Botanizing in Southern John Muir Wilderness

June and July 2015

by Bill Finch

In 2013, my goals for exploring the Sierra Nevada changed focus. Up to that time, I planned trips that visited the most remote areas I could find. Since then, I have become enamored with botany. That's not to say I am a botanist. My training is in geology. However, I have found a species of flowering plant that is easy to identify (even for a geologist) with a distribution that intrigues me. Lewisia leeana is endemic to the California floristic province and is found in several counties on the California/Oregon border and in eastern Fresno County. I first noticed it in the Dinkey Lakes area where it has been most often reported. I learned its identity when I posted an observation of it to iNaturalist in 2013. Since then, most of my hikes have become field work to determine the distribution of its disjunctive population in eastern Fresno County.

The following trip reports document my work in further determining the distribution of L. leeana and trips I took while I was chased out of the area by the Rough Fire.

Crown Ridge Field Trip
9-10 June 2015

The first trip of the year was preceded by the usual anxiety, especially since I knew I would be traveling in an area with dicey trails. It was anything but typical and became interesting early on. I was so concerned about travel in this mostly forested area that I decided to check out the trail connecting the Little Rancheria trail and the Crown Valley trail. I turned south and took a break at the Little Rancheria Creek crossing. At around 11 that morning, I hiked south in order to locate the junction with the Crown Valley trail. Long past the time I expected to reach it, I realized that I was ON the Crown Valley trail and that I had missed the junction, or perhaps the old trail to the Crown Valley Trailhead no longer exists. Not wanting to back track, I decided to continue on the trail and do the trip in reverse. At 11:25, I met a beautiful bear on the trail and got a pretty good photo.
bear in trail
The bear ran off the trail as soon as he saw me.

By 11:50, I had reached the John Muir Wilderness boundary and became certain of my location.
Wilderness boundary
Wilderness boundary signs on Crown Valley Trail.

I crossed Cabin Creek and its east tributary and reached the trail to Chain Lakes at 1:05. There was no trail sign but the GPS and cut logs showed that this was the turnoff.
Chain Lakes turnoff
Chain Lakes turnoff from the Crown Valley Trail.

I headed north on the seldom used trail until losing it in a meadow. I wandered cross county for about a mile before finding the trail again. At 3:20, I reached the Chain Lakes turnoff and headed east through familiar territory. The trip to lower Chain Lake was pretty easy except for an area of thick deadfall just west of it. The ascent to middle Chain Lake was difficult through large granite boulders that dam middle Chain Lake to the east. The trail to upper Chain Lake eluded me but I managed to find my way there with the help of the GPS. I stayed at a nice campsite at the north end of the lake. It rained much of the night.

I wish I could say the air was clear the next morning, but low clouds blocked a view of the sky most of the day.
low clouds on Crown Ridge
Low clouds on Crown Ridge.

It made navigating on Crown Ridge difficult if not dangerous. Without visible landmarks, I had to rely on GPS to find my way around. Finally, at 10:25 I turned around and headed back to the lake, worried about the storm and about getting lost in the clouds. It rained or hailed most of the way back to the trailhead but my trusty umbrella kept me dry most of the way. I did manage to post quite a few observations on iNaturalist; 27 for June 9 and 26 for June 10 including a new species for me, California valerian (Valeriana californica).

Crown Pass Field Trip
16-19 June 2015

My plans for this trip were far too ambitious. I planned to take a cross country route on day one but stayed on trail instead. I wanted to visit Upper Box and Lower Box in the Upper and Lower Box Watershed then go cross country to Old Pipe Lake. I made it to Old Pipe Lake all right, but didn't even make it to either box canyon. The country looked too rough, so on day two after descending toward Upper Box, I returned to Woodchuck Lake and took trail to Crown Pass. There I descended Nichols Canyon via abandoned trail and reached Old Pipe Lake. I expected my last day to be a simple trip home but saw much more than I expected. This was a trip of surprises and I really can't complain.

On the first day of the trip, I observed L. leeana south of the Woodchuck/Little Rancheria Creek divide. I took it as a good omen until I descended the trail toward Lacy Camp and didn't see any more. By the time I got to Lacy Camp, I figured I would probably make better time on trail than trying a cross country route. I managed to see a number of familiar plants and couple of new ones including Nevada lewisia (Lewisia nevadensis) on my way to Woodchuck Lake. June 16 observations are here.
Woodchuck Lake
Woodchuck Lake from the north.

The next morning, I slept in and didn't leave Woodchuck Lake until 10am. I headed north cross country and into the Upper and Lower Box Watershed. An hour later, I found L. leeana, the first time it's been observed in this watershed. I walked out on a point, looked down at Upper Box, looked over to the ridge separating it from Old Pipe Lake and had an immediate change in plans.
Box Canyon Country
Upper Box country.

The descent to Upper Box looked difficult and I figured it would be a very long day to go around the ridge to the lake, much less to hike over to Lower Box and back before that. I left the trip to the box canyons for another day and decided to head cross country east of Woodchuck Lake where I would hopefully find more L. leeana. I wasn't disappointed. I found plenty of L. leeana on my way to the trail and more on my way to Crown Pass. Finding the trail down Nichols Canyon to Old Pipe Lake was a different matter. I would guess it has been many years, probably over a decade, since the trail has been maintained and it showed few signs of use. Most blazes on trees had grown shut. A duck here and there showed where someone thought the trail might be. It was basically cross country down a steep canyon toward Old Pipe Lake. I found plenty of L. leeana, first observations in the Meadow Brook Watershed. Old Pipe Lake looked seldom visited and considering lack of trail, that is completely understandable. It was not a disappointing day. June 17 observations are here.
Old Pipe Lake
Old Pipe Lake in morning light.

On day three, I was hopeful I might find some L. leeana north of Old Pipe Lake, but the area was dominated by pinemat manzanita and I couldn't find any. I headed up Nichols Canyon and parts of the old trail seemed a little easier to find than the day before. At Crown Pass, I decided to climb over the ridge instead of taking the route I had used the day before.
Ridge between Crown Pass and Woodchuck Lake
Ridge between Crown Pass and Woodchuck Lake.

It turned out I followed trail anyway. The old, somewhat abandoned, but well ducked trail joins the new trail not too far from a small pond south of the main trail, and there I enjoyed lunch. After lunch I headed down one of the ridges that separates Woodchuck Lake from Marsh and Chimney Lakes. I saw plenty of L. leeana on the ridge and a number of other sightings, including a beautiful and rare white Sierra shooting star, before making camp at Chimney Lake. June 18 observations can be found here.

I convinced myself that final days are useful for returning to the trailhead and not meant for lots of observations. On day four, I was surprised at how much I found on the way back. I discoverd a new locality for pine fritillary south of the location where I made observations in 2012 and 2013 and I saw a few species new to me, including carpet clover. June 19 observations can be found here.
In all, it was a great trip with 141 observations, a couple of new watersheds visited, and a few more cross country transects completed.

Spanish Mountain Field Trip
24-26 June 2015

On this three day trip, I returned to Crown Ridge above Chain Lakes. On my first trip of the year, I had been rained off the ridge. Day one took me to upper Chain Lake. On the way, I made several observations of L. leeana, starting on the moraine that dams middle Chain Lake to its west and including an observation within the blocky morainal debris that dams upper Chain Lake on its west. June 24 observations are here.

After a pleasant night's rest, I returned to where I had left off during my first trip. L. leeana was in full bloom and very abundant in granitic areas on the north slopes of high point 9900+ which is capped by volcanics.
Lewisia leeana
Lewisia leeana is abundant south of upper Chain Lake.

As I headed down the south facing slope, I searched in vain for L. leeana. I moved across a ridge to the east and still had no luck. The view to the south was not promising. Below was a prominence, 9774T, which looked to be entirely volcanic and almost entirely barren of understory. The ridge including point 9477T looked volcanic as well. I decided to descend the canyon north of this ridge instead of going to Crown Rock. There were plenty of flowers to be seen on the way down to the almost abandoned Chain Lakes Trail below. Lower parts of the canyon had excellent grazing so I saw lots of cattle. I picked my way south on faint trail littered with large deadfalls and reached the Crown Valley Trail a little before noon.

The second half of day two proved to be just as interesting as the first. The trail to Crown Valley is heavily used and easy to follow. The country it passes through is generally dry and even dryer during this drought year. Variety improved near the meadows and streams I passed, but I wasn't tempted to explore much. I kept my eye open for L. leeana, but didn't really expect to see any because of the low elevation. Finally, I reached the turnoff to Spanish Mountain at about 12:45. The trail looked seldom used but there was one set of horse tracks that helped me to locate it. Deadfalls were a real problem, sometimes involving many trees. I lost track of the horse prints more than once, only to find them on the other side of the downed trees. I became jealous. It appeared that the horse had levitated over them. The trail passed near or through several meadows where it disappeared and was difficult to find on the other side.

A little before 2:30, I arrived at a shallow, grass fringed pond and found a trail sign at its south end.
pond at trail sign
A trail sign pointing to Geraldine Lakes was just south of this shallow pond.

The sign didn't mention it, but Spanish Lake was only a half mile to the west. It pointed the way to Geraldine Lakes where I wanted to spend the night. I turned east, spending much of the time going cross country but, now and then, encountering a blaze, a duck, or worn ground. Finally, the path turned more southerly and I ascended an unnamed drainage toward Geraldine Lakes. A little before four, I encountered my first L. leeana in the area, a large plant in full bloom. I continued up a broad granitic ramp to an overlook of lower Geraldine Lake, encountering many more L. leeana and other flowers on the way.
lower Geraldine Lake
Lower Geraldine Lake from the north.

The route down to the lake looked steep but possible, but I decided I wanted to stay at upper Geraldine Lake. I turned west and tried to find the trail to upper Geraldine Lake. I guessed the wrong direction and flailed around through forest, then swamp until I finally found what looked like the trail.

The ascent to upper Geraldine Lake seemed endless, but I encountered L. leeana again and again on the way up, including a first, one growing in dark metamorphics. Finally, at six o'clock on the dot, I arrived at upper Geraldine Lake.
upper Geraldine Lake
Upper Geraldine Lake.

I decided the trip had been worthwhile, considering how many L. leeana I had seen on the way up. Not only that, but it was a pretty little lake where after a few minutes I found a pretty good campsite. June 25 observations are here.

The next morning, I followed the trail which eventually led to lower Geraldine Lake where I found a huge campsite.
Geraldine Lakes basin
Geraldine Lakes basin from the south.

I guess that's where most people stay when they come to this area. Faint trail led back up to where I had missed the turnoff the day before. I headed west, looking for more L. leeana and was not disappointed. I was not surprised that I found none on south-facing slopes. I didn't make it to the location reported by York and Shevock in 1995(JEPS96202). I figured I'd seen enough L. leeana in the area and I didn't doubt that there would be a lot more plants in the direction of their location.

I headed back to the trailhead. Staying high in an attempt to skirt deadfalls, I overshot the trail, the first of many missteps on the way back to the Crown Valley Trail. It was more difficult than the trip in. I got lost several times, especially in meadows and in areas with dense deadfalls. For a while, I was on a trail that connects the Spanish Lake trail with the Geraldine Lakes trail, that one that starts near the old ranger station. Finally, I made it to the Chain Lakes Trail and it was almost three o'clock. Well, at least I knew I wouldn't have a hard time finding my way back to the trailhead. On my way back, I ran into a couple of fishermen that had spent time fly fishing Crown Creek and we talked for 20 minutes or so. They said the trail deteriorated beyond Crown Valley and had lots of deadfalls across it. A few minutes later, on the banks of Cabin Creek, I made my fourth observation of this trip (third of the day) of mitrewort, this time a new species to me, alpine mitrewort (Pectiantia pentandra). Even though the flowers are almost impossible to see unless you look closely, the leaves call attention to the plant.

I arrived at the junction with the cutoff heading to Rancheria Trailhead and saw the sign I had missed on my first trip of the season.
trail sign
Trail sign at the south end of the Crown Valley Trail/Little Rancheria Creek Trail cutoff.

It was new and fresh and located in a place that is easily missed if headed toward Crown Valley from the little Rancheria Creek cutoff. The trail to the Crown Valley Trailhead looked unused.
Crown Valley Trail
The Crown Valley Trail showed little use west of the cutoff to the Little Rancheria Creek Trail.

I wonder how long the Crown Valley trailhead will be used to get to Crown Valley? I guess it's still used to get to Statham Meadow.

I descended down to Little Rancheria Creek where I took a break at about six o'clock before finishing the day at the trailhead at about 7:30. It had been a big day and I saw a lot. My first impression of the Spanish Mountain area, a bad one, had been clouded by the difficult trip in from the Crown Valley trail and the hard climb to upper Geraldine Lake. My impression of the area started to change during the final day and by the time I started looking at the photos of the trip, I realized the area was worthy of many return trips (especially if I can find a better trail to Geraldine Lakes). June 26 observations are here.

Blackcap Basin Field Trip
21-25 July 2015

Storms brought in by Tropical Storm Dolores soaked the mountains in mid July. I hit the trail just as the storms were dissipating. Lighting is often beautiful when clouds are overhead, but lighting for photos of flowers can be a problem. Plants needed the drenching during this third year of drought. For some of them it was too late. Lupines never really had much of a chance unless they were close to the ground. Brewer's red heather and Labrador tea bloomed well in only a few places. Mountain pride lived up to its name and didn't seem to mind that it has been dry this summer. The plant I have been following, Lewisia leeana, bloomed in June but only a few flowers remained past mid-July. The high point of this trip was to be a visit of the highest elevation and farthest east observation of L. leeana in eastern Fresno County, in the Blackcap Basin.

It wasn't raining but the sky was filling with clouds when I left Rancheria Trailhead at about 8:30. I got to the wilderness boundary and saw the first of many fields of corn lily in bloom.
corn lilies
Corn lilies on Little Rancheria Creek trail at the wilderness boundary.

I have never seen so many, quite a few topping straggly and sickly looking stalks. Have I never been out when they are in bloom, or is this an exceptional year? Were all these blossoms the result of the nice rains we had in June and July? I have no idea, but I saw exceptional blooms through out the trip.

A little after noon, I reached the Woodchuck/Little Rancheria Divide and began traveling cross country toward Indian Springs. I stayed high and saw lots of Lewisia leeana, as much as I've ever seen anywhere. I had to work to avoid stepping on them. I passed by a hidden and seldom visited pond south of Indian Springs and its outlet stream was still running despite the drought.
Pond south of Indian Springs.

As I crossed granite slabs, Lewisia leeana disappeared and then I entered dense undergrowth dominated by Brewer's red heather and Labrador tea without a trace of L. leeana. Thunder started to pick up but rain hadn't fallen yet. Finally, the rain began around 1:30 and it rained off and on for the rest of the day's hike.

As the steep trail began to level out with the approach to Chuck Pass, Lewisia leeana reappeared. I had planned to stay high and travel cross country to Crown Lake, but with the dark, rainy skies, I changed my plans. My search for L. leeana on the east flank of the ridge would have to wait. It irritated me that the trail dropped to the southeast moving me away from my goal of Crown Lake, but I knew it would be the safest and quickest way there. After passing through Large Meadow I hiked past a familiar ridge of volcanics and up through swamps on Scepter Creek. A little past 5:30, I found L. leeana again but didn't see it for long because the trail took me into the dominion of Scepter Creek. Soon I climbed into the flat country that surrounds Crown Lake.
Crown Lake
Crown Lake with American bistort (Bistorta bistortoides) in the foreground.

I spent way more time than necessary looking for a decent campsite near the lake but finally settled on a spot with partial protection under the trees. July 21 observations are here.

Rain continued through the night so I wiped the tent dry inside and out as best I could before putting it away. I hoped to be in the Blackcap Basin at the end of this my second day. I made it up and out of the Crown Lake basin and an hour or so later I was up on Crown Pass and looking forward to the descent to Halfmoon Lake. I made several observations of L. leeana and other flowering plants on the way to the lake. A little after 10, I crossed the Halfmoon Lake outlet stream and headed around the ridge toward the North Fork Kings River.
Halfmoon Lake
Halfmoon Lake from the outlet.

To my delight, I encountered many L. leeana plants on the way there. It found it hard to believe that L. leeana has never been reported in this area considering how much of it there is along the trail.

By one o'clock I began the ascent up Kings River canyon . I would see no more L. leeana until I reached Portal Lake. The area next to the river is much too wet to support L. leeana, the cliffs above much too steep. The trail was sloppy in places, but that is not unusual. I arrived at Portal Lake before five. A strong wind whipped over the lake and so I put up my soggy tent which dried out in a hurry. I managed to cook dinner through the windstorm and there was enough light left to do a little exploring. I focused on the area between Portal Lake and the little unnamed lake to the north. Imagine my delight when I found several Lewisia leeana plants as well as Shasta knotweed and dwarf alpine Indian paintbrush. July 22 observations are here.

I was excited to be on my way the next morning. I was looking forward to visiting the only reported locality for L. leeana in the Blackcap Basin somewhere between Pearl and Division Lakes. Between Portal and Pearl Lakes, I saw several more L. leeana plants. The ascent to Pearl involves finding a way up a steep wall and I found a way that didn't involve trail until the last 100 feet or so. Even though I have been to Pearl Lake a couple of times before, it looked very different from what I remembered. The dry, gravelly area sloping east toward the lake was sparsely covered with flowers.
Pearl Lake
Pearl Lake.

One of them, granite mousetail (Ivesia muirii) was new to me. In addition there were abundant dwarf alpine Indian paintbrush and eriogonum. I crossed the outlet stream where I found some nice little elephant head (Pedicularis attollens)and continued to the north end of the large lake. It didn't take long to ascend to Division Lake but Lewisia leeana was nowhere to be found.
Division Lake
Division Lake.

I climbed all the way up to Regiment Lake.
Regiment Lake
Regiment Lake.

I returned to Pearl Lake, disappointed that I hadn't spotted any L. leeana. It was only later in the afternoon, long after I had left the Blackcap Basin, that I realized that I should have checked an area west of the small pond between Pearl and Division Lakes. I guess I'll have to visit again next year.

On my way out of Blackcap Basin, I spotted just one more L. leeana plant. Next up was Crown Basin. The trail to the basin was hard to follow, but I managed to get to a viewpoint where I could get a feel for the area. Getting into the basin would have involved significant elevation loss and of course gain to get back out. I decided to put off exploration of Crown Basin to a later date. I returned to the Blackcap Basin trail and dropped down canyon to the trail junction with the Half Moon Lake trail. The map shows two streams descending from the south, one from Maxson Basin and the other from Maxson Lake. The stream I chose to ascend curved westward and I soon knew I was not going to make it to Maxson Lake that evening. I returned to forest south of the Half Moon Lake trail and set up camp next to what I figured was the outlet stream from Maxson Basin. July 23 observations here.

The next morning, I hiked a short distance through forest until a steep, rocky section came into view. It became obvious that there were many more than two streams flowing from the south. By the time I figured that out, it became way more important to just find a way up the steep section, not necessarily up just one of the two outlet streams. I didn't know it at the time, but I chose a drainage that was parallel and a little east of the outlet stream from Maxson Lake. A little after 8 o'clock, I spotted my first L. leeana and I saw many more all the way to the top. I wasn't sure exactly where my path would lead, but to my surprise I rounded a corner and there was lovely Maxson Lake.
Maxson Lake
Maxson Lake.

Even though I was unsure about descending next to the Maxson Lake outlet stream, I decided to risk it. It was probably a little more technically difficult than the ascent route, but I managed it, full pack and all. I was back at the Half Moon Lake trail by 11:30 and began my return on familiar ground.

I made just a few observations on the return to Crown Pass. My goal was to move cross country from Crown Pass toward Woodchuck Lake and maybe camp at one of the little ponds along the way. Instead, I made it all the way to a campsite at the south end of Woodchuck Lake.
Woodchuck Lake
Woodchuck Lake.

I saw lots of L. leeana along with the usual eriogonum, mountain pride, and the occasional lupine field. July observations are here.

Day five dawned with clear skies and I was eager to get home. I hiked cross country on a ridge west of the trail. Before long I was making my way toward Chimney Lake but before getting to the junction, I dropped down cross country to the south fork of Woodchuck Creek. As soon as I crossed the creek, I was back in Lewisia leeana country. I took a more westerly track than usual and soon ran out of L. leeana. By 9:30, I was on the Woodchuck/Little Rancheria divide and heading down toward the trailhead. I made a few more observations before reaching the Rancheria Trailhead at 1:15. July 25 observations are here.

Overall, I was happy with the trip. The disappointment of not finding L. leeana between Pearl and Division Lakes was offset by all the observations north of Portal Lake. The abundance of L. leeana between Half Moon Lake and the North Fork Kings River was a pleasant surprise. The trip to Maxson Lake turned out to be fun and worthwhile. The cross country walk from Crown Pass to Woodchuck Lake was rewarding. Although it was wet the first couple of days, my equipment performed well and made the trip as pleasant as could be expected.

Bench Valley Field Trip
4 August 2015

At Dinkey Creek, I turned east toward Courtright Reservoir where I was to start a four day trip to Bench Valley. Smoke began to fill the air and I wondered if I would be able to hike. It dissipated as I approached the turnoff to Courtright and hope returned. I left the Maxson Trailhead and my nose started running and my eyes burned. By the time I reached the head of Long Meadow, I had decided to turn around.
Long Meadow
Long Meadow. Heavy smoke from the Rough Fire obscures the sky.

In 60 years of hiking, it is the first time I have ever quit a hike. In addition to the thick smoke, three years of drought had left the country dry and unattractive.

On the return from Long Meadow, I managed to make five observations, despite my dismal mood.

Kings Canyon
7 August 2015

A few days after the aborted Bench Valley Field Trip, I headed for Cedar Grove where I planned to take a trip to the Monarch Divide. Smoke thickened as I approached the Kings River overlook. The Rough Fire was taking hold and smoke extended up both the Middle Fork and South Fork canyons.
Rough Fire
The Rough Fire was about a week old and confined between Spanish Mountain and the Kings River.

I turned around and tried to think of something to do on the order of a day hike. I took the turnoff to the Boole Tree trail and made it as far as Stump Meadow. Beyond that the dirt road was washed out so I couldn't drive to the trail. I stopped at the Kings Canyon visitor's center and picked up a wilderness permit out of Marvin Pass for the next day.

Lost Lake
8-9 August 2015

I was far enough from the Rough Fire that I really didn't think about it a lot. Lost Lake was just as lovely as I remembered it and I saw abundant pinedrops and sugarstick.
Lost Lake
Lost Lake.

I took my time returning to the trailhead and saw lots of flowers including a species of Ivesia new to me. The Rough Fire fueled a huge pyrocumulus cloud to the north.
pyrocumulus cloud
A pyrocumulus cloud formed over the Rough Fire.

Smoke from the Rough Fire kept me out of the mountains for the rest of the summer.

12 December 2015