Journey to the Top

by Gabi McLean

(reprinted from The Paintbrush, Fall 2004, California Native Plant Society, San Gabriel Mountains Chapter)

I love to go up into the mountains, away from the hustle and bustle of the valley. I seek solitude and find solace there. The physical exertion of climbing steep hillsides forces me to stop frequently and rest. I always find some interesting plant to admire and to study, enjoy the view, listen to a bird, maybe even find the creature in the treetop or low on the ground in a bush.

Having spent much time in the foothills for plant study and enjoyment, Iíd been eager to venture to higher elevations. The air is cooler, the sky brighter, and the hills are steeper than in the foothills. So Cliff, my husband, and I decided to celebrate Independence Day on the tallest mountain of the San Gabriels, Mt. San Antonio, better known as Mt. Baldy.

We start out early at Manker Flats at 6000 feet. From the dirt road towards Antonio Falls, the last remnants of chaparral are still visible on the hillsides below us. Pines and firs dot the incline towards Baldy Bowl looming above. At the roadside, a Blazing Star (Mentzelia laevicaulis) welcomes us with its spectacular flowers - a tight bouquet of finger-long stamens crowns the center of its five lemon-yellow petals. It grows on rocky, gravelly ground, with no soil in sight, branching out at almost right angles, each branch bearing one or two of the blazing stars at its end.

As I stop to ponder the Mentzelia, I discover other species, no less fascinating, just much smaller and so easily overlooked. A rosy-colored buckwheat (Eriogonum davidsonii) covers the side of the road. It is slender and elegant, its leaf-less limbs adorned with minute, rosy bunches of petal-less flowers. A patch of dainty and delicate White Phacelia (Phacelia longipes) hides in a shallow indentation in the gravelly soil. I lower myself to the ground and explore with the loupe and the camera and discover that there are not only flowers but also already some early fruits.

The first bend in the road offers us the view of Baldy Falls from a distance. Above it loom jarring rocks, talus and scree near the top, not much vegetation to see from below. We still have a long way to go so we move on, catching only a glimpse of Golden Yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum), the buckwheat (Eriogonum saxatile), and the beckoning fire-engine-red California Fuchsia (Epilobium canum spp. latifolium). I find its bright flowers intriguing, their comet-like blossoms seemingly floating above ground from afar, its fuzzy foliage blending in with the gravel and soil.

We enjoy the shade of the pines and white fir trees as we traverse on many switchbacks the northeast side of the canyon. A mountain quail with young crosses our path, and nutcrackers, woodpeckers, and Stellarís jays announce our slow but steady advance with loud shrieks and squawks. We rest each time we reach the edge of the canyon, enjoying the view down into the valley, where we started. The shrubs along the trail look familiar but then we realize that the species growing here are not the ones we know from lower elevations. We see Mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius), Manzanita (Arctostaphylos parryana), Monkeyflower (Mimulus sp.), and many others. Then there is a shrub thatís completely new to us. Its five petals and many stamens point to the rose family and the small flowers remind us of Wild cherry (Prunus ilicifolia). I take a few photos for later study with reference books. We touch the leaves to remember their texture, and smell them to detect any fragrance. We subsequently identify the shrub as Small-leafed Creambush, Holodiscus microphyllus. Then we hurry on, climbing the mountain towards our first stop at the ski hut.

My stomach is complaining. I see Cliff ahead of me, almost reaching the hut where we want to break for lunch. I try to rush, to no avail. Iíve stumbled into this beautiful area, where water flows in a creek and trickles among the rocks, bringing precious moisture to the patches of bright green foliage and vivid flowers. I recognize Scarlet Monkeyflower (Mimulus cardinalis) and Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa) but I donít remember seeing this prolific sun flower species with large spherical flower heads. The stalks are about two feet tall and slender, simple leaves hug the stems loosely. Intriguing are the different shapes of flower heads, depending on their stage of development. Later we find out that this most attractive species is Helenium bigelovi, also called Sneezeweed for reasons I donít understand.

So I stop and document with my camera what my eyes have devoured and painted into my memory. I get close and try to find the right angles, and again discover more species. Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) grows at the waterís edge, and here are some other species, flowers not open yet, the leaves look like a monocot. What is it? Wait, I see one open blossom, and then two and three: itís our native Stream Orchid (Epipactis gigante)! I had seen it once before on Highway 39 in Azusa canyon on a CNPS field trip lead by Jane Strong. What excitement to discover it here now, so many miles east from there, in San Antonio canyon.

There are a few Prickly poppies (Argemone munita) in bloom, and then still another species, or is it? Maybe itís just the young version of the Epipactis? So often, a young plant looks very different from a mature one, so I am not sure what I am seeing. Again, I carefully take photos to capture the tall stalks from every angle. I am trying to figure out if the structures are buds or flowers or fruit. None seems to fit and I am puzzled. At home we discover that this species is the native Sparse-flowered Bog-orchid, Platanthera sparsiflora.

We rest at the ski hut, exchanging greetings with other hikers on the trail. A patriotic young woman waves an American flag, she plans to take a picture with it on top of the mountain Ė after all it is the 4th of July. The hikers' faces reflect the cheerful beauty of the place. The creek flows nearby and the area is packed with scarlet and common monkey flowers, columbines, and a very tall Indian paintbrush (Castilleja minor), all in full flower. We also find small bushy willows, coffee berry, Yerba Santa, gooseberry and currant, and other species. What a rich and wondrous place!

Having rested, we start out full of energy, but are stopped in our tracks with the discovery of a blue Jewel Flower. Round, marbled leaves clasp the stem from which the delicate and dainty flowers dangle. I can understand why someone would want to call this a jewel (Caulanthus amplexicaulis var. amplexicaulis).

As we leave the moistness of the creek we leave behind us the lush flowers. With the rocks and the gravel, we find pines and gooseberry (another unfamiliar species). Our slow pace up the steep mountainside gives us plenty of opportunity to scan the ground for inconspicuous plants. Chinquapin and manzanita are now accompanying us. After we reach the ridge that eventually leads to the top, we also find Wild Mountain Parsley, plenty of Rock Buckwheat, and Granite Gilia (Leptodactylon pungens) which looks a lot like a small Prickly phlox.

The trail climbs over rocks through steeper and steeper sections. We note the hardy vegetation, adapted to short, dry and warm summers and snow covered winters. Here spring occurs in the middle of July when summer reigns in the valley. The plants are small and hardy, with leathery, very thin, or succulent leaves. To find and appreciate their delicate beauty, one must stoop close to the ground. But not always Ė we discover a pine with blue flower-like structures, Pinus contorta or Lodgepole pine. However at the very top only a few hard-to-discover patches of buckwheat and mountain parsley, no more than a few inches high, sparsely dot the ground.

We finally reach the mountaintop just before 3 PM. The journey was one full of discoveries of unfamiliar species. Now I appreciate the views into the valley to the south and the deserts to the north, the peaks of the San Gabriels to the west, and the San Bernardinos to the east. We can see San Jacinto and a hint of the Santa Ana Mountains. The lower areas of the valley are shrouded in haze but the desert is clear. On top of the mountain I feel a sense of accomplishment, having climbed so far. Even stronger is the feeling of detachment from daily worries that usually weigh me down in the valley. Here, where houses and cars are mere specs on the tapestry of nature, I feel peace, and the vastness humbles my soul. I again can put life into perspective and focus on the great gifts that nature offers us.

The descent is quick on the shorter backbone trail. We have no time to botanize, but concentrate on getting back on time for the ski lift. After a mad rush we barely make it. When we get home we are physically tired but mentally refreshed. We left our footprints behind and took only pictures with us, which are now beckoning to be identified, sorted, and digitally processed. The pictures encourage me to relive the excitement of the journey and its discoveries, and the quiet moments on the top of the world.

Keywords: Gabi McLean, Cliff McLean, Gabriele McLean, Clifford McLean, Nature at Hand, Gabi Horn, Gabriele Horn, Plants of the San Gabriel Mountains: Foothills and Canyon, Interpretive Guide on CD, Plants of the San Gabriel Foothills and Canyons, California native plants, Pasadena, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, San Gabriel Valley, Southern California, Covina, natural, nature photography, photograph, environmental education, naturalist, docent, hike, hiking, CD-ROM, California native garden, gardening, flowers, wildflowers, San Gabriel Mountains, Angeles National Forest, California Native Plant Society, CNPS, Eaton Canyon Nature Center Associates, ECNCA, Mt. Baldy, Mount Baldy, Mt. San Antonio, Mount San Antonio