The most visited Sierra playgrounds are alongside mountain passes traversed by the main highways that cross the range. Donner Summit, Echo Summit and Carson Pass are examples that come easily to mind. These areas offer special sights to be sure, but often in close company with other highway travelers. Where is that sweet spot? Where can I enjoy easy access to Sierra mountain beauty beyond the hum of highway traffic?
East of Highway 41 between Oakhurst and the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park and south of the park boundary lays a vast region honeycombed with Forest Service roads. On a weekend in June, I came to this area with my friend Dan, who has climbed many of the many granite domes there and knows it well. Like any backcountry wanderer worthy of the name, Dan loves to browse topographic maps looking for a corner of the wilderness that calls for a closer look. He found one.
Several miles north of Oakhurst on Highway 41, we turned right on a poorly marked Sky Ranch Road, one end of the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway, and our entry point into the Forest Service road labyrinth. It quickly became clear that navigation here is a chancy prospect without a copy of the Sierra National Forest map (available from the US Forest Service). How else could one make sense of a split in the road marked with two narrow strips of plastic lath; one indicating 6S10X, the other 5S39?
Our hike began at the very end of Sky Ranch Road. Steps from the car, we crossed Chiquito Pass and entered Yosemite National Park. A mile farther and 1,000 feet lower, we arrived at the South Fork of the Merced River miles above its arrival in Wawona. The river was rowdy with runoff, alternately cascading over granite erratics and resting in quiet pools.
Here, we left the trail and followed the river downstream. Yosemite’s garden was in full bloom. Mountain pride penstemon, phlox, paintbrush and star tulip were a few of the performers. After a couple miles, the forest and soft footing gave way to a ravine of hulking granite with flowers and contorted pines eking out a living in the narrowest of cracks.
The map showed a trail back up to the road, but we couldn’t resist the 1,300-foot scramble directly above us—an invigorating climb and the right choice. Over four million people visited Yosemite last year. We saw no one.
Our six-mile adventure was grand, but it was only one part of the story. Around every bend in the web of forest roads, there was a reason to pull over. I have rarely seen such a gaudy floral display out my car window: dogwood and azalea by the creeks; Douglas irises beneath the pines; meadows bathed in bistort and shooting stars by the thousands.
Down Minarets Road we made our way back to ordinary, but not before a stop at Mile High Vista—by itself well worth the trip. On the distant horizon, close to Mammoth Lakes, rose Mt. Ritter and the Minarets.