Sunday, November 30, 2008

Just Desert

 Tasty Little Trip

Okay, it's not really a vacation when you've got a toddler along, but it's an education. Recently my husband and friends played golf La Quinta. Our son and I went a long for fun. 

If you have the time, by all means, visit the lovely Joshua Tree National Park. With less time, try these spots, near desert cities. Don't trek around the desert in the (outrageously hot) summer; visit late fall through spring.

The tram is popular, but it's also a great way for kids to get a spacial (and dramatic) image of what a mountain is. The tram swoops you up 4,000 feet to an elevation of 8,516 feet in about 15 minutes. Even in the parking lot, kids can get a good look at lofty San Jacinto. Just out of the car, our 20-month-old exclaimed, "Look! Mountain!" A ride of any kind is a thrill at this age. "All aboard!" he called, getting on the tram. 

Even adults who aren't nature buffs enjoy the views from up  top Mount San Jacinto: the Coachella Valley and a (subalpine) conifer forest. This is also a great place to hike. Most people don't venture far, so if you have older kids and can make a day of it, you can savor a wilderness experience.
Living Desert
Palm Desert
I prefer wild animals, but appreciate the opportunity for a close up look at those in captivity. Living Desert is a mini-zoo and gorgeous botanic garden (for blooms visit in spring). I wish the mountain lion here had more space to roam. But I was happy that my son could get a look at it. In all my years hiking, I've never seen a mountain lion in the wild. They're very shy, and smell you coming before you can get a glimpse. 

I was hoping to get a closer look at this bob cat, but Mateo kept yelling "Wild cat! Wild cat!" 

Living Desert is also a great place to see big horn sheep

Thousand Palms
Although palms are ubiquitous in southland cities, the (desert) California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera) is the only one native to the state. In the wild, they grow in desert oases such as this one. The interpretive trail here offers a nice introduction to mojave desert ecology. With luck, you might see some of the 25 species of reptiles that live in the preserve, including the fringe-toed lizard. Although your toddler might most enjoy moving dirt from one side of the trail to another. Remember to bring water with you, even on short outings. 

Recommended reading: 50 Best Short Hikes in California Deserts by John Krist (Wilderness Press)

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Night at Buckhorn

First a shout out to a humble coffee mug. Who knew that lump of ceramic could travel an hour and a half up a mountain road to an elevation of 6,300 feet, over campground speed bumps...on top of a Subaru, and still serve up a cup of (cold) joe?

And, boy, did my husband need that coffee. Setting up camp--and camping generally--with a toddler is a challenge. You need extra vigilance to keep face-plants to a minimum and prevent campfire casualties. Then there's (not) sleeping next to a little frog that hops all over your tent, leaving you curled up in a cold corner. 

Still, if you don't have any expectation of relaxing, camping with little kids is fun. Really. 

Just take a gander at the lovely Buckhorn campground, near Mount Waterman.

Our 19-month-old enjoyed tossing pine cones, singing "tinkle, tinkle, little tar" by the fire, and tasting cocoa. Mom and Dad liked the scenery, including a full moon, and a whole lot of stars you can't see from most of LA County.

Los Angeles River Ranger District
Camp fees $12
If you drive elsewhere in the forest, you'll need to pay an additional $5 for a day use pass.

From the 210 in La Canada, take the Angeles Crest Highway (2) up into the mountains for 34 miles. This campground is about eight miles past the Chilao campground. Start looking for the turn off after you pass the Mount Waterman ski area. The sign is on your right, but the campground entrance is to your left. Signs at the campground will point you to the Burkhart Trailhead

Buckhorn has water, fire rings, and typical, grungy pit toilets.  The Forest Service posts campground conditions and restrictions on
 it's website, but is also good idea to call for additional information. There is a warning about bear activity at Buckhorn.  I've camped in bear country plenty of times, and know how to take precautions, but wanted more information. I wanted to know if these bears had retained their natural fear of people--or not (as can happen when they become too familiar with people and their delicious trash). When I called, a district ranger told me bears have been spotted in the area, but there haven't been reports of aggressive bears. 

BEAR BASICS: Always put your trash in campground (bear-proof) bins. Don't leave food or personal care products--toothpaste and sunblock smell yummy to bears--in your campsite, especially NOT in your tent. It's a good ide
a to put all smelly stuff into a bag and hang it in a tree away from your campsite. If you don't want the bear to eat it, you'll have to hang it so a bear can't climb to it. You can also buy bear-proof canisters, used by backpackers. Don't put it in your car, unless you're willing to risk a break-in. 

We hiked a gorgeous stretch of the Burkhart Trail.  I got a buzz from all that granite, the giant jeffrey pines (they look like ponderosas) and fragrant incense cedars. I plotted future trips to the high country. Then my husband pointed out we were descending quite a bit; I noticed the trail was getting narrower, and the drop-offs steeper. "That's far enough," I said. "Let's turn around before the boy starts kicking." I starting kicking loose rocks off the path. I was envisioning husband and toddler toppling over into the steep canyon below. It's a distinct problem of hiking with a toddler: you never know when he'll want out. And this trail was no place for a little kid to stand, let alone amble. I was thinking, How old would he have to be before I trusted him on a trail like this? Much older! 

Mercifully, the boy fell asleep; the hike out of the canyon was peaceful, and safe.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Camping Checklist

  • Water: a big jug or two, plus smaller bottles. Double check that your campground has piped water. Some that used to, don't any more. Call the district ranger at the park or forest you're visiting.
  • Easy-cook or no-cook meals. Breakfast: Cold cereal isn't inviting on a crisp morning in the mountains. Oatmeal is a good choice; as is the eggs in a carton. Easy lunch: My husband likes cheese, salami or turkey slices, apple and crackers. Also, tortillas because they don't get squished and you can roll up just about anything in them. Dinner possibilities: On a recent trip we brought fixing for spaghetti. We chopped veggies and cooked ground turkey ahead of time. The turkey was recycled into the next night's tacos. We mixed left over spaghetti (with veg) into the next morning's eggs.
  • Trail snacks: trail mix, energy bars, fruit, chocolate, perhaps Gatorade
  • Campfire treats: marsh mellows, cocoa, etc
  • Tea bags, coffee
  • Cook pots
  • Utensils, including special ''kidware" such as toddler spoons and bibs, if needed
  • Plates, cups. We use items from a picnic backpack (basket). You could also bring biodegradable plates and cups.
  • Coleman stove or backpack stove
  • Camp lantern. Much more important if you have little kids, as we discovered.
  • Flashlights and/or headlamps. Check that the batteries are working; bring extras
  • Biodegradable soap like Dr. Bronner's
  • TP (don't count on it being there!)
  • Towels. We like the quick-dry camp towels you can get at outdoor stores
  • Baby/kid food, milk
  • Diapers, rash cream, lovie and other kid essentials
  • Potty seat for little ones--pit toilets are wide
  • For little ones, Kelty or other kid carrier
  • Extra blanket for little kids who struggle in a sleeping bag. Lay the blanket over the sleeping pad, unzip sleeping bag and use it as top blanket.
  • Campground toys, such as a small ball
  • Cooler and ice
  • Pocket knife
  • First aid kit
  • Medication
  • Sleeping bag: be sure to check campsite p.m. temperatures and know how low your bag can go.
  • Sleeping pads. We use Therm-a-Rest pads.
  • Pillows, if needed (or stuff your fleece in a sleeping bag case)
  • Trail maps, trail book, field guides
  • Hiking boots and hiking socks (good for longer hikes and general comfort). If you're carrying a kid, good shoes are important. However, if your critter is fully afoot and you're not going far, sneakers are fine.
  • Layered clothing: I use sun-screening hiking shirts, fleece, and a waterproof coat. I bring long johns or silk undergarments to cold campsites.
  • Trekking poles, if you're backpacking or hauling a kid
  • Binoculars
  • Camera. Make sure it's charged.
  • Tent(s). We use two backpacking tents because we already have them, but larger "family tents" are comfy for campgrounds
  • Firewood. There may not be any. You are not allowed to cut branches on public lands, and some places prohibit gathering anything off the ground. Other places you simply won't find felled materials.
  • Toiletries, including kid toothbrushes
  • Sunblock, lip block, bug juice. I also like to bring Technu, in case I brush up against poison oak; and After Bite, since mosquito bites can keep me awake at night.
  • Water filter, if you think you might have to pump from a stream, or don't want to boil water.
  • Folding chair(s), if space permits
  • CASH! Perhaps a check book if that's how you plan on paying campground fees.
  • Forest pass, if required. Southern California's four national forests require Adventure Passes. You don't need one if you leave your car in the campground, but if you drive to another trail, you will need one
  • Booze!
  • Perhaps GPS, if you have one
  • Solar shower bag is a nice add-on. If you're using all of this, er, stuff on the list your car will be crammed. (We packed a lot on the top of the Suburu.) Solar showers passively heat water you can use to keep your critter clean. And if you're sleeping next to him/her in the tent, you'll appreciate it. You can also use it to wash dishes. (We got ours at REI.)
  • My husband throws in lengths of rope, camp hammock, a tent repair kit, and other things that remain a mystery to me but, apparently, are manly necessities. Okay, as he has pointed out, I have made use of these extra items.
Again, this is a lot of gear. You don't need it all. Try a night of camping with the basics, then add on if you enjoy it and keep going.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Going Native

Yipee, It's fall! I've been away from the computer and out in the yard. Yanking crab grass, pruning shrubs. Preparing to plant. Yesterday I popped in at the Theodore Payne Foundation to buy wildflower seed, and chat with nursery manager Louise Gonzales about what to add to my garden this year. Fall and winter are the time to start native plants. I like to sow my wildflower seeds in the fall. I scatter them about indiscriminately, and wait to be surprised.

This year I've selected three varieties of
clarkia, including elegant clarkia and one called farewell to spring. Elegant clarkia dazzles with its tall spikes of dark pink blossoms. In the wild, I've seen them over five-feet tall. I'll also toss out two kinds of nemophila-- petite, deep-blue "baby blue eyes" and "five spot"-- and a couple of lupines  I snatched up a couple varieties of my favorite bulbs, mariposa lily.  These little darlings come in a variety of colors, often painted with intricate patterns.

Later, I'll add young perennials, started at Theodore Payne. I'm looking forward to the return of woolly blue curls, a shrub with a delicious minty/pine aroma. It unfurls velvety, purple bracts. (That's a part of the plant below the flower, but to my novice eye, it just looks like more gorgeous flower.) I like to snip some of these and mingle them with roses for a fragrant bouquet. 

If you are a notorious plant killer, try the hardy, bold orange California Poppy. It's the state flower and virtually indestructible. But plant sparingly as it will reseed itself profusely.

Recommended Reference: California Native Plants for the Garden, Bornstein, Fross, and O'Brien. For a glimpse at how indigenous plants could look in your yard, visit the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont. For more of my writing on native plants, take a peek at the "Southland Ecology" stories on this blog, and check out this radio report on a nursery in San Juan Capistrano.