Dick's Adventures of 2017 - Part 5


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2017 Part 1          2017 Part 2          2017 Part 3          2017 Part 4
San Joaquin River Trail West          Eaton Trail          Black Rock Reservoir          Nelder with Colton & Jack

San Joaquin River Trail West

When I hiked on the east end of the San Joaquin River Trail at the San Joaquin Gorge on May 9, the warm weather convinced me it would be my last foothill hike of the season. But the weather this year is predictably unpredictable, and following a short warming spell, it cooled down again, to the point where I felt it would be comfortable to hike the other end of the trail from the Finegold Picnic Area on Millerton Lake, which I did on May 16.

I've written about this trail quite a few times, so I'll keep this short. Unlike previous hikes in this location, I had no plans to hike farther than ever before. Instead I hoped to do some off-trail exploration, following various cow paths through the drainage east of the upper part of the first mile. The tall, dry grass, nearly obscuring the faint animal trails and offering a selection of stickers to be picked out of my boot laces, changed my mind for me.

Instead I went up about two thirds of the way to the saddle, then headed back down. Near the parking area the road ends in a paved circle where cars can turn around, and off this section there is a well-marked path that leads down to the lake. I went down this trail, which starts with a very steep 30-foot section, then becomes mostly level. I believe it is used mainly for lake access by fishermen. It continues on past a little cove and up a ridge between the cove and the main lake, but I didn't go past the cove.

On this path, which I had never walked before, I saw a couple of flowers that did not appear on the main trail, but most common was a low bush covered with tiny yellow flowers. At the one place where a creek crosses the main trail, I saw an orange flower that I don't recall seeing anywhere else before. The most frequent flowers on the San Joaquin Trail were the pink farewell-to-spring and yellow madia, but there were also at least 20 other species on the two trails, many of them appearing only in one or two places in small numbers. One of the more unusual flowers, appearing in large numbers in one spot along the trail, was elegant clarkia. I saw these for the first time last year near the bridge at the San Joaquin Gorge.

It was 69 degrees when I started out, and about 70 when I finished, so it made for a fairly comfortable walk. Apparently a lot of other people had the same idea, since i saw at least 40 people on the trail, and there were 16 cars at the parking area when I returned. With the two trails I added 2.17 miles to my total for the month. The drive to the trailhead, especially along Sky Harbor Road, offered a number of views where the farewell-to-spring blanketed the roadside, and there were some nice patches of pink high up on the hills above Sky Harbor.

Flower species for the record: Pale blue lupine, tall blue ground lupine, elegant clarkia, fiesta flowers, popcorn flowers, pink owl clover, filaree, fiddleneck, farewell-to-spring, madia, clover, thistles, tall plant with tiny white flowers, buckeye, elderberry, orange flowers in creek, Chinese houses, white spike flower, harvest brodiaea, datura, Athurial's spear, the bush with little yellow flowers, white fuzzy round head flower, and a tall plant with a small yellow flower, similar to the head of a thistle.

--Dick Estel, May 2017

San Joaquin River Trail Photos


Eaton Trail

This is another of those hikes I've done a number of times, and you can read a more detailed description of the trail here. There's also more about it here and here.

Actually it's a stretch to call this a hike; it's more like my routine morning walks on the Clovis Trails. However, those are all on flat ground, and this has a little up and down. The parts of the Clovis Trails that I walk on are mostly away from major streets and commercial areas, but the surroundings are definitely urban. The Eaton Trail lies partly on the bluffs above the San Joaquin River, and partly down in the river bottom, and is essentially rural. Although you never see the river where I walk, there are cattail ponds with ducks, egrets, herons, turtles and other riparian wildlife. Hawks, buzzards and ravens are often seen overhead.

On my other walks I have always parked where the western end of Old Friant Road leaves Friant Road, and walked east to the Hallowell Center for River Studies. This time, driving west on Friant Road, I turned into the east end of Old Friant, drove to the River Center, and parked in the lot there.

This complex includes an old farmhouse, dating from the early 1900s, which serves as a visitor center and museum, and which can be rented for small events. There are restrooms, offices, a gift shop, and two old barns. Best of all, there is a large pond just south of the complex, with a trail all the way around it. At the southwest corner of the pond, you can cut across to the main Eaton Trail, and walk west toward Woodward Park, which is what I did.

As soon as I took a good look at the pond I spotted a western pond turtle perched on a log, and when I returned I saw at least three or four more. I also saw a rabbit who quickly ducked back into the bushes.

Where the trail leaves the pond it crosses Old Friant and immediately starts up hill. The first part is moderately steep, then it becomes a gentle rise with level sections. Along here you are between Old Friant and the bluffs. Soon the trail makes a final moderately steep climb up to the level valley floor above the bluffs, and goes on the Woodward Park, a distance of several miles. There are flowers of various kinds along the trail, including a row of oleander bushes in brilliant bloom along Old Friant. At this final up hill section I usually take a little dirt path that goes up above and parallels the trail to where it reaches the top. Although this path is usually easy going, and only a little bit steeper than the trail at the start, it was a challenge this time, since the upper section is pretty much overgrown with large flowering plants. l continued to my usual starting place, where the trail crosses Old Friant on a bridge, then started back. Along the way you can see a series of ponds that are the result of gravel mining.

As I came down the last hill, I spotted a cottontail rabbit at the side of the trail. I quickly snapped a picture, then took a couple of steps closer. He didn't move, so I took another photo. I repeated this twice more, then continued on down the trail. I expected him to run as I passed, but he just turned so he could keep an eye on me, giving me another good angle for a final photo.

When I got back to the car, my total walk was just under two and a half miles. I finished before 11 a.m., so the temperature was quite comfortable, but I realized the days of having to get on the trail by 7 a.m. to avoid the summer heat will be here very soon.

--Dick Estel, May 2017

Eaton Trail Photos


Black Rock Reservoir

My final May adventure was Part 1 one of a two-part exploratory journey. My daughter Teri and I are planning a long camping trip in late June, so we decided we should do a short camping trip in early June. With heavy snow in the higher mountains, high runoff in the streams, and the possibility of muddy dirt roads, we decided that day trips to check out a couple of places were in order.

So it was that I left home about 8:15 on May 30 for Black Rock Reservoir, on the North Fork of the Kings River. To get there you go east on Belmont, which turns into Trimmer Springs Road and runs along Pine Flat Lake. The road crosses the main Kings River twice above the lake, and at the second bridge, follows the North Fork through the PG&E town of Balch Camp. The road then climbs high up the north side of the canyon for eleven very narrow and winding miles to Black Rock, a small PG&E facility that sends water through a penstock to a power house near Balch Camp.

The road is not for sissies, and has even been known to make brave men and women hold their breath. It's paved but has many rough spots, and in a few places you can look out your window and almost straight down into the canyon hundreds of feet below. it crosses a couple of bridges which look like they are just hanging off the cliff. On the other hand it is incredibly scenic, with many flowers along the way, rocky cliffs on the up hill side and long vistas down into the canyon. There are also two excellent waterfalls, although one is hard to see. It's on the river, and almost hidden in a narrow gorge. When the river is low it's not really visible, but during peak snow melt, it is a crashing cascade that hits the rocks below and throws foam and white water twenty or thirty feet up into the air. It is visible from the road, but getting a really good look requires going about twenty feet into the dry grass and stickers. I do this only when the water is at its best, which it was this time.

A little higher up, the road passes below Patterson Bluff, a rounded, almost vertical granite cliff that runs for hundreds of feet above the road. Patterson Falls drops down the cliff several hundred feet, with an upper and lower section. The water volume is not great, but it's still a nice sight. Since the creek continues on down the cliff past the road to the river, the road in this section is well back up the drainage, out of sight of the main river canyon.

The road rises from 1,200 feet at Balch Camp to 4,200 feet at the lake, where there is a small campground. The main road continues on to McKinley Grove Road, but the pavement ends, and the last mile to the camp is dirt, not too rough but typical of Sierra roads. A short distance before the camp a side road goes down a few hundred feet to a large flat spot, formed by rock and soil dumped there from construction of the tunnels that carry water between reservoirs and power houses. We used to camp at this spot, in the middle of a nice grove of ponderosa pines shading a picnic table and fire ring. I drove down there only to find that all the trees are dead, and that two had fallen. I started to park next to that spot, then thought better of if and moved my car to a place that seemed to be fairly safe from dead trees.

The road continues on down to the river, but has become a four-wheel drive route. It's only a short distance, and I've walked down it a number of times, and I did so this time. At one point along the way I saw what appeared to be a purple Mariposa lily, something I have not seen in decades. I had to walk through a patch of bear clover, but there was a sort of path, and it was fairly easy going. I was delighted to see at least a dozen purple lilies and quite a few white ones. With the yellow Mariposa lilies at the San Joaquin Gorge earlier in May, I completed the Mariposa lily trifecta for the first time in at least twenty or thirty years.

I also found pink and yellow harlequin lupines and several of those famous "unidentified" flowers. And continuing up onto a large granite slab just above the flowers, I had a great view of the river, in all its roaring white water glory.

I had hoped to make my way across to a lower part of the road without backtracking, but the thick brush demanded otherwise, so I retraced my steps, and followed the road down to the river. There is an old bridge at this place, which I have driven across in the long distant past, but the approach has been washed out for years, so it's just another place to help shape the river. After enjoying the power of the water here, I returned to the car and drove on to the campground.

There is a paved loop to the left with several campsites, so I drove in there to eat lunch. Even at 4,000 feet it was quite warm, and I was disappointed to see that all the tables were in the sun. In fact, along the road coming in I had seen several large piles of logs, and it's clear that many trees in the campground had died and been cut down. My grandson Johnny told me later that when he was there the last time, the trees were scattered all over, so at least they are out of the way.

I did find the end of one table in the shade and enjoyed my lunch, then drove across the main camp road to a parking place above the dam. A walk of about 50 feet brings you to a place where you can look down on the dam, and there is a steep metal stairway leading down closer to the dam. The terrain below the stairs is a steep drop into the canyon, and It's fenced off. Don't tell PG&E or the Forest Service, but years ago we were able to make our way down to the dam and walk across it, during summer when the water was low. The fence has been reinforced to make this more difficult now, but I have lost the desire for such adventures.

The dam forms a graceful arc, and when the inflow is large enough, it becomes a man-made waterfall, with water rushing over the top and also out through a spillway part way down. The capacity of the lake is very small, just under 1,300 acre feet (compare this to the million acre-foot size of Pine Flat downstream), but it's a favorite spot for fishermen, and a place of cool, quiet beauty during hot summer days. The upper part of the canyon, just below the dam, has dark granite cliffs on the south side. The road goes in along the lake another half mile where there are more camp sites and easy access to the lake, but I did not go that far.

Although the road is challenging, there were plenty of places to pull off and take photos and just enjoy the scenery, and I stopped a dozen times or so on the way up, but only about three times going back down. One of these was at Balch Camp, where Dinkey Creek flows into the river from the north. Like all streams that rise in the Sierra, it was like a big river. Even the two large creeks that run into Pine Flat along Trimmer Springs Road were running good, especially Big Creek.

The trip is 72 miles one way, and all but the first 15 miles in the valley are slow. On the road from Balch Camp to Black Rock, there is almost no place where it is safe to go over 25 or 30 MPH, and many stretches where I kept it to 15 MPH or less. Fortunately, there was not much traffic. In fact, there was only a fraction more than zero - while I was stopped at Patterson Falls a PG&E truck went down the hill, the only vehicle I saw between Balch and Black Rock.

As usual, I kept a list of flowers seen along the road and during my stops: Poppies, Athurial's spear, harvest brodiaea, climbing brodiaea, elegant clarkia, poppies, grand collomia, farewell-to-spring, blue lupines, harlequin lupines, common madia, buckeye, elderberry, chaparral, goldfields, wild berry blossoms, blazing star, unidentified yellow bush-like plant with many blossoms, white and purple Mariposa lilies, bear clover, western wall flowers, Chinese houses, a small, unidentified ground-hugging round cluster of purple flowers, and unidentified pink flowers growing in the crack of a big granite slab.

The second part of our exploration took place June 3, when Teri and I, along with  Colton and Jack, went to Nelder Grove, to scout possible camping spots. That report is "coming soon."

--Dick Estel, June 2017

Black Rock Photos


The Upshaw Brothers at Nelder Grove

Any activity with my great grandsons, Colton and Jack, is always a lively event. I call them the Notorious Upshaw Brothers. It's a term of endearment of course.

They had spent the night at daughter Teri's, and when I arrived there on the morning of June 3, they greeted me with the usual request: "Chase us!" I've developed a variation of the game I played with their uncle Mikie, which consists of me saying, in my best Bobby "Boris" Pickett voice "Monster mash" while chasing them through the house. It's a slow chase now in my old age, but they don't seem to mind, and of course it involves much laughing and yelling on their part. Son-in-law Tim said something to me, and I had to ask him to repeat it three times due to the noise. Finally it came through clear: "This is why I didn't get to sleep past seven this morning."

Of course, they will calm down when the situation calls for it, and they were well-behaved as we set off for Nelder Grove on Part 2 of our pre-camp exploration (Part 1 was my solo trip to Black Rock). In fact, it was not long before they both fell asleep, guaranteeing that they would be rested and ready when we reached our destination.

If there's any place I've been to more than the San Joaquin Gorge it's Nelder Grove, and I've written about it a number of times. The more or less complete list is found here. This report has a brief description of the route and the area, and this page recounts my discovery of this majestic area.

It was Jack's first visit to Nelder Grove, but I had been there with Colton and his dad Johnny in 2014. Both boys are enthusiastic about hiking and camping, although hiking may be defined a bit differently from what we usually think in connection with that word.

Before arriving at the campground, we made a couple of stops. The first was to check out some wildflowers along the road. Colton was still asleep, but Jack got out and took advantage of the stop to blow some dandelion seeds around. Next we went past the camp road to where California Creek runs across. This stream runs through the camp, and drops down to the road in a small but delightful waterfall. As expected, it was running higher than usual, but was not a dangerous torrent by any means. The water runs across a concrete apron in the road (in lieu of a bridge or culvert), and Teri and the boys both waded across and back several times. The boys were hesitant at first, but when they tried it they enthusiastically crossed over and back several times.

When we arrived at the campground, the first order of business was a snack for the boys. We then set off on the short walk to the Bull Buck Tree, choosing the quarter mile segment of the loop trail rather than the half mile end. When I hiked there with Johnny and Colton, he was not quite two years old, and hiking for him involved walking a short distance, then stopping to poke at the ground or a tree with the stick he was carrying. Johnny would call for him to "come on," then would walk back, pick him up and carry him for a while.

Jack is two years and eight months, and the difference is notable. Like his brother, he sits down in the trail and pokes things with his stick, but then he realizes we are 100 feet ahead of him, and runs to catch up. Colton, on the other hand, now runs ahead a ways, then comes back to join us. Of course, he still has his stick.

The Bull Buck is an exceptionally nice, very large sequoia, with two large stumps nearby from slightly smaller giants that were cut down in the 1890s. I don't think the boys were particularly impressed with the tree, but what they did like was the fallen log from one of the stumps, which lies in several large sections where it fell. Both boys enjoyed climbing up on this log, as well as other logs and stumps. They climbed on the bench at the Bull Buck viewing area and jumped off it several times. They also liked the sugar pine cones that we ran across, each carrying around a 15-inch cone for a while. Later Jack discovered sequoia cones, which are about two inches in length, and had a great time throwing them against trees, stumps, and sometimes we feared, at us.

I have photos of my daughters, grandsons, and Colton in front of the Bull Buck, so I was finally able to add Jack to the gallery, although he was not very cooperative about posing in the same way his predecessors had. It's sort of an action photo.

While Jack was throwing cones, Colton was building a ladder. This involved leaning a small log against one of the big stumps, placing another piece of wood on top of it, and stabilizing the top part of it by hammering pegs (small sticks) around the base. His hammer was a piece of rotting wood which grew smaller with each blow. In a demonstration of single-mindedness, he began a similar project when we got back to the campground.

We returned to the campground on the same trail, rather than continuing the longer loop. Beside the road into our campsite there is a small meadow, and I walked out into it to look at some flowers. When I got to our table I looked back to see that Jack had followed me into the meadow, and was still there. He stayed there for about ten minutes, doing whatever boys that age do, nothing that we could identify.

After we enjoyed our picnic lunch, it was time for a visit to the creek, about 100 yards from our table. Both boys love to play in the water, but when they felt how cold it was, there was a question whether they would wade in at all. However, tentative dipping of the toes eventually resulted in slipping in a bit deeper, and soon Jack and Colton were both wet up to the chest, and were running back and forth through the water and on the bank. Colton had tennis shoes on, so he was a little more sure-footed than Jack in flip-flops. We went downstream on the other side of the road where the creek bottom was slightly less rocky, and where there turned out to be a wonderful muddy spot which Colton happily dug into with his ever-present stick.

Of course, Teri had dry clothing and other shoes for the boys, and when we returned to the camp, they got changed, had another snack, and we packed up and headed for home. We took a side trip farther up Forest Road 10 to a meadow where Teri's sister Jennifer and her husband's family have camped for years. The area was full of people riding quad vehicles.

After discussing my findings about Black Rock and what we saw today in regard to road conditions and the number of people in the campground, we decided our weekend campout would be at California Flat, on the first part of the dirt road that leads in from the paved Sky Ranch road. We've camped there several times, most recently last November, and there is room for both motor homes and tents for other family members who will be joining us. That story is also "coming soon."

This wouldn't be a Dick Estel travel report without mention of wildflowers, and we saw plenty. Most impressive were the massive displays of bright orange western wall flowers near the Bull Buck and on some road banks. We also saw lots of dogwood, buckeye, lupines, fremontia, violets, and assorted unidentified blossoms.

--Dick Estel, June 2017

Nelder Grove Photos


Photos (Click to enlarge; pictures open in new window)

Related Links          San Joaquin River Trail West          Eaton Trail          Black Rock          Nelder Grove

San Joaquin River Trail West

You can also launch hikes and bike rides Farewell-to-spring paints the hillside pink A spring bouquet
This venerable live oak stands above the little creek that crosses the trail a short way up Flowers gone to seed, probably phecelia This intricate flower is called elegant clarkia
This is my official "Resting Rock" Buckeye in bloom below the trail Millerton Lake looks to be a little fuller than it was a month earlier
Yellow madia, pink farewell-to-spring This bright orange flower grew along the creek; it's one I don't remember ever seeing before  A flower-lined section of the trail
Under the blue oaks some green grass remains An unofficial trail leads down from the parking area to this small cover These flowers grow on a low bush that was plentiful along the lower trail
Pink patches of farewell-to-spring can be seen on the ridge above the trailhead
Eaton Trail
Old farm house at the Center for River Studies The pond next to the visitor center A western pond turtle on the alert
At the edge of the pond Oleanders between trail and road A tranquil scene along the trail
Where the trail winds up the hill

The dirt path usually provides an enjoyable alternative to the paved trail

However, this year the trail disappears
The series of ponds along the trail are a legacy from years of gravel mining Cottontails are a common sight by the trail Looking across the pond at the visitor center
Where the trail crosses Old Friant Road
Black Rock Reservoir Trip
Big Creek, by Trimmer Springs Road North Fork of the Kings below Balch Camp Rocky hills above Balch Camp
Elegant Clarkia  Buckeye with elderberry in the background Spotted variation of farewell-to-spring
A section of the road and a bridge Looking down on Balch Camp and the North Fork of the Kings River Waterfall, hidden down in the river canyon
Patterson Falls East section of Patterson Bluff Black Rock Road and penstock carrying water from the reservoir to Balch power house
Unknown flowers along the road Grand collomia How many of these seeds will germinate next year?
Downstream from the dam, the river is all white water

I've driven and walked across this bridge in an earlier era

The approach to the bridge is long gone
Part of a field of purple Mariposa lilies Seeing this was worth the drive This small but beautiful flower needs a name
One of the more unusual flowers in the area These lupines have a slight purple tint Dead ponderosa pines that used to shade a nice campsite
Here's what happened to a lot of the trees in the campground Typical rock formations along the canyon A steep stairway down toward the dam
Black Rock Reservoir 
A delightful man-made waterfall
This dramatic rock canyon rises above the road near Balch Camp Where Dinkey Creek runs into the North Fork of the Kings River Bridge over Dinkey Creek
Nelder Grove
Jack disperses the seeds with gentle puffs Where California Creek drops down to Road 6S90 Jack and Teri brave the rushing stream
Jack and Colton in camp Grandma Teri points out dogwood blossoms There were dogwoods all around is
An unidentified beauty Western wall flower near the Bull Buck Posing beside the trail
Jack climbs a (horizontal) giant sequoia Boys on a stump Who doesn't love a giant pine cone?
We enjoyed a nice rest at the Bull Buck viewing area
The obligatory Bull Buck photo Like grandma, aunt, dad, uncle, and brother before him, Jack poses at the Bull Buck No shortage of sequoia cones
Colton is building a ladder; Jack is just being a boy with a stick One of several large stumps around the Bull Buck Jack spent a quiet ten minutes in the meadow
Colton continued his work back at camp Although his clothes are wet to the chest, Jack didn't really get in that deep Wading ankle deep, but wet to the waist
Next to a marvelous mud puddle by the creek

To our great disappointment, they would not let us pet them

Related Links
San Joaquin River Trail Finegold Picnic Area Millerton Lake
Hallowell Center for River Studies San Joaquin River Parkway Lewis S. Eaton Trail
Black Rock Dam Video Black Rock Reservoir Black Rock Road
North Fork River Video North Fork Falls Video Balch Camp
Nelder Grove Dick's Nelder Grove Page California Creek Falls Video
Bench Jumping Video Nelder Grove Campground Bull Buck Tree


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Updated June 13, 2017