Jack London park awash in hiking trails

We had a vague idea of where we were going, then let intuition and strangers help guide us.

This was fortuitous because two women asked us if we were headed to the old redwood. We wondered, “What old redwood?” And off we went at their urging.

This ancient redwood is protected at Jack London State Historic Park. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

“After logging the old-growth forest, this 14-foot diameter giant redwood still stood. Often referred to as the Grandmother Tree, it is estimated to be 1,800 to 2,000 years old,” according to Jack London State Historic Park’s website. “Although the coast redwood is the tallest living thing in the world, this particular tree is wider than it is tall and therefore does not tower over the forest canopy.”

She is worthy of a visit. In some ways she looked like something that might reside at Hogwarts because of how some of her limbs are growing. Nonetheless, we were happy to make the short side trip on this late September hike.

The water level at Fern Lake keeps dropping. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The four of us started the morning at the Sonoma Developmental Center. Even though it is now shuttered, we abided by the signs saying only state vehicles beyond a certain point. We walked up the paved Orchard Road until we could veer right onto dirt paths that led us to the 13-acre Fern Lake, which is just outside the boundary of the state park.

Then we meandered a bit west onto the trails of Jack London State Historic Park. This area is south of the main park entrance where the historic buildings are located. Having been there a few times, I thought a different starting point would be fun and interesting. Looking at a map, I realize I’ve barely scratched the park’s trail system.

The tree canopy provides shade along the trail. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

With so many leaves on the ground and needing to start off with long sleeves, we had definitely transitioned to fall.

A mix of flora dotted the trail and surrounding forest—pines, oak, ferns, and the aforementioned ancient redwood among others. The canopy provided shade on the dirt trails, while the paved area was exposed.

The parched earth was most dramatically in evidence on the last path we selected to go down. Cracks in the dried dirt made it look like the ground was crumbling in large chunks.

We finished the route clocking 4.68 miles, starting at 239 feet, reaching 982 feet.

Rain quickly changes the look of popular trail

At times Big Chico Creek is rushing along the Annie Bidwell Trail, other times it is calm. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Green. That was the significant difference two weeks made.

My first trek on the Annie Bidwell Trail in Upper Bidwell Park came Oct. 22 with the Chico Oroville Outdoor Adventurers group. The dusk hike was an opportunity to stretch our legs for an hour after being cooped up because of the rain.

Looking toward the burn scar of the North Rim of Bidwell Park on Oct. 22, left, and then on Nov. 5. (Images: Kathryn Reed)

Two weeks later the excursion was with a friend from out of town, with the idea of seeing part of Bidwell Park she had not explored and to go a bit farther than I had before.

What I wasn’t prepared for was how dramatically different the landscape looked. Oh, the power of Mother Nature.

Rain and sun are making for the greening along paths, the meadows and on the burn scar in the park from last summer’s fire.

Big Chico Creek runs through Upper Bidwell Park. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Sometimes it is easy to take these changes in the landscape for granted. We expect the greening of hillsides in Northern California in the winter. How glorious to have it occur in early fall after two years of drought.

This trek has a variety of scenic elements. Starting off it was something out of Harry Potter with the dead looking trees making a canopy of sorts that seemed a bit other worldly. It’s not long before Big Chico Creek comes into view with a multitude of deciduous trees showing off their fall colors. There is a point where it’s easy to get closer to the canyon walls of the creek that are coarse basalt. From there the trail opens up with broader views of hillsides beginning to green.

Rain and sun are turning the terrain green. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

While mountain bikers are welcome here, it’s not a trail I would do. But that is not saying much.

The trail is mostly single track, with gradual ups and downs along the way. None of it was strenuous, though the rocks embedded in the dirt required paying attention. The longer hike was 5 miles, with 562 feet of elevation gain. Our lowest point was 299 feet, with the highest 509 feet. Both treks were an out and back.

Goats take a bite out of fire threat throughout Chico

Thorn eating, poison oak gobbling goats have been romping through Bidwell Park as an environmentally safe way to mow down the potentially fire-hazardous grasses and rid the area of invasive species.

This flock hails from Rancho Cordova-based Capra Environmental Services Corp. (Capra actually means goat.)

Between 200 and 500 of these goats started munching away in Chico in the summer and have continued their work this fall.

Goats munch on grass in Lower Bidwell Park in late October. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Typically, the animals work on 1 acre per day. They can be in an area 24 hours or longer. A sheepherder, trained dogs and electric fences keep them corralled.

Something about seeing them at work along Vallombrosa Avenue in Lower Bidwell Park brings a smile to my face. They seem to be having fun. Some look like they are about to climb a tree with their front hooves on the trunk as they reach to nibble on a branch. A few play around as they head-butt each other. Some are a little lackadaisical about this work thing as they lounge in the soft grass.

Even though they have been taking a serious bite of potential fire fuels in various locations throughout Chico, not everyone is thrilled with their presence. Naturally some dude had to write a letter to the local paper about how he thought there were better alternatives, and lamented how the brush would grow back next year.

A goat takes a break from eating in Chico’s Bidwell Park. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

True, it will. It will also grow if power tools had been used or heavier equipment.

The point isn’t to eliminate the grasses in their entirety, but instead to naturally mow down the area so if there were a fire, the spread would be practically impossible. Plus, the goats are getting rid of species of flora that are not good.

Sure, things like this use taxpayers’ dollars. But any mitigation plan costs money. Goats seem like a better way of solving problems than a lot of other decisions this City Council has made.

Thousands of trees make Chico an autumn wonderland

Colorful trees fill front yards throughout Chico. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Red, yellow, orange, pink, fuchsia, burgundy green, brown—these are the many colors of leaves dangling from trees and scattered about yards throughout Chico.

It’s hard to drive on a street in this city that is not full of trees. No wonder it is called The City of Trees.

Leaves come in a variety of colors. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

While fall brings out an abundance of color, the trees are magnificent year-round. It’s not just the flora in Bidwell Park that is so spectacular. It’s everywhere.

Some of these trees are owned by residents, some by businesses, and many by the city itself.

Trees line most streets in Chico. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

According to the city’s website, “Currently, there are approximately 25,000 street trees within the public right-of-way. Another 8,000 locations are available as future tree planting sites.”

It also says, “Chico is known as the City of Trees, with a robust urban forest history that began with John Bidwell.”

It’s hard not to slow down to admire the trees. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The city was founded in 1860 by Bidwell. Many of the trees were here when he arrived, many more have been planted since then. Exactly how trees now exist could not be found.

The California Native Plant Society lists 39 trees native to Chico. They include cottonwoods, maples, pines, incense cedar, oaks, willows, Douglas fir, ash, elder, sycamore, laurel and more.

Some trees have a kaleidoscope of color. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

All the almond and walnut orchards have their own beauty and symmetry; most of these are found on the outskirts of town. The Northern California Black Walnut is native, according to the CNPS.

This vibrant tree brightens an otherwise gloomy fall day. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

With all these trees, it’s not surprising for 37 years Chico has been named a Tree City by the Arbor Day Foundation. In 2020, 3,676 cities received this designation.

Abundance of beauty on trek to fish ladder

A hint of fall along Deer Creek in Lassen National Forest. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

In less than 2 miles we arrived at a man-made contraption in the middle of the forest that is saving the lives of countless fish.

“The project is truly an engineering marvel: located in a deep canyon, with no road access, approximately 500 tons of rock were excavated out of the old fishway area while a new one was built, using pre-cast concrete panels roughly 7 feet deep, 10 feet long, and almost 7 feet wide, to form a series of 14 pools and 15 weirs that help fish get upstream of the waterfall,” according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The fish ladder, at a cost of $2.5 million, was completed in December 2017, replacing a steeper less elaborate one built in the 1940s.

The fish ladder at Lower Deer Creek Falls doubles as a human viewing platform. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Fish ladders are built to help fish around culverts, dams and waterfalls. In the case of Deer Creek there is about a 15-foot waterfall impeding their migration. (Salmon swim upstream to spawn, with the little ones going downstream to the river.) The ladders allow them to jump into a pool where they can rest before jumping into the next one until they bypass the obstruction.

We only saw one salmon in the pool (outside the ladder) before the waterfall.

Lower Deer Creek Waterfall remains impressive even in early fall. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Deer Creek, Mill Creek and Butte Creek are the remaining tributaries of the Sacramento River with native runs of the Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon. There used to be more than 2,000 miles of stream habitat for these fish; now there are only a few hundred miles.

Lower Deer Creek Falls is about 35 miles upstream from the Sacramento River.

We started off Highway 32 in the Lassen National Forest. Though the trek is fairly easy, the beauty was incredible along the entire route.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac has this to say about woolly bear caterpillars: “If their rusty band is wide, then it will be a mild winter. The more black there is, the more severe the winter.” (Image: Kathryn Reed)

This is a mixed conifer zone, so the landscape seemed to be changing as we headed downstream from our starting point. Douglas fir were the predominant trees in the low dry zone, though oaks were interspersed. Ponderosa pines were closer to the starting point.

Spires of volcanic rock rose from both sides of the creek.

The path was compact dirt most of the way, with some embedded rocks that made looking down a necessity. One spot required a bit of limbo with the fallen tree.

Deer Creek will eventually flow into the Sacramento River. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

We could hear and see Deer Creek most of the hike. What was most surprising was how much water was flowing on the first Saturday of October. At times the water was tranquil, other times it was rushing. This was especially true at the fish ladder where the water roared through the canyon.

This would clearly be a completely different hike in spring/early summer with the runoff. A few times we passed what would have been areas to cross with water on the trail during the wet season.

Not much fall color was to be seen, but still there was a distinct sense the seasons are changing.

While no bears were visible, their scat was. The only interesting wildlife was a woolly bear caterpillar. The folklore in Tahoe was that seeing one means winter is on its way.

We started at 3,323 feet, with the lowest point being 3,131 feet. We logged 3.96 miles. The 19 of us on this hike were part of this Chico Oroville Outdoor Adventurers.

Fire damage cannot extinguish magic of Sierra-at-Tahoe

Brothers Ray and Floyd Barrett opened Sierra Ski Ranch in 1946. Vern Sprock purchased it in 1956. In 1993, Fibreboard bought it and renamed it Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort. It has been owned by Booth Creek Ski Holdings since 1996. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

This ski season was supposed to be all about celebrating 75 years of schussing down the slopes at Sierra-at-Tahoe. Unfortunately, the resort doesn’t know what lifts will spin this winter even though opening day should be a few weeks away.

The Caldor Fire that ripped through the Eldorado National Forest in late summer/early fall caused significant damage to some of the lifts and many of the trees.

Sierra threw a big party for Jamie Anderson, Maddie Bowman and Hannah Teeter after they competed in the 2014 Winter Olympics. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

“We do know that the trails + area accessed by West Bowl Express will be inaccessible this season, as we restore that section of the mountain for seasons to come,” Sierra-at-Tahoe said on Instagram Oct. 24.

Even though the ski resort’s insurance company brought in private firefighters before the flames reached that section of Highway 50, fire has a way of doing what it wants. Most of the buildings were saved, but the cables on some of the 14 lifts that are scattered across 2,000 acres are the problem. So are all the damaged trees.

Sierra’s restaurants serve more than traditional cafeteria food. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

On the resort’s website is a Q&A about what to expect this season. It gets updated as more information is available.

In part as of Oct. 25 it said, “We are still conducting a thorough evaluation of Sierra’s lifts and trails to understand the full impact of the fire. That evaluation will determine what operations look like for opening the resort for the 2021/22 winter season. Repairs, routine yearly maintenance + annual inspections continue on Nob Hill, Short Stuff, El Dorado + Easy Rider Express, as well as mitigation for fire-damaged trees along ski trails accessed by these lifts. The operating status for individual trails accessed by each of these lifts is still unknown as they undergo inspection. In addition, many of the in-bound tree skiing areas, such as Jack’s + Avalanche Bowl, will likely be closed for the season. Grandview Express’ haul rope, which suspends the ski lift’s chairs, was damaged during the fire and a replacement cable is currently in production in Switzerland. Due to these challenges, Grandview Express will be delayed and we currently do not have an estimated date for allowing access to this lift.”

This video from KCRA-TV shows the damage:

The fire changed a lot of things for a lot of people. And while it might be trite to mourn the damage to my favorite South Shore ski resort when whole towns (Grizzly Flats and Greenville) were leveled this year, the loss is wrapped up in so many wonderful memories of skiing at Sierra.

I’ve never been a huge tree skier, but I loved the trees at Sierra. I loved that I could find stashes of powder a day or two after a storm. The special events were fun. The food was good.

Kae Reed, left, as a special guest judge during the annual salsa competition.

Sierra has always had a friendly, non-corporate vibe. It was welcoming.

And all those Olympians it has produced.

There is a reason the lift that accesses this vista is called Grandview. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

I skied there with friends and family. I skied for work, I skied just to have fun.

None of those things will change as the resort repairs the fire damage. It’s possible Sierra will be even more magical for having endured this significant setback.

Good thing the keys were not left in the snowcat. (Image: Sue Wood)

Sierra has weathered many storms—ownership changes, drought, rain on snow, a pandemic, short seasons, lack of personnel, road closures, and so much more. Resilient is what this resort is. It takes some pretty special people—from the GM to the lifties—to create this sense of belonging.

The fact that the resort seems to be so honest via social media about what is going on makes me like it even more. Transparency with guests is going to get some converts to the slopes even with limited terrain this season.

This isn’t just a ski resort; it is a community. It’s a place that will always be special to me.

Birds easier to hear than see in the wild

A woodpecker takes a break from ferreting out insects from the log. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

At times we were surrounded by all this noise, but we could not see the culprits. It was as though they were mocking us.

Some of it was lyrical, at times it was chirping, and then there was the squawking.

It was like a game of hide-and-seek. I wanted to shout “olly, olly oxen free” for them to come out and reveal themselves. If only birding were that easy. Instead, it’s a lot of waiting, listening, and finally excitement when seeing a feathered friend fly or rest on a branch without visual obstruction.

Few birds made themselves so visible. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Before they even came into sight we had our weapons of choice—camera, binoculars, bare eyes—ready to document their existence.

With my friend, Darla, in town for a long weekend, we hit a couple nearby places that were recommended for seeing a variety of birds. This is an activity she is just getting into, so the birds listed below that we saw come with the caveat that she is a self-described “below beginner level birder” and I’m not a birder of any kind.

Because she is from Central Oregon we were able to check off some birds she had not recorded before. Others, like the scrub jay, quail and turkey vultures, were species she had seen long before she started getting interested in this activity.

Some of the other birds we are pretty sure we saw include the Western wood pewee, acorn woodpecker, dark-eyed junco, bushtit, and oak titmouse.

There were others, but their shape, coloring and any unique characteristic were not distinguishable enough for her decipher. I was of little help in this whole identifying ritual. When they don’t sit long or are camouflaged by leaves and tree limbs, it’s hard to get a definitive read on the animal.

With nearly 10,000 bird species in the world, it could take a lifetime to track them all down.

Plenty of people bird every day. Then there are the events where people count them.

Chico is home to a number of bird species; and is also on the Pacific Flyway. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

One of the biggest bird counts is the annual Christmas event put on by the National Audubon Society from Dec. 14-Jan 5. This year marks the 122nd year.

The Audubon website says, “The data collected by observers over the past century allow Audubon researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent’s bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years. The long term perspective is vital for conservationists. It informs strategies to protect birds and their habitat, and helps identify environmental issues with implications for people as well.”

This is a count I’ve participated in on the fringes as a journalist. It really is amazing to see species of birds you might otherwise not notice were nearby. And to view them with specialty equipment is a treat. These birders, well, they, too, are an interesting breed.

Private park in Butte County a hidden gem

Merlo Park is tucked away in a remote area of Butte County. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

A 20-acre oasis of tranquility awaits those willing to make the drive to Stirling City.

This Butte County town with a population of 374 people is home to a majestic private park at an elevation of 3,500 feet.

I visited the park for the first time earlier this month with the Native Plant Society’s Lassen Chapter. While there were plenty of native plants to look at—ponderosa pine, sugar pine, Douglas fir, white fir, quaking aspen, black oak, incense cedar, fern, rush, and manzanita, to name a few—this park also hosts many nonnative flora.

Other specimens (some native, some not) that were identified included golden rod, tanbark oak, naked buckwheat, wild cherries, acacia, St. John’s wort, dogwood, and Sierra redwood.

In May and June the wildflowers are said to be magnificent.

A man-made waterfall at the park. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Our leader Marjorie was correct in calling this a peaceful place to enjoy nature, as we embraced the solitude.

Three ponds on the grounds are pumped and the water recycled. Paths are gentle as they weave around areas that are more developed, and some that are wooded and more natural.

Small statues of children are placed throughout the park. The caretaker told our group these were bought by Harry Merlo to commemorate his childhood. One shows a boy with a dog, another is a child fishing, one is of a kid playing ball.

Placards are next to trees that have been planted in honor of someone who has died, signifying how important this park must have been to that person and their loved ones.

Harry A. Merlo dedicated the park to his late mother, Clotilde, in 1987. She had died in 1962. Clotilde had immigrated to Stirling City from Italy. The park is near where Harry grew up. This is where the Diamond Match sawmill used to be.

One of the many statues scattered about the park. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Growing up in a lumber community it’s not a surprise that he became an executive of Georgia-Pacific. When Louisiana Pacific spun off from Georgia-Pacific, Merlo became the CEO of LP, a position he held from 1973-95. At that time LP was headquartered in Portland, which is where Merlo spent most of his life. Merlo died in 2016 at the age of 91.

Today the park is run by a nonprofit foundation. There is no cost to visit, though it is not open in the winter. It will close this season on Oct. 17, and will reopen on Mother’s Day.

The park’s Facebook page says, “Coltilde was a war widow who came from Italy in 1920 with her small son, Pete. She met and married Joseph Merlo, also widowed with two small children, Caroline and Amiel. They had three sons, John, Harry and Frank. She was the foremost teacher in her children’s lives as well as running a boarding house for Joseph’s co-workers from the nearby sawmill. After WWII, she moved to Berkeley with her three youngest sons where she worked to help them through the university.”

A plaque at the park says, “It is the intention of the Harry A. Merlo Foundation that this park bring peace, tranquility and dignity in remembrance of the many emigrants who, in the first decades of the 1900s, settled in the community of Stirling City.”

Mount Tamalpais trails a contrast in terrain

The coastal climate keeps part of Mount Tamalpais State Park lush. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

It was like two hikes in one—first being surrounded by verdant green flora, then descending through dry grasses and oaks.

It didn’t matter that we started in fog because the tree canopy was so thick it was hard to know there was even a sky above us. It was damp, almost humid in this majestic wooded area of Mount Tamalpais State Park. Moss covered tree branches, ferns were at our feet, while redwoods and bay trees provided a canopy.

Fog keeps the morning cool at Mount Tam. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The sounds of Webb Creek followed us most of the way up. It was rather amazing to have so much water flowing on Labor Day weekend. Multiple bridges cross the creek. On the route down we crossed numerous dry creeks–or maybe sections of the same creek, and areas that looked like the trail would definitely be wet in the rainy season or early spring. The landscape also looked like there would be waterfalls when it rains again.

My legs felt the climbing the next day; mostly because of all the stairs involved. The nice thing is they were not made out of granite, which is what I’m used to. The compact dirt trail was rather gradual.

There is only one way up … or down. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

An interesting obstacle was the necessity to climb a ladder in the first section of the route. I was glad we encountered it on our way up instead of having to climb down it.

This is definitely not a hike for those with bad knees.

The route we took was devised by our leader Harold from the Chico Orville Outdoor Adventurers group. This was his description of the hike, “This popular hike departing from the town of Stinson Beach, strung together from the Matt Davis, Steep Ravine, and Dipsea trails feature a bit of everything, with waterfalls (not in September), redwood, Douglas fir, and oak forests, grassland, canyons, and views galore. These three trails are some of Tam’s best, and combined them into one hike intensifies their pleasures.”

Sue walks along the exposed area of the route. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

We seemed to startle three coyote cubs near the start of the trail. A few chirping birds were our only other wildlife encounter.

After lunch it like a different world with more expansive terrain and the occasional oak. Fog muted our view to the ocean, but there was plenty of wonderful scenery worth pausing for.

By the end of the hike we had finished a 7.57-mile loop; starting and ending in the town of Stinson Beach in Marin County. The GPS registered the start at 27 feet, with our highest point 1,631 feet.

Trees from around the world line nature trail

While I have plenty of familiarity with pulling a cork out of a wine bottle, until this summer I had never seen a cork tree.

A cork oak grove is part of Bidwell Park in Chico; more precisely in the World of Trees Nature Trail off East Eighth Street. The cork trees were planted in 1904.

A grove of oak cork trees in Bidwell Park. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Knocking on a tree it almost seems hollow. It’s soft to the touch. I didn’t try to see how easy it would be to take a piece off because that seemed like it would be destructive, selfish, and truly pointless.

Others, though, have harvested cork from the trees in the past. The stripping occurred in the 1940s and at other times; the scars are visible.

Trees from around the world thrive in Bidwell Park. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Cork works so well for keeping wine from seeping out of bottles because it contains suber. In fact, the official name of the tree is Quercus suber. Suber is the exterior of the bark of the tree, which is waxy. It is also waterproof, which makes it ideal for sealing in wine.

A plethora of trees are part of this half-mile or so nature trail. It makes a loop, though there are off-shoots that can make the experience longer. Interpretive signs point out some of the species of trees.

Italian Cypress trees tower over many species. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

In addition to the cork, the trees AJ and I saw that were named included:

  • Austrian pine
  • Bay tree
  • Coulter pine
  • Valley Oak
  • Zelkova
  • Madrone
  • Coast redwood
  • American persimmon
  • Aleppo pine
  • Western Catalpa
  • English Oak
  • Black Walnut
  • Italian Cypress
  • Incense Cedar.

Cork trees in Chico used to be harvested. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The grove once had 122 sequoias. The nonprofit Friends of Bidwell Park said a week of 10-degree temps in 1932 wiped them out.

The cork grove was part of the 29 acres John Bidwell in 1888 donated to the just created State Board of Forestry. Within five years the funding for the new agency was cutoff. The Legislature gave the property to the University of California Department of Agriculture at Berkeley. In 1921, the state took possession from the university. The city of Chico became the landowner through locals each contributing $100 to buy the acreage from the state. All of this is according to Friends of Bidwell Park.

It’s a wonderful path that is bound to change seasonally. It’s flat, dirt, and isn’t open to bikes or horses. It was delightful to see so many different species of trees, including ones I had never seen before, in less than a mile of walking.

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