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Treasure hunting for Tahoe wildflowers.

A soft wind stirs the summer air, lifting bright riffles on the surface of the lapis-colored lake. It would be tempting to stretch out on a slab of sun-warmed granite, breathe deeply, and space out for a while. But equally seductive is that glimpse of nodding red-orange in a wet spot just beyond the trail. Which delicate trumpet yields that note of clear color amid the rich green: alpine lily? wild columbine? Spellbound, you walk on, to investigate one more patch of mountain beauty and then, probably, one more.

Appearing from beneath deep snowpack for a season that comes and goes very quickly, high-elevation wildflowers seem the more intoxicatingly attractive for this foreshortened aspect of their bloom. You can see them in dazzling profusion if your timing's just right or find fewer of them with more effort, as in a treasure hunt, if you're a little early or late.

In the Lake Tahoe region, the high ridges and meadows where alpine flowers grow are within uniquely easy reach of roads and civilization: you can drive to a trail-head, hike several miles to see flowers blooming near glacial lakes or by melting snowdrifts, and return to a comfortable hotel by evening. The variety of elevations, exposures, and soils gives you many choices for a flower-finding day-hike.

To improve your chances of discovery, we've paired walks at each of three general locations considered especially floriferous by the American Rock Garden Society; for more on the society's activities, call (415) 644-1656. Two of the areas are off major highways (1-80 and State 88), with the third at a major resort (Squaw Valley); listings are on page 29.

At each place, one hike is at a higher elevation than the other, faces a different compass direction, or involves different soil composition (and, with it, a distinct plant community). If you get there and find you're too early or too late for one walk, you'll have another option to try without additional driving. And whether the flowers are many or few when you come, each of these high-elevation rambles leads you over stimulating terrain, with good trails and payoff views.

What's distinctive about these flowers?

Many mountain wildflowers are as showy as or showier than their garden-grown cousins at lower elevations. But some are more subtle, the result of adaptation to lean or stony soil and an alpine climate. Plants may be dwarfed or low-growing (to conserve heat), shaped like cushions or mats (to avoid wind damage), silvery in color (to conserve moisture), hairy or woolly in foliage (to insulate against cold and hold moisture in dry air), or dark-stemmed (to retain heat). They may appear in impossible-looking rock crevices (these, in fact, shelter surprisingly deep taproots). The adversities of their habitat actually help them thrive, freeing them from competition with plants that lack their specific adaptations. Look closely (a hand lens is a great help), and such specialization becomes part of the allure of even inconspicuous alpines.

For plant identification, the best beginners' field guide we know is Theodore Niehaus's Pacific States Wildflowers (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1976; $12.95). A more leisurely reference (with comments on many possible Tahoe walks) is Julie Carville's enthusiastic new book, Lingering in Tahoe's Wild Gardens (Mountain Gypsy Press, Chicago Park, Calif., 1989; $17.95).


From 1-80, take the Donner Memorial State Park exit and drive west on old Highway 40 (Donner Pass Road) a few miles to the summit; stop where you see a building marked Alpine Skills Institute, and pull off on (unmarked) Lake Mary Road; or park at the trailhead, a bit south on the same road.

Hike north. Cross Highway 40 and walk north (the trail is obvious) toward 1-80 and Boreal Ridge, about 3 miles away; go as far as you like, then return (or arrange a car shuttle at the eastbound rest stop on 1-80). Best bloom here is usually mid-July, but the views are wonderful any time. And as you walk, you may hear the sound of a westbound train groaning up toward the old wooden snowsheds above Donner Lake.

Amid the big granite boulders high above and to the west of Donner Lake, you enter patchy gardens containing rock plants found nowhere else in the Sierra. You'll see several unusual buckwheats (Eriogonum lobbii among them), their felty leaves forming soft mats on the granite, their low-growing flowers pale cream to bright sulfur yellow. As you move along, look for the yellow flowers of skullcap Scutellaria californica) and the small purple trumpets of Lobb's nama. You'll also see jewel flower, senecio, nightshade, Indian warrior, hypericum. Near the several small ponds, look for taller-growing bog plants.

Or head south. For a slightly later-blooming location, walk south from the Pacific Crest trailhead near Lake Mary (toward Mount Judah and Mount Lincoln) to the historic Overland Emigrant Trail, then return (about 4 miles round trip). You enter a moist garden full of maroon-spotted orange lilies (Lilium parvum), papery white thimbleberry flowers, butter yellow potentillas, pink spiraea and clarkia-brightened, here and there, by yellow-throated pink monkeyflowers (Mimulus lewisii).

A well-made trail soon switchbacks up a talus slope, past plants that thrive in thin, fast-draining granitic soil and rock-radiated heat. You'll see many penstemon species, and smell lots of minty pennyroyal.

After a mile or so, you enter mixed forest habitat with new wildflower varieties; look carefully in the cool duff, near rivulets of melting snow, for several kinds of tiny orchids. You'll cross a logging road. Here and there, the forest thins, and open hillsides glow sky blue with lupines. When you reach the Emigrant Trail, walk left a very short distance to the Emigrant Canyon overlook, "Roller Hill." A marker explains how, in 1846, the indomitable pioneers rolled wagons 1,600 feet up this precipitous slope on peeled logs.


From 1-80 near Truckee, drop south on State 89; from Tahoe City, take 89 northwest. Signs point you to the ski area. Park at the lot for the aerial tram (round trip costs $9 for adults, $5 for ages 12 and under; cars run every 20 minutes or so between 10 and 4 daily from June 29 through September 30).

Go high up, letting a visually staggering ride bring you to the upper mountain's 8,000-foot meadows, hidden under snow in winter. Early July is when flowers are usually best.

Greeted by a yellow-blooming drift of wyethia and woolly sunflower, you make your way uphill on foot, using a generally west-tending trail, to the Watson Monument and Emigrant Pass marker. From here, climb a short distance south to a stony peak (nearly 9,000 feet) surrounded by pockets of colorful rock garden. Some flowers you may notice along the way are yampah, antennaria, stickseeds (they look like forget-me-nots), arenaria, purple-flowering Sierra onion, sulfur flower (Eriogonum umbellatum), alpine shooting star, and several paintbrush, lupine, monkeyflower, and penstemon species.

You'll see Granite Chief to the northwest, at 9,006 feet, and Squaw Peak to the south, a few feet lower. The round-trip walk is only about 2 miles, but some stretches are steep. For a longer hike (another couple of miles), go on to Granite Chief and return. When you're ready, descend by tram.

Or stay low. Starting at about 6,200 feet, Shirley Canyon follows Squaw Creek northwest from the resort. From the tram's lot, drive northwest past the condos on Squaw Peak Road; park at the road's end.

If the high meadows have begun to dry out, you'll enjoy this streamside trail, with wet rocks, the plashing of small falls, the shady greenness of water-loving foliage. Walk as far as you like, then return.

Look for explorer's gentian, sidalcea, mariposa lily (Calochortus leichilinii), alpine lily, delphinium, meadow-rue, peony, monkshood, columbine, spiraea, thimbleberry, penstemons, violets, monkeyflower (Mimulus torreyi), paintbrush, fireweed, and, in the orchid family, spotted coralroot.


From South Lake Tahoe, take U.S. 50 and State 89 south, then State 88 southwest to the clearly marked pass and park. Just east of the kiosk, the road splits and a smaller road forks south. Walk this to a fringe of woodland, and a trailhead marked Carson Pass South.

Hike south, for a classic Sierra-crest wildflower experience, from Carson Pass past tiny Frog Lake to Winnemucca Lake (and on, if you like, to Round Top); it's a round trip of 4 to 6 miles. Plant environments range from scree to open pasture, from seep to bog. Peak bloom here is usually in mid-July, with flowers so dense and so various that the walk, though easy and short, can take an enthusiast the better part of a day.

In such a rich tangle, it's hard to single out individual species. Still, some easy-to-see flowers include skyrocket gilia, alpine lupines (notice their fuzziness), lewisias, penstemons, draba, silene, locoweed, pussypaws, phlox (P. diffusa), wild rose, mule ears (Wyethia mollis), and, rising tall in wet spots, towering green gentian (Frasera speciosa).

On sunny rock ledges, look for the red-capped white bells of white heather (Cassiope mertensiana). Mountain heather (Phyllodoce breweri), a low shrub with small, deep rose bell flowers, grows in rocky but moist places. Another beauty, Sierra primrose (Primula suffruteseens), bearing upright magenta flowers on dark, mat-like foliage, appears in bright profusion in snowmelt trapped amid boulders. And in the shining wet patches near the lake's outlet, you may see sheets of buttercup, elephant's head, and marsh marigold. Or go north. About 1/4 mile west of Carson Pass on State 88, an earlier-blooming stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail leads you north from clearly signed Old Meiss trailhead to Showers Lake (8 miles round trip). North of State 88 in this area, much of the rock is volcanic in origin (unlike the smooth, water-cupping boulders south of the pass), and you'll see some plants-sagebrush, for instance-more associated with Nevada's basaltic Great Basin than the granitic Sierra Nevada.

You face an initial pull uphill look for Sierra calochortus, hot-rock penstemon (P. deustus), more buckwheat to a livestock pond, then an open saddle covered with thick-growing Iris missouriensis also a Great Basin plant). To the north, Lake Tahoe comes into view, a cobalt jewel. Now you move through long meadows full of birdsong and bright flowers: gilia, asters, red-and-yellow columbine, red owl's clover, blue flax, lavender daisics. Stay to the left (west) of several small lakes you will pass. Finally, you climb up through conifers to Showers Lake, a good place for that alpine snooze, to a music of distant cowbells.
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Date:Jul 1, 1990
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