There is one thing I can always count on when I make my biannual visit to California, and that’s another great hike with my good friend. This time we head to Coyote Lake-Harvey Bear Ranch, a 4,595-acre regional recreation area off U.S. Highway 101 in the hills east of Gilroy. We are at the southern end of the park entering through the Mendoza Ranch Entrance. It is early afternoon on an overcast day, but the Bay Area has had so much rain in the last month the bright green grasses look more like spring rather than mid-November. Let’s see what other surprises await us as we climb Mummy Mountain.
We have a short walk to the entrance gate that gives us access to the mountain trails. Along the way we see ancient oaks and remains of others that provide shade and protection for many birds and small mammals. Although there is always the possibility of seeing foxes, raccoons, opossums, bobcats and skunks, as well as turkeys, hawks, owls, and many songbirds, today we only see woodpeckers and magpies. Still, we’ve barely set out so you never know. We’ll remain hopeful.
There’s the gate to enter the trail system. We’ll be walking straight up into the hills.
We passed the side trail to Roop Pond, but we can see the pond from here. Beyond we are looking south at the farmlands of Gilroy, also known as the “Garlic Capital of the World”. It’s annual Gilroy Garlic Festival is quite famous and features just about everything garlic, including garlic ice cream. I never actually made it to the Festival during my five years living in California, but I’ve heard it is a very fun event. Think I can live without the garlic ice cream though.
Heading up the hill, the sun finally breaks free from the clouds and sparkles through the oak trees. There are at least four kinds of oaks here, and I’m no expert so we’ll stick with “oak tree”. The Blue oak, Canyon live oak, Interior live oak, and Englemann oak are the most likely candidates, but I’ll have to bring a field guide next time to tell the difference.
We’ve turned off the Coyote Ridge Trail to begin our walk on the Mummy Mountain Trail. We pass a number of signs talking of the mountain lions that live here, but it is doubtful we will see one. Dawn and dusk are their usual active times, but they can be seen any time day. Check out that tree with colorful lichen-covered rocks. Wouldn’t that be a good hiding spot for a cat? Let’s keep going–I hate creeping myself out.
There’s the bridge where we make a 90° turn to continue up Mummy Mountain. You can see we will be walking a lot of ups and downs on these rolling hills. The grass is such a beautiful green, so unusual for this time of year. Many of the trees are shedding their leaves or stand bare, but the grass is gorgeous and there are actually a few flowers along the way.
What amazingly colorful leaves. I was clueless as to what this plant was until I noticed the spikes on the edges of the leaves. It has to be a thistle. Sure enough, a Milk thistle that popped back to life with all the rain.
We saw this hanging from the trees near the bridge we just crossed and here’s more. Although often called Spanish Moss, it is not a moss. In fact, the “Spanish Moss” found in the south-eastern states is not a moss either, but a member of the Bromelaid family of plants which also includes the pineapple! This growth is actually lace lichen (Ramalina menziesli). Can you see the intricate lacey structure of the lichen? On July 15, 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill designating lace lichen as the California State Lichen. California is the first state to recognize a lichen as a state symbol. Lace lichen joins the California poppy as the state flower and the grizzly bear as the state animal.
We are seeing lots and lots of bare trees like these. They are California buckeye (Aesculus californica), also called California horse-chestnut trees. They grow no more than 40 feet tall, may reach 40 feet wide, and can live to 300 years old. However, they grow during the wet late winter and spring months going dormant in the dry summer months so they have no leaves, just like these trees, when virtually everything else is in bloom.
Buckeyes act as a soil binder, which prevents erosion on hillsides. Do you see the light-colored fig-shaped pods beginning to split? Each pod has one, sometimes two shiny brown seeds or nuts with white meat. The nuts are about 1 to 2 inches across and are poisonous if eaten. Large seeds contain glucoside aesculin, a toxin compound similar to those found in rat poison. Although rarely fatal, you can have some pretty nasty reactions. No wildlife eat the nuts either except squirrels. We always knew those guys were hardy.
The pollen and nectar of the buckeye flowers are vitally important to native bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies, but are toxic to the European honeybee. The bark is smooth and silvery gray, although as the tree ages it tends to be covered with lichen.
California buckeye is superbly adapted for survival. Its growth habits circumvent the drought conditions of its habitat and it has a highly effective reproductive strategy. Its leaves and shoots are protected from grazing animals by noxious, toxic compounds; it has beautiful, prolific flowers attracting many native pollinators; and with viable seeds too poisonous to be eaten it can be sure of reproducing itself. This is one successful tree.
Now here is a completely different native plant, the Coyote Brush (Baccharis pilularis). Between August and December it blooms, with white fluffy female and yellowish male flowers growing on separate shrubs. That said, is this male or female? OK, that’s just the teacher in me, never mind.
Since we have entered the woods, we have been surrounded by ferns. These are wood ferns and they are all over the hillsides.
Heading deeper into the woods we see all the lichen colors across this large sandstone formation. The trail goes beneath the rock a bit, so let’s get a better look.
The amazingly colored lichens and the mosses are all thriving in this cool, shaded environment. The sandstone is a lovely pinkish color. Teal green lichen–beautiful.
Someone is watching. See, between the two trees? No wonder we usually miss the wildlife. Have to walk slower and look around my friend.
There are some more Blacktail deer, also called Mule Deer due to their large ears. Since it is about time for rut (mating season), these females may be taking a rest.
Our last bit of trail before we are atop Mummy Mountain. See all those spots in the left top corner. Yup, bugs. We may have nice green grass, but the rain also resulted in the return of bugs. These are the first we’ve experienced so hopefully we won’t run into many more. This time of year we don’t even think about bringing bug spray, so let’s get a move on.
We’ve seen only a few mushrooms, but here is one with no common name. It a Agaricus benesii. There’ll be a test on that later 😉
Here we are atop Mummy Mountain with a view of Gilroy below us. The highest point up here is 1,374 feet. OK, OK, were I live the “hills” are 8,000 to 12,000 feet high, but don’t laugh. Gilroy sits at 200 feet, so we are pretty high relatively speaking. The parking lot is about 600 feet meaning we had a good climb. Since I’m used to higher elevations, I have lots of extra air in my lungs to work with too.
See? There are a few flowers in bloom, barely holding on, but they thought the season was over until so much rain called them back. These are California fuchsia (Epilobium canum), a native wildflower the hummingbirds love.
This plant looks very similar to sagebrush, but I don’t get the distinctive sage odor and the leaves are different. Sure enough, it is California sagebrush. It supposedly has a very distinct sage smell, but not to my nose today. It blooms this time of year. See the many little bell-shaped flowers lining the stalks? This plant is not a true sage, but apparently it gives a sage flavor and can be used in cooking as a spice or made into tea. It is a member of the sunflower family of plants and not at all related to the sagebrush we have in Montana and Wyoming.
Suddenly the forest opens to an eastern view of Coyote Lake, also known as Coyote Reservoir. See the dam at the far end of the lake? The Coyote Dam was built in 1936, a 140 foot high, 980 foot long, earth and rock dam built to create this lake which is part of the county water system. There is a really nice campground in the trees below us giving great access to the lake known for excellent bass and bluegill fishing.
Oh, this is just delightful. We will begin our walk down soon, but this beautiful forested trail is a nice place to sit for a bit and just enjoy.
Another massive oak tree surrounded by lichen-covered rocks. Every tree is so unique and beautiful.
Well this is different, they made the climb down a bit easier by building rock stairs. Another place to sit a bit . . .
. . . and enjoy the view of not only Gilroy, but of Silicon Valley to the north.
Wait, zoom in closer. A Golden Eagle! That’s a treat.
Here we are again, a whole hillside covered with buckeyes bearing their fruit. There is also lots lichen covering the branches.
We have not seen many madrone trees, but here is one bearing its fruit. The Pacific madrone (arbutus menziesii) is a broad-leaved evergreen that can grow up to 70 feet tall. Although the tree’s bark can be used to make delightful tea, the berries have a high tannin content making them astringent and not very appealing. I think they are best left on the tree, don’t you?
Well, we are back down at the base of the mountain looking up the hillside. More lace lichen hanging from the trees.
We haven’t seen any bay trees today, but here’s one at this lower elevation. The California bay laurel (Umbellularia Californica) or California bay is a shrubby tree that slowly grows to 40 feet tall. These pods contain the seed or nut which are edible when roasted but they do contain a stimulant that apparently can make you a little nutty. OK, terrible joke. Sorry. Anyway, yes, you can use the leaves in cooking, but they are more potent than purchased bay leaves that come from completely different trees, so use them a bit more carefully.
We are a short distance from the car now and we get a great view of Mummy Mountain. See the head to the right and the belly toward the left where we reached the highest point on our walk? The cloud cover was just the thing to keep us a little cooler than might otherwise be the case. What a wonderful walk in the California hills!
Until next time . . .