Charlie Russell Nature Photography

Late Season Carson Pass Wildflowers

Western moss heather, Cassiope mertensiana
Western moss heather, Cassiope mertensiana

Carson Pass is my favorite wildflower hot spot, with so many wonderful trails and a very long wildflower season. This time we went on a late-season hike, the end of August, and even this late we found at least 50 species of wildflowers in bloom! We took the most popular trail, to Winnemucca Lake and back, and most of the flowers were found at the main “garden” spot that is a bit over 2 miles in from the trailhead.

The Flowers

This late in the year you won’t see as great of an abundance of wildflowers as you would see in July or early August, but there still is a great variety to be found, although some of the flowers are past their prime. Here’s a sample of a few of my favorites (click on the image to see a larger view).

Western blue flag Iris is always fun to find, but I didn’t expect to see any this late in the year! Usually they are finished up by the end of July.

Western blue flag iris, Iris missouriensis
Western blue flag iris, Iris missouriensis

Some people are surprised when I talk about finding as many as 50 species of wildflowers – to find that many you have to have an eye for detail, you have to get down on your hands and knees. For example, Miniature gilia – for scale, that is my finger tip in the photo. This is one of several very tiny plants in bloom along the trail.

Miniature gilia, Navarretia capillaris
Miniature gilia, Navarretia capillaris

You can always find an abundance of Paintbrush in various shades of red, such as Scarlet and Wavyleaf paintbrush. I happen to be attracted to the less showy species, such as Dwarf Alpine Paintbrush.

Dwarf alpine paintbrush, Castilleja nana
Dwarf alpine paintbrush, Castilleja nana

You’ll find California Corn Lily throughout the Sierras, big plants with a mass of white flowers, but have you ever taken a close look at an individual flower?

California corn lily, Veratrum californicum var. californicum
California corn lily, Veratrum californicum var. californicum

If you click on lightbox image below you will be able to scroll through larger versions of the pictures. All photos are available for purchase in a variety of formats.

The Hike

The hike from the Carson Pass information Station to Winnemucca Lake is a bit over 6 miles round trip. You start off at around 8600′ and climb up to roughly 9100′. It’s a popular trail, so parking at the trailhead can be a bit crowded even on weekdays.

Winnemucca Lake
Wildflowers on the shore of Winnemucca Lake

We took this trip in late August in a year that started off colder and wetter than usual, and there still was snow on the nearby mountains. The trail itself was in good shape (and dry), and the weather was a bit warm (in the mid 80’s).

Along the way there are several places that I refer to as “gardens”, places where there can be an abundance of wildflowers. Earlier in the year you will find wildflowers all along the entire trail, but this time of year they are concentrated at the areas that are wetter.

If you have limited time (or limited endurance) you really want to try to get to what I list as the “2nd garden” on the map below, which is a bit over 2 miles in. This is a major hillside seep, and it has the most amazing variety and volume of wildflowers. If that is too far, there is a side trail to Frog Lake (there is a sign pointing the way) that is a bit over a mile in, but that has less variety and is better in July (it is pretty dried out by August).

Round Top
Round Top and the Three Sisters

If you go in to Winnemucca Lake you will find a very different collection of wildflowers. Continue on the trail to the far side of the lake, where there is a stream flowing out, and you may find orchids, heather, shooting stars and more, which you don’t see earlier on the trail.

Some folks will continue past this up to Round Top Lake, which is a bit of a climb higher. We didn’t continue up that far this time.

Here’s the track that we followed:


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Lf Hiker | E.Pointal contributor

Lake Winnemucca from Carson Pass   


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The trailhead is on Highway 88 past the Kirkwood ski resort area in Northern California. About 5.5 miles past the Kirkwood Inn and Station (just past the Kirkwood ski resort) you will see the Carson Pass Information Center on the south side of the highway This is the trailhead (there are restrooms here).

Parking at the Information Center can be crowded if you go on a weekend. The parking fee is $5.00. If that lot is full then just a short distance past the information center there is a road on the south side (Red Vista Road) that serves as overflow. People squeeze in on that narrow side road – I found that if you go down several hundred feet there is a broad parking area that is often empty.

The information center is manned by volunteers from the El Dorado National Forest Interpretive Association (ENFIA), and they are a wonderful source for information on the area. You can call them at (209) 258-8606 to get a information about the status of the trails and the wildflowers. You should also stop in at the station when you arrive, as they are a wonderful source for information on where to find flowers in this area. They have maps for all of the common trails. In addition, you can check out their Facebook page for information and photos.

Timing is Everything

The weather was excellent, a clear sunny day with temperatures reaching the low 80’s. Usually I’m hiking in this area in mid to late July, perhaps into early August. This was an unusually wet and cold year, with lots of snow, so it pushed the wildflower season back by a couple of weeks.

This area has a lot of trails with a wide variety of starting elevations and exposures. You can find something blooming somewhere in the area any time from June through August. I’m still exploring the options in this area and I’ll post articles as I try new trails (and when I have the time to process all the photos I take). Take a look at my Carson Pass tag page for other hikes in this area.

Carson Pass Wildflowers

Here’s a listing of the native plants that we found on this visit. The ones listed in color are endemic to California (that is, found only in California).

  • Alpine shooting star, Primula tetrandra
  • American bistort, Bistorta bistortoides
  • Arrowleaf ragwort, Senecio triangularis
  • Brewer’s aster, Eucephalus breweri
  • Brewer’s monkeyflower, Erythranthe breweri
  • Brewer’s mountain heather, Phyllodoce breweri
  • California corn lily, Veratrum californicum var. californicum
  • Cinquefoil, Potentilla sp.
  • Common cowparsnip, Heracleum maximum
  • Crimson columbine, Aquilegia formosa
  • Davis knotweed, Aconogonon davisiae
  • Dwarf alpine paintbrush, Castilleja nana
  • Fireweed, Chamerion angustifolium ssp. circumvagum
  • Hoary aster, Dieteria canescens var. canescens
  • Horse mint, Agastache urticifolia
  • King’s smooth sandwort, Eremogone kingii var. glabrescens
  • Large leaved lupine, Lupinus polyphyllus var. burkei
  • Little elephant’s head, Pedicularis attollens
  • Lobb’s lupine, Lupinus lepidus var. lobbii
  • Meadow larkspur, Delphinium nuttallianum
  • Miniature gilia, Navarretia capillaris
  • Monument plant, Frasera speciosa
  • Mountain pride, Penstemon newberryi
  • Primrose monkeyflower, Erythranthe primuloides
  • Ranger’s buttons, Angelica capitellata
  • Scarlet paintbrush, Castilleja miniata
  • Shasta knotweed, Polygonum shastense
  • Sierra beardtongue, Penstemon heterodoxus var. heterodoxus
  • Slendertube skyrocket, Ipomopsis tenuituba
  • Small-leaf creambush, Holodiscus discolor var. microphyllus
  • Sparse flowered bog orchid, Platanthera sparsiflora
  • Streamside bluebells, Mertensia ciliata
  • Swamp onion, Allium validum
  • Toad Lily, Montia chamissoi
  • Wandering fleabane, Erigeron glacialis var. glacialis
  • Wavyleaf indian paintbrush, Castilleja applegatei ssp. pallida
  • Western blue flag iris, Iris missouriensis
  • Western moss heather, Cassiope mertensiana
  • Woodbeauty, Drymocallis lactea
  • Wooly sunflower, Eriophyllum lanatum
  • Yellow monkey flower, Erythranthe guttata

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