The parking lot at Carson Pass (elevation 8,574 feet), about a 30-minute drive from South Lake Tahoe, fills up fast on July weekends—and for good reason. Savvy wildflower watchers know this popular route offers classic High Sierra scenery at its best, with leashed dogs welcome and a trail that’s easy enough for children. That’s not to mention an absolutely breathtaking variety and abundance of alpine wildflowers.
The path starts at the Carson Pass Information Station on U.S. 88. (The Pacific Crest Trail can be reached about a half-mile west at the Meiss Meadow trailhead.) You’ll hike through lodgepole pines for a brief stretch, but soon the trees give way to open slopes. Take time to ooh and aahh over the purple lupine and school-bus-yellow mule’s ears. Less than a mile from the trailhead, turquoise-colored Frog Lake shows up on your left, framed by the distinct profile of Elephant’s Back, an old lava dome.
“Once you reach Frog Lake, the wildflower show really gets started,” says local botanist Karen Wiese. She suggests a side trip around Frog Lake’s east side, where you’ll find a large field of western blue flag iris. Then get back on the main trail to Winnemucca Lake, where “water from a seep provides a wonderful sub-alpine garden with little elephant heads, alpine shooting stars, mountain larkspur, large-leaf lupine, ranger’s buttons, and the Sierra rein orchid.” You won’t be in a hurry to leave this magical spot, but a half-mile farther is photogenic Winnemucca Lake, a blue-green gem set directly below Round Top Peak.
DIRECTIONS TO TRAILHEAD: From South Lake Tahoe, take State Highway 89 south for seven miles to Meyers, then turn left to continue on Highway 89 for 11 miles to Hope Valley. At the T-junction, turn right (west) onto State Highway 88 and drive nine miles to Carson Pass summit. The trail begins by the log cabin information station on the highway’s south side (there is a day-use parking fee).