Poppies. California poppies. I hardly ever find just one.
And what would Spring be without masses of poppies. Californians should be required to go out every May and gaze at a hillside dancing with gold.
Most poppies are golden, but out at Point Reyes and other places along the coast I see the kind with a splotch of gold at the bottom of a yellow cup. And those are the poppies I found when I went out to Red Hill a few days ago.
For several years a couple of my friends have been gushing over the Spring wildflowers at Red Hill. They said it was a spur off the Pomo Canyon Trail, but I had never heard of it. Recently, I looked it up in The Hiker’s Hip Pocket Guide to Sonoma County by Bob Lorentzen and learned that the Red Hill Trail was completed in 2005. Had it really been that many years since I had hiked from Shell Beach to Pomo Campground?! It was time to return to that trail.
Monday morning proves to be almost trafficless as I drive out to the trailhead a few miles north of the town of Bodega Bay on Highway 1. I pick the perfect day. Lots of clouds, the dark menacing kind, high enough to not restrict expansive views of the rugged Sonoma coastline. Very little wind. It’s just cool enough for a vigorous hike.
Mine is the only car at the Shell Beach parking area when I arrive about 10 o’clock. I cross Highway 1 and start up a steep gravelly road signed for the Dr. David Joseph Pomo Canyon Trail. Right away lots of flowers: Triteleia laxa, blue bush lupine, tiny yellow clover and the white kind too, buttercup, English daisy, checker mallow, cream cup, hedge nettle. The surrounding hills are covered with white splotches of cow parsnip and at my feet lie hordes of blue-eyed grass, my favorite of all California wildflowers. This must the Year of Blue-Eyed Grass because this purple-blue flower with a yellow center has been plentiful everywhere I have hiked this spring.
For the first hour and a half the Red Hill Trail, which is well signed, is mostly up. I soon find white yarrow, pink pea, blue dune gilia as well as trailing and climbing vines of creamy wild cucumber, all against a background of green coyote bush. I sight two or three sun cups and only one group of bright orange-red paintbrush, a few mule ears, and a small colony of little blue violets. A rocky hillside appears nicely landscaped with sedum, lomatium, and meadowfoam, with one accent plant of red larkspur, plus gobs of poison oak.
As I climb it grows breezier, but not cold enough for me to break out the jacket. From this vantage point I have a spectacular view of the Russian River as it winds through wooded hills and meets the ocean at Jenner, the tiny village perched on a steep slope above the water. A male northern harrier—I know him by his gray coloring—circles over me, chirps incessantly, and dives at me. I must be close to his mate on her nest, which is somewhere hidden on the ground. I see large red clovers and the big white ones too. More coyote bush and some rhamnus, many bracken ferns, but only one small group of poppies. Where are the legions of gold my friends cooed about?
At the top of a hill I come to four tall gray weathered posts. I think these may have been part of a stile that Lorentzen writes about but no longer exists. The posts make a great Druidic monument. Now the path is lined with buttercups, blue-eyed grass, and little white daisies, with a sprinkling of red sorrel and tiny pink erodiums. It winds briefly through a dim forest of Douglas-fir, elderberry, and bay trees with beautiful old gnarled trunks.
Then I see them, acres of poppies, all bearing a dollop of gold. On the slope above them, millions of cream cups. I leave the trail and follow the trace of an old road to stroll among the flowers mixed with blue flax and pink checker mallow. Here and there are large holes in the ground, some looking quite freshly dug. Could these be badger dens?
I continue on past more poppies, blue dicks, dandelions, tidy tips, and piles of gray rocks tinged pink and orange. Lush green hills roll away to the east, with patches of dark forest perched here and there. I skirt another bit of Hansel and Gretel woods and continue climbing through tall grass, probably wild oats, peppered with small wildflowers, notably white morning glory, blue dicks, and a very small lupine.
I reach the top of Red Hill, not marked, but clearly the top, and there is the Pacific Ocean spread out before me, almost the same gray tinged slightly blue as the sky. To the south the dark finger of Bodega Head thrusts out into the smooth water, and farther south broods the dark mass of Point Reyes.
Now all is downhill. A narrow winding scratch of red earth leads down through bracken, becomes quite steep and loose, then joins the trail I came up on. Overhead, dark clouds hover and seem to grow darker every minute. However, little wind and no rain. There is still a great view, made all the more dramatic by the stormy sky. On the way down I spot scarlet pimpernel and pink onion, which I missed on the way up. Out of the coyote bush waft the calls of wrentits, towhees, and song sparrows.
This has been my kind of day, no traffic—on the road or on the trail. When I was almost at the top, I met one lone woman coming from the opposite direction and carrying a large canister of mace as well as a stun gun. “It’s very isolated here,” she said, “and I like to be prepared.” I patted the small can of pepper spray attached to my fanny pack but silently dismissed the idea of investing in more of a weapon. When I was about ten minutes from my car, I met a young man just starting out. Didn’t seem the kind that would make my fingers inch their way toward the spray can.
The hike was five or six miles long, took about three hours, and will definitely become an annual spring celebration on my calendar.
The Russian River
The Year of Blue-Eyed Grass