Mushroom shaped rock

Hensley Lake 2009

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Part 1              Part 2

Part 1

October 26, 2009: One of the things I had in mind when I switched from a trailer to a motor home was that I would be able to take off for short trips on short notice. In early October I vowed to put this plan into action, and intended to go on the 12th. However, there was a forecast for 100% chance of rain the next day, so I decided to wait. This was a wise decision, since we had an unusual amount of rain, over 1.5 inches, and foothill and mountain areas received between 3 and 10 inches.

I rescheduled my trip for the following week, and on October 19, with minimal advance planning and loading only a few items, I started out to go camping in the Sierra Nevada mountains near Bass Lake, about 65 miles from home.

There was a 30% chance of rain predicted for that area in the evening, but the next day was supposed to be nice, and it looked as if I could get settled in before any rain arrived.

However, it was already cloudy when I left home about noon, and as I drove north from Fresno on State Highway 41, the clouds seemed to be getting lower. I usually have a back-up destination in mind in situations like this, so about 20 miles from town I turned west for a few miles on State 45, then followed county roads to Hensley Lake, an Army Corps of Engineers project, a little over 30 miles from home.

This location is in the low foothills, probably about 1,000 feet in elevation, so it's a nice camping choice for late fall through early spring. Most of the area is blue oak savanna, which is marked by open, grassy hills and fields, with very little brush, and lots of blue oaks. There are also a few digger pines, more commonly called bull pines by local residents. As often happens in developed, heavily maintained campgrounds, a number of non-native trees have been planted, probably in a misguided attempt to "improve" the surroundings.

The lake itself is formed by Hidden Dam, a mile long earth and rock dam across the Fresno River. Interestingly, this river never touches Fresno County; it rises and flows mostly through Madera County, entering Merced County briefly far downstream just before it joins the San Joaquin River. Madera County was carved out of Fresno County in 1893, no doubt accounting for the seemingly misplaced name.

Good paved roads wind around through the hills in the main campground, which has dozens of campsites, many with electrical and water hookups. The price is quite reasonable, $22 per night, but half price for holders of a Golden Age pass.

There are actually four separate camping areas, but I always go to Hidden View, which has a lot of sites, along with lots of parking for boaters and fishermen. Since it was a weekday there were few people there, and I had no trouble getting a good spot with electricity, which meant I did not have to run my generator in the evening to watch TV, or to make toast or use the microwave.

I've been there at least twice before with the trailer, and since the camp roads are good for bike riding, I was unhappy that I had not brought my bike.

However, it started sprinkling after I got off the highway, so I was not thinking of bike riding when I arrived. The rain had stopped before I got there, but it remained cloudy, so I got set up and put up my awning, so I could sit outside and stay dry if it rained again.

Not long after I got set up, it started to rain, and continued for a half hour or so - a very light rain, but enough to wet the pavement all around my little dry rectangle under the awning. I sat outside, having a drink and getting a nice amount of reading done.

Since it was so damp after the rain, I did only a couple of short walks near my campsite, then fixed dinner. I sat outside again till about 6, by which time it had cooled down quite a bit, and went in for the evening.

The next morning there was a bank of fog across the lake, but it soon spread out and covered the entire area, keeping the temperature quite low, along with my enthusiasm for walking around.

I sat outside and read a while, then had breakfast and watched a movie, hoping the fog would clear by the time I finished. There was still high fog over most of the sky, but I set out to walk in an area of hills north of the camp, dressed for cool weather. Of course, as soon as I got too far to go back and change, the fog started to break up, and it got quite warm.

The previous day I had noticed an interesting rock formation, and that was my destination, although I never quite got there. Instead I came across a trail, obviously man-made, and decided to follow it. It had numbered posts, indicating that it was a guided trail, but of course, by joining in the middle I missed out on getting a copy of the trail guide. It took me up and down hills, and at one point I noticed a mushroom shaped rock, on a ridge above a section I had walked through earlier. I determined to take a side trip to the rock on my way back, but not long after that the battery in my camera ran down, and I realized I would have to take a second hike later in the day.

The trail came out at a parking area about a quarter mile from my camp, so I picked up a trail guide and headed back to the motor home.

I had lunch, read a little bit, changed the battery in my camera, and set out for another good walk. I went back to the "official" trail head, but walked the trail in the opposite direction of the guide post numbers. I had a fairly good idea of where I should leave the trail to find the mushroom rock, and I hit it right on target. Rocks like this are not unusual, and are the result of erosion around the base of a rock that happens to have a slightly harder material on top.

With the two long walks and a number of short ones, I estimate I walked between four and five miles over the two days.

In the course of my various walks I saw a lot of animal life. Cottontail rabbits are common in the area, as are their enemy, the red tail hawk. When I see rabbits there, they are invariably racing from one hiding place to another, and if it's more than a few feet, they will run in a zigzag pattern, the better to elude predators.

Blue herons also stalk majestically around the area, and the two that I saw were well away from the water. On the trail I saw three tarantulas, all within 20 feet of each other, two on the first walk and one on the second. I also saw one the last day, crossing the paved camp road.

Although the many rock formations in the Sierra foothills are a normal habitat for lizards, I saw only one during this trip. Heard but not seen each night was an owl who had set up his evening observation post in a tree not far from my camp.

Speaking of animals, this area has some interesting habitat for small creatures. Since the main activity of the Army Corps of Engineers is to rearrange nature, they have even carried this so far as to create brush piles where squirrels and rabbits can take cover. The first ones I saw, several years ago, were piles of local brush that had been wired together, to keep them from being hauled off to a campfire. Now they are spreading piles of unsold Christmas trees around in various parts of the area. The newer ones are a bright, reddish brown, while older ones have lost their needles completely, but can be readily recognized as small fir trees, something that does not grow naturally at this elevation.

The final morning I got up late, had a bloody Mary and read my book, had a leisurely breakfast, and made the short drive back home, arriving about 1 p.m. I enjoyed the trip so much that I am going to try to squeeze in another visit there before bad weather sets in, so there may be a part 2 to this report.

--Dick Estel, October 2009


Part 2

November 2, 2009: Here I am, back at Hensley Lake once again. I enjoyed my outing here two weeks ago so much that I decided I should return before wet, foggy weather sets in.

A number of things are different this time. First, I am older and wiser. At least, I know for sure I get older every day, and I like to think I may also get wiser.

Although it's November, it is much warmer, with temperatures predicted to be in the high 70s. On my walks today there was no thought of wearing a long sleeve shirt, and in fact, I would have been comfortable in shorts. On the second walk, I had to put on a dry T-shirt when I got back.

The grass, which got a good start from our big rain three weeks ago, and a boost from the small rain two weeks ago, is growing and starting to take over from the dried stems of last year's crop.

Last time I went outside several times at night, and had a dark sky filled with brilliant stars. Now the moon is full, and many of the stars are washed out, although the moon makes it bright enough to walk around without a flashlight.

Daylight Savings Time ended yesterday morning, so last night it was too dark to read outside by 5 p.m. This makes for a long evening, but I have my computer, my guitar, my DVDs, and my current books and magazines, so I have more than enough to fill the time.

Despite all these changes, one thing remains the same - the owl is still on duty, and greets me with a inquiring "whooooo whooooo" when I step outside.

I left home around noon Sunday, and got here around 1 p.m., but didn't do any serious walking yesterday. I had eaten a light breakfast and went to my grandson's baseball game, so my main interest was dinner, which consisted of pizza I picked up before leaving Clovis.

The rest of the day was spent in reading, a couple of short walks, and my indoor activities, with plans for a couple of long walks today.

Last time, when I stopped at the dump station to empty my holding tanks, I noticed another marked trail that takes off from that area, so that was my first destination. This trail, known as the Shaw'-Shuck Trail, is probably a half mile or less, and essentially just goes up a hill, around the top of it, and back down. The name is the Miwok Indian word for hawk, and there he was, sitting in a tree right by the start of the trail. As I approached he gave out his characteristic screech and took off for another tree a few hundred yard distant.

Despite the short distance of the trail, I spent a fair amount of time on this walk, got very warm, and took a lot of pictures. Since the trailhead is at least a quarter mile from my camp, I did get in a pretty long walk.

Back at camp I read a while, took a nap, then set out for a long walk. This time I rode my bike to the Pohonichi Trail, the one I walked twice last time. (This is another name for the southern Miwoks.) This time I walked the trail in the "right" direction, clockwise, heading toward signpost #1 and following the entire trail with only one brief detour. This is a much more interesting trail, going up and down over several ridges, winding through little valleys, and passing a number of granite rock formations and the ubiquitous blue oaks. Along this trail, and in a number of areas in the camp there are good views of the Sierras, including 7,000 foot Signal Peak, which was visible from the hill back of my boyhood home in Bootjack, and 8,000 foot Shuteye Peak, above the San Joaquin River in Madera County.

I saw one rabbit and a lot of lizards, as well as one or two more hawks, but no tarantulas this time. I believe the warmer weather brings out the lizards, but keeps the tarantulas hidden.

I got back to camp in time to have about an hour of outside reading time, then came in for dinner, guitar-playing, DVD watching, and writing this report.

November 3: The good thing about camping less than 40 miles from home - on the last day you can loaf around, do a few more camping things, and still get home early. Usually on the "going home" day, I get up, eat breakfast, pack up, and leave. Today, however, I started the day off just like yesterday - exercise, a bloody Mary and some reading, and breakfast.

After breakfast I got things ready to go in a leisurely way, drove to the dump station, and emptied the holding tanks. Then I drove the few hundred yards to the Pohonichi trailhead, and did another good walk. I had wanted to take a detour up on a ridge on the far side of the trail, and thought about doing it yesterday, but I had already had plenty of walking for the day.

I thought it might be closer to go in the "wrong" way (counter clockwise on the loop trail), but I realized it was pretty much at the mid-point of the trail, so I re-traced my footsteps from yesterday, then headed cross-country to make my way up the ridge.

Although there are only two "official" trails, there are lesser trails all over the area. Most foothill country has cow trails, which are usually at least a foot wide, but this land has been off limits to grazing since the 1970s. There are still lots of little game trails, which tend to be about four inches wide. They don't necessarily follow the easiest route, but they are a slight improvement over wading directly into the weeds, and they are easy to spot if you're used to looking for them.

With my side trip up and over the ridge, I probably did at least a mile and a quarter today, much of it uphill. It was close to 80 degrees, and when I got back to the motor home, I had to change into dry clothes. Then I headed back to Clovis, very glad that I had taken this second trip to Hensley.

--Dick Estel, November 2009

(Click to enlarge - pictures open in a new window)

Hensley Lake, October 2009 Hidden Dam on the Fresno River Dick's camp, October 20, 2009
Man-made brush pile End of the season Holes in blue oak courtesy
acorn woodpeckers
Mushroom shaped rock A Closer look Lichen contributes to the
breakdown of rock
A mini-dome rock Dead tree on the horizon Blue oak above camp
Why does the tarantula cross the road? Watchful waiting In flight
Ant hill surrounded by grass "clippings" This perfect ant hill is an inch high
and three inches in diameter  
Abandon hope all ye who enter here
Shuteye Peak, above the San Joaquin River In the camp Hensley Lake, November 2009
Limbs of a dead blue oak
brush the ground
New grass starts to
take over from the old
Start and end of the Pohonichi Trail A section of the trail The high point on my walk
An old trail blaze Wannabe mushroom rock Game trails wind through the
grass throughout the area
  A good thing to know in advance Lichen cushions and decorates
a trailside bench
Satellite image of camp area

Related Links

Hensley Lake Army Corps of Engineers Oak savanna
Fresno River Madera County Blue herons
Recreation Passes  Cotton tail rabbits Red tail hawk
Blue oak above camp

A mini-dome rock

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