Garden Guru: Sierra wildflower walks

By From page A5 | July 12, 2017

Summer officially started June 20 but the annual Sierra wildflower display is just beginning. High snowfall winters are almost always followed by a better than average wildflower bloom, so this season is promising to be a great one for wildflower lovers. I want to share some of my favorite places where you can see lots of wildflowers and some pretty spectacular scenery as well.

Probably the premier area for a wildflower hike in proximity to El Dorado Hills is Carson Pass on Highway 88. It’s no secret, so if you go plan on getting there early to get a parking spot at the trailhead. There is a large parking lot where the Carson Pass information center is located. The information center staff members are a great resource for trail information and tips on where the best blooms are happening. They also sell field guides, which are very handy in helping identify the plethora of wildflowers that await you. You can even call them at (209) 258 -8606 before you go to check on conditions. There is a $5 charge for parking but free spots can be found in highway turnouts a short walk from the trailhead.

The most popular hike is a 3-mile walk to Winnemucca Lake. The volcanic soils and abundant water create the perfect conditions for wildflowers. The elevations range from 8,500 feet to 9,000 feet so take your time to catch your breath. You will be stopping frequently to admire the flowers and the views. Paintbrush, Lupines, Shooting Stars, Elephant Heads, Mariposa Lillies, Mules Ears and Columbines are just a few of the varieties you will come across. The beautiful 10,385-foot Round Top peak dominates the gorgeous view all around. The more ambitious hikers can carefully make their way up to the summit of this mountain on unofficial trails starting from Round Top Lake.

If you make it to Winnemucca lake, be sure to find a quiet spot to sit and enjoy the bird show. The trees here are almost all Whitebark Pines, which only grow at high elevations. These trees have cones that don’t open and have wingless seeds so they are dependent on the Clarks Nutcracker bird for seed dispersal. The Nutcrackers’ primary food source are these seeds which they gather by breaking open the cones on the tree. What they don’t eat immediately they bury in the ground in caches of several seeds that they will retrieve at a later time. During a season one Nutcracker can cache up to 20,000 seeds. They somehow find the majority of their stash, but the ones they don’t find have a chance to germinate if conditions are right. The Nutcracker is a large gray and white bird that is very loud and active. You can’t miss them.

Nowhere else in my Sierra travels have I seen so many Nutcrackers in one place. Sadly, the Whitebark Pine is in rapid decline due to climate change and will most likely be extinct by the end of the century.

Other nearby trails with an abundance of wildflowers are the Woods Lake to Round Top Lake hike and the more strenuous but rewarding hike up Thunder Mountain from the trailhead near Kirkwood Meadows.

Trails leading out of the Donner Summit area and Truckee are a great place to see wildflowers. Many trails in the Tahoe basin are always good but my favorite is the hike up Mt. Tallac via the Glen Alpine trailhead. The backside of the peak above Gilmore Lake is usually awash in wildflowers and the view from the summit of Mt. Tallac is among the best anywhere in California.

Further afoot you can find my favorite wildflower display in all of the Sierra. The flanks of 13,000-foot Mt. Dana have an amazing variety of wildflowers and unmatched Sierra grandeur. A trail starts at Tioga Pass at the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park. Here you can find the most prized of all Sierra wildflowers, the rarely seen Sky Pilot, Polemonium eximium. You’ll have to work hard to see them since they usually only grow above the 12,000-foot elevation.

You can always find something blooming at different elevations in the Sierra. This year promises to be extra special so grab your camera, your wildflower field guide and a sturdy pair of walking shoes and hit the trail.

Terry Halvorson is a certified arborist and nature enthusiast.

Terry Halvorson


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