Nothing says summer like wildflowers sweeping across an alpine meadow. This year, thanks to a bumped-up snowpack after years of drought, scientists say the annual show should be epic. Botanist Karen Wiese, author of Sierra Nevada Wildflowers, says conditions are right for a “dazzling wildflower season.”
“Snow and rain during winter and spring have created optimal conditions,” Wiese explains. Wiese notes that some species start blooming in lower elevations (about 6,000 feet) in June. As snowpack melts, the bloom rises, with highest elevations (above 10,000 feet) still brightened by alpine wildflowers through August.
Wiese offers some quick tips on wildflower hunting:
• Bring a wildflower guide. It’s fun to figure out the difference between a crimson columbine and scarlet gilia. For the Sierra, perhaps add a trail guide like California Hiking (published by Avalon Travel).
• Carry a hand lens (10x magnification is good) to examine colours, patterns, and tiny features.
• Stay on designated trails to protect delicate habitat, and never pick flowers.
• Wear a hat and sunscreen, wear sturdy shoes built for hiking, and bring a lightweight poncho—weather can change quickly in the Sierra. Bring bug repellent too.
• Join an expert. High Sierra chapters of the California Native Plant Society offer guided walks and field trips, as do some colleges and local recreation departments. (Wiese leads flower hikes offered by Sorensen’s Resort, south of Lake Tahoe.)
To help you experience this summer’s spectacular show, we asked Wiese for her favourite wildflower-filled Sierra Nevada hikes. Some are along stretches of the famed Pacific Crest Trail (and outstanding even if you miss the wildflowers), while others are en route to Yosemite Valley, Mammoth Lakes, or Lake Tahoe. Here are her picks, listed from lower to higher elevations in the mountains.
—Ann Marie Brown
The turreted summit of 9,103-foot Castle Peak is a worthwhile destination for any crystal-clear day, when the panorama extends more than 100 miles north to Lassen Peak and west to the Diablo Range. But according to botanist Karen Wiese, the region’s diverse landscape—including “the lush meadow of Castle Valley, the dry slopes of Castle Peak, and the towering volcanic summit”—yields seriously awesome flowers by mid-July.
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.” Watch for an early-summer flower prize: the unusual steer’s head, a tiny pale pink flower whose petals resemble a steer’s horns and snout.
The ascent is moderate to Castle Pass, but the final mile to the summit will test your stamina. Use the flowers as your excuse—stop to catch your breath to admire carpets of pink star onion, spreading phlox, and sulfur buckwheat. Wiese’s summit tip: “Look just below the summit on the north side and you may discover Sierra primrose and rock fringe (both coloured a showy magenta pink).”
All told, the route is about 10 miles round trip. (There is a popular dirt road that cuts off almost four miles, but you’ll miss lots of flowers.)
DIRECTIONS TO TRAILHEAD: Take the Castle Peak/Boreal Ridge exit off I-80 at Donner Summit. The Pacific Crest Trail begins on the south side of I-80; the dirt road shortcut begins on the north side, at the end of the frontage road.
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 botanist and Sierra wildflower expert Karen Wiese.
This out-and-back hike extends up to four miles one way, but you can just walk for as far as you like alongside Caples Creek’s rushing cascades. The elevation here averages a relatively low 6,000 feet or so, so in general June tends to offer the peak of summer's flowery bounty. Underneath a canopy of pines and firs, you’ll find snow plants (an unmistakable flower that looks like a chubby red asparagus) and spotted coralroot orchids. After the first mile, the trail meets up with Caples 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), near Government Meadow. Bounded by granite outcrops dotted with showy pink mountain pride penstemon, the slabs and boulders of this lovely meadow make the perfect place to relax and rest before heading back to your car.
DIRECTIONS TO TRAILHEAD: From Placerville, take U.S. 50 east for 30 miles. At Kyburz, turn south on Silver Fork Road and drive 10 winding miles to the Caples Creek trailhead on the left, just before the Fitch Rantz Bridge.
The parking lot at Carson Pass (elevation 8,574 feet) 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-coloured 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).
Take a deep breath—you’re beginning this hike at nearly 10,000 feet, where the air is thin, but the wildflowers are divine. And you’re going higher—all the way to Sonora Peak’s 11,459-foot summit. You’ll find flowers along this challenging but oh-so-worth-it six-mile round-trip from early July to early August.
From the St. Mary’s Pass trailhead, the path skirts volcanic slopes splashed with colour. “This exhilarating hike offers a variety of sub-alpine and alpine plants, including scarlet gilia, Indian paintbrush, blue flax, and Sierra lilies,” says local botanist Karen Wiese. The trail climbs steadily, with only short reprieve on a level plateau before the final summit ascent. When you finally top Sonora Peak’s summit, 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.
DIRECTIONS TO TRAILHEAD: From Pinecrest, take State Highway 108 east for 35 miles. The St. Mary’s Pass trailhead for the Pacific Crest Trail is on the north side of the road, 0.8 mile before the top of Sonora Pass. (If you are coming from the east, take Highway 108 west for 32 miles from Bridgeport. The trailhead is 0.8 mile west of Sonora Pass.)
Mount Dana’s 13,057-foot summit is the second highest point in Yosemite, granting mind-boggling views with a mere three-mile climb. But don’t let the distance fool you; that short mileage comes with a butt-kicking 3,100-foot elevation gain. Fortunately, the rewards begin in the first and easiest mile. “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,” says local botanist Karen Wiese. The last two weeks of July are typically peak blooming time.
Many hikers turn around after reaching the broad plateau about halfway up the mountain, where a five-foot-tall rock cairn marks a good spot to eat a sandwich and call it a day. But determined peak-baggers (and savvy wildflower seekers) keep on slogging to the tippy-top. You’d expect nothing could grow among this rocky scree, but instead, Mount Dana’s summit is festooned with bouquets of blue-lavender sky pilot, its blossoms brightening the grey talus. And the view? It's a knockout, spanning more than 100 miles of Yosemite backcountry, the eastern desert, and Mono Lake, the remnant of a once-massive inland sea.
DIRECTIONS TO TRAILHEAD: The trail begins at Yosemite National Park’s Tioga Pass entrance station on State Highway 120 (12½ miles west of Lee Vining and 7 miles east of Tuolumne Meadows). Park in the Gaylor Lakes lot; the trailhead is on the north side of the road, across from the lot.
You get two-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. The combo vista documents volcanic and glacial action—fire and ice—side by side in the Eastern Sierra. And it’s all topped off by a colourful array of flowers, especially in late June and early July.
“The first part of this hike follows the Parker Bench and enters a wonderland of aromatic sagebrush scrub,” notes Karen Wiese, a botanist and expert on Sierra Nevada plants. A scattering of wildflowers is tucked in among the blanket of spicy-smelling sagebrush and bitterbrush, but that’s just “phase one” of this mixed-terrain trail. Look over your shoulder as you ascend to catch big views of Mono Lake and the surrounding high desert.
Soon the landscape transitions from sagebrush plains 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 centres speckled with maroon. There’s also desert paintbrush, mountain mule ears, lupine, phlox, prickly poppy, scarlet gilia, and much more. This streamside stretch is so lovely that it’s hard to move on, but just a short distance beyond lies stunning Parker Lake, a deep blue pool backed by 12,861-foot Parker Peak. Return to your car for a four-mile round-trip hike.
DIRECTIONS TO TRAILHEAD: From Lee Vining, drive five miles south on U.S. 395 to the north end of the June Lake Loop (State Highway 158). Turn right and drive 1.3 miles, then turn right on the dirt road signed for Parker Lake. Continue 2.4 miles to the trailhead at the end of the dirt road.
The Little Lakes Valley is a spectacular, glacier-carved canyon bursting with lakes and wildflowers. What makes it even more special is that the Mosquito Flat trailhead lies at 10,300 feet, giving easy access to the rarified High Sierra. So your car does the bulk of the climbing, instead of your feet.
According to botanist Karen Weise, it’s a great chance to look for plants that thrive at the Sierra’s highest elevations. “This trail hugs the upper threshold of the subalpine zone,” she explains. Look for limber pines and endangered whitebark pines—both species that grow only at the highest elevations. She recommends looking for various species (and colours) 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.
Wander as far as you wish amid this lake-filled wonderland. The trail stays remarkably level as it leads past Mack Lake and shallow Marsh Lake to Heart Lake in the first 1.5 miles. Continue to discover Box Lake and Long Lake, then turn around here for a seven-mile round trip. Those with more stamina can continue to Chickenfoot Lake (3 miles) or the Gem Lakes (3½ miles). Many hikers consider the Gem Lakes to be the loveliest of the lot, but that’s a tough contest.
DIRECTIONS TO TRAILHEAD: From U.S. 395 at Mammoth Lakes, drive south 15 miles to Tom’s Place. Turn right (west) on Rock Creek Road and drive 10.5 miles to its end at the Mosquito Flat parking lot.
If you spent too much of summer at the office or cleaning out the garage, don’t fret—you can still catch the late-season wildflower show east of Visalia in Sequoia National Park. The park’s Mineral King is a glacial valley bounded by a cirque of peaks towering over 11,000 feet in elevation. Winters tend to dump heavy snow that’s slow to melt, so flowers bloom late. One of the best places to see flowery colour splashes is below the white marble outcropping at White Chief Mine. In a spot where 1870s miners once searched for silver, you can look for wildflower treasures, like Coville’s columbine and diminutive varieties of Indian paintbrush and lupine.
To hike the round-trip route (roughly six or seven miles depending on where you turn around), start at the Eagle and Mosquito Lakes trailhead in Mineral King. Follow the White Chief Trail, which climbs steeply to White Chief Meadows. At the meadow’s lower end, look for the ruins of Crabtree Cabin, named after the person who first discovered White Chief Mine. Also try to identify foxtail pines, a rare species of conifer that can live well over 1,000 years. Beyond the meadow, the trail nears a waterfall on White Chief Creek, where even in late August you’ll find an explosion of tiny alpine wildflowers below the mine tunnel.
DIRECTIONS TO TRAILHEAD: From Visalia, drive east on State Highway 198 33 miles to Mineral King Road (4 miles east of Three Rivers). Turn right on Mineral King Road and drive 25 very twisty miles through Sequoia National Park to the road’s end at the Eagle/Mosquito Lakes trailhead.