Guatay Mountain

By Tom Oberbauer, Vice President CNPS-SD

All photos by the author

Adenostoma sparsifolia (Red Shank)

I drove out east on I-8 fairly early in the morning.  The sky was heavily clouded to the point that mist was falling and it was necessary to use the windshield wipers.  However, east of Alpine, the sun burst through and the sky was perfectly clear with no hint of a cloud.  I was working on another rare plant survey to identify locations of Packera ganderi (Gander’s butterweed) and any other rare plants for the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) under their contract with AECOM.  I drove east toward the town of Guatay and onto the Old Highway 80, the old concrete slab two lane highway with that characteristic bumpety-bump sound from the tires hitting the tar-filled slab joints across the road. I remember when this was the only road east, before I-8 was constructed.  I needed to find a place to park and I first thought about parking at the Lutheran church parking area in the town and then I thought I would try the road through the village of Guatay to where it looked like a trail took off, a trail I had seen on Google Earth.  However, a few dozen yards down the road there were signs on both sides of the road that stated unauthorized vehicles will be towed at the owner’s expense.  Not only that, directly adjacent to that area was a towing service yard with an active tow truck; by active, I mean that the engine was running.

I turned around and thought about asking to park at the small grocery store across the street and pay them, but then I drove down the road, Old Highway 80, to look for a place to park. On the north side of the road, about a quarter mile down, a wide spot existed with some shade from an oak tree.

I parked there and began walking back through the town.  So that I would not attract so much attention, I carried the snake guards that I usually wear when hiking to protect myself from snakes and also to protect my legs when passing through chaparral.  I didn’t think I needed the attention that weird, tan colored leg covers would attract, and walked briskly.  South of town, I walked past a graded area and headed east and then south on a trail up the mountain.  I continued to walk quickly until I reached the southern trail and began to climb. 

The trail climbed steeply.  Spotted towhees called with their whine-like cry in the large growth chaparral.  The chaparral on Guatay Mountain can be considered the definition of climax vegetation.  There are no recorded records of a fire over Guatay Mountain though they certainly have burned all around it.

Tecate Cypress branches and cones

Guatay Mountain is composed of gabbro rock, high in magnesium and iron, with many interesting plants.  The first interesting plants I encountered in this area was Salvia sonomensis (Creeping Sage) which formed a complete ground cover.  Salvia sonomensis at this point had become quite dry, and was well past flowering and the leaves were beginning to shrivel. They turn a gray-brown color when they dry out.  The odor of Salvia sonomensis is not as strong as Salvia mellifera (Black Sage) nor the garlicy Salvia apiana (White Sage) that has a strong body odor scent.  The odor of Salvia sonomensis is reminiscent of a cross between Artemisia californica (California Sage Brush) and musty mint, somewhat similar to Lepechinia ganderi (Gander’s pitcher sage).  It was not unpleasant but interesting.  What was really interesting was how well it covered the ground as an understory for chaparral that consisted of Arctostaphylos glandulosa (Eastwood’s Manzanita), Quercus acutidens (Torrey’s Scrub Oak), Cercocarpus betuloides (Mountain Mahogany) covered with the silvery fruits that have the appearance of twisted feathers, Ceanothus perplexans (Cup-Leaf Ceanothus) and Adenostoma fasciculata (Chamise). Quercus acutidens, that olive green scrub oak shrub that seems to be of hybrid origin, grew in patches here and there. There were also plenty of the Stipa coronata (Giant Stipa) growing with their slender tall wands extending several feet above the open chaparral.

I have mentioned in previous articles how strange it is that Salvia sonomensis grows here in this manner.  It occurs in Northern California in the coast ranges and the Sierra Nevada foothills from as far north as Siskiyou County and as far south as northern Santa Barbara County in the Sierra Madre Mountains.  There is one location in Los Angeles County at a mountain heliport and then it occurs in San Diego County.  However, here it is common on soil derived from gabbro (black granite) and metavolcanic rock.  It is too conspicuous to be missed in Riverside, Orange, San Bernardino, Ventura and most of Los Angeles Counties.  There is obviously something special about San Diego County for this plant.

Prunus ilicifolia (Holly-Leaf Cherry) with its shiny bright green rounded but dentate leaves was also present here.  Another typical interior chaparral bird, the California thrasher, sang its slow, deliberate song of different phrases and notes.  The Adenostoma fasciculata was past flowering so it had a rusty yellow orange color at the tips of the branches where the flowers had dried.  The Arctostaphylos glandulosa had some leaves that were browning due to the early ending of this year’s rainy season. 

As I climbed, the vegetation changed a bit.  Red-flowered Silene laciniata (Indian Pink) was growing along the trail.  Rhus trilobata (Basketbush), was also growing among the larger shrubs. The white-flowered Eriogonum fasciculatum var. polifolium (California Buckwheat, gray leaf form) was also growing in openings among the chaparral shrubs.  Calochortus weedii (Weed’s Mariposa Lily) that has been so widespread and prolific this year was flowering along the trail up the mountain.  It is the tulip-shaped flower that is yellow and contains a number of small brownish colored hairs.   Cordylanthus rigidus ssp. setigerus (Dark-tipped Bird’s Beak) and Gutierrezia californica (California Matchweed) also grew along the trail.  At some locations, I began to see bright colors of purple and blue Penstemon spectabilis (Showy Penstemon) flowers.   Walking up the trail, the scarlet red color of Delphinium cardinale (Red Larkspur) was also present.  In the understory, Galium andrewsii (Moss Bedstraw) grew with small pin-like green leaves.    Hesperoyucca whipplei’s (Chaparral Candle) tall flowering stalks and sharply pointed mound of strap-shaped leaves were also present.  The vegetation was a subtle mix of textures and shades of green and tans.

The trail quickly and warmly that morning climbs to the initial ridge east of the highest point of the mountain which is 4,885 feet.  From that point, I could see Corte Madera Mountain to the south with its Pinus coulteri (Coulter Pine) trees scattered across its highest ridge and down the north slope when viewed through a telephoto lens. 

As the trail climbed up onto the ridge, the high span of the I-8 freeway bridge over Pine Valley Creek was briefly visible and I could hear the sound of the freeway like a backyard rushing sound.  A Turkey vulture was beginning to circle overhead.  The chaparral was very dense at this location, about 10 feet tall on the east and north side of the ridge.  The ground showed evidence of the rain that fell the previous week.  The soil surface was smoothed over by the rain rivulets.

Frasera parryi (Deer’s Ears), an interesting plant with whitish-gray leaves and stems and with flowers with four petals grows up in a stalk. As mentioned, the gray leaf form of Eriogonum fasciculatum was growing in open areas as well. Huge Rhus ovata (Sugar Bush) shrubs grew across the upper area with their dark green ovoid shaped leaves. Ceanthus leucodermis (Chaparral Whitethorn), with whitish, gray green leaves and stems, grew here in the midst of chaparral. Here, the Delphinium cardinale grew 6 feet tall. Large green leaves of Acourtia microcephala (Sacapellote) were present in the understory of a few of the shrubs. 

At one point of the ridge, a somewhat lower saddle like area, a cluster of Adenostoma sparsifolia (Red Shank) 

grew with several of the shrubs being 15 feet tall.  The Adenostoma sparsifolia is significantly brighter green than Adenostoma fasciculatum.  It has a scent that is not unpleasant; faint piney creosote bush like. Trichostemma parishii (Blue Curls) were growing nearby.  They are shrubs in the sage family with narrow leaves and inflorescences of blue-purple flowers.  On the south slope a bit farther west, the Adenostoma fasciculatum was growing only about 2½ feet tall even though it has been verified that no recorded fire has occurred on the mountain.  The low stature is the result of the gabbro effect and the south facing slope.  Up on the ridge, I could see that clouds were still visible on the coast and fog would have been present on the coastal hills.  The temperature was climbing rapidly and small, incipient cumulus clouds appeared in the blue sky.

The trail kept climbing along the west trending ridge, in some places loose with a gravelly surface.  In some locations along the ridge, there were spots that had a completely different vegetative cover, like some sort of blow out or disturbance patch.  However, it was due to the south facing aspect and the poor soil that these areas with open shrubs including Salvia apiana (White Sage), Eriogonum fasciculatum and other subshrubs like Gutierrezia californica grew in strong contrast to the surrounding chaparral.

Cliff Swallows flew by gleaning insects from the air.  Mountains visible included, in addition to Corte Madera, Long Valley Peak and to its east, Los Pinos Mountain was also very clear. 

The billowing clouds were forming over the Laguna Mountains ridge to the east with tremendous expansion; arm like projections of cloud were thrust upward.  Up on the ridge, Ceanothus foliosus (Wavy-Leaf Ceanothus) grew, the same species as seen from Cuyamaca at the desert over look.  It grows a bit taller here, up to 2½ feet or even a bit more.  Why does this plant from Northern California skip to San Diego where it grows in a number of locations similar to Salvia sonomensis? Both seem to prefer gabbro so maybe they can’t compete with regular species on granitic soils. 

Looking for Packera ganderi, I left the trail.  I knew from experience it likes north slope vegetation and can grow in the shade of the chaparral.  I encountered clean, unburned, pristine vegetation. It is hard enough to attempt to traverse old Chamise, but Arctostaphylos with its stiff, woody stems is impossible to penetrate for any significant distance without a great deal of pain from rigid branches, even when the manzanita was only a few feet tall.

Hesperocyparis forbesii (Tecate Cypress) seedlings

I encountered Hesperocyparis forbesii (Tecate Cypress) trees on the ridge.  Over the years, I had been led to believe that all the trees visible from down below were oaks.  However, a saddle east of the peak contained cypress trees and a scattering of good sized trees extended down the mountain to the north, down to the urban fringe.  The trees were growing in the midst of the chaparral with their green branches standing over the blanket of dense chaparral.  The vegetation was beautiful with the even cover of the chaparral shrubs and scattered trees with nice conifer form.  It gave me the impression of some of the really high altitude forest areas I have seen, like the sub-alpine upper slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains.

Not far from the trail, I was looking at the Salvia sonomensis when I noticed a Coast Horned Lizard nestled in the leaves of the Salvia

If you think that the plants have had a large number of taxonomic changes recently with changes in names and subspecies and varieties, the Coast Horned Lizard has as well.  Still they are fascinating animals with interesting thorns and spikes on their scales.

I finally reached the top of the peak after climbing up an extraordinarily steep slope with little loose gabbro gravel.  I sat on top and ate my lunch.  Large pale Swallowtail butterflies were battling for air space on the mountain and flew straight up for dozens of feet in little battles while the Cliff Swallows swooped by.

The temperature felt like 90 degrees and the air was humid.  I drank a lot of water and two Gatorades I carried with me.  Near to the top grew the red tubular flowered Monardella macrantha (Scarlet Monardella), just past flowering.  It is a prostrate plant with flowers that are apparently adapted to hummingbird pollination.  I was surprised to see it there because it usually grows under coniferous forest trees.  I saw two Salvia clevelandii (Cleveland Sage) plants on the last steep climb. Rhinotropis cornuta (Fish’s Milkwort) also grew near the top.  Rhinotropis, which used to be called Polygala, has neat flowers with bilateral petals. The clouds continued to build to the east as I sat on the peak.  There was a plastic box with an ammo box inside on the top of the peak.  I thought it was for holding a sign-in log but it was probably for an emergency cache for people who were lost.  Dead beetles and bugs and water were in the outer plastic box since it had rained the week before.

From viewing the mountain on Google Earth, I knew that small trails traveled to the north from the peak.  I eventually stepped down that direction, still looking for Packera.  I found a trail that was very steep, cutting through the red soil with the gabbro black rocks.  It eventually intersected an old fire break that traversed the mountain on the north side.  The fire break passed alongside the cypress trees that were scattered down the mountain.  The slope of the vegetation was a uniform green color chaparral with a uniform texture and diversity except for the occasional cypress trees standing among the shrubs, which themselves were mostly 5 to 8 feet tall on the north side.  It was a scene enhanced by the clouds and the blue sky. 

Thunderstorm forming on Mount Laguna to the east

I was not sure where the trail was going to end but it approached an old graded unbuilt lot excavated into the red gabbro soil.  I walked down farther and the driveway to this lot became a paved lane.  I took off the snake guards when I was clear of vegetation.  I walked past the town on the north side and then back to my car, thankful that it was still there and had not been towed.

I drove down to the old cypress grove that is known from the area and has the largest cypress trees around. It is roughly 3/4 of a mile west of the town.  Over the years, I had been there many times to marvel at the size of these very old cypress trees.  I climbed up into the grove and the vegetation was denser than I recalled.  Some of the trees were breaking up as well.  Two had fallen in the last couple of years.  However, the lowermost tree still appeared to be healthy.  Its trunk is approximately 2½ to 3 feet in diameter.  Without a coring device to create a small cross section of the rings in a small cylinder of wood, it is difficult to tell how old the tree was, but I would guess that it is at least 100 to 150 years old. 

A few seedlings about a meter tall were also growing having germinated in the absence of fire.  Tecate Cypress, and cypresses in general, are referred to as closed cone species.  The cones, which in the case of cypress are round bumpy balls a little larger than a quarter coin, are sealed with resin while the cones remain on the tree.  They stay on the tree for many years.  When a fire burns through their stand, the trees are generally killed but the cones are heated and they open and release the small angular seeds by the thousands.  Then, they are able to germinate with the rains in the following winter and grow into clean mineral soil since the fire burned off the organic duff.  The fire interval needs to be at least 30 or more years or the trees will not replace themselves since at that age they will not have produced a great number of cones yet, and there is a large amount of mortality with the seedlings.  Occasionally cones will open while on a tree or be broken off and open to release the seeds even in the absence of fire.  That must have happened here.

I looked around beneath the really large tree for a while and unfortunately placed my pack on a nest of ants, the small California Velvety Tree Ant, Liometopum occidentale.  I thought I cleared them off my pack, but was stung on the neck by one.  They don’t have a strong sting but they smell weird, kind of a vinegary terpentine odor.  This little grove of very old trees is a real wonder in a region that usually has so many fires.  Though I have seen the beautiful white and nearly endemic Calochortus dunnii (Dunn’s Mariposa Lily) there before, it was too late in the season and was no longer visible.

While there is ample habitat for the target of my search on Guatay Mountain, the Packera ganderi (Gander’s butterweed), I did not find any of it there. Guatay Mountain is just another of the unique features in San Diego County.  We have a number of peaks composed of gabbro rock, but each one has its own characteristics.  The old growth cypress on Guatay Mountain is really amazing but the upper parts of the mountain provide a character of scenery and cypress vegetation growth that is different from any other place in the area.