Saturday, May 11, 2013

Feather River country

California State Route 70 is one great drive, winding its way up the spectacular Feather River Canyon from Oroville. Across the river from the road (most of the time) runs the Feather River rail route, originally built by the Western Pacific in the early 1900s. Freight traffic still seems to run pretty regularly along this historic passage across the Sierras.

Above enormous, artificial Lake Oroville, the Feather is a heavily managed river, with a series of small dams and hydroelectric facilities. Indeed, the human imprint on this entire region is striking, what with the rail line, the timber roads, and the rusted equipment and holes in the ground that serve as frequent reminders of what brought folks out here beginning in 1849.

Me? I came for the scenery, and for the plants. I like the rocks, too, but gold country geology is too complicated for me to appreciate. May is a bit early for a lot of the mountain meadow flowers, but it is the season for dogwoods and pitcher plants (see below). It is also, apparently, the season for the occasional gullywomper of a hailstorm, as I discovered driving down a steep section of Route 49. I pulled over and listened to the roar as the Prius was pelted, and thought of one of my favorite scenes in Magnolia, when frogs fall from the sky. No frogs in the mix this time, I'm sorry to report.

The Feather River Canyon itself is lined with a most lovely variant of sticky monkeyflower:

Indian rhubarb (Darmera peltata) was new to me, growing in the rivers and creeks in abundance:

Dogwood in bloom all over the place:

Plenty of succulents clinging to rock walls with lovely mosses:

I made a special trip to the Butterfly Valley Botanical Area to see the rare (but locally abundant!) California pitcher plant (Darlingtonia californica). A carnivore, Darlingtonia lures bugs into the pitcher, where they are trapped and digested. This time of year the waxy flowers are popping up all over.

Plumas-Eureka is one of our budget-challenged state parks. This old mining structure is off limits to visitors... perhaps as tax revenues recover we'll be able to fix it up. The park does have some nice old examples of mining equipment from the more industrial phase of the gold rush, including a giant hose nozzle (monitor) used for hydraulic mining, whereby entire hillsides were washed away (reminiscent of mountaintop removal), and giant crushers for hard rock ore, which would then be processed with mercury to amalgamate the gold. A nasty business... tourism is much nicer.

While you're up there, take a drive through the Lakes Basin Recreation Area. This time of year you'll have the scenery largely to yourself. Not another soul was to be seen on the Big Bear Lake trail:

The rugged Sierra Buttes look mighty fine with a thundercloud or two for contrast:

And then it's time to say goodbye and head on down the Gold Lake Road toward Sierra City...

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