Friday, July 15, 2016

Eldorado National Forest: Fleming Meadow Loop (Blog Hike #588)

Trail: Fleming Meadow Loop (Route 8)
Hike Location: Eldorado National Forest
Geographic Location: south of Pollock Pines, CA
Length: 7.1 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2016
Overview: A medium elevation loop hike through pine forest and meadow.

Directions to the trailhead: East of Placerville, take US 50 to Sly Park Road (exit 60).  Exit and go south on Sly Park Rd.  Drive Sly Park Rd. 4.6 miles to Mormon Emigrant Trail, a fine paved road in the summer that is not maintained in the winter.  Turn left on Mormon Emigrant Trail.  Drive Mormon Emigrant Trail 1.7 miles to the signed entrance for Fleming Meadow on the right.  Turn right and drive the paved entrance road to the only parking lot.  A signboard with a trail map dispenser is the only amenity here.

The hike: Located in the heart of California’s historic gold rush country, Eldorado National Forest consists of almost 600,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada mountains due east of Sacramento.  The forest’s name comes from its location in El Dorado County, which in turn is named after the Spanish word for gold.  The area earned this name in 1848 when California’s first gold discovery occurred at El Dorado County’s Sutter’s Mill along South Fork of the American River.  The mill’s town of Coloma lies just downstream from today’s national forest, but the South Fork of the American River runs through the middle of the national forest.
            The forest offers many recreation opportunities, but one of the more appealing hiking options is the Fleming Meadow area.  Fleming Meadow has elevation between 3500 and 4000 feet, so it stays snow-free for most of the winter but cool in the summer.  Indeed, on my mid-June visit I was hiking in mid-80’s temperatures up here while it was nearly 100 degrees down in Sacramento.
            The main trail through Fleming Meadow is a 7.1 mile loop known simply as Route 8.  The trail follows a combination of single-track paths and two-track dirt/gravel roads, and it is open to mountain bikes and horses as well as hikers.  I had a few mountain bikers pass me on my hike, but I saw no other hikers or any evidence of heavy horse use.  Although Route 8 is well-marked with plenty of brown carsonite posts, Fleming Meadow contains a large network of gravel roads and unofficial trails.  Thus, I highly recommend either downloading a trail map from the national forest’s website or picking one up from the dispenser at the trailhead information board.
Start of Fleming Meadow Loop
            Three two-track dirt roads depart from the trailhead area, but this hike does not start on any of them.  Instead, to begin a counterclockwise trip around Fleming Meadow on Route 8, pick up a single-track dirt trail that heads due west.  The start of this trail is marked by a brown carsonite post on the left as you walk back out the road you drove in on.  Large clusters of blue lupine grow along this initial segment of trail, and only some vehicle noise from nearby Mormon Emigrant Trail detracts from the atmosphere.
            At 0.3 miles, you reach a low-voltage powerline.  The trail flirts with the power line once before curving left to pass under it.  An access road that follows the power line corridor is not approved for public travel.  Brown carsonite posts bearing the number 8 keep you on the right path.
            At 0.5 miles, the trail crosses gravel Ferrari Mill Road.  Fleming Meadow’s dirt/gravel roads are identified by a complicated system of letters and numbers found on both carsonite posts and the trail map.  The letters and numbers seem to have little rhyme or reason, so my only advice for determining your location is to make sure the letter/number combination on the post exactly matches the one on the trail map.
Following Route 8
            After crossing Ferrari Mill Road, the trail descends on a gradual-to-moderate grade into a tight shady ravine.  At 0.9 miles, the single-track trail ends at a junction with a two-track dirt road marked as 10N50K (one example of the complicated road identification system mentioned in the previous paragraph).  To stay on Route 8, you need to turn left and begin following the dirt road.  Ignore a steep unofficial trail that continues straight and heads further down the ravine.
            The intersection with 10N50K marks the lowest elevation on this hike, and so a gradual climb comes next.  The forest here is a nice lower montane forest featuring large numbers of ponderosa and Jeffrey pines.  At 1.4 miles, the trail curves left to leave the old road and rejoin single track trail.  Another carsonite post marks this turn.
            The grade intensifies after leaving the dirt road as the trail curves left to briefly ascend directly up the hillside.  As you approach the ridge crest, parts of the trail become sunny and hot.  I chose to sit and rest a few minutes on a pine tree stump only to find some rosin stuck to my clothes when I stood up.
Approaching the highest point in Fleming Meadow
            The climb continues as you cross two gravel roads in short order.  2.2 miles into the hike, the trail curves left as it circles Fleming Meadow’s highest point: a gradually-sloped knob with a flat top.  The pine trees up here permit no expansive views.  Next comes a gradual to moderate descent using a pair of switchbacks down the eastern face of the unnamed knob.
            At 2.7 miles, the single-track path ends at another gravel road.  As directed by another carsonite post, you need to turn right to continue on Route 8.  200 feet later, you reach an odd site in the middle of a hike: a road intersection marked by green street signs!  Do not take any of the gravel roads here but angle slightly left to continue heading east on Route 8.
            Now on an old mining road, you curve right to begin heading south along a broad ridge.  At 3.2 miles, the trail turns right to leave the old road at a wooden stile with a carsonite post.  Over the next 0.75 miles the trail descends slightly to leave the ridge crest and then curves left to trace around the end of the ridge.  Some young pine trees appear along the trail, as do some pine trees that had recently died, probably due to the historic drought that has gripped most of California for several years now.
Dead pine trees
            Just shy of 4 miles, you reach a cul de sac at the end of yet another dirt road.  Route 8 does not follow this road but instead angles right to begin a long, gradual descent into a ravine on single-track trail.  This section of trail lies near the center of the Fleming Meadow area, so it is one of the quietest and most scenic parts of this hike.  At 4.8 miles, the trail curves right to trace around the head of the ravine before beginning a brief moderate climb.
            At 5.1 miles, the single-track trail ends (again) at another dirt road.  As directed by yet another brown carsonite post, Route 8 turns right here to begin heading south on the dirt road.  Note that turning left here would provide a shortcut back to the trailhead and a hike of only 5.6 miles.  The power line you passed under near the start of this hike also reappears overhead, but the hike stays west of the power line for now.
            In another 0.1 miles Route 8B, a spur trail of our Route 8, exits right.  Route 8B descends for 1 mile and 400 vertical feet on an old roadbed to its deadend at Camp Creek.  You could add-on Route 8B if you wanted to increase the difficulty and length of this hike, but this description angles left to stay on the main route.  After some gradual climbing, Route 8 exits the gravel road to the right at 5.5 miles.  As directed by another carsonite post, stay right to rejoin single-track trail.
"Overlook" in Fleming Meadow
            The trail map shows an unnamed spur trail exiting right to an overlook at 5.7 miles.  This trail is hard to find, and there are no developed overlooks in this area.  A strip of orange surveyors tape tied around a tree seemed to mark a faint spur trail on my visit, but any views from where the faint trail peters out are as blocked by trees as the views from the main trail.
            The trail climbs gradually as it traces around a wide finger ridge.  After passing under the power line for the final time, you assume a northward course first through the sunniest meadow of this hike and then through shadier pine forest.  At 6.7 miles, Route 8A exits right through a gap in a wooden fence.  Route 8A is another spur trail that descends to Camp Creek, but it does not connect with Route 8B.  Thus, most hikers should continue straight on the main Route 8.
Sunny area in Fleming Meadow
            6.8 miles into the hike, you intersect another dirt road.  After passing a seemingly infinite number of brown carsonite posts on this hike, there are zero markings or signs here to indicate which way to go.  The shortest route back to the trailhead turns right on the dirt road, but an unofficial single-track trail going straight also leads back to the trailhead area.  The dirt road climbs gradually to reach a vehicle gate and close the loop at 7.1 miles.  Your car sits in the parking lot to the right.

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