Wildflowers of Tahoe

Story and photos by Hannah Sullivan & Cliff Lambson  ·



This time of summer is like an extended treasure hunt; every day we open our front door with the hope of seeing some new wildflower that has bloomed since the day before. We have two big dogs that like their exercise, so every day includes a substantial walk. Sometimes we go further afield from our West Shore home to do a particular hike or in search of a particular flower but, more often, we repeat our favorite 10 to 12 hikes over and over during the spring and summer season just to see how the flora changes.


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Sagehen Creek & Martis Valley

As the snow begins to melt, Sagehen Creek and Martis Valley (see map of our favorite wildflower hikes – hikes No. 2 and No. 3) are some of the first areas in Tahoe Truckee to lose their snow and show signs of life. The group of first-bloomers includes the Snow Plants, Violets, Sanicles, Peonies, Buttercups, Mahala Mat and Manzanita bushes. Then come (to name a few), the Camas and Groundsel, the Currents and Sunflowers, the Larkspur and Paintbrush. As unpredictable as nature can be in many cases, the timing of the bloom is the opposite – more like a complex fixed production schedule.

One of the greatest gifts of the Tahoe-Truckee area for wildflower enthusiasts is the area’s diversity of elevations, exposures and ecologic zones. Some of the more omnipresent wildflowers that begin to bloom in May at lake level might not be seen until July at higher altitudes. And, long after the lower, more exposed areas have dried out and gone dormant for the year, the higher elevations are still exploding with color.


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Ward Canyon to Twin Peaks

While Martis and Sagehen still have a few blooms, other areas in the region are lighting up and offer much better wildflower viewing. There are many beautiful sections of the Tahoe Rim Trail, but one of our favorites is the section between Ward Canyon and Twin Peaks, and beyond to Barker Pass. Right now, the access from Ward Canyon is wide open. There is still a little snow when you get up high (and, as of this writing, the Barker Pass trailhead is still unreachable by car due to gate closure), but in the meantime you can cover several miles from Ward up to and beyond McCloud Falls, walking through riparian zones, meadows and classic Tahoe pine-fir forest. The variety of flora is astonishing and changes so rapidly. Highlights include partially hidden thickets of Alpine Lilies, dense stands of Monkshood and Columbine, and fields of Horsemint.


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Burton Creek

Another treasure trove this time of year is the Burton Creek area on the North Shore (not numbered on our map, but located where Tahoe Cross Country ski area is in the winter). The terrain is gentle and the ecologic zones, varied. You can walk through fields of Woolly Mules Ears and Arrowleaf Balsamroot. Some of the most ubiquitous wildflowers in the area, the two appear similar until you look closely at the leaves: the Mules Ears leaves are a basic elliptical shape and woolly, while the Balsamroot leaves are shaped like an arrowhead and are smoother to the touch. Explore the area near the community center and, if you have it in you, venture up to Anton Meadows where you will see more moisture-loving species.


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Shirley Canyon

A third hike that is ripe for the wildflower viewing right now is Shirley Canyon in Olympic Valley (hike No. 13). While this hike will only get better as the summer really takes hold and you can hike all the way from the valley floor to the top of the tram, now you can make it to Shirley Lake, passing through acres of Thimbleberry, a meadow with a variety of ever-changing blooms and granite slabs that shelter species (e.g. Mountain Pride, Shieldleaf, various Buckwheats) that thrive in that environment. As you reach Shirley Lake, take note of the Heather and the Labrador Tea.


Cliff and I became hiking guides in the area many years ago and, through that experience, became wildflower enthusiasts. We found the available printed resources useful, especially as we became more and more knowledgeable since many of the books are organized by family. However, our hiking clients who were visiting the area and interested in the flowers did not want to have to purchase an expensive and heavy book to haul around with them on their hikes. For that reason, we realized there was an opportunity to create an easy-to-use (organized by color), light-weight resource that didn’t cost much. It took us a few years to get the photos together, but two years ago now, we introduced “Wildflowers of Tahoe” to the area to fill the need.

The guide features 98 of our local wildflowers and blooming bushes – primarily the most common – but also has a few of our favorites that are not as easy to find. Visit our Web site for a complete list of locations that carry “Wildflowers of Tahoe” if you are interested in purchasing one. Enjoy.

For more information, visit wildflowerguides.com.


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Cliff Lambson and Hannah Sullivan will host a guided wildflower hike to Barker Pass on June 27 from 2 to 5 p.m. as part of the AlpenGlow Summer Mountain Festival. Limited space. RSVP alpenglowsports.com.