Parasites and Pretty Birds: Yaqui Well, Anza-Borrego State Park

Ironwood tree infested with mistletoe.

Ironwood tree infested with mistletoe

“I wonder if that tree feels the same way I did,” I said to Rowshan as I snapped a photo of some of the mistletoe that grew in big bunches on an ironwood tree (Olneya tesota) next to the Yaqui Well trail in Anza-Borrego.

A couple weeks ago we got back from a trip to Costa Rica and found we had brought an unintentional souvenir: giardia. It took about two weeks to figure this out for sure. For those two weeks I felt exhausted, had no apetite, and when I forced myself to eat anything substantial, suffered dearly for it.

I had heard mistletoe is a parasite can eventually kill its host. However, according to Live Science, this is not true, or it takes a long time (60–70 years), or the tree has to be weakened by other things like disease or drought. In the meantime the mistletoe steals minerals and water from its host, but also uses photosynthesis (which makes it a hemiparasite since it doesn’t rely completely on its host). I guess the tree just struggles through life feeding itself and its parasites until it dies. And I thought two weeks of hosting a parasite was bad.



The mistletoe I saw was desert mistletoe (Phorodendron californicum). It has reddish berries and grows on several trees/shrubs in the fabaceae family including desert ironwood and mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa var. torreyana). Also in this area we saw several phainopeplas, the males of which are pretty shiny black birds (females are gray) with a crest, red eyes and splashes of white under their wings. These birds rely on the mistletoe for food during the winter. They eat the berries and poop out the seeds, thereby spreading the mistletoe to other trees.

Female phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens)..

Female phainopepla

The ironwood and mesquite trees in the Yaqui Well area host other non-parasitic entities as well. And it was one of these that brought us to the trail. While I had been sick in bed, Rowshan had gone with friends to Yaqui Well and seen “at least 20” long eared owls. They returned with pictures of adorable owls with long feather tufts on their heads. They were long-eared owls (Asio otus).
Long Eared Owl in tree

Long-eared owl at the Tamarisk Grove Campground

To ensure a sighting, we first had stopped at the Tamarisk Grove campground to visit the resident long eared owl. “This one is really used to people so you can get really close,” Rowshan told me. “The ones near the trail are more skittish and would fly before you get that close.” Sure enough, the owl was in the exact same spot near campground 18 where it was last week. But this week there was a second one as well. They looked small compared to barn and great horned owl, but also tall and skinny—even more so due to their long ear tufts. We were able to stand right under the tree and look at them. And they looked back at us.

When we’d first seen the ironwood with the mistletoe Rowshan said, “The owls could be in any of these trees,” We didn’t see any. We walked up a wash and saw another ironwood tree. “That’s where I saw them before. There is one in the middle.”

Tree with hidden long eared owls

How many owls can you find? Click for larger view.

We observed the tree from a distance and managed to find three. “You’ll see. There are probably a bunch hidden.” We got a little closer and I saw one more. It was like one of those picture games where you have to find how many things were hidden. Then one that I hadn’t seen flew. Then a couple more. By the time we reached the tree about ten owls had flown and three remained. Some of the owls had flown up the wash to another tree.

Flying Long Eared Owl

Flying long-eared owl

After walking up the wash for a bit, we turned back and followed the trail to a grove of ironwood trees closer to the road where we saw more owls flying. Seeing this number of owls was a treat since a year or so ago we’d asked at the campground about a resident owl and the ranger said it hadn’t been seen for a couple years, speculating the drought had reduced the rodents that they fed on, so they had to go elsewhere.

Wash in Yaqui Well area, Anza-Borrego State Park


Fox’s Field: Bobcats and…Bears?

Oak tree in the field with rain clouds

Oak tree at Fox’s Field.

One way to ruin a perfectly good hike, is to hike with the goal of seeing an infrequently seen mammal in the wild, like a bobcat, lion, or even a fox. It is much better to hike with the goal of enjoying a hike, and be pleasantly surprised if you see wild animals like these. I came to this conclusion after not seeing a tiger in the Chitwan Reserve in Nepal. I was terribly disappointed, even though I knew seeing a tiger, even in a reserve known for tigers was a rare event. Then I realized it was kind of silly. I enjoy being in the forest in a place I’ve never been, seeing birds and other animals in the wild… why should not seeing one rare animal ruin it? So, just to let you know. Consider yourself lucky if you actually see a fox at Fox’s Field.
Tracks across the field towards a hill.

Follow the main tracks east across the field.

Fox’s Field is not the real name of this field. It is actually called Robert’s Ranch. I had to look this up because I never can remember if it is Robert’s or Roger’s. It is much simpler to call it Fox’s Field since we saw a fox there once. It was sitting on a fallen tree in the early morning sun in the oaks at the beginning of the trail. We have named the trail in honor of this fox. We hope to see it again, but so far we haven’t.

The first part of the trail goes through tranquil oak forest.

The first part of the trail goes through tranquil oak forest.

But that’s OK. It is still a nice hike. After crossing a field divided by a row of buckwheat, the trail goes through a short stretch of peaceful oak forest before ascending into the field. The field is dotted with islands of oaks and boulders. These make nice places to rest, have a snack, and otherwise hang out. But today, it was a bit damp, cool, and cloudy. Ours was a hike for the sake of hiking. Jerry Schad’s book has this trail as a short walk into the field and then back out. In fact, if you walk across the field you get to a rutted dirt road. This goes into the chaparral covered hills, giving expansive views of the mountains which were a sea of green from the rain.

Fox track in the mud.

I believe this is a fox track, since it looks like there is lots of space between the pad and toes.

Although we didn’t see our friend the fox, we saw some tracks and scat. Apparently, the coyotes are eating manzanita flowers which they don’t seem to digest very well, dotting the trail with very strange purple piles of flower filled poop. We didn’t see a lot of life. The cloudy weather cast a silence over the bird world. Only occasional jays and crows called out. When the sun peeked out for a moment, a hummingbird appeared.



The trail dipped down into an oak filled gully and then rose back up. A loud crack of thunder, made us consider turning back, but I wanted to check the swallow nests under the freeway. Apparently it is still too early for swallow nests since those that remained were abandoned and many that had been there before had disintegrated.

We headed back the way we came, encountering some cows on the way. Back in the field, Rowshan spotted something moving near some oaks. “Bobcat! It’s limping.” he announced as he took off running towards the area. I could only get a few brief glimpses of the animal moving between rocks and trees. Even though the bobcat had a limp, Rowshan and I weren’t able to get close enough for a good look. Rowshan could see blood on one of its back legs in a photo he’d snapped. I wondered if one of the local ranchers had shot it. “What else would attack a bobcat?” I asked. Though upon further thought, I guess a bull could have gored it.

Since the bobcat had disappeared into an area beyond the fence boundary of the park, we decided to walk along the fence to see if we could see it anywhere. The fence turned a corner, bringing us to a side of the field we hadn’t been to.

Rowshan, who was ahead of me, suddenly said. “There’s a bear over there.” “Bear?” I asked looking over at an area surrounded by several layers of high wire fences.

A brown bear looks through the fence at Lions, Tigers, & Bears

A brown bear is looking at me. I think he wants to be my friend!

“Yes. There’s a black bear and a brown bear,” he clarified. “Oh. And a grizzly, too.” Sure enough, there were several bears visible from where we were. A black bear paced closest to us, a brown bear was towards the other end of the fence, and farther in another section of the compound, was a grizzly. We wondered what the place was. “Maybe it is some part of the San Diego Zoo.” I suggested. I imagined it as a kind of mountain, get away spot for bears in the zoo when they needed a break from the lowland heat, crowds and bustle at the zoo. “Or maybe it is some animal training place for movie animals.” I also worried that if it was the ranch of some eccentric rich person who was keeping them as exotic pets and would come running out waving a gun at us at any moment. I walked up to the nearest fence. It was plastered with “No hunting”, “no trespassing”, and “electric fence.” One of the signs had a logo that said, “Lions, Tigers, & Bears.”

Avoid Arrest. No Trespassing or Hunting. Sign at Lions, Tigers, & Bears

“Trespassers will be mauled” is what I would have written if this were my sign.

I had to wait until I got home to figure out just what Lions, Tigers, & Bears is. My first guess about it being a mountain get-away spot for bears was not that far off. Lions, Tigers, & Bears is a non-profit organization devoted to the rescue of big cats and exotic animals. The bears we saw were just a few of the bears who reside in the sanctuary. They had been rescued from bear petting tourist traps, private zoos, private owners with insufficient resources to properly care for them, and certain death by being sold to hunting parks. A few of the bears had been captured by the Fish and Game Department because they were frequenting areas too close to humans (The “A fed bear is a dead bear” message you see at National Parks is true unless a sanctuary rescues the bear).

The wild cat residents include lions, tigers, a serval, bobcats, and a mountain lion. You can read all of the animals’ stories and see their photos at The reserve offers visits to members and “members-for-a-day”, but arrangements must be made in advance. In addition to rescuing animals, the organization works on passing legislation to prevent wild animals from being subjected to exploitative and substandard living conditions such as petting zoos and traveling circuses.

We went back to looking for the injured bobcat but couldn’t find it. Returning to our car I told Rowshan, “Not a bad hike at all. We saw a bobcat… and bears!”

Clouds over the trail

Clouds over the trail

Useful Information

Lions, Tigers, & Bears
Mission (from the website) “Lions, Tigers, & Bears is a federally and state licensed non-profit 501(c)(3) rescue facility dedicated to providing a safe haven for unwanted and abused Big Cats and other exotic animals. We are one of very few accredited Big Cat Sanctuaries in the US. We are a NO KILL, NO BREED, NO SELL rescue and educational facility that allows the animals in our care the opportunity to live out their lives with dignity in a caring and safe environment. Our goal is to provide a safe haven for these rescued animals and to educate the public about the growing population of abandoned and unwanted exotic animals and where they come from…”

Cleveland National Forest: Robert’s Ranch is part of the Cleveland National Forest.


Take the Japatul Valley Road exit from I-8 (same exit as hwy 79) and go south on Japatul Valley Road for about a minute. On the left side of the road across from the turnoff for Campbell Ranch Road, there is a gate and some Caltrans maintenance buildings. You can either park by the field gate or on Campbell Ranch Road. Go through the gate and follow the path to the oak forest beyond the buckwheat plants. When you reach the field, stay on the larger tracks that curve to the left and go roughly parallel to the highway (not the small one that goes to the right). About 3 minutes across the field, these tracks fade. At this point look for another set of stronger tire tracks to the right running along the edge of some oaks. Follow this trail. If I remember correctly, the other trail goes roughly to the same place, but along a different route for a bit. These tracks go roughly south. Walk on this a bit and eventually you’ll get to a very rutted dirt road This is Forest Rte 16S04. Follow this east. This is the trail into the hills. Apparently if you follow it the other direction, it becomes Horsethief Rd.

Wind, Wandering, and Wondering: Espinosa and Secret Canyon Trails

View from the Espinosa Trail

View from the Espinosa Trail

The wind in the mountains was intense. It rocked our little car and pushed at the big rigs we nervously passed. We were relieved when we reached our exit. “The wind is so bad, all these people are parked by the side of the road,” R pointed out. That didn’t seem to make much sense. Turning my head back towards the highway, I saw the real reason. The onramp was blocked by a fire engine and police cars. A big rig had toppled over and was lying on the grassy slope between highway and onramp like a beached whale. We pulled over to look. The wind threatened to rip off the car doors and billows of dust rose from the sides of the road.

We got back in the car. The wind dissipated as we descended and moved south. The Horsethief Canyon Trailhead was fine. I meant to hike Horsethief Canyon, but the generically marked “Trail” signs led down into the canyon where they got a bit more specific and said “Espinosa Trail.” I guess the Horsethief trail was the dirt road we had originally been on. Maybe next time…

Manzanita flowers

Manzanita flowers

The steepest part of the trail (at least as far as we went) was the beginning. But it was pleasant. The southern crawling sun made the oaks and manzanitas that lined the trail cast comfortable shadows. The manzanitas were in flower and in some places the trail was covered with the fallen white teardrop flowers.

It seems the more I learn about nature, the less I know, and the more questions I have. This is a good thing. Curiosity adds a lot to the outdoor experience. It seems that when you become an adult, you are not supposed to be curious anymore. You are supposed to know all the answers or at least be able to fake it.

Questions and curiosity are actually signs of willingness to learn and an attempt to understand. Perhaps real ignorance is not asking and not seeking to understand, but instead assuming or acting like you know. Maybe if more people asked questions of each other, we’d understand each other better.

Anyway, I started thinking about this because I like wondering about things as I wander: why an animal or bird behaves a certain way, what made a specific track, what a particular plant is and is it edible…

During a workshop on teaching reading, the instructor encouraged us to have our students ask questions and make predictions as a way to get them more actively involved in the text. Perhaps asking questions makes me feel more actively involved in the world around me.

Kestrels vs. Red-Tailed Hawk

Kestrels vs. Red-Tailed Hawk

Once in the canyon we witnessed a red-tailed hawk getting attacked by a couple kestrels. We surmised the kestrels were defending territory where they wanted to nest. Once the hawk left, the kestrels flitted about the hill, perching on high dry branches, surveying the area. Smaller birds fluttered and hid in the large oak trees.

The trail continued through the oak forests in the valley and then arrived at a dry stream bed walled by large water streaked boulders. It seemed like a lot of people turn back at this point because the trail suddenly got smaller. We followed it up a hill and then turned off of it onto the Secret Canyon Trail.

The trail at first threatened to be hot, going along the western hillside above the canyon, but there were plenty of sugar bushes, ceanothus, and manzanitas to provide patches of shade, and eventually the path turned and the hillside blocked the sun’s intensity. There were even spots where ferns grew in the shade at the foot of lichen and moss dotted rocks. I had hoped that we would be able to see where a path led from the Horsethief Canyon trail to Pine Creek and then make the hike into a loop, but I couldn’t see a sign of it. Or maybe we didn’t go far enough. About 2 hours into the hike, we found a shady spot next to the mostly dry creek. A few butterflies fluttered about the barely damp mud. We rested a bit and then turned back.

On the way back R found a strange hollow seed pod. We tried to determine which plant it came from, but couldn’t. The plants in the area were all familiar oaks, manzanitas, and sugar bushes. With the wind as it was, it could have blown from anywhere. It looked like a small piece of a loofah with spines. R speculated it came from a vine we saw on some of the trees, remembering he’d seen spiny fruit hanging from similar plants on other hikes. At home I looked it up. R was right.

What is this? A seed pod from Marah macrocarpus.

What is this? A seed pod from Marah macrocarpus.

Our mystery pod was a dry skeleton of the wild cucumber (Marah macrocarpus) fruit. Of course, upon finding this out I wanted to know if one could eat a wild cucumber. The answer is no. In fact the name Marah means bitter[i] and though various parts of the plant were used for medicinal purposes by Kumeyaay, Luiseños, Dieguenos, and other So. Cal indigenous peoples), none of it was eaten. However, the name isn’t a complete misnomer since the plant is in the Cucurbitaceae family which includes cucumbers, melons and squashes.[ii]

So, if it wasn’t eaten, what was it used for?
I saw an abstract online which asked more or less the same question. According to the abstract the remains of the wild cucumber plants have frequently been found in archaeological sites, which seemed strange since it wasn’t eaten and usually medicinal and sacred uses destroyed the remains.[iii] Since reading the actual paper wasn’t free, I looked for other sources.

Medicinal uses included boiling leaves and using the oil to treat hemorrhoids,[iv] and using the root as a purgative[v] [vi]. The seeds were used by the Costanoan Indians to treat skin problems,[vii] the oil from seeds was used for hair and scalp health and to encourage hair growth by the Mahuna[viii]  and Ohlone,[ix] who also made a healing salve from the ground seeds, and the plant juice was used as a parasiticide by the Mahuna[viii]. Non-medicinal uses included grinding the seeds into makeup[iv]  or a base for paint,[vi]  which was used in pictographs,[x] using the root as fish poison,[x] and using the root for soap.[vii]

And the indigenous people also used it as a loofah (though I assume they removed the spikes first)[xi] The resemblance to a loofah is not random. In fact loofahs are also in the Cucurbitaceae family and are the fruit of Luffa aegyptiaca and Luffa acutangula.[xii] Unlike the wild cucumber, the Luffa plants’ fruits are edible.

After we finished our hike, we started to worry about the likelihood of getting crushed by a toppling big rig on the way back. However, I figured as long as we stayed in the right lane, if they fell over they’d fall towards the left. Strangely we didn’t see any on the road … until we got to the rest stop. The police had blocked the road and were directing all traffic through the rest stop. All the big rigs (as well as RVs or vehicles with large trailers) were being forced to stay at the rest station. Only cars and pickup trucks could get through. The big rigs filled both sides of the rest stop as well as the road leading into the rest stop. This leads me to another thing I like about nature: the blatant disregard to deadline driven modern life. I’m sure the big rig drivers and their employers were freaking out at the delay. I felt sorry for them, but at the same time, it was better to respect the wind than end up toppled over on the side of the road.

Useful Information

To reach the western trailhead of the Espinosa trail, take the Japatul Valley Road exit from I-8 (same exit as hwy 79) and go south on Japatul Valley Road. At about 5.5 miles there is a fork in the road. Go left on Lyons Valley Road. About 1.5 miles farther turn left into the Japatul Fire Station turnoff. You’ll see a parking lot for the Horsethief Canyon trailhead. Parking requires either an Adventure Pass of purchasing a $5 parking permit, presumably from a National Forest station (Nearest one at 3348 Alpine Boulevard, Alpine, CA 91901 (619) 445-6235). If you like hiking, it is better to just get the annual pass. Walk up the gated dirt road (Horsethief Canyon). Follow the signs for “Trail.”



[ii] James Lightner, San Diego County Native Plants (San Diego, CA: San Diego Flora, 2011), pp.272–273.
[iii]Steve L Martin,”The Use of Marah Macrocarpus by the Prehistoric Indians of Coastal Southern California.” Journal of Ethnobiology 29, no. 1 (2009):77–93.
[iv] Shipek 93. Quoted in [i].
[v] Native American Ethnobotany Database (Search for Marah macrocarpus), accessed January 25, 2015,
[vi] Philip S. Sparkman, “The Culture of the Luiseno Indians.” University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 8, no. 4 (1908):187–234 (p. 229). Quoted in [v].
[vii]Barbara R. Bocek, “Ethnobotany of Costanoan Indians, California, Based on Collections by John P. Harrington.” Economic Botany 38, no. 2 (1984):240–255 (p. 24). Quoted in [v].
[viii]John Bruno Romero, The Botanical Lore of the California Indians. (New York: Vantage Press, Inc., 1954), p. 38. Quoted in [v].
[ix]Chuck Smith, Ohlone Medicine, (accessed January 25, 2015)
[x]Ethnobotany of San Elijo Lagoon, (accessed January 25, 2015)
[xi]Mary Forgione, “Herbology class unearths smorgasbord of edible plants,” Glendale Daily News, 7 May 1992, p. 10. Quoted in [i].
[xii]Wikipedia contributors, “Luffa,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed January 25, 2015)

Nature Notes: Juaquapin Creek/Dyer Spring/East Mesa Loop (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)


Colorful new willow growth in Cuyamaca

Colorful new willow growth in Cuyamaca.

I hadn’t noticed before that the willow groves are beautiful this time of year. They have all lost their leaves, but the groves glow red and gold. The old branches are white, but the new growth starts out yellow and then turns red as the branches form buds and catkins. This fills creek gullies and wetlands with fiery color.
Willow buds and catkins

Willow buds and catkins.

My search for tracks on the hike revealed (among the plentiful horses and human varieties) deer and a skunk. I have to admit I was pretty excited about the skunk because I hadn’t actually seen skunk tracks before. I still have to figure out if it is a striped or spotted skunk, but I’m guessing striped.
Skunk tracks. I think there is a front paw print on top and rear on the bottom. There are also some bird prints going across the top print.

Skunk tracks. I think there is a front paw print on top and rear on the bottom. There are also some bird prints going across the top print.

Tracker Training

Raccoon Tracks

Raccoons are great tracks for beginners because they are plentiful and easy to recognize.

After our encounter with the bobcat last week and an unsuccessful attempt at finding bobcat tracks, we decided it would be a good idea to learn a little bit about tracking. Several years ago I had gone on an entertaining tracking walk at Mission Trails. It had been a fun hour or two and the guide had given a lot of interesting information about animals and their behavior. I remembered he had mentioned tracking classes offered by the San Diego Tracking Team. I visited their webpage and found their free tracking class to train volunteers to assist with wildlife surveys. The class was the following Saturday. R and I registered.

On Saturday, we got up bright and early to make it to Rancho Penasquitos by 8. After a bit of waiting (some of the attendees were waiting in the wrong parking lot), we got started. There was a quick overview in the classroom and a few minutes later we were outside looking at tracks in the dirt. The class was divided into small groups and each group went to several different stations where a tracking volunteer taught us how to recognize the tracks of several animals using posters, casts, and, when possible, actual tracks in the dirt. At one of the stations, one of the trackers displayed cardboard boxes with a collection of scat and gave us an overview of the differences between different animals’ excrement. It was the first time I had ever seen toad scat (looks a bit like a sausage tube of fly skeletons).

Toad scat

Now you know what toad scat looks like.

We learned about deer, opossum, raccoon, dog, coyote, fox, bobcat, mountain lion, domestic cat, skunk, and rabbit tracking. The volunteers had flagged tracks before we had arrived, so we were able to see the real thing. Talks on the transect survey process and habitat fragmentation followed. One of the main reasons the tracking surveys are performed is to understand how habitat fragmentation due to development is affecting the wildlife. The volunteers also monitor wildlife tunnels, which are passages for wildlife under streets so the animals can move through terrain that has been cut through by roads.

After lunch we visited a wildlife tunnel under Black Mountain Road to practice our newly acquired skills. The wildlife tunnel was an encouraging place to practice. It was a large stretch of mud, covered with prints. We excitedly began pointing out the prints we recognized: deer, raccoon, dog. But one of the tracking instructors had arrived earlier and marked out some specific ones for us to take a look at. Among these were a possum print and a bobcat print. There were even some places where the deer had left “dew claw” prints, from little outer hoofs that are farther up the leg and only touch the ground when it is really soft or muddy. We looked at the various tracks and guessed what had made them and why they looked the way they did.

The class ended around 3PM and R and I couldn’t wait to try out our new skills. We headed down to the TJ River Valley to see what we could find. A little way down the trail we found large cat scat. It resembled the mountain lion scat we’d seen in the scat box, but it could have been bobcat as well. We looked for tracks but the ground was too hard and dry. However, we did find a muddy section with some dog prints or possibly a coyote (seemed to be walking more directly than a dog usually does.)

Useful Information

San Diego Tracking Team offers free volunteer training classes for those who want to participate in transect surveys. They also offer tracker/naturalist training classes for $50 each (Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced) (There is a discount for members), and an apprentice program.
“The San Diego Tracking Team is dedicated to promoting the preservation of wildlife habitat in San Diego County through citizen-based wildlife monitoring coupled with environmental education programs. For over 10 years, the SDTT has conducted wildlife track and sign surveys to evaluate the health of key species, the connectivity of open space areas, and the efficacy of the city and county’s Multiple Species/Habitat Conservation Plans. We train volunteers from all over San Diego County who together commit over 1500 hours per year to monitoring approximately 50 locations around the county.”
— San Diego Tracking Team website

Tracking Walks:

For a fun introduction to tracking, go on a tracking walk:

Morena Butte via the Pacific Crest Trail

Morena Butte from the PCT

Morena Butte from the PCT

“Travel by foot,” I told a friend of mine who was walking around Morocco, “is the purest form of travel. I think it gives people a real understanding of life.” Although I believe this, to be honest, I haven’t done a lot of travel by foot. I’ll walk through cities, go hiking and trekking, but I’ve never walked across countries or even a state. I would like to hike the Pacific Crest Trail one day or the GR5 in Europe. I probably have an over romantic view of it and would in reality spend a lot of time popping blisters and being cold and wet. But I dream of it every time I set foot on one of the segments of the PCT that cut through San Diego County and other parts of the state. The stretches I’ve been on are all enchanting: the bit of the John Muir trail in Yosemite, the Mount Laguna segment that creeps up the mountain above a water fall then runs along a ridge with a view of the desert beneath.

A little snow remained from the snow storm earlier in the week

A little snow remained from the snow storm earlier in the week

The stretch of the PCT that ends at Lake Morena is probably completed after the first or second day for through hikers. There is a sign at it’s trail head greeting hikers with a welcome message and giving them information about camping. We walked up the hill from the sign. There was still some snow on the ground from a storm that blew through a few days ago, but most had melted leaving mud and an unusual green cast to the hills—unusual because we are still in the midst of a 3 year drought. The day was crisp (like spring in Massachusetts) and the sky cloudless. Good hiking weather…though I had to remind myself to be vigilant regarding sunscreen.

Ribbonwood (Adenostoma sparsifolium)

Ribbonwood (Adenostoma sparsifolium)

Chamise and ribbon trees lined the path. Young yuccas shot up leaves beneath the chamise. The snow sparkled in the sun along with the chips of mica in the mud and on the rocks. There were several places where we crossed outcroppings of granite, somehow crumbled enough for cacti roots to grasp onto. In spite of the snow, the manzanita and sugarbushes were beginning to bloom.

Young yucca growing at the base of chamise plant

Young yucca growing at the base of chamise plant

We didn’t see many birds. R pointed out a thrasher singing its crazy mockingbird collage of sounds perched on a tall narrow rock, higher than the surrounding bushes. We spotted a hummingbird and 1 towhee who quickly darted off chirping in warning.

Sugar Bush (Rhus ovate) buds

Sugar Bush (Rhus ovate) buds

The trail went up and down and then up to a crest where the Morena Butte trail started. Morena Butte is a magnificent red and white streaked rounded rock mountain that crowns the landscape. The trail starts steeply, making it seem like it will be a quick steep hike to the Butte. In fact it is a slow hike. After the steep start, it levels out and then reaches the top of something that isn’t the summit of Morena Butte. Then it goes down a little and up another steep hill that isn’t the summit. Then down again and finally up to the summit. By this time the trail has become a scattered confusing mess of small paths easily mixed up with runoff trails that sometimes disappear across rock faces, or involve climbing over boulders.

Morena Lake from somewhere that isn't the top of Morena Butte

Morena Lake from somewhere that isn’t the top of Morena Butte

The trails are marked with stone piles, but at some sections the stone piles seem to mark different trails. Or perhaps someone who didn’t understand that the piles were meant to mark the trail made a few extras in an attempt to be artistic. Anyway, we’ve gone up the trail twice and ended up adding to the random footpaths made by others trying to find their way up. We have also gotten a little lost on the way down a twice.

Moss and lichens cover large parts Morena Butte

Mosses and lichens cover large parts Morena Butte

Colorful lichens on a rock

Colorful lichens on a rock

Some of the rocks had large patches of moss. I can’t remember if they are always there, but it seemed like there was a lot of moss growing as well as the more commonly seen lichen. I associate moss with damp places like rain forests. I wonder if it was just a temporary moss that grows in December when it rains. Maybe I’ll have to visit the area during a different time of year and find out.

Morena Lake from somewhere that isn't the top of Morena Butte

Morena Lake from somewhere that isn’t the top of Morena Butte

We made it to the Butte and admired the view. All the way up this part of the trail, you are aware of being in the sky, so much higher than the surrounding landscape. But it is a long hike. We reseted a bit at the top. A couple young guys asked us if there was another way down. They had climbed up the North side… a steep route. We tried to explain the trail down and then started down ourselves. Perhaps they saw us retracing our steps trying to find the trail or they just didn’t like the potential length. They apparently went back how they came.

An eroded boulder on the trail

An eroded boulder on the trail

The trail can be made into a sort of loop (not counting the Butte branch) by taking a small path up a hill off to the left of the PCT. This trail goes through a flat area with pine trees between the surrounding rock hills. R pointed out a rock in the distance with some kind of animal. “A fox or two…” was his first guess. I looked through my binoculars. It was a bobcat. We tried to sneak closer by concealing ourselves behind a grove of trees. But the cat caught on and slowly walked up the rocks. After stopping for a moment and giving us a long look, it disappeared into the brush.

Bobcat sitting on a rock, Lake Morena

Bobcat, Lake Morena

Useful Information


From San Diego, take I-8 East. Take the Buckman Springs exit (46 miles from San Diego) and go South (7 miles). Turn right on Oak Drive (watch for the brown park signs) and continue to Lake Morena drive. At the entrance of the park, across from the campground there are two small parking lots. The one on the left is under jurisdiction of the National Forest Service. If you have an Adventure Pass, you can park here. Otherwise, drive into the park and either get a parking permit ($3) from the kiosk or from the visitor center. With this you can park in the small parking lot to the right of the National Forest one. These are at the Pacific Crest Trail trailhead. The visitor center has some exhibits about the nature and history of the area. They also have a few live snakes 🙂 and a tarantula.