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California Black Oak

California black oak, US 50 (11/18/20) Philip Reedy

California black oak (Quercus kelloggi) are decorating the American River Canyon along US 50 with russet, orange, gold and green. November is their time to show their best. California black oak grow from 200′ to 7,000′ in elevation throughout the Sierra Nevada.

The black oak acorn, high in fat and nutrition, was the gourmet nut that western slope native villages would gather and trade with other tribes. Sierra Miwok villages had many granaries storing hundreds of pounds of black oak acorns. The acorns were later ground and leached to remove tannic acid, making a flour that was used to make mush.

California Indians made amazing baskets, but they did not make pottery. The mush was cooked by filling a tightly woven basket with the mush. Red hot rocks would be picked up with sticks (much like chop sticks), cleaned of ash in baskets filled with cleansing water, then dropped – one at a time – into the mush which would bubble and cook. It took three rocks to finish the mush, so the resulting meal was called “three rock soup.”

To our tastes today, acorn mush would be considered to be bland, but it was prized nourishment for native people and was a basic element of a diet comprised of game (mainly rabbits and deer), nuts, fish, insects, roots, berries, bulbs and tubers.

At one time, the black oak was the most important tree in the Sierra Nevada. Today, it is appreciated for its dark forked trunks, upwardly spreading branches and late fall color.

  • American black oak, US 50 (4,000′) – Peak to Past Peak, GO NOW, You Almost Missed It.
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The Image Imagined

Black oak, Yosemite Valley (11/12/20) Elliot McGucken
Black oak, Yosemite Valley (11/12/20) Elliot McGucken

It’s those autumn days following a dusting of snow when Yosemite Valley gets confusing. Is it autumn or is it winter?

Elliot McGucken’s photos, taken yesterday on his return from Utah (boy, he gets around), didn’t settle the matter. They created more questions.

Gates of the Valley, Yosemite National Park (11/12/20) Elliot McGucken
Gates of the Valley, Yosemite National Park (11/12/20) Elliot McGucken
Gates of the Valley, Yosemite National Park (11/12/20) Elliot McGucken
El Capitan, Merced River, Gates of the Valley (11/12/20) Elliot McGucken

The various ways Elliot exposed Gates of the Valley on a given day, in evolving conditions and light opened additional questions about how a photographer perceives a scene, interprets it and produces a statement.

In some frames, McGucken works the light as presented. In others, he interprets it, painting with vibrance, shadows, highlights and saturation. Ansel Adams did the same thing with black and white.

Adams would often previsualize an image, plan, then shoot and print it later, as imagined. But, that wasn’t always possible in the field.

On spontaneous occasions, he would work with light as presented, using tools (film, filters, lenses and processing) to produce the image imagined.

Half Dome, Merced River, Photographer’s Bridge (11/12/20) Elliot McGucken

In this set, McGucken presents both the documentary and the interpretive approach … the image captured and the image imagined.

  • Yosemite Valley (4,000′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!

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Fire & Ice

Black oak, Yosemite Valley (11/8/20) Adarsh Dattani

Adarsh Dattani visited the most beautiful place on Earth, this past weekend … Yosemite National Park.

He arrived, expecting to find ice, but instead found fire in the forest. The snow that had been predicted to arrive as early as Friday held off until Sunday. It rained, instead.

Tunnel View, Yosemite Valley (11/6/20) Adarsh Dattani

“Dogwoods, cottonwoods, and black oaks were at their peak and they looked like they were on fire when backlit,” he wrote.

Clearing Autumn Storm, Yosemite Valley (11/8/20) Adarsh Dattani

It finally snowed Sunday, “and boy was it worth the wait?!” He described it as one of “the most special days I witnessed in Yosemite. It was a winter wonderland, The combination of snow dusting, fall color, and the light was incredible and as if that was not enough there was a spectacular sunset!”

Yosemite Valley (11/8/20) Adarsh Dattani
Sunset, Yosemite Valley (11/8/20) Adarsh Dattani
  • Yosemite Valley (4,000′) – Peak to Past Peak, GO NOW You Almost Missed It.
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Yosemite Pre/Mid

Three Brothers, Merced River, Yosemite Valley (11/6/20) Steve Arita

Steve Arita and Bruce Wendler saw Yosemite before this weekend’s storm and today as it rolled over the Valley.

For Steve – pre storm – the weather couldn’t have been more beautiful. Neither could the scenery. He noted hardly anyone in the Valley, saying he, “just about had the whole park to myself.”

Merced River, Yosemite Valley (11/6/20) Steve Arita

Yesterday, “clouds slowly rolled in and as the morning progressed, it got more and more overcast, until around 12:30 or so, the winds came in and it started sprinkling.  I decided to leave around 1:30, as it was pretty overcast and windy and it started to rain as I left the park entrance.”

He was impressed by how the color had intensified since his visit a week earlier, saying “the fall colors were really brilliant with bright yellows, reds and a mix of both colors.” However, he anticipated that due to the strong winds, a lot of that color would fly away.

Sunrise, Half Dome, Yosemite Valley (11/7/20) Bruce Wendler

For Bruce – mid storm – the weather on Saturday was “closing the show.” He was sad to report that “at 4000 feet this is the last flash of color.” Bruce said that in a day Yosemite had gone from Peak to Past Peak, though it was still strong and reservations to enter the valley were at least no longer required.

For tomorrow (Sunday), he anticipates “snow on color and a rare treat, because those storms indicate it is the finale. And the storms put a blanket over the ground and let it Rest In Peace.  Till next year.”

Despite Bruce’s conclusion, it’s not over in Yosemite Valley. While it may be for the aspen, dogwood and bigleaf maple, the black oak are still not even Near Peak. Gorgeous color will be seen on them in coming weeks with peak right before Thanksgiving Day.

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Worth The Wait

El Capitan, Merced River, Yosemite Valley (11/4/20) Nhi Casey

Yosemite was worth the wait, as Nhi Casey’s photographs show.

The national park was closed due to smoke during October, reopening on Nov. 1. Since then, color-hungry spotters have descended on the Valley, which is Peak of the Week.

Southside Drive, Yosemite Valley (11/4/20) Nhi Casey

Southside Drive was lush with autumn color and the meadows are lined with peak, deeply orange black oak.

For those spotters who’ve wanted to get both brilliant fall color and a dusting of snow, go today and stay through Monday (if you can). Light snows are predicted to fall on Friday. The peak color will last through the weekend and this is your chance to get that shot.

You want to be there before the snow, then as the sky clears to get the full range of fall color and snow.

A few remaining peaking yellow bigleaf maple and rosy Pacific dogwood can be found in the Valley, though most of the color is being provided by grasses, willows, golden black cottonwood and orange black oak.

  • Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park (4,000′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Yosemite is Back

Black oak and cottonwood, Swinging Bridge, Yosemite Valley (11/1/20) Steve Arita

Yosemite National Park reopened to day visitation yesterday and both Steve Arita and Adarsh Dattani were there to record its beauty.

Steve reports the fall colors are beautiful with peak black oak, bigleaf maple and emerging Fremont cottonwood. A few dogwood still carry rosy leaves, though they are the exception.

As is typical of autumn, the Merced River was just a trickle, though rain is expected to fall on Friday. Once it does, it will recharge the waterfalls. Snow is a possibility, which would be beautiful should it drop as low as the valley (4,000′) and frost the gold and orange fall color with white.

Gates of the Valley, Yosemite Valley (11/1/20) Steve Arita

Steve marveled at the alpenglow. When you live in the valley for as many years as I did, you learn to wait for the alpenglow (the refraction of sunset light through the upper atmosphere) to paint El Capitan and Half Dome pink. Sunsets are best enjoyed in Yosemite Valley by facing east, not west, in order to see this effect.

American Black Bear, Yosemite Valley (11/1/20) Adarsh Dattani

American black bear were out foraging in the Valley. They are often active in autumn and more easily seen because shrubbery doesn’t disguise them as much.

Pacific Dogwood, Yosemite National Park (11/1/20) Adarsh Dattani

Dattani found dogwood to be at Peak higher up and just turning red in the Valley (later than usual). Bigleaf maple are now Past Peak. Cottonwood are colored lemon and lime, while the black oak are blushing orange.

Yosemite is a definite GO NOW and could be outrageously beautiful should it snow to valley level on Friday, then clear. As such, a Thursday – Sunday visit is recommended.

Swinging Bridge, Yosemite Valley (11/1/20) Adarsh Dattani

Yosemite National Park is CaliforniaFallColor.com’s Peak of the Week.

  • Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park (4,000′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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It’s Cooking at Cook’s

Sunrise, Cook’s Meadow, Yosemite NP (10/20/20) Elliot McGucken

Cook’s Meadow in Yosemite Valley was once trampled by hotel-owner John J. Cook’s cattle (1881-87). Today, only bear, deer, coyote and an occasional bobcat might be seen there. The cattle left in the 1920s.

Elliot McGucken was there yesterday to catch the sunrise and be greeted by an American black bear. A wisp of smoke from the Creek Fire (to the south) is evident in his pictures, and the sun’s rays glowed golden as they passed through it.

Black oak, Cook’s Meadow and Half Dome, Yosemite Valley (10/20/20) Elliot McGucken

Bear are common valley residents and more of them have been seen foraging the valley in the months since Covid-19 pandemic restrictions first reduced park visitation.

The 2.25-mile hike through Sentinel and Cook’s meadows is one of the most popular in the national park. Wooden boardwalks float over the meadows to contain foot traffic and keep the boggy meadows from being compacted.

The route includes breathtaking views of Yosemite Falls, Sentinel Rock and Half Dome. In the coming weeks, black oak and California cottonwood will turn orange and yellow. Some sign of the change is seen in Cook’s meadow’s signature black oak seen above.

Sentinel Rock, Bigleaf maple, Pacific dogwood, Yosemite Valley (10/20/20) Elliot McGucken

Yellow bigleaf maple and rosy Pacific dogwood remain at peak in the valley, though most are now Past Peak. Fern Spring at the entrance to Yosemite Valley is Past Peak, though yellow and orange-red leaves in its dark waters will continue to be photographed ’til the end of October.

El Capitan and the Merced River, Gates of the Valley, Yosemite NP (10/20/20) Elliot McGucken

Admission to Yosemite Valley is available to those with day-use, in-park lodging and camping reservations and for wilderness or Half Dome permits. The requirement to obtain a day-use reservation will end on Nov. 1. Passage through the national park over the Tioga Road (continuation of CA-120) requires a reservation.

  • Fern Spring, Yosemite Valley (4,000′) – Peak to Past Peak, GO NOW, You Almost Missed It.
  • Pioneer Sugar Maple, Yosemite Chapel (4,000′) – Past Peak, You Missed It.
  • Cook’s and Sentinel Meadows, Yosemite Valley (4,000′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW! – Yosemite’s black oak will continue to improve though mid November.
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Yosemite in Black and White

Tioga Pass, Yosemite National Park (10/5/20) Julie Kirby

Above is what it feels like when engulfed by wildfire smoke … a colorful landscape becomes black and white.

That was Julie Kirby’s impression during her visit to Yosemite on Monday (reservations required to cross Tioga Pass).

Julie visited the Valley and found it choking with haze. Dogwood, bigleaf maple and black oak are Just Starting.

  • Yosemite Valley (4,000′) – Just Starting (0-10%)
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Yosemite Wildflowers

Abundant displays of white and pink to rose-colored blossoms now appearing on flowering pear, plum and almond trees and shrubs in the Central Valley and Sierra Foothills have Californians anticipating the state’s ten-month wildflower season.

Newly released by Falcon Guides, Yosemite Wildflowers (written by Judy and Barry Breckling) describes more than 1,000 species to be seen in the national park during that long bloom.

My previous go-to guide for wildflower identification in Yosemite National Park and the Central Sierra was Lynn and Jim Wilson and Jeff Nicholas’ Wildflowers of Yosemite, published in 1987. Though beautifully illustrated with recommended wildflower sites and hikes, in comparison, it had just 224 color plates within it.

Yosemite Wildflowers is a more than able replacement. Its authors are well-qualified to author the guide. The Brecklings are lifelong plant enthusiasts who have lived in the Sierra not far from Yosemite for a dozen years. They lead Sierra Foothills chapter California Native Plant Society wildflower field trips and created a Yosemite wildflowers app in 2014.

The book categorizes wildflowers into six color groupings, based on the most vibrant color: white to cream; yellow, red and orange; pink, rose and magenta; blue, purple and lavendar; and green and brown flowers.

Within those sections, 895 color photographs, common names, scientific names, families, informative descriptions, flowering periods, habitats/ranges and similar plants are described.

At 26.4 ounces, Yosemite Wildflowers – though a paperback – is sufficiently heavy to give pause to a backpacker as to whether it’s too much to carry. Though, for anyone who has been frustrated with thinner guidebooks which failed to include flowers they hoped to identify in the field, it’s sure to solve that problem.

Yosemite Wildflowers is comprehensive. As an example, 24 varieties of lupine are described within it. In most field guides, only one or two examples are included.

I’ve often been asked why CaliforniaFallColor.com doesn’t do for California wildflowers what we do for autumn color. There are many reasons why we don’t.

Time is a big part of it. Elsewhere in North America, autumn is a two-week peak display. However, here peak color first appears near 10,000′, then gradually drops to sea level. That takes four months.

California’s wildflower bloom happens in reverse and over a longer period. Flip the pages of Judy and Barry Breckling’s new field guide, Yosemite Wildflowers, and it’s amazing that they finished the book only 12 years after relocating to the Sierra.

Yosemite Wildflowers (978-1-4930-4066-7, March 2020) is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores. Falcon is an imprint of Globe Pequot.

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Yosemite Is Still At It

Half Dome reflection in the Merced River, Photographer’s Bridge, Yosemite Valley (11/2/19) Clayton Peoples

Yosemite National Park is a progressive peak.

It begins in the high country, with pockets of aspen and willows turning, then descends to Yosemite Valley and along the Wawona Road with bigleaf maple and dogwood providing a colorful blend of hot pink and cadmium yellow.

Then, orange black oak and golden cottonwood complete the show from the week before Halloween through the first two weeks of November.

Clayton Peoples was there yesterday (Nov. 2) to confirm that “Yosemite Valley is still sporting peak conditions.”

  • Yosemite Valley (4,000′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!