Water and wildflowers are scarce at Table Mountain. Such are the hazards of a winter when the number of rainy days can be counted on both hands.
Nonetheless, this scenic tableau is never a disappointment.
One of the beautiful things about Mother Nature is that no two years are alike, therefore making so many destinations worthy of at least an annual visit.
This year I was at the 3,300-acre North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve north of Oroville on March 13. Last year I was there March 31. More flowers were in bloom and the waterfalls were more robust in 2021. While it’s possible more flora will sprout this season, the lack of moisture this last winter and this week’s record heat could dry everything up.
This outdoor oasis owned by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife definitely resembles a table top when looking at it from the distance. It’s that flat. But on it, well, it’s an uneven wonderland of vernal pools and more than 100 species of flowers.
On this month’s excursion with the Chico Oroville Outdoor Adventure group we meandered through poppies that were closed to ward off the morning chill, but later opened their petals as the warmth of the sun penetrated the clouds. Lupine was the most predominant flower.
Most striking was overlooking Coal Canyon. Simply breathtaking in its grandeur. Here is where the waterfall by the same name trickles down the rock. It’s better known as Phantom Falls, so named because much of the year it is not visible. Reports are someone devised a map with Phantom Falls as the name instead of its given name of Coal Canyon Falls; thus the reason for two names and a bit of confusion.
The waterfalls at Table Mountain are fed from rain water, so they are never likely to be visible in summer. Coal Canyon falls drop 164 into a pool at the bottom that eventually evaporates.
Regardless if there is a waterfall to see, the view of this basalt canyon is stunning. It’s as though the two sides have been severed and pushed apart to make this canyon opening. The rock walls continue to erode, creating piles at the base.
Before reaching Coal Canyon we were at the top and bottom of Ravine Falls. A year ago the water was visible from the top, not so this year. A trickle, though is still descending the moss laden rock, which can be seen at the bottom.
Remnants of days gone by fill Butte Creek Canyon.
Flumes first built in the 1800s by gold miners that were later used by PG&E for hydroelectric purposes make a serpentine path that today is used by hikers.
Now they are dry except when it rains.
While the sign at the entrance to the Lower Centerville Canal says don’t enter as well as use caution, the “don’t enter” request is often ignored without consequence.
The danger would be if one fell off the flumes, especially if they were full of water. At times the metal grates seem to be no more than a foot wide. As someone who has height issues, I felt fairly secure because I didn’t look down and the drop into the concrete flume was not far—though it still would have been a bloody, painful outcome had I fallen.
Other sections of the flumes are earthen, with plants growing in places.
This is definitely not a trail for dogs because of all the grates.
Signage at the start and along the way was placed by PG&E, but when one calls the number listed it becomes an automated maze, so the questions I had about the canals and power plants remain unanswered.
PG&E’s website says, “The DeSabla-Centerville Project generally consists of three small reservoirs: Round Valley, Philbrook and DeSabla Forebay. It also includes several small diversion and feeder dams, canals with tunnels and flumes, penstocks and three powerhouses: Toadtown, DeSabla and Centerville.”
The Chico News & Review from a story in 2017 reports, “… the 6.4-megawatt Centerville Powerhouse has been out of service since 2011, when PG&E determined that the penstock—the pipe that carries water downhill from the canal to the powerhouse—couldn’t handle high water pressure, said spokesman Paul Moreno. As a result, the company cut off the water that used to flow into the Centerville flumes, leaving only the DeSabla (18.5 megawatts) and Toadtown (1.5 megawatts) powerhouses in operation.”
The Library of Congress has this nugget of information, “The Centerville installation of the Francis turbine generation unit in 1907 was only the fifth Francis turbine installed on the Pacific Coast, and the first relatively high head turbine installed in the west, representing an innovative approach to long distance, high-voltage transmission. The success of the Centerville project encouraged further high head turbine installations throughout California and contributed significantly to the development and expansion of hydroelectric power generation throughout the nation.”
Fortunately, our hike leader is also a docent at the Centerville Museum. He relayed that the Centerville power plant was the oldest in the state at the time is was decommissioned.
On this excursion with the Chico Oroville Outdoor Adventures group we clocked 8.77 miles, with an elevation gain of 1,639 feet. The lowest point was 971 feet, with the highest 1,707.
We made a loop by turning right up a short, steep hill that led us to a flat spot with a view that was ideal for lunch. Then we followed the dirt road to the main road we had parked on and took that down to the vehicles.
The route out was relatively flat, with a few wildflowers beginning to sprout. The views across Butte Creek Canyon are stunning.
- The flumes are accessed off Centerville Road, off Honey Run Road, which is off the Skyway in Chico.
- Parking is limited. If your bring several cars, suggested parking is at the cemetery, which is below the entrance to the flumes.
- Flume entrance is on the left with big signs warning people not to enter.
The beauty of spring can be fleeting. Perhaps this is why these seasonal flowers and blossoms are all the more special.
Throughout Butte County and all the other locales where almonds grow it is a sea of white sprouting from the branches. Almond blossoms tend to show themselves in February and March.
Get close enough and their aroma is faint, but sweet.
It’s not uncommon for locals (and others) to take a drive through the area this time of year to enjoy Mother Nature’s glory. Cyclists also find these routes to be glorious.
More than 40,000 acres in Butte County are planted with almonds.
As a commodity, almonds ranked No. 2 in Butte County in 2020 with a value of more than $147 million. Rice topped the list at more than $179 million, and walnuts were third at more than $128 million.
Anyone who has lived where a wildfire has ravaged the land knows all too well that the landscape is forever changed after the flames have been extinguished.
Such is the case at Hood Mountain in the Sonoma Valley.
The trail map shows more terrain that in inaccessible than accessible. This is the result of the 2017 Nuns Fire and the 2020 Glass Fire.
The Nuns burned the southern side of the park, where we started our hike in mid-January. Crews were still doing work near the trailhead entrance.
The Glass Fire was more devastating to the park, burning a larger area and burning hotter. It affected the northern side of the park closer to the Los Alamos Road entrance.
According to Sonoma County Regional Parks, “Overall, the (Glass) wildfire burned approximately 80 percent of the 2,000-acre park. About 50 percent was a moderate- to high-severity burn that killed or heavily damaged many trees. The fire burned the interior of the park, from the Santa Rosa Creek headwaters through the Sargent cypress forest, past the Hood Mountain summit and into Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.”
Having not hiked here before, the loss of vegetation did not affect me as much as it would a local who remembers what it was like pre-fire. But all of us who hike know all too well that our favorite places have suffered the wrath of a wildfire or is certainly susceptible to that occurring. All the more reason to appreciate what we have because one day it might not look the same.
Maybe I’ve been accustomed to the devastation of wildfire. I see a certain beauty in the aftermath. Mother Nature is so incredibly resilient. Grasses, shrubs and other flora sprout from a landscape that doesn’t look like there is fertile enough soil from which anything could grow.
The charred trees that stand like a naked forest are a powerful reminder of what fire can do. They, too, have a beauty all their own. Stare long enough and there is a sense of resilience, that they refused to fall. Those that eventually do will provide erosion barriers. Standing and fallen, both will provide habitat for various animals.
While it may seem like the forest is dead, look closer. Even a charred landscape is full of life.
Being immersed in the landscape it was easy to see where the fire burned hottest, how it jumped some stands of trees, and how crews eventually put out the flames, thus creating a line of sorts in the forest of burned v. untouched.
We started off by going up the road, which is so steep that a sign is posted for cyclists to dismount. I suppose that might have to do with the possibility of running into other trail users if speeds got so fast going downhill.
With so few trails open, for the most part we followed the signs for the Lower Johnson Ridge Trail and the Lawson Trail.
At the start the creek kept us company, with a few small waterfalls visible. Part of the trail is a dirt road, some of it is single track. With the fire, the contrast in terrain was striking from verdant green to midnight black.
A sign at the trailhead said, “On a clear day, you can see the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge from Gunsight Rock and the Valley View Trail. Please note that most trails are for experienced hikers in good physical conditions.”
By the end of our loop we had clocked just more than 4 miles. The highest elevations point was 1,895 feet and the lowest was 889 feet. Looking forward to when the summit opens; it’s an elevation of 2,730 feet.
Hood Mountain provides recreation for people on two feet, two wheels and horseback. Dogs on leash are also allowed. However, note that some of the county park trails link to Sugarloaf State Park and the state says no dogs allowed.
There is more than one entrance to this county park; we started at the Pythian Road trailhead. It costs $7 to park at this Sonoma County Regional Park.
Forty-one miles would make for more than a day hike, at least for me. While that is how long the Brad Freeman Trail is in Oroville, our group only bit off a fraction of it earlier this month.
The midway point was the lookout tower at Lake Oroville State Recreation Visitor Center. Climbing those narrow, steep stairs was the worst part of the excursion. The views from the platform were the best part, making the climb totally worth it.
Walking around the 47-foot-tall lookout gives a 360-degree view of the surrounding area, with Lake Oroville and the dam being prominent. However, the trail itself provided better views of the dam and this critical body of water—critical because it is one of the main reservoirs in the state. At least on Jan. 8 the water was noticeably higher than when I had been there last fall.
It is considered one of the most reactive reservoirs for rain, which means it can fill quickly.
Looking out we could see Sierra Buttes, Big Bald Rock, Coast Range, Table Mountain, and so much more.
The distinct green Bidwell Bar Bridge was easy to locate. The suspension bridge crosses the Feather River.
At least on the section of the Brad Freeman trail that we were on bikes were allowed, but not horses or dogs.
At the start it’s steep, then it is a more gradual climb after reaching the dam. While we weren’t far from the main road to the dam, it was still wooded and secluded.
We (this was a Chico Oroville Outdoor Adventurers excursion) finished the morning logging 5.32 miles. The lowest point was 844 point, with the highest was 1,248 feet. We started below the dam by the access to the Edward Hyatt Power Plant and Substation.
In hushed tones more than a dozen people walked the trails of Jack London State Park in mid-January. While the event was in the same week as the dead novelist’s birthday, this outing really had nothing to do with him. It was all about mushrooms.
The Sonoma County park hosted a mushroom foray on Jan. 15 that did not disappoint, especially for the price ($10) and the fact so many fungi were discovered.
In many ways it was like a scavenger hunt as participants and park volunteers crept along the walkway, scanning both sides in search of something protruding from the dirt.
A shout of excitement would go out when someone spotted a mushroom. We would all take our turns checking it out. The colors, size and shape are not uniform by any means, which adds to the wonder.
We were there to look and photograph. All specimens were left behind for the next mushroomer to appreciate.
It is said this is a banner season for finding these fungi because of the wet winter (well, it started that way) we are having compared to the last couple of dry winters.
As far as we know, none of the ones we came across was an edible variety—after all, January is when it’s common to find black trumpets, hedgehogs and winter chanterelles in the wild.
Some of the species we located include: mica cap (coprinellus micaceus), gilled polypore (trametes betulina), shellfish-scented russula (russula xerampelina) fragrant funnel (clitocybe fragrans) parrot mushroom (gliophorus psittacinus), lepiota rubrotinctoides (lepiota rubrotinctoides), Western witch’s hat (hygrocybe singeri) Western amethyst laccaria (laccaria amethysteo-occidentalis) and russula cerolens (russula cerolens).
Once upon a time I could practically roll in poison oak and nothing would happen to me. Now I say “poison oak” and it feels like I’m about to break out into a rash.
Poison oak was never a problem in Lake Tahoe. Nor was it an issue in Baja. Well, I’m now in the land of oaks, which means I’m surrounded by the poison as well.
Until moving to Chico I naively thought poison oak was something I had to worry about on a seasonal basis. Sort of like, out of sight, out of mind. Not so fast I’m learning. Fortunately, I’m learning the easy way and not by an itchy experience.
These are tips Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy has for identifying poison oak each season:
- Spring: Poison oak can be very green with varying amounts of red on the leaves, or no red on the leaves at all. It has erect stems and leaves in threes; the leaves have a shiny and smooth look to them.
- Summer: The buds of the poison oak have bloomed and are greenish and white. The plant is still pretty green; only at the end of the summer do the leaves start turning reddish.
- Fall: Around this time the leaves are no longer bright green; they now take on the famous reddish look.
- Winter: It can be difficult to identify poison oak during winter time because it’s dormant. It loses its leaves and looks like bare, erect sticks coming from the ground. Just because the leaves are no longer present, that does not mean the rash-inducing oils are absent. Be wary of the branches as well; look for cinnamon-colored branches.
I’ve always counted on the leaves as my way to identify poison oak. It wasn’t until I was on a group hike in Upper Bidwell Park in Chico last November that someone pointed out poison oak. No leaves. I didn’t intuitively understand. I thought I missed what was being talked about.
While I’m usually one who likes to learn new things, this bit of information that poison oak is something to be wary of year-round was not the fun kind of facts I prefer.
Still, it is good to know, especially since I had one of my worst bouts of poison oak last summer after contacting it in this same park.
Wildlife relies on instinct, intuition and centuries of DNA passed through their ancestors to know how to cope with wildfire and the aftermath.
But when the fires happen more frequently, burn hotter and more habitat is lost, their resiliency may not be what it was in years gone by.
“It is impossible to ignore the fact the fire regimen is intensifying and changing. There are several species that will be at risk if these mega-fires continue to happen year after year in the Sierra Nevada,” Mark Enders, wildlife diversity biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, said.
In the Tahoe area, Enders singled out spotted owls and martens, the latter a weasel-like mammal, that will have a harder time with habitat loss, especially if the fires continue at this pace.
2020 was the worst fire season in California’s history with more than 4.1 million acres charred. In 2021, there were 8,832 wildfires in the state that burned nearly 2.6 million acres.
The Lake Tahoe area in 2021 was impacted by the Tamarack and Caldor fires.
“We are talking about 300 vertebrate species that might use a given forest. It is going to be a little different for each species that uses it,” Enders said. “The species that are most at-risk are the species that are less common. The California spotted owl makes use of mature forest in the Sierra Nevada. Generally, it’s the only habitat you will find them.”
Silver haired bats and flying squirrels also live in mature forests, like what burned in the Caldor Fire. The ability to fly, though, ups the chances of survival.
Some animals withstood the flames by burrowing underground.
Larger animals in the basin like bears, deer and bobcats are likely to have fled and could return. While the Caldor Fire burned more than 221,000 acres, only 9,885 acres were in the basin. Even so, it’s not like these animals know such boundaries.
What remains to be seen because of the Tahoe area fires is how many bear cubs will be born this winter. If the hyperphagia phase was interrupted, it may impact births. This phase is when bears go into overdrive to eat as much as they can before retiring to a den for the winter.
What will never be known is how many animals actually die in any given fire.
It often isn’t until the fire is less intense or has been contained that the affected animals reveal themselves to the people who have returned after an evacuation. What has changed, though, is the Wildlife Disaster Network that was created in fall 2020 as a partnership between UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“It is a way to pool the limited and small wildlife veterinary services around the state to maximize the benefits for injured, burned wildlife,” explained Peter Tira with CDFW.
Firefighters who encounter wildlife with medical needs can call an 800 number so help can be administered faster.
When the more than 22,000 South Lake Tahoe residents were ordered to evacuate, not all the animals got the message. According to the South Lake Tahoe Police Department, there were 16 calls related to bears from Aug. 30 to Sept. 6. Not all were break-ins.
El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office reported 57 bear calls in the Tahoe basin from Aug. 26-Oct. 12.
Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care in South Lake Tahoe also had to evacuate because of the Caldor Fire. It is one of more than 80 wildlife rehabilitation centers certified by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The nonprofit is caring for three burned porcupines from the Christmas Valley area, where the Caldor flames first reached the basin.
“Because of the loss of habitat we are getting a lot of starving animals. Red-tail hawks mainly, and other raptors migrating through or from here who are not getting their food source,” explained Denise Upton, animal care director for LTWC.
“Some of our bears released this spring were about 70 miles from here at Ebbetts Pass. They got pushed out (from the fires) and we are getting calls from Washoe Valley.” Ear tags identify the bears.
However, it’s not just the fires that are displacing wildlife. Wildfire prevention is doing the same thing.
“Last year we received 3,700-plus animals. This year we will see well more than 4,700 animals. I attribute it to tree clearing—PG&E and homeowners are clearing year-round,” Sallysue Stein, director of Gold Country Wildlife Rescue in Auburn, said. “We were buried in baby season. Every tree can have song birds, foxes, raccoons, barn owls and all those cavity dwellers. I still think we are only seeing a fraction of those babies.”
Baby season starts in March and can last into September.
While fire can clearly be devastating for people, wildlife and flora, it is not always a bad thing. Clearing out the underbrush can produce a healthier forest and better habitat for those who call it home. It’s crown fires—when the flames are in treetops—that are most severe and cause the most loss of habitat.
Some animals actually thrive in a charred landscape.
“The black-backed woodpecker was almost listed as an endangered species a few years ago,” Enders with NDOW said. “That is a species that is known to seek out these burn areas because of the insects that are there after a fire. That is a species that will benefit in the Caldor burn area.”
He has spent quite a bit of time studying life after the 2002 Gondola Fire that burned more than 670 acres after someone who was never identified threw a cigarette out of one of Heavenly Mountain Resort’s gondola cars.
While nearly 20 years later the scar is still pronounced because the trees have not come back, there are numerous shrubs and large swaths of lupine that have sprouted. The flora gives nourishment to bumblebees and other insects that did not exist in these numbers pre-fire, according to Enders.
He explained how these pollinators create food sources for animals higher up the food chain. They pollinate fruit sources for bears to feast off of—thus proving wildlife and the land can learn to adapt post-fire—at least for now.
A version of this story first appeared in Tahoe In Depth.
The sun tried to punch through, only to be thwarted by the ominous black clouds. The river looked so uninviting, rushing furiously downstream, its edges swelling to accommodate the recent rains.
Mother Nature’s vast moodiness was on display the last Sunday of December in the Rio Vista Unit of the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge.
Bundled up in warm weather gear and rain jackets, the mood of the 13 hikers was giddy. It was time to stretch our legs after several days of rain. Fortunately, the rain clouds were only threatening for this 6-mile excursion and never opened up to soak us.
I didn’t realize how much of a headwind there was until heading back to the vehicles with a tailwind that seemed to make breathing, talking and walking so much easier.
Much of the route was along the Sacramento River on a trail wide enough to walk at least two abreast. It actually looked like an old road. On this dreary day the grass growing along the trail, and in the middle of what would be tire ruts on either side was the only vibrant color.
This is just one of 30 units in the refuge. In all it stretches 80 miles from Red Bluff to Colusa. Twenty-four of the units are at least partially open to the public without a fee. Some are accessible only via boat or other water transport.
“The refuge consists of 10,819 acres primarily of wetlands, with some grasslands and riparian habitats,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Sacramento River Refuge was established in 1937 “to provide refuge and breeding habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife, provide habitat and manage for endangered, threatened, or sensitive species, and alleviate crop depredation.”
The USFWS website also says, “The refuge supports over 250 species of birds. Most notable are the huge wintering concentrations (November-January) of 500,000 to 750,000 ducks and 200,000 geese. Raptor numbers swell as the waterfowl numbers increase, including bald eagles and peregrine falcons. Waterfowl viewing is good between October and March. In addition, shorebird numbers peak in the spring and fall, while some waterfowl and numerous migratory songbird species nest here during the summer. Many birds and mammals provide year-round viewing.”
In additions to fish and birds, those who recreate in this area could encounter ticks, mosquitoes, wasps, yellow jackets, bees, poison oak, stinging nettle, poison hemlock, rattle snakes, feral pigs, and mountain lions. We didn’t encounter any of the above. In fact, the weather even kept the birds from flitting about much.
To get there from Chico, we took Highway 99 north nearly 20 miles before turning left on South Avenue (just past the CalFire station on the right), and another left into the parking area. If you see the river, you went too far.
Rows of trees growing in a line like they are a crop, a paved path meandering along a creek with a tree canopy providing an abundance of shade, a large greenhouse with a few busted glass panes.
This is the Chico Seed Orchard.
According to the U.S. Forest Service’s website, the primary functions of the seed orchard are to:
- Provide high-quality, source-identified seed.
- Enhance reforestation success in current and future planting environments.
- Promote gene conservation in the Pacific Southwest Region.
- Focus on ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir seed production.
The website says seed produced at the orchard benefits:
- Ecological restoration
- Wildfire recovery
- Native American cultural values
- Forest health, including research and disease resistance.
Started in 1904 as a plant introduction program by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, today the Chico Seed Orchard is part of the Mendocino National Forest. This seems a bit odd since it is like an island unto itself with no other part of the national forest surrounding it.
The 209-acre orchard was established on land donated by the Bidwells. The goal was to amass a slew of trees and shrubs from around the world in order to study them for them for medicinal value, fruit, and landscaping.
A free pamphlet at the start of the 1-mile paved nature trail lists 71 plants coming from Russia, China, Japan, Korea, California, Ireland, Africa, South America, Guatemala, Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. The flora includes Russian hackberry, lacebark pine, ornamental pear, giant reed, filbert of hazelnut, and kiwi.