Saturday, April 4, 2009

Near Yosemite, a Sierra wildflower hotspot

"Where is this hike, again?" my sister Mary Kay asks, as we wind along State Highway 140, climbing east from California's Central Valley. She's not whining (in fact, she's been pretty quiet since we left the In 'n Out Burger in Merced); it's just that there's nothing that looks like a hiking trail anywhere around. "I'm thinking it's just around the next bend," I assure her. "And once you see it, you'll forget the drive up."

Finally, we see the landmark (the closed Savage's Trading Post), park in a wide pullout across the street, and know that we've arrived: Hite Cove Trailhead. At Yosemite National Park’s front door, just 21 miles from Mariposa, or 8 miles west of El Portal, the Hite Cove Trail travels through the Mariposa County foothills and one of the best, most abundant wildflower displays—both showy and accessible.

This easy-to-moderate trail puts on one of the earliest of the big bloom shows in the Sierras. Right now, the poppies are out in a real orange-crush profusion (check them out on the Mariposa County Tourism website--better pix than we have).

We park (make sure you're in a legal spot) and head for the trailhead sign on the south side of the highway in the Merced River Canyon. Angling high above the meeting of the South and North forks of the lazy Merced River, the trail produces a bouquet of deep azure lupine right away, and out comes my camera. "Okay, Mary Kay," I command, "stand by the lupine and look like you're enjoying the floral scent." She complies, then informs me that lupine doesn't have a scent. "Oh well, nobody knows that," I reason, "and anyway, it'll make a good picture." (She still kids me about that one.)

It's midweek, so we have the trail almost to ourselves. Which means we can mosey along, hiking, taking pictures, and then pausing for a picnic atop a flat rock outcrop that gives us an inspiring view of the river below and a bundle of fairy lanterns nearby. It's sunny and warm, but a nice breeze is coming off the water, ruffling the field of poppies. My sister and I are just sitting here quietly; I take a mental snapshop. Click. This is a picture I'll remember for years to come.

Details: Dozens of flower varieties are already in gorgeous bloom in this high river gorge (Yosemite's higher wildflower flower meadows are still underneath snow). Oh, and the poison oak is out, too. It's an easy/moderate, 4.5-mile out-and-back hike to Hite Cove and back; not everyone goes the full distance, since right away you get to see hillsides blanketed by lupines, poppies, and almost 60 other wildflowers.

Peak time to visit: March through mid-May (it can be busy on weekends). Where: Off Hwy 140, 7 miles west of El Portal. Make hiking (or just Sierra wildflowers) the focus of a weekend getaway; for lodging and dining ideas, check the Mariposa County Tourism website. For more vacation ideas, roam around the California Tourism website.

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COPYRIGHT Lora Finnegan 2008-2009

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