Dry Lakes Ridge Adventure

This month’s activity calendar is up.  Take advantage of all the good stuff going on before the valley becomes a soul-wrenching heat cauldron.

Among the myriad options for outdoor fun and adventure is the once-per-decade trek up the challenging Dry Lakes Ridge with local plant maven and CNPS Channel Islands chapter president David Magney.  The hike is Saturday, and David was kind enough to take a few minutes to give some background and insight into this fascinating, unique area.


1.  “A Flora of Dry Lakes Ridge” came out in 1986, based on your extensive exploration and research in 1984.  What led you to this particular area?  At what point did you realize that there was something unique about the ridge that merited a full-length study?  What kind of institutional support/resistance did you contend with?

I have always loved maps, spending hours looking at all the places named on them.  Looking at a recreation map for the Los Padres National Forest, I saw this place called “Dry Lakes Ridge” and, of course, I wanted to see what was up there.
Map of the region

Map of the region

As part of my map examination exercise then seeing what it was like there, I found out that there is a stand of Ponderosa Pine in the “lakes”.  That in itself, not to mention the “dry lakes”, forced me to hike up to the top (no easy hike) and see for myself.  I needed to conduct independent research for my Senior Thesis at U.C.S.B. as an Environmental Studies major, and I was certainly interested in studying the plants of the entire county, so I came up with the idea of writing a flora for Dry Lakes Ridge.

Ponderosa pine

Ponderosa pine

Twenty or 30 years before, such as study would have qualified as PhD. material, but the bar had been raised.  I had nothing but support from the U.S. Forest Service (except they wouldn’t let me drive my Jeep to the top) and my major professors.  Time was the only real challenge.

2.  Before you even reach the Dry Lakes region the climb up to the ridge is a bear.  What type of habitats dominate this slope?  What are your favorite plants to observe as you catch your breath?  Any advice for the first time climbers?

The “trail” to the top is an old fire break “road”, which gets re-bulldozed whenever there is a fire in the area.  The last big one was in 1985.  That trial starts on State Route 33 at the east end of the ridge at the pass between the Ventura River and Sespe Creek watersheds.
The climb

The climb

It climbs up a southern exposure that is dominated by chaparral plant communities (we now call them vegetation alliances).  The chaparral in this area, near the highway, is dominated by Chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum) and at least two species of Ceanothus (Ceanothus crassifolius and C. leucodermis).

White thorn ceanothus

White thorn ceanothus (leucodermis)

At the top of the steep part the vegetation changes to a manzanita-dominated chaparral, dominated by Transverse Ranges Eastwood Manzanita (Arctostaphylos glandulosa ssp. mollis), which is a low-growing shrub compared to the Chamise and Ceanothus.  These plants are adapted to the summer drought conditions and shallow soils.  The slopes here are covered in white, cream, and blue when these dominant shrubs are in full bloom.  When climbing this part, I also am pleased when I come upon a small root parasite, Chaparral Broom-rape (Orobanche bulbosa), which you don’t see very often.

Orobanche bulbosa

Orobanche bulbosa

Having to rest frequently on the steep ascent is always a good excuse to take in the fabulous view of the upper Ventura River watershed where you can see the northern Channel Islands on a clear day.  Advise for anyone hiking up?  Take lots of water, where a hat and very sturdy hiking boots, and take your camera.

3.  You finally make it to the top and things change drastically.  You classify the habitats as “wetlands” and “uplands”.  What are you theories on how this unique area formed and why there is such botanical diversity?  Do you have a favorite of the various sub-communities represented?

Wetland habitats are those where there is lots of surface water or a very shallow groundwater table.  On Dry Lakes Ridge, you will only find wetlands at Bellyache Falls and in the stream bottoms, and a seep on the north side along SR 33.

The basins

The basin

The Dry Lakes on the summit are basins that where created as a result of the thrust faults running east-west along the south side near the top.  Grinding of the rocks along the slip faces of the faults wore down the rock, which eventually resulted in the depression on top of the ridge.  The soil is deep and fine textured in the basins, which has allowed different plants to grow there that otherwise would not, such as Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa) and Great Basin Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata var. tridentata).  A wonderfully fragrant surprise in the basins as well is the annual Mustang Mint (Monardella lanceolata)
Mustang mint

Mustang mint

that you can smell when you walk on them before you notice them otherwise.

4.  Everyone loves finding rare stuff.  The book notes there are no endangered species is this still the case today?  What are your favorite less-than-common plants on the ridge?  In the 30 years since your original observations have you noticed any significant population increase or decrease? Anything brand new? Anything disappear?

One rare, though not formally listed by any government agency, is the California Ground Cone (Boschniakia strobilacea).
California groundcone

California groundcone

Dry Lakes Ridge was the first place any botanist had found it in Ventura County.  It is a root parasite and closely related to the Chaparral Broom-rape.  It seems to be stable at its one known spot at the eastern end of the easternmost basin.  I always visit this plant when I go up there.  The iconic plant of the mountain is the Ponderosa Pine.

Ponderosa immature cones

Ponderosa immature cones

The population on Dry Lakes Ridge is a relict from the Pleistocene when the climate was wetter and colder.  The number of trees has decreased significantly since I first visited the summit basins.  Many where killed during the 1985 Wheeler Fire.  Climate change that results in higher average temperatures and lower rainfall on Dry Lakes Ridge will eventually result in the extirpation of this species from the ridge.  I always find something “new” when I go back, but that is most likely a result of finally seeing something rather than a species colonizing the ridge for the first time; that is, except for invasive exotic species.

5.  Your final recommendations in the publications are for the forest service to officially protect the Dry Lakes Ridge and to cease expansion of the fuel break.  Did any of this occur?  Do you still feel the same way, is the region in worse or better condition since thirty years ago?

The Forest Service did indeed protect the ridgetop by designating it as a Botanical Area.  However, when there is a major wildfire, on-the-ground fire crews don’t always get the word about where sensitive resources occur, and the fuel break was regraded.  In some places, it was expanded, or took a new path.  On the other hand, afterwards, the Forest Service has headed the advise of its resource specialists and worked hard to restore habitats that had been damaged.

Magney and crew circa 2001

Magney and crew circa 2001

Personally, I see no justification for any fire breaks/fuel breaks on places such as Dry Lakes Ridge that are in the middle of nowhere.  Such features almost NEVER stop a fire, especially in chaparral or when the wind is blowing, so there is no need to put people and equipment at risk by putting them in such areas.  Recently, the Los Padres Forest Watch and others wanted Dry Lakes Ridge to become part of a wilderness area, which would preclude the use of motorized equipment for any purpose.  Such a designation would certainly benefit the plants and wildlife living on Dry Lakes Ridge.  In general, conditions on Dry Lakes Ridge are similar to what they where 30 years ago.

Thank you David.  If anyone is interested in attending on Saturday contact him by email at david@magney.org or 646-6045


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