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Natural History Trips

Life in the White Mountains

Life in the White Mountains

Channel Islands Restoration held our highly anticipated White Mountains Educational trip during the 4th of July holiday weekend. CIR Volunteer Coordinator Nancy Diaz writes about her firsthand experience on this annual Natural History Trip.


2013 CIR Central Coast Natural History Tour

2013 CIR Central Coast Natural History Tour

We are glad to provide a few photos from Channel Islands Restoration’s recent Central Coast Natural History Tour.

Geologist Tanya Atwater and botanist Steve Junak joined us on a four-day tour, following the San Andreas Fault north to Hollister, CA then south along the Big Sur Coast.


leads natural history educational tours to exceptional locations in southern and central California with leading naturalists. For more information on our three reoccurring trips (held in the spring to early summer) visit our tour web site:

The tour begins at Port San Luis (Avila Beach).

We walked, climbed on, and explored the pillow basalts and lava flows of a world-class example of ancient oceanic crust. Tanya Atwater has been on submersible dives, miles deep to study how the present-day ocean floor is being formed at sea floor spreading centers. She described her adventures to us and shared her insights into the processes that formed the various exotic features encountered at this site. This may be the world's best location to visit the deep sea floor in the sunshine.

Next stop: Montana de Oro State park. This was a great beach stop. It is surrounded by the cut faces of huge uplifted marine terraces and it contains a sweet, small erosional remnant of a terrace that we checked out close up. The terraces are very strong evidence of the ongoing rising of the land that is so common along the California coast. Views of the higher hills showed a whole staircase of uplifted terraces, formed as ice age sea level fluctuations interacted with the steadily rising land. The road to Montana de Oro featured a fantastic view of Morro Bay and Morro Rock.

We also enjoyed golden yarrow in bloom!

After setting up camp at Morro Bay State Park (some participants checked into motels), we visited Morro Rock.

This huge "rock" is a plug of frozen lava that solidified in the throat of an ancient volcano. Its materials are much stronger than the surrounding rocks, so that it was left standing when the rest eroded away. Morro Rock is the northernmost of the "morros" that form a line of tall hills between here and San Luis Obispo, probably formed over a long crack in the earth. Its age of about 23 million years ago corresponds to the time when the San Andreas Fault system was first breaking into the land. 

After several other stops, we ended up in Parkfield.

As we approached this sweet ranch town, we examined an interestingly deformed bridge, then cross over the San Andreas Fault from the Pacific plate to the North American plate. We learned about the Parkfield earthquake prediction experiment and about the deep drilling, fault-crossing experiment. 

We then stayed the night at Pinnacles National Park. This park is centered around a huge heap of broken rocks that have been offset from a volcano whose lava flows lie in the Mojave desert. They have been shifted 325 km northwestward along the San Andreas Fault sometime since 23 million years ago. We hiked up stunning wooded trails with Steve and Tanya. We spent the night at the East Pinnacles National Park campground (some in hotels in Hollister).

We spent an hour walking up and down the streets in the old neighborhoods of Hollister, tracing the Calaveras Fault as it crosses and deforms sidewalks, curbs, buildings, telephone poles, etc.

We then explore Point Lobos State Reserve. We walked into the park and enjoy this beautiful natural treasure. We explored rocks that were deposited in an offshore submarine canyon and seek out trace fossils left behind by the Eocene creatures that lived there. We experienced a rare, native Monterey Cyprus grove and other botanical wonders. We looked for otters, sea lions and birds and enjoyed the many breathtaking views. 

Steve Junak led us on a great botany walk!

We drove south along Highway one, checked into Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (or hotels) then enjoyed dinner at the Big Sur Lodge. 

We drove south along Highway one, checked into Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (or hotels) then enjoyed dinner at the Big Sur Lodge.

The next morning we enjoyed a hike at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. This cliff-top park was the home of early Big Sur settlers. We enjoyed a waterfall leaping into its pocket beach and enjoyed incredible ocean views.

Further down Highway One, we spotted a California Condor!

We then drove the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to the crest of the range, taking in spectacular views of the coast and the Los Padres National Forest.

Steve Junak led us on a plant walk in the Coast Redwoods.

We were treated to a great view of a pygmy owl!

We were then treated to a specially arranged tour of the Point Piedras Blancas Lighthouse. This historic location is a great place to admire a very successful native plant restoration project. We enjoyed its great coastal views and bird populations and explored the old buildings and equipment of this long-functioning lighthouse.

White-crowned sparrow in native Lupine at the Point Piedras Blancas Lighthouse

 View from the top of the Point Piedras Blancas Lighthouse

View from the top of the Point Piedras Blancas Lighthouse



More CIR Educational Trips to be Scheduled

Our trip last week to the White Mountains was an unqualified success, and many CIR volunteers and supporters want us to schedule additional trips there and to Death Valley National Park.  CIR has an educational mission in addition to our main focus, which is habitat restoration.  These trips highlight unique natural areas in California that we all cherish and want to conserve.

Our second trip to the White Mountains wrapped up on Sunday, and the 28 participants had a fabulous time and learned a tremendous amount about the natural history of the mountains, including about the geology, birds and the ancient Bristlecone Pines, the oldest trees in the world (see the details below).

We were privileged to have as our principal field staff Dr. Tanya Atwater, emeritus professor of geology at UC Santa Barbara, and Steve Junak, botanist and herbarium curator at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.  Both of these extraordinary scientists and educators guided us through this fascinating alpine ecosystem. We were also joined by Santiago Escruceria, who is an environmental educator with years of experience leading international bird watching trips and birding excursions for the Mono Lake Committee and others.  Our relaxed pace included hiking opportunities and visits to the Schulman Grove (location of the almost-5,000 year old Methuselah tree) and to the Patriarch Grove.  We also enjoyed a hike to Mount Barcroft, bird watching, evenings campfires, astronomy sessions and natural history slide shows.

We have received so many inquires about the White Mountains trip, we are considering holding another one next year (this would be the third one in a row).  We have also been asked to put together another trip to Death Valley National park (like we did in March) and a trip following the San Andres Fault and passing through Big Sur (like we did in September of last year).  We are fortunate that Cindy Kimmick (a CIR Board Member) has volunteered to help organize these kinds of trips, since the fee we charge does not cover the staff time needed to arrange these educational opportunities.  If you would like to help Cindy put together these unique trips, please contact us:

Check out our video highlighting all four days of our trip (a compilation of the 2010 and 2011 trips):

Here are the highlights of the August 4 - 7 trip:

Day 1:

We met at noon at Eastern Sierra Inter-Agency Visitor Center at the junction of highways 395 and 136 in Lone Pine.  This is a great visitor center highlighting Inyo National Forest and Death Valley National Park, among other attractions in the area.  We gathered, had lunch and then proceeded to our next two stops along highway 168.  This included a stop at the Owens River Crossing, where we saw a riparian habitat running through a desert environment.

We took a detour along the road to Death Valley to look at ancient lake beds and at an amazing rock outcrop at "Devil's Gate."  We then proceeded up 168, entering piñon-juniper woodland then turning on to White Mountains Road.  We stopped several miles up the road to enjoy the woodland, and the wildflowers along the road.  These included penstemons, pennyroyal and apricot mallows among many others. 

We arrived at the beautiful Crooked Creek research station in the late afternoon.  Crooked Creek is one of four facilities run by the White Mountains Research station.  This attractive and comfortable station is a wonderful place to stay, and the welcoming staff takes great care of visitors.  We had a wonderful meal, and then we were treated to a fascinating presentation by Tanya Atwater featuring the mountain geology and the geologic history of the west.

Crooked Creek Station

Dinner and the Crooked Creek Station (2010 trip)

Day 2:

Our second day stared off with a visit to the  "Sierra View" overlook, which provides spectacular views of the Eastern Sierras and the Owens Valley.  After learning about the geology of the Sierra Nevada and plants around the lookout, we explored the trails of the overlook.

Sierra View Lookout (2010 trip)

Next we hiked in the famous Schulman Grove of ancient Bristlecone Pines, which provided opportunities to study the famous trees, their relationship to the geological substrate, plus the wildflowers and birds.  After lunch in the area (and a hike to an old mine) we enjoyed views and flowers at Silver Canyon and along the Wyman Road.  After another truly fabulous meal, Santiago gave us a presentation about Mono Lake, including a beautifully produced movie.

Schulman Grove

Day 3:

We visited sites north of the station, including the Patriarch Grove (near tree line).  This grove is the home of the world's largest Bristlecone Pine, the Patriarch Tree. Its splendid remoteness and moonscape appearance gives the Patriarch Grove a surreal atmosphere. Bristlecone pines and limber pines dot the landscape with a background view of the Great Basin in Nevada.  Low-growing sub-alpine flowers carpeted the "Discovery Trail" though the grove.  In the same area we hiked along the Cottonwood Basin Overlook Trail, which gave us amazing 365 degree views.  We even saw a golden eagle!

Patriarch Grove

Cottonwood Basin

We then drove to the end of White Mountain Road, had lunch and then visited the Barcroft station, part of the White Mountains Research Station.  This station is normally closed to the public, but we are given special permission to drive to the station on our trips.  About half the group climbed Mount Barcroft, near by, while the others visited the station and took in the views.  Our evening was topped off by a slide show featuring one of our participants (Jeremy Mazur) photography of the trip, plus more campfire time.

Barcroft Station

Day 4: 

Santiago lead us on a great bird walk (and general exploring) around the Crooked Creek Station.  Highlights included a Red-Tailed hawk, American Kestrel, Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, Sage Sparrow, Violet-Green Swallow and Clark's Nutcrackers.  Here is a complete list of birds that we saw on the trip (in order of appearance):

1 -Black-throated Grey Warbler

2 -Mourning Dove

3 -Pinyon Jay

4 -American Kestrel

5 -Black Phoebe

6 -Mountain Bluebird

7 -Northern Harrier

8 -Mountain Chickadee

9 -Pigmy Nuthatch

10 -Red-tailed Hawk

11 -Green-tailed Towhee

12 -Brewer's Blackbird

13 -Dark-eyed Junco

14 -Broad-tailed Hummingbird

15 -White-breasted Nuthatch

16 -Lincoln Sparrow

17 -Tree Swallow

18 - Golden Eagle

19 -Common Raven

20 -Rock Wren

21 -Horned Lark

22 - ? Falcon -possibly a Prairie Falcon, seen at the Patriarch Grove

23 - ? Say's Phoebe -possibly seen by one of the clients, Santiago could not verify the sighting.

24 -Violet-green Swallow

25 - Clark's Nutcracker

We departed mid-morning and made a stop along the "narrows" on highway 168.  This is a great geology and flower spot.  Once in the Owens Valley, people departed for home or to visit other interesting sites in the area.  Several participants visited the Eastern California Museum and botanic garden in Independence.  The trip leaders (and a few participants) visited the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, which consist of amazing Granite formations.  We then took a detour up the Whitney Portal road, and in a half hour we went from a desert environment to pine forest and waterfalls!

The "narrows" on highway 168



This Week in CIR

Things typically slow down a bit for CIR in midsummer.  Weed growth slows and planting time at our restoration sites finishes, but several projects still keep us busy:

We continue to make trips to Anacapa Island at least twice a month with volunteers from our email list and with support from corporate partners like Citrix Online.  Check out our Anacapa blog for details:

We started a new project at the Conejo open space near Thousand Oaks.  They have a great volunteer program, and they asked CIR to help with some specialty weed eradication and we also recruited some of our volunteers to help.  We should announce some other volunteer days in the near future.

CIR also began a project at More Mesa in Goleta, as part of the replacement of the large staircase from the mesa top to the beach.  The County of Santa Barbara required that the invasive iceplant and Myoporum trees at the site be replaced by natives, and CIR has been hired to assist with this aspect of the project.

Rein Teen Tours joined us at our San Marcos Foothills and Lake Los Carneros projects last week.  Rein is a tour group, consisting of mostly high school aged kids from the East Coast.  They spend several weeks in California doing many activities, including service work for non-profits.  This is the fourth year CIR has worked with them.

Work continues at the San Marcos Foothills sites.  Although planting is finished for this season, we continue to irrigate our native plantings.  Weeds tend to sprout up where we apply water, so we will still be calling on volunteers for help providing love and care to the great native plants now growing in what used to be weed patches!  Watch your email for announcements about volunteer days.  Starting around November, we will do a second round of planting at both sites in the Foothills.

For more information about this projects or to learn about volunteering, please contact:

More than 25 people came to our presentation on the White Mountains in Ventura earlier this week.  Dr. Tanya Atwater provided a super PowerPoint on the plate tectonic history of Southern California and the geology of the White Mountains.  Ken Owen showed a presentation on "ecological islands" (ecosystems surrounded by unlike ecosystems) like high mountains surrounded by desert.  Twenty eight people have signed up for our White Mountains trip that will start on Thursday.



New CIR White Mountains Video

Our pre-trip meeting for our second White Mountains educational trip is coming up on Tuesday, and we have produced a new video to highlight the best parts of the four day excursion.  We plan to offer the trip to the White Mountains periodically, and the video will serve as a showcase of some of the wonderful educational opportunities that CIR offers.  We are privileged to have Dr. Tanya Atwater and botanist Steve Junak join us on these trips as we highlight the amazing geology and botany of the area.  One big botany feature is the bristlecone pines, the oldest living trees in the world.  Some are almost 5,000 years old.  Follow these links for videos and further info:

CIR White Mountains Video

CIR Video Page

White Mountains Trip Web Page