Views from the top of Monkey Face in Bidewell Park. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
It’s been a while since a trailhead felt overwhelming. It might be the case every time I venture into Bidwell Park in Chico.
At 3,670 acres and nearly 11 miles in length, it’s going to take a while to completely explore this city park that feels more like a state park.
The first hike was in Upper Park, which is considered the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Terrain is more rugged, with many rock formations, compared to Lower Park.
First on the list was to get to the top of Monkey Face. This switchback along uneven surface is distinctly uphill, but required little exertion for two people used to hiking at Tahoe. The rewards were views of the greater Chico area and much of the park. In spring there is plenty of green to see. But with it being a dry winter, Horseshoe Lake even in mid-April was clearly drying up.
We both looked at the rock formation from various angels at a distance. We never saw a monkey’s face.
Many of the trails in Bidwell Park are muli-use. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
From there we tromped along the Middle Trail. (There are Upper and Lower trails, too.) This is shared with mountain bikers; all of whom were courteous. Part of the trail is wide enough to walk side-by-side, while other times it was single track. Be sure to look down because the embedded rocks in the solid soil seemed to really be tripping stones.
Much of this trail is exposed and will just get hotter as summer approaches. A few oak trees provided small swaths of shade. Wildflowers are out and grasses more than a foot tall swayed in the gentle breeze.
Wildflowers dot the landscape throughout the park. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
We turned right to take a short connector to the Fenced Road before we got onto the Yahi Trail.
Once on the Yahi Trail it was like a completely different hike. It follows Big Chico Creek. At times the water looked untamed, other places swimming pools were being enjoyed by young children. A group of twentysomething guys were jumping off rocks into the cold water; and then quickly scrambled to get onto a warm rock in the middle of the water. This time of year the water is too cold to linger.
Lovejoy basalt lines this canyon. This black volcanic rock in years past was mined as railroad ballasts.
Big Chico Creek flows through Bidwell Park. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
No bikes or horses are allowed on the Yahi trail, and dogs are supposed to be leashed.
The Yahi Trail is maintained by volunteers in the Mount Lassen Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. This is nice because they’ve placed markers to point out various flora as well as some of the animals that might be calling the area home. The section we were on included Fremont cottonwood, Western sycamore (a favorite tree of hummingbirds and it attracts Western tiger swallowtail caterpillars), skunk bush, Santa Barbara sedge (serves as nesting habitat and basketry material), ponderosa pine and gray pine, and Christmas berry (which attracts butterflies and other insects, and whose berries are toxic to humans).
The trail comes out onto the road and then is a short distance from the parking lot where all the fun started.
Wild grasses flutter in the breeze. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Directions: From downtown Chico, take Vallombrosa Avenue east. At the roundabout take the second exit onto Manzanita Avenue. At the next roundabout take the first exit onto Wildwood Avenue. Turn left into the parking area just past Chico Rod and Gun Club.
Stats: 5.57 miles, elevation gain 440 feet, minimum elevation 304 feet, maximum elevation 551 feet.
Mono Lake along Highway 395 in California is a natural wonder. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Blink and it’s gone. Linger and you will think you’ve entered another dimension. This is the Mono Basin in the Eastern Sierra.
A ring of white covers a large swath of the edges of Mono Lake. This is salt, not snow. The salt builds up because there is no outlet for the water.
Tufas dot the landscape near the shore of this 65-square-mile body of water. They, too, have to do with the salt. The dictionary definition of a tufa is, “A porous rock composed of calcium carbonate and formed by precipitation from water.”
Tufas not far from the shoreline of Mono Lake. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
It’s easy to see all this majesty driving along Highway 395. A visitors center is open when there isn’t a pandemic going on. Programs are expected to resume this year on a limited basis.
Mono Lake didn’t always look like it does today. Motor boating and swimming used to be popular activities. Then in 1941 the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power sent water from the lake 350 miles south for its customers. With the fresh water depleted, the salinity concentration was out of whack.
“As a result, over the next 40 years Mono Lake dropped by 45 vertical feet, lost half its volume, and doubled in salinity,” according to the Mono Lake Committee.
The committee was formed in 1978 with the goal of saving the lake from further harm. Persistence led them to the state Supreme Court.
Mono Lake is worth pausing at no matter the time of year. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
“In a 1983 precedent-setting decision, the California Supreme Court agreed with the Mono Lake Committee, ruling that the state has an obligation to protect places such as Mono Lake, ‘as far as feasible,’ even if this means reconsidering established water rights,” the committee’s website says.
Further litigation and revised state policies helped preserve minimum water levels for Mono Lake. Restoration plans were put in place in 1998, and have been revised through the years. More work is to be done because despite all the regulations not all the parties are abiding by the documents they signed.
Despite the saline and alkalinity of Mono Lake, there is plenty of life in the area. Scientists have recorded more than 80 bird species, 1,000 plant species, and about 400 vertebrates.
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.