Monday, April 3, 2017

Hiking up Loma Alta Trail (photos)

I wrote a blog about hiking up Big Rock in 2010, the last time I went up that ridge trail. It took me ages to recover—because I wore rubber crocs with holes in the bottoms. Not very bright of me, I know, to hike nearly 15 miles in crocs. But I was mesmerized by the trail. It led me ever onward. And I never went back.

I realized that I prefer to hike up the trail on the western side of Big Rock, the Loma Alta Trail, but I never seem to get around to writing about it, other than this lone 2010 post: Long Way Home—Hiking Loma Alta Ridge.

I injured my left knee in 2013, which put an end to hiking up the ridge. My right knee, having to bear the brunt of the work, also began to fail. An attempt in 2015 was too painful. I despaired. Last year, I noticed my knee was healing—despite the fact that my doctor wanted to give me a new knee. The cortisone shots have paid off. But it took long enough.

I am fussy when it comes to footwear. But I wouldn't get far in my latest version of rubber crocs, or flipflops. So, wonky sneakers it is. Maybe I should dig out my old hiking boots but I can't stand the weight of them. Besides, my knees are compromised, to say the least. The weight would just exacerbate my knees.

My big toe is recovering from my latest jaunt up the Loma Alta Open Space trail. The nail is turning the color of purple irises. I had washed my trainers, running shoes, or tennies—whatever you want to call them—and they shrunk. The toes curled up like elf shoes, but I wore them anyway. They were fine going uphill, but not for going back down again.

Fields of fil-filaree, fil-filaree, fil-fil-filaree.

Loma Alta Open Space Preserve, near Big Rock, Lucas Valley, is part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail. At 1592 feet, this “tall hill” is one of the highest points in Marin, separating the San Geronimo Valley, where I grew up, and West Marin from urban Marin, or "town" as we called it. It also divides the four major watersheds of Marin.

Looking north from Loma Alta

The quickest way to the top of Loma Alta is via the steep Gunshot Fire Road off White's Hill, just outside Fairfax. But the gentle grade from Big Rock is the most rewarding approach—especially if you're on the hunt for rare wildflowers as there are vast tracts of south-facing serpentine meadows.

I did not make it to the summit of Loma Alta this year either. I had already started the morning off compromised: a coughing fit, from that dread virus 2.0, threw my back into a spasm, so it was hard to draw a full breath. There were some rough moments, but I worked through it. No chance of mountain-goating this go-round. I was content with that, slow-poking up the hill. My knees were holding, but I still had to come down the mountain too.

When we got to the first cattle gate, near the top of Loma Alt, my new hiking companion, whom I had just "met" on Facebook, suddenly stopped, and said she didn't want to go any further, but told me to go ahead.

I woefully eyed the crest of the hill, so near, yet so far. I rounded the cheek of the hill to hit the bushes for a wee loo break, and was startled by a serenading meadowlark. I finished my business, snapped a quick photo of the lark, and hoofed back down to the fire road to also take a last photo of Elephant Mountain. My spasm had eased up when I was walking, but because I had stopped, it slammed me again. Breathing was a chore. But the view took my breath away.

A meadowlark fo sorts, a horned lark?

My new hiking companion at the cattle gate, was champing at the bit, and decided I was taking far too long on the ridge. She bolted down the mountain—leaving me alone on the hillside, with a gimpy knee and a bent ski pole—the lyrics to a Beatles song rampaging through my head. TIming is everything. When I later looked at the time stamp embedded in my photos, less than ten minutes had elapsed. I was the fool alone on the hill.

I tried to catch up to her, but my knee determined the snail's pace. I caught up with her in the parking lot at Big Rock. Apparently it was a migraine setting in. She was also miffed because I didn't immediately turn around when she shouted at me (I didn't hear her).

A misunderstanding, a slow knee, and that photo of Elephant Mountain (below) have cost me a potential hiking partner. Unfortunately the experience didn't set a good pace for the rest of the journey. At least she didn't abandon me at the parking lot. it could've been worse.

The iconic Elephant Mountain, aka Black's Mountain.

Shockingly my repaired knee held up fine (despite the fact that it took some abuse, I had to take it slow coming back down off the mountain), but the rest of me didn't fare so well, nor did my new camera. Close up is not its friend. I have no decent photos of many other species I saw: woodland stars, bluedicks, blue-eyed grass, yarrow, goldenrod, or popcorn. The photos posted here are what I could salvage from the remains of the day.

I originally posted some of these photos on the Marin Native Plants group page on Facebook. So this blog is a bit of a rehash. Or a draft. I didn't want what I had learned to disappear and sink back into the void.

Panorama looking west towards Bolinas Ridge; Mt. Barnabe, and our hill, dead center.

Botanist, photographer, and retired science teacher Doreen Smith, who hails from Bristol, UK, coordinates the Marin Native Plants group on Facebook. She also coordinates the website for the Marin chapter of the California Native Plant Society (a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of California native plants and habitats). Doreen was instrumental in helping me get the correct Latin names. My knowledge is spotty, at best. All mistakes are my own.

And of the few Latin names of plants I do remember from the 1970s, most plants have changed their taxon address. So, I'm all in a muddle. I joined the Facebook plant ID groups just so I could update my knowledge base. Such as it is. Slow going, but I've "met" many nice people, especially Doreen, and her husband, Vernon SmithSam Gilbert and David Greenberger are also knowledgeable folks. Mrs.Terwilliger, or Mrs. T, as we called her, may no longer be with us, but they are the next generation.

Lupines, poppies

Tall Silver bush lupine, or Silver lupine (Lupinus albifrons var. collinus), a perennial lupine named for its silvery leaves, California poppies  (Eschscholzia californica), and their close cousins, some lovely hairy cream cups (Platystemon californicus), some little red clovery bits, some yellow vetchy, or lotusy bits, and vast lavender swaths of invasive longbeak cranesbill weed (Erodium botrys), so thick, it looked like heather.

Sky Lupines (Lupinus nanus) poppies, cream cups.

Sky Lupines, poppies, cream cups, popcorn.

The small lupines are Sky lupines (Lupinus nanus), poppies (Eschscholzia californica), and their close cousins, cream cups (Platystemon californicus), with vast swaths of filaree, or invasive longbeak cranesbill weed (Erodium botrys). I feel like I should break out into a Robin Williams routine: Lupinus nanus nanus nanus.

Cream cups, Platystemon californicus
Cream cups, poppy cousins, Platystemon californicus
Lupinus albifrons var. collinus, a perennial bush lupine.
Lupinus albifrons var. collinus, see also Wiki

poppies (Eschscholzia californica)
poppies (Eschscholzia californica)
Owl's clover. Castilleja densiflora
The owls have it.
There is another purple owl's clover that is similar, Castilleja exserta, but the nested owls are much smaller, and it's more tufted like Indian paintbrush.

So the beaked yellow owl's clover is butter-and-eggs! I kind of thought so. I found a link that gives a different Latin name, also yellow owl's clover aka butter-and-eggs, is it a different species, or reclassified?

One yellow fellow among the purple owls.

The plant ID groups frowns upon using Wiki links but I find them useful for finding out about common names and folklore. Calflora, the wildflower bible is rather dry by comparison, but it's less likely to lead you wildly astray than Wiki. So, whenever possible I defer to using Calflora links. Wiki links are added as secondary backup.

Castilleja densiflora and the yellow Triphysaria versicolor. Wiki entry for butter-and-eggsWiki entry for Owl's clover.  Another link from

We never called these owls Indian paintbrush—only the tall red ones. There's purple owl's clover, purple Indian paintbrush, Indian paintbrush, escobita, formerly known as Orthocarpus.... Will I ever get it straight?

You can see why it's called butter-and-eggs

What is it? Not gillia tricolor, or gilia or splendens. It seems different than bird's eye gillia you see in deep summer. Nearly 40 species in California alone! I found: Leptosiphon rosaceus, (which, despite its name, is not pink!), and  Leptosiphon androsaceus, (Wiki) which seems to be the right plant. A little searching and I found that it was once aka a Linnanthus, a phlox. Aha! That much I recognize.

I learned the Latin names of these plants so long ago, and so many have been renamed! It's like starting out from ground zero. Or worse. I think I would be better off if I didn't know some of the old school names. At this point, I'm lucky if I can remember the common names. Poco a poco. False babystars, or Stardust (I do love the common names).

Doreen Smith noted that "the Wiki article has a picture of "L. parviflorus "French hybrids"a cultivar. The name has been revised for many years from when the two spp. were considered the same. i think Plantsusda still has them confused."

AUGH! Yes, the Wiki photo is a red herring. Which is why it's a good idea to cross recvference from several sites:,, If you can make it to the first bend in the road, there' a very thick patch above the bank.

 A rather pale example of Phacelia distans
 They were all pale Phacelia distans
Nemophila menziesiiCalochortus umbellatus.

Pale Baby blues eyes (the white-eyed kind!) (Nemophila menziesii), and an endangered pink Oakland star-tulip, Calochortus umbellatus, like the kind you see on Ring Mountain (Wiki). Sorry about the lack of definition, my camera was not cooperating. Perhaps it was blinded by their beauty, despite teh fact that it was partial shade.

Doreen Smith said: Oakland star-tulip, Calochortus umbellatus (CalPhotos) and plain old Nemophila menziesii (Wiki). Like with wild iris, you can't go by color alone to ID either of these flowers.

Another botanist, David Greenberger said: This is regular old Nemophila menziesii var. menziesii. N. m. var. atomaria is typically all white and it will always have black dots running from the center out across the petals.

The Calochortus genus contains four distinct floral syndromes -- cat's ears, mariposas, star tulips, and globe lilies. C. umbellatus is truly a star tulip (spreading petals that lack dense trichomes) and not a mariposa lily (showy, bowl-shaped corolla typically with dramatic spots).

Nemophila menziesiiCalochortus umbellatus.

Larkspur and buttercups

Red Columbine, Aquilegia formosa

Red Columbine, Aquilegia formosa, aka Scarlet, or Crimson columbine, Sitka columbine, Western columbine. The flower of Columbkille, with its five doves.

Bowltube, Ground, Long tubed iris. Iris macrosphon 

I thought this was Iris douglasiana but I couldn't find a definitive link. And I sure can't key out the flowers. Since I couldn't find an ID for the purple iris, it threw me off. It was much lower to the ground than a Doug iris. I was not expecting two subspecies of Iris. Doreen Smith says it's Iris macrosphon. It loves serpentine soil. Apparently finding any blue-flowered Iris douglasiana is uncommon in East Marin.

Iris douglasiana...and spider.
Doreen Smith says It is the local (Lucas Valley) variant / color of Douglas' iris.

She also said: There is a "complete" plant list for Marin Chapter of the California Native Plant Society website. Only a few spp. are not yet mentioned on that pdf. The Big Rock to Loma Alta trail's populations of Leptosiphon androsaceus are magnificent this year.


And then there are the weeds, the interlopers. The bane of native plants. Oddly most are from South Africa, or the Mediterranean.

Filaree, (Erodium botrys), and poppies

  Erodium botrys

Filaree is a cranesbill. AKA longbeak stork's bill, Mediterranean stork's-billl and broadleaf filaree. Filaree is more lavender than the Geranium molle (common cranesbill). Long-beaked cranesbill, or stork's-bill gets its name (Wiki) from the shape of the carpel, which resembles the head and beak of a stork (the Latin Erodium is derived from the Greek. Not native to California; it was introduced from elsewhere and naturalized in the wild. Lovely weeds!

Doreen Smith said: Lysimachia (was Anagallis) arvensis, Scarlet pimpernel, an alien weed. This was a rather well-behaved invasive weed. Only two clumps. Not like the cranesbill (Erodium botrys) which was everywhere. 
The origin of the name pimpernel comes from pympernele [1400–50]; late Middle English, derived from Middle French pimprenelle, Old French piprenelle; Vulgar Latin *piperīnella= Latin piper pepper + -īn- -ine + -ella diminutive suffix. —Wiki
Rosy sandcrocus, Romulea rosea
This one looks a bit like pink blue-eyed grass. I'd never seen it before. Charlie Russell says it's Rosy sandcrocus, Romulea rosea, (Wiki) a non-native from South Africa. Invading Romulans from South Africa? Sort of like Sparaxis tricot, or harlequin flower. Beam me aboard, Scotty.

Romulea rosea is a herbaceous perennial in the family Iridaceae. It is endemic to the western Cape Province (Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Northern Cape) in South Africa and is naturalised in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and California in the United States.[1] [2] Common names include Guildford grass, onion grass and rosy sandcrocus.  Wiki
More on Romulea rosea. And the best revenge is eating those weeds.

Buttercups, Elephant Mountain in the distance.


After Loma Alta, my hiking companion wasn't ready to call it quits, so we took a jaunt over to Mt. Burdell, but her migraine ad not eased up, so she was not up for another hike, so we detoured the backroads out to Abbot's Lagoon in Point Reyes for an odd, hurried visit. My cousin met us enroute for coffee at Tobey's Feed in Point Reyes Sta. In hindsight, I should've bailed then and there, but I didn't realize how awkward it would all become.

As we headed home again to the East Bay, my hiking companion's migraine got the best of her, her meds weren't working, and she just wanted to get home and didn't want to drive on the freeway (I get it), but she dropped me off at the El Cerrito BART Station. Whoa Nellie!

I was a bit shocked as my new hiking companion had originally offered to pick me up at home, so I expected a ride back home as I was on foot (and very tired). Our place, though near Highway 580, is not near a BART station. Also, after paying up for gas, I only had $2 to my name. The Magical Mystery Tour coda was pulsing through my brain: they're coming to take you away....

My partner Neil wasn't home and I didn't have taxi money to get back home from BART, and it's too far to walk. My abandonment issues intensified. A sour note to an otherwise glorious outing. If we ever go hiking again, I will meet her at the trailhead in my own car.

Luckily my friend Dulcie, who was catsitting in San Pablo, was home, and she came and got me. Chips and dip, a bottle of wine and a sleepover on the couch with the cats nicely finished off the remains of my day with a flourish.

More of my Bloggy bits:

Hiking up Big Rock Ridge

Long Way Home—Hiking Loma Alta Ridge

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