The most magnificent place in the Sierra Nevada: an ode to the Dana Plateau

A view from the top of the Dana Plateau (photo by Beth Pratt)When naming spectacular places in the Sierra Nevada, Yosemite Valley or Mt. Whitney inevitably rise to the top of the list.  While the entire region is filled with remarkable scenery, my favorite place in the Sierra, if not the world, is the sublime, ancient landscape of the Dana Plateau.

When exploring the Dana Plateau, located just outside the eastern border of Yosemite National Park on Tioga Pass, your feet walk on a land with remnants of terrain 25 million years old. The rock-filled plateau resembles a Martian landscape and presents an ancient geologic wonderland—the high alpine basin remained untouched by recent glaciations, and as a result, offers a rare glimpse of a landscape millions of years old. According to King Huber in his The Geologic Story of Yosemite National Park, “these upland surfaces have significance far beyond being unglaciated, because they are very ancient.”  

On the northern end of the plateau, you can wander through fantastic rock gardens that have grown over millions of years. The oddly shaped granite boulders that inhabit the area act as aged sentinels who have endured an eon of winds, rains, snows, and sun that have shaped their unique character. Some rocks display distinct “weatherpans,” shallow depressions formed by water and erosion over thousands of years.

Mount Dana and its glacier also stand watch over the plateau and the adjacent Glacier Canyon. The Dana Glacier, one of about 100 active glaciers in the Sierra Nevada, is clearly visible on the northern slope of Mt Dana. Formed sometime during the Little Ice age (1450 to 1850), the glacier has lost a third of its size since 1883 as the result of the changing climate. On clear days the deep cerulean blue waters of Dana Lake reflect the sky and the mighty peaks that surround it.

Each visit to the Dana Plateau transports me back to a prehistoric time—indeed, during my visits I would not have been surprised to observe a pterodactylus extending its enormous wings as it soared over the waters of Dana Lake. 

The magnificent landscape, although underscoring my insignificance in the greater scheme of things with its unavoidable reminder of the far-reaches of time, produces what I can only term a state of rapture.  Or as John Muir said with much more eloquence, “Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.” 

For a short video of the Dana Plateau and a photo slideshow, see below:

Save the Frogs!

During my first thru hike on the John Muir Trail almost fifteen years ago, on the ascent up to Seldon Pass I encountered a young man energetically trotting down the trail without a backpack. Before even saying hello he asked excitedly, “have you seen any frogs?”  The question was a strange greeting, but this researcher had luckily encountered a fellow frog enthusiast. Subsequently he revealed that he was a researcher studying frog populations in the Sierra Nevada. I wish I could recall his name, but his passion for frogs I remember well.

Frog and Mantis ShowdownI’m not sure when my passion for frogs began—as a child of the 70s I’m sure watching Kermit the Frog on the Muppet Show had something to do with my interest. I spent countless hours searching the banks of the Concord River in Massachusetts looking for amphibians; as an adult, I wandered the high country in Yosemite near Tioga Pass looking for the Yosemite toad.

In 2007, my partner and I constructed a frog pond at our home outside Yosemite (I need to give proper credit: he constructed it while I took the easy job and decorated it with plants). Our intent was to provide a proper habitat for the Pacific Chorus frogs that already lived in our yard. Instead of watching television on summer evenings, we would gaze at the chorus frogs catching moths on our window ledge. One memorable occasion, a chorus frog and a California mantis engaged in a standoff—neither one backed down and both eventually retreated. Another time an Alligator lizard and a chorus frog rested nearby each other on our windowsill.

Alligator Lizard and Chorus Frog

Build it and they will come. Only a few weeks after we erected the pond, I encountered a western toad at dusk heading toward the water with his peculiar walk. This March and April, during my visit home from Yellowstone, I listened to the distinct and loud “kreck-ek” of the Pacific Chorus Frogs day and night. Mary Dickerson, who authored The Frog Book in 1906, deemed the chorus frog the “entertaining little acrobat of the frog world” and described their song: “At dusk or on rainy days a loud resonant trill comes from the trees and vines. The sound has the charm of contentment in it; in fact it is much like the purring of a cat, only louder.”

Our Backyard Frog Pond

Pacific Chorus Frog Eggs in Our PondMuch to my delight I also discovered chorus frog tadpole eggs in our pond during my visit (I love the Honduras word for tadpole: “bunbulun”). The tiny eggs grew rapidly during my stay at home, from small dots to wriggling miniatures. 

I regretted having to return to Yellowstone before they hatched, but my partner Shad has promised to remain on tadpole watch and send photos as soon as they emerge. Below is a video of our frog sanctuary.

Despite the success of our backyard frog sanctuary, I am extremely worried about our frog friends across the globe. As Kermit the Frog sang, “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” Today, amphibians worldwide are disappearing at an unprecedented rate. I’ve written previously about the staggering declines of Yellow-legged frog in Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada, and the recent study in Yellowstone that showed decreases in 3 of the 4 amphibian species in the park. If frogs are having a difficult time surviving in some of the best-protected places on the planet, something is truly wrong.  Here’s another alarming statistic: climate change, pollution, habitat destruction and disease have put over a third of the world’s amphibian species on the brink of extinction.

How can you help? Dr. Kerry Kriger, who is currently studying amphibian disease, founded a great organization: Save the Frogs. Visit the website to learn more about amphibian extinction and what you can do to help.  Be sure to also mark your calendar so you can celebrate the first official Save The Frogs Day on April 28!

More Merced River Canyon Wildflowers

Emerson once remarked, "the earth laughs in flowers." Laughter has been abundant in the Merced River Canyon outside Yosemite this spring! Yesterday, I strolled up the Burma Grade Road over the Merced River to observe the new wildflower arrivals for the week. Visit my photo gallery for more pictures.

Spring Poppies in the Merced River Canyon

Yesterday I drove up Highway 140 to Yosemite and witnessed one of the most spectacular poppy blooms I've seen in my twenty years in California. The hills radiated sunshine generated by the orange fire of the poppies. 

Here's a video I made of the poppies:

Below are a sampling of photographs as well. For more images you can visit my photo gallery.

The National Parks: An Evening With Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan

One of the most prized volumes on my bookshelf is a tattered hardcover entitled National Parks of the U.S.A. Inside the pages is a list written in faded ballpoint pen naming five western parks: Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, and Glacier. I wrote that list as a young girl and I can still remember gazing endlessly at the photographs of granite peaks, roaring waterfalls, and magnificent wildlife, and daydreaming about wandering in those landscapes. I would think, someday, someday

The west captured my childhood imagination—even in our settled and civilized world—as fiercely as it did any adventurer contemplating the wide-open expanses of America in the 1800s. Yet my urge wasn’t simply to “go west.” The idea of National Parks, of islands of untouched and preserved wilderness inspired me. I wanted to see those places so badly! And in the age before the internet, webcams, blogs and YouTube, my only window into that magical world was through my treasured picture books.

With Ken Burns in YellowstoneNational Parks have been an integral part of my life—from my father taking me to see whales on Cape Cod National Seashore, to spending college summers hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, to providing inspiration for my writing, space for my joyful wanderings, and my career as an environmental leader. The tranquility I experience while hiking in places like the Dana Plateau, Tuolumne Meadows, or Hayden Valley feeds my soul with sustenance as essential to my existence as food or water.

In their new documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan have captured the connection that I—along with millions of other people across the world—share with our National Parks. The connection originates from a reverence for not only what these special places contain, but also what they elicit from us.

With Dayton DuncanLast week I attended a special reception and screening in Yellowstone of this soon-to-be released documentary. Through Ken Burn’s brilliant filmmaking and Dayton Duncan’s poignant writing, the segments I watched translated to the screen the ongoing wonderment and lasting legacy inherent in our parks. Even on film, the sight of Old Faithful charging into the blue sky inspires awe. Yet the ‘stories behind the scenery’ of the people who shaped our parks proves just as enduring as the sublime landscape in the film. While watching the clips, I remembered myself at ten urgently gazing at a picture of Yosemite Falls, and realized the emotions superimposed themselves in time; three decades later my fascination with the parks had not lessened.

Although the segments we viewed focused on Yellowstone, I was delighted to recognize some friends from Yosemite like Shelton Johnston and Lee Stetson. And for my Yosemite comrades, I did have a chance to discuss the ‘who’s on first’ question with Ken and Dayton during the evening. I think “it’s complicated” was the final verdict. Overall, it was simply amazing to watch this project near completion. I recall providing books to researchers for  the film five years ago when I worked for the Yosemite Association.

My thanks to Ken and Dayton for giving the parks such a splendid and inspirational biography. I imagine many children experiencing the same awe I did when exposed to Yosemite Falls or Old Faithful through this vibrant picture book.

Watch for the documentary this fall on your local PBS station!

A Plea for the Pika

Pika on Rock (NPS Library)Last summer my good friend, the naturalist Jack Laws, joined me for a hike up to the Dana Plateau in Yosemite, one of my favorite places on earth. The rock filled plateau resembles a Martian landscape and presents an ancient geologic wonderland—the high alpine basin remained untouched by recent glaciations, and as a result, offers a rare glimpse of a landscape 25 million years old.

The oddly shaped granite boulders that inhabit the area act as aged sentinels who have endured an eon of winds, rains, snows, and sun that have shaped their unique character. Mount Dana and its glacier also stand watch over the plateau and the adjacent Glacier Canyon. The entire area transports the visitor back to a prehistoric time—indeed, during my visits I would not have been surprised to observe a pterodactylus extending its enormous wings as it soared over the cerulean waters of Dana Lake.

 Dana Plateau, Yosemite National ParkYet for all the beauty created by the giganticness of the sweeping plateau and its imposing granite peaks, my favorite sight amidst this landscape is a small furry creature less than eight inches long who scrambles among the rock piles largely unnoticed. 

Observant hikers (and those lucky enough to have the company of such a gifted naturalist as Mr. Laws) can encounter the American pika (ochotona princeps ) in rocky terrain at elevations of 8,000 to 13,000 in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, California, and New Mexico. The Dana Plateau, with a landscape dominated by talus, provides the ideal habitat for these small lagomorphs, also fondly referred to as rock rabbits, boulder bunnies, or whistling hares.

On a warm summer day in August, Jack and I stopped on the east slope of the plateau and sat on a large boulder, quietly and patiently scanning the terrain for signs of the pika. In the direction of Mono Lake, a large cumulonimbus cloud rose into the heights of the blue sky, its white arms extending into an anvil shape, a telltale sign of an imminent thunderstorm.   Very soon after our arrival, we heard the unmistakable high-pitched chirping of the pika—appropriately, its name may be a derivative of the Russian word pikat, meaning, “to squeak.”

Pika in Yellowstone (NPS Library)Despite the impending storm nearby, Jack opened his sketchbook and began capturing the pika with his talented artist’s hand. We both watched, delighted, as one pika harvested a stalk of lupine and carried it between his incisors back to his rockpile home. Pikas do not hibernate, but collect various grasses, shrubs, and lichen, place the food into the sun to dry, and then stash it into a “haystack” for winter consumption. The nimble and deft pikas have also been known to loot their neighbors’ haystacks.

For me, watching the rabbit-like pika scurry over talus fields is as essential to the beauty and character of the high alpine landscape as the requisite towering peaks. Sadly, the cheerful chirping of the pika may soon disappear from the high country as the effects of climate change have already reduced their numbers. Rising temperatures have diminished the already small islands of habitat for the cold-loving pikas (who can perish from overheating) and have pushed them higher up the range. If temperatures continue to increase, even the highest elevations may no longer provide a home for the pikas and the species may be threatened to the point of extinction.

Pika Eating Grass (NPS Library)Erik Beever, a USGS ecologist who co-authored a 2003 study of the species funded by the World Wildlife Fund, commented in a recent article in ENN: 

"Population by population, we're witnessing some of the first contemporary examples of global warming apparently contributing to the local extinction of an American mammal at sites across an entire eco-region." 

His study found that pikas had vanished from seven of the twenty-five sites he had surveyed over a ten-year period in Nevada, California, and Oregon.

The World Wildlife Fund is continuing to provide grants for further pika research. Dr. Lara Hansen, a senior scientist with World Wildlife Fund Climate Change Program underscored the severity of the issue, "American pikas may unfortunately be the 'canary in the coal mine' when it comes to the response of alpine and mountain systems to global warming. Their disappearance is an indication that our heavy reliance on polluting fossil fuels is causing irreparable damage to our environment. We must make the switch to clean renewable energy resources like wind and solar now before it's too late."

 Sketch by Jack Laws of Pika on Dana Plateau Donald Grayson, an archaeologist with the University of Washington, also published a study on pikas in a recent issue of the Journal of Biogeography . "Pikas are an iconic animal to people who like high elevations," he said. "They are part of the experience. What's happening to them is telling us something about the dramatic changes in climate happening in the Great Basin. Climate change will have a dramatic effect including important economic impacts, such as diminished water resources, on people."

Grayson notes that the Beever and Patton survey showed an increase of 1,700 feet in elevation in the range of the pika in Yosemite National Park. Today, pikas can be found only over 9,500 feet in Yosemite; in 1910, their range extended to as low as 7,800 feet.

These alarming trends have spurred environmental groups into action. Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity have partnered to petition federal and state agencies to list the American pika as an endangered species. Although the initial request was refused, another suit was recently filed in October. 

You can watch a video on pikas from Earthjustice below:

Although thunder began echoing off the surrounding granite peaks during our pika viewing, Jack and I remained in our observation seats, captivated by the movements of the hamster-like creature, who has managed to survive in an incredibly harsh environment despite its vulnerable appearance. I am grieved at the thought that our irresponsible environmental behavior may drive this intrepid creature to extinction.

As much as I cherish the magnificent granite peaks, glacial lakes, and spectacular views of the Dana Plateau, something will be irrevocably lost from the intrinsic character of the land and from the delight of my experience if one of the smallest inhabitants of its landscape disappears and if when hiking through the talus fields I no longer hear the sunny chirping of the pika. 

Yellowstone to Yosemite: California Field Trip

This California girl traveled yesterday to her home outside of Yosemite for a week stay to spend time with her boyfriend (and dogs, cats and fish), hike in the Sierra high country, work on her tan, and consume as much ethnic cuisine as possible in six days. Ah, the delights of California!

When in Rome…for my vacation I secured the quintessential California auto for my travels: a Mustang convertible. And upon entering the California highway system from the Fresno airport, I immediately experienced another California standard: road rage. To calm my nerves, I stopped for a Jamba Juice, only to find the store closed. Undeterred, I plugged in my iPod, blasted U2 from the speakers, and headed to the hills.

I love my new life and job in Yellowstone, but along with my family, miss other aspects of my California life. The lack of swimming opportunities in Montana and Wyoming has definitely been a hard adjustment for me as I swam year-round in CA. A dip in a lake in Yellowstone would result in certain death after about twenty minutes, and the multitude of rivers in the area still rage with the ongoing snowmelt even in late July. So for my first excursion in CA, we took the dogs down to the Merced River for a swim.