Carson Pass Wildflower Hike

The Carson Pass area in Alpine County is the greatest summer wildflower area I know of. There are a number of different trails (see my article on Meiss Lake), each with a different set of features.  The most popular hike starts at the Carson Pass Information Station and takes you through a series of wonderful wildflower gardens until you get to Winnemucca Lake. The highlight of this hike is a “seep” area that covers an entire hillside. The hike is relatively easy (considering the altitude) and well worth it if you can time it right. This year we visited it on the last weekend of July.

Note: Click on any photograph to see a larger image

The Hike

The hike isn’t difficult as long as you remember to pace yourself and bring water. The starting elevation is around 8500 feet. You start off through a forested area with some elevation change, passing by Frog Lake.

From there you continue alongside Elephants Back, where there are a number of different wildflower areas that are more exposed on the granite hillside. Lots of Indian Paintbrush, Lupine, and flowers that take to the drier exposed areas. In the picture to the right you can see Round Top in the background, which is where we are heading.

Continuing on you eventually come to a hillside that is fed by snowmelt, with small streams crisscrossing the open areas and an incredible variety of wildflowers. This is the “seep” area, with a wide assortment of flowers that like the dampness (Monkeyflower, Shooting Stars, Elephant Head) as well as masses of Paintbrush and Lupines. If you hit this at the right time you’ll find acres of flowers in full bloom.

Continuing on, the area dries out a bit and you come to Winnemucca Lake, with an elevation of 8980 feet. This is at the foot of Round Top. It is about three miles in from the highway, and usually we don’t go much further past this lake. The lake area itself is fairly exposed, but there are some reasonably shady areas for a rest. This year we went a bit past the lake, just starting up the side of Round Top mountain, and found another seep area that had a different collection of flowers.

You can continue on up Round Top, but the trail starts to change elevation fairly rapidly. I’ve not gone past here yet so I’m not sure what you’ll find as far as wildflowers.

This is a very popular trail when the flowers are at their peak. You won’t be alone. But it is fun to sit in the flower gardens and listen to people gasp in amazement as they come over the crest and see the seep area for the first time.

Timing is Everything

Crimson Columbine

This trail heads south from the highway and it has a different exposure than the hike to Meiss Lake.  Usually this hike hits its peak about two weeks later than the Meiss Lake trail. Be sure to stop in at the Carson Pass Information Station to get the latest information on which trail to take. This is manned by volunteers from the El Dorado National Forest Interpretive Association (ENFIA), and they are a wonderful source for information on the area. You can call them at (209) 258-8606 to get a reading on when the flowers will be at their peak.

We hiked on this trail in late July 2010. Some years you want to go earlier, but this was a relatively cool summer. The weather was excellent, a clear sunny day with temperatures reaching the low to mid 80’s. It was a bit warm in the exposed areas, but the starting (and ending) section are in the forest and protected. There are a number of trees and shady spots at Winnemucca Lake where you can rest.

Directions

The trailhead is on Highway 88 past the Kirkwood ski resort area in Northern California.

Nettleleaf Horsemint

From Sacramento take Highway 16 east until it meets Highway 49. Head south on 59 to Jackson. From there go east on Highway 88. It is roughly 55 miles to the Kirkwood Inn and Station (just past the Kirkwood ski resort). Continue on 88 past Caples Lake, at about 5.2 miles you will see the Carson Pass Information Center  on the south side of the highway (this is just after the Meiss Meadow trailhead parking lot on the north side).

Parking at the Information Center can be crowded if you go on a weekend. The parking fee is $5.00.  If that lot is full then just past this there is a road on the south side (Red Vista Road) that serves as overflow. People squeeze in on that narrow side road – I found that if you go down several hundred feet there is a broad lookout parking area that is often empty. There were flowers to view even on this side road.

If you are in the South Lake Tahoe area you can take Highway 8outh from near the airport to Highway 88 (about 11 miles) and then turn right (west). The Carson Pass Information Center is about 9 miles to the west.

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The Flowers

Please feel free to help me with the identification of any “unidentified” flowers listed here, as well as correcting any errors I may make. Click on any photograph to see a larger image. I’ll start with a few favorites, and then the “gallery”. All pictures were taken with a Nikon D50 with a Tamron 18-270 mm zoom lens. I was trying out this lens as it has image stabilization, and I didn’t use a tripod. The lens was wonderful for the scenery shots, but I didn’t like the results for the flower shots. My apologies for the poor depth of field in some of these shots (I’m not keeping that lens).

Little Elephant Head

This is the first time I’ve come across this. You have to look close – see the two elephant ears and the trunk on each flower?

Dodecatheon alpinum

Alpine Shooting Star

Shooting Stars are always interesting but hard to photograph, they never look “perfect”. There were quite a few just past Winnemucca Lake in a wet area.

Calochortus leichtlinii

Leichtlin’s Mariposa Lily

Mariposa Lilies tend to like the drier areas. They stand out, as the flowers are fairly large, and very bright.

Castilleja miniata var. miniata

A hike isn’t complete (for me) until I find a Paintbrush. No problem on this hike, they were plentiful in both the drier and wetter areas. A couple of species.

Click on the gallery pictures below, there is quite a variety of flowers. Help me identify the ones I couldn’t name!

8 Comments

  • I’m a landscape designer AND Advanced Certified QuickBooks Proadvisor so I understand and appreciate your love of wildflowers! I’m not alone out there. Great blog!

    • Thanks, Jan! I’d rather be writing about this than about QuickBooks, but QB is what pays the bills. I’ll have more posts coming up soon, as I find the time (and get the flowers ID’d).

  • My wife and I are thinking about spending the week ending in Memorial Day weekend visiting Yosemite NP and the surrounding area. Do you think any wildflowers will be in bloom then? If so, have you got any recoomedations for good wildflower walks in (or especially) outside the park?

    Thanks in advance for whatever help you can give us on this.

    • Russ, you will definately find exciting hikes and wildflowers. The neat part about the Yosemite area, if you have some time to spend there, is that there are many different areas at different altitudes, so you can find something almost any time from March through August. The trick is to find where they are at the particular time you are there. Every year is very different – depending on the amount of rain and snow, and how warm it gets early in the season. I haven’t heard what it should be like this year. Late May, you may find a lot at the valley floor. You may have to go a bit higher. The best area for wildflowers usually is in Tuolumne Meadows, but May could be too early for that.

  • Hello from Carson Pass.

    Great photos. Would you be willing to share some of them with The Carson Pass Information Station? You can submit them to me and they will go on our web site, I’m the station manager, or our Facebook page we just launched today; Facebook>carson pass information station.

  • Hi Charlie…We used some of your photos on your photos on our FB page…thank you. Would you be willing to allow us to use 3-4 landscape photos for postcards?

    Thank. you…
    Dennis
    Station Manager

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