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Time to take a walk through the wildflowers

by Jim Donald

If you’ve been paying attention then you’ll already likely know that, in the Sierra, this summer has been one of the best wildflower displays in recent memory. The good news is that it is still happening and in many areas the annoying mosquito and biting fly populations have dropped somewhat.

Visit any of the high passes in Alpine County. Sonora, Ebbetts and Carson Pass all have fields of gold as well as most other colors that you can think of, while moist seeps and meadows at lower elevations remain decorated with an abundance of flowers.

Don’t delay if you want to see this show. It’ll continue for a few weeks but shorter days and the drying zephyrs of summer will be its curtain call.

Carson Pass has the most extensive displays. On the Pacific Crest Trail and Tahoe-Yosemite Trail south to the Winnemucca Lake area and beyond is truly sublime. Everyone else seems to know this too, so expect crowds, with some members mumbling scientific names, poking around on the moist slopes. The PCT north to Showers Lake or the Meiss area can be nice, too, with generally fewer people. Winnemucca is an easy 4-5 mile round trip while Showers Lake is a moderate 10-mile round trip.

What makes Carson Pass unique is that it is the northern terminus for many southern species and the southern terminus for many northern species, roughly speaking of course. So the variety can be incredible.

Ebbetts Pass has excellent wildflower displays too. Southbound on the PCT for about the first mile has a wonderful abundance and is a relatively easy stroll. After that the trail drops steeply into Noble Canyon and switchbacks up to Noble Lake (newer maps spell this as Nobel) at about 4.5 miles each way. Good flowers in here too but it’s a strenuous hike.

North from Ebbetts on the PCT is mostly mixed conifer forest with pockets of wildflowers but at about 2 miles opens onto the south slopes of the Raymond – Reynolds Peak group where there are abundant displays.

Sonora Pass at 9,600-feet, the highest pass in the Alpine area (but actually not in Alpine County), has great flower shows. South on the PCT, meandering on the north ridges of Leavitt Peak, the trail drops in and out of numerous gullies that harbor creeklets where wildflowers abound. Further on the trail climbs the bare rocky ridges of Leavitt Peak where what flowers grow hug the ground for survival in the rigorous conditions above 10,000 feet.

Northbound the PCT is mostly on exposed sunny slopes with only isolated gullies that provide good habitat for flowers. At Wolf Creek Lake (about 3 miles) the trail drops into a meadow with flower displays and then begins a long drop with the infant headwaters of the East Fork of the Carson River.

Many other areas offer excellent flower displays as well. If you don’t mind longer hikes pick any area above 8,000 feet that has or had available moisture – usually north to east facing slopes and explore. You’ll enjoy wherever you go.

In addition to the ten essentials, one of which is a map, bring a field guide to Sierra wildflowers. If it’s not too windy a camera can record images of the best specimens for later identification. Flower photos come out best in light overcast conditions-a rarity in the Sierra at this time of year- or at the margins of the day.

Notice I haven’t named any flowers. A good beginning guide like Wildflowers 3; The Sierra Nevada lists 300 species while A Field Guide to Pacific States Wildflowers lists over 1,500 species. And then there’s the Jepson Manual of Higher Plants of California (not a field guide) for those who just have to key everything to species level. My advice is to keep it simple, learn scientific names if you want to (many plants have multiple common names depending on locale) and enjoy the show, the smells and the thin light at 9,000 feet. (Yes, I know the air is thin too).

Check the weather before you go. Thunderstorms are a reason to cancel. Read about lightning safety on the National Weather Service Web site.

But go now and enjoy the show. It’ll only last a little longer.

Jim Donald is an Alpine County resident.