Hills are awash in color for intrepid hikers

February 26, 2013 

With orchards and Highway 99 wildflowers starting to bloom, the season to enjoy wildflower trails in our local Sierra foothills is almost here. By late March, the bloom is usually underway. On clear days after storms, summit hikes in the foothills offer great views.

The vast majority of recreation lands in the Sierra foothills are part of reservoir complexes that include lakes, campgrounds, and usually, trails. Some of the best foothill trails at reservoirs include:

New Melones Lake: The Table Mountain (6 miles round trip) and Peoria Mountain (4 miles round trip) trails both offer great views of the foothills between Jamestown and Angels Camp. Table Mountain's elevation gain is about 400 feet; Peoria's is about 800. Online: http://www.usbr.gov/mp/ccao/newmelones/ or call (209) 536-9094.

Eastman Lake: The Lakeview Trail is a nice walk, especially if the water level at Eastman Lake is high. Elevation gain and loss is minimal and you can enjoy up to 8 miles of walking if you do the entire round-trip hike. Online: http://corpslakes.usace.army.mil/visitors/ or call (559) 689-3255.

The Sierra Foothill Conservancy owns four preserves and a number of conservation easements with some excellent hiking trails that are open on weekends for guided hikes and for exploring at your own pace on "open preserve" days. Online: http://www.sierrafoothill.org/ or call (559) 855-3473.

In Sonora, the 2.5 mile Dragoon Trail offers great views of Sonora's historic downtown and the surrounding hills. Online: http:// www.sonoraca.com/visitsonora/dragoonpage.htm or (209) 532-3508.

Trail options on National Forest land in the foothills are limited, but the Hite Cove Trail is a magnificent exception with brilliant wildflower displays. Starting at the site of Savage's Trading Post between Mariposa and El Portal, the best wildflowers are often found within a mile of the trailhead.

Hikers can continue as far as the cove (a bend in the South Fork) -- up to 9 miles round trip. http://www.fs.usda.gov/ or call (209) 966-7081.

The Merced River from Briceburg to the North Fork (3 miles round trip) is an excellent easy trail on BLM land east of Mariposa. You can add to the hike by following the North Fork for an additional ¼ mile to some nice cascades. http://www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/folsom/mercedriverrec.html / or call (916) 941-3101.

The Bureau of Land Management also offers 17 miles of trails at Red Hills near Chinese Camp. Although the landscape appears dry and scrubby much of the year, spring brings reliable wildflowers. http://www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/folsom/redhills.html / (916) 941-3101.

One of the least-known Sierra foothill hikes is located on BLM land between Hornitos and Highway 49. Williams Peak is a 3,205 foot summit that boasts impressive views of the Sierra Nevada, the surrounding foothills, the Merced River, Lake McClure, and the San Joaquin Valley.

Williams Peak is a relatively easy round-trip hike of about 2 miles. The trail climbs 750 feet of elevation on the route of an old access road. The road is closed to public use, and is only occasionally used by the BLM for management purposes. It's a wide trail with a gradual but steady slope where you won't see too many people.

For many years, Williams Peak was the site of a CalFire lookout tower. The presence of a lookout tower always ensures that a summit has wide vistas of the surrounding country. The abandoned tower is still there, but years of weather and vandalism have left it in a dangerous condition. Enjoy the views without climbing the rickety stairs.

To get to Williams Peak, take Bear Valley Road 8.7 miles northeast from the plaza in Hornitos. Watch for Hunters Valley Road on the left. Two miles after you pass it, you'll be turning left on Hunters Valley Mountain Road. Shortly after you turn the road downgrades to a gravel and dirt surface, passable by all vehicles unless there's been a lot of bad weather recently. After passing a few homes, you'll be on BLM land. Drive a total of 2.2 miles from the turnoff and park when you see the road split with a metal gate on the left branch. The gate has a large metal "Williams Peak" sign, so there's no chance you'll miss it. Park nearby and follow the road beyond the gate until you reach the summit.

Adam Blauert is an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, backpacking and exploring the western states. He can be reached at adamblauert@yahoo.com.

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