Destination? Yosemite National Park. As you travel through the rolling foothills of the Sierra Nevada—something quite unexpected happens. The child in you, the one who loved Westerns and tales of cowboys, huge cattle ranches and horizons that seem to go on forever, has come home—home to a landscape that is breathtaking in its beauty—perhaps never more than at this time of year. For in spring, the foothills of the Sierra turn emerald green with wild grasses, wildflowers burst into color and waterfalls cascade down hillsides at nearly every bend and turn. Don’t be surprised if the foothills capture your heart and you find yourself coming back again and again to experience its wildflowers and waterfalls.
Here’s where the locals go for the very best wildflower and waterfall viewing—by car and on foot.
Wildflower Trail along Highway 140
Once you leave Highway 99 and begin to travel east on Highway 140 toward Yosemite, you may find yourself letting out a deep sigh of contentment. And why not? Starting in late March, lasting through spring and into early summer, the rustic hills you are traveling through turn into a magical patchwork of luscious greens while wildflowers—yellow-tinged goldfields, orange poppies, purple lupines and baby blue eyes—seem to sprout from every crack and crevice. Pay special attention to the vernal pools that lie just beside the road as you cross the county line from Merced into Mariposa. Usually found on the site of ancient seabeds, these seasonal pools dry out in spring and fill with masses of flowers.
Continue along Highway 140 as it passes through Cathey’s Valley, swings by ranches where cattle feed on the long, sweet native grasses and then winds its way through the hillsides on its way to the town of Mariposa. After lunch at one of Mariposa’s charming eateries and a stroll through this old Gold Rush town, head 12 miles east on Highway 140 to the Briceburg Visitors Center.
Gateway to the Merced Wild and Scenic River Area, Briceburg offers camping, swimming, rafting and fishing opportunities as well as spectacular wildflower hikes. For one of the best, cross the suspension bridge near the Visitors Center and drive four miles to the Railroad Flat Campground. Park, then walk down the road toward the small bridge. Cross the bridge and continue on to where the road narrows to a trail that runs up river to the north fork of the Merced River. Look anywhere. In spring, the hillsides are alive with color!
For an even simpler hike, park at the Visitor’s Center, cross the suspension bridge and head east along the path of the old railroad line that once serviced this area. The Merced will be running wild just below you while the canyon will be wild with flowers and pink-tinged redbud bushes.
Getting back in your car, continue another four miles until you spot the sign for Savage’s Trading Post. Park (it can get busy in early spring to mid-May), then head for the Hite’s Cove Trail and prepare to be amazed. Dozens of wildflower varieties will be out in full force, with millions of California poppies turning the hillsides completely orange in cooler years. The trail is easy walking but it is narrow and, at times, it’s directly above the south fork of the Merced River so hold onto the hands of small children. Hite’s Cove is one of the most popular wildflower destinations in all of California and just a short two-mile jaunt will take you through some of the lushest wildflower displays in the state.
As you take the road from Hite’s Cove into Yosemite National Park, scan the hillside for waterfalls. In just the small stretch of road from El Portal (which sits just outside Yosemite’s western gate on 140) to the Valley floor, over 30 seasonal waterfalls were spotted last spring. Can you find more this year?