The Red Hills ACEC is an interesting, out-of-the-way place to look for wildflowers, near Chinese Camp on the east side of the central valley. It is a large expanse of exposed serpentine soil which supports a wide range of special native plants. In the spring you can get large displays of flowers.
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The site’s full name is the “Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern”, and it is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The hills are mostly a chaparral/woodland mix of foothill pine and buckbrush, with flowers scattered between (in the spring). One of the interesting points of visiting here is that there are very few non-native plants, even the grasses, which is unusual in California.
There are a number of trails that leave from the main Red Hills parking lot, but I couldn’t find much information about them. The best resource is this Red Hills ACEC map.
Unfortunately, we were just passing through at the end of the day, so we didn’t have much of a chance to hike here. We drove across the site on the Red Hills Road and stopped at the main parking area. With daylight fading, we walked into the brush along one of the paths, up a hill, and back to the road. In just a short time we found many interesting flowers!
Here’s the track that we followed:
Move your mouse along the elevation graph below the map to show the location on the map. Refresh the page if you need to re-center the image.
Timing is Everything
We visited in mid-March at the end of the day, and the weather was dry and comfortable. However, this is low elevation in the central valley foothills, so the daytime temperatures can get hot quickly. These are very exposed scrub hillsides, very little shade. I think that any time in later March and early April will be a good time to visit, but be sure to bring plenty of drinking water because it will get hot very quickly.
We were driving north on Highway 49/120 from Yosemite when we passed this area. In the small town of Chinese Camp, look for the Red Hills Road on the west side, which is opposite of the Tuolumne County Fire Station on the highway. The road winds through Chinese Camp and out into the country.
There are several places where streams cross the road in low culverts – we were there not long after a rainy period and so we were crossing through water, but it wasn’t deep.
On the Red Hills ACEC map there is an “Interpretive Nature Trail” marked, but we didn’t find the turnoff for that. Be careful, some of the roads that turn off of the main road are best suited for 4-wheel drives.
Following the main (well paved) road, we came to the main parking area. This is where most of the trails start, and there are toilet facilities there. There is no entrance fee to this area.
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My favorite flower on this visit was the Purple mouse ears. They look like they are singing boisterously.
Along the drive to the trailhead we saw masses of yellow flowers. These next three were the most common. Stillman’s coreopsis is only found in California.
Five spot is one of my favorite flowers, we found these along the road at a stream crossing. It’s only found in California.
Congdon’s lomatium is listed as a rare/endangered plant, and is only found in California (in a very few places).
California fairypoppy (not a “poppy”) is a delicate, small flower found only in California.
In addition to what I show above, we found the following native flowers:
- Indian paintbrush
- Blue dicks
- Prairie woodland star (found only in California)
- Poison sanicle (found only in California)
- Popcorn flower
- California sandwort
- Butter ‘n’ eggs
Quite a few unique flowers, all just in a very short walk near the parking lot!
You can see larger copies of all of these photos (and purchase copies, if you wish) at the Charlie Russell Nature Photography website.