come.

Small leaves and large spines
The boulder-strewn streambed widens considerably where the South Fork enters Big Rock Creek. Following the South Fork back to the campground, the road passes through another habitat--one of broad alluvium which unlike the others has only a seasonal water supply. Small sycamores stand alone in the wash. Their leaves, dry and olive-green, are curling inward, not yet turned to golden brown.

On the rocky benches above the wash, many plants have reduced leaves and prickles. Seemingly leafless plants like scale broom and Mormon tea, also called by the more descriptive name of jointfir, drop their leaves during drought and store water in their succulent stems.

Tumbleweed, with red-winged, white-centered fruit looking like flowers and spiky-tipped leaves, hoary-aster with spiny-margined, gray leaves and reddish-purple daisy-type flowers, and prickly-leaved scrub oak with its long, pointy acorns inhabit the flat benches. Small, tan-colored, fuzzy fruits with a papery star at the base, the seeds of prickery flannelbush, line the road.

An unusual formation of thin layers of dark, charcoal-gray rocks interspersed with thinner white bands set on edge perpendicular to the floor, is easily seen at the canyon mouth. Some of these layers have sinuous, folded curves. Little grows on them.

Crossing Pinyon Ridge
Back at the stream junction, the canyon narrows, becoming very constricted where Big Rock Creek cuts around Pinyon Ridge on its way out to the desert.

Great cottonwoods, green and sparkling, only a branch or two bright butter yellow; alders some healthy, some skeletons; and sycamores, tall and white-trunked, thrive here--their deep roots reaching far beneath the surface to the water supply. Willows and mule fat, grow lush and green with the abundant water, surprising in such a dry climate as the desert.

Backgrounds of Red and Blue
The peaks of the San Gabriels stand tall, dark blue and beckoning in the distance. The small stream issuing from them that flows through the Punchbowl Canyon has eroded away the uptilted sandstone formations leaving behind spectacular geologic features in oranges, tans, and vivid whites.

On Devil's Punchbowl Road, the red soil nourishes a very pleasing assortment of plants--Joshua trees, California juniper now covered with seeds, light blue balls with little horns on one side, colorful gray and yellow rabbitbrush, and silver cholla, another plant which glows translucent in the sunlight.

Eyecatching four wing saltbush has bright yellow-green seeds like small flat beads or shells strung along branches, that will turn brown later on. Jimson weed, a large-leaved vine whose white, trumpet-shaped flowers open at night, sprawls over the sand.

Encountering the Mojave
After the constriction where the creek crosses Pinyon Ridge, the canyon spreads out, opening up and forming a wide, flat streambed. The magnificent trees continue along the banks of Big Rock Creek, bordering Valyermo Road, until its junction with Sandrock Creek, coming in from the Punchbowl, and Pallett Creek. The sparkling, trembling, green leaves on whitish-gray, twisted-trunked trees shimmering against the blue, blue skies, paint the prettiest of scenes.

Big Rock Creek eventually disappears into the half-mile wide wash, seen from Highway 138 betweeen Llano and Pearblossom, leaving behind only multi-colored, multi-textured boulders, cobbles, pebbles and sand to tell the story of its descent through the complex geological textbook that is the north side of the San Gabriel Mountains.

© Jane Strong, October 1999

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Seasons of the San Gabriels

September 14, 1999

Vincent Gap along the Big Horn Mine Trail

Ninety degrees, almost sixty-six hundred feet high, clear skies--this is a day that sings. Maybe it's the cooler nights, maybe it's the sparkle of the leaves in the wind, fall is in the air. It's early autumn in the high country.

The views from this mountain side astound: upwards to the land of the limber pine on Mt. Baden-Powell, 9,399', and down towards boulder-strewn Vincent Gulch, a vertical distance of over 3,500 feet and across the Sheep Mountain Wilderness to the treeless northern slopes of Pine, Dawson and Baldy, all above nine thousand feet high.

Rock Fall
Long and narrow V-shaped, gray paths of rock slides are visible on all the mountain tops, the nearest one flowing down the eastern side of Baden-Powell to the bottom of Vincent Gulch.

Crossing one of these larger rock falls is a lesson in changing microhabitats. Starting from the middle (latest) disturbance, only a few annual plants grow, next come the shorter perennial plants, then taller ones with berries, followed by deciduous trees, chaparral shrubs, and finally on the most stable slopes, the evergreen forest.

Blazing star, that colonizer of the most disturbed places, is, at first, the lone invader of the jumble of rocks, soon followed by the opportunistic, ubiquitous ragweed. Also inhabiting the hot and dry, but less rocky, open places here, are Great Basin sage, shiny-leafed yerba santa, California buckwheat and another taller, slenderer one with tiny yellow flowers, a variety of naked buckwheat.

A Wonderland of Berries
Over the older slides and along the trail, many berried shrubs enchant the way of the walker: squaw currant, with waxy red-orange fruit with little tails, rounded three-lobed leaves of yellow-green, some turning yellow, and whitish stems; serviceberry, whose leaves have a toothed edge only at the top, no berries, but lots of bug damage on the leaves; elderberry, some quite tall, with clusters of blue-black berries; trailing vines of California blackberry; western chokecherry, some very large, some with leaves turning light red, the few berries on individual stems are translucent red, slightly darker and larger than currant; and coffeeberry with shiny dark berries in varying colors, and leaves with prominent yellow veins on the undersides.

Water Courses
Following the streams of water, now at the end of the dry season mainly underground, one finds bigleaf maples whose winged seeds rotate in the wind like small helicopters, small Fremont cottonwoods, the heart-shaped leaves slightly yellow twinkling in breeze, and dense, green thickets of willows.

The Gap Influence
Once on the solid ground of the hillside, one encounters the chaparral plants--fremontia, also called flannelbush, with seedpods like fuzzy nuts set in a five pointed star, golden-tan colored, with prickles that come off on your fingers, careful!; low-growing, bluish-leaved mountain whitethorn; a small-berried manzanita; curl leaved mountain mahogany, the desert kind which, in contrast to the birch-leafed one of the coastal side, has leaves with the edges curled under, and yucca. What a mixture of desert and coastal plants grow here at this gap where the two habitats meet!

The Evergreen Forest
Finally, furtherest away from the rock fall on the most stable slopes, grows the beautiful forest of yellow pine, a smaller, more prickly cone giving evidence of some hybridization here between the Jeffrey and ponderosa pines, the symmetrical white fir, and magnificent canyon oak shading the trail with a few incense cedar in the moister gullies and some sugar pine up on the higher ridges.

© Jane Strong, September 1999

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