Friday, September 7, 2018

Discovery Trail Dangers

The Discovery Trail above the San Luis Obispo County Botanical Garden


I had a date with a fellow nature lover last Tuesday at the San Luis Obispo County Botanical Garden, which I'd not yet visited. I was eager to see local plants with labels so I could identify some I've been wondering about.  Unfortunately I was two weeks too early for our date. My calendar was wrong. Rather than waste the trip over the grade I decided to explore a bit on my own. I started with the Children's Garden.

 Discovery Trail Dangers
Gnome Depot in Children's Garden with Teepee on the Left,  © B. Radisavljevic


The Discovery Trail


As I came to the edge of the Children's Garden, I saw a sign pointing to the Discovery Trail, which invited me to a walking adventure that would last about 3/4 mile. It instructed me to be on the lookout for birds and other animals, unique plants, and ancient volcanoes. It was too misty near the ocean for me to see the "awesome views to Morro Bay," though I did see the famous smoke stacks. On my hike I did see some unique plants, but I was unaware of how many of them were poisonous.

 Discovery Trail Dangers
Beginning of Discovery Trail goes through the shade of the trees on the right, © B. Radisavljevic


The sign failed to warn me of all the dangers I might encounter on the trail before it was too late to turn back. Although the trail was level at the beginning, it started climbing when I was not far along. By the time I realized what might endanger me personally, it would have been just as dangerous for me to turn back as to complete the hike.

I'm 75 years old and was alone. I never should have attempted to do this trail without a companion and without any idea of what was ahead. Fortunately it wasn't a hot day, but I was out of shape for an uphill climb. I had also forgotten it was summer and snake season. My knowledge of poisonous plants near the trail was limited to identifying poison oak.

Dangers I Encountered on the Discovery Trail


The first bit of danger I encountered with no warning signs was this tree root in the trail that would have been easy to trip over. It was surrounded by dried leaves and other debris that helped hide it.

 Discovery Trail Dangers
Tree Root across the Discovery Trail, © B. Radisavljevic

Next was a warning sign telling me how to identify poison oak. I was already proficient at that.  I had already posted a visual ID guide online which my city police department asked permission to use on their training website for search and rescue teams. You can find it here: Oak and Poison Oak in Photos: Can You Tell the Difference?

 Discovery Trail Dangers
Poison Oak Warning Sign on Discovery Trail Surrounded by Poison Oak

The abundant poison oak was not only close to the trail, but all too often intruding onto the trail itself. A bare branch on the trail side actually brushed me as I walked past and hit my shorts. The trail is narrow, and there's not a lot of room to get out of the way of obstacles.

 Discovery Trail Dangers
Poison oak bare branches extending onto Discovery Trail, © B. Radisavljevic


Fortunately no oil transferred to my skin. The oil that causes the itchy rash is present even on dead parts of the plant and dead leaves are often mixed with the oak leaves from the trees above the creeping poison oak. This can transfer onto shoes. So it's a good idea to be careful when removing clothes and shoes that might have picked up the oil and to clean the shoes with strong soap and launder any affected clothing quickly. You don't want it on your skin.

 Discovery Trail Dangers
Red poison oak and coyote brush by edge of Discovery Trail, © B. Radisavljevic

If your skin does come in contact with poison oak, this may help if you use it as soon as possible.


Steep Trail and Wild Fennel

After I had walked for a few minutes past the concentrations of poison oak under the trees, the trail started to climb rather steeply.

 Discovery Trail Dangers

There are two dangers in the photo above that may not be obvious. You can see places where the narrow trail is almost covered with the slippery straw-like dried grasses. In addition to that there are small loose rocks you may not see as clearly. Both are easy to slide on. That's dangerous on this sort of slope. It was difficult to get sure footing. I began to envy mountain goats here.



When I published this post, I believed those pretty yellow-top plants you see on the side of the trail were wild parsnip -- an invasive plant that can make you as miserable as poison oak. Wild parsnip has a toxic sap in the stem. If that sap gets on your skin, it will make it extremely sun sensitive -- so sensitive that some people have gotten second and third degree burns from it. Check this illustrated article to see what it can do to you. It also has information about a look-alike plant called Golden Alexander.

I have since found out from a volunteer at the botanical garden that the plant is wild fennel instead. That makes me feel better about this trail. The flowers are very similar to the wild parsley, but the leaves of the fennel are much frillier. They just don't show much in these photos. I think the leaves get smaller when the plant flowers and the stalks shoot up.

 Discovery Trail Dangers
Closeup View of Wild Fennel, © B. Radisavljevic
 Discovery Trail Dangers
Wild Fennel on Hillside, © B. Radisavljevic

The only other plant I know of that only slightly resembles this is common dill -- the kind they make pickles out of. It has similar yellow tops, but its leaves are much more fern-like. If in doubt about any plant with a yellow umbrella-shaped flower head, stay away from it or you may be very sorry later that you didn't.

Over all, I would not wanted to have missed this view from a high point on the trail. I wish there had been a bench to rest on before I got to the highest point on the trail. Those my age might appreciate it. At least I did not encounter any snakes -- especially rattlesnakes. I would not want to hike this trail in the rain because of its hazards, but in dry weather it offers lovely views. Just don't go by yourself as I did. I would not go alone again. You might want to pick up one of these trail guides so you can plan better than I did, though this trail is not mentioned in the Falcon Guide published in 2011 that I own. The Eagle Rock Trail above it is listed. There was no mention of the poisonous plants.

 Discovery Trail Dangers: Hiking above the San Luis Obispo County Botanical Gardens at El Chorro Regional Park and Campground

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