San Bruno Mountain Ecological Reserve (3/7/2023)

Today I planned to visit San Bruno Mountain. I’ve never been on the Southwest side, and I recently saw an iNat observation of a Checker Lily in the Juncus Ravine. Which sparked my interest, of course!

But after reading the reviews on AllTrails for both main trails on that side of the Mountain, I could not get past the repeated use of the word, “steep.” So I opted to return to the SBM Ecological Reserve instead, where another iNat observation of a Checker Lily was made somewhere along the Owl Canyon Trail. I don’t know what it’s actually called, because I can’t find a name for it. But it seemingly goes up Owl Canyon. So that’s what I’ll call it until I hear otherwise.

I’ve only ever been up the gravel road and the Buckeye Canyon Trail, also named by me in the same vein. And, so far, I’ve avoided the Owl Canyon Trail as it appears to be quite steep at the very start. Or that’s what I THOUGHT.

Okokok, so I now understand there are TWO trails North of the Buckeye Canyon Trail. The steep one I knew of was what I thought was THE TRAIL up Owl Canyon. But after finding the Checker Lily location, it’s on what I think is the trail on Google Maps. But THAT trail apparently doesn’t wind itself into the canyon, as the map would indicate. It just seemed to go up and up towards the summit. I’m realizing this all might be tough or entirely uninteresting to follow…

SO. Bottom line is there is more research to be done. To sort this all out. But let me just journal about where I went today.

Started at the skate park / North entrance of SBMER. Immediately saw the small trail up the wildflower meadow, which I’ve been up before recently but not far up. For some reason, I thought it was some side trail through the meadow. So many colorful wildflowers I could see from Quarry Road, and so many more than last time I was there.

But I headed to the trailhead I thought would go up Owl Canyon. It was unfortunately QUITE WET on the trail. Moreso than last time I was there when I heard frogs. Heard them again today!

Bright glowing-green catkins were on the Arroyo (?) Willows there. Oil runoff was unfortunately still in the water, like last time. As I approached the wet earth staircase that starts the climb up, I looked to my left and saw ANOTHER MUDSLIDE had happened. Down Owl Canyon! So there were TWO mudslides in the SBMER!!

I found a path of sorts and followed it to get closer to the mudslide wreckage. Yep, so like the one at Buckeye Canyon but nowhere near as destructive. On my way back, I planned to pick up a plastic lid and container that was along the path and take it with me. It kind of looked like something maybe someone brought to observe with? I picked up the lid and noticed a neat-looking insect on the side. As I was wondering what it was, I realized it was A TICK.

RIGHT. I’d just walked through and on grasses!!! My impulse was to throw it far from me. Such is my automatic response to all blood-sucking critters, as they always find me and torture me. So I left the lid and container. And hope the person who left it there comes back for it.


Got to the steep staircase and tested out the initial steps. Not too bad. At about the fourth step up or so, I saw a small message board. Pretty old scat. And it’s been rainy. Does it change color THAT FAST?

An Anna’s Hummingbird caught my attention. Then three Rock Pigeons flew together above me for some time. Two landed on the hillside near the top of the staircase and started eating in the grass there. Heard a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. And Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Bushtits were in the trees nearby.

After I realized it was too risky with the wetness ahead to try climbing the rest of the staircase, I checked the location of that Checker Lily observation. Which I assumed, for some reason, was up ahead. NOPE. It was somewhere on that wildflower meadow trail! DANG!

On my way back down, I slipped on the mud and landed on my butt. Unfortunately, this would occur a couple times more during my visit. I have learned my lesson of visiting sloped locations too soon after the rains. OH, YES, I HAVE.

But, I picked myself up, dusted myself, and started all over again.

Began the ascent of the trail yettobenamed and could not stop gushing over ALL THE FLIPPIN’ WILDFLOWERS. That hillside meadow was covered with Lupine (plus a grateful Black-tailed Bumble Bee), Miner’s Lettuce, California Poppies, California Golden Violets, Pacific Pea, and Yarrow (plus a newtome moth, Epirrhoe plebeculata?). NONE of my photos can do this meadow justice. NOT ONE.

And then I saw a cluster of San Francisco Wallflowers! OHSOEXCITING!! I’ve only ever seen them in the wild once before, and it was up near the summit of SBM. This was a large cluster, all by themselves. So charming. California Buttercup started showing up, too. And then I saw it.

My first Checker Lily in the area. Very close to the trail. With MANY nearby! Totally out in the open. And ohsoeasy to access. Fantastic!

I kept climbing up the relatively easy incline, and I took a very informal path to some scrub. I could see from the trail that it had that very short moss on it, like at the shellmound nearby. So I went to inspect. No shells, but so similar-looking! AND, I happened to see a caterpillar making its way from under a scrub. Variable Checkerspot! I wished it luck and returned to the trail so I had no chance of possibly not seeing another one and stepping on it.

A California Scrub-Jay was perched on top of a tree, like they do. Found an owl-looking feather (that someone on iNat confirmed was from a Great Horned Owl!). And more Checker Lilies appeared, further from the trail. And yet, all on the North side of the trail. Hm.

And then I got to a juncture. A trail appeared on my left. And it went down (toward Buckeye Canyon, I presumed) and upish (into Buckeye Canyon, I presumed). And the trail I was on just appeared to keep going up and up. I was starting to become convinced it wasn’t going to diverge into Owl Canyon. Like the other trail seemed like it did. And the sun was actually getting to be too much, which was pretty nutso as the high was 53 in Brisbane today!

So I opted to explore. And took the trail going left and upish, toward Buckeye Canyon.

I was soon immersed in a short forest. Some California Bay and some Coast Live Oaks and scrub quickly enveloped me. And it was like I’d gone down a wonderful rabbit hole. Hummingbird Sage (none of it blooming, save for ONE single plant far ahead) abounded. And some Chaparral Currant and Common Cowparsnip.

It soon became obvious to me that this was definitely a well-curated trail, despite the overgrowth onto the trail. There were MANY perfectlyplacedrocks for mini steps. Switchbacks. The Pacific Poison Oak was kept back enough that you could avoid it, with careful attention.

Lots of Pacific Hound’s Tongue. Spotted some newtome liverwort, Crescent-cup Liverwort. Some Bronze Shoulderband Snail shells and one with a snail still inside! Orange Bush Monkeyflower plants without flowers yet.

And then I got to an opening where I could see Brisbane below me. I was kinda far up! Soon after that, I was able to see where the mudslide down Buckeye Canyon originated. Not far from the top and looked quite close to where the Buckeye Canyon Trail ends up at the summit. Just nuts.

The trail kept meandering toward Buckeye Canyon. And I was delighting in realizing it must eventually connect to the canyon itself. I don’t recall there being a connected trail from the Buckeye Canyon Trail going North. So this must end at the creekbed?

And soon after I had those thoughts, I got to it. The trail abruptly ended. And the mudslide was right behind the rest of it. Lots of tree debris was there. Water was running in the creek. Not a ton, but it was very audible. I looked around and could tell the trail used to continue a bit. But where to exactly?? And, I’ll never know now. Unless I talk to someone who knows those trails…

There wasn’t an easy way down from the creekbed, so I had to turn around and head back. As I was making my way out of the dead end, I noticed a unique ring-shaped Coyote scat. And I realized the tree debris had created a very sheltered spot right there. Neat!

On my way back, I noticed blooming Pacific Sanicle and Coast Silk Tassel and Bluewitch Nightshade. Stopped to admire some of the Pacific Hound’s Tongue and smell the Chaparral Currant, which was surprisingly worth stopping for.

And then I was back. Out in the open. Sun still shining. Tons of California Golden Violets welcoming me back. I decided to try the trail down toward Buckeye Canyon to leave the mountain. And, given how often I slipped on the way down that slick mud, I wish I hadn’t!!

However, it turns out that trail (or that part of it) should be called Common Star Lily Trail, given how many flippin’ Common Star Lilies are alongside it. SO FLIPPIN’ MANY.

Finally arrived at ground level, and it all looked pretty much the same as my last visit. Water still running down from Buckeye Canyon. Milkmaids still impossibly growing from under the rubble.

I left, thinking it just might be possible to head up Owl Canyon Trail after all. When it’s not wet. And I have a walking stick. And am wearing bugrepellantpants. Looking forward to returning for it!

So. I learned of new trails on my favorite part of SBM. I learned of an accessible (for me) meadow treasure trove of wildflowers. And I learned that timing my visits after the rains is something I REALLY need to incorporate going forward, for sloped earth trails. It’s all about the learning, folks.

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