The Miracle Mile, Part 2

By Leah Alcyon
Two Juniperus occidentalis (Western juniper) are visible behind the author
Two Juniperus occidentalis (Western juniper) are visible behind the author

In October of 2016, I backpacked with my husband into Little Duck Lake in Northern California and spent three days “ticking” 17 species of conifers that grow in a richly diverse square mile of high granite mountain terrain. I wrote about that experience in the ConiferQuarterly with an outline of the history of the “miracle mile” and the process of finding all of the species in that area. One extra species was known at that time, and although the coordinates were not available, we made an attempt to find it anyway. The area in question is steep slab granite that is accessed from a valley where thick brush makes climbing difficult. We hiked up the trail to Sugar Lake and poked around for an afternoon on and near the slab granite but we did not have the right stuff for success.

Fast forward a few years and we now have a new formula for success. First, Calypso our 10 year old Shar-pei/Shepard joined in the adventure as she is a hiker and conifer connoisseur. Looking for one Juniperus occidentalis among the myriad Douglas squirrels and chipmunks was right up her alley. After the fires and smoke in the area finally cleare, it seemed an auspicious time for some late season hiking. The real key for success, however, was Michael Kauffmann’s update to the website for his book, Conifer Country, which now included the latitude and longitude of the western juniper! Not that we aren’t intrepid hikers fond of cross country bushwhacking, but there is a psychological energy necessary to scour the mountains off-trail for trees rather than stroll on a trail to a known site. Richard Moore, a local from Callahan, had been hiking in the area since the 1980’s and knew about the pocket of western junipers on the Sugar Creek drainage. He connected with Kauffmann after Conifer Country was published. It is one thing to be an intrepid hiker, but quite another to know an area like the back of your hand and be able to identify plants and trees that might be unusual. A good analogy is bird watching, where it’s great fun to get a report of a rare bird and go chase it, but quite another matter to be the one to spot it in the first place.

So although we were not going to be the discoverer of the junipers in this area, it was challenging enough to scramble through the brush and climb the steep granite cliffs in search of this elusive tree. Western juniper usually occurs on dry, rocky sites where there is less competition from larger species and, true to form, this is where we found them. There must be 20 individuals along fault lines going upwards from 6000 ft elevation to the ridge at 7000 feet. Each tree had a different look; some were straight and some were buckled and krummolzed. The one that was lowest down was in the shade of a pine and very small. Finally, even though we needed the GPS coordinates, it was exhilarating to make it to the wall and see numerous juniper trees, lined up with the gravity fall of their berries down seams in the granite.

And the berries on the junipers are so numerous this year that there were a number of trees that looked like grape vines, they were so laden with purple fruit.

No, we're not making wine, we're making gin!
No, we're not making wine, we're making gin!

Townsend’s solitaires, Clark’s nutcrackers, and varied thrush were in abundance around the trees. The biggest surprise was a frog – sitting on the granite at 6,000 feet! It appears to be a Cascade frog, Rana cascadae.

Rana cascadae, basking in the sun at high altitude
Rana cascadae, basking in the sun at high altitude

After taking photos of the different shaped trees and the masses of berries, we headed back to the main trail. Calypso, with her four-paw drive, had easily accompanied us up the trail and up onto the granite. But it was clear that going down was not as easy as going up, even for her.

As for the evolution of the miracle square mile, we noted that the boundaries have been shifted slightly from the first iteration to a new area, which now includes the western juniper above Sugar Creek. Sugar Creek and the lake are also highly diverse conifer environments and very accessible. While chilling out in the one and only camp site at Sugar Lake, I was able to quickly find seven species of conifers. Several more were within a short distance of this area. On the hike out we scanned the granite wall for the junipers with binoculars and found them clinging to the vertical wall for dear life!

Nature made some beautiful sculptures in the Miracle Mile
Nature made some beautiful sculptures in the Miracle Mile

A list of conifers within the Miracle Mile:

  1. Foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana)
  2. Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis)
  3. Western white pine (Pinus monticola)
  4. Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi)
  5. Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa)
  6. Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta)
  7. Sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana)
  8. White fir (Abies concolor)
  9. California red fir, Shasta red fir (Abies magnifica)
  10. Subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa)
  11. Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmanii)
  12. Brewer spruce (Picea breweriana)
  13. Mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana)
  14. Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)
  15. Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia)
  16. Incense-cedar (Calocedrus decurrens)
  17. Common juniper (Juniperus communis)
  18. Western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) – documented by Richard Moore in 2013