By Alexa Chipman May 29, 2017
More clambering exploration than a hike in the traditional sense, the experience lives up to the motto of Audubon Canyon Ranch—conservation in action. The preserve requires a guide, unless you take the orientation class, after which there are 1,400 acres open to hiking with an additional 1,600 closed to the public and used for research. Dramatic hills surround idyllic creeks, woodlands and meadows.
Buckeyes line part of the road in large bushes with spectacular white flowers; they may look impressive, but each bundle only produces a few seeds. The chemise is another common chaparral bush of the area, with delicate white flowers. Look for checker blooms in the meadows, which are part of the hibiscus family like you see in advertisements for Hawaii. Bunches of yellow flowers on tree-like shrubs form blue elderberries, which are fantastic in drinks, mead, syrup or berry cobbler. Speaking of plants that are good to eat, try fennel leaves dipped in tempura batter and fried, coyote mint for tea, and penny royal for a powerful aroma. Down by the creek grows mugwort, which is traditional in smudging and dream ceremonies around the world.
Bright scarlet flowers, like red ribbons that grow along cliffs or vivid columbine in the shade, are often designed for hummingbirds, since bees are unable to differentiate the color. They are not always red; the bright yellow sticky monkey flower has a structure set up specifically to exclude bees, because they need pollination from farther distances. Purple milkweed is specifically meant for Monarch butterflies to land and use, with a unique lock and key structure for long distance pollination.
You can see extensive scorched trees from a fire about 12 years ago, which caused a flourishing of madrone and wildflowers. The desolate meadows were unfortunately created by logging of the area from when it was a mining town. Rather than leaving them alone, the meadows need to be stimulated into a healthier environment through complex reconstruction of what used to be there and what they need now—rather like puzzle solving. Rather than simply stripping the non-native grasses, conservationists work to bring balance by reintroducing complementary species, rather than just “weed pulling”.
Pine Flat Road is narrow with steep drop offs, and although there are some turnouts, be careful of bike riders and rancher trucks in the area, so do not be in a hurry. The views are stunning, if you do not mind heights, and the first part of the wildflower walk will be driving and stopping, rather than active walking. You can visit along the road on your own, taking care not to trespass on private property or enter the preserve without permission.
The guide recommended examining flowers up close, using a phone camera to zoom in and see detail that our eyes cannot perceive. For example, some blooms have “disk flowers” that are miniature versions inside the main one, with sometimes 80 tiny flowers inside the main petals.
The area is steeped in history—the Russians out at Fort Ross came and trapped out the beavers to sell pelts, and soon after the Comstock gold and silver rush in Nevada drove the price of mercury up, causing the stagecoach stop to flourish into a small town. It was not the sort of place that civilized folk of the time went to, and had the reputation of a disreputable haven of vice. After the mining boom ended, it was burned down under suspicious circumstances for a hefty insurance settlement. The farming and ranching community added a schoolhouse in the 1930s for around 15 children of all ages who rode in each day, from which nicknames of areas such as “schoolhouse flats” originate.
I think of wildflowers mostly during the day, but the preserve offers moonlit hikes to see those that bloom in the evening and depend more on moths than bees, often with a pristine white to be easily seen in the dark. If you have a camera with ultra violet capability, bring it to have an expanded view of what insects might be noticing—a bland flower can turn exciting when viewed under those conditions. While the best times of year are March through June or August, there are interesting plants any time of the year with the right guide.
If you are naturally curious, or want to expand your knowledge of Sonoma County’s plant life to inform future hikes, I recommend coming out through their Meetup group or formal event signups on the website—you will learn a lot about the area and meet other nature enthusiasts. It is also in the heart of Alexander Valley with plenty of wine tasting opportunities.
Hours: By Appointment with Guided Hike