Plants Bounce Back in the Woolsey Fire Burn Area

In my years of hiking in Southern California, I have learned a tremendous amount of respect for the terrain and its native plants — especially the sage scrub and chaparral plant communities.

Back in 2018 when the Woolsey Fire ignited in the Santa Monica Mountains, I was heading out of town the day the fire started. I could see the smoke from my airplane seat and just had the worst sinking feeling in my gut. The fire would go on to burn almost 97,000 acres and cause $6 billion in damages, but for those of us connected to the outdoorsy aspects of Southern California, the damage was immeasurable.

Smoke from the Woolsey Fire looms in the air over the Santa Monica Mountains. Photo November 9, 2018.

At the time, I wrote about the unique sense of loss people who cared about these places felt during the news of the wildfire as it swept across the Santa Monica Mountains and destroyed canyon after canyon. Historic sites, trails, homes, ranches, all gone. But the landscape, I thought, would recover.

I often credit the Mishe Mokwa Trail to Sandstone Peak as the first trail that took my budding interest in the outdoors and really grew it into the Modern Hiker you’re reading today. If you’ve been to any one of my presentations, you know I still rank it as my favorite hike in Southern California, and it’s one of the few trails I can enjoy doing multiple times in a year. I spent most of 2019 doing field work for a book on Griffith Park, but now it was time to get back on to the trail that, honestly, turned me into a hiker.

When I arrived at the Mishe Mokwa Trailhead a little after 10AM, I slipped into the last available parking spot. I could see the ‘main’ trailhead already full and cars starting to line up along the road. Folks are still hiking here, so that’s good (although it does seem that most of them are heading straight to the summit and back instead of doing the loop trail).

Once I started climbing up the Mishe Mokwa Trail, things definitely looked different – but not bad. Where dense chamise had once blanketed the rolling hillside, the new abundance of sunshine inspired a different set of natives to fill in the green for now. Coastal morning glories seemed to be sprouting up in every direction, crawling over the charred limbs of sumacs, chamise, and manzanita (while allowing those host plants to re-sprout from the ground, too).

Coast morning glories climb a burned branch

Baby black sages were in abundance, and California pitcher sages escaped from the shadier corners I’ve usually seen them in here to take advantage of the extra elbow room.

The terrain, too, is now revealed in a way that I have never seen since I first hiked here over 15 years ago. You can now fully and clearly see the arroyo that meanders below Echo Cliffs – something that was previously only visible with a good degree of bush-whacking (and poison oak-dodging). Many rocky promontories have become accessible lookout points, cleared of most of the dense chaparral that made reaching them difficult before – at least for now.

Hikers who’ve been on this trail before likely have fond memories of the dense grove near Split Rock, where a branch of that arroyo nourished a healthy canopy of oaks and sycamores. I was somewhat dreading getting to this part of the trail, but when I did I was absolutely inspired by what I saw – almost all of the oak trees were full of vibrant, new growth, and the piles of downed leaves near the dormant sycamores told me they, too, where in good shape.

The new sunlight hitting the floor of the canyon here has inspired an explosion of canyon sunflowers, too. Not many were in bloom yet, but a few were starting to show off a bit of color.

Farther along the trail toward Tri-Peaks, I spotted the first monkeyflower bloom of the season and the reliable fields of Padre’s shooting stars, which struck me in the same exact spot on the very first time I hiked this trail.

Humans, as we often find ourselves, are the ones creating the problems here. The newly cleared understory has inspired a number of new use trails near the summit of Sandstone Peak, and I trekked out with four dog bags people had left on the trail for whatever reason (including two within about a 5-minute hike of a trash bin). But rangers and trail crews were also hard at work stabilizing and repairing the Backbone Trail, so I’d rank that an even shake.

On the way out, a few signs of even more recovery coming this way – despite the dry winter we’ve had so far, huge lupines are soaking up our plentiful sunshine and looking to put on a beautiful show soon. And right near the trailhead, anchored beneath a rock, the first California poppy of 2020 drifted inconspicuously in the coastal breeze.

Long live the landscape, indeed.



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