For 10 days in early August 2012 I vacationed in California. My wife and I flew into Sacramento, in the Central Valley, drove to Fort Bragg on the Mendocino coast, spent several days exploring the coast and the coastal watersheds, drove east to the Sierra Nevada, spent several days at about 4500 feet elevation, and then returned to Sacramento before flying home. This is a short description of what I saw.
I have now been in California’s Central Valley several times, and have seen much of what can be seen from I-5. The Central Valley is a very dry valley hundreds of miles long, with rivers coming out of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the east and running to the sea. What has not been turned into suburbs and strip malls is farmland. All kinds of crops, with a vast system of agricultural canals carrying water from the mountains to keep it growing. It is the heart of America’s agricultural system, growing more vegetables than any other state, and supplying the whole nation. You can occasionally see from mountain range to mountain range, and in between it is all farmland.
Going west from the central valley as you enter the hills there are trees. There are trees in wet spots in the Central Valley, but I a not familiar with what the vegetation was prior to the 49ers. I am guessing some sort of sparse grass/shrub mix except where it was wet along the creeks and rivers, with dry country oaks, but who knows. Today most of it is farm and suburb and it all runs on irrigation.
Going up into the hills is a mix of open terrain grassland and trees. Much of it rangeland, with low carrying capacity. It is very steep hills with narrow valleys. The direction of a slope strongly influences what grows there, with the hottest, driest spots being more grass, and wetter spots, less evaporative spots, having more trees. Higher up conifers mix in and then replace the oaks. As we continued towards the coast through the lakes region on route 20 it got wetter, and more forested. After crossing 101 you are in the coast range and on the western slope, there are redwoods.
I did not go to any of the parks with big redwoods, spending much time walking the dirt roads and tracks in one little river valley, which was cleared, sort of farmed/ranched flats along a small river and a tributary stream, and low steep hills filled with second growth redwood. I read a personal history of the valley by the father of the present owner of the ranch. It was a logging camp when the camps relied upon railroads to transport men and materials in and out of the hills. The area was logged from about 1910 to the early 1930s. The valleys were cleared and farmed to provide food for those logging the hills. The valley once grew many different kinds of crops, but now other than kitchen gardens the fields were growing grass for cows, horses, sheep, and goats. Rough pasture to be sure. I did notice that they did not put orchards on the flats, but used the very lowest part of the steep hillsides for orchards, and near the house my relative lives in the hillside was covered with apple and plum trees. Blackberries lined much of the road network, and were just becoming ripe the first week of August. I found some very juicy berries, but many were still green. Bears were in on the plums and leaving giant turds full of plum pits in the dirt roads during the night. There were also a number of black tail deer in the area, mostly pretty tame as they were not hunted on the ranch or the adjacent ranch. The ravens were very bold.
The particular valley i was in was not really being worked, it had sheep and horses in the pastures, but there was an agricultural renaissance going on all over the area with new farmers markets helping farmers get back to feeding the community. A very different setting from Rhode Island, small isolated communities cut off by steep mountains. But the surge towards ecologically healing activities as the way forward is strong.
I did climb one of the little hills once. They are very hard climbing, steep and forested. I found coming down more difficult as the subsoil seemed to come from broken up rock and it was easy to slide down the face kicking up sandstone remnants or something like that. I heard that several folks around had paths up some of the hills that they used for various activities, but I never found any.
The other ecosystem explored on the coast of California was the coast line and its bluffs. Close to the ocean one finds large areas of grass and shrub. Often they end at 30 or 40 high bluffs falling down to beaches, and only rarely is there some easy path to the beach except at the mouth’s of rivers. . The coastline is indented with many streams as the coast range gets quite a bit of rain over the course of the year, and it is pretty cool even in the summer. Very hot days were those over 85. I can not describe the beaches other than as an amazing array of slopes, materials, and arrangements based on the erosive power of water in a gravity powered system. The coastline is so spectacular, with cliffs so high, that I do not like being on Route 1 as I no longer do very well peering off the edge of cliffs as I ride by. I do not ever remember running into so many osprey in California. We saw them numerous places, and i do not remember them being so prevalent in previous trips. have been watching for them most of my life, so I am guessing that it may be the result of healthier ecosystems in CA. Or at least fewer persistent pesticides in the water and fish. We also saw harbor seals, whales, and a variety of birds while standing on the cliffs.
After several days on the coast and in the little valley 2 miles from the ocean we drove east the entire width of California and went up into the Sierra Nevada, passing back through the Coast Range Forest and the Central Valley, then climbing the foothills into the mountains. Coming up the hills into the Sierra Nevada the grasslands and shrubs give way to forests as you rise. The roads primarily follow the rivers except where one must go over the divide. The switchbacks are almost as scary as the ones along the coast. We stayed at a resort at about 4500 feet elevation in an area almost completely covered with Jeffrey’s pine, which produce very large pine cones. The trees are widely spaced with sparse grass and sagebrush in between.
The resort was about a mile from the Feather River which could be reached by walking down a dirt track. A small river, it ran among the hills, swinging back and forth as the hills crowded in from one side and then the other. The bluffs varied from 20 to about 100 feet high over looking the river, and rocks, granite, that had fallen from the hills filled the valley. When the bluffs were a bit removed from the river course the river had a relatively gentle slope with vegetated wetlands making for treacherous walking. Where the bluffs were close to the water boulders filled the channel, including several spots in which the entire river ran under boulders and you could walk on top of the river crossing back and forth as if on dry land. It was a great place for a little easy climbing and playing on the boulders. Among the boulders in less constricted spots there were pools that were great for swimming, with the water temperature perfect for cooling off on the 90 degree days. Nights were much cooler. The pools contained several types of fish, an iridescent small green fish in schools seemed the most common, and followed the rule of the bigger the pool, the bigger the resident fish. There were also dippers, frogs, and tadpoles. Walking to and from the river through the Jeffrey’s Pine forest the most common ground dwellers were little lizards. In New England one does not run into lizards, but on previous trips to California I had seen many. Once I got a good look at something scurrying along I remembered, and then saw them frequently. The ground squirrels were also pretty.
Returning to the 107 degree furnace of the Central Valley to fly out, I had an evening to explore an area near the Sacramento airport and basketball arena. Farmland until recently, the area was under massive development pressure until the real estate bubble broke at the start of the Great Recession. Now it is littered with half empty strip malls and office parks, concrete shells held up by rusting poles, and outdoor food malls with drive ways, wires, plumbing, and no buildings. The Jackrabbits have reclaimed the abandoned areas with scores living among the detritus of the real estate bubble. The scale of what was abandoned and never occupied in this area was astounding. It was a clear statement on how far the Golden State has fallen, but it does not appear they have learned the lesson yet, They are just waiting for the next boom.