April 3, 2010

The San Rafael Wilderness

Located high above the Santa Ynez Valley in eastern portion of Santa Barbara County are the San Rafael Mountains. These beautiful mountains contain rare serpentine grasslands, fragrant chapparal, and coniferous forests of the multi-branched Gray Pine, the Jeffrey Pines, and the endemic Big-cone Douglas fir.

The mountains consist of three primary parallel ridges. The westernmost and easternmost ridges have fire roads on their ridgecrests, while in between are deep forested valleys with a central lower ridge that consists of the large San Rafael Wilderness.

The San Rafael Wilderness is one of the oldest wilderness areas in the country, first being set aside by William McKinley and officially gaining wilderness status with the original Wilderness Act of 1964. Much of the wilderness was incinerated by the 2007 Zaca Fire, but within these new grasslands, beautiful displays of wildflowers are now evident.

We drove up the scenic Figueroa Mountain Road to the western ridgecrest of about 4500 feet. From there, we followed the gated fire road for several miles enjoying the cool air and spectacular views from the summit ridge. From here, we could look across the entire wilderness, look across the Santa Ynez Valley and see the Santa Ynez Mountains which separates the ocean from the interior.

Green serpentine

Serpentine is a metamophic rock that forms at spreading centers deep under the ocean and is thrust upwards due to tectonic action. It contains many heavy metals including magnesium, chromium, nickel, and mercury and thus most plants can not grow on it.

As such, unique communities of grasses and certain specialized wildflowers are all that can grow on these "toxic" soils. Following these species are also rare insects, such as butterflies specialized to these "toxic" plants. Due to the rarity of this material, these areas often have many endemics and endangered species.

Big-leaf maple flowers at the very southern extent of their range

No comments: