Nothing says “summer” like wildflowers sweeping across an alpine meadow, and every year, hikers flock to the mountains of the Sierra Nevada to stalk the colorful blooms. Botanist Karen Wiese, author of the field guide Sierra Nevada Wildflowers, reminds us that blossom time is closely tied to elevation—lower-slope species start flowering in May or June, and as summer moves along, the bloom rises. The Sierra’s highest elevations—10,000 feet/3,048 meters and up—might not flower until early August. Below, Wiese offers her picks for seven of California’s best alpine flower hikes:
Pacific Crest Trail to Castle Peak (north Lake Tahoe off I-80)
The turreted summit of 9,103-foot/2,775-meter Castle Peak is a worthwhile destination for any crystal-clear day—its panorama extends more than 100 miles/161 km north to Lassen Peak and west to the Diablo Range. From I-80 just east of Soda Springs, the route follows the Pacific Crest Trail northwest through Castle Valley, which Wiese describes as “a delightful subalpine meadow with Lewis’s monkeyflower, little elephant’s head, alpine shooting star, corn lily, and monkshood.” The ascent is moderate to Castle Pass, but the final mile/1.6 km to the summit will test your stamina. Stop to catch your breath as you admire carpets of pink star onion, spreading phlox, and sulfur buckwheat. The route is about a 10-mile/16-km round trip.
Caples Creek (near Pollock Pines off US 50)
In early summer, it’s hard to find a mellower, more rewarding walk than Caples Creek Trail. “This trail has something to offer to everyone, with wonderful wildflower viewing, many bird species, and spectacular scenery for photographers,” says Wiese. You can hike out-and-back up to 4 miles/6.5 km on this trip. In May and June, you’ll find snow plants (an unmistakable flower that looks like chubby red asparagus) and spotted coralroot orchids. After the first mile/1.6 km, the trail meets up with the creek, then leads past Jake Schneider and Government Meadows, each blanketed with purple shooting stars and western blue flag iris. Wiese says to watch for Macloskey’s violet, a white violet with purple “nectar guides” (insects follow them to reach the flower’s sweet nectar).
Carson Pass (near Kirkwood off Hwy. 88)
The Carson Pass parking lot 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 some of the most prolific and dependable blooms anywhere in the mountains occurring in mid-July. The path starts at the Carson Pass Information Station, where the lodgepole pines quickly give way to open slopes dotted with purple lupine and school-bus-yellow mule’s ears. Less than a mile/1.6 km 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.Wiese suggests a side trip around Frog Lake’s east side, where you’ll find a large field of western blue flag iris. Back on the main trail to Winnemucca Lake, Wiese says “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.” A half-mile/.8 km farther is photogenic Winnemucca Lake, a blue-green gem set directly below Round Top Peak.
Pacific Crest Trail to Sonora Peak (Hwy. 108 at Sonora Pass)
Take a deep breath—you begin this 6-mile/9.7-km hike at nearly 10,000 feet/3,048 meters. The air is thin, but the wildflowers are divine. “This exhilarating hike offers a variety of sub-alpine and alpine plants, including scarlet gilia, Indian paintbrush, blue flax, and Sierra lilies,” Wiese says. From the St. Mary’s Pass trailhead, the path skirts volcanic slopes splashed with color in July and early August. The trail climbs steadily, with only a short reprieve before the final summit ascent. When you top Sonora Peak’s summit at 11,459 feet/3,493 meters, expect a knock-your-socks-off vista: You’re surrounded by a banquet of peaks in the Carson-Iceberg, Hoover, and Ansel Adams Wilderness areas.
Mount Dana Trail (Tioga Pass, Yosemite National Park)
This 13,061-foot summit is the second-highest peak in Yosemite, granting mind-boggling views with a mere 3-mile/4.8-km climb. But don’t let the distance fool you; that short mileage comes with a butt-kicking 3,100-foot/945-meter elevation gain. Fortunately, the rewards begin almost immediately, Wiese says. “Even before the trail starts to ascend, you’ll see a wealth of wildflowers such as large-leaf lupine, alpine paintbrush, and alpine goldenrod in the meadow.” If you make it all the way to the tippy-top, you’ll find Dana’s summit festooned with bouquets of blue-lavender sky pilot, its blossoms brightening the gray talus in late July and early August. And the view? It's a knockout, spanning more than 100 miles/161 km of Yosemite backcountry and Mono Lake, the remnant of a once-massive inland sea.
Parker Lake Trail (near June Lake off US 395)
You get three-for-one on this fascinating, wildflower-trimmed trail. First, there’s a panorama of some of the Sierra’s craggiest peaks. Then there’s the view of the lunar-like landscape of Mono Lake and nearby Mono Craters, about a half-hour north of Mammoth Lakes. And it’s all topped off by a colorful array of flowers, especially in late June. The trail begins in sagebrush scrub but quickly transitions into a forest of enormous Jeffrey pines and quaking aspens trimming Parker Creek. Wiese says to look for showy clusters of yellow wallflower (get down low and sniff their intoxicating scent) and bright white mariposa lilies with yellow centers speckled with maroon. There’s also desert paintbrush, mountain mule ears, lupine, phlox, prickly poppy, scarlet gilia, and much more. At trail’s end lies stunning Parker Lake, a deep blue pool backed by 12,861-foot/3,920-meter Parker Peak. Return to your car for a 4-mile/6.5-km round-trip hike.
Little Lakes Valley Trail (near Mammoth Lakes off U.S. 395)
The spectacular, glacier-carved canyon is bursting with lakes and wildflowers. What makes it even more special is that the Mosquito Flat trailhead lies at 10,300 feet/3,140 meters, so your car does the bulk of the climbing instead of your feet. The trail keeps a remarkably gentle grade as it leads past Mack Lake and shallow Marsh Lake to Heart Lake in the first 1.5 miles/2.5 km. Continue to discover Box Lake, Long Lake, Chickenfoot Lake, and finally the Gem Lakes (at 3.5 miles/5.5 km). Many hikers consider the Gem Lakes to be the loveliest of the lot, but that’s a tough contest. Wiese recommends looking for various species of heath in bloom, as well as gentian, elephant’s head, and crimson and Coville’s columbine. Peak bloom time is usually mid to late July.