Spring has arrived and it’s the best time of year to get out and enjoy a local hike before the weather heats up. The following is my guide to the best hikes within a 90-minute drive.
Hite Cove – Probably the best-known wildflower hike in the area, this trail seldom disappoints. Look for the parking area 20 miles east of Mariposa on Highway 140. The wildflowers are already blooming and the best displays are within a half a mile of the highway.
You can also continue following the river to the site of Hite Cove – a 19th century gold mine and town located on a bend (cove) in the South Fork of the Merced River. If you go all the way, the total distance is 7 miles round-trip – a moderate day hike. If you just want to see the wildflowers, it’s an easy hike with a short elevation gain at the start and some steep drop-offs where you’ll want to take special care, especially if you have small children. For more information, call the Sierra National Forest at (559) 877-2218.
Table Mountain – The imposing volcanic wall that follows the north side of Highway 108 as you approach Jamestown is actually hardened lava that filled the channel of the ancestral Stanislaus River 9 million years ago. The view from the flat top encompasses a great swath of hills and mountains and in wet years there are extensive vernal pools. The total hiking distance is 3 miles, with a short but steep climb just below the table top. For more information and maps, call the Bureau of Reclamation at (209) 536-9094 or go to www.usbr.gov/mp/ccao/newmelones.
Knights Ferry Canyon Loop – This hike loops around the north side of the Stanislaus River Canyon to make an easy 3-mile round trip hike that starts near the stone and brick shell of the old Tulloch Mill in historic Knights Ferry. For more information, see last week’s outdoor column or call the Knights Ferry Information Center at (209) 881-3517.
Spike’s Peak – This 1,927-foot summit in Pacheco State Park is a great place to enjoy wide views of the San Joaquin Valley and the Diablo Range on clear days after storms. Located south of Highway 152 at the Dinosaur Point exit, the 5.2 mile round-trip hike climbs gradually to the top of the summit.
Pacheco State Park is also an ideal place to fly kites on windy days. The 28 miles of trails within Pacheco State Park are ideal for springtime horseback riding. For more information, go to www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=560 or call (209) 826-6283.
Path of the Padres – Paralleling Highway 152 through an undeveloped canyon to the south, this 5-mile round trip hike follows a route that priests from San Juan Bautista used when traveling to the San Joaquin Valley. Access is provided every year in the spring by California State Parks on guided hikes led by docents who do an excellent job of explaining the landscape and its history.
For me, the highlight was the optional steep hill climb to a summit where we could gaze westward over a beautiful and ancient sycamore grove in Menjoulet Canyon. Although the March hike dates have already filled up, spots are still available on several April weekends and also for school groups on weekdays. For more information or to reserve a spot, call (209) 826-1197.
SFC hikes, classes – The Sierra Foothill Conservancy offers spring and fall hikes and classes on its eight preserves and on several of the conservation easements that it manages throughout Mariposa, Madera, and Fresno counties. These hikes provide a great opportunity to enjoy some beautiful local areas that are otherwise off-limits to the public. The hike leaders do an excellent job of explaining the landscape and its native species.
One of the most popular trails leads to the top of Fresno County’s Table Mountain (yes, there are quite a few formations named “Table Mountain” in California.) This hike is a moderately-challenging round trip of about 5 miles, though the route is sometimes extended up to 10 miles to explore the basin between the lava wall and the San Joaquin River. Other SFC hikes and classes are designed for those who want to enjoy and learn about the outdoors in a less-strenuous way. For more information go to www.sierrafoothill.org or call (209) 742-5556.
Be prepared – In addition to wildflowers, snakes, poison oak and ticks also begin to reappear this time of year. Keep your eye out for them along the trails and don’t forget to pack plenty of water, food and sun protection. No matter which trail you choose, make sure you pack your camera. Dogs are welcome on the Hite Cove, Table Mountain, and Spikes Peak trails.