By GENEVIEVE BOOKWALTER
People longing for springtime don't need a time machine.
At least in Yosemite National Park, a drive up Highway 120 will do the trick.
While traffic crawls through Yosemite Valley and the sun bakes hikers on the Mist Trail, sweatshirt-clad kids romp through the flowers of Tuolumne Meadows. About 50 miles from the Big Oak Flat entrance, the not-so-common tourist destination is the opposite direction from the valley floor about 3,700 feet up, not 800 feet down - from the gate.
Wildflowers and green grass that the foothills haven't seen since spring blanket the roadsides on the way to the state's highest pass - Tioga, at 9,945 feet above sea level.
"You start seeing wildflowers by the time you get to Crane Flat," said Bob Fry, a retired Tuolumne Meadow ranger from Groveland who worked in the park for 45 years. The higher you go, the more you can see."
A cruise up the pass can remind foothill residents of the off-season, before tourists arrived in droves to gaze up at Half Dome and Bridal Veil Falls. Brisk 70-degree temperatures reassure a guest from lower elevations that summer's heat will eventually pass. Anyone who missed the colorful flower show on Table Mountain in May can visit Dana Gardens for an encore performance.
Because of the elevation, seasons come and go quickly in Yosemite's High Country, said Ginger Burley, a 25-year veteran naturalist in Tuolumne Meadows. Spring, summer and fall roll by in June, July and August, each taking a month to show its colors before winter returns and 14-foot snows close the road for another season.
While many Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Pass visitors are are just passing through to the valley from the Eastern Sierra, a number drive up especially for the wildflowers.
Pale purple wandering daisies and yellow senecio clusters line the road. A path just before the exit gate at Tioga Pass leads the occasional hiker on a 30-minute trek to Dana Gardens, which bursts with fireweed, corn lilies and wallflowers. Bumble bees hum from pistil to pistil, and the soft, coarse sage feels good on bare feet.
In higher elevations, explorers might recognize shrubby cinquefoil - a plant commonly used for landscaping at lower elevations.
"It's horticulture used all over the world," Fry said. "I mean, you find it at McDonalds."
Despite its everyday appearance, however, travelers wanting some for their own garden will have to buy it from a nursery back home. Rangers are constantly confiscating bouquets from campers and guests, Burley said. Although the flowers are already cut, letting guests keep them at campsites or take them home just encourages others to pick some, too.
"When you have almost 4 million visitors a year, you have to be strict about it," Burley said.
"Flowers are all about seeds. If everyone picks them, we won't have anymore."
Contact Genevieve Bookwalter at gbookwalter@
Weekly Arts and entertainment guide for Calaveras and Tuolumne counties