Piedra Blanca Monsoonal Adventure

Every excursion into the Ojai backcountry carries an element of adventure. You never know what you will see, how the weather will develop, what unexpected animal or reptile may pop up. Yesterday’s Piedra Blanca Nature Hike was one such adventure I won’t soon forget. Eleven intrepid hikers trekked across the dry bed of Sespe Creek onto the Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca National Recreation Trail after a beautiful drive up scenic Highway 33 where Blazing Star (Mentzelia laevicaulis), the flower-of-the month for July, stole the show.

Photo by Baruska Knight.
Photo by Baruska Knight.
photo by Baruska Knight
Photo by Baruska Knight.

With a weather forecast calling for 88˚with a 20% chance of showers and satellite images of Tropical Storm Dolores streaming north we hoped for some cloud cover and maybe a sprinkle, knowing that a typical day in July in these mountains can bring temperatures close to 100˚ under unrelenting sun. Dolores did not disappoint.

After 30 minutes on the trail, and just as we neared the summit of the Piedra Blanca (“white rocks”) formation, composed of 65-million-year-old fossilized sand dunes, a light steady rain began. With lightning a real possibility we avoided the tall pointed Bigcone Douglas-Fir (Pseudotsuga macrocarpa) and huddled under an Interior Live Oak (Quercus wislizenii) where we snacked and drank water and some of us put on rain gear or opened an umbrella. It was enough rain to force me to put my camera in my pack, hence the lack of photos here.

Piedra Blanca trail horizontal
The summit of the Piedra Blanca (“white rocks”) formation on the Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca Trail. Photo by Lanny Kaufer on another sunnier day

On the way up, before the rain started, we saw a Tarantula Hawk Wasp (Pepsis spp.) feeding on one of its favorite nectars, Woolly Milkweed (Asclepias eriocarpa). The female of the species preys on Tarantula spiders, as their name implies. She inserts her double-duty combination stinger-ovipositor behind the head of the spider, paralyzing it and depositing an egg. Then she either drags or carries it back to her nest. Once hatched, the baby spider feeds on the still-living Tarantula, avoiding the vital organs to keep it alive as long as possible. Cute animal story for bedtime, yes? Oh, okay. Never mind. By the way, the Tarantula Hawk Wasp has the second most painful sting in nature, according to the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, painfully compiled by entomologist Justin Schmidt who allowed himself to be stung by all the contenders.

tarantula hawk on milkweed
Tarantula Hawk Wasp feeding on Woolly Milkweed nectar. Photo courtesy of whatsthatbug.com.

One notable plant species that we saw flowering in several spots along the way was the California Fuchsia (Epilobium canum, formerly Zauschneria genus). This specimen, not really related to true Fuchsias, somehow gained a foothold (roothold?) in the rock formation and appears to be growing right out of the sandstone.

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Our first glimpse of Piedra Blanca Creek showed that there was, indeed, fresh water in it, even in this record drought year.

Piedra Blanca Creek below campsite

Before arriving at Piedra Blanca Camp, our destination, we picked a few Whitethorn Ceanothus berries (Ceanothus leucodermis) to wash our hands in the creek before lunch.

whitethorn berries

On the way back, we scanned the dark clouds and appreciated the dust-free trail, courtesy of the monsoonal moisture that sporadically sprinkled on us. We stopped to nibble on Cattail pollen (Typha domingensis) in the dampened Sespe Creek bed.

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Then we made our final ascent back to the parking lot with my faithful companion and trail sweep, Rondia, shown here.

Miraculously, just at the moment we arrived back at the shelter of our cars and the restroom in the parking lot, the heavens unleashed a downpour, accompanied by the crack of lightning and a peal of rolling thunder. Another unforgetable adventure on  a summer day in the Los Padres.

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