Most of the best hiking trails between Merced and Yosemite National Park are located on land surrounding the large reservoirs that provide water for farms, businesses, and homes. Much of the remaining land is privately owned, providing homes for families and food for the world. In the last couple of decades, some of that land has been put into conservation easements. These easements ensure that it will continue to be a part of the economy as grazing land and also ensure that it will not become urbanized.
Easements are voluntary and permanent legal decisions made by the landowners. Essentially they sell their development rights while continuing to run productive livestock operations. Easements help to preserve open space and a ranching-based economy without government ownership of the land or removal of the land from the economy.
Many families who have chosen to put an easement on their land have lived on the land and loved it for generations. The easement is as a way to preserve it land for future generations, no matter whether their family continues to own it or not.
In the foothills of Mariposa, Madera, and Fresno Counties, a majority of these easements are overseen by the Sierra Foothill Conservancy. The Conservancy has developed strong working relationships with these landowners and the result is that many are willing to allow the Conservancy to hold classes and guided hikes on their properties. The Conservancy also owns and/or manages nine preserves where cattle generally remain part of the land’s management plan, but which are open to the public on a more frequent basis.
The Madera and Fresno County preserves
Three of these preserves – Stockton Creek, Feliciana Mountain, and Bean Creek – are located close to home in Mariposa County.
The Madera and Fresno County preserves are also within a driving distance of one and a half to two hours. Mariposa area classes and hikes may occur on the preserves or on easements in a wide range of elevation zones.
These easements include Striped Rock, Clark’s Valley, and ranch land near Hornitos, Bear Valley, and Darrah.
Hikes and classes
Hikes and classes aren’t offered during the intense heat of summer, but they will begin again in October and run through May. The majority of events occur as the weather improves between February and May.
This fall’s Mariposa County events – including a hike through oak woodlands to expansive views from the top of Striped Rock and an autumn-themed nature photography workshop at Stockton Creek – will be posted on the Conservancy’s website (www.sierrafoothill.org) by the middle of September.
The relatively easy Stockton Creek Trail in the Stockton Creek Preserve near downtown Mariposa is open daily from sunrise to sunset.
The trail’s route includes Stockton Creek Reservoir (the source of Mariposa’s drinking water) and a ridge that overlooks the town of Mariposa with views of the surrounding mountains.
Most hikers start at water treatment facility at the end of Trabucco Road and climb over the ridge to the reservoir. You can also start on the south side of Highway 140, just east of the junction with Old Highway North.
Look for a turnout with a locked gate. There is a “walkaround” to the side of the gate. Eventually an additional section of trail will be built to connect the preserve with Slaughterhouse Road.
You can find easy-to-use hiking map at: http://www.sierrafoothill.org/index.php/land/preserves/stockton-creek/.
The Conservancy offers a broad range of hikes and classes. Designated “family hikes” are very easy and generally a good option for people of all ages. Many hikes and classes easy to moderate in difficulty.
More challenging “power hikes” may last all day and require some serious elevation gain – especially Tivy Mountain and the Table Mountain hikes that include Smith Basin.
All hikes are led by experienced guides who can explain the landscape, its plants and animals, and its history.
Classes offered on SFC preserves and easements include subjects such as birds, photography, native plants, astronomy, wildflowers, and trees.
The Sierra Foothill Conservancy does a great job of balancing habitat preservation with ranching, with a bonus of welcoming the public for informative and rewarding activities.
I’ve hiked several Sierra Foothill Conservancy trails and there are quite a few more that I hope to visit in the next couple of years. Perhaps I’ll see you on the trail!
For more information, visit the Conservancy’s informative website: www.sierrafoothill.org.
The site details each of the preserves with stunning photos and offers a calendar of events.
You can contact the Mariposa office at (209) 742-5556 and the Prather office at (559) 855-3473.