Monday, April 2, 2012

Carson Falls - Marin Waterfall Hike - 4/2/12

Carson Falls

          The sun was shining when I left work in Berkeley and headed for the hills of Marin to unwind and do some adventuring. Driving past Fairfax and the Alpine Club I parked at the base of Azalea Hill and the Pine Mountain Fire Road where there were only a couple other cars in the dirt lot. On weekends it can be quite a zoo unless you arrive really early.
          The smell of blooming Ceonothus enveloped me as I started out on the Pine Mtn. Fire Road. A Red Tailed Hawk circled above while I made way along the first undulating fire road segment. The first few minutes of fairly level terrain are a great warm up before the climbing begins in earnest. As the trail climbs toward the Cypress Forest on top of San Geronimo Ridge the terrain is extremely rough and rocky consisting largely of serpentine outcroppings. It makes for one heck of a climb on a mountain bike I can tell you that.
          Near the top of the first climb, about a mile from the parking lot, is the turnoff for Oat Hill Fire Road which follows a ridgeline heading south to its terminus at Oat Hill overlook. I took the Oat Hill turnoff and descended along the ridgeline and stopped briefly at the top of the Carson Falls Trail to admire the views around me. I had left work in the bustling city of Berkeley just an hour prior and now found myself a world away, immersed in a habitat much more to my liking.
          Within the past few years a new trail has been built to reach Carson Falls as the old one has been retired. Although the old trail descended through open grassland offering views down the Little Carson Valley; It was far too steep for the meadow grasses to withstand the erosion. The newly built trail has many switchbacks and is built on sturdier soil beneath a forest canopy and with proper maintenance should stand the test of time.
          While descending I kept my eyes out for creeping poison oak vines that were occasionally hanging out over the edge of the trail. Within a few minutes I was at the bottom of the valley where I crossed paths with the last hikers as they were leaving the falls. I would now have the place to myself for the rest of the evening.
          Carson Falls is really a series of waterfalls with magnificent pools along the top tiers and one long final plunge at the end. I started by crossing the creek above the falls via a footbridge and then descending along the far side of the creek toward the very bottom pool which resides in the deep shade.
          The riparian habitat at the base of the falls is thick and tough to navigate but I managed to find a couple of vantage points without having to crawl through any poison oak.

Carson Falls Mist Zone

Carson Falls Lower Tier

          While making my way back up towards the upper tiers I stumbled across a few camouflaged Fritillaria.

Checker Lily (Fritillaria affinis)

          Beside the top tiers I relaxed and waited for the sun to dip behind the ridge so I could have better lighting on the falls. I was extra careful not to disturb the precious creek where Foothill Yellow-Legged Frogs lay their eggs during the spring.
          As with most of my visits to Carson Falls and after careful observation, I was rewarded with a view of one of the rare frogs clinging to a rock beside the creek.

Foothill Yellow-Legged Frog (Rana boylii

          A State species of special concern the Foothill Yellow-Legged Frogs have disappeared from nearly half of their historic range throughout California and Oregon. Carson Falls happens to be one of the two remaining populations that remain in our area.
          Although never fully safe throughout the year, March through June is the most vulnerable time for the eggs and it is important to keep away from the stream bed during these times so as to protect the eggs and future generations of frogs. Besides human and pet disturbances and damaged eggs the newly hatched tadpoles also face natural predation by other animals such as newts which I saw plenty of. Thankfully the MMWD has started a docent program where on busy weekends docents stand by to engage with and inform the public about the frogs and the importance of keeping pets on a leash. Barriers have also been erected to help prevent people from getting close to the water. These barriers aren’t the prettiest thing to look at and often times interfere with the view of the falls, but this is the growing issue we face as larger populations are drawn towards delicate ecosystems.
          The sun eventually crept behind a ridge and I began taking some photos. I certainly got my workout as I made my way up and down the tiers looking for different compositions.

Upper Carson Falls with Red Larkspur

Upper Carson Falls from main viewing platform

Upper Carson Falls

          After making some images and relaxing I packed up my gear and began my hike out of Little Carson Valley. I was quite ecstatic to have had the place to myself for the entire evening. At the top of the ridge on Oat Hill Road I took a break to admire the shifting clouds and colors above Tomales Bay to the west.

View West from Oat Hill Fire Road

          I contemplated waiting for sunset but didn’t want to push dinner so far out and so started back towards the car. As I approached the final stretches of Fire Road an Osprey soared overhead as if to give me my farewell from my evening on the trails. I paused one last time to take in the fading clouds.

Lone Iris at Sundown

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Kent Trail and Alpine Lake - 4/1/12

          It was a sunny Sunday afternoon when Sarah and I decided to head out to Sky Oaks and the lakes for a short leisurely hike. We parked at the edge of Alpine Lake near the Bon Tempe Dam and set off on the fire road that crosses the dam itself. We made our way across the dam taking notice of the dozen or so cormorants sunning themselves on the boom that stretches across the lake. At the far end of the dam we took a right toward the Kent Trail. Bright and shiny Buttercups as well as a few California Poppies decorated the hillside. The fire road dead ends at Alpine Lake where the Kent Trail begins, closely following the lakeshore.
          We followed the Kent Trail for a little over a mile as it undulates along the shore taking us from beneath the deep shade of Douglas Firs, to open landscapes with serpentine boulders and low growing chaparral. Checker Lilies were inconspicuously blooming along the trailside in places and are easy to miss if you’re not looking hard.
Checker Lilies

          We traveled a little further before venturing out onto a secluded peninsula where we relaxed at the edge of the lake. We enjoyed views out over the lake with Dutchman’s Rock and Liberty Peak in the backdrop.
Alpine Lake

          A red tailed hawk circled above the lake taking advantage of a thermal. We also observed an Osprey dive repeatedly into the water in the same spot again and again with no results. It was flying awkward and I wondered if it was ok.
          We relaxed a bit before heading back towards the Bon Tempe Dam. Right on the side of the trail we noticed a dismembered bird wing still fresh with bloody flesh. It was certainly not there when we passed by an hour earlier and we were curious as to what had happened. Could it have been the wrath of a Cooper’s Hawk?
Dismembered Wing

          We arrived back at the dam where I hiked a little further down the Shadyside Trail while Sarah made her way to the car. Not long after we parted ways Sarah was lucky enough to have an experience with an otter. The otter swam towards her near the spillway and got right out of the water and walked towards her before sliding back into the lake. I’ve never seen an otter in the vicinity of the Fairfax reservoirs and was quite jealous that I missed the opportunity.
          I hiked along the Shadyside trail where Milkmaids and Hounds Tongue bloomed among the shaded forest floor. There were still enough rains to be supporting a variety of fungus including Witches Butter and Orange Peel Fungus. About halfway down the Shadyside Trail I was looking for signs of Coral Root Orchids starting to pop up when I noticed several turrets which are home to the Turret Spider.

Aerial View of a Turret Spider Burrow

          Turret Spiders are exclusive to California. Northerly facing slopes in the state’s moist woodlands provide the preferable habitat for Turret Spiders. It is believed that females are the respected elders living up to sixteen years, nearly twice as long as their male counterparts. Stir Crazy seems to be an unknown concept to these spiders as they spend nearly their entire life in their burrow with the exception of the males who leave once to search for a mate before dying.
          I tried to coax one of the spiders out using a blade of grass as a decoy without any luck. I’m not sure whether the turrets were empty, or if they just weren’t interested in my spider charming.
          Remembering that Sarah was waiting for me back at the car to have lunch, I jogged back to the trail head. We tailgated at the edge of Alpine Lake watching several Ospreys soaring overhead in search of fish. Meanwhile a fisherman of the humankind had a bit of luck himself as we watched him reel in a large fish.