Wild for Flowers, Sierra National Forest

Geology, Hiking, Photography, Sierra

The unexpected pleasure of late season wildflowers in the Sierra.

We all know the best way to tackle a big project is to break it down into small pieces.

That’s sort of how we ended up on the Hite Cove Trail in the Sierra National Forest.

I’ve been wanting to get back to the Sierra since I crossed Tioga Pass one June and found myself walking among redwoods with snow still on the ground.  For a Florida boy (at the time) I was utterly amazed.  I had to drive on but I was determined to return.

Returning to the Sierra is a big project. The ‘Sierra’ covers an awful lot of territory with the big names like Tahoe, Yosemite, Sequoia and Whitney. All of which are spectacular… and spectacularly well known.

Looking for something quiet and simple, away from the crowds, I read about the Hite Cove Trail in Backpacker Magazine and decided this was something much more manageable. A Sierra wildflower trail without the baggage.

So Susie and I set out from Carmel Valley, headed across Pacheco Pass (past the eerie site of a drought-starved, half-empty San Luis Reservoir) and down across the San Joaquin Valley. After a visit to the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, we stopped in Merced for the evening, and by chance found a great Mexican restaurant:

In the morning we drove on CA 140 through Mariposa, pulling over at the trailhead at about 11 AM.

There’s a sign at the trailhead that urges you to respect the private property you’ll be walking on for the first 3/4 mile.

What it doesn’t tell you is that the trail itself starts about 20 yards past the sign with a sharp turn to the right. We walked right past this first turn and started heading up a driveway when it became obvious that if this was the trail, we would have to walk through someone’s garage to keep going. We doubled back, and then saw the correct path, complete with another sign that looked like it had been suspiciously relocated out of view to novice trail users.

Regardless, we headed out, passing next to a few backyards and into the open path that has been cut out of the hillside about 300 feet above the South Fork of the Merced river.

Now, the picture that got me here was of a hiker on the trail surrounded by a carpet of California Poppies.  If you Google ‘Hite Cove’ you’ll get images of the same.

Not this trip. Not this year. Not in this drought.

To our delight, however, nature has managed to put on a display in spite of the sparse rainfall over the winter. The trail wound it’s way past dozens of other wildflowers of every shape, form and color.

Some we recognized immediately, and others we had never seen before.

The path makes it’s way above the river and at some places demands that you pay attention to what you’re doing. I’d stop to take a few pictures, fumble with the tripod and realize that one tripod leg was really out on the edge of the trail. It can be narrow, with loose rocks under foot. Your next step, if you’re not careful, would be an express trip to the river’s edge below.

We went out about a mile and a half, taking in the changing views and sounds of the river as its blue-green water cuts its way through some of the oldest rocks in the neighborhood. We encountered a few other hikers, but on this Saturday morning pretty much had the trail to ourselves.

So even with the drought conditions, the display is wonderful. I can’t wait to revisit after a wet winter.

So while others drive past us, heading on to the big show and the big crowds at Yosemite Valley, Susie and I managed to enjoy our own small part of the Sierra complete with classic vistas, rushing water and a constantly changing trailside panorama of wildflowers. This is the ‘Sierra’ I’ve wanted to get back to… and… we will return!

Kid Factor: (+) A chance to do some real Sierra trail hiking without all the crowds.  Easy to moderate difficulty on trail.  In May, lots of wildflowers.  (-) Trail can be narrow and potentially dangerous as it winds itself 300 feet above the river gorge. Some poison oak. Plenty of sunlight, so remember sunscreen and liquids. Dry, rocky areas can harbor snakes, so tread lightly if you wonder off the trail.

Fitness Factor: Easy to moderate trail. Can be slippery with loose rocks. Uphills and downhills will get you breathing a bit. Bring liquids. Lots of sunshine. Hiking sticks would be a nice to have as well.

Photo Factor: This was a mid-May outing, which is a pretty good time for wildflowers. As always, early morning or late afternoon is best for the big vistas, but the flowers were good about anytime. If you see some flowers in harsh light, look around, you’ll probably find the same thing in the shade a few feet away. Bring some diffusion material just in case. Most of these were shot with 18-200 Nikon VR lens @500 ISO, set for aperture priority. I have a Nikon 60mm Macro lens, but I stuck with the 18-200 because I could go from zoomed into the flowers on one shot, then quickly pull out wide for some wider trail and scenery shots. Didn’t have to change lenses to do that, which is a good thing on a dusty trail. Just about all of these were shot with the 18-200.