Tahoe’s wildflower wonders: Favorite spots to explore this summer

Wildflower gardens at Kirkwood. | Lisa Berry

The smoke from last summer’s wildfires is long gone. We put on our trail shoes and we are ready to breathe in that cool, clean mountain air that we love so much. We’re ready to surround ourselves with the endorphin-inducing pleasures of jubilant wildflowers.

When we’re standing among them, nothing makes us feel more delighted and more connected to our environment. Their alluring scents and stunning displays of color remind us that all the beauty of heaven is right here on Earth. Lake Tahoe is a treasure trove of wildflower wonders and each month surprises us with something new.

Vikingsholm in Emerald Bay is a main attraction in June. The walk down to Vikingsholm beach provides an exciting introduction to spring, capturing the warmth and vibrancy of the new season.

Hot pink mountain pride decorates the granite framing Emerald Bay while bitter cherry and thimbleberry lead the way down the road. Lupine, heart-leaf bittercress, monkeyflower and the occasional yellow-eyed grass are stars on this walk of fame and at the bottom, the stark-red snow plant is the resident celebrity.

Lake Tahoe is a treasure trove of wildflower wonders and each month surprises us with something new.

For those tempted by more elusive gems such as phantom orchid, stream orchid and sugar stick, head north on the connecting Rubicon Trail for a half mile, but be warned, views of the glittering bay are likely to distract you from your mission.

Early in the season when there is still snow on the trails in upper elevation areas, opt for lower elevation hikes such as Page Meadows or Meeks Bay on the west side of the Lake.

Page Meadows is a favorite for its breathtaking displays of blue camas and meadow penstemon. There are several entrances to the meadows, all from residential streets.

Check off #59 on our Ultimate Tahoe Summer Bucket List.

On the way into the meadows, the trails are garnished with Torrey’s monkeyflower, mountain peony, Sierra stickseed, gooseberry, balsamroot, blue-eyed Mary and sticky currant. In addition to the camas, be on the lookout for snow plant, columbine, larkspur, bistort, the always cute porterella and woolly marbles. Bring your mosquito repellent, though. The meadows can be quite buggy.

In July, the wildflowers and lake views from the Barker Pass Tahoe Rim trailhead can’t be beat. The shady forests in the first 1.5 miles are brightened by jewels like spotted coralroot, Sierra stickseed and false Solomon’s seal and on the sunny slopes, woolly mule ear gardens are trimmed with mariposa lilies, white-veined mallow and paintbrush.

At 2 miles, the trail crosses a stream lush with the tiny but striking bishop’s cap and brook saxifrage. The trail then opens again for a stretch on exposed granite and volcanic slopes that display the showy Lobb’s buckwheat.

The lava plugs at 2.8 miles are often adorned with western eupatorium, granite phlox and sometimes Sierra primrose. This can be a good place to turn around if you’ve had your fill, but if you continue down another mile, wet gardens of arnica, larkspur, alpine lily, Lewis’ monkeyflower and many more await.

Early to mid-season hotspots also include Spooner and Marlette lakes on the East Shore and Meiss Meadow and Frog Lake toward the south on Carson Pass.

The moderate, serene loop around Spooner is graced with wax currant, mountain peony, star lavender (aka ballhead waterleaf), spreading phlox and meadow rue. The same flowers can be found on the trail to Marlette Lake, along with Sierra onion, sticky cinquefoil, crest lupine, dog violet, spotted mountain bells and shooting stars.

The Meiss Trail on Carson Pass gets southern exposure, so it is snow-free by mid-season, a few weeks earlier than the other trails on Carson Pass. Whether you hike to the top of the saddle or continue and descend to the meadow, the wildflowers and views on this hike are award winners.

In addition to favorites like paintbrush, buttercups, lupine, Sierra wallflower, mariposa lily and crimson columbine, you may also be delighted by the elusive steer’s head, the precious Beckwith’s violet and, if your timing is right, vast gardens of wild iris.

Frog Lake, accessed from Carson Pass across the highway from the Meiss Trail, is a short hike on the way to Winnemucca Lake. Jacob’s ladder, alpine prickly currant, red elderberry and crest lupine introduce the hike and the loop around Frog Lake will lead you past mountain flax, stonecrop, slender-tubed gilia, valerian, penstemon, phlox and dwarf monkeyflower.

In August when the lower elevations start drying up, the higher elevations are often just getting started.

Kirkwood Ski Resort, which boasts excellent snowpack in the winter, comes alive during the hottest month with fireweed, larkspur, Lewis’ monkeyflower, ranger buttons and wandering daisy exploding on the ski slopes.

If you don’t mind sharing the Corral Loop trails with the occasional mountain biker, tremendous paintbrush and angelica gardens and treats like explorer’s gentian, rock fringe, Sierra primrose and Cusick’s speedwell festoon the rocky gullies. Remember to bring a hat and sunscreen for the August summertime rays.

Once the snow melts on Mount Rose and Castle Peak, these high-elevation hikes provide priceless, dramatic views and noteworthy wildflowers. Unrivaled arnica gardens thrive in the meadows leading up to Castle Peak and at the top you will feel that much closer to heaven.

The Mount Rose Trail begins at an elevation of 8,911 feet and climbs 2,000 feet. Many flower species on this hike have evolved under extreme climate conditions. For example, woody-fruited evening primrose, Davidson’s penstemon, alpine gold, Rose buckwheat (named after Mount Rose, where it was first discovered) and butterballs (cushion buckwheat), all adopted short stems and/or fuzzy leaves to withstand cold temperatures, high winds and nutrient poor soils.

At the summit, kick back on a sunny rock and admire the stalwart plants around you. Notice that even though you’re close to 11,000 feet, butterflies, bees and even some little four-legged creatures have likely joined you. Bring your windbreaker on these hikes. It gets cool and gusty up there, but just like the other hikes, the beauty will make you want to stay as long as you can.

Lisa Berry is an instructor at Lake Tahoe Community College, photographer and is a wildflower hike guide. She is available for guided wildflower hikes throughout the season. | wildflowercat@gmail.com.