Interior Foothills: Zem Zem Creek in Napa County

The hills above Zem Zem Creek with Mount Berryessa in the bacground
The hills above Zem Zem Creek with Mount Berryessa in the background

Up in the northeast corner of Napa County is a remote wilderness area known on the maps as Knoxville. Located between Lake Berryessa and Lower Lake in Lake County, the Berryessa-Knoxville Road is informal and prone to flooding. The first time I drove through there, I was by myself in my semi-reliable VW Jetta. I passed a sign that said “Wilderness Area- No Services Next 35 Miles”. That didn’t seem too terribly remote, so I continued on, but when I came to the end of the 35 miles, there was another sign that said, “Wilderness Area- No Services Next 40 Miles”. It was too far to go back, but going forward was not that predictable either.  This 21,000 acre Knoxville State Wildlife Area is administered by the California Department of Fish and Game, so nearly anything goes: dogs allowed, hunting allowed, camping anywhere 1/4 mile past the road, no permits, passes or reservations required.  No campfires or collecting wood, though.

Zem Zem Creek with gray pines on the hill in the background.
Zem Zem Creek with gray pines on the hill in the background.

The hike to Zem Zem falls is remarkably flat for three miles as you walk through a wide river valley with gentle rolling hills on either side. Crossing the creek nine times, there were few plant species in bloom last weekend. Western buttercups (Ranunculus occidentalis) were everywhere, but it was so windy, I couldn’t get a clear photo. Further upvalley the wind died down, and I found these Indian warriors (Pedicularis densiflora) flourishing in the sun, although they are usually more prevalent in shady woodland areas.

Indian Warrior (Pedicularis densiflora)
Indian Warrior (Pedicularis densiflora)

Blue oaks (Quercus keloggii) were just leafing out, and in the last half mile ascent toward the falls, feathery gray pines (Pinus sabiniana) began to appear, a typical xerophytic foothill species whose range surrounds the Central Valley at elevations from sea level up to 4000 feet.

Blue oaks (Q. kelloggii) on a ridgeline leafing out
Blue oaks (Q. kelloggii) on a ridgeline leafing out

The purple and white spires of these silver bush lupines (Lupinus albifrons) were dramatic when contrasted against the scrubby foliage of the plants on the sun-soaked upper ridges. Each plant displayed unique and gorgeous symmetry. First glimpse of the waterfall can be seen in the left photo, center.

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The last climb down to the falls was a bit of a scramble; I should have had a stick or poles, but I didn’t.  But here on the last slope was a brilliant orange Castilleja species.

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IMG_0302 Coming back down there was a clearer view of the gray pines. . . IMG_0283 . . . and a last late afternoon view of the creek.

IMG_0320 In the interior ranges of California winter is spring, spring is summer and summer is inhospitable. In just three or four months, the creek valleys will be dried up and temperatures of 100 degrees will not be unusual. What a rare opportunity it is to enjoy this dramatic habitat in its brief period of lush greenness.


© Hannah Aclufi and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Five plant communities in one short hike: Bartholomew Winery

Mycena species in a riparian plant community at Bartholomew Winery in Sonoma, California

The great thing about the double loop trails at Bartholomew Winery in Sonoma is that hikers can experience five different plant communities in a three mile hike. Oak woodlands surround the winery and its picnic area. There are a few open meadows that aren’t yet filled with vineyards. Heading up the slopes, the forest becomes more dense and oaks mix with madrone and bay trees. On the upper clearings, the woodlands give way to exposed ridges of chaparral with their shrubby, thick-leaved vegetation such as manzanita and chamise. In the lower elevations of the park, Arroyo Seco and Schell Creeks run along the cool, shady lengths of trail where ferns, big leaf maples, and spicebush dominate the landscape. These cooler, moister areas support at least three dark, quiet redwood groves.


Ranunculus californicus

As usual, my focus was on the ground looking at flowers in macro mode, and so I have mostly flower close-ups to show for my hike. California buttercups (Ranunculus californicus) were prevalent in the meadows this week.

Dodecatheon hendersonii

Shooting stars, also known as mosquito bills (Dodecatheon hendersonii) made their first appearance of the season. Ranging in color from dusky to hot pink, they are sometimes called inside-out flower because of their prominent fused stamens and backward flying petals.

Sanicula bipinnatifida

Purple sanicle (Sanicula bipinnitifida) is beginning to appear in the grasslands, along with its yellow flowered cousin from the parsley family, Sanicula crassicaulis (pictured in previous post “Blue Oak Woodland” at

Cynoglossum grande


 Cynoglossum grande, or hound’s tongue, is a plant in the borage family just coming into bloom this week in our area. It tends to grow in the sunnier woodland areas. Its cheerful blue flowers, showy for their habitat, brighten the forest floor of oak woodlands.  Myosotis latifolia, a pretty forget-me-not indigenous to northwestern Africa is a related but invasive species in coastal areas.

Fritillaria affinis with Canis lupus familiaris. Dogs on leash permitted!

Woodland flowers that prefer more shade are just coming into bud at Bartholomew.The enchanting checker lily’s arching grace is evident even before it comes into flower.  The Latin name Fritillaria affinis, in addition to distinguishing this plant from other lilies with identical common names, makes reference to the squarish seed pod which was thought at one time to resemble a dice box (Latin: fritillus). Notice the checker pattern on the lower bud. If deer or other browsers don’t chomp them, these buds should open up into beautiful nodding bell shapes in the next week or two.


Below is an exposed ridge with manzanita and other shrubs that have xerophytic adaptations: thick, linear, hairy and/or gray-green leaves. Many of the shrubs have the ability to regenerate limbs from their stumps after a fire. The manzanitas have clusters of urn shaped white or pink flowers early in the season. Their twisted, shiny red-brown bark which peels and appears to blister in summer make chaparral the prime sculpture garden habitat of California.


© Hannah Aclufi and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Interior Valley: Tolay Lake


Tolay Lake Regional Park is unique; most other valleys this close to highway 101 and San Francisco are covered with asphalt and shopping centers. Sprawling estates creep up the hillsides as if to say on behalf of their owners, “I just love this place! Let’s tear out all those messy trees, put in tennis courts and plant oleander.” But Tolay has been spared that fate. Uphill from the Petaluma River and west of the rolling hills south of Sonoma Mountain, it is thought to have been a sacred site for Native Americans as evidenced by the nearly 1000 arrowheads and charmstones found in and around the lakebed. European immigrants modified the land to make it more arable, and today Tolay is a seasonal lake, at least it is in winters when the rainfall is sufficient. In recent years there has been no lake at all, but December’s rains were enough to collect a good amount of water in the basin.

Tolay is a popular destination for birders: as the largest freshwater lake in the area, it supports a diverse population of raptors and other birds. One time I was there in the early evening with a friend and she kept reporting “tiny hawks disappearing into the ground.” I realized she was seeing Athene cunicularis, burrowing owls, which are considered a species of concern due to habitat loss. It’s also home to the threatened red-legged frog.


But the park is sadly lacking in healthy plant populations.The regional park brochure uses the word “pristine” to describe the grasslands (among other features) in the park, but I noticed the same plants that are evident in other unstrategically grazed pastures and disturbed areas like vineyards: there is a lot of mustard,  and many non-native annual grasses.  I did find two populations of the beautiful and poisonous star or zigadene lily, Toxicoscordion fremontii.  A master plan for the park includes habitat restoration as a goal.

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The most dramatic attractions in Tolay Regional Park are the views. For a moderate climb you get enormous views of Mount Tamalpais,the Petaluma River Valley, Mount St. Helena, the entire western flank of Sonoma Mountain, most of San Pablo Bay and three of its bridges, and on a clear day the San Francisco skyline and part of that bay.

Tolay Lake Park is only open on weekends, and visitors must attend a brief orientation to obtain a pass. But it’s absolutely worth it. It’s an exceptional place to visit for so many reasons.


© Hannah Aclufi and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.