Check out five Tahoe wildflower hikes at five different locations
Special to the Tribune
Nothing heightens the experience of a summer walk in the Sierra like a field of brightly colored wildflowers blazing in the sunshine. The recent return of real winters to Tahoe should bring out a bumper crop of wildflowers this year.
The wide range of elevation and mountain orientation around the region allows hikers to enjoy wildflower viewing over several months, as long as they know where to go. Head for the lower-elevation, south-facing trails first, then walk your way up to higher elevations and more northern exposures.
I fondly remember a hike years ago on the Warren Lake trail north of Castle Peak. It was in the fall after a snowy winter. On the dry south-facing slopes, the leaves on the trees were turning yellow, while in the deep north-facing gullies there were still wildflowers perking up next to the remaining patches of the previous year’s snow.
Here are five great wildflower hikes covering the five regions of Lake Tahoe. Start with Sagehen in the late spring, then take a break for a few weeks before heading to Page Meadows, Marlette Lake, Tahoe Meadows, and ending on a beautiful mid-July day in Meiss Meadows.
Truckee – Sagehen Creek
One of the first trails in the area to emerge from the snow in the spring is the Sagehen Creek Trail to Stampede Reservoir. Often it will be snow-free more than a month sooner then the trails at higher elevation. It’s a mostly level, 5-mile round trip taking you through wildflower heaven. The trail starts out along the banks of Sagehen Creek, giving you a quick view of the refreshing creek, then heads into a gentle forest for a pleasant stroll through the Jeffrey pine. The meadows arrive in about a mile, where you will find the first of several waves of purple camas lilies. The trail crosses the creek on a foot bridge, leading to a dirt road and the foundation of an old house. Perhaps it was dismantled when the reservoir was built — too bad for the owner because, from its site, there are glorious views of a blanket of flowers leading to the shore of Stampede.
Directions: From Truckee, take Highway 89 north just shy of 7 miles. A small dirt parking area is available on the right at the trailhead, and another small one on the left. During prime wildflower season this is a busy place, so arrive early.
West Shore – Page Meadows
Page Meadows is a series of five interconnected meadows easily seen via foot or mountain bike in an hour or two. The meadows are accessed via the Tahoe Rim Trail at Ward Creek Boulevard (a 1-mile steep climb), a dirt road from Tahoe City at the end of Rawhide Drive (about a 3-mile steady climb, great for mountain biking), or the shortest and easiest route — from the end of Silver Tip Drive in Talmont Estates. Whichever way you get to the meadows, once there, be sure to stroll through all of them. Each meadow has its own unique combination of flowers. Even if you arrive at the meadows too early for the flowers, you may still catch another treat: the loud cacophony of millions of unseen frogs. These meadows were once prime grazing ground for Basque sheepherders. Keep your eyes peeled for an oven, located slightly off the trail near the lowest meadow, and the sheepherders’ lonely carvings into aspen trees.
Directions: Tahoe Rim Trail Ward Creek Boulevard Trailhead: Drive 2.5 miles south of Tahoe City on Highway 89 to turn right at Pineland Drive. At the fork, turn left following the sign to Ward Valley. Drive another mile to the TRT trailhead. On the north (right), the trail heads to Page Meadows. On the south (left), the trail heads to Twin Peaks.
Silver Tip Drive Trailhead: Drive 2 miles south of Tahoe City on Highway 89. Turn right on Pine and right on Tahoe Park Heights. Follow Big Pine, the center road, at the top of the hill. Then left on Silver Tip. Follow to the end.
East Shore – Marlette Lake Trail
The route includes open meadows flush with wildflowers, deep forests of pine, and extensive stands of aspens. High above stands the impressive visage of Snow Valley Peak, and the end of the hike is the lovely Marlette Lake. The trail heads out from Spooner Lake on a long steady climb to a saddle, before descending down to the shore of the lake. To the lake and back is about 10 miles. If you are up for a bit more, turn right when you reach Marlette and wander along the lake. At the junction where you find a restroom, go straight ahead, heading north. The next half-mile provides an amazingly varied sampling of wildflowers.
Directions: Take Highway 28 from Incline Village 12 miles to the Spooner Lake and turn off on your left. Restrooms and parking fee.
North Lake Tahoe – Ophir Creek/Tahoe Meadows
Head to Tahoe Meadows at the top of the Mt. Rose Highway for easy access to beautiful fields of flowers. From the Tahoe Rim Trail’s Tahoe Meadows Trailhead, you could take the easy interpretive trail that winds along a small creek, or you could head south on the TRT, which crosses the flower-laden Tahoe Meadows. When the TRT reaches Ophir Creek, you can walk downstream on wood boardwalk and hike one of the three easy meadow loop trails that wind through the meadows and forest nearby. Another option is to begin at the Ophir Creek Trail. Whichever route you take, look for waves of wildflowers in the meadows and tightly bunched patches near the narrow creek lining.
Directions: From Incline Village, take Highway 431 (Mt. Rose Highway) 7 miles toward Reno. When the road begins to level off, and you see an expansive meadow to your right, you have arrived. The Ophir Creek Trail starts just at the edge of this meadow, the TRT is about a half-mile farther up on the right. Stay on trail, as the meadow is fragile.
South Lake Tahoe – Meiss Meadows/Showers Lake
Perhaps my favorite place for wildflowers in the Tahoe Sierra is the area between Carson Pass and a few miles north of Showers Lake along the Pacific Crest Trail/Tahoe Rim Trail. Whether it’s the patch of purple iris found near the saddle coming out of Carson Pass, the waves of pink elephant heads in Meiss Meadows, or the tall fields of paintbrush and lupin on the slopes just below Showers Lake — if you time it right, this is a wildflower hike that is hard to beat. The Pacific Crest Trail from Carson Pass climbs in 2 miles to a saddle where the views to the south of Round Top are pretty much unbeatable. You now stand at the edge of the Lake Tahoe Basin, even though the lake itself is some 20 air miles to the north. The trail drops into a long series of meadows collectively known as Meiss Meadows. At 3 miles, you pass an old ranching cabin and meet a junction with the Tahoe Rim Trail. If you had started at the Big Meadow TRT trailhead, you would have passed Round Lake and arrived at this spot in 5 miles of hiking with a good deal of climbing. Now, the trail meanders through wildflower paradise before beginning a mile-long ascent to Showers Lake. While the climb is tiring, the thick, waist-high fields of wildflowers will be rejuvenating. After a delightful swim at Showers, continue past to an amazing bowl topped with volcanic rock formations and a dozen small streams bordered by wildflowers tumbling underfoot.
Directions: From Meyers, take Highway 89 south 11 miles to Highway 88 in Hope Valley. Turn right and head 8.5 miles to the top of Carson Pass. The trailhead is on your right just after the trailhead for Winnemucca Lake on your left (another excellent, late season wildflower choice). Parking fee required.