Hiking this time of year on Table Mountain means color in all directions. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
A mosaic of flowers carpets the landscape.
Purple, orange, yellow and white are the predominant colors, with a bit of fuchsia here and there. The dark basalt rock and vibrant green grasses provide contrast.
Oak trees break up the terrain. A few cows munch on the grass, paying no attention to the multitudes of people out on this last day of March.
Poppies decorate the hillside near Ravine Falls. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Table Mountain is awash is color with an array of wildflowers every spring. The abundance and peak season all depends on the winter rains.
Much of the land is covered in gold fields, which makes it look like yellow paint has been strategically dispersed. Sky lupine is interspersed at various locations. The frying pan and foothill poppies are robust. Owl’s clover, bird’s eye gilia, bitterroot and so many other flowers can be found throughout the approximately 3,300-acre North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve.
While the Table Mountain meadowfoam only grows in this area, it did not present itself to us on this particular day.
A few oak trees dot the landscape. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Most of the flowers are short, with only a few reaching 6 inches in height. This is in large part because of the volcanic terrain. Soil here is not great. The height, though, does not take away from the splendor.
In addition to the spectacle of color are an array of waterfalls. They, too, are dependent on rain.
“Typically fissures in the basalt soak up winter rains, forming seasonal streams and waterfalls. In a few places, however, the underlying basalt is impermeable to water forming a temporary pool. Soon to dry up after rains end, only specialized plants and animals adapted to this habitat can survive over time,” according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages the reserve.
Sutter Buttes is often visible. Sawmill Peak was in the near distance. Snow covered mountains farther away.
In all the six of us put in 3.12 miles, which included treks to Hollow Falls and Ravine Falls.
The uneven rock is going to be difficult for some to navigate. In a one-week period ending April 7, search and rescue crews were called out to Table Mountain four times. One was for a fatality; a woman fell 100 feet at one of the falls.
This is a reminder that Mother Nature, as beautiful as she can be, is also still a wild place that needs to be respected.
Despite the inhospitable growing conditions, wildflowers find a way to populate the rocky area. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
California lands pass required for everyone 16 and older. They are $4.89 for the day or $27.26 for the year. They may be purchased online.
Table Mountain is about 7 miles north of Oroville.
Directions: From Chico, take Highway 99 south to Highway 70 to Oroville. Exit at Grand Avenue. Go right, then drive for 1 mile. Go left on Table Mountain Boulevard for a tenth of a mile. Right on Cherokee Road for 6.3 miles north to the reserve.
Elevation gain was 208 feet, with the lowest 1,198 feet and highest 1,334 feet.
Aloe plants, while not native to Mexico, grow well in the desert climate. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
While aloe vera is a go-to remedy for sunburn, the more than 500 species of this plant have other uses as well.
Aloe is used in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and foods.
Even though the spines are usually thorny, it is easy to cut one off to harvest. They feel rubbery. Squeeze hard and the gel comes out in a thick, syrupy form. This can be applied directly to a burn, though don’t be surprised if your skin turns purplish. It washes off without the discoloration remaining. This discoloration isn’t likely to occur with store bought products with aloe in it.
Aloe vera blooming in February in Todos Santos. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Be sure to keep the serum away from pets because it can be lethal if swallowed.
Human consumption of aloe, though, is possible in different forms.
According to Healthline, “Aloe vera gel has a clean, refreshing taste and can be added to a variety of recipes, including smoothies and salsas. The aloe vera skin is generally safe to eat. It has a mild flavor and a crunchy texture, perfect for adding variety to your summer salads. Alternatively, the skin can be enjoyed by dipping it in salsa or humus.”
Gel can easily be squeezed from the aloe plant for personal use. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
I’m not ready to try aloe as an edible, at least not directly from the plant, even though plenty of data shows it can help with digestion and other issues. And certainly don’t eat the gels found in stores that are designed to help with burns. Those will most likely have additives that could be harmful if swallowed. Only consume products that are designed for that purpose.
Aloe is found throughout the Baja peninsula, though the plant is not native to this desert. Those in the know say it originated in Arabia, Somalia or Sudan.
As a succulent, aloe vera needs very little water. But it does need to be pollinated to bloom. That is why those kept as a house plant year-round are not going to flower.
The house on the left was built prior to the 2012 regulations banning building on the dunes. The house on the right was built in 2020. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Building oceanfront homes in the greater Todos Santos area is coming to a head with a group of residents (Mexicans and expats) paying $24,000 for an environment study to classify the sand dunes.
A group of scientists led by environmental and development expert Ileana Espejel arrived in mid-February to scour the land for several days. A 30-mile stretch from Elias Calles in the south to Agua Blanca in the north is the scope of the project. Dune plants were recorded, GPS was used, and a trolley took measurements. Documentation of building in an arroyo was also captured.
All of this was filmed for future use, with each of the five scientists being interviewed during the process.
The goal is to determine where the primary, secondary and tertiary dunes are. The desire is to eliminate any confusion about what the various dunes are in the region and to have the government codify the findings.
Primary dunes are the closest to the water and are the most sensitive. But not every dune nearest the water is a primary dune based on environmental definitions.
“Primary dunes are composed of sand blown directly from the beach face (active beach), whereas secondary dunes develop following the subsequent modification of primary dunes,” according to Nature.com.
Since construction was stopped on this Todos Santos house in 2019 the lot has become an eyesore. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Even though the Master Plan of Todos Santos, which covers that same swath of sand that is being studied, took effect Aug. 12, 2012, building beachfront houses continues in this area of Baja California Sur. That Subregional Development Program was never codified, which means it’s easier to break the rules.
The 2012 law did get a structure at the end of Calle Los Mangos in the Las Tunas area to be halted. However, the parcel now looks like a dump site after squatters took over. It’s an environmental nightmare for other reasons.
Two houses on the dunes off a street with no name in the San Sebastian area of Todos Santos are questionable builds. One has been there before the 2012 laws went into effect, while the other was built in summer 2020 when government offices were closed because of the pandemic.
If the people who don’t want building on dunes get their way, that new house and any others would likely would have to be torn down and the land restored.
While there are those who believe they should be allowed to do what they want with their land, that usually is not the case no matter where one lives.
Local real estate agents are supposed to let people know about the 2012 law so they aren’t surprised when they can’t build. Some people just don’t care. Money can talk louder in Mexico than laws, and permits get issued. Builders and homeowners are seldom reprimanded.
The group behind the study wants building on the dunes to stop and people to be held accountable. They have hired local attorney John Moreno to represent them.
“Once completed, the study will be presented to the Mexican authorities for acceptance of dune identification. This will help the municipality, Realtors, developers and prospective buyers understand legal building sites,” an email from the advocacy group said. “Evidenced by a recent illegal build right in front of Flora del Mar, it is obvious that there is confusion and controversy over what is a primary dune and their location in our region.”
The sign in Todos Santos looks out to the neighborhoods with the ocean in the far distance.
Vibrant colors have long been part of Mexican culture, and continue to this day.
Fabric and pottery are two of the more common items that are full of rich tones.
La Paz has this sign along the malecon and one coming into town from the north.
Long before Europeans reached the shores of Mexico the locals were using plants, insects and minerals native to the land to create this rainbow of color.
Santa Rosalia’s sign is at the gateway to the city. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Another way the country’s artistry comes through is with the signs so many cities have. Many are placed at the entrance to a town, others are in prominent locations within that jurisdiction. They are like a kaleidoscope of color bursting with images that are unique to that area—like the church on the Santa Rosalia sign and whales on the Guerrero Negro one. Animals and cacti are common on many of the signs.
Tlaquepaque’s sign in the walking district.
“We have one in Cabo at Puerto Paraiso, another one on the main drag at the original stoplight and a third one that reads KM. 0 (kilometer zero) at the main park in Cabo San Lucas. The latter indicates where the original road to La Paz and all the way to the border with the U.S. began. The ground zero for Highway 1. Underneath, the sign reads: Mexico Starts Here,” explained David Flores with the Gringo Gazette newspaper.
Mulege’s sign is along the river facing travelers headed north. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
It’s not just Baja that has these signs. They can also be found on the mainland.
The sign for Guerrero Negro is one of the brightest things in this town. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
People are constantly taking selfies at the signs and pictures without anyone it. It’s a clever marketing tool that often ends up on social media with hashtags promoting that town.
Views of the Carson Valley from the Clear Creek Trail. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Mountain bikers tend to outnumber hikers when it comes to trails in the Jack’s Valley. Not a problem for those on foot, as those with pedals seem to always be courteous even when going fast downhill.
Even though hiking is not the first sport people think of when it’s winter in Tahoe, with the proximity to Carson City and Carson Valley there is plenty of dirt to play in year-round.
Dropping in elevation also offers a change of scenery. About 3,100 acres in this area is managed for winter deer range. Mule deer love the sagebrush. Bitterbrush is the other common vegetation growing here.
Rock formations are like pieces of artwork dropped into the desert. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
It doesn’t take long before views of fertile ranch lands as well as more developed civilization come into view. It’s a gradual, but distinct climb at the start. Then it tapers out a bit.
Seemingly around ever bend is another outcropping of rocks that look like they were planted there. Otherwise it is rather desolate on this stretch of trail. The rocks look like they would be fun to climb; though some would require skill and technical know-how.
While it would be possible to hike 15 miles to get to the Spooner Summit trailhead from Jack’s Valley, we only put in 4.1 miles on the Clear Creek Trail this particular day. It was more about an opportunity to stretch our legs. Getting a late start also didn’t work in our favor with the days so much shorter.
This is a good place to visit most times of the year except the middle of summer because of the heat, lack of shade, and no water. Though, had we gone farther, we would have eventually hit pine trees.
Mountain biking is more popular than hiking in this area. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
From the South Shore, take Kingsbury Grade (Highway 207) to the Carson Valley. At the stop sign, turn left onto Foothill Road. This turns into Jacks Valley Road. Trailhead is on the left. If you come to the elementary school on the right, you went too far. If coming from Highway 395, the trailhead is a couple miles on the right just past the school, which will be on the left.
Dogs allowed. Leashes required from Oct. 1-Nov. 30.
Elevation gain was 384 feet. Minimum elevation was 5,051 feet; maximum was 5,474 feet.
Smoke did not deter people from visiting Fallen Leaf Lake in the Tahoe basin in summer 2020. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Smoke from wildfires may be as dangerous to the environment as it is to humans.
Every summer and fall when smoke inundates a town health officials issue warnings, often telling people to stay indoors. Wildlife doesn’t have that option. Bodies of water cannot be covered, nor can acres of flora or soil. The impacts of smoke on the environment, while not well known, continue to be calculated.
In November the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center received a nearly $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the effects of wildfire smoke on lakes in the West. This will be a group project with the University of Nevada and the National Park Service out of Crater Lake. Lake Tahoe, Crater Lake in Oregon, Clear Lake in Lake County, and about 20 smaller lakes in the Sierra will be studied.
“We have instruments in all of them measuring oxygen every day,” Geoff Schladow, executive director of TERC, said. “We can learn what affect smoke is having on the respiration and growth of algae.”
Algae needs nitrogen, phosphorus and light. Smoke allows less light in, which decreases the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous in water bodies. The consequences could be greater on smaller lakes, according to Schladow.
“If suddenly you have conditions that favor production of algae, then winter comes, ice forms on top of the lake and all the algae falls to the bottom the of lake, say 10 times as much because of smoke, and it starts to decompose in winter, they then consume oxygen,” Schladow said. “So oxygen may disappear in the lake. That could kill the fish living there, invertebrates and zooplankton. It could affect the ecosystem.”
The grant will allow scientists to make sense of all the data that has been collected. Findings could take 12 to 18 months.
Schladow said the hypotheses to be looked at include:
In highly transparent lakes such a Lake Tahoe reduced light from smoke will increase algal photosynthesis but in lakes with lower water clarity will reduce photosynthesis.
Fertilization effects from ash deposition will be larger in oligotrophic (clear) lakes than eutrophic (murky) lakes and with little variation across lake sizes.
In lakes where there is increased photosynthesis the excess organic matter will increase the frequency and duration of hypoxia and anoxia.
During the June 2007 Angora Fire on the South Shore scientists studied the effects of smoke and ash on Lake Tahoe in real time. Nutrient levels increased at the end of the lake where the fire burned, with conditions returning to normal within a week or two. Angora Creek had ongoing monitoring, with elevated levels of nitrogen and phosphorus found for several years. Because it is a small tributary to Lake Tahoe, the impacts on the larger body of water were negligible.
Studies were also conducted by TERC regarding the smoke from the 2013 Rim Fire near Yosemite. Lake Tahoe, Emerald Bay, and Cascade Lake were studied, along with Cherry Lake and Lake Eleanor—both located close to the epicenter of the fire. The 2014 King Fire that burned in the Eldorado National Forest west of Lake Tahoe was also studied.
Schladow said there was a shift in where things were in lakes because they physically responded to there being less ultraviolet light. He said it took a couple months for everything to return to pre-fire conditions.
The U.S. Forest Service has also been looking into the impacts of wildfire smoke on the environment.
“Wildfire smoke and ash can act as a fertilizer when it deposits on land and in water. Those nutrients can further degrade the clarity of Lake Tahoe,” according to Jonathan Long, U.S. Forest Service research ecologist at the Pacific Southwest Research Station. “Smoke can influence germination of various plants, including stimulating germination in many shrubs. I think the impacts of smoke/ash deposition into the lake are likely to be the biggest effect. I have been engaged in some modeling work with John Mejia at (Desert Research Institute) that relates to this issue, although I don’t know that anyone has quantified the effects from the past few months of smoke events yet. Effects on forests are also uncertain, since smoke effects germination, temperatures, nutrients, and some pests.”
A study published by the Ecological Society of America in 2018 looked into how smoke can transport microorganisms. Long said, “The authors speculated that smoke could influence spread of the pathogen that causes white pine blister rust, which already impacts the three species of white pines in the basin.”
Long added, “Smoke from burned areas draws in various kinds of insects, including some wood boring beetles. Those effects will be greatest in the burned areas themselves.”
The Nevada Department of Wildlife, while more concerned about the actual fire and its impact on animals, still has an eye on the negatives of smoke—as there are no perceived positives. Dense smoke changes the air temperature and decreases visibility.
“Some birds like swallows need to eat insects every day to maintain their body weight. With different temperatures there are not as many insects,” said Nate LaHue, NDOW veterinarian.
Birds have flown into buildings or other obstacles because their eyesight is impaired from smoke or because they became disoriented. Often this results in their death.
One advantage animals have over humans is that over centuries they have adapted to living with fire, which includes smoke. Many hunker down during smoky conditions. What isn’t known is how they are adapting as fire seasons, at least in the Western United States, become more intense and burn for longer periods of time.
When LaHue conducts one of his approximately 300 necropsies each year (this is an autopsy on an animal) smoke inhalation is not something he usually looks for. The diversity division at NDOW monitors wildlife populations. It’s possible if numbers change after a significant wildfire smoke event in the state, that it could trigger a closer look at smoke’s impact on animals.
NDOW is a small department, so it relies on studies conducted by other entities. Jasmine Kleiber, a wildlife specialist in NDOW’s habitat division, pointed to a research from the United Kingdom and a study from the University of Washington in Seattle stating that smoke lowers biodiversity levels. Sound measurements were used, noting a decrease in animal calls during smoke events.
“There is speculation also of some impacts to lung function,” Kleiber said. “There may be damage to tissue similar to humans. Any damage to tissues could leave animals prone to other viruses.”
Different species have different lung functions and capacities, so the amount of particulate matter that gets into the respiratory system will impact each animal differently. Just like people, sick, young and very old animals are more likely to succumb to smoke, Kleiber said.
“The reality is we don’t know a tremendous amount about the effects of smoke on wildlife except it’s similar to people,” Kleiber said. “It is a big concern, though. A tremendous amount of staff time and resources are spent on wildfire activities because they have such a profound effect on our wildlife throughout the state.”
While humans cannot prevent wildfire smoke or redirect it, Kleiber believes it is still important to know what smoke is doing to the environment.
“We should worry about it. It is worth better understanding how wildfires and the components of wildfires like smoke effect our wildlife, water quality, and soil. Natural resources are already under a tremendous amount of strain for numerous reasons,” Kleiber said.
Note:This article first appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Tahoe In Depth.
Several bridges cross General Creek, with trails on both sides. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Scenic, flat, meandering and nearly empty.
The unpopulated part is what Sugar Pine Point Campground is like in the fall once the overnight temperatures have dropped, students are back in school, and the tourists have gone. The beauty is always there.
While I would not recommend this for people in search of autumn colors, there are some to see. The few groves of aspens were an added bonus.
The number of brown ferns was indicative how much water is usually in the area.
Sue and I headed out to find Lily Pond, but instead made a loop of sorts through the park, which had us crossing General Creek a couple times. Water in late October was not flowing fast or deep. It would have been easy enough to cross it without the bridge, at least that time of year.
According to the Sierra State Parks Foundation, “In 1860, the first permanent settler of record on Lake Tahoe’s West Shore built a cabin at the mouth of General Creek. This was the trapper and fisherman William “General” Phipps, and his cabin can still be seen today just north of the Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park pier.”
Splashes of color decorate the trail in Sugar Pine Point State Park. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
What makes this excursion desirable is the myriad paths one can take, the history from the 1960 Winter Olympics, and the fact nearly anyone could do this trek. Several signs talk about how the cross country events for the Squaw Valley Winter Games were staged in this West Shore location. These trails are still great in the winter for skiing and snowshoeing.
It’s so flat the elevation gain is negligible; with it being a near constant 6,400 feet. Much of the trail is like an old dirt road, so wide enough for two to walk side-by-side.
In all, we walked 5.78 miles that day. We logged 0.62 miles each way on a paved path from the day use parking area to the start of the dirt trail. When you pay to park ask the ranger for a map. This will help you decide which path to take.
From South Lake Tahoe, go north on Highway 89. On the right will be a sign for the Ehrman Mansion. In less than one mile, make a left turn into the Sugar Pine Point Campground. If you hit Tahoma, you went too far.
Castle Rock is a relatively easy hike on the South Shore. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
One of the great things about hiking in the Lake Tahoe area is that even short excursions can have big views and make you feel like you were out in the wilderness without clocking double-digit mileage.
Such is the case with the climb to Castle Rock on the South Shore. With the starting point near the top of Kingsbury Grade, much of the elevation is gained by driving. The rocks resemble a crown from a distance, a great distance for my imagination. Up close it’s an impressive mass of granite.
Rosemary and I did a loop in mid-October that was three miles, but would have been shorter by about a half mile if we had done an out-and-back. Signage has improved through the years, which makes getting to the rock formation easier.
Views of Lake Tahoe along the trail to Castle Rock in Stateline. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
When we were there it was not possible to climb to the top of Castle Rock because falcons were nesting. Signs warned people not to go to the top. “If you see a raptor diving or hear loud bird calls, you may be too close to the nest,” the warning read. The sign was to be removed when the nesting period was over; no specific date was given.
The falcon warning was at the point people decide if they are going toward the vista trail or climbing routes. It’s possible to get views of the lake without climbing to the top of the rock formation. The lake and some of the runs at Heavenly Mountain Resort come are visible before this sign.
With the parking lot being the Kingsbury North Trailhead of the Tahoe Rim Trail, there are several other hiking options in this area.
While dogs are allowed, I would not bring a four-legged one to Castle Rock because even without climbing to the top you might want to scramble around a bit on the lower area. This isn’t going to a good idea for every pooch.
From South Lake Tahoe, take Highway 50 north. Turn right on Kingsbury Grade (Highway 207) in Stateline. Turn left on North Benjamin Drive. (This turns into Andria Drive.) Road dead ends at the parking area. The trail begins to the left from the trailhead info, closer to the green gate.
Elevation gain was 496 feet, with minimum being 7,560 feet and maximum 7,962 feet.