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Natural History

May contain: tree, plant, fir, abies, nature, water, and outdoors
Horse and rider on an old wooden footbridge across the Stanislaus River.

The natural-minded scenic seeker will soon notice the many different plant communities spread along Highway 4. Plant communities, which include the fauna living year round or seasonally in the community, thrive where their particular life- promoting needs are being met: water, food, temperature, and shelter. Since the topography greatly determines how these needs are distributed, it is not surprising to find that these plant communities sort themselves somewhat by the great elevation rise of the highway. Smaller ecosystems can exist within a plant community where the proper conditions are present, such as rock outcrops, streams, or meadows. These plant communities are usually identified by the dominant plant in the community. When the traveler sees a particular tree, one can be sure to be passing through a certain plant community, with all the attendant flora and fauna and environmental factors one would expect to find in that community. As in most natural things there is no set boundary between communities, and gradual transitions seem to be the rule.

The following short descriptive list will prepare the natural-seeking adventurer for a trip through this most varied, vibrant and vital Sierra region.

Mid Sierra Elevations (from Arnold to Cottage Springs, 4,000 feet to 6,000 feet)

The Ponderosa Pine dominates in this mixed conifer forest which includes the large-coned Sugar Pine, the red-barked Incense Cedar, and the White Fir. In the fall the Black Oak and the big leaf Maple turn the forest a bit orange and yellow but the showy Dogwood steals the show by throwing in red.

The stellar jay and the gray squirrel are busy in this forest.

A tree of special note is the Sequoia Gigantea—the Big Tree. It is found only in small groves in the Sierra, a spectacular tree that demands attention. The Calaveras Big Trees State Park has a North Grove and a South Grove of these giants.

High Sierra Elevations (above Cottage Springs to Bear Valley and beyond 6,000 to 8,000 feet)

Precipitation in this elevation is 40 to 59 inches annually, with up to 15 feet of snow.

The Lodgepole Pine and the Red Fir forest phase out the Ponderosa Pine and Incense cedar, while young Red Fir look like the perfect Christmas tree. Quaking Aspen are to be found along streams and make a beautiful fall showing.

Sub Alpine Elevations (Bear Valley to Ebbetts Pass 6000 to 9000)

A cold, harsh environment with a short growing season, the White Bark Pine, Mountain Hemlock, and Juniper thrive, which adapt well to the harsh environment. Lying low, they twist out of the wind, leaving branches to develop less exposed bark on one side.

Rock outcrops provide an interesting setting for the trees.

Yellow bellied marmot and pika may be observed in this region.

East Slope of the Sierra (Ebbetts pass to Markleeville 8,000 to 5,600)

This area is characterized by a drier, steeper environment affected by the rainshadow effect: as storm systems lift to pass over the Sierra, most of the moisture is dumped on the west slope, leaving the eastside with very little. The plants and animals have adapted.

The Jeffrey Pine, Ponderosa Pine’s vanilla smelling cousin grows here, as does the single-leafed Piñon Pine with the tasty nut. The meadow invading Lodgepole Pine is prevalent, as is Sagebrush with its pungent perfume. The riparian vegetation found along Silver Creek includes Quaking Aspen, Cottonwood, and Willow. The piñon jay is a gregarious resident.

Animals that live along the Ebbetts Pass Scenic Highway

There may be over 300 animal species frolicking in the woods lining this scenic highway. Some 70 or so are mammals. They are an integral part of the whole as prey or predator, redistributing the sun’s energy through very intricate food chains. However, since they are wild, the traveler will see very few. If you want to see an animal or at least some animal evidence, your chances improve when you stop at the Points of Interest, get out of your car, and walk quietly away from the highway. Taking one of the many recommended hikes will give you your best chance to see something like scat or tracks or signs like piles of scaled pine cones called “kitchen middens” made by the busy squirrel.

Most of the mammals that inhabit the Ponderosa Pine Forest (up to 6,500 feet) also range into the High Country:

Black Bear, Mountain Lion (cougar), Mule Deer, Raccoon, Skunk, Opossum, Gray Fox, Coyote, Western Gray Squirrel, Chickaree, Northern Flying Squirrel, Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel, California Ground Squirrel, Porcupine, Jackrabbit, Bobcat, Chipmunk (a large variety), Bats (a large variety), and River Otter.

Mammals that tend to stay in the High Country (6,500 feet and above) include the Lodgepole Chipmunk, Yellow-bellied Marmot, and Pika.

By David Gano, from the Guide to Ebbetts Pass, 2010