Thursday, March 25, 2010

Not Your Average Engineer

I wrote a piece about three very interesting engineering students at The University of Texas. See it on the school web site.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Trail Blazers

From the Spring 2010 issue of Wildflower Magazine (which includes scientific names for all these flowers!)

Popular hikes bring wildflowers up close and personal

Growing up in Texas, I learned to appreciate wildflowers mostly from the window of a car. A particularly spectacular field of bluebonnets might earn a stop on the highway shoulder, but that was as good as it got.
As an adult, I found that true appreciation of nature’s lavish and colorful show can be found up close and personal, and a hike offers an excellent way to reach this natural nirvana.
We’ve selected nine inspirational hikes that put you in the middle of spectacular spring wildflower blooms. Chosen for variety of locations, landscapes and level of challenge, these represent but a tiny sample of the hundreds of wonderful wildflower hikes across the country. Once you get started, you’ll want to look for opportunities wherever you go.

Zook/Sundance/Talon Loop, Cheyenne Mountain State Park
Out of Cheyenne Mountain State Park’s approximate 20 miles of trails, Pamela Irwin, native plant master and author of four wildflower hiking guides, recommends this combination loop. Start on Talon Loop, which shortly merges with Zook Trail; remain on Zook until it intersects Sundance, follow Sundance to Talon, and Talon back to the trail head.

On Zook Trail, prickly poppy, fleabane daisy and wild rose bloom among grasses. Species near an old ranch corral include chiming bells, yarrow, narrow-leaf penstemon and American vetch. On the Sundance Trail portion, overlooking Fort Carson, find yucca, orange paintbrush, wavyleaf thistle and evening primroses. Farther along, see perky Sue, snowberry, wild four o’clock and skullcap; in spots shaded by Ponderosa pine, many-flowered puccoon and spiderwort. In south-facing areas, find scarlet gaura and cowboy’s delight. A prairie dog town provides additional diversion.
Talon Loop passes through scrub oak and flowers such as blazing star, goldenrod, thimbleweed, sego lilies, silky locoweed and wallflower.
Distance: 3 miles
Elevation change: 200 feet
Peak: June
Cheyenne Mountain State Park, 410 JL Ranch Heights, 719.576.2016,

Guy Fleming Trail, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is named for the rarest pine in North America, Pinus torreyana, which once covered a large area of Pacific coast but now grows only here and on Santa Rosa Island. In addition to Torrey pine woodlands, the park includes coastal sage scrub and chaparral.
This short, relatively level trail has diverse scenery, including an up-close look at the pines, ocean vistas and, of course, native plants and wildflowers. These include bladderpod, bluedicks, Mojave yucca, golden yarrow, wild snapdragon, monkey flower, popcorn flower, common goldfields, California sunflower and rein orchids.
Other hiking options include Razor Point Trail, with dramatic views in addition to wildflowers; Parry Grove Trail, which has a native plant garden at the trailhead; Broken Hill Trail, which passes through chaparral; and the Beach Trail, a route popular for accessing the beach.
Distance: 0.7 miles
Elevation change:
Less than 10 feet
Peak: March – May
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, 12600 N. Torrey Pines Rd., San Diego, 858.755.2063.

Serpentine Loop, Edgewood Park and Natural Preserve
Known throughout the Bay Area as the place for spring wildflowers, according to president of Friends of Edgewood Bill Korbholz, this park houses more than 500 plant species within less than a square mile, some 70 percent of them native. The unique serpentine soil favors natives that adapted to its unusual mineral content. Serpentine endemics grow only on this soil, and the park has several species, including threatened Marin dwarf-flax and the endangered San Mateo thornmint, which are found nowhere else in the world.
Serpentine Loop offers the most spectacular wildflower viewing, says Korbholz, who recommends following Sylvan Trail from the parking lot to the Serpentine Loop. It passes through mixed woodland forest, where crimson columbine, spreading larkspur, checker lily, California saxifrage and common snowberry bloom. It also meanders through chaparral, which includes clovers, California bee plant, blue witch nightshade, pipestem and California yerba santa. It continues on through grassland, with a wealth of wildflowers from California blue-eyed grass to California buttercup, Abram’s woolstar, the aforementioned Marin dwarf-flax, rare stinkbells, common goldfields, coast range mule ears, California poppy, slenderflower sun cup and the charming brownies.
Easy to moderate
Distance: 3 miles
Elevation change: 500 feet
Peak: April
Park located at Edgewood and Old Stage Road, Redwood City, 650.368.6283. Free, docent-led walks available every spring weekend at 10 a.m. Trail map at (click on Edgewood, then Maps, then Trails)

Cady Ridge, Jackson Wilderness/Wenatchee National Forest
“When it comes to resplendent alpine meadows, the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness can’t be beat,” says hiking guide author Craig Romano, who recommends seeing it via Cady Ridge and West Cady Ridge trails. Wildflowers proliferate along the mile-high ridge, dominated by lupines and including paint brushes, alpine leafybract aster, gentians, mountain lady’s-slipper orchid, Columbia lily, Wenatchee valerian, white mountain-heather, phlox, buttercup, narrowleaf fireweed, crimson columbine and beardtongue. The 2,700-foot gain in elevation is strenuous, but the scenery is worth the effort.
At the trailhead, follow signs for Cady Creek and, at the next junction, to Cady Ridge. This trail crosses a creek and climbs a series of switchbacks, eventually cresting a 5,300-foot knoll with a view of Glacier Peak above a lupine meadow. Satisfied hikers can turn back here; otherwise, continue across an open slope with mountain views to what Romano calls “one of the finest alpine meadows this side of the Colorado Rockies.” Mountain peaks form a dramatic backdrop, and the route ends at the Pacific Crest Trail, 5,350 feet high and six miles from the trailhead. Backpackers can return to the meadow and bed down in sites located along the meadow’s edge.
Distance: 12 miles round-trip
Elevation gain: 2,700 feet
Peak: July and August
Jackson Wilderness lies within the Wenatchee National Forest, 509.548.2550, wenatchee-river/trails/

Paw Paw Prairie Fen Preserve
Paw Paw Prairie Fen Preserve, in southwest Michigan, houses a “botanical paradise,” according to The Nature Conservancy’s marketing manager Melissa Soule. Geologically and biologically unique wetlands found only in the glaciated Midwest, prairie fens feature tall grass prairie flora and fauna. This preserve also contains coastal plain marsh, a wetland community dominated by grassland rush.
Some 150 rare prairie fens have been identified in Michigan, says Brad Slaughter, conservation associate at Michigan Natural Features Inventory. The Paw Paw preserve is home to around 200 species of vascular plants, he says, more than documented at any other fen. Slaughter reports that hikers can see marsh blazing-star, a member of the sunflower family that grows up to 4 feet tall, with a dense bottle-brush of showy purple disk flowers. Two valerian species, one of them rare in Michigan, flower in late May and early June. Later in June, Indian plantain bursts out with creamy-white tubular flowers tipped in bright yellow-orange. The carnivorous purple pitcher plant and roundleaf sundew also live on the preserve.
Distance: Approx.1.5 miles
Elevation gain: insignificant
Peak: June – August
For directions and access, contact The Nature Conservancy Michigan Field Office, 616.785.7055,
/northamerica/states/michigan/preserves/ art17142.html

Breakneck Pond Trail, Bigelow Hollow State Park
New England hiker and author Jeff Romano (brother to Craig) recommends Breakneck Pond, a trail in Bigelow Hollow State Park with an abundance of mountain laurel, the state flower. The state park and adjacent Nipmuck State Forest offer a number of trails.
This one, the East Ridge Trail, follows an old roadway then traverses an open area, re-enters the woods, and climbs gently. Follow the Nipmuck Trail north through forest to Breakneck Hill Road, turn left, then remain on the Nipmuck to Breakneck Pond. The trail follows the pond for 1.6 miles, tunnels under abundant mountain laurel, and actually enters Massachusetts. Bear left at the pond’s northern end, cross a small stream, and go right onto the Ridge Trail. This winds around a wetland and through large boulders to the top of a forested ridge. Enjoy the view here, then descend to Breakneck Hill Road, which passes a small gate before branching onto a second road up the hill. The route goes up a sedge-covered ridge, then descends and follows the narrowing ridge line.
Moderately strenuous
Distance: 7.5 miles
Elevation gain: 350 feet
Peak: June
Bigelow Hollow State Park, 860-684-3430
Classic Hikes: New England, Jeff Romano, The Mountaineers Books.

Big Bend National Park, Chisos Basin
In this mostly desert park, wildflowers can be spectacular following rain. The higher Chisos Basin has more consistent rainfall and wildflowers. This loop combines several Basin trails for a day-long hike, beginning with the Laguna Meadow Trail, which offers views of the iconic Window formation. A notch in the mountain ring, the Window drains all rainfall from the Basin. Rising through a long series of switchbacks and steps, the trail reaches stands of colorful Texas madrone and Mexican buckeye trees that bloom in spring, says park ranger Jennette Timmer, as do beardtongues, Mexican catchfly, claret cup cactus and scarlet bouvardia, or firecracker bush, a Trans-Pecos endemic shrub.
The trail offers an amazing mountain vista at Blue Creek Overlook and traverses the mountains on the Colima Trail. On this wetter side of the mountains you’ll see mosses, mistletoes and perhaps two types of rare orchids, scarlet mock lady’s-tresses and crested-coralroot orchids. After rounding an exposed rocky point called Boot Rock, the trail enters a more open area, with the deep Juniper Canyon on the right, and continues descending on the Pinnacles Trail. Mints may be growing along the trailside cliffs. The route levels out into grassy Boulder Meadow, painted yellow in fall by blooming broom snakeweed, before heading back down to the Basin.
Distance: 8.6 miles
Elevation gain: 2,000 feet
Peak: April – May
Big Bend National Park Headquarters, Panther Junction, Highway 118, 432.477.2251,

Loop Trail, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area
One of the nation’s largest batholiths, or underground rock formation uncovered by erosion, Enchanted Rock covers 640 acres and rises 425 feet. Native Tonkawas attributed the rock’s creaking and groaning sounds to spirits and thought it enchanted. A 4-mile loop trail gives hikers view of all sides of the rock, plus plenty of wildflowers. The display in spring can’t be beat, and fall isn’t bad either.
The trail initially follows Sandy Creek, at times awash in bright yellow cowpen daisies. It crosses the creek, passes between Buzzard’s Roost and Freshman Mountain and levels onto a wide dirt path circling Enchanted Rock and neighboring Little Rock. The park contains open oak woodland, mesquite grassland and floodplain. Grasses and sedges such as Indian grass, bushybeard bluestem, frost weed and switchgrass form groundcover. Abundant wildflowers include Texas bluebonnet, Indian paintbrush, tickseed, bladderpod and the endemic basin bellflower.
Easy to moderate
Distance: 4 miles
Elevation gain: 160 feet
Peak: April
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, 16710 RR 965, Fredericksburg, Texas, 830.685.3636, website enchantedrock

Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park, Gap Point Nature Trail
A barrier island between the Gulf of Mexico and Apalachicola Bay, St. George Island stretches 29 miles. Nine of those lie in the state park, five accessible only by foot. This trail explores the bay side, beginning in the campground and traversing slash pine forest, sand scrub oak, blooming beach morning glory, slender goldentop, slender muhly grass, Florida rosemary, frogfruit, camphorweed, and blazing-star.

The trail dead-ends at the shallow water of St. George Sound. The tall pines and oaks here attract many species of birds, including migrants, wintering waterfowl, and nesting osprey and bald eagles. A number of trails in nearby Apalachicola National Forest, including 74 miles of the Florida National Scenic Trail, cover landscapes containing a variety of wildflowers.
Distance: 2.5 miles
Elevation gain: Less than 10 feet
Peak: April, October
St. George Island State Park, 1900 E. Gulf Beach Dr, 850.927.2111,
Apalachicola National Forest Trails, 904.942.9300.

Short Story

Five O'Clock Shadow and Other Stories, the 2000 Fish Anthology, contains my short story, Swift Water. Read about and order it here.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Texas Highways article

View a snippet of my article on New Braunfels here. Full story in the March 2010 issue of Texas Highways.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

2009 Ocean Science Journalism Fellows

Science writers, including moi, aka journalism fellows having fun in the sun at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution last September!