People at BLM say walking, birding, horseback riding, mountain biking and limited hunting are permitted in the Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern. Camping, target shooting and off-road vehicle use are prohibited. No fees are required.

We agreed to meet in downtown Sonora at 9 a.m. last Saturday and we left in two vehicles about 9:30 a.m., headed for the Red Hills south of Chinese Camp.

It’s a 15- to 20-minute drive. We passed Six Bit Gulch Road and came to the gravel parking lot off Red Hills Road. A coworker had a cryptic Mex-Western song called “Buenos Tardes Amigo” playing from his phone through his car speakers. It reminded me of theme music to 1960s spaghetti Westerns like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

A couple of truck-and-horse-trailer rigs were parked, and three or four horses were saddled and tacked out ready to ride, secured to the trailers. It was still cool, in the 40s or low 50s, but it was clear and sunny with some haze high the sky. It was going to warm up as soon as we got moving.

There were four of us and a dog, and two of us had been to Red Hills several times before. The Red Hills are overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management. People at BLM say the Red Hills Management Area is a designated Area of Critical Environmental Concern.

The designation is intended to protect plant species found there, the rocky, erosive, serpentine soils that provide habitat for the unique flora, habitat for a minnow known as the Red Hills roach, and bald eagle wintering habitat. Biologists say the mix of plant species in the Red Hills is unique because it occurs nowhere else in the world.

For me, it’s a place to walk and it’s close to Sonora. Some days you see a lot of people, but there’s plenty of room for solitude on about 17 miles of trails and 7,100 acres of public land. In early spring the Red Hills turn yellow, white, purple and pink with wildflowers. In November, the Red Hills are rust, gold and dark green.

The times we’d been before, we always started walking south-southwest toward La Grange Road on trails called Old Stage and Soaproot Ridge. This time we found paper BLM maps at a shack in the parking area and decided right away to head east on a trail called Overlook Loop.

This trail took us straight into the backcountry and within minutes we were on a hilltop looking out over cured grasses, thorny buckbrush and other chaparral plants, and pockets of long-needle foothill pine trees that have survived multiple fires. A blaze out there burned about 38 acres near Red Hills Road and Six Bit Gulch in June last year, according to Cal Fire.

We noticed all kinds of scat on and near the trail. Some appeared to be from domestic dogs, and some looked more like coyote, fox or wild cat. We also came across individual bird feathers. One I noticed was blue-black, like it came from a raven.

Biologists say plants in the Red Hills provide browse and seed for mammals including mule deer, jackrabbits, rodents, coyotes, foxes and bobcats. More than 80 bird species have been observed in the Red Hills, including quail, mourning dove, woodpecker, scrub jay and wren. Red Hills insects feed flycatchers, swallows and others. Raptors include red-tailed hawk, Cooper's hawk, prairie falcon and great horned owl. Roadrunners are also seen from time to time.

Fish-eating birds seen in the Red Hills include belted kingfisher and great blue heron. It hadn’t rained at all since early October and most of the creeks we came to last Saturday were bone dry.

We stopped for a bit and I sat on a lichen-covered rock and ate a can of sardines and mustard sauce. We kept on and came to a place with a sign post pointing toward Verbena Loop and decided to take that. This led us across Red Hills Road and up a traverse across the sides of a couple hills, then down into an obvious draw east of Serpentine Loop Road.

Down in the draw there was running water in a shallow creek, inches deep and less than a foot wide in places. We decided to stop and eat some more and cool off. It was between noon and 1 p.m. and it felt warm, like mid-60s to low 70s. Below the water’s surface in the creek there were tiny tadpoles or baby fish among the rocks, and silvery air bubbles clung to decaying moss and algae.

The trail we’d been on had petered out. We decided to head west, then up and over a gentle ridge to the south, figuring this would lead eventually back to Red Hills Road and the parking area. Seeds with hooks and barbs, from the grasses and shrubs we walked through, clung to our shoes and socks.

From the top of the ridge we could see down toward Serpentine Loop Road and figured that would take us to Red Hills Road. One of us had to depart for a commitment later in the afternoon so we walked down to Serpentine Loop and stepped out fast on the last stretch of road to where we left our vehicles.

The last bit we walked and talked with a group of women and men on horseback, keeping distance from their animals so they wouldn’t spook. We finished before 2 p.m. Altogether we walked about six miles in under four hours.

We agreed to meet at the Chinese Camp Store for cold drinks and salty chips. Heading back to Sonora, my coworker replayed “Buenos Tardes Amigo.” It still sounded foreboding, but the title translates simply to “good afternoon friend.”

Reporter’s note: Before I began working for newspapers in the early 1990s, I spent seven years with VisionQuest and Outward Bound as a paid, certified wilderness instructor and emergency medical technician accountable for groups of felony offender teens, court-ordered children and adult Cuban refugees. I am in my mid-50s and anyone who walks OK on their own can keep up with me anywhere.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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