Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Cowles Bog

Indiana Dunes and Lake Michigan
4.5 miles loop, 250 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Decent gravel road to trailhead, Indiana Dunes National Park entrance fee required

The Cowles Bog hike allows you to experience a little bit of everything that makes the new Indiana Dunes National Park special: a lush and biodiverse wetland, tall dunes, views of vast Lake Michigan, and reminders of the region's industrial past and present. The bog is named after Henry Cowles, a pioneering ecologist at the University of Chicago who made important observations at this wetland and in the surrounding dunes that contributed to the area's eventual preservation. Although the scenery here is not flashy, I found Cowles Bog to be a joy to hike with its profusion of wildflowers, relative seclusion, and good views. If you have time for just a single hike at Indiana Dunes National Park, Cowles Bog would be a reasonable choice.

I hiked Cowles Bog while visiting Indiana Dunes National Park with a friend living in Chicago. We drove in from Chicago, taking I-94 south and east into Indiana and leaving the interstate at exit 26A for Route 49. Upon exiting, we took Route 49 north for two miles and then made a left turn for the ramp to connect with US Route 12; we took the left fork at the bottom of the ramp to head west on US Route 12. We followed US 12 west for 1.4 miles and then turned right onto Mineral Springs Road. We followed this paved road with no lane divides north for three-quarters of a mile to the gate for Dune Acres; at this point, we turned right and followed a short gravel road into the parking lot for the Cowles Bog Trail. Parking here was somewhat limited, with room for less than 20 cars; if this parking lot is full, you will have to park 2/3 mile to the south at the Calumet Trailhead to access this hike. On a late May weekend day, there was a national park attendant monitoring the parking situation at the trailhead to prevent illegal parking. We were lucky and found a spot, but Indiana Dunes is popular enough that you may need to arrive earlier or later in the day to guarantee finding a spot. There was no entrance fee when I visited, but Indiana Dunes National Park has since implemented entrance fees; I am not certain where fee collection occurs.

From the parking lot, we walked back down the short gravel road to get back to Mineral Springs Road and then crossed the road to reach the start of the trail. The trail started by traveling along an elevated strip between lush, forested wetlands on both sides. In May, the fresh green colors of the forest and bog here were extremely refreshing; this was a landscape bursting with life. Ferns were sprouting up throughout the partially-flooded plane and cattails occurred in open spots with more sun. There was plenty of wildlife as well: we heard the call of birds in the forest and saw a turtle crossing the trail.

Ferns abound in Cowles Bog

The rich vegetation of Cowles Bog

Turtle on the trail
The landscape of Cowles Bog played a crucial role in Dr. Henry Cowles' study of ecological succession. The bog's complex mosaic of habitats, including wetlands, sand dunes, and forests, provided Cowles, then a professor at the University of Chicago, with a unique opportunity to observe and document the changes in plant and animal communities over time. Cowles' research on ecological succession revealed that the bog was not a static environment, but a dynamic system in which different species of plants and animals replaced one another in a predictable sequence.

Cowles observed that the sand dunes at the bog's edge were colonized by pioneering species of grasses, which were gradually replaced by shrubs and trees as the dunes stabilized. Similarly, he noted that the wetlands in the bog were colonized by different species of plants depending on the depth of the water, and that these communities changed over time as the water level fluctuated. 

After a third of mile of hiking from the trailhead, the wetlands to the right of the trail ended and the trail began following the base of a forested dune; the forested part of the bog still lay to the left (south) side of the trail. At 0.8 miles, we came to a junction where the Cowles Bog Trail began its figure eight loop. Here, we took the right fork, which took us uphill and away from the bog as the trail began its first ascent. This short uphill climb brought me up and over a forested dune; while the vegetation on the hill somewhat hid that all the hills here were just dunes, the loose sand underfoot betrayed that we were on one of the park's namesake dunes. Being amongst the dunes didn't mean that we were done with the wetlands, though: after crossing the first dune, the trail returned to the boundaries of an open marsh.

Cowles Bog
In late May, the forest floor on the dunes was awash with wildflower color. Columbine, geraniums, and lupine were among the many flowers in bloom, lining the sandy path up the dunes.

Blooming geraniums

Columbine and lupine
At 1.2 miles, the trail began another climb into the sandy hills, these forested dunes. The ascents here are somewhat more challenging than trails of a similar grade elsewhere due to the looseness of the sand. The trail here was incredibly idyllic, though, because of the flowers dotting the forest floor. The trail came to a junction at 1.4 miles, where the left fork cut the loop short; we took the right fork to proceed along the main Cowles Bog Trail to the shores of Lake Michigan.

Trail across forested and flower-coated dunes
The trail went up and down through this stretch of the Indiana Dunes until, at 1.7 miles, we emerged in the open atop Mount Bentley Dune, adjacent to the lake. From this open vantage point, we enjoyed the best views of the hike, which encompassed the neighboring forest, an expanse of sand beneath my feet, and the placid waters of Lake Michigan ahead.

Mount Bentley dune and Lake Michigan
Gazing across the lake, we caught a sight of the faint Chicago skyline; on a less stormy day, it might be more clear. The distinctive forms of the Willis Tower and the John Hancock Tower were both clearly distinguishable, even from this distance. The distant skyline was the only reminder that Lake Michigan was just a lake and not the vast ocean.

Chicago skyline visible across Lake Michigan
After soaking in the dune-top views, we descended down the steep sides of the dune towards the lakeshore. At the base of the dune, we came to a junction with a trail that led west through the grass towards the return leg of the loop; however, we skipped this junction and decided to follow the path all the way down to the waterfront and the beach along Lake Michigan, which we reached at just under 2 miles from the trailhead.

Looking west, we could see the two massive smokestacks of the Bailly generating station, a large coal-fired power plant that is part of the Port of Indiana industrial zone.

Bailly Generating Station at the Port of Indiana
The Port of Indiana was built into the heart of the Indiana Dunes in the 1960s, creating a massive industrial area and port in what used to be the Central Dunes of the Indiana Dunes. Bethlehem Steel and US Steel lobbied for the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the lake bottom near Burns Harbor to create a deepwater port for transporting coal and steel; the result was this complex just east of Gary. The construction of the port split the Indiana Dunes in two and destroyed a large swath of the central dunes; this was one of the multiple environmental catastrophes affecting the Indiana Dunes that eventually led to the dunes' preservation and recent establishment as a national park.

Looking east along the lakeshore, we had a view of the forested dunes coming down to the water for miles until reaching the NIPSCO Michigan City power plant in the distance, a coal-fired power plant that sits atop the site of one of the other environmental catastrophes of the Indiana Dunes. The power plant is built on the former site of the Hoosier Slide, once the largest of all the Indiana Dunes, which was completely torn apart and mined for its sand to make millions of Ball Corporation Mason jars.

View along the Indiana Dunes to the Michigan City power plant
Ahead of us lay the vast expanse of Lake Michigan- the largest lake fully within the United States, the second largest of the Great Lakes by volume and the third largest by area, truly an freshwater sea. Three hundred miles of open freshwater separated our position on the southern end of the lake from the north shore on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Lake Michigan
We followed the beach to the west for a fifth of a mile and came to a path leading back up the dunes from the beach at 2.2 miles into the hike. Taking this path, we began the return leg of the loop. After crossing a flat, grass-covered stretch of the dune, the trail embarked on a steep climb up the forested dune of Mount Tuthill. This was the steepest and most extended ascent of the hike: the trail notches 120 feet of elevation gain in one go here. Although potentially tough for Midwest standards, hikers visiting from more mountainous areas are still likely to find this a short uphill climb.

Back among the wooded dunes, we enjoyed the forested landscape and the profusion of spring wildflowers blooming amidst the blooms. The spring scenery here was overwhelmingly verdant. Only the sand underfoot reminded us that these hills were sand and not soil. 

Lupine blooming on the wooded dunes
At 2.7 miles, we passed a junction that headed towards the inbound leg of the loop; we stayed to the right at the junction and continued on the larger loop. This trail briefly followed a low sand ridge before it dropped down to the bog and cut through the wetlands. At times, there were glimpses from the trail to the nearby Port of Indiana complex and its sprawling industrial campus.

Cowles Bog
At 3.3 miles, we came to another trail junction where the Greenbelt Trail split off from the Cowles Bog Trail. The right fork for the Greenbelt Trail followed the southern boundary of the bog to Mineral Springs Road; we took the left fork, which kept us on the north end of the bog. We closed the loop at 3.6 miles into the hike and then followed the path through the bog that we had come in on back to the trailhead.

Overall, I found this to be a very enjoyable and rewarding hike and the highlight of my day in the Indiana Dunes. The diversity of scenery on this hike- sandy dunes, blooming forest, a vast lake, verdant wetlands, industrial history, and a plethora of wildlife and wildflowers- made this a satisfying and unique experience and makes this a highly recommended hike when visiting the Indiana Dunes.

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Calaveras South Grove

Massive sequoias of the Calaveras Big Trees South Grove
5 miles loop, 750 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Calaveras Big Trees State Park entrance fee required

South Grove- the more remote of the two giant sequoia groves in California’s Calaveras Big Trees State Park- is a lovely forest featuring many behemoth trees in a quieter and less touristy setting than the better known and more easily accessible North Grove in the same park. While the trail-accessible portions of this grove generally do not have a high density of these giant trees, there are some superlative trees along the five-mile loop hike through the grove. Most impressive of these trees include the Agassiz Tree, the largest sequoia in South Grove, along with other notables such as the Palace Hotel Tree and the Chimney Tree. As giant sequoias here occur at as low as 4500 feet- half the elevation of the sequoias found at Atwell Grove, hundreds of miles to the south- this is the lowest elevation of all giant sequoia groves. The hike to access this low elevation grove starts with a 1.2-mile access trail, includes a one-mile loop within the grove, and peaks along a 1.5 mile-round trip spur to the heart of the grove.

The road from the entrance of Calaveras Big Trees State Park to the South Grove Trailhead is closed during winter and is typically inaccessible from the first major snowfall of each winter until sometime in May, depending on snowfall each year- check the state park website to make sure the road is open before you go.

I visited Calaveras Big Trees State Park and hiked to the South Grove during an early May visit in a low-snow year, when dogwoods were blooming amidst the great redwood giants. The park is closest to Stockton and Sacramento and is a bit far for a day trip from the Bay Area, although those who are very ambitious could make it work. Driving in from the Stockton area, I followed Highway 4 east across the Central Valley, winding into the foothills above Copperopolis and passing the classic Gold Rush towns of Angels Camp and Murphys. I arrived at Calaveras Big Trees State Park about 70 miles after leaving Stockton on Highway 4 and made a right turn into the park; after passing through the park entrance, I followed a paved but winding and narrow 8-mile road across the North Fork Stanislaus River to the South Grove Trailhead near the end of the road. There were pit toilets here; services are more plentiful if you stop at the visitor center near the park entrance.

Leaving the trailhead, the South Grove Trail descended gently through forest to reach the banks of granite-lined Beaver Creek at 0.2 miles. The trail crossed this pretty creek on a well-built bridge. After the bridge, the South Grove Trail passed two junctions in quick succession with the Bradley Grove Trail, which split off to the left at both junctions; both times, I stuck to the right fork to continue towards South Grove. The trail ascended at a gentle to moderate grade after leaving Beaver Creek, passing through forests of pine mixed with dogwoods that were blooming during my May visit.

Bridge over Beaver Creek
The trail stuck to fairly plain Sierra pine forest for just over the first mile, encountering no sequoias along the way. The uphill ascent was gentle here, although during my early-season hike I had to climb around some sizable fallen trees. At one mile from the trailhead, the South Grove Trail crossed an old logging road. At 1.2 miles, the trail arrived at the edge of the grove and came to the start of the South Grove loop. I hiked the loop counterclockwise and started out by taking the left fork.

The left fork brought me across a stream, where the trail embarked on a steep climb- the most intense of the hike- that quickly elevated me 200 feet, after which the trail leveled out and headed up the valley. Here, I encountered the first sequoias of the hike, although there weren't any large sequoias that were close to the trail itself. Looking up and downslope, I spotted a few mature giant sequoias, some of which were quite impressive in girth.

Giant sequoia in South Grove
At just under 2 miles, the loop trail made a short descent and crossed the creek at the bottom of the valley and then came to a trail junction. The loop continued to the left, returning towards the trailhead, while the right fork was a spur heading deeper into the grove.

I took the right fork at this junction, following the spur trail for two-thirds of a mile to the Agassiz Tree. If you’ve come this far, you absolutely need to take the spur from the loop, as the spur has the best sequoia scenery of this hike.

Sequoia with dogwood flowers
Two hundred meters down the spur trail, I came to the Chimney Tree, a wide-girthed giant sequoia that had been completely hollowed out by fire such that the crown of the tree had toppled; however, the tree was still alive, sporting newer growth atop its original trunk.

Chimney Tree
Past the Chimney Tree, the trail began to pass by more and more giant sequoias, entering a more scenic part of the grove. In one of the most scenic moments of the hike, the trail passed right between two massive sequoias with diameters well over 15 feet that were growing side by side.

Sequoias of Calaveras South Grove
At 2.5 miles, I came upon the Palace Hotel Tree, which rose to the left of the trail and was marked by a small sign. The name of this enormous tree was apt: the inside of this 20+ foot diameter tree had been hollowed out by fire, creating a spacious chamber that would easily be as large as a small bedroom in a San Francisco apartment. Such burn scars are known as goosepens, having been used by early European American arrivals in the area to contain their poultry. This particular tree received its name soon after the opening of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, a grand and majestic structure that today still stands along Market St. near Montgomery Station.

Immense goosepen in the Palace Hotel Tree

Looking up at the Palace Hotel Tree
Leaving the Palace Hotel Tree, I continued another 200 meters onward until the trail made a rightward turn to reach the Agassiz Tree at 2.7 miles from the trailhead. The trail ended at the base of the tree, with a footpath going downhill and wrapping around the base of the tree. A few logs between the Agassiz Tree and Big Tree Creek provided places for hikers to rest and enjoy views of this arboreal behemoth. Blooming dogwoods dotted the understory around the Agassiz Tree, adding a lot of floral interest to the scenery.

Dogwoods at the Agassiz Tree
Base of the Agassiz Tree
The Agassiz Tree is the thirty-seventh largest giant sequoia in the world and the largest giant sequoia in Calaveras Big Trees State Park; it is the largest giant sequoia north of the Washington Tree in Mariposa Grove. The tree is stupendous, boasting a 25-foot diameter and standing over 260 feet tall. The base of the tree was hollowed out on one side by an enormous goosepen that rivaled the burn scar of the Palace Hotel Tree.

Goosepen of the Agassiz Tree
The tree is named after Louis Agassiz, a Swiss-born naturalist who taught at Harvard. Agassiz is perhaps best known for his groundbreaking work in glaciology, identifying geological features that result from glaciers and postulating that Europe had once endured continental glaciation during Ice Ages. Agassiz’s legacy is somewhat complicated now due to a number of his writings justifying scientific racism; however, while we should remember him Agassiz's failings in addition to his achievements, it is fair to note that Agassiz is remembered and commemorated today despite his failings, not because of them.

The mighty Agassiz Tree
After enjoying my lunch at the Agassiz Tree, I began my return towards the trailhead; at 3.4 miles I came to the junction with the loop again and this time took the right fork to complete the loop counterclockwise. There were not too many giant sequoias near this part of the trail but I was able to enjoy the sprinkling of white dogwood flowers throughout the lower portion of the forest canopy.

Dogwoods in South Grove
At 3.6 miles, I spotted the Kansas Group, a set of three mature giant sequoias, off to the left of the trail. In South Calaveras Grove’s general lack of sequoia density, these three great trees in such close proximity was quite striking. Continuing along the northern leg of the loop, I returned to the junction at the start of the loop at 3.9 miles; there were no sequoias of note in the final stretch of the loop. Back at the start of the loop, I followed the South Grove Trail for just over a mile, crossing Beaver Creek and then returning to the trailhead.

Kansas Group
South Calaveras Grove is not the most impressive sequoia grove due to its low density of trees- Giant Forest, Mariposa Grove, and Redwood Mountain Grove are certainly more picturesque. However, the awesome size of some of the individual trees in this grove still makes it a satisfying hike and it remains one of the best places to see giant sequoias north of Yosemite National Park.