Mokelumne Wilderness | Wildflower Haven

Round Top Lake and Round Top Peak. | Tim Hauserman

About 25 miles south of South Lake Tahoe on State Route 88 sits Carson Pass. Here just a few miles west of Kirkwood Mountain Resort the snow piles up so massively each winter that often the road is closed due to avalanche danger or Cal-Trans’ inability to keep up with the snow levels. In the summer, Carson Pass is the entrance point into the Mokelumne Wilderness. Here among high volcanic peaks and sparkling mountain lakes all that snow produces an amazingly prolific wildflower display. And it rewards the procrastinator, since the flowers are just getting good in August.

Frog Lake | 2 miles roundtrip | Easy-Moderate
Winnemucca Lake | 5 miles roundtrip | Moderate
Round Top Lake | 6.8 miles roundtrip | Moderate
Round Top Peak | 9 miles roundtrip | Strenuous
Fourth of July Lake | 10 miles roundtrip | Strenuous

From State Route 88 you can hike a moderately-easy, 5-mile out and back to Winnemucca Lake, or continue on to Round Top Lake to escape the crowds and find new views; it’s a 6.8-mile round trip. From Round Top Lake two more challenging options present themselves: hike the very steep pathway that heads to the top of 10,381-foot Round Top Peak or take the wildflower-laden steep descent down to Fourth of July Lake, which is 1.5 miles farther.

The hike begins at the Carson Pass Information Station at the top of the pass. When coming from Tahoe be ready for a quick left turn just as you reach the crest. Parking is limited and costs $5. The information station is in an old wood cabin and is certainly worth your time.

John Carnell takes in the view high above Mokolumne Wilderness. | Mary Carnell

In 1 mile of gentle climbing you reach Frog Lake. It’s a shallow body of water that at first glance might not look worth a stop, but take a stroll along the lake’s eastern edge and you will arrive at the top of the rocky ridgeline with astounding views into Hope Valley. Back on the trail, just a bit farther brings you to a junction where the Pacific Crest Trail goes left and your route to Winnemucca Lake heads right; you will pass to the west of the prominent slope of Elephant’s Back, which looks like its name. Too bad it lost its head.

Now the walking is through widely scattered forest with 360-degree views and lush fields of alpine wildflowers. Look for lupine, paintbrush, giant green gentian and dozens of other varieties of flowers — and pat yourself on the back for being lucky enough to see this cool a wildflower display in August.

Winnemucca Lake is a large mountain lake just at the northern base of Round Top. Be sure to have a windbreaker with you, because this lake is often wind swept.

Mary Carnell in a sea of wildflowers looking toward Round Top. | John Carnell

If you turn around here, you will have had a good day, but if you have the energy, press on. It gets better and the crowds lessen. Past Winnemucca, you climb moderately for about 1 mile to Round Top Lake. Here, you can lounge along Round Top Lake’s peaceful shore enjoying the power and majesty of Round Top Peak towering above you. Also, you have two other options: climb up to the viewpoint above Round Lake or descend down to Fourth of July Lake.

Going Up

From Round Top Lake a day-use trail can take you to a saddle just below the rocky summit of the peak. It is very steep, and the footing is a bit loose, but the view is extraordinary up in the high-alpine realm. Don’t be surprised to see patches of snow; Round Top is a favorite place for back-country skiing in the summer. When the trail peters out near the top, experienced climbers can scramble up to the rocky crest, but I never have; the view from trails’ end is sublime enough.

Going Down

From Round Top Lake, take the descent, a 1,300-foot drop to the bottom of a deep bowl. Did you catch those words: deep bowl? Don’t forget what those words mean when you turn around and start heading back up. The good news is as you climb slowly back up, you will have wildflowers to enjoy. My suggestion is head up toward Round Top to see those views rather than climb down to Fourth of July Lake.

Whichever part of this wilderness excursion you choose, you are in for a spectacular landscape of volcanic mountaintops, fields of wildflowers and clear mountain lakes. Get out there and enjoy it. No need for a mad dash, the flowers will stay awhile. |