Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Wildflowers of the Sierra Nevada Foothills: Hite Cove Hike

'Tis the season for wildflowers!  If you live in any of California's lower elevation locations (as most of us do), now is the time to get outside and see the blooms!

White Fairy Lantern (or Globe Lily) (Calochortus albus), bedecked with raindrops

Valleys and hills are springing to life, but the window of opportunity is small; by about mid-May, most of the blooms will be gone from low elevations and we'll have to hike higher up in the mountains in search of wildflowers (not that that is a bad thing, of course!) 

Lupine (Lupinus sp.)

Hite Cove Trail, located off of highway 140 near El Portal on the road to Yosemite National Park, is one of the best places in the central Sierra Nevada foothills to see an array of spring wildflowers.

Twining Snakelily (Dichelostemma volubile)

The trail follows the south fork of the Merced river, wending along the river canyon cliffs for the first 1.5 miles before dropping down to follow the river.

River canyon, south fork of the Merced River

The roundtrip hike out and back to Hite Cove, an abandoned mining settlement, is 9 miles.  But since the trail meanders up the river canyon with no real destination (no lake, waterfall or mountain peak), hikers can turn around at any point.  The goal of this hike is to see wildflowers!

Purple Owl's Clover (Castilleja exserta)

A nice option for a shorter trip is to hike two miles out to a point where the trail drops down beside the river.  Jutting out into the river are some really neat metamorphic rock formations, with distinct fold patterns.  Turning back at this point provides a nice, flowery four mile roundtrip hike.

Folds of metamorphic rock along the south fork of the Merced River

The trail starts at just under 2,000 feet in elevation, with no major elevation gain along the trail.  The trail does have some steep, undulating hills, and the going was a little slow when we hiked it in the rain.

Golden Brodiaea (Triteleia ixioides)

However, spring rains in California's oak woodlands coax otherwise secretive amphibians out of hiding, and we saw several Sierra Newts (Taricha sierrae) along the path.  They are quick to get out of the way and hide themselves in tall vegetation or under rocks and logs, so it was tricky to get a decent photo!

Sierra Newt (Taricha sierrae) hiding in poison oak

Since the goal of this hike is to see a profusion of wildflowers, Hite Cove trail is best hiked from March to mid-May.  By the end of May, the flowers and grasses are drying out and the trail, with its southwestern exposure, gets pretty hot for most hikers.  As the trail crosses private property, it is closed during the fire season (summer and fall).

Clematis (or Pipestem) (Clematis lasiantha)

The trailhead is 10.5 miles west of Yosemite's Arch Rock entrance, and 21 miles east of Mariposa, at the site of Savage's Trading Post.  Park off of the highway, on the north side of the road; there is a portable bathroom located here. 

Purple Chinese Houses (Collinsia heterophylla)

This is a dog-friendly hike, but beware of ticks!  It's a good idea to keep dogs leashed here, as the trail is very narrow and hugs the cliff, dropping off steeply to the river in many places.

Mountain Jewelflower (Streptanthus tortuosus)

Happy hiking and wildflower hunting!  Remember to "leave no trace" when you visit these special places.  Stay on the trail to avoid trampling vegetation; leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photographs!

California Indian Pink (Silene laciniata ssp. californica)

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