Upper Gardner Meadow is a great high-Sierra trail near Ebbetts Pass that offers a great variety of native wildflowers in the mid to late summer. Since it is so remote, there aren’t very many non-native plants out there! This trail bounces along between 8500′ to 8600′ without a lot of elevation change, although the altitude can get to you if you aren’t acclimated.
Our out-and-back hike was just about 3 miles, but you can go much, much further if you wish. It is on my list to return to next year.
Upper Gardner Meadow Wildflowers
Here’s a sample of a few of my favorites from this hike (click on the image to see a larger view).
We were very pleased to find a good number of Hiker’s gentian in the meadow, although you have to wander closer to the stream and wet areas to find these. You’ll have to hike in the mid to late summer to find these.
Dwarf Fireweed was an interesting find. These were in a protected area in a small draw off the side of the trail. The flower is almost identical to the more common Fireweed, but the plant is very short, and they aren’t “clonal” like Fireweed.
Western columbine is one of my favorite wildflowers, but it was surprising to find some this late in the year. Most were a bit small, but this particular one stood out.
If you click on the lightbox image below you will see larger versions of the photos, and you can scroll through all of the plants (and other things) that we found on this hike. All photos are available for purchase in a variety of formats.
This was a fairly easy hike, other than the altitude (we weren’t acclimated). Not a lot of elevation change, and the trail is very well maintained.
This out-and-back hike was about 3 miles, although we only really touched the edge of the Upper Gardner Meadow. We would have gone much further if we had visited earlier in the season.
The parking area was very dry, but there were some interesting plants in the adjacent meadow. There is a trickle of water there, which is the start of the north fork of the Mokelumne River.
As the trail turns east you skirt along some hills. This is where there is a bit of up and down to get your heart rate up, but it isn’t bad.
There are several draws going up into these hills, off the trail. Many of these are very green, and there was a good number of interesting plants in them. Worth the side trip!
On the opposite side of the trail from those hills there are several seasonal stream beds that run downhill. These also had wildflowers, but a different selection than you’ll find on the upper slopes. There are some beautiful places to poke around.
Two, possibly three, species of Arnica in bloom down there!
After about a mile and a quarter you will come to the Upper Gardner Meadow, which is very large. We only took the time to explore the very start of the meadow.
I estimate that the meadow is at least a half of a mile long!
On this visit, most of what we found along the trail was very dry, not much blooming. But there was still a trickle of water running along the east side, and there were many interesting flowers still blooming there.
Here’s the track that we followed. The track wiggles quite a bit, as I took many side trips off up some of the draws that go up into the hills. In addition, we didn’t go far out into the meadow (which is VERY large) since it was so dry. There wasn’t a lot going on further out (this time).
Note that there are several smaller meadows off to the side of the trail, and there is a split in the trail that goes to Lower Gardner Meadow. Lots of places to explore out there!
Upper Gardner Meadow
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This trail is on the west side of Ebbetts Pass, on Highway 4. From Lake Alpine you will head east on Highway 4 for 13 miles. This is the section of the highway that is very narrow and twisty, so take it easy. You will be looking for Highland Lakes Road on the south side.
From Highway 4 go south on Highland Lakes Road. The first mile is paved and fairly easy (a bit narrow). After that the road is a typical forest service road, gravel and dirt. Some of the spots where water crosses the road have been paved, which helps. The road is in reasonable shape if you take it slow. I made it easily with my Honda CR-V, so you don’t need a high clearance 4WD vehicle, but I wouldn’t try it with a low slung sedan like a Prius.
Continue another 3.9 miles through the forest. When you start to see Highlands Lake ahead of you, look to the east (left) for a dirt entryway to a small parking area. This is the Gardner Meadow trailhead. If you get to the lake, you’ve just passed the trailhead.
There isn’t a restroom facility at the trailhead, but if you continue on Highland Lakes Road past the first lake, there is a campground with pit toilets that you can use.
Timing is Everything
This visit was in mid August of a dry year. It was a bit late for the best variety of fresh wildflowers, but we still found quite a few. And the Gentian! You won’t see that earlier in the year.
Temperatures were in the upper 60’s to low 70’s, which wasn’t bad, but it was a bit windy. We only saw a few other people for a few brief minutes. There are several places where seasonal streams cross the trail but it wasn’t muddy at all (but it could be, earlier in the year). The meadow itself was mostly dry, with a seep area off to the side of the trail.
I definitely want to go back, probably sometime in July when things are fresher!
Upper Gardner Meadow Wildflower Listing
Here’s a listing of the native plants that we found on this visit. “nif” means “not in flower”. In most cases the scientific name will be a link to a reference source such as Calflora.
- Alpine shooting star, Primula tetrandra
- American bistort, Bistorta bistortoides
- Arrowleaf ragwort, Senecio triangularis
- Brewer’s angelica, Angelica breweri
- Brewer’s aster, Doellingeria breweri (formerly Eucephalus breweri)
- Brook saxifrage, Micranthes odontoloma
- California corn lily, Veratrum californicum var. californicum (nif)
- Carex sp.
- Clasping arnica, Arnica lanceolata ssp. prima
- Cognate popcorn flower, Plagiobothrys cognatus (probably)
- Common woolly sunflower, Eriophyllum lanatum
- Copeland’s owl’s clover, Orthocarpus cuspidatus ssp. copelandii
- Coyote mint, Monardella odoratissima ssp. glauca
- Dwarf Fireweed, Chamaenerion latifolium
- Dwarf lupine, Lupinus lepidus
- Fireweed, Chamerion angustifolium ssp. circumvagum
- Fringed willowherb, Epilobium ciliatum
- Glaucus willowherb Epilobium glaberrimum
- Hiker’s gentian, Gentianopsis simplex
- Lake tahoe lupine, Lupinus argenteus var. meionanthus
- Little elephant’s head, Pedicularis attollens
- Lodgepole pine, Pinus contorta
- Lupinus sp.
- Mertens’ rush, Juncus mertensianus
- Monument plant, Frasera speciosa (nif)
- Mountain carpet clover, Trifolium monanthum
- Naked buckwheat, Eriogonum nudum
- Ocean spray, Holodiscus discolor
- Pacific red elderberry, Sambucus racemosa var. racemosa (nif)
- Parish’s yampah, Perideridia parishii
- Primrose monkeyflower, Erythranthe primuloides
- Ranger’s buttons, Angelica capitellata
- Rockfringe, Epilobium obcordatum
- Scarlet gilia, Ipomopsis aggregata ssp. aggregata
- Scarlet paintbrush, Castilleja miniata ssp. miniata
- Sierra larkspur, Delphinium glaucum
- Sierran woodbeauty, Drymocallis lactea var. lactea
- Slender cinquefoil, Potentilla gracilis var. fastigiata
- Spearleaf arnica, Arnica longifolia
- Star Moss, Syntrichia ruralis
- Tawny horkelia, Horkelia fusca var. parviflora
- Thickstem aster, Eurybia integrifolia
- Tiling’s monkeyflower, Erythranthe tilingii
- Tundra aster, Oreostemma alpigenum var. andersonii
- Waxy checkerbloom, Sidalcea glaucescens
- Western columbine, Aquilegia formosa
- Western prickly gooseberry, Ribes montigenum
- Western white pine, Pinus monticola
- White fir, Abies concolor
- Whitney’s goldenbush, Hazardia whitneyi var. whitneyi
- Willow, Salix sp.
- Woolly mule ears, Wyethia mollis
We also found the following:
- Black-and-gray Leafcutter Bee, Megachile melanophaea
- Columbian Black-tailed Deer, Odocoileus hemionus ssp. columbianus
- Common Aerial Yellowjacket, Dolichovespula arenaria
- Crescents, Phyciodes sp.? (butterfly)
- Furrow Bee, Halictus sp.
- Sierran Tree Frog, Pseudacris sierra
- Willow gall midge, Rabdophaga sp.