A Drive Up Ice House Road, 07-23-21

I got up about 5:30 this morning, let my dog Esteban out for potty and fed him his breakfast before heading out with my friend and fellow naturalist Roxanne for a drive up to Ice House Road (around 5000-5500 feet in elevation, off of Highway 50 East). Rox hadn’t had a chance lately to get outdoors and was anxious for a nature fix. The road certainly gave us that.

Ice House Road is around the Pollock Pines area and winds its way through the Eldorado National Forest. Once we reached it, we just drove along the road and stopped wherever we saw something interesting. There’s a bit of travel on the road this time of year with lots of people heading out to camp and recreate at the reservoir, so we had to be careful where we parked.

Even in this summer month, the plants along the road were showing off a bit, and it seemed like everything was “berrying” to some degree. The first we noticed when we pulled off the road was a small patch of Showy Milkweed growing wild by a drainage ditch. We didn’t see any insects on it, but it was nice to see it out there. Nearby were several Coyote Mint plants still squeezing out a few flowery sprigs. There also seemed to be a LOT of phacelia all over the place. It’s all spent now, but in the spring I bet it was spectacular. We’ll definitely need to get back up there next year.

We stopped off at the Cleveland Corral Information Station for a look around, and found a mix of pine trees, cedars, and broadleaf trees including Black Oaks, Incense Cedars, cottonwood trees, Rocky Mountain Maple, Chokecherry trees, and Bitter Cherry trees. Some of those were new-to-me species.

We walked around taking photos of whatever sparked our interest and noticed on the information kiosk a sign that warned that the local chipmunks, ground squirrels, and other rodents might be carrying plague. Great. So we kept an eye out for plague-rats after that.

We also found a perfect little bird’s nest on the ground. It was made of twigs and lined with a thin layer of gray animal hairs. I wondered if it was possibly coyote hair. [It might be that of a Western Tanager.]

The next place we stopped had a lot of manzanita trees, some of them heavy with their “little apples”. Some also had bright red leaf galls on them. In that same area we found sunflowers, some blue penstemon still in bloom, Goldwire, Naked Buckwheat, and Squirreltail grass.

A wow moment was when we came around a corner and saw a small grove of aspen trees lining both sides of the road, their white bark glowing in the morning light. They were gorgeous. But we could only get photos from inside the car; there was nowhere to pull off the road and park.

Trembling Aspen, Populus tremuloides, along the road.

Further along, a small outcropping of blooming Fireweed caught my eye, so we stopped in a turnout there and took photos.

We were close enough to one of the tributaries to the South Fork of the American River, to hear the water rushing by. There was a path leading down to the water, but it was too steep for me. I might have been able to navigate the boulders to get down, but I wouldn’t be able get back up again. *Sigh* My bad hip and weak legs thwart me again. [Actually, though, the Poltergeist shut up for the majority of the day; I was able to keep ahead of the pain.]

OMG, I ended up with an album of almost 300 photos! CLICK HERE to see them.

Among the Fireweed flowers we found a variety of bees and different moths. Several orange butterflies flew by — probably Checkerspots — but we couldn’t tell for certain because they refused to land near us. We also saw quite a few Lorquin’s Admiral butterflies in the area, and I thought I briefly spotted a Monarch, but I’m not sure.

It was exciting to me to find lots of Wolf Lichen all over that spot. I don’t know why, but the Wolf Lichen always makes me happy.  Around there we also found white Mountain Coyote Mint and tiny purple fleabane flowers.

Wolf Lichen, Letharia vulpine [bright yellow-green], and Imshaug’s Tube Lichen, Hypogymnia imshaugii

Driving further on, we could see some of the lumber crews working among the trees and stopped to get a little video of one of the grappler units lifting felled logs from the ground on a neat pile, like giant matchsticks.

Then we parked in another shady spot where we could see Golden Dwarf Mistletoe growing in a tree near the road. To our surprise, there were some specimens of the stuff close to eye-level, and some of the mistletoe was bearing fruit. We’d never been able to see that, so we took a lot of photos.

Across the road there was an area that had been worked over by lumber crews; thinned out with lots of recently turned ground around. I could see a Sugarcone Pine tree (Sugar Pine, Pinus lambertiana) a few yards away, so I walked over to it to get one its cones for Roxanne to see.

Sugar Pines were called that because their resin is supposed to be sugary sweet.  They are supposed to be “the tallest and most massive pine tree, and has the longest cones of any conifer.”  The largest cone was measured at 31½ inches long. The one I picked up was as long as the distance between my elbow and my fingertips.  Maybe 15 or 16 inches.  Nineteen or twenty inches is the norm.

“…Yellow pine chipmunks (Neotamias amoenus) and Steller’s jays (Cyanocitta stelleri) gather and hoard sugar pine seeds. Chipmunks gather wind-dispersed seeds from the ground and store them in large amounts. Jays collect seeds by pecking the cones with their beaks and catching the seeds as they fall out. Although wind is a main dispersion factor of sugar pine seeds, animals tend to collect and store them before the wind can blow them far…” 

We saw one of the chipmunks as it ran across the road, and heard Stellar’s Jays in the trees at the “corral” (but didn’t see them).

Went then took a side road up to a view point at a ranger station on top of Big Hill Lookout Road, where there were incredible panoramic views.  We could see parts of both the Union Valley Reservoir and the smaller Ice House Reservoir.  The station there had a couple of large radio towers next to a small building (which was off limits to visitors), and we could sometimes hear the rangers talking to one another over the radio.

Part of the view from the Bill Hill ranger station

By that time of day, it was getting very warm outside, into the mid-80’s, and there was no shade along the road under the radio towers, so, tired, I hung back by the car while Roxanne did some more exploring. While I waited there, a silver truck drove up and parked behind the car. I could see the driver, a guy with a shaved head and tattoos talking loudly and gesturing a lot with his hands.

At first, I thought he was talking on a cell phone, but as he exited the truck and continued to walk closer to the car, I realized he was having some kind of episode. He was talking and gesturing to someone who wasn’t there. Most of the time, his dialog was just a rambling diatribe, but now and then he would pose a question to whatever he walking to, or answer a question I couldn’t hear. He freaked me out.

I got into the car and locked the doors, then texted Roxanne, asking her to come back to car as soon as she could. I also videod some of the guy’s ranting, just in case something ugly happened. The police would have his image and what kind of clothing he was wearing for identification purposes.

You have to really crank the sound up to hear his ranting.

The guy kept coming up closer and closer to the car until he was in line with the rearview mirrors, and just then Roxanne showed up. She walked straight toward the car, not engaging the crazy guy at all, and came up to the driver’s side window and looked in at me. The crazy guy retreated and went back to his own vehicle and drove off, speeding down the hill. It horrified me that he was out and about, obviously having some kind of psychotic break, and driving a truck… I hoped he wouldn’t kill anybody, on purpose or by accident.

We then continued up the road to the Crystal Basin Information Ranger Station, and pulled into the parking lot there. They were still following COVID protocols so had no water stations or restroom facilities open. But you could use the porta-potties there if you needed to. There were several rangers at the site, but would only give out information through an open window; you couldn’t go into the building to pick up brochures or anything.  Rox and I walked around the area directly adjacent to the building. There were a lot of young fir trees and lacy ferns in the understory, and it was shady there, so everything looked invitingly cooler and green. 

In some of the pine trees there was long thin, twining strands of lichen hanging down. At first, I thought it was lace lichen, but close inspection showed it was actually a long-form of beard lichen, “Witches Hair”. The tendrils were all smooth; no “fish boning” on any of them.  There was also more Wolf Lichen on the trees and littering the ground.

I got a glimpse of a male Junco standing beside a juvenile on a rock. They were there for only a moment, peeping softly to one another, but I was able to get a few photos. 

Dark-Eyed Juncos, Junco hyemalis; an adult male and a juvenile.

Near the rock under a cedar tree were some old specimens of Snow Plant, a kind of parasitic plant. 

“…Sarcodes is the monotypic genus of a north-west American flowering springtime plant in the heath family, containing the single species Sarcodes sanguinea, commonly called the snow plant or snow flower. It is a parasitic plant that derives sustenance and nutrients from mycorrhizal fungi that attach to tree roots…”

Snowplant, Sarcodes sanguinea [red, parasite]

I’d like to go back next spring to see if we can find some when they’re at their most beautiful.

By then it was around 11 o’clock and I was getting hungry and more tired, so we started to head back down the road, stopping now and again when we saw something we liked to explore more. There were lots of elderberry trees along the road, but we were having trouble finding a spot to stop and view one of them more closely. Finally, an opportunity presented itself, so we parked and got out of the car to take photos of it. Although the elderberry in the valley have lost their flowers and already have berries on them, the ones up along Ice House Road were just blossoming.

Blue Elderberry, Sambucus nigra cerulea

Nearby, were some buckwheat plants with some interesting-looking pollinators on them, so we tried to get some photos of those as well. Those guys were pretty small, though, and moved quickly to avoid the camera, so I didn’t get very many useable photographs of them.

We headed back to the Cleveland Corral Information Station, and sat at one of the little picnic tables there to eat or lunch before heading back home. While we were there, I noticed a bird in a tree behind Roxanne, and we followed it with our eyes until it showed itself — if only for a moment. It was a beautiful male Western Tanager. What a nice treat!

A male Western Tanager, Piranga ludoviciana, with its lunch, in a Black Cottonwood tree, Populus trichocarpa

On our way back to Sacramento, we stopped briefly at the Bridal Veil Falls in Pollock Pines. There’s a turnout on Highway 50, and the falls are right there. Here, in the summer, there wasn’t a lot of water, but what there was, was cascading prettily down the 80-foot drop from the top to the bottom.  I bet it’s gorgeous in the winter and spring when there’s more water (and some of the water freezes).

Although there were signs warning people not to try to climb to the base of the waterfall, some idiot and his family — including little kids — did just that. Some people are just plain stupid.

Rox and I took photos and some video of the falls, and then walked along a short ditch next to it that was full of water. There were Seep Monkeyflowers and California Columbine growing there.  And I also saw a few damselflies near the water.

A pair of Vivid Dancer, Argia vivida, damselflies (male in front, female behind). Note the arrowhead markings between the black bands.

It was a long but very fun drive. Definitely have to do it again in the fall and spring to see how the landscape changes.

By the time we got back onto to the highway and were on our way back to Sacramento, it was 88° in the foothills. When we got into the valley it was 102°. Blech! There was also a lot of smoke in the air from the wildfires burning all around. The AQI levels in the area reached the red zone: 151 AQI (Unhealthy).

Species List:

  1. Alpine Alumroot, Heuchera glabra
  2. Arroyo Willow, Salix lasiolepis
  3. Bitter Cherry, Prunus emarginata
  4. Black Cottonwood, Populus trichocarpa
  5. Bordered Fawn Moth, Sericosema juturnaria
  6. Blue Elderberry, Sambucus nigra cerulea
  7. Bull Thistle, Cirsium vulgare
  8. California Black Oak, Quercus kelloggii
  9. Chokecherry, Prunus virginiana
  10. Cobwebby Thistle, Cirsium occidentale
  11. Common Morning-Glory, Ipomoea purpurea
  12. Columbian Black-Tailed Deer, Odocoileus hemionus columbianus [ran across the road]
  13. Coyote Mint, Monardella villosa
  14. Coyote, Canis latrans [scat]
  15. Cudweed, California Cudweed, Pseudognaphalium californicum
  16. Cumberland Rock-Shield Lichen, Xanthoparmelia cumberlandia [gray on rocks, brown apotheca]
  17. Damselfly, Vivid Dancer, Argia vivida [arrowheads]
  18. Dark-Eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis
  19. Deerbrush Ceanothus, Ceanothus integerrimus
  20. Dog Pelt Lichen, Peltigera canina [“skin” with lots of “teeth” on the back of the pelt. I found it on moss on a rock]
  21. European Honeybee, Western Honeybee, Apis mellifera
  22. Fern, Common Bracken, Pteridium aquilinum
  23. Fern-leaf Yarrow, Achillea filipendulina [yellow flowers]
  24. Fireweed, Chamaenerion angustifolium [bright pink flowers]
  25. Golden Dwarf Mistletoe, Western Dwarf Mistletoe, Arceuthobium campylopodum
  26. Goldwire, Hypericum concinnum
  27. Imshaug’s Tube Lichen, Hypogymnia imshaugii
  28. Incense Cedar, Calocedrus decurrens
  29. Jagged Ambush Bug, Phymata americana
  30. Knobcone Pine, Pinus attenuata
  31. Kousa Dogwood, Cornus kousa
  32. Leafy Fleabane, Erigeron foliosus
  33. Manzanita Leaf Gall Aphid, Tamalia coweni
  34. Manzanita, Greenleaf Manzanita, Arctostaphylos patula
  35. Manzanita, Whiteleaf Manzanita, Arctostaphylos viscida
  36. Metallic Flea Beetle, Altica sp.
  37. Mirid Bug, Taedia sp.
  38. Mistletoe, Juniper Mistletoe, Phoradendron juniperinum [somewhat similar in looks to dwarf, but very large]
  39. Morning-Glory Leafminer Moth, Bedellia somnulentella
  40. Mountain Blue Penstemon, Penstemon laetus
  41. Mountain Monardella, Mountain Coyote Mint, Monardella odoratissima
  42. Mountain Spiraea, Meadowsweet, Spiraea splendens
  43. Mountain Whitethorn, Ceanothus cordulatus
  44. Mullein, Great Mullein, Verbascum thapsus
  45. Naked Buckwheat, Eriogonum nudum
  46. One-seeded Pussypaws, Calyptridium monospermum
  47. Oregon Grape, Barberry, Berberis aquifolium
  48. Pearly Everlasting, Anaphalis margaritacea
  49. Phacelia, Mountain Phacelia, Phacelia imbricata [white]
  50. Red-Tailed Hawk, Western Red-Tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis calurus
  51. Rimmed Navel Lichen, Rhizoplaca glaucophana [pale gray with black apotheca]
  52. Robber Fly, Efferia albibarbis
  53. Rock Tripe, Emery Rocktripe Lichen, Umbilicaria phaea
  54. Rocky Mountain Maple, Acer glabrum [huge leaves, hairy heads on the seedpods]
  55. Ruptured Twig Gall Wasp, Callirhytis perdens
  56. Salsify, Meadow Salsify, Tragopogon pratensis
  57. Seep Monkeyflower, Erythranthe guttata
  58. Showy Milkweed, Asclepias speciosa
  59. Sierra Gooseberry, Ribes roezlii
  60. Sierra Lessingia, Lessingia leptoclada [tiny purple flowering heads, native and endemic]
  61. Slug Sawfly, Caliroa sp. [we saw the larva]
  62. Snowplant, Sarcodes sanguinea [red, parasite]
  63. Spanish Clover, Acmispon americanus
  64. Squirreltail Grass, Elymus elymoides
  65. Sugar Pine, Pinus lambertiana
  66. Sunflower, Common Woolly Sunflower, Eriophyllum lanatum
  67. Thread-Waisted Wasp, Family: Sphecidae
  68. Trembling Aspen, Populus tremuloides
  69. Variegated Meadowhawk Dragonfly, Sympetrum corruptum
  70. Velvety Goldenrod, Solidago velutina
  71. Western Columbine, Aquilegia formosa
  72. Western Morning Glory, Calystegia occidentalis
  73. Western Pine Beetle, Dendroctonus brevicomis   [“meaning tree killers”]
  74. Western Tanager, Piranga ludoviciana
  75. Witch’s Hair Lichen, Alectoria sarmentosa
  76. Willow Apple Gall Sawfly, Pontania californica
  77. Willow Fold-Gall Sawfly, Phyllocolpa sp.
  78. Wolf Lichen, Letharia vulpine [bright yellow-green]
  79. Yellow-Faced Bumblebee, Bombus vosnesenskii
  80. ??? bird’s nest [might be Western Tanager]
  81. ??? spider webbing and egg sacs