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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the California Sierra Nevada

By Mark Grossi

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California Sierra Nevada > Eastern Sierra > South Sierra Wilderness

South Sierra Wilderness

[Fig. 47] The South Sierra Wilderness is 62,700 acres straddling the southern crest of the Sierra. Much of its acreage is in the Inyo National Forest on the rugged Eastern Sierra. The west slope acreage in this wilderness—amounting to about 24,000 acres—is in the comparatively gentle terrain of the Sequoia National Forest.

It is a vast, arid expanse of the Sierra, compared to the Central and Northern areas of this mountain range. Elevations range from 6,100 feet near Kennedy Meadows at the southern tip of the wilderness to 12,123 feet at Olancha Peak on the eastern flank. The South Fork of the Kern River, federally protected as a Wild and Scenic River, runs through the heart of the wilderness. Like the Golden Trout Wilderness just to the north, the South Sierra has open meadows that were once grazed extensively in the late 1800s. And like the Golden Trout, the historic grazing patterns continue today with fewer animals under federal permit programs.

But compared to many other areas around the Sierra, including the Golden Trout, this wilderness gets a lot less attention from hikers and backpackers. There are no visitor permits required to enter the wilderness, and the federal government has imposed no quotas on hikers and backpackers. If solitude is what you seek, the South Sierra may be a good destination for you. Bring water, food, warm clothing, and a tent if you intend to stay overnight. There are no facilities in this wilderness.

Don't get the idea that this place is untouched by humans, though. People have been in the South Sierra for at least 6,000 years, according to archaeologists. Though the wilderness has not been completely surveyed, scientists have found bedrock mortars and obsidian objects that Native Americans used. It is believed that Owens Valley Paiute and the Panamint Shoshone once lived in these parts.

Farther back in time, the granite of the South Sierra formed between 100 million and 150 million years ago. Volcanic eruptions took place about 1 million years ago near the South Fork of the Kern. Basalt lava flows can be seen in rock formations near the river.

The high Sierra in this wilderness is above the timberline, which is roughly 9,000 feet. Besides 12,200-foot Olancha Peak, Deer Mountain is 9,418 feet, and Round Mountain is 9,884 feet. The coniferous forests around the ridges contain several kinds of trees, including the foxtail pine, ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, and red fir.

But the combination of a dryer climate and high elevation produces chaparral-type vegetation in the center of the wilderness, called montane chaparral. It is a bit different from other places in the Sierra because chaparral appears most often in dry foothill locations. In such higher elevations, chaparral communities commonly contain snow bush (Ceanothus cordulatus), mountain snowberry (Symphoricarpos vaccinioides), golden chinquapin (Chrysolepis sempervirens), and Corville's ceanothus (Ceanothus pinetorum). These shrubs adjust to the colder temperatures and deeper snowfalls in the higher elevations, yet they thrive when the temperatures warm up and the precipitation virtually disappears. Most of these high-elevation chaparral species are not found below 5,000 feet.

The South Sierra also has three endemic species that federal officials watch closely. They are the Nine Mile Canyon phacelia (Phacelia novenmillensis), the Kern River daisy (Erigeron multiceps), and the Tulare horkelia (Horkelia tularensis). Though no endangered species are known to live in this wilderness, there are several species that are considered "sensitive" or possibly in danger of dwindling in number. Of those species, the Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vuples necator) is the creature studied the most in this area. The marten and the pine fisher (Martes pennanti) are also considered sensitive species. Another species, the wolverine (Gulo luscus), was last seen in the South Sierra Wilderness during the 1950s.

Olancha Pass Trail

[Fig. 47(1)] The views on this hike are interesting coming and going. When hikers reach Olancha Pass at more than 9,200 feet, they will be rewarded with views of Summit Creek. About three miles north, Olancha Peak juts out at 12,123 feet. On the way back, the Owens Valley, Sage Flat Creek, and Haiwee Reservoir are the sights.

For hikers interested in seeing a high-elevation meadow, continue about 0.5 mile past Olancha Pass and see Summit Meadow near Summit Creek. Notice the lichen on the granite near the meadow. It is tenacious map lichen (Rhizocarpon geographicum). The lichen spreads its thread-like appendages all over the rocks to absorb the minerals needed to survive. It can survive cold and sunlight, a tough combination to contend with in the South Sierra Wilderness.

The white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) and the western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) are common residents in the meadow during the summer months. They leave for the lower elevations in September when the evenings begin to cool off. Hikers, too, should probably stay away in the colder months; because cold and blustery storms appear quickly at this elevation.

Haiwee Trail

[Fig. 47(2)] The biggest reason to hike this trail is to get a good look at the Wild and Scenic South Fork of the Kern River. Depending on the time of year, hikers can see a swollen, raging river or a fairly quiet mountain creek. If you want to see it full and running, hike in late May and June. And, don't bother trying to ford it. Just admire it from a distance, enjoy the picnic lunch, and hike back out. If your hike takes place in late August, however, the cold water might feel good on your feet.

The view from 8,180-foot Haiwee Pass includes 9,455-foot Crag Peak to the west and 9,418-foot Deer Mountain to the northwest. Both are on the west side of the South Fork Kern. Hikers can see meadow shrubs, such as the bush cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa), Sierra bilberry (Vaccinium nivictum), and western blueberry (Vaccinium occidentale), in areas near the Kern. Also, look for wildflowers in June and July. Common wildflowers of the area include California valerian (Valeriana capitata) and wandering daisy (Erigeron peregrinus).

Probably the most frequently seen large animal in the area is the mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus). The deer are most noticeable in the summer months after the birth of fawns. Mortality for deer in the Sierra is high because of starvation, hunting, and predation. The deer's biggest enemy is the mountain lion (Felis concolor), which hikers probably will not see because it is so secretive.

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