Roundabout Ramble in Henry Coe

I’m sitting here at home, watching the snow fall and the temperature drop. Currently the snow is almost 10 inches deep registering a balmy 1° and forecast to hit -24° overnight. Taking a rest from shoveling, which is best done in 3-4 inch increments, let’s reminisce about a delightful day hike in California’s beautiful Henry Coe State Park this past November. With the unusually high, and desperately needed, rainfall levels in October, the greens have sprung back to springtime shades. Henry Coe is California’s second largest state park (largest in Northern CA) encompassing 89,164 acres. It is a sprawling wilderness of ridges and steep canyons in the Diablo Range. Today we will wander a bit and see what we can see, so grab your gear and let’s go.

The trail takes us into the shaded woods soon, a welcomed relief in the summer, but a chilly adventure today.

The trail is along the edge of a drop to an empty stream bed. The oak trees are covered with ferns, a type that shrinks with lack of moisture. It appears to be a type of Polypodium. Not only do a number of these ferns grow on trees, there are a variety of hybrid ferns in California too. Most of the hybrids are a cross with the Licorice fern, named for its licorice-flavored rhizomes (creeping root stalks). Indigenous Peoples used this as a medicine for sore throats and colds or to sweeten bitter medicines. Others boiled the rhizomes and drank the licorice-flavored water. These ferns will sprout into regular looking ferns with more rain and warmer temperatures.

The trail takes us beneath a huge manzanita. Manzanita’s are actually bushes, but can grow to tree size in the right conditions. It is one of two red-bark species that grow in California, the other being madrone. As soon as we find a madrone, we’ll stop and compare the two.

There are five types of oak trees found in this park, but the most common are the blue oak and the valley oak. This ancient oak is losing branches and giving way to age. My guess is that it is a valley oak, which can have a trunk up to 10 feet in diameter and grow to over 100 feet tall. This tree qualifies. They also live to 600 years old, so this old tree was here since the early 1400’s. I wonder what it saw as a youngster.

The Coulter pine (Pinus coulteri) is know for its huge cones. The cones can reach 15 inches long and usually weigh between 5 and 6 pounds, but can weighas much as 11 pounds. That can do some serious damage if it falls from the tree and falls on you!

The cones grow at the top of the trees along the larger branches and on the tree itself. They can remain on the tree for five or six years before falling. Since the tree can grow to 80 feet tall, that’s a long drop for such a big cone.

The Coulter pine is a beautiful tree. It is used as an ornamental planting as well as growing naturally in the wild. It grows slowly, averaging 20 feet in 20 years. The beautiful long bluish-green needles stand out in the forest of green. Can you see a few of the brown cones at the crown of the larger tree?

Every once in a while we have a break in the forest with a view. Throughout the park most of the ridges are between 2,000 to 3,000 feet (610 to 910 m) in elevation, with canyon bottoms usually around 1,000 to 1,500 feet (300 to 460 m) above sea level. Walking the rolling hills of California can be a challenging hike with those kind of elevation gains and losses. Today, though, we will sauntering along with easy ups and down and some just flat areas–always a favorite.  😉

Back in the woods are more ferns growing in the moss on rocks. We see lots of these and they add such color and dimension to the trail edges. Look at the teal green lichen on the lower edge of the rock too.

Negotiating a few obstacles on the trail.

This is what mistletoe looks like before they pick pieces to hang for Christmas. Mistletoe is an evergreen parasitic plant that grows on a number of tree species, both deciduous and conifer. It has a root-like structure that grows through the tree’s bark and absorbs both water and mineral nutrients from the host trees. It can kill individual branches where it resides, but a heavily infested tree, especially one stressed by drought or another disease, can be stunted or even killed.

We’ll be walking in wide-open spaces for a mile or so, but on the trail edges are massive oaks shading large areas. This is a huge old mushroom that is either dying or dead. It is called a giant puffball mushroom (Calvatia gigantea).

Immature puffballs are white or cream and turn brown as they age. This one was about 10 inches across. Giant puffballs grow to be 4 to 28 inches in diameter, although some have reached diameters of up to 59 inches and weigh as much as 44 pounds. That is one hefty mushroom! Only the ones with white flesh inside, not yellow or brown, are edible. When they are younger and smaller they can easily be confused with a number of poisonous varieties, so I’m good with leaving them in the woods. How about you?

This lovely pond is getting more shallow as the drought continues, but there are fish in there. We didn’t bring our fishing gear today, so let’s just enjoy the reflective view.

The trail continues to a group camp site which is empty today. This trail is wide and well maintained so larger groups can drive to the camp ground. Sometimes the groups come just for the camping experience, but other groups are there to take classes,  join Ranger walks to learn about the environment, or are volunteers who help with trail maintenance.

As we head down to the camping area, we see California sagebrush. Although it is not related to sage at all, it is supposed to have the smell of sage. However, I can’t smell anything when breaking a leaf from the bush and rubbing it between my fingers. Maybe the smell recedes as autumn arrives?

Here we are at a location with both manzanita and madrone. So many people are confused about which is which–me too! So, we’ve seen red-barked trees all along our walk, but let’s take a moment to understand how to tell one from the other. The madrone (Arbutus menziesii) is a broad-leafed evergreen tree that can reach 80 feet tall.

In the spring the tree is covered with clusters of white flowers, but in autumn it is covered with red berries. The leaves are thick, glossy green long ovals up to six inches in length.

It is the bark that is so striking, making it stand out in the forest.

This foliose lichen, called leafy lichen, grows on the small branches, but the smooth red bark is not conducive to anything attaching itself for any length of time.

The manzanita (Arctostaphylos species) also has smooth red bark, but is only a distant cousin of the madrone. Although manzanita can grow as a small tree up to 20 feet tall, it is really a bush with branches that twist and turn, even loop. It is a very drought resistant evergreen with small, yellowish-green oval leaves. There are over 60 species of manzanita in California, some flowering in spring, some in autumn and winter. We are lucky, ours is flowering now.

Manzanita bushes line the eastern edge of the camping area.

A grand old Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) ending its days standing tall. These evergreens can reach over 200 feet tall and can stand for decades they death. Quite a striking presence.

As we head back, we see more oaks dealing with mistletoe.

As branches break from an ancient oak, it almost becomes a unique work of art. What do you think?

There, up in the oak. It’s an Acorn Woodpecker storing winter food. These woodpeckers are unusual birds with complicated social behaviors. As a result, one of the longest-running behavioral studies done on birds is being performed on Acorn Woodpeckers. These woodpeckers live in groups of a dozen or more individuals, very unusual for birds. They breed cooperatively with the young staying in the group for several years helping the parents raise more young.

Acorns are stored in holes drilled into a single tree, called a granary tree. One granary tree may have up to 50,000 holes in it, each filled with an acorn. Acorn Woodpeckers fiercely defend these acorn granaries against other groups and any other species that might rob their stores. The birds also defend 15-acre territories around the granary, and they are very loud while doing so. They stay in touch with family members and warn intruders with a loud, squeaky waka-waka-waka call.

There’s another branch of the tree showing its treasure trove. Although best known for their relationship with acorns, Acorn Woodpeckers prefer to catch flying insects when available. They hunt for ants, beetles, and other insects. They may hunt insects at any time of year, often storing them in cracks or crevices.

A large part of this oak broke and fell across the trail, but has now been cleared. Looking up at the tree reveals an amazing sight–there, inside the broken area. It is a bright yellow growth of some sort. Let’s get closer.

Oh my, it is a gigantic mushroom, over a foot across and bright yellow!

It is a oak-loving golden chanterelle mushroom (Cantharellus californicus). There are over 100 species of chanterelle worldwide, and this is the largest of all chanterelles.

This is fascinating. It caught my eye because I thought I was a feather in the grass. Upon closer inspection, it is a plant in its autumn attire. Very unusual and I have no idea what it was in full bloom.

Ah, tree 1, mistletoe 0. Not sure why the mistletoe died instead of the tree, but hooray!

A beautiful valley oak (Quercus lobata) stands alone in a meadow. See the mistletoe toward the top of the tree? The tree seems to be doing well, but that blasted parasite.

The autumn thistles are a favorite of mine. They always look unique and stand tall long after most other plants have withered in autumn cold. This is probably why they have become so invasive, but I do think they have a beauty all their own.

Guess who’s been here . . .

Such an interesting plant with those big seeds just waiting to drop next year’s hope into the grasses. I think this is related to sorrel, but I cannot identify it for sure. Need a plant expert friend. Very fascinating structure.

Last wide open view as we head into the woods. See the mountains to the southwest? Those are mountains near the coast, about 20 miles away as the crow flies.

Hillside beauty, a blue oak (Quercus douglasii), also called mountain oak and iron oak. The blue oak can grow to 100 feet tall, but more typically reaches heights of 60-70 feet. This oak prefers dry soil and lots of bright sunshine, something guaranteed on this hillside. These trees grow slowly and can live for 400 years.

Here we walk along the steep drop to the dry stream bed with one last uphill climb to the parking area. We have certainly seen some very interesting things today and the weather was lovely too. Henry Coe never disappoints.

Until next time . . . remember to enjoy the wilds in your neighborhood!

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