Trails in Northern California

Trails in Northern California

Leave No Trace!

Visit desovw.org for more information about Desolation Wilderness. Visit Recreation.gov or call 1- 877-444-6777 to make park reservations. Visit Campfire Permits to get a permit online. More about Leave No Trace principles.

6. POISON OAK

Here in northern California there is poison oak flourishing along otherwise great hiking trails.  By 4,000 feet elevation, it's no longer a threat. 

This page is dedicated to my friends and readers who are allergic and need help identifying poison oak in all of its various stages and forms, and pointers to help prevent adverse reactions.
Taken on the One Eye Creek Trail near Georgetown, CA.
To get to a 100 foot waterfall at the other end of this trail, it's wise to dress for poison oak.  It is especially healthy in this area that is surrounded by forest, but has an open area of sun.  All of the low growing green plants (ground cover) in the photo are poison oak!  And the trail winds through it.  For hikes like this one, long pants, boots, maybe long sleeves, hat, and gloves would be appropriate. I take a small tarp to sit on.  Keep rubbing alcohol in your car to wipe all of your equipment down when you get back.  Take plastic bags for boots and maybe even a change of clothes for the drive home.   
 

When spring comes and poison oak is awakening from dormancy, the leaflets won't look glossy yet. There are usually 3 leaves grouped but sometimes may be up to 9!  True oaks grow leaves singly rather than in groups like poison oak.

The edges of the leaves are lobed or have a toothy edge. 

Taken on the trail to Fairy Falls, also known by other names, in the Spenceville Preserve near Camp Far West.
It usually is a low growing shrub as shown above, but it can create vines that hang on to trees, although in California, that is still poison oak, not poison ivy. 

Taken at the Harvego Bear River Preserve by Steve Vilter.  Used with permission.
They may also be red or reddish in spring.  They can use arial roots to cling to trees and mossy rocks to climb for sunnier spaces.  The woody stems contain the oil many are allergic to.  Avoid touching any part  of this plant including the roots, dead leaves, flowers or berries.
 
On the Olmstead Loop in Cool, CA.
Above is another form these plants can take.  The tall branches in the foreground of the pine tree (8-10 feet tall) are poison oak that is dormant for the winter.  Touching it can cause the dreaded rash.  

A close up of the same tall poison oak above when it was dormant. 

In late spring and summer the foliage is glossy and may be turning colors as shown below.  The leaves are not necessarily smooth but may be fuzzy.
 
Taken along the river south of the Magnolia Equestrain Staging Area along CA 49.
In the fall and late summer, maybe early fall, poison oak leaflets are quite pretty,
displaying an array of autumn colors and photogenic too!  As the seasons change
and the leaves fall, be aware that they still contain the oil that causes
the miserable oozing itchy red rash, so watch what you have contact with.

This plant has the lobed edges, glossy spring growth and reddish coloring typical of poison oak. 
 In areas where it is growing like ground cover it doesn't look like a threat,
it just looks lush, healthy and pretty. 
 
  • Medical sources say use rubbing alcohol as a rinse, followed by rinsing with cold water is most effective in preventing an outbreak. Avoid rubbing too much. Mainly try to rinse as much as you can. Water dilutes the oil but cannot dissolve it.
  • It is not best to use hand wipes. They are not going to do much but spread the oil on your skin and rub it into your pores. Soap can't dissolve the oil either, but you can use it if you rinse well and avoid rubbing it in.
  • If you can, prepare ahead by having a gallon jug of water and rubbing alcohol for cleaning up. I do carry it in my car to clean equipment anyway.
  • If your dog is along, and it touches the oils, your contact with the pet can transfer the oils to your skin and it is best to wash throroughly within 5 minutes
  • Also, using rubber gloves, remove your clothes and launder immediately. The warm water will remove the oil from your clothes.
  • When you are finished handling your clothing, clean oil from the gloves with rubbing alcohol.
  • If you develop a rash from poison oak contact, it can be within hours or may take weeks from the time of contact.  It is not contagious, even if you develop the oozing blisters.  The fluid is your body's attempt to push the oils out of your system, but it does not spread the rash.  If the rash spreads it is simply part of the process your body uses to attack the oils. 
  • Recovery may be fairly quick (average is around 10 days) or may take as long as 4-6 weeks for severe cases.  Over the counter products may help according to my friends who battle this allergy, but most end up getting Predisone from their doctor. 
If the rash goes around your eyes or genitals, if you just can't sleep due to discomfort, check in with a doctor. If you have difficulty breathing of course, call 911. 

I do not get rashes from poison oak contact.  My information is from reading medical reports, websites, and from friends who hike and are allergic to it.  If in question, talk to your doctor for preventative recommendations and treatment.  My hope is to offer photos and descriptions that help you identify the plant and prevent contact with it.

Poison Oak Information Besides Preventing Rashes

Happy Trails!