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The Flowers of Caliente Mountain

30 March 2003

By: George Wysup


I felt the need for a good, long hike on Sunday. Caliente Mtn was on my need to bag list. Wildflowers were blooming profusely everywhere in Southern California. I had yet to do route 1 (the ridge road). OK! So who cares if gasoline is $2.10 a gallon?

I made the long drive across Carrizo Plain on the Soda Lake road. I noticed that it is now a National Monument. And the Selby ranch no longer runs cattle after being bought up by Nature Conservancy. So, the grass is long again. The most prolific vegetable on the plain seems to be fiddleneck, now blooming with its tiny orange clusters. There were some orange blazes signifying California poppies on some steep, south facing slopes just above the plain. The fields were washed with yellow in many areas (the darned wildflowers are taking over).

Going up the steep Caliente Ridge road I passed some interesting bushes adorned with many light green pods and yellow flowers. This is bladderpod, said my little book.

I reached the trailhead and started hiking at 8:45. While the LA basin sweltered in record breaking heat, it was cool and breezy here. The road past the gate had been freshly scraped in the last week. The vegetation was the usual juniper and scrub oak, liberally peppered with a bushy yellow daisy called threadleaf groundsel. This plant was ubiquitous for the entire hike. I learned that this plant is poisonous to cattle, who then eat everything but, so this groundsel remains as the dominant species. Other common flowers were the fiddleneck and the blue splashes of the common phacelia. Less common were deer weed (common broom) and a bushy violet lupine.

I noticed I was not alone. I was accompanied by a herd (flock? gaggle?) of crows for more than half way. A bit uneasy, I recalled scenes from Hitchcock's "The Birds". They finally gave up on me -- I suppose they had thought I'd turn into road kill.

I gave a start as I almost stepped on a snake. I can't jump nearly as high as in my youth. It turned out not to be of the pit viper persuasion; just a Pacific gopher snake trying to soak up some warmth. Had I a companion I should have picked the snake up by the tail and said with Aussie accent, "ain't she a little beauty?"

After about 2.9 miles I reached a minor hilltop and a (cellular?) antenna protected inside a barbed wire enclosure. The road past this point showed no sign of vehicular traffic; just mountain bike treads and boot prints. Soon the road was covered with wildflowers, and it seems to be heading back to nature in a hurry.

The road seemed very bikable for about the first 5 miles. The limit for casual bikers is at about the 4500' level at a sandy spot. From here on the road is steeper and rockier. A hard core biker can ride to the summit with a minimum of pushing. I don't advise biking this route during or just after a rain. The adobe soil won't cooperate. Even hiking could be difficult when the road is muddy.

At about the 4500' level the wildflowers changed varieties. There was, of course, the tiny, every present filaree. Blue dick sent forth single and double curly leaves, but no flowers yet. Purple groundcherry took over as a main species. Miner's lettuce was common (and tasty), as was the intense blue flowers of the scalloped phacelia. There was a patch of beautiful baby blue eyes. Also common were Indian paintbrush, wallflower, popcorn flower, desert dandelion, and a small, yellow clustered member of perhaps the buckwheat family -- or perhaps the carrot family. Anyhow, this and several other small species are not noted in my cheap-o guide book.

A couple of surprises were the magenta clusters of the nettleleaf horsemint, and the hanging bells of the chocolate lily. You had to see it to believe it, folks.

Hiker notes: The peak guide claims that hiking route 1 involves 19 miles with 3000' elevation gain. I took less than 3 hours to reach the summit. At my moderate pace with frequent naturalizing pauses I estimate the distance to be more like 16 or 17 miles round trip. A measurement using TOPO! software supports a 17 miles number. My altimeter confirmed the elevation gain. I consumed 2.5 of the 3.5 liters of water I toted.

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