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Monarchs Return

Monarch Butterflies, Santa Cruz (1/15/2006) John Poimiroo

One hundred times more Monarch butterflies are being seen along the California coast this year, than were counted last year, as reported on CBS News.



Fire Red

Poison oak, Ventana Wilderness (10/29/21) Lyle Gordon

On Lyle Gordon’s recent trek into the Santa Lucia mountains in the Ventana Wilderness, he found yellow bigleaf maple, orange black oak and fire-red poison oak at peak.

Pacific or Western poison oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum, thrives in chapparal, coastal sage scrub, oak woodlands and mixed evergreen forests as found in the Ventana Wilderness. Several native animals including mule deer, western gray squirrels and California ground squirrels can eat the toxic plant that’s otherwise toxic to human touch. Domesticated animals such as livestock and dogs aren’t bothered by poison oak, but they can transmit its toxic oils by brushing up against the plant.

It is urushiol, an oil produced by poison oak, that coats its leaves and causes a painful and irritating rash following contact. Native Chumash people were able to apply urushiol in medicinal uses, though with caution.

Despite its notorious reputation, poison oak has beautiful autumn color, varying from auburn to vermilion, to fire red. Just look, don’t touch.

Ventana Wilderness (10/29/21) Lyle Gordon

Black oak, Ventana Wilderness (10/29/21) Lyle Gordon

Brushy vegetation is normal in the fire-prone Ventana Wilderness. Its topography is characterized by steep-sided, sharp-crested ridges that separate v-shaped, youthful valleys, the US Forest Service describes.

Elevations vary from 600 feet where the Big Sur River drops out of the Wilderness to 5,570′ at its boundary near Junipero Serra Peak.

Fire is an integral part of this wilderness, so it has limited effect on vegetation other than to keep it stunted and struggling for all of the wilderness but a few virgin stands of coastal redwood that survive along the Big and Little Sur Rivers.

  • Ventana Wilderness (3,000′) – Peak (75 – 100%) GO NOW!

Poison oak, Ventana Wilderness (10/29/21) Lyle Gordon

Bigleaf maple, Ventana Wilderness (10/29/21) Lyle Gordon


Carmel Valley

Carmel River, Garland Ranch Regional Park (12/10/20) Sam Reeves

Garland Ranch Regional Park in the Carmel Valley preserves cottonwood, alder, sycamore and willow woodlands along the Carmel River in the Upper Santa Lucia Mountains of the Central Coast.

Late to peak, this part of the Carmel Valley looks much like it has for millennia. Garland Ranch was the first acquisition of the Monterey Peninsula Park District and it reflects its venerable wildness in both riparian and savanna environments.

Sam Reeves sent these views of its idyllic scenes.

  • Garland Ranch Regional Park, Carmel Valley (400′) – Peak to Past Peak, GO NOW, You Almost Missed It!
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Forest of Nisene Marks

The Forest of Nisene Marks SP, Aptos (12/4/20) Sam Reeves

The Forest of Nisene Marks in Aptos is an example of forest regeneration. 

Almost all of the redwood forest within the forest (south of Santa Cruz) “was clear-cut in a 40-year logging frenzy from 1883 to 1923,” explains California State Parks. “When the loggers left the Aptos Canyon, the forest began to heal itself; now, the scars grow fainter with each passing year. The Forest of Nisene Marks is a monument to forest regeneration and the future—it is a forest in a perpetual state of becoming.”

On a “First Report” visit this week, Sam Reeves found “still plenty of maple action everywhere on Aptos Creek.  The only challenge was the sun and shadows.  It was difficult to get a maple in full view without a big contrast range, but I found one exception on Aptos Creek Road.  A cloudy day would probably yield the best results.”

The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park still retains fall color along both the road and the creek.  Sam observes that because “the canyon is wind protected from the normal northwest flow, so it should be good for another week.”

  • The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park, Aptos (164′) – Peak to Past Peak, GO NOW, You Almost Missed It.

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Orange Friday

It’s Orange Friday, the day following Thanksgiving Day when California overcomes tryptophan-induced lethargy and goes outdoors to enjoy fall color before it’s gone.

On the San Francisco Peninsula, tall gingko biloba are littering city streets with gold.

Elsewhere in the Bay Area, American beautyberries (Callicarpa americana) provide holiday ornamentation at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden and fallen leaves are now strewn across Berkeley.

Down south, the place for peak color is the LA County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens in Arcadia. Orange-toned crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia) now dominate and more color is revealed each day to mid December.

Along the American River, cyclists, skaters and walkers on the 32-mile American River Parkway are enjoying one of the most colorful autumns in memory.

In the Gold Country, “Maple Lane,” a boulevard of maples leading to the Empire Cottage at Empire Mine SHP is at peak and will remain good through this weekend. So, spend your Orange Friday weekend being filled with the beauty of this lovely and historic place.

Maple Lane, Empire Mine SHP (11/25/20) Steve Arita

Or at old Monterey where gingko biloba, Asian maple and sycamore dress city streets with gold, yellow and chartreuse-colored leaves.

But, don’t plan to go swimming in Davis where backyard pools are covered with leaves.

Backyard pool, Davis (11/26/20) Philip Reedy

Unless you’re a duck. This pintail drake just enjoyed his morning bath at the Colusa NWR.

Morning bath, Pintail duck drake, Colusa NWR (11/25/20) Philip Reedy

Today is just another Orange Friday. It’s a day best spent outdoors enjoying fleeting moments of California Fall Color.

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Color Runs Thru Scotts Valley

Scotts Valley (11/21/20) Anson Davalos

Anson Davalos didn’t get far on his morning run through Scotts Valley before realizing he was carrying his phone and needed to record the beauty he was seeing.

As he ran through its neighborhoods his run was interrupted with stops to photograph peaking water birch, sycamore, gingko and pear.

It’s peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains and everywhere else below 1,000′ in elevation. The vibrance of neighborhood trees right now is breathtaking, even at dawn.

  • Scotts Valley (561′) – Peak (785-100%) GO NOW!
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San Lorenzo River

Coast redwood, bigleaf maple, Santa Cruz, Big Trees & Pacific Ry (11/20/20) Sam Reeves

The San Lorenzo River travels down from redwood forests in the San Lorenzo Valley to Santa Cruz. As this gentle stream descends, it passes through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and near the Roaring Camp Railroads in Felton.

Monterey Peninsula color spotter Sam Reeves and I share a love of similar places. I spent my youth on another peninsula, the San Francisco one – where Sam enjoys exploring – and later, headed marketing at the Roaring Camp Railroads, where he makes an annual trek. Often, I’d leave the caboose containing my office, that sat on a railroad siding beside the state park, and spend my lunch break walking through the Joseph Welch Grove of Big Trees.

Welch was the first person in California to preserve the redwoods from being cut and this grove and those at Roaring Camp stand as testament to his pioneering private contributions to conserving old-growth redwoods. In a sorry twist of fate, Henry Cowell, who profited from clearing the Santa Cruz Mountains of redwood forests and whose family donated the land he’d denuded to the State of California, got the park named after him, while Welch – the true savior of the redwoods – remains little known.

A mix of winter deciduous foliage grows in the forest, including dispersed pockets of orange black oak, yellow bigleaf maple, orange-yellow valley oak, rosy creek dogwood, golden black cottonwood, orange-yellow blue elderberry, crimson poison oak, yellow box elder, orange-russet western sycamore, lemon-colored alder and scarlet bitter cherry berries.

Reeves visits the Welch grove and park each autumn. About today’s trip he said, “it did not disappoint.  The bulk of fall color is located on the trails adjacent to the San Lorenzo River.  Maples, cottonwoods, alders, and sycamores were all at peak colors.”

Peak often lasts through the Thanksgiving weekend. You’ll find “some isolated color in the redwood loop, but not as much as you will see next to the river.  There’s also opportunities to see fall color south of the redwood loop at Garden of Eden, and the Rincon on Highway 9.” Fall Creek remains closed due to fire lines that were made there in August.

At Roaring Camp, the sycamore near the depot are fading. Though colorful maples line both the narrow gauge and standard gauge right of ways into the redwoods. A ride on the narrow-gauge line takes passengers up through the redwood forest, over trestles to the summit of Bear Mountain; one on the standard-gauge line travels down beside to San Lorenzo River to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Spots of bright color are seen along both routes.

  • Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Felton (285′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!

Pinnacles, Not Yet

Frémont cottonwood, Pinnacles NP (11/11/20) Sam Reeves

“Pinnacle” means the culmination, but at Pinnacles National Park, east of Soledad, fall color still has a couple of weeks until it pinnacles.

Pinnacles NP’s landmark deciduous trees are valley oak (Quercus lobata) and Frémont cottonwood (Populus fremontii), and Sam Reeves was there this morning “in hopes of seeing the colorful cottonwoods on Chalone Creek.”

He’d seen colorful images posted on Google in Nov., 2014, “and thought I could time it out right for this year.” What he found is that much of San Benito County seems to be behind schedule.  “Many of the vineyards, creeks, and the national park are still green with slight hints of yellow.

Frémont cottonwood leaves, Pinnacles NP (11/11/20) Sam Reeves

This means it might well be prime to visit on Orange Friday (the day after Thanksgiving Day) when most Californians forego crowded malls for fall color viewing (Yeah, right).

California quail, Pinnacles NP (11/11/20) Sam Reeves

Sam saw a couple upsides of being there early: 1) Pinnacles NP isn’t charging fees during the pandemic, and 2) California quail (Callipepla californica) were putting on a show by scurrying about.

  • Pinnacles National Park (500′) – Patchy (10-50%)
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Always on Time

Dixiana, 1912 Shay Locomotive, Roaring Camp RR, Felton (11/9/19) Melani Clark

A good railroad always arrives and departs on time.

The same can be said of fall color at the Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad in Felton (Santa Cruz Mountains), where bigleaf maple, western sycamore and black oak dress its historical train depot with yellow, chartreuse, lime and orange each November.

This past Saturday, Melani Clark, superintendent of the railroad, took this image of steam rising and autumn color falling as the Dixiana stood ready for its run through the redwoods to Bear Mountain.

Autumn weather has been kind to the Santa Cruz mountains where warm, clear days have created ideal conditions to enjoy a walk through a redwood forest and train rides to the summit of Bear Mountain and down to Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay.

  • Roaring Camp Railroads (285′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!

Ventana Wilderness

Ventana Wilderness (11/11/19) Leor Pantilat

The Ventana Wilderness along the Central Coast is peaking with warm orange and yellow flashes.

Color spotter Leor Pantilat found valley oak, black cottonwood, bigleaf maple and grasses to be providing the color, with Western sycamore estimated to peak later this month.

The Ventana Wilderness is known for its steep, sharply crested ridges and deep v-shaped canyons. This wild area east of the California highway 1 near Big Sur also has red and white alder and creek dogwood which are now past peak.

  • Ventana Wilderness – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!