Horse Thief Creek
Wednesday’s hike took us to Horse Thief Creek in the Santa Rosa Wilderness via Cactus Spring Trail. I was looking forward to this hike in part because I have spent very little time in the chaparral ecosystems of southern California, and in part because we attempted this hike about three years ago and it rained. Rather than get cold and wet, we opted to get back in the car and drive to Idlewild. As the pictures show, this year the weather was nearly perfect.
Near the start of Cactus Spring Trail
Chaparral is a transition ecosystem between desert and forest. There are plenty of desert plants, like cacti and agaves, but there are also areas of open woodland dominated by piñon pine and juniper. Our route took us predominantly to the east. This made for some interesting viewing, because the south facing slopes on our left were dominated by the desert plants, while the north facing slopes on our right were, in places, fairly heavily wooded.
Woodland with piñon pine
The junipers were producing incredibly heavy berry crops. Martini anyone?
Looking east down the trail. The left hand, south facing slope is home to desert plants. The right hand, north facing slope has piñon pine woodland.
About a quarter of a mile down the trail, we encountered the remains of an old dolomite mine. We wondered why anyone would want to mine dolomite. The stone turns out to be very white, and shows up very well in the pictures. We guessed that it might have been mined for ornamental purposes. In the area around the dolomite mine, we found a beautiful purple penstemon. There was evidence of the plant elsewhere on the hike, but it had all gone to seed already. This is the only spot where we found it still blooming.
The dolomite mine
A bit further down the trail we found a dead tarantula. I was surprised to find one at this elevation- we were at over 3000’. There was very little invertebrate life on this trip. I did find a couple of banded-winged grasshoppers, including one with blue wings that I think is a new species for me. At one point, Leon noticed a cottony looking material on the pads of prickly pear cactus. The culprit is a scale insect, and one with quite a history. We crushed a bit of the fluff in some tissue paper. No, that isn’t blood in the photo. This scale insect produces a red dye called cochineal. Next time you drink a Snapple Strawberry-Kiwi, look at the ingredient list and think of where the cochineal came from.
Prickly pear cactus pad with scale insects
The real goal of the trip was Horse Thief Creek. We knew as soon as we saw the valley that we were there, because the watercourse was filled with brilliantly yellow cottonwood trees. The guidebook suggested that this makes the area look like Pennsylvania. We were unconvinced, however it was quite beautiful. There was a fair bit of water in the creek, and some lovely pools. We were able to linger for a while in the woods by the stream before we had to head back. As is typical for us, we got back to the car just as the sun was setting.
Looking down into Horse Thief Creek
A small pool in Horse Thief Creek
Peaceful creekside woodland
We saw this acorn woodpecker in the failing light just as we were returning to the car.