The Hike from Hell in La Jolla Valley

The title to this post is not an exaggeration.  The third field methods trip was to La Jolla Valley.  The professor and others had warned me that it was not an easy hike.  Understatement of the century.

To begin with, the drive to La Jolla from Long Beach is about four hours, ONE WAY.  La Jolla is near Malibu for reference.  Because we were hiking, the class decided it was best to get there early in the morning to avoid the heat.  Good idea.  Except I had to get up at 5 am.  FIVE AM!  The only other times I’ve had to do that was when I traveled overseas.  So the day was not off to a good start.  Not even a “meh” start.  More like “I don’t even know if I’m awake or asleep as I drive to Long Beach” start.  Good thing there weren’t many other cars out at that time of day.

After arriving at the hiking spot though, the real horror began.  We were forced to take the world’s steepest trail (in my opinion) because the other, better trail was damaged at the time.  The Chumash Trail is 0.63 miles STRAIGHT UP.  As it’s described on the Ventura County Trails website, “This is not a good route unless you are in good shape and very sure-footed!”.  By sure-footed, I’m pretty sure they mean like a goat.

Most of my classmates were somewhat athletic and able to climb up in a reasonable amount of time.  One was in the Army ROTC and practically flew up.  Pretty sure he could have carried me on his back and still beat everyone else.  It wasn’t easy for the rest either by any means, but at least they didn’t almost vomit, collapse and die like me and three others.  (At least I wasn’t alone in my suffering).

For the first five minutes I was like, “Cool, I can do this.”  After that my lungs were burning, my legs shaking, my head pounding, my back screaming and my stomach threatening to empty its contents and deposit a few of my organs out the path as well.  I honestly had never experienced anything so physically brutal before (except for a few times when I was really sick).

It wasn’t long before the majority of the class was out of sight and only three other students were left behind with me.  One of them was clearly suffering breathing and stomach troubles same as me and we both kept together more or less as we walked for a minute, then took five minute breaks sitting on the numerous rocks along the path.  Obviously I’m not in shape, nor have I ever been so.  I’m basically a small, skinny nerd whose only form of exercise is walking around campus.  I have no muscles and zero tolerance for pain.  Usually this works me for.  Ha. Ha.

The other two students were somewhere behind me and after a while I figured they had given up and gone back down.  Which turned out to be true for one of them.  She has asthma and had thrown up while attempting the climb.  Due to her health issues she called it quits and decided to wait at the bottom until the class got back.  Which was good because she was my ride back home.

The other student miraculously made it to the top, but not until the class had already moved down into the valley and started our assignments.  We all practically cheered when we saw he had made it after all.  As for me, I was the last to arrive before the class went down into the valley because the professor, like myself had thought the others weren’t going to make it.  Upon reaching the top and seeing my professor he said, “You made it!”  I said, “Thank God!”  And then collapsed into an exhausted heap (recovering-ish) before heading into the valley.

So why did we travel all that way and endure all that pain for in the first place?  Scientific research.  In other words, we went up there to find and examine a plant, the coastal sage scrub to be precise.  And there was more suffering to be had as we did that.  Mainly consisting of fighting through dried grasses and worse of all possible poison ivy.  We were blissfully unaware of the poison ivy until the professor pointed out that the stuff we had just walked through looked like poison ivy.  Now you tell me?

The rest of the day was spent hiking through the entire valley searching for points that were impossible to find thanks to malfunctioning equipment and confusing instructions.  Plus the sun eventually came out and it got unbearably hot.  To end the trip, my team got lost, trapped by the poison ivy and had to jump and climb steep riverbanks only to find that the rest of the class had left without us.  What happened to conducting a headcount before leaving a field trip?

The drive back consisted of being in constant stop-go traffic for four hours, during which I contemplated how soon I would die from poison ivy exposure or the effects of the whole ordeal taken together.  Once I finally got home I washed everything and slept for many hours.  The one bright side to this trip, I didn’t die.  So that is the first and most definitely LAST time I will ever hike to La Jolla Valley.

If you haven’t been completely exhausted by my long rant, below is the field report I wrote for the class assignment.  Enjoy and please never take the Chumash Trail.

Coastal Sage Scrub (CSS) is an extremely threatened species of vegetation found in southern California and Northern Mexico.  CSS can be identified by its soft stems and short height, usually less than 1.5 m, making it a shrub dominated species.  These plants can usually be found on dry south-facing slopes and where there are coastal terraces, rocky areas, coarse alluvial soils and below the elevation of chaparral.  Disturbances to the land though can alter these preferences.  Fire is one disturbance.  Though CSS is resilient to periodic fires, a very short fire regime might adversely affect CSS growth.  Short fire intervals can prevent seeds from growing and can allow invasive species to overtake the CSS.  Grazing is another disturbance that through the removal of CSS also allows invasive plants to conquer the emptied spaces and bring in seeds from exotic species.  There are conflicting studies on the effects of mechanical disturbances, but a general point is that long-term conversion can produce almost 100 percent grass cover.  (Engelberg et al 2013)

Coyote Brush is a type of CSS and has several advantages for spreading and beating out exotic species.  The seeds are dispersed by wind, giving them a wider range to spread.  The seeds grow quickly and Coyote Brush has a large root system with a quickly growing taproot given sufficient water.  Its dense root crown also allows it to survive and regenerate rapidly from fire, floods or clearing.  Coyote Brush is called a pioneer species because after other plants have been removed via fire or cultivation, it tends to appear first.  It can reproduce asexually, which also aids in its survival.  Coyote Brush plays an important role in providing habitat for birds and small mammals, thus these animal populations help with shrub growth.  (Laris et al)

The hypothesis for this report was that CSS recovery first occurred on the upper and steeper slopes with a more diverse set of CSS plants.  Later recovery was on lower and flatter slopes and was less diverse (mostly Coyote Brush).

Study Site
La Jolla Valley is located about 20 km northwest from Malibu and 1.3 km from the coast (Figure 1).  It sits at an elevation of 250 m and has a Mediterranean climate consisting of cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers.  Soil types include loam, clay loam and clay.  Vegetation consists of CSS, chaparral, exotic annual grasses, oak along the streams and riparian woodland.  The valley has a low fire frequency with long intervals between fires.  The three most recent fires since the 1900s occurred in 1951, 1973 and 1993.  La Jolla’s disturbance history starts with possible shrub removal prior to the 1940s and then disking and brush clearance around 1938.  Grazing occurred due to its use as a cattle ranch from 1946 to 1952.  Grazing was reduced after 1952 but continued until 1965.  In 1966, the California Department of Parks and Recreation bought the land.  These disturbances allowed the grasses to invade the valley and only lessened once such disturbances ceased.  (Engelberg et al 2013)  (Laris et al)

Figure 1: Study Sites (GPS coordinates) in La Jolla Valley.  Map by Mark Engle.

Figure 1: Study Sites (GPS coordinates) in La Jolla Valley. Map by Mark Engle.

GPS points divided by years were used to locate areas for data collection.  There were three sets of years with 10 different coordinates in each set.  The first set was from years 1976-89, the second was from 1989-07 and the last was from 2002-07.  There were four groups collecting data.  Two groups taking coordinates in a southerly direction while the other two took coordinates in a northerly direction.  Groups picked points from each set of years, averaging about five points per group (Appendix A).  Each group got points from each set of years except for one group, which got points from only one year.  All groups used hand held GPS devices to locate the points.

Groups tried to split points evenly between each other but after a while there was confusion and difficulty in finding points, including overlap with other groups.  Later two groups were told by Dr. Laris to stay on one side of the dry riverbed with the other two on the other side.  At each point, location, terrain, slope, aspect, vegetation type and elevation were noted.  Most of this was done by eyeballing except for the slope and elevation, which were determined using equipment.  Soil samples were also collected.  Bias could have been introduced because of the difficulty in using the GPS devices, uncertainty of correct point locations, not identifying plant species correctly, the overlapping of groups and points and the inability to get data for all point locations.

For the 1976 data set, all points had data collected except for points 6 and 7 with three points collected multiple times.  For the 1989 data set, only three points had data collected with one point collected twice.  For the 2002 data set, only four points had data collected with one point collected twice.  (See Appendix A for tables listing which groups got data for which points and the amount of repeats).  The average slope and elevation for the three-year sets tended to correlate with each other.  The 1976 data set had the steepest slopes and highest elevations while the 1989 data set had the lowest for both categories (Figures 2 and 3).

A wide range of plant species, mostly native, was found at the 1976 data points with less diversity, still mostly native, at the 1989 and 2002 points (Figure 4).  The number of mentions of Coyote Brush, two, was the same for each year set.  (See Appendix B for a table listing the species names and amount found).

Figure 4: Number of species type for each year’s data set.  Graph by Laylita Day.

Figure 4: Number of species type for each year’s data set. Graph by Laylita Day.

As for terrain descriptions, there were 16 different features mentioned with eight present for all three-year sets and eight found in either only one year set or only two year sets (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Terrain descriptions by year set and total.  Table by Laylita Day.

Figure 5: Terrain descriptions by year set and total. Table by Laylita Day.

According to the hypothesis, there should be a more diverse set of CSS plants during the earliest period, 1976-89, where there are also steeper slopes and higher elevations while the later years, 1989-07 and 2002-07 and lower, flatter slopes should have less plant diversity with more Coyote Brush.  Looking at the results, this does seem to be the case with 16 different species of plants, almost all CSS types, found at the higher, steeper 1976 areas.  The other two-year sets have only four or five different species mentioned.  Thus one could say that because of the steepness and high elevation, mechanical (human) and animal disturbances were less likely in such areas, allowing the plants to come back more quickly and easily.

Despite this agreement with the hypothesis, it cannot be accepted because of the difference in number of points collected for each year set.  While all but two points were collected for the 1976 set, the other two-year sets had so few points collected that it would be risky to use them for comparison with the mostly complete and probably adequately represented 1976 data.  The difference in the amount of Coyote Brush also cannot be truly compared because it appeared the same number of times in each year set, thus if taken as is, it would disprove the hypothesis that there is more Coyote Brush in the later year areas.

This also proves as a severe limitation to the research and results.  This lack of data collection can be attributed to the methods of this field study, which left all groups facing many problems and much confusion when collecting data.  The reliance on only the hand held GPS devices limited proper data collection because they did not always work correctly and sometimes gave conflicting results, such as direction.  The division of the areas and which group took which area was also not clear since some groups ended up in the same areas as others, creating overlap.  The change of how the areas were divided halfway through the assignment also added to the complexity of the data collection.

Ways to improve the methods would be to provide maps with the GPS points to each group in addition to the GPS devices, allowing groups to make sure they are in the correct area.  As for division of group areas, an easier and better way would be to use maps that have a grid over the area and having groups collect only points in certain grid spots with each grid spot being covered by only one group.  Thus a list of points in each grid spot should be provided to the group collecting data in that grid spot.  This would avoid groups repeating points and missing others.  This would also allow groups to collect data from points that are relatively close to each other, thus avoiding long, time-consuming treks between points, making efficient use of time and energy.

As for the terrain description, it is not surprising that the majority of the valley had many of the same features.  The cracks and clay go hand in hand since soil with clay in it will tend to form cracks when very dry.  It is hard to say why there were differences in certain areas though.  While there were burned plants in all three areas, ash only appeared in the oldest and youngest areas.  This could be because there is less human or animal disturbance in the steeper and higher areas, which correlate with 1976 and 2002.  Thus with less disturbance the ash will tend to stay in the area longer.

The shell midden in the 1989 data could either be just random or perhaps because that area was the flattest and lowest, and so probably a preferred area for the Chumash Indians to live and eat.  Animal burrows might also be present here because of the flatness and low elevation.  The animal presence could also indicate that there may be more Coyote Brush there (despite the lack of data points) because of symbiotic relationship they have with each other, though of course more data should be collected to confirm such an idea.

The biases and limitations of this study (the difficulty in using the GPS devices, uncertainty of correct point locations, not identifying plant species correctly, the overlapping of groups and points and the inability to get data for all point locations), have very likely made the results mostly unusable.  Thus a second trip and data collection would need to be done, in which data for all points is collected, providing an adequate amount of data for comparison and thus a better ability to prove or disprove the hypothesis.

Because of the limited data, it is hard if not impossible to draw any real conclusions about the hypothesis and results.  With the 1976 data, the hypothesis seems to correlate, but the lack of data for 1989 and 2002 means that nothing should be stated with complete certainty.  It is very likely that with the difficulty that steeper and higher areas produce, human and animal disturbances were less likely in such areas, allowing plants to recover better and faster.  The methods employed made data collection difficult and produced inadequate data.  Improvements would include using maps alongside the GPS devices and assigning a group of relatively close points based on grid spots to each group, avoiding confusion and overlap of data.  Terrain descriptions were similar for most areas with a few differences probably related to slope and elevation.  Biases and limitations were abundant is this study and so a second study would need to be done with improvements to the methods to get more accurate and usable results.


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