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Bald Mountain Botanical Area

At an elevation of 9,430 feet, Bald Mountain Botanical Area has one of the most spectacular vistas in the Sequoia National Forest. It is an unique 446-acre botanical and geological island in the southern Sierra on the Kern Plateau. A fire lookout tower is central to the botanical area. Standing on the tower’s catwalk, one can view over 1000 square miles of the Southern Sierra including the Domeland Wilderness, South Sierra Wilderness, and Golden Trout Wilderness. The view to the north provides a sweeping vista of Olancha Peak, Mount Langley, Mount Whitney, and the headwaters of the Kern River.

Kern Plateau Horkelia © Alison SheeheyI have found 103 species of plants recorded on the rocky summit by various sources, and one species, the Kern Plateau horkelia (Horkelia tularensis) occurs only in a very limited swath across the plateau.


The “Bald” part of the mountain is found on the eastern half of the botanical area. Facing east, before recent fires, the view was vegetated with low growing trees, shrubs and perennials. Harsh conditions caused by steep slopes, temperature extremes, frequent gale+ force winds, along with the arid climate created natural dwarf trees interspersed among the dominant sub-alpine type shrubs.

Metamorphic rocks at Bald Mtn. © Alison SheeheyGeologically speaking, Bald Mountain is comprised of late Paleozoic metasedimentary rocks consisting of Schist and Hornfels while the surrounding area for miles is Mesozoic granitic rock. The first Sierran range rose from the Pangean ocean floor approximately 200 million years ago. Intense heat and pressure metamorphosed the mud, sea shells and sand into schist, marble, and quartzite. Initially comprised of layers of dark slate, white dolomite and sandstone; millions of years erosion, folding and granitic intrusions have made “roof pendant” metasedimentary formations quite rare throughout the Sierra but dominant on Bald Mountain. These ancient formations are richer in minerals and are more water efficient than granitic soils. These soils are crucial to the evolution of the diverse and bountiful flora found on Bald Mountain.

Bald Mountain was first used as a fire lookout around 1935 but was abandoned when the now destroyed Sherman Peak lookout was built in 1936. It became active again in 1951 and the lookout used today was constructed in 1954 from materials brought in via a mule train along trails before any roads existed to the area. Loggers built roads through the plateau in order to harvest the mostly pristine forest ecosystem in 1967. The lookout structure is a tall metal tower with a single room cabin surrounded by a catwalk. It is generally staffed 7 days a week from May to the first significant snow in the fall. It is open to the public from 8am - 6pm except during fire events and lightening storms.

Two significant fires in the 21st century destroyed a lot of the flora on Bald Mountain. These events were extreme due to the effects of their timing, 100+ years of fire suppression, years of drought, and global climate change. The Manter Fire in July 2000 began in the Manter Meadow area and is suspected to have been caused by an escaped campfire, although fire investigators are still unsure as to its origins. Manter burned almost 80,000 acres including a significant portion of the Domeland Wilderness. The second large fire was caused by an illegal campfire along the Kern River in July 2002. The McNally fire burned 150,000 acres through most of the western Kern Plateau and a small section in the Greenhorn Range. An extreme example of fire behavior happened when the fire played with firefighters for days at the bottom of Rattlesnake canyon, after they thought they had contained the fire at the bottom of the grade, the fire blew up and ran through the canyon burning extremely hot and caused the emergency evacuation of Bald Mountain personnel. The fire ran along the southeast slope of Bald Mountain towards Dark Canyon and was stopped when it burned into the Manter burn from two years earlier.

From Kernville take Sierra Way/Mtn 99 or from the Mojave Desert take Hwy 395 to Sherman Pass Road (FS22S05). Drive ~30 miles from either direction. Bald Mountain (FS22S77) is signed with a full color informational sign, turn onto the dirt road, drive up to the tiny parking area. A ¼ mile trail leads to the lookout.

Interesting plants for Bald Mountain include:

Kern Plateau Horkelia

Horkelia tularensis

Piute locoweed

Astragalus subvestitus

Kern Plateau locoweed

Astragalus lentiginosus ssp. kernensis

common phoenicaulis

Phoenicaulis cheiranthoides

cordate jewelflower

Streptanthus cordatus

rockcress

Arabis puberula

basin golden cryptantha

Cryptantha confertiflora

buckwheat

Eriogonum spp. (4 kinds)

curl leaf mountain mahogany

Cercocarpus ledifolius

prickly phlox

Leptodactylon pungens


All information copyright Nature Ali 2006. All rights reserved.

Flora of Bald Mountain

Abies concolor
Abies magnifica
Achnatherum hymenoides
Achnatherum occidentalis
Achnatherum pinetorum
Agropyron desertorum
Allophyllum gilioides
Angelica lineariloba

Anisocoma acaulis
Antennaria rosea
Apocynum androsaemifolium
Arabis holboellii
Arabis platysperma
Arabis puberula
Arctostaphylos patula
Arenaria aculeata
Arenaria macradenia
Artemisia dracunculus
Artemisia tridentata
Astragalus lentiginosus
Astragalus subvestitus
Bromus tectorum
Calochortus invenustus
Carex sp.
Castilleja applegatei
Ceanothus pinetorum
Cercocarpus ledifolius
Chaenactis douglasii
Chenopodium fremontii
Chrysolepis sempervirens
Chrysothamnus parryi
Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus
Collomia grandiflora
Cordylanthus eremicus
Crepis occidentalis
Cryptantha confertiflora
Cryptantha echinella
Cryptantha incana
Cymopterus terebinthinus
Descurainia incana
Dugaldia hoopesii
Elymus elymoides
Erigeron breweri
Eriogonum microthecum
Eriogonum nudum
Eriogonum umbellatum
Eriogonum wrightii
Erysimum capitatum
Gayophytum diffusum

Geranium californicum

Gilia cana
Gilia leptantha
Hesperostipa comata
Heuchera rubescens
Hieracium horridum
Holodiscus microphyllus
Horkelia tularensis
Hulsea heterochroma
Ipomopsis aggregata
Juniperus occidentalis
Keckiella rothrockii
Koeleria macrantha
Lactuca serriola
Leptodactylon pungens

Lomatium nevadense
Lupinus breweri
Lupinus sp.
Melica stricta
Mentzelia congesta
Monardella linoides

Nama rothrockii
Pectis papposa
Pedicularis semibarbata
Pellaea breweri
Penstemon caesius
Penstemon newberryi
Penstemon rostriflorus
Penstemon speciosus
Phacelia austromontana
Phacelia ramosissima
Phoenicaulis cheiranthoides

Pinus contorta
Pinus flexilis
Pinus jeffreyi
Pinus monophylla
Pinus monticola
Poa secunda

Pterospora andromedea
Purshia tridentata
Pyrola picta
Rhamnus tomentella
Ribes cereum
Salix sp.
Sambucus mexicana
Sarcodes sanguinea
Senecio canus
Silene bernardina
Stephanomeria tenuifolia
Streptanthus cordatus
Swertia tubulosa
Symphoricarpos rotundifolius
Tetradymia canescens

Viola pinetorum

Flora compiled from Bald Mountain Lookout list by Jack Zaninovich, Ernest Twisselmann, and Jim Shevock. Also from personal communication with SQF botanist Fletcher Linton, and Bald Mountain Lookout Ranger - Carol Ann Ralston plus my personal field notes.


Photos Alison Sheehey © NatureAli.

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