The Sierra Foothill Conservancy owns preserves and conservation easements in Fresno, Madera and Mariposa counties.
Last spring, I wrote about an enjoyable hike to the top of Table Mountain in the Conservancy's McKenzie Table Mountain Preserve.
Earlier this month I checked out the Mary Elizabeth Miller Black Mountain Preserve on Highway 168 east of Fresno. Black Mountain is a landmark 3,621-foot summit in the Sierra foothills near Prather. On a clear day, hikers can identify many landmarks from the top including Table Mountain, San Joaquin Valley towns and the steep granite wall of the Sierra as it stretches from southern Yosemite to Kings Canyon.
This would be an uncomfortably hot hike in the summer, so access to the summit is offered on guided hikes and open preserve days during the spring, winter, and fall. Hikes are scheduled this spring for March 2 and April 14.
Visitors may hike to the summit at their own pace on the May 11 "open preserve day "and a special wildflower class that includes a summit hike is offered on May 4. Hikes and open preserve days are $5 per person and classes are $15.
The nearby McKenzie Table Mountain Preserve offers hikes on Feb. 23, March 3, April 7 and April 28. Open preserve days are March 9 and April 13. Special classes are offered on March 16, April 14 and April 20. For more information about the Sierra Foothill Conservancy's lands, hikes and classes, go to www.sierrafoothill.org or call (559) 855-3473.
Organized hikes to the top of Black Mountain typically leave at 9 a.m. and return to the parking area by 2 p.m. The main route to the top of the mountain is a service road, but a foot trail is often used to create a loop route with different views on the ascent and decent. Once on top of the mountain, we followed the ridge southeast to a lower summit for a scenic lunch.
Although I tend to prefer exploring trails at my own pace -- outside of large groups -- I enjoyed this group hike. Our leaders were knowledgeable and helpful. Groups are limited to 20 hikers, but our group was actually about half that size. We learned about local wildlife and plants as we walked. Hawks soared through the air and squabbled over territory as we traversed the ridge.
While we didn't see any wildflowers this early in the season, Black Mountain can be a great place to enjoy them from late March through early May.
Our entire hike was about 5½ miles and lasted 4 hours with a 30-minute lunch break at the second summit. The weather was surprisingly warm and I hiked the entire trail in a T-shirt and shorts.
No matter when you go, make sure you have some warmer layers in case of cool temperatures or wind. The terrain is mostly exposed to the sun, so sunscreen, sunglasses and hats are essential. Pack plenty of water, especially on warmer days.
Overall, Black Mountain is a moderate hike with some steady climbs, but nothing too steep.
Despite being topped by a disused CalFire lookout tower, active communications towers, and oak trees, you can enjoy all 360 degrees of the mountain's panoramic views from the two summits and various spots along the ridge.
Black Mountain is only about 75 miles southeast of Merced, but the drive takes about 1¾ hours via Madera and Friant. Exact directions to the preserve can be found at: www.sierrafoothill.org/black_mt__preserve_map.htm.
Although the last 3½ miles to the preserve are on a rough dirt road, any car can usually make the journey if driven carefully. We saw a Porsche Cayenne and a Toyota Sienna in the parking lot.
Adam Blauert is an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, backpacking and exploring the western states. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org