Tuesday, April 30, 2019

A Bonbon of a Hike: Spring along the Interpretive Trail of the Red Hills Area of Critical Ecological Concern

April 6
Date: March 1 and April 6, 2019
Place: Red Hills Area of Critical Ecological Concern, Jamestown, California
Coordinates (of the N. Serpentine Rd. intersection where I started my hike): 37.856819, -120.453556
Length: 2.5 miles
Level: easy

When I was selecting suitable trails to take my family camping group on in California's Gold Country I was looking also for a nice wildflowers area. The camping trip was planned for April but I did my first preparation hike at the Red Hills Area of Critical Ecological Concern (RHACEC) early in March. The area, which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was all nice and green after the heavy rains but of the wildflowers to be were only the very beginning signs. When I returned in April, however, the area was a celebration of colors and the air was dense with the scent of Ceanothus.
March 1, on the way to the Interpretive Trail
The Red Hill area is an area of critical ecological concern because of the local, iron rich serpentinite/dunite soil which supports a unique community of plants.
April 6, 
There are a number of hiking trails in the area, and many more 'unofficial' paths criss-crossing the place, making navigation a bit challenging. Volunteers from the local chapter of the California Native Plants Society established a mile and a bit of an interpretive loop trail  along the North Serpentine Rd and I was looking for that trail.
April 6, N. Serpentine Rd. on the way to the Interpretive Trail
This proved somewhat challenging too because the navigator app leads to the main staging area where there are ORV trailheads but not the interpretive hike trail. I found a description of the place in a  book about Tuolumne County hiking trails that a friend of mine who lives in Sonora had given me. The book's description, however, was not very accurate when it came to measuring driving distances.
March 1, N. Serpentine Rd. on the way to the Interpretive Trail
I eventually found the spot and marked the exact coordinates. I parked my car where N. Serpentine (dirt) Rd. splits off the Red Hills (paved) Rd. From there it was about a mile and some of an easy walk to the interpretive loop trail.
March 1, Stillman's Coreopsis, Leptosyne stillmanii
I didn't expect to see much bloom so early in the season, and indeed there was very little of it, but everywhere there were signs that spring would bring a splendid bloom here.
March 1, Common Fringepod, Thysanocarpus curvipes
The manzanita bushes were blooming, they are of the early ones.
March 1, Manzanita, Arctostaphylos sp. 
In contrast, the Ceanothus shrubs which dominated the scenery there, were still in their winter gray.
March 1
I did my best following of the book's trail description but even so I ended up doing several excursions, following rogue trails that took off an obviously wrong direction, or otherwise simply disappeared in the thicket.
March 1
When I finally found the actual loop trail I hiked it on the opposite direction of what the people who set up this trail had intended. I found that out when I discovered that the interpretive sign posts were in descending order.
March 1, A pretty flower not yet identified.
Some of the signs were already weathered. A few, sadly, were vandalized. But most were still in an ok to good state. The information on those signs was fascinating, and in some cases made the plant identification much simpler than it could have otherwise been.
April 6, Rawhude Hill Onion, Allium tuolumnense
Seeing the view as it unfolded before me, however, made me repeat the hike in that same direction when I returned there in April with my companions.
April 6, snow-capped Sierra Nevada peaks
When I returned in April the Red Hills were alight with bloom, just like I expected. It was a joy to see.
April 6, California Goldfields, Lasthenia californica 
This time I didn't have to spend time figuring out where the trailhead was. Me, my chikas, and the other family started on our hike up the North Serpentine dirt road toward the interpretive trail. My friends too were impressed with the lovely bloom.
April 6, Blue Dicks, Dichelostemma capitatum
When we started our hike the sun was high in the sky and the air was warm. Lovely flowers bloomed everywhere and the kids caught on to my enthusiasm and were happy to point out to me each new flower they've seen.
April 6, A pretty flower not yet identified.
While I knew many of these flowers, at least to the genus level, many others were new to me. Many plants growing there are unique to that area because of their special adaptation to the high in iron but otherwise poor in nutrients serpentinite soil.
April 6,  Lomatium sp. 
Although we did not see huge space-visible fields of orange poppies as observed in Southern California, we did see a lot of dense patches dominated by one species or another.
April 6, a patch of Bird's-eye Gilia 
The butter n' eggs that had barely started in March was now at its peak, displaying lovely carpets of pale yellow laced with crimson.
April 6, Butter n' Eggs, Triphysaria eriantha 
In some places it looked like creeks of flowers flowing downhill.
April 6
In other places those were the real creeks that were flowing, and the flowers line their banks.

April 6
What was growing at the creek banks was a yellow species of monkeyflower. This species is unique to the Sierra foothills.
April 6, Cut-leaved Monkeyflower, Erythranthe laciniata 
As we continued walking the clouds started gathering above. Our group was supposed to be much bigger but the forecast that predicted rain deterred most of the families that had planned to come. Now I looked at the sky with some worry. But although the sky was turning gray, no rain came down.
April 6,
We got to the top trail and soon had to cross the creek, balancing on strategically-placed rocks. The water level seemed a bit lower than in March. Our trail continued on the other side of the creek.
April 6 
The ceanothus bushes dominated the perennial vegetation community. In March they were still dormant. In April, however, they were nearing their peak bloom and their sweat scent filled the air.
April 6, Buckbrush, Ceanothus cuneatus 
I had everyone in the group get their noses to the clusters of delicate white flowers and inhale deeply. To be honest, the perfume was stronger when standing between the bushes than when sniffing the flowers directly.
April 6, Buckbrush, Ceanothus cuneatus
The soil had an iron-rendered red color which contrasted artistically with the greenery.
April 6
This color was even more accentuated in the puddles that we encountered on the dirt road leading to and from the interpretive trail. These puddles were there in March and shrunk only a little bit by April.
March 1
It is this beautiful soil that gave this place the name of Red Hills. But the soil now wasn't the only red thing in the place. Lovely bloom of the Indian Paintbrush poked from under the buckbrush  bushes.
April 6, Wavyleaf Paintbrush, Castilleja applegatei 
We came out of the interpretive trail at its intended beginning and after a quick water break she started down the dirt road. Almost immediately we had to cross the creek again, and at a place where it was considerably wider.
April 6
Although prosectors did comb this area during the Gold Rush years, no gold was found in the Red Hills. The rocks, however, looked like true gems when washed and polished by the creek water.
Serpentinite in the creek. 
We followed the creek down the dirt road to the place where we had originally diverted to get on the interpretive trail. The youngsters wanted to stop and play in the water but I encouraged them to move on. Down he creek, I knew, was a cute little water hole adorned by a small cascade. It was there where I wished to stop. Meanwhile, we appreciated the beauty of the reflections in the calmer section of the creek.
April 6
By the time we reached the little pool and the waterfall the sky was completely overcast and the air chilled. It didn't deterred the kids even by a bit. As soon as we got down to the water the shoes were off and the youngsters were wading in the cold water.
April 6
I too got my shoes off and dipped my feet. I guess that in a warmer day I might have gotten more wet, but then again, in the hotter season this creak nearly dries completely. I knew that from the description of a local fellow that I met on my March solo hike there. So it was quite a surprise to me when two of the others in the group had discovered little fish in the pull below the waterfall.
April 6, fish. 
I suppose that this water hole doesn't dry completely? otherwise, where would the fish survive the dry season?
Fish weren't the only critters there. I already seen the water bugs on my previous hike but I always find them amusing.
March 1
It was getting late. After a good time at the water hole we managed to gather all the kids and go back up to the trail and continue our way to back on the dirt road. Nearing the ed of the hike I noticed the the large pine tree that I saw there on my March solo hike was broken and its larger limbs pushed down to the ground. It must have experienced some nasty storm to have been flattened so.
March 1, Bull Pine, Pinus sabiniana
The storms may have broken that pine but they certainly didn't kill it. By April it too was blooming prettily.
April 6, Bull Pine, Pinus sabiniana, male cones 
The Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental concerns is a new discovery for me.I only sampled a tiny bit of it but I am hungry for more. I may not get there during summer (hot, dry, and plenty of rattle snakes, according to the local fellow I talked with) but I sure am planning to get back there and explore some more as soon as the opportunity arrises.
April 6
The interpretive trail offers a bonbon of a hike in spring time when the bloom is at its peak, and the area is fairly unknown outside of the local communities. It may not share the glamour that places like Carizzo Plain and the North Table Mountain of Oroville have received in recent years, but for the lovers of botanicals and of wild, minimally disturbed and not overrun places, this offers a sweat treat of a hike.

Many thanks to the volunteers of the California Native Plants Society who prepared this interpretive trail and are working to preserve its unique community of special plants. 


  1. Replies
    1. It sure was :-=) And it's a short time of the year that it is. From what I was told, summer is miserable there ...

  2. a beautiful hike, but are you challenging me?!?! ;-)
    I'm sorry, I can't really help this time...
    the red one in the beginning is from the ROSACEAE family, but I'm not sure which one.
    then there is the white with 6 petals - looks like something from the Brodia family, THEMIDACEAE, but I don't know which one...
    then there are the small white ones with 5 petals - obviously the CARYOPHYLLACEAE family - I think it's from the Minuartia genus, but I could be wrong, and it could be Arenaria or even something else...
    the last pink one looks like a Silene, but I haven't found any Silene that fits in the Calflora site...

    1. Thank you! I tried sneaking this post while still in April so I slacked on some of the identifications. I'll take the time to complete it soon, and thank you for the heads up!