Adam Blauert

Blauert on Outdoors: Best Merced-area fall hikes

A view of Sonora from Dragoon Trail. A network of short trails loops around hills that overlook historic downtown Sonora. Several short segments of trail add up to about 2.5 miles with an elevation gain of about 300 feet.
A view of Sonora from Dragoon Trail. A network of short trails loops around hills that overlook historic downtown Sonora. Several short segments of trail add up to about 2.5 miles with an elevation gain of about 300 feet. Sun-Star correspondent

Several recent email correspondents asked about the best hikes near Merced. During the summer, that’s a hard question to answer; most local trails are too hot to enjoy, and comfortable hiking requires a drive to the Sierra or the coast.

Now that fall has arrived, however, local trails become far more appealing – especially on crisp mornings.

Listed below are some favorite hikes with a 60- to 90- minute drive – great in the fall, best in the spring and possible during dry weather in winter. Because water levels are low in most local reservoirs, I’ve avoided most of my favorite lakeside walks in making these reservations since these trails are now high and dry.

Spikes Peak at Pacheco State Park – This 1,927-foot summit overlooks the Pacheco Pass region of the Coast Range and Central Valley. The best view of any hike in our area, it is best enjoyed after a storm has cleared the smog. The 500-foot elevation gain is over 2.6 miles of gradual trail. The entrance is on Highway 152, 15.5 miles west of the I-5 junction. The day-use fee is $10 per vehicle, and free maps detailing the route to Spikes Peak and 25 additional miles of trails are available at a kiosk in the parking area. For more information, go to parks.ca.gov/?page_id=560 or call (209) 826-6283.

Ahwahnee Hills Regional Park – Located near Oakhurst, the newest park in our area (it opened in March) offers a 3-mile loop through a peaceful oak valley at the foot of mountains. There is little elevation change, and access is free. The park’s picturesque barn makes a great camera subject. For more information, go to ahwahneepark.org.

Merced and San Luis National Wildlife Refuges – Located on Sandy Mush Road, 7.5 miles west of Highway 59, the Merced refuge offers a 5-mile car tour, four short trails and two viewing platforms. The San Luis Refuge is located north of Los Banos on Wolfsen Road. It offers 13.5 miles of auto touring to view elk and birds, five short trails, three viewing platforms and a visitor center. Although the refuges are open year-round, the most impressive time to visit is after wintering waterfowl have arrived – usually from late November through February. On Saturday, special programs, speakers and tours will be offered. For more information, go to fws.gov/refuge/san_luis or call (209) 826-3508.

Sonora’s Dragoon Trail – A network of short trails loops around hills that overlook historic downtown Sonora. Several short segments of trail add up to about 2.5 miles with an elevation gain of about 300 feet.

Parking is available at Woods Creek Park, one of two trailheads for the Dragoon Trail. To find the park, enter Sonora on Highway 49 and watch for the fairgrounds on the right. Turn left on Woods Creek Drive when you see the historic Sugar Pine Railway locomotive on the right. Drive to the end of the park – you’ll see signs for the trailhead.

The first quarter-mile of the trail leads through a neighborhood, but the route is clearly marked on pavement. Before long, the trail leaves civilization behind and turns into Dragoon Gulch. There is no charge to park or use this trail. After your hike, downtown Sonora is a fun place to have a meal and look at interesting antiques and odds and ends. For information, go to sonoraca.com/visitsonora/dragoonpage.htm.

Table Mountain at New Melones – Highway 108’s legendary Table Mountain can be accessed from the land surrounding New Melones Reservoir. With a round-trip distance of only 3 miles, the entire hike usually lasts less than three hours. Although part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s New Melones Reservoir, access is free. The trail is popular, even on weekdays. Like Spikes Peak, views are excellent on clear days.

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To find the trail, turn left (north) on Rawhide Road in Jamestown. After crossing a low place in the lava flow, the road passes through a small valley and turns abruptly right. Turn left onto Shell Road at this bend and drive for just over a mile until you encounter a gate. If you have a high-clearance vehicle, you can pass through this gate, and the one that follows it, and park near a small restroom.

If you don’t have high clearance, park near the first gate and follow the trail that parallels the road. The additional hiking distance is less than a mile and the elevation gain is minimal as you wind among oaks and green hills. For more information, go to www.usbr.gov/mp/ccao/newmelones or call (209) 563-9094.

A wide range of exciting fall hikes and classes are offered by the Sierra Foothill Conservancy in the foothills of Mariposa, Madera and Fresno Counties. For more information, go to sierrafoothill.org or call the Mariposa office at (209) 742-5556.

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