Plant Trail Reports, San Bernardino / San Jacinto Mountains

29 June 2007: Devils Slide Trail, Caramba Trail (see Devils Slide Trail and Caramba Trail Plant Guides)

Dave Stith, Jason Hollinger and I had a delightful time doing this strenuous hike from Humber Park to the Caramba Overlook, despite the fairly warm temperatures of about 80 degrees during most of the hike.

We not only hiked the 14 miles, with 3600 feet of elevation gain and loss, but we also got in some good botanizing, creating an initial plant trail guide to the section of the Caramba Trail from the Overlook to Laws Junction. The only place on that section where we gave the plants short shrift was at Willow Creek just before Laws Junction (on the way back), at which point we had run out of botanizing time.

Our actual time table was:

EventTimeSegment mileage, elevation gain
Leave Humber Park10:25 
Arrive Saddle Junction12:072.5 miles, 1635 feet up
Leave Saddle Junction12:21 
Laws Junction1:142.2 miles, 0 feet up
Arrive Caramba Overlook2:542.2 miles, 200 feet up
Leave Caramba Overlook3:45(start working on plant trail guide)
Laws Junction6:452.2 miles, 1100 feet up
Saddle Junction7:392.2 miles, 635 feet up
Humber Park8:492.5 miles, 0 feet up

The times above include a 40 minute unanticipated rest stop on the way back to Laws Camp to allow one of us to recover from drinking too much pure water. Even with this 40 minute unplanned rest stop, we got out without needing flashlights, but just barely.

Prior to the hike, I had estimated a rough hiking only schedule as follows:

EventTimeSegment mileage, elevation gain
Leave Humber Park10:45 
Arrive Saddle Junction12:452.5 miles, 1635 feet up
Leave Saddle Junction1:15 
Laws Junction2:152.2 miles, 0 feet up
Arrive Caramba Overlook3:152.2 miles, 200 feet up
Leave Caramba Overlook3:45(start working on plant trail guide)
Laws Junction5:152.2 miles, 1100 feet up
Saddle Junction6:302.2 miles, 635 feet up
Humber Park7:302.5 miles, 0 feet up

The rough schedule assumed 2.0 to 2.2 mph on the downhill sections, and 1.5 mph on the steep uphill sections, allowing 20 minutes to record the species in bloom on the Devils Slide Trail. This schedule showed that we had one hour to spare to do the botanizing on the last section of the Caramba Trail, since the last good daylight is a bit after 8:30 p.m.

Excluding the section we botanized, we beat the rough schedule by the following differential times; i.e., these are the differences for each hiking segment of the trip from the rough schedule, not the accumulated difference. A positive time means we beat the rough scheduled time. No difference is given for the section of trail from the Caramba Overlook to Laws Junction, since we botanized that section.

EventDifferential TimeSegment mileage, elevation gain
Leave Humber Park0:20 
Arrive Saddle Junction0:182.5 miles, 1635 feet up
Leave Saddle Junction0:16 
Laws Junction0:072.2 miles, 0 feet up
Arrive Caramba Overlook-0:402.2 miles, 200 feet up
Laws Junction  
Saddle Junction0:212.2 miles, 635 feet up
Humber Park-0:102.5 miles, 0 feet up

We beat every estimated time except for two. (No comparison is made for the botanized section, since we planned on being much slower than the hiking time for that section.)

First, the anticipated time for the segment from Laws Camp to the Caramba Overlook was badly missed. Instead of the estimated 1 hour, it took us 1 hour and 40 minutes, an extra 40 minutes. 5 minutes was spent talking with Jim Adams, and perhaps 5-10 minutes (or more) in looking at plants, but I suspect the vast majority of the extra time, 25-30 minutes, was due to the uphill sections of that mostly downhill trail.

Second, it took us 10 minutes longer to go down the Devils Slide Trail due to the near-absence of sunlight at the end.

Not bad overall! (;-)

Jim Adams had said he would meet us at the Overlook, but we actually met him about 1/3 of the way from Laws Junction. Jim had to get back home, so we spent just the 5 minutes talking with him.

OK, now for the plants!

This is an especially-interesting trail at SnJt, since it samples the higher-elevation desert edge of SnJt. Upper Tahquitz Valley is mostly a remnant landscape from before the recent rounds of uplift and erosion due to the San Andreas Fault and its siblings.

Upper Tahquitz Valley is enclosed by Tahquitz Ridge on the south, Tahquitz - Saddle Junction - Marion Mountain - San Jacinto Mountain on the west, and the Wellman Divide - Hidden Lake Divide Ridge on the north. The east end has been eroded by Tahquitz Creek, but the landscape west of the Caramba Overlook remains from before the current round of erosion from the opening of the Coachella Valley. The nick point for that erosion is at Caramba Overlook along Tahquitz Creek, where there is a waterfall.

The Upper Tahquitz Valley has a west to east slope of 250 to 800 feet per mile (5-15% slope), with the minimum value occurring at the latitude of Saddle Junction and the maximum value occurring at the average latitude of the final portion of the Caramba Trail.

To the immediate east of the Caramba Overlook, the west to east slope is still about the same at ~800 feet per mile (15% slope), since there is a remnant landscape portion directly to the east. Tahquitz Creek drains to the northeast, and that direction is the "desert view" from Caramba Overlook.

However, about 1.5 miles to the east of the Caramba Overlook, the remnant landscape is gone, and the slope increases to an amazing 1700 to 2300 feet per mile (32-43% slope)!

This desert side of SnJt is comparable in some ways to the north side of the Santa Rosa Mountains. It differs in having that remnant landscape, and hence a flatter elevation profile in that section. Also, it presumably has more useful water, both because it gets more runoff from the higher peaks at SnJt, and because the flatter profile retains more water (less runs off).

However, it presumably has the same steep rainfall decrease with distance from the crest, and has presumably suffered the same extreme lack of rainfall in the last decade. Both effects show.

First, the trees begin to thin almost immediately to the east of Laws Junction. Instead of the nearly 100% tree cover to the west, this section of trail has perhaps only 50% cover or less.

Second, the vegetation is markedly different from the other side of the mountain in a number of ways. There are extensive populations of Salvia pachyphylla (rose sage), Amorpha californica (California false-indigo) and Gnaphalium canescens thermale (slender everlasting). The first two species aren't even present to the west, and the third is much less abundant there. As is often the case, the transition is almost razor-sharp. For example, to the west of Laws Junction, the drainages are filled with Prunus emarginata (bitter cherry). To the east, the drainages are filled with Amorpha. The two species do not intermingle.

Third, there are extensive dead patches of several species, some of which must have died because the groundwater table has dropped. We were surprised to see large number of plants of Lotus crassifolius (broad-leaved lotus) and Calocedrus decurrens (incense-cedar) in many locations in this presumably-dry area. However, we quickly realized that this steep east-facing slope must normally have fairly-high groundwater from its headwaters, allowing these moisture-loving species to grow.

However, something approaching 100% of the Lotus crassifolius is now dead. In addition, nearly 100% of the Gnaphalium canescens thermale is dead. For both species, there are literally thousands of plants that are now dead, and I may have been able to count on my fingers the number of live plants we saw.

Of course, it is possible that these species are just skipping this year, and will return next year. We'll see.

The many dead plants of Lotus crassifolius on the east side is a big contrast to the plants of this species on the Devils Slide Trail. The plants there still produced decent growth this year, although most of them decided to skip most of their blooms. Only in one drainage in one spot are the plants blooming decently this year.

Back on the east side, the incense-cedars are still looking good, presumably because they have deeper roots tapping still-existing groundwater.

There are large fields of Lupinus hyacinthinus (San Jacinto lupine) that are all dead. We recorded the lowest dead plants, and the lowest live plants, for the guide. Perhaps something like 75% of the population is dead.

Continuing down the "% dead" list, perhaps 50% of the branches / plants of Amorpha californica are dead. However, a small % of its plants looked quite happy and were even blooming.

Other species looked pretty pathetic, but are surviving. I don't remember seeing any dead plants of Salvia pachyphylla, and some of the pathetic-looking plants were even producing a handful of blooms. The Lupinus excubitus var. austromontanus (mis-named mountain grape-soda lupine), all looked extremely pathetic, but all looked like they will survive to bloom in another year. In fact, the plants here looked a bit better than the plants near the base of the Devils Slide Trail, having more abundant leaves. Many of the individual plants had ~20 robust-looking infl stalks from prior years, but only small leaves on the plant this year.

Finally, some species looked perfectly happy, such as the Eriogonum wrightii var. subscaposum (Wright's buckwheat), and were producing flower stems.

The trees overall looked pretty healthy, too. Perhaps the lower spacing of the trees helped them survive the drought.

The Arctostaphylos species (manzanitas) are looking quite stressed on both sides of the mountain. Many plants of both species have a number of leaves, spread throughout the twigs of each specimen, that have recently died. However, we saw only a few dead specimens on the eastern side.

The Devils Slide Trail is clearly past peak bloom, which itself was a shadow of its bloom of last year. Many species have a factor of 10-100 fewer blooms this year than last year, and of course other species, especially annuals, have no blooms or even plants this year at all.

But we did see a few specimens of Boschniakia (ground cone) in bloom!

The upper part of the Caramba Trail had some lovely Calochortus invenustus that were open on our hike out, but closed on our hike back. The Gilia splendens and the Kelloggia still looked great as well.

There were some good specimens of lemon lily in bloom in several places, especially in the streambed at the Overlook, along with a good display of stream lotus, Lotus oblongifolius, there.

It was wonderful hiking with Jason. He knows quite a bit about lichens, and contributed interesting observations at many points. Here are a few of the observations I remember; see Jason's detailed report for a much more complete account.

Jason was surprised at the near-complete of lichens on vegetation, and the overall poor numbers on rocks. We speculated this was due to air pollution coming primarily from the south coast air basin (la / riverside).

One of the specimens Jason pointed out was surrounded by a beautiful black ring, which I believe Jason said was its protothallus.

The most stunning revelation from Jason, however, was that the bright yellow-green "moss" in the pine forest here that "grows on the north side of trees" was actually a lichen! Neither Dave nor I had known that before. Jason showed us a piece, and it looked like a typical lichen. It clearly wasn't a moss, since it didn't have any leaves. (:-)

Finally, Dave and I have been curious about the tan "noses" that grow on dead trees. Jason knew what they were, and will send me an email to remind me what type of fungus they are.

One of Jason's big contributions was to find the path to the Caramba Overlook. When we first got to the end of the trail, we looked around for the rocks we were supposed to "scramble up" to see the desert, and found only one candidate on the north side of Tahquitz Creek. We scrambled up it, but there was no view at all.

This, of course, disappointed us greatly. We looked at the rocks on the south side of Tahquitz Creek, but they looked pretty forbidding, being some 160 feet above the Creek with no obvious scrambling path to the top.

Giving up on a desert view, we started the plant trail guide in the Creek at a sign that said "Warning: Impassable Falls Ahead". When we got to 0.003 miles and joined the trail in, Jason suddenly noticed multiple cairns on the slope above the trail. And, by golly, this was the ~0.15 mile route to a saddle on the Ridge, 140 feet above the Creek.

We quickly went up the trail to the Overlook, enjoyed the view, and began the trail guide at the Overlook.

7 August 2007: Palm Springs Tramway to San Jacinto Peak (partial) (see Round Valley Trail and Wellman Divide to San Jacinto Peak Plant Trail Guides)

Well, now I'm one of those "Tram people". (:-)

The reference comes from lunch breaks at Saddle Junction on previous trips. We regularly would see large groups of people, who had invariably come from the Tram and were on their way to Idyllwild or making a circuit back to the Tram. They would always announce they had come from the Tram, so I began referring to them as "Tram people".

There is a bit of a pejorative context to that name, since anyone who hikes up to Saddle Junction from Humber Park always feels that the "Tram people" have cheated a bit by taking the tram to 8500 feet elevation. (;-)

James Dillane, Pete Dodge and I met Eric Baecht at the Tram shortly after 10:30. Our drive along I-215 / SR60 / I-10 was at full speed until about 1.5 miles before the SR111 turnoff, when the freeway came to a near halt. We were very glad to be able to take the SR111 turnoff, but then noticed that I-10 seemed to be clear just beyond the turnoff.

My car was very unhappy about the grade up to the Tram around 2,000 feet. It had no problem while driving, but for some reason the coolant heats up a lot after I turn off the car and begins to boil when I go up a steep grade like the one here and to Humber Park. I had to restart the car about 6-7 times to recirculate the coolant before it stopped boiling here, whereas it only takes 2-3 times at Humber Park. And this was with having the air conditioner off all the way up the grade, and the car coolant temperature was normal to below-normal when I arrived at the parking lot. My 1989 car must not have good coolant circulation within its engine, which causes the boiling after turning the car motor off.

We were very surprised at the pleasant temperature at the bottom of the tram at ~2640 feet, as well as with the lush vegetation there, with lots of sycamores and alders looking much better than they do on the coastal side of the mountains. It was nowhere near 100 degrees, and may have been only about 80. We speculated that drainage from the steep Chino Canyon from 8500 feet might be responsible for keeping the temperature so pleasant.

I bought a "summer pass", which expires Aug. 31, optimistic that I wouldn't find the Tram too terrifying to ride again. I plan to do all my August hikes from the Tram.

We just missed a tram, and had to wait 20 minutes or so for the next tram at 11:00 a.m.

I was very impressed with the Tram! It has few of the terrifying features of other trams. You ride in an enclosed, massive car that feels secure. The swinging motion is minimal, probably because of the weight of the car, coupled with the large water tank underneath the cabin. The total weight loaded is an amazing 35,600 pounds!

The take off is much more gentle than typical trams or ski-lifts. The car edges very slowly out of (and into) the station before it gets to full speed.

Even the drops at the five towers were not too bad. The car felt secure while doing so; the drops were minor, and the swaying motion was minimal. No passenger screamed; there were just more subtle sounds from everyone acknowledging the drop.

Best of all, is that there are THREE cables attached to the tram car instead of just the usual single cable. I felt much better knowing that if one cable broke, I might still survive. (;-)

So when I stepped off the tram, I was quite pleased, thinking I could do this again, at least until the trip down the tram (see below).

The tram has several open windows, and it got noticeably cool on our way up. The temperature was in the low to mid 60s when we stepped off the tram. The high temperature at the tram was 68 degrees at 1:50 p.m.

We looked for Ivesia in the cracks in the vertical cliffs on the way up, but it wasn't easy since the car moves at ~20 mph and rotates once every 3 minutes or so to boot. We didn't find any Ivesia.

The first question was where to start the plant trail guide. We decided to start it at the sign "Round Valley Trail" just beyond the Ranger Station, since it might be hard for large groups of botanists to observe plants along the concrete sidewalk filled with people rushing from the Tram.

The number of species at the trailhead was pretty small, so we soon began walking at a decent clip along the trail, interrupted by stops at new species or promising off-trail locations for new species. I was very pleased that I seemed to have no after-effects from the sudden increase in elevation from 2460 feet to 8516 feet.

Despite intensive botanizing, we made it to within about a mile hiking distance and 560 feet of elevation of the peak. I will return on Sunday and have great confidence I will make it to the peak, even while checking to make sure the plant trail guide was done correctly.

We found no non-natives at all on our trip, which is great. I had worried that humans might have introduced some non-natives close to the Tram.

The species were pretty standard fare for these elevations with the following exceptions:

We were going to turn around at 5:45, but at 5:34 we were pooped, and I was suffering a bit from altitude sickness, with a slight headache and with my body quite reluctant to go uphill any more. We rested for 10 minutes, then headed back at a good clip.

The temperature was 57 degrees when we turned around, and it was still 57 degrees when we got back to the Tram at ~7:45, just at sunset. That little uphill right at the Tram was a killer; I could hardly go uphill at all.

On the trip down, I made the mistake of looking down Chino Canyon as we were getting into the Tram car, and was horrified! On the way up, I somehow had avoided that direct look down. But the view down is gut-wrenching. It seemed like sheer craziness to ride anything going almost directly downhill.

But I had to go; it was the only way down, and I needed to get to lower elevation ASAP. On the tram ride down, I made one further mistake of looking directly at the first tower going downhill, which was even more horrifying to see how tall it was above the steep canyon.

From that point on, as the car rotated to give me a downhill look, I carefully kept my eyes to the south side of Chino Canyon, then jumped my eyes to the north side, which enabled me to survive the trip. (;-)

Fortunately, as the Tram whisked us to lower elevation, I quickly recovered from my touch of altitude sickness and felt fine at the bottom.

At home, I was completely pooped. In fact, the next morning I was so tired that I thought about doing a very easy hike on my next trip to allow me to recover. This must still have been a touch of elevation problems, since this hike was less strenuous in terms of mileage and elevation gain than two recent hikes I've done, yet I felt much worse after this hike. This was probably due to the lower oxygen content of the air on this hike, increasing the amount of anaerobic activity of my muscles.

But by noon, I was completely recovered, and itching to make it to the Peak on my next trip. (;-)

By the way, the Tram brochure has some surprising species pictured: "Artemis Doulasiane", and "Lavender".

I suspect they meant mugwort, Artemisia douglasiana, and just omitted the "ia" and the "g". But their pix does not match very well the many such plants I've seen since it shows entire, almost acuminate leaves. In fact, when I first looked at the drawing I thought it was of a spiny plant!

As far as I know, "lavender" doesn't grow naturally in the wild in California.

Also, their picture of a "scarlet penstemon" doesn't match Penstemon labrosus very well, since it shows a very leafy inflorescence, and their "scrub oak" shows a tree with a single clear trunk. (;-)

12 August 2007: Palm Springs Tramway to San Jacinto Peak (see Round Valley Trail and Wellman Divide to San Jacinto Peak Plant Trail Guides)

With no traffic, I arrived at the Tram Station at 10:05 a.m., 35 minutes earlier than last time. Eric Baecht soon pulled alongside me, and Gabi and Cliff McLean drove up next. We were able to just barely catch the ~10:45 tram, giving us a 20 minute head start over the previous trip. (Everyone but Eric had to change shoes before getting on the tram, and I had to baby my car for 5-10 minutes to stop the coolant from boiling.)

This earlier start was a good thing; it enabled us to get back by dark.

Ted and Linda St. John were waiting for us just below the Mountain Tram Station. After introductions all around, we marched smartly to the beginning of the Round Valley Trail, got our permit, and began verifying the plant trail guide. For the most part, we took minimal time for botanizing, since our goal was the Peak.

We quickly got to mile 0.25, and went to the Creek to check on the Epilobium species. That darn bugger was hard to relocate; we didn't find it in the first 5 minutes we were there.

While looking for the Epilobium, Nick Nixon, a volunteer ranger for the state park who I hiked with several times in 2004, came over to greet me. This delighted me, since I hadn't seen Nick since 2004, and was wondering how he was doing. He told us he was hurrying over to the Ranger Station, since there was a fire 600 feet below the Tram Station, from an illegal campfire. A fellow volunteer ranger came by to introduce himself shortly afterward.

Nick later told me that they had to use rope and technical climbing assistance to get seven firefighters to the fire, and that the fire was put out after 3 hours.

Linda's sharp eyes spotted a single plant that was the Epilobium; it was all of 4-5 inches high or so with a single tiny flower. No wonder it was hard to find!

The identification was easy. It had the short leaves (bracts) compared to the length of the stem nodes, of E. oregonense - yay!! This is the first time I'd seen this species, which is supposed to be common in Round Valley, and was the determination I was hoping this plant would be.

We quickly checked the plants on the guide up to mile 0.59, and then began the slog uphill.

The first gooseberries on the trail were indeed Ribes montigenum, as evidenced by their spines. I didn't find any bristly twigs, though. But it would be hard to fit in any more spines since the twigs had very short internodes.

At the only meadowy spot on the trail, at mile 1.69, I couldn't find the Potentilla gracilis fastigiata, and it suddenly dawned on me that last time I had mistaken a 5-lobed geranium leaf for the 5-lobed leaf of that taxon. Getting such errors out is why I always like to check an initial plant trail guide right away!

I verified the determination for the Chenopodium atrovirens; the lower leaves were all entire except for one or two with a minor bump on them.

Ted and Linda turned around at Round Valley (they had not planned on going to the peak with us), so the rest of us continued on to the peak.

We made good, steady progress, checking the plant guide as we went, and we made it to the peak right on schedule with no problems.

We were all absolutely delighted that we made the peak. I never thought I would ever be able to go to San Jacinto Peak, due to the elevation and my problems with elevation sickness. Gabi and Cliff had tried twice to make it, falling short due to time limitations. This was Eric's 25th or so trip to the peak, but the first since he broke his ankle 3 years ago.

Oddly, the summit sign gives the elevation as 10,834 feet, whereas the topo map gives 10,804 feet, a difference of 30 feet. Apparently, the actual current elevation of the peak is neither of those numbers! It is 10,842 feet, since the summit is 8' above the USGS benchmark which has the reported elevation. See The Elevation and Prominence of San Jacinto Peak for more information, including the fact that San Jacinto Peak is not the second highest peak in southern California!

The views were absolutely wonderful! It was amazing to see more haze in the atmosphere at high levels on the desert side of the mountains, due to the monsoon moisture.

The north San Diego County coastline was clear. We saw the Santa Margarita Mountains clearly, the low hills south of San Onofre Mountain, the coastline, and San Clemente Island beyond. The Santa Ana Mountains north of the Santa Margarita Mountains were mostly obscured by coastal haze coming from the L.A. basin area, with Santiago Peak barely visible through the coastal haze. But Catalina Island was partially visible beyond.

The San Gabriel Mountains were beautiful! We saw them clearly down to about 6000 feet, all the way to Waterman Mountain on the left, and Pine and Dawson to the right of Mt. Baldy and West Baldy.

On the way up, we made regular, short rest stops, which enabled me to consume more food than I normally eat, and kept my glycogen levels up. This was a very good thing! Last time, I struggled mightily going up the concrete sidewalk to the tram! This time I had no problem. I am thus now pretty sure I was totally depleted of glycogen last time, which was the root cause of my lack of energy at the end of the uphill section, and then going up to the tram.

Amazingly, I had no problems with elevation sickness at all this time. The stops helped to make sure I stayed on schedule with regular aspirin infusions.

Now back to the plants.

Gabi took photographs of the "mystery plant in the crack" at mile 1.09 of the trail to the peak, which should shed light on its id, Silene parishii, Monardella australis, or something else.

We saw several good bloom displays from Monardella australis as we neared the summit.

Surprisingly, we found just six additional species for the guide. I was quite disappointed not to see three species I had expected near the summit - Draba corrugata, Oxyria digyna, and Ranunculus eschscholtii. These are all vouchered within an elevation of 100 feet from the summit.

Of course, we only covered one route to the summit, which surveyed no more than 10% of the area with elevation within 100 feet from the summit. These species could be hiding in the other 90% of the area. Maybe someday I'll do a special survey of the rest of that area, and see how it compares with Hall's list of plants there.

Going down was a delight. Not only was I very impressed with having been to the Peak, I had time to look around at the topography of the area. I was surprised to notice that Round Valley / Long Valley Creek has a decidedly non-uniform profile, with very steep sections alternating with flattish sections, which can be clearly seen on the elevation contours on the topo map.

We made it to the concrete, lit Tram Sidewalk at 8:05 with nearly the last drop of daylight. Cliff had the excellent suggestion to get something to drink at the restaurant, and we sat on the balcony enjoying the drink and the great view.

A bonus for me was that the ride down the tram was quite enjoyable, since it was too dark to see how steep Chino Canyon is. (;-)

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Copyright © 2007 by Tom Chester.
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Updated 15 August 2007.