LOS BANOS — Flora, fauna, and fun.
About 60 people made the trip up to Pacheco State Park to enjoy a morning filled with education, picnics, interpretive exhibits and a nature hike led by retired state park Ranger David Milam during the Wildflower Day Celebration near Dinosaur Point.
"It was a perfect day," proclaimed Jennifer Morgan, a state parks interpreter. "The weather was beautiful, but we wish more people would have come to celebrate nature and enjoy the crafts as we celebrated our 12th Wildflower Day."
The centerpiece of the morning was a two-mile hike through several diverse eco-systems. The interpretive trek was led Milam, who worked for decades in the area as a state parks ranger. Despite retiring nine years ago, Milam continues to lead hikes through area parks and wildlands.
On the recent hike, Milam talked about the many species of birds, reptiles, shrubs and trees in the area. He pointed out several plants which were useful for food, making soap and even fishing. He contrasted those species with others along the trail that could be extremely poisonous if ingested or give people who so much as touched them an itchy rash.
One of the 20 hikers in the second tour group that left at about 10 a.m. last Saturday was Ellen Llewellyn of Los Banos.
"It was a great experience," said Llewellyn. "It was really informative; they did a great job of explaining not just what the flowers are but also some of the medicinal properties or other uses for the native plants."
Llewellyn noted "a lot of the native flora grows low to the ground because of the wind and the semi-arid conditions.
"You really need to pay attention and see those small beautiful little flowers. A few have a great aroma even though they are almost invisible to your eye. That was something that was really striking to me," she said.
The hikers were also educated not just about the local flora and fauna but also about the history of the park and some of the history of the land and Pacheco Pass.
For example, Milam directed the hikers to look down into a small valley where they were able to see what is left of the Pacheco Pass portion of the old Butterfield Stage Coach road. More officially known as the Butterfield Overland Mail Trail, the route was used to haul mail and passengers from Memphis and St. Louis to San Francisco between 1857 and 1861.
Milam also led the hikers along a short portion of Old Highway 152.
The now crumbling asphalt road, which was in use during the 1920s, is slowly being taken over by trees, shrubs and other plants. Milam discussed the many iterations that the road over Pacheco Pass has gone through before becoming the four-lane highway it is today.
Later, Milam directed the hiker's attention to some more modern infrastructure, including a "farm" of 165 wind-turbines spinning off in the distance..
After the hike concluded, Milam suggested that people make a return trip. "There's a pretty good variety (of flowers) this time of year," said Milam. "As the seasons change, the flower species will change as far as what you will find.
"Also, as you go to different areas in the park, you'll find different flowers. So it's good to come back at different times and go to different areas. If you go with a smaller group you'll see more birds.
"It's a good birding area," he concluded.
The interpretive nature hikes were only part of the activities that were offered during Wildflower Day. They were set up by the park service, the Native Plant Society, the Dark Sky Association, state Department of Fish and Game, and others.
One popular exhibit was CalFire's Engine Number 72 from Santa Nella. The Merced County firefighters who manned the engine showed off their firefighting and rescue equipment while giving visitors gentle tips about avoiding wildfires and being safe.
For those that missed Wildflower Day or those who want to learn even more, nature walks will continue at Pacheco Park through April.
Each Saturday there will be two hikes. The more strenuous hike will leave at 9 a.m. and last for four to seven hours. That hike will be led by Milam and may go to some of the more challenging locations within the park. A more sedate trek that runs from 10 a.m. to noon will also be offered on both Saturday and Sunday.
Other upcoming park events include 'Kids' Fishing and Fun Day' from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 18 at the San Luis Reservoir Forebay and 'Kite Day' from noon to 4 p.m. June 15 near Dinosaur Point at Pacheco State Park.