The microclimates of Highway 79

Two botanists take Reader writer for a ride

Giant red paintbrush close to Lake Cuyamaca
  • Giant red paintbrush close to Lake Cuyamaca

From Temecula, to Aguanga, Warner Springs, Julian, Lake Cuyamaca, and Descanso, Highway 79 winds, climbs, and wiggles 82 miles through deserts, mountains, foothills, valleys, and oases. Two botanists are showing me the entirety of Highway 79, because it passes through some of the most biologically diverse areas in San Diego County, a county that is, they say, arguably the most biologically diverse in the United States.

Tom Chester, Nancy Accola, and I are ready for the day — hiking gear, water, food, and plenty of extra dark chocolate.

We begin in Temecula around 10 am. Chester is driving, Accola’s positioned in the backseat. She will spot the plants and Chester will find the nearest shoulder on which to pull over when she shouts out a species. We head south toward Pine Valley, and in about ten minutes, we’re out of the city and driving towards Aguanga.

Beneath Stonewall Peak, we find a healthy thicket of California rose.

Beneath Stonewall Peak, we find a healthy thicket of California rose.

Palomar Mountain is ahead of us and and to the right. It’s carpeted by chaparral. The area near us by the highway looks like a field of dust, sometimes disturbed by shrubs such as buckwheat. Just south and east of Temecula, the area is low, flat, and in the rain shadow of the mountain. This is why it is so hot and dry here.

Bush monkeyflower getting blooms from a stone

Bush monkeyflower getting blooms from a stone

The mountain range is covered with chaparral because the north-facing slope shades it from evaporation, Chester says. “The rain shadow only comes in a couple miles away. When the rain clouds form [they] bring the water out of the atmosphere when storms are coming through. As it’s coming up the south slope, it’s still raining as they’re going a little to the north, and then the rain is all rained out. By the time it gets here, there’s not much left.”

Yerba mansa. “I’ve never seen it like this.”

Yerba mansa. “I’ve never seen it like this.”

On the south side of Palomar Mountain, where the area is not affected by the rain shadow, riparian woodlands cover much of the face of the mountain. That is closer to highway 76. But by the 79, the area gets only 12-14 inches of rain. Just a couple inches lower, and it would technically be a desert. “In our areas in California, you need to have 26 inches of rain to support trees... that’s why pine forests are at only higher elevations where there’s more rain and less evaporation,” Chester says.

The indigenous Cuyamaca larkspur

The indigenous Cuyamaca larkspur

Water is fate for microclimates, and it can be fate for some highways. Like many older roads, Highway 79 follows the drainages and water courses of San Diego County’s backcountry. Newer roads are straighter and modify the natural features of the environment to get people to their destination faster. Highway 79, adheres to the land’s natural countours. Driving it feels like a ride on a rollercoaster. It goes around and atop geographical features.

Sacred Datura, ready to blow your mind and depress your breathing

Sacred Datura, ready to blow your mind and depress your breathing

“It follows the Temecula River to Sunshine Summit, and then follows tributaries of the San Luis Rey River to, through, and beyond the Lake Henshaw area. It then follows the drainage to the Santa Ysabel Valley, and then Coleman Creek to Inspiration Point just beyond Julian. It quickly enters the Cuyamaca Lake drainages, and then follows the Green, Sweetwater, and Descanso Rivers,” Chester said in an email.

Coulter pinecone — the widow maker

Coulter pinecone — the widow maker

Our first stop is at the Dripping Springs Campground. Here, we’re by the Temecula River drainage and at an elevation of 1148 feet. Elderberry and Coast Live Oak trees provide us some shade as we step out of the car and go inspect a few patches of periwinkle flowers called the southern mountain woolly star.

Dripping Springs serves as a good example of riparian vegetation, Chester says. Even though this place doesn’t receive much rainfall, the trees are happy and the flowers are blooming. They are able to survive in such a dry climate with the help of year-round moisture from the Temecula River.

California Buckeye. "Wow wow wow!"

California Buckeye. "Wow wow wow!"

Another survivor of the dry climate, though endangered, is the Arroyo Toad. This warty and stocky toad hops quickly to feed on ants and hibernates when it needs to avoid dehydration. A native amphibian, zoologists say it has only 3000 of its total breeding population left in this area.

Chaparral yucca at Aquanga. "The low rainfall is due to the rain shadow of Palomar Mountain."

Chaparral yucca at Aquanga. "The low rainfall is due to the rain shadow of Palomar Mountain."

The feeling of being in a desert returns as we continue along the highway and arrive in Aguanga. At 1955 feet, Aguanga sits at a slightly higher elevation than Dripping Springs. We are now directly behind Palomar Mountain, and fully in its shadow. It feels as if we are in a mini Anza-Borrego desert. We drive past a life-size metal horse statue created by the Ricardo Breceda gallery. The horse provokes a prolonged stare, because it looks as if it’s about to gallop across the road in front of us.

Tom Chester and Nancy Accola

Tom Chester and Nancy Accola

We pull over across from Aguanga General Store and step into a scene out of a cowboy movie. A bush of Russian thistle, or tumbleweed, rolls by as we take our first few steps. Aguanga is a good example of a melting pot between the two Californias: the cowboy and the surfer. Here, desert plants coexist with coastal plants.

“Aguanga area, which shares a number of species with coastal southwest San Diego County, has a similar low rainfall. At Aguanga, the low rainfall is due to the rain shadow of Palomar Mountain. In coastal San Diego County, the low rainfall is due to the low elevations and its southern position, farther from the winter rain systems,” Chester says. “Both areas have coastal sage scrub vegetation, and both areas have a number of desert plants, such as yucca schidigera.

The ground here, though it doesn’t look it, is half water, and the existing plants are able to pull out this moisture to live. Chester and Accola point out a large bush of sticky-leafed mule fat, a fourwing saltbush whose foliage has a tangy salty taste, and a sagging desert willow with trumpet-like flowers growing right next to a coastal fremont cottonwood supporting its spade-shaped and jagged leaves.

Coast live oak, a California tree that seems to line the whole of Highway 79, grows at Aguanga. Unlike the sycamores and cottonwoods in Dripping Springs, coast live oak is tough and doesn’t need to have its roots in Temecula River water. “[Coast Live Oak] has a much harder leaf so it doesn’t lose as much to evaporation. Whereas the other trees just shoot the water out, 30 gallons a day,” Chester says. Today is near the beginning of Aguanga’s hot season, so we leave before the temperature climbs into the 90s.

We stop at Oak Grove, a hidden and shady town that the highway blazes through. Chester points out the happy elderberries along the highway, boasting their cream-colored flowers and green leaves; there is not much else.

As we drive, we are climbing to higher elevations and drifting further away from the coast. All of a sudden, Accola spots yerba mansa. Chester says there’s no way yerba mansa is out here, but he turns the car around. We are immediately south of Sunshine Summit, where the vegetation relies on the San Luis Rey River instead of the Temecula drainage.

Sure enough, a plethora of yerba mansa has decided to grow in a wet meadow east of some slopes covered in chaparral. “I’ve never seen it like this,” Accola says, amazed about the yerba mansa. “It needs a lot of water.”

The white-flowered plant, a foot high and maybe two feet wide, is not only pretty but versatile. Native Americans have been using it for generations for its medicinal properties. It can treat swollen gums and throats and rid the body of excess uric acid. “Almost all plants have medicinal purposes,” says Chester. “Recently, about a hundred years ago, about 100 percent of all the drugs were from natural plants, and I think it’s still 50 percent,” Chester says.

Chester explains that at one time, knowledge of plants and their medicinal value “was part of life growing up, you see everybody knew the plants. Because this was the supermarket. They were familiar with what you could eat when you came out here. And it was the drugstore. If they had a headache, they went for the willows, that’s where aspirin comes from.”

We get back on Highway 79 headed east near an area called Deadman's Hole, going towards Warner Springs. The Cleveland National Forest is on our right, on our left, barbed wire with signs that read “RESTRICTED AREA: No Trespassing U.S. Government Property” line the highway.

“There is a large Naval survival training area north of Warner Springs where military servicemen are trained to survive with little resources,” emailed Tom Oberbauer, president of the San Diego chapter of the California Native Plant society. If they can identify some plants like yerba mansa, or learn what poison oak looks like, they’ll be in good shape, Chester and Accola say.

If you’re looking at Warner Springs on a map, it sticks out as a little nub on Highway 79 — a nub which seems to host the adventurous: those training to survive the wild for the Navy, hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail, and those who want to ride in glider planes which take off and land at the little airstrip next to the highway.

“The Warner Springs area also used to house the California condor and pronghorn antelope, only now it supports the Stephen’s kangaroo rat,” Oberbauer said. The endangered rat is somewhat cute: it has large, dark eyes with small round ears. Then its tail extends from the three-inch body at a length of almost twice its body size. Like a kangaroo, it hops on its outsized rear legs and feet.

As we leave Warner Springs behind, the road turns right and heads south. Lake Henshaw is visible in the distance, closer to the 76. Lake Henshaw provides water to Vista, Escondido, and the San Luis Rey Indian Water Authority. “Water is scarce in California,” Chester says. “They say, ‘Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.’”

This whole area by Lake Henshaw was bought out by the city of Vista in 1946 to protect their watershed and gain water rights. Though it is publicly owned, only the lake is accessible to the public for fishing. The Lake Henshaw basin hosts mostly non-native grassland, but in just the right time in spring, wildflowers pop up and carpet the undulating plain in purple and gold, Chester says. “[Hikers on the] the PCT said it to be one of the most beautiful flower places in San Diego County.”

We stop by the parking lot by the Inaja Trail, one of four trails in the county that is a national recreation trail. In the parking lot we see the Santa Ysabel Valley and oak grassland in the west. Chester and Accola point out poison oak, manzanitas, and pine trees here. Though there are beginnings of pine forest by this part of Highway 79, they are still just beginnings.

“Many places do not get much more over 26 inches [of rain per year]. So if the climate continues to warm and the rainfall diminishes, we’re gonna lose a lot of our pine forest. And we’ve already lost a fair amount from the 2003 fire,” Chester says. Some 15 years later, the devastation of the 2003 Cedar Fire is still being felt. It killed 15 people, destroyed 2400 homes, caused $800 million in damage, and scorched nearly 20,000 acres of forest.

One of the biggest losses in terms of forestry was the Sugar Pine Tree, the world’s largest pines, which grew down to Cuyamaca Lake. “They used to be 180 feet tall on Cuyamaca Peak before a fire in the 1950s. One tree on Middle Cuyamaca Peak was 9 feet in diameter. Based on counting growth rings of other trees in the region, that tree was probably close to 1000 years old when it was killed in the Cedar fire of 2003,” wrote Oberbauer.

The County of San Diego has acquired portions of this area to help preserve its wilderness, and recovery efforts are being made by Cleveland National Forest. Kirsten Winters, the forest biologist for the Cleveland National Forest, says, “If you don’t plant trees you’ll get chaparral. You have to be aggressive to get trees back, because things are starting to change.”

Nearing Julian, we are now above 4000 feet elevation. We’re about to pass Mom’s Pie House when Chester thinks he spots a California Buckeye. He reverses the car. “We’ll just be here a moment,” he tells me, excited to examine the species.

“Wow wow wow! I hardly ever see that. It’s not native to Southern California. North of Los Angeles is where it’s the southernmost,” he says.

“Is it a buckeye?” Accola asks. The botanists excitedly examine the characteristics of the plant in front of us.

“I mean, I’m not very familiar with it but I know buckeyes have these long --” Chester was about to point out something about the tree.

“--and I know it has these kind of leaves,” Accola says as she gazes at the narrow foliage.

“I don’t know, do buckeyes have these kind of leaves? Huh. Oh I got the book; I can look. Oh no, those aren’t native to Southern California. Well, maybe it’ll have it because of Palomar.” Chester grabs the book that details an elaborate key of plants of San Diego so he can classify the tree in front of us.

As the cars whoosh past us, deliberation continues, until the tree is identified as aesculus californica, otherwise known as the California Buckeye.

Accola has seen this type of tree in Yosemite, but never this far south in California as San Diego. Earlier on the trip, Chester shared with me a couple lessons to explain why plants grow where they do. “[P]lant communities are only describing the dominant plants. Every place has unique plants not found elsewhere,” he said. “Rare species are common, and common species are rare.”

His second lesson: “Plant communities are responding primarily to weather conditions, but also to geology, geography (slope aspects, etc.), and other factors.” Sometimes, we don’t know what these factors are.

It’s 86 degrees now as we near Julian, cooler than it was earlier up north. The pine trees reach high and many near the 79 are Coulter pines with tufts of long needles. The pines are nicknamed “widow-makers” for their cones, which are larger and sharper than a pineapple. A cone from this tree can weigh 11 pounds, and could drop from a height of 80 feet, which would do some damage to your head.

“I surveyed people on my list and asked if anybody was ever hit by a Coulter pine. Two people responded and said that they knew of somebody that had been hit,” Chester says.

“So there are only rumors,” Accola says.

Another frequently-appearing tree in the Julian area is the black oak, which is more closely related to the eastern species of oak, says Accola. People from the east think black oak is a real oak but wouldn’t say the same for the coast live oak.

Highway 79 passes through the town of Julian. For a time in the late 19th century, it had a larger population than San Diego, noted Oberbauer, due to a gold rush. “At the time, the total value of the extraction was approximately 5 million dollars. However, with inflation, that could be multiplied by 10 or 20 times to get an approximation of what it would have been worth now,” Oberbauer said — 50 or 100 million dollars.

“In 1989, there was a shootout in the Banner Grade area that left two people dead in a dispute over a mining claim,” Oberbauer emailed. This event, known as the The Chariot Canyon Massacre involved two San Diego men: Gustav Oran Hudson and a Benjamin Haimes. Hudson said he just completed the proper paperwork to gain property rights to a gold-mining area, yet Haimes said he was in possession of this property for four years and had spent around $250,000 on improvements there. The result: 40 gunshots fired at an employee of Haimes’ and his friend.

The tourist bustle disappears behind and we drive for a few minutes south of town until Chester steers the car into a turnout for Desert View Park off of Inspiration Point Road. We roll around the circular lot, park, and step out of the car. Warm winds meet us, and the 90 degrees feels good. A broad view of the Anza-Borrego desert is in front of us to the east.

Looking below and beyond, one can see the Cigarette Hills that enclose the Highway 78, so named, it is said, because truckers have enough time to smoke a cigarette as they traverse that section.

Salton Sea, on a clear day, is visible beyond the Cigarette Hills. It’s said to be the largest lake in California. “[It was] formed in 1905 when there was an accident with the irrigation from the Colorado River,” Chester says.

On the left, 5700-foot Volcan Mountain stands tall above the San Felipe Valley stretching below it to the north. The San Felipe Hills lie behind it, and the Santa Rosa Mountains in the distance. Hidden from view beyond those hills and mountains to the east lies Borrego Springs.

Desert View Park feels like a secret. Just a couple other cars are parked in the lot with us. We meander around the park’s lot, and Chester points out changes in soil type. “Geology controls plants. Not only for plants, but for people. Geology controls water supply, and California, in your lifetime, seems to be having a very hard time,” he says.

A reddish soil called gabbro reigns supreme here. “Gabbro places seem to hang together more than the geography here,” Chester says. The same species of plants also grow over on Otay Mountain, which is closer to the coast and the border, because it has the right soil. “Plants all come together in whatever conditions suit them. So they didn’t necessarily adapt to these [conditions], they were born being able to survive in these areas.”

Chester and Accola spot blooming mule’s ears, whose leaves looks like a mule’s ear, daffodils, coffeeberry with its soft leaves, and toyon, which was mistaken for holly on the hillsides of Hollywood, giving the city its name. Chester sees a couple pine trees that someone planted in gabbro soil, which is non-native to them. “I don’t know what these are doing here.”

As we press onward to Cuyamaca, we make a sudden stop because there is a lush patch of desert milkweed on the side of the road. Earlier, near Holcomb Village and Aguanga, we found some, but here is a denser and untouched patch.

“This is the lushest batch of them I’ve ever seen. So tall, so healthy-looking. The leaves are about a third longer,” Accola says. Usually, desert milkweed has monarch butterflies dancing around it. “I suspect that probably wouldn’t have been the case decades ago when the butterflies were more numerous,” says Chester. I recall Kirsten Winter saying, “[a]nimals are shifting distribution northwards, butterflies as well.” Over the next 50 years, researchers expect the wilderness in San Diego to travel a few hundred miles north, she said.

Next to the milkweed, the botanists spot a flower called sacred datura that is known to be used for its hallucinogenic properties. When digested, the flower depresses your breathing. Chester says that he’s heard stories of people going out in Joshua Tree, eating some, then falling and injuring themselves. “When they’re injured they have to go into surgery, and in surgery they put anesthesia on them which depresses your breathing. [Your breathing] is already depressed and so people die at that point in surgery,” says Chester. The plant is in the same family as tomatoes.

Accola wanders beyond the milkweed and finds a Jeffrey pinecone. This pinecone is closer to the size of a grapefruit and doesn’t seem like it would cause serious harm if it landed on your head, but it pricks and covers my hands in sap as I pick it up.

We drive by the meadows near Lake Cuyamaca. With stickers in our socks and birds singing in the trees nearby, we find the indigenous and blooming flower known as Cuyamaca larkspur

In other times of the year, Oberbauer said the meadows near Lake Cuyamaca are a reliable location in San Diego County to see wildflowers. “Golden gold fields, white Cuyamaca meadowfoam flowers, butter-yellow Tidy Tips, and pink, purple, and white owl’s clover are some of the more dominant ones.”

Though we find the Cuyamaca larkspur blooming — small orchid-like purple flowers on a spear-like stalk — the majority of the meadows near Lake Cuyamaca were empty of wildflowers in late June. “This is one of the most reliable wildflower places, but as you can see it’s basically a non-native grassland now. Everything you see is practically non-native except for a few of the plants that are still hanging on like the [larkspur], and down there,” Chester says, pointing to the meadow on the other side of the road.

More evidence of what was but now isn’t shows itself as we’re driving along Lake Cuyamaca. The Middle Peak is on the west side of the 79. It rises to 5883 feet and showcases the aftermath of the 2003 Cedar fire.

The peak is covered with dead trees that stick out of the mountain’s face. It resembles a pile of sand that a child has jabbed sticks into. “[The California lilac] grows naturally; in fact, it’s necessary. It’s a nitrogen fixer so it’s a wonderful thing to have come in after fires. The lilac puts nitrogen back into the soil. Then, if the climate is right, the trees will come back later. Yet hurrying up the process has made it so even the trees that were planted don’t seem to be surviving.”

The people who planted the trees there were able to get money for carbon credits from commercial companies, first after taking down all the California lilac. “I just can’t imagine mowing them all down so you could plant a few trees that don’t have blooms,” Chester says.

Earlier, when we were north of Julian, we passed a sign for the annual Lilac festival that begins in March and goes through April. Blue-blooming lilacs are plentiful in Julian, not merely surviving the 2003 Cedar fire but benefitting from it as well. They are fire followers like other opportunistic plants and have populated the ashy land since 2003. “There was one plant species that I had never seen, or hardly ever seen, there was just one or two of them, all of a sudden, BOOM, after the fire there were billions of them out here,” Chester says. “It’s a wonder that all botanists aren’t arsonists,” he jokes.

Before we’re about to round the lake, a wild turkey charges across the road in front of us. A non-native species, they have now taken over about 18 percent of the state and can weigh up to 20 pounds. In order to prevent the spread of the exotic species and conserve the wildlife that is native in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, which has the greatest turkey concentration in San Diego County, California State Park officials have ordered the removal of hundreds of turkeys since 1995, according to a page posted by San Diego Plant Atlas. Yet: “in spite of the trapping, the numbers both inside and outside the park continue to increase.” “Non-native species have an advantage wherever they are because they don’t have their usual predators,” Chester says

We stop at the Lake Cuyamaca Restaurant and rest outside on its balcony. Chester eats an ice cream bar and Accola and I sit and look out onto the lake. “Because there’s been so many dry years, they put a dam on the upstream side [of Lake Cuyamaca] and they’ve pumped the water to go into it,” Chester recalls.

A bird hops around the outside seating area and Chester asks Accola if she can identify it. A server overhears, and also asks what kind of bird it is, since she gets this question all the time. Accola is unsure and says she will have to use her resources at home to correctly identify.

A few days later, Accola emails saying she has identified it as a Brewer’s blackbird through process of elimination. It fits the criteria: “9-inch long, pointed bill, medium length tail, ‘Often tame around outdoor eateries’... Also breeds around clearings, lakes….”

South of the highway, still close to the lake, we spot a velvety false lupine and giant red paintbrush. Not far from this area, in northern Cuyamaca Rancho State Park beneath Stonewall Peak, we find a healthy thicket of California rose right off on the side of 79 that gives a sweet and subtle floral smell. Accola spots a poodle-dog bush, which if it touches your skin, will raise blisters that last weeks.

As we head near Oakzanita Springs and pass other private camping sites, a lady in her car honks at us for going too slow. We pull over to the nearest shoulder to let her go by. Even as we twist around the mountains near the southern end of Highway 79, motorcyclists and cars round the bend without much braking.

Soon, granite boulders wall us in on the left side of the road while a fenced edge is on the right. We have almost reached the southernmost part of highway 79 in Pine Valley and Descanso, where dense chaparral, scrub oak, and California lilac cluster on the hills nearby.

In an attempt to find a succulent called dudleya abramsii atop the wall of granite boulders, we pull into a shoulder on the edge. We hop across the highway when we don’t hear the whiz of any car driving close. After around 10 or 15 minutes scavenging the boulder mass, Chester, Accola, and I still can’t find a path to the top. We do see blue elderberry and blessed thistle on the edge, and parish’s goldenbush and a bush monkeyflower growing in their habitat of rocks.

We turn around and head back north on the 79, taking the highway toward Temecula. We hit traffic, and we travel botanist speed along the road as the lowering sun casts golden light on the sweetbush and cholla growing in the gabbro soil along the way.

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