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Pinnacles National Monument

On the way to Pinnacles National Monument

On the way to Pinnacles National Monument

It has been some time since we had the chance to write about our travels. We have had two sets of visitors from the UK and though we have been out and about, I didn’t take my notebook. One of the visitors was our granddaughter, Lissie, who is just four years old. We had a lot of fun taking her to places which we never been to before – San Jose Children’s Discovery Museum, Mystery Spot, Happy Hollow Park and Zoo. Of course we took a couple of trips to the beaches of Santa Cruz and Capitola as well.

Now we are back to the  old routine and on the road again in the early hours of a Saturday morning on our way to Pinnacles National Monument. Our last visit to Pinnacles was in March 2008 when we saw the condors for the first time. That time we entered on the west side. This time we went to the east side, which is south of Hollister.

Over the last few weeks the weather has been very hot. This last week it has cooled down to a pleasant temperature. It was a bit foggy over towards the coast as we traveled south on 101 but it promises to be a nice day at Pinnacles.

South of Gilroy we turned onto Highway 25 and drove between newly plowed fields of dark brown soil. Some crops were still being grown. There was one field of a dark leaved crop which looked like lettuce. Highway 25 is a two lane highway which is heavily used during commute hours and has a solid concrete barrier down the center for most of the way into Hollister. There had been some nasty head on crashes before the barrier went up.

After breakfast at the Cozy Cup Cafe in Hollister we continued on our merry way, driving first through the center of Hollister. It is a very pleasant town. Groups of children were busy with brooms and cleaning equipment. We deduced it was some sort of sponsored clean up. Once we made our way back to Highway 25 we were again on the road to Pinnacles. We drove through Tres Pinos and the 19th Hole where we had lunch back in August. No bikers around yet.

We drove past the San Benito Fairgrounds outside Tres Pinos and the scenery changed from farms and golf courses to low hills with cattle and horses grazing. The hills became higher until we reached Paicines. Here the land became flatter for a while and once more we drove between fields and a couple of vineyards. Tom stopped to take a photo of some trailers lined up in a field. I spoke too soon about the bikers – a whole convoy passed us driving south while we were stopped.

At first the road ahead was long and straight but soon we started to climb and the road became more twisty. Just after 9.oo o’clock we turned onto Highway 146 which dead ends at Pinnacles National Monument.

At the East Entrance Station we paid the $5 day use fee and drove to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. We looked at the map to work out which trail

The white droppings mark the Condor nests. That's a condor soaring above.

The white droppings mark the Condor nests. That's a condor soaring above. Click the photo for a larger version.

we would take. The first time we came to the east side we hiked on the High Peaks Trail. Last time we walked to the Bear Gulch Reservoir on Bear Gulch Cave Trail. This time we decided to do the Condor Gulch Trail. A group of scouts were assembling to take the very same trail so we waited for them to get going before we set off.

At the start of the trail we crossed a little wooden bridge and then we started to climb. It was not a difficult climb to begin with but before too long it became steeper.

When Tom was busy taking photos I found a convenient rock to sit on until he caught up. It was a beautiful day though still a bit hazy on the hill hills. We still had not seen the distinctive Pinnacles skyline but hoped that would change before too long. The sun felt very pleasant where I was sitting and I listened to birdsong all around and the sound of a woodpecker at work in the distance. As the sun gradually became hotter the haze disappeared and at last we saw the towering spires of Pinnacles.

The trail did indeed become steeper and it was some time before I found another perching rock. Tom had spotted some big birds gliding the thermals and we surmised they were condors. Then he spotted something else. High upon the side of a craggy peak he saw white splashes on the rocks. I checked them out through the binoculars. We are almost certain there were condor nests up there and the streaks were caused by bird excretion, or to be exact, guano.

Parachutists

Parachutists

We did not go as far as we had hoped. Unfortunately I did not feel too good and besides the flies were becoming a pest. So we turned around and walked back down.

The ride home was interesting. On Highway 25 a convoy of sporty corvettes, passed us beading south. Not long after that, going in the same direction, a dozen or so beautiful customized cars streamed by. Tom spotted a Camero, a ’57 Chevy station wagon, a Rolls Royce, old Fords from the 1930′s and 1940′s and a couple of hot rods. I wonder where they were going? They could not have been going to Pinnacles as the car parks were already full. Then, as we approached Tres Pinos, I spotted what I thought was a hanglider, then another and another, until there were five altogether. They turned out to be parachutists, each with tw0 people attached. We found a convenient parking spot and watched them all land in the field in front of us. It was an amazing sight.

After an eventful day we arrived home at 1:00. We will have to return to Pinnacles to complete that hike another day.

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

We were on our way to Lake Shasta to spend Christmas with the Husband/Tischer family.  Every two years we get together and each time it has been at a different spot.  Along the way we took our first detour to have breakfast at Babs Delta Diner in Suisun.  To think,  this is the second time in ten days!

Our second stop was north of Williams on I5 at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.  Once again, our thanks to Tom Stienstra, who featured this wildlife complex in the San Francisco Chronicle a month ago.

It was a beautiful day, but with a chilly breeze.  Must remember though that it is December so colder weather is to be expected.  The Sierras were visible off to our right and to the north we could clearly see the peak of Mount Lassen which is in the Lassen Volcanic National Park.  What was more exciting though was spotting the tip of Mt Shasta before we even reached Williams.  I remember my first trip north on I5 back in 1999.  I was on my own and several people had told me to watch out for this volcanic peak.  When I approached Shasta Lake I kept my eye peeled for Mt Shasta, assuming it was near the lake.  I drove for miles before I actually saw it.  And here we were nearly 100 miles from the lake and we could see the top of the mountain.

At Exit 595 we turned off on CR 68.  Turning left on Highway 99W, we drove 1.5 miles to the entrance of the Sacramento NWR.  Just inside the entrance, we pulled in to pay the fee of $3 at the pay machine.  A sign saying ‘Visitors’ pointed to the right and the start of the the 6 mile autotour was just ahead.

The road was gravelly and narrow and soon we were passing reeds and small lakes.  Along the way were several signs telling us to drive slowly – 20 mph is the speed limit.  We spotted our first birds – American Coots or Common Moorhen.  The only way I can tell the difference between them is by the color of their feet.

Ahead of us a car was stopped so we pulled up and waited as well because we couldn’t get by.  The passenger was taking photos and he had an enormous lens.  Tom was instantly jealous.  When they moved off we took their place but moved over so that other cars could pass.  Officially the only stopping places are the designated Park and Stretch areas.  Today it is very quiet with not too many cars around.  Tom got some good shots of the birds with Mr Lassen in the background.  Suddenly a mass of birds took flight at the same time and hopefully Tom managed to catch them.

I glanced out of of my window to the right and spotted a coyote a couple of hundred yards away.  At first I thought it was a dog but when I looked through the binoculars I saw its tail and knew it was a coyote.  A little later I saw another one, this time much closer but lost sight of it when some tall reeds got in the way.

Further on we saw a hawk like bird but I could not identify it.  It was very dark with a white band at the base of its tail.  It swooped and glided close the ground and we could not see what color the underparts were.  Could it have been an osprey?  Somehow I doubt it.

We came to the first Park and Stretch area.  Here we could get out of the car and walk onto a wooden platform. At the top there were a couple of scopes through which it was possible to get a better view of the birds but there were not too many to see at this spot. Tom spotted another photographer with a large lens. This one was camouflaged and on a stand attached to the car window. Tom felt his lens was inferior. Never mind darling, you get great photos.

Further on we saw thousands of Snow Geese – or they could have been Ross’ Geese. There were some morphs amongst them. In the far distance

Sundial Bridge in Redding

Sundial Bridge in Redding

near I5 we could see a large flock of white birds take flight. That’s when a large lens would be invaluable.

All too soon the auto tour was over and we were back on I5 head for Redding. Our detour via the Sacramento NWR was a great treat. Next time Tom said he would rent a large lens for the visit.

Christmas with the family at Shasta Lake was good fun. The house we rented was not quite what we expected but the deck and view were spectacular. One fly in the ointment – we had no water at all from 6 pm on Christmas Eve to 3 pm on Christmas Day. Things were a bit difficult with 12 people in the house and a baby but we coped somehow. The problem was caused by a mouse chewing through insulation and a wire on the pressure pump.

We had three expeditions while we were there. One to the Sundial Bridge (awesome), the second to the ‘Poop Scoop exhibition at the Turtle Bay Exploration Park (fascinating) and the last to the McConnell Arboretum & Botanical Gardens (interesting) – all in Redding.

Alviso – Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge

Levees at Don Edwards in Alviso.  You can ride for miles.

Levees at Don Edwards in Alviso. You can ride for miles.

Oh, to be out again in the early morning and on such a beautiful day. After a long break from routine due to my recent visit to England and a series of wet and cold weekends, we were ready for some exercise.

The bikes were loaded onto the car the night before and at 6:15am we were on the road. Alviso was our destination and the salt marsh and the miles of easy riding on the levees were our goal.

Alviso gets better each time we drive through it and the Marina area has really improved. An area of 18.9 acres near the car park is now called the Alviso Marina County Park and there is an easy walking trail around it with lots of information boards along the way. Today though we are riding on the Alviso Slough Trail which starts from the car park and the first part of the trail is along the the short circular trail around the marina. Just past the first observation platform we turned right.

At this time in the morning, there is nobody else around. In fact the rabbits outnumber us. They sit in the middle of the trail and then turn tail and lope off to the side as we approach. Tom stops to take photos and a couple of American Avocets take exception to him being there, even though we were on the trail. They screeched and screamed and attempted to scare him off. I remember a few years back being dive bombed by terns on the other side of Don Edwards as we were riding the trail.

Last time we where here at Alviso, there was a dredger working and mounds of fresh clay lined the levees. The mounds are still there but they

Avocet.  This guy didnt want his picture taken.

Avocet. This guy didn't want his picture taken.

have rounded off and are beginning to be covered with pickleweed.

The water level appears to be lower because there are more mud islands out in the slough which I have never seen before. Either that or it is a very low tide.

We follow the trail over the railroad and stop to look north at the inaccessible ghost town of Drawbridge in the distance. As I have said before, it’s very tempting to walk the rails and to actually visit the town but I understand it is not safe at all because Drawbridge is slowly sinking into the marsh.

We pass a sign which says this trail is closed for duck hunting between October 18 and January 25, so it’s OK to ride it now. We don’t go too far because there are just too many bugs around. They were getting in our eyes, mouths and noses and we were covered in them.

Back over the rail tracks, we turn right. There are no trail markers out here so I have no idea which trail we are on. We just keep cycling and eventually we will either go round in a loop and arrive back where we started or we will have to turn back and try to remember which way we came. The levees seem to go on and on for miles.

Lone Egret

Lone Egret

Tom stopped in front of me and seemed to be pondering something so I stopped too. Then he pointed out the power lines overhead. I hadn’t noticed them at all but now Tom had pointed them out, it did seem strange to have them out here in the middle of nowhere with not a house or any sort of building in sight.

It was very peaceful out there with just the sound of the gulls and marsh birds. The American Avocets are making the greatest noise but the most common bird around is the Western Gull. A Red Kite passed overhead and circled over the slough.

We came to another junction and discussed which way to go but off to our right we spotted a flock of white pelicans, so the decision was made. There were about 15 of them and, to begin with, they were close to the levee but they moved off and were soon in a feeding frenzy. Pelicans are an unusual bird to look at with their long beaks with the big pouch underneath. Brown Pelicans are more common in California so it is always a rare treat to see white pelicans.

While Tom was taking photos, another couple on bikes came towards us. It was only after they had gone by that I realized I should have asked them if they were on a loop trail. We cycled on for another couple of miles but seemed to be moving further away from the start. As the hunger pangs were beginning to gnaw we decided to turn back. (I checked a trail map when I got home and it is actually called the Alviso Slough Trail Loop and it is 8.9 miles long so we could have carried on.)

The ride back was pretty uneventful until we were on the final stretch. Tom spotted a Red-tailed

White pelicans feeding

White pelicans feeding

Hawk sitting on a log beside the levee eating a rat. I’d ridden right past and had not noticed. I did hear Tom, who was several yards behind me, say ‘Whoa’. By the time I had stopped and turned, the hawk had flown away, clutching the rat in his talons. But he didn’t fly too far and I was able to watch through my binoculars. Tom didn’t have time though to get off his bike and set up his tripod and camera before the hawk had moved out of view.

There is nothing like getting up early and taking a bike ride before breakfast to get you into the right mood for the day ahead.

Elkhorn Slough

Solitary surfer at Moss Landing State Beach

Solitary surfer at Moss Landing State Beach

It was just after 8 a.m. when we hit Highway 1 heading south from Santa Cruz.  We were later than normal but it made a change for me because I saw more of the scenery coming over the Santa Cruz Mountains.

This section of Highway 1 is not so pretty as driving north from Santa Cruz and there are certainly more cars on the road.  You don’t catch sight of the ocean until just before the junction with Buena Vista Drive and then it is only a far off glimpse.  There are several interesting places to visit along the way, Capitola and the cement ship at Rio del Mar being two of them.

(Click on the images for larger versions)

Around Watsonville – the strawberry capital of the world – the landscape is flatter.  At the moment there is field after field of young strawberry plants just poking their heads out of plastic sheeting.

South of Watsonville there is a major blot on the landscape – the Moss Landing Power Plant. The two tall chimneys are the first sign of the monstrosity that soon dominates the scenery.   These two chimneys are visible a long way out to sea as I can testify from the couple of whale sighting trips I took from Monterey.

We stopped off at Moss Landing State Beach just because we have never been there before.  The parking for it is mostly on the road and the vehicles we saw were obviously owned by surfers as license plates, stickers and spare surfboards both inside and on roof tops proclaimed.  To get to the beach, there is a sandy rise over the dunes before the ocean came into sight.  The day was chilly but not cold and the only people we saw were the black blobs on surf boards.  The beach is spectacularly uninteresting with bird feathers, bits of dried seaweed and the odd seagull or two to detract from the view of the long sandy beach.  It is obviously a favorite haunt of surfers though.  We stood and watched the surfers for a bit but there was not a lot of action.  I overheard one surfer say that it conditions should improve later on.

Back in the car we took another small detour into Moss Landing itself.  We drove past marinas and boat supply outlets before driving through the main street.  There was nothing there to tempt us to get out and investigate.

To get to Elkhorn Slough we turned off Highway 1 onto Dolan Road, driving past the power plant.  After four miles we

A lonely Lesser Yellowlegs (we think)

A lonely Lesser Yellowlegs (we think)

turned left on Elkhorn Road.  The entrance to Elkhorn Slough is a drive of another four miles or so.  We almost passed the entrance but spotted it just in time.  It is open Wednesdays to Sundays, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m but is closed the first and third Fridays of each month.  There is a day use charge of $2.50 per person.

There were just a few cars in the car park.  First stop Visitors Center, where we paid the entrance fee.  When I signed the guest log, I noticed that we were the first visitors who had signed in for two days.  It is a really nice, informative Visitors Center where they also loan out binoculars.  The lady, who we paid the entrance fee to, told us about the docent led early morning bird walking tour on the first Saturday of each month.  We asked and were given a trail map which we found extremely helpful.  Before you go onto the trail, you have to brush your boots and step into a tray containing disinfectant.  They’re trying to protect the Oak trees from a spreading fungus.

We decided to take the South Marsh Loop, taking a detour along the way to Hummingbird Island.  The first part of the trail was paved and suitable for wheelchairs.  Just after the overlook, the trail descends and becomes rougher.  It was an interesting walk, skirting the southern end of South Marsh, though very little seemed to be going on.  There were a few birds around, more heard than seen and, apart from a few early wildflowers, there was not much color.  The eucalyptus trees were sporting their fluffy white flowers and strange looking seed pods or ‘gumnuts’.

Margaret just off Hummingbird Island

Margaret just off Hummingbird Island

The detour to Hummingbird Island took us over the railroad tracks.  We were told to be cautious of trains but everything was clear.  Later we did see a train go by so the warning was necessary.  The trail took us up a short flight of wooden steps and then we came to a strange sight – a wire cage round a tree stump.  We couldn’t work out whether the cage served a useful purpose or if it was an art form and we still don’t know the answer.  Up on a slight rise was an unusual water feature.  It looked like a small, arched bridge made out of lumps of black lava and oyster shells.  The small pond in front contained some straggly pond plants.  I couldn’t see any fishes in it, even though I tried very hard.  We wandered along a small spit of land with water on either side, trying very hard not to disturb an egret waiting patiently for his lunch.  We also saw in the distance another couple walking around the island.

Having completely exhausted the sights on Hummingbird Island, we made our way back across the tracks and continued around the top of South Marsh.  Along the way, there was an old barn with a sign over the doorway which proclaimed it to be Elkhorn Farm.  Back, I think, in the 1920′s, the marsh was drained and dikes built to provide pasture for the Elkhorn Farm dairy.  Then in 1983, when the dairy no longer existed, the dikes were removed and the marsh became tidal again.  Now, 20 years later, the barn is the only remaining building of the dairy.  It is a large barn with open sides.  There are signs outside asking visitors to be quiet so as not to disturb nesting birds.  Inside, high up, were two wooden boxes where barn owls raise their young, though at this time of the year there was no activity.  There were a few hay bales in the middle of the barn, so we sat a while and soaked in the quietness and solitude of the surroundings.  The view through the open sided side was extensive, the only unwelcome sight of course, being the power plant to the west.

Soon we were back at the Visitors Center and time to drive back home.  This time we took the scenic route, turning left out of Elkhorn Slough and heading north towards Watsonville along Elkhorn Road.  Driving through Pajero brought back memories of the Strawberry Fields Forever charity bike ride we took part in last year.  We have signed up again this year but unfortunately we may not be doing it as I have booked a trip to England without checking my calendar.  Silly me!!  From Watsonville we made our way to Highway 1 north and home.

Alviso, California

If you want to be far from the maddening crowd, head for Alviso. This small town, at the south end of San Francisco Bay, used to be a bustling port until the San Franciso to San Jose railroad opened in 1865. Now the marinas are silted up and all that remains are the entrances to the docks and lots of weeds.

Alviso itself is a sleepy little town with the railroad running through it and several good Mexican restaurants. A lot of the new houses are built on stilts because this place has flooded several times. The last major flood was in 1958. Since then the sloughs and creeks have been improved so hopefully it won’t happen again.

The Marina car park has had a face lift recently and it is much improved. More footpaths, information boards and seats. This is an important wetlenad area with several large salt ponds. There are always a lot of marsh birds to be seen – American Avocets, Black-necked Sandpipers and Plovers. (Once Tom and I saw a Black Skimmer here but that was very unusual.) They nest on the levees and in the sedges, salt grass, rushes and cordgrass. Around the salt ponds are levees which are ideal for walking and cycling. You can go for miles and miles and see very few people.

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