Charlie Russell Nature Photography

Upper Gardner Meadow

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.

 

Little elephant's head, Pedicularis attollens
Little elephant's head

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.

Hiker's gentian, Gentianopsis simplex
Hiker's gentian

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.

Dwarf Fireweed, Chamaenerion latifolium, very low to the ground
Dwarf 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.

Western columbine, Aquilegia formosa
Western columbine

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.

The Hike

 

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. 

Trail as it leaves the parking area
Trail as it leaves the parking area

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!

One of several seasonal streambeds, full of flowers (Arnica mostly)
Stream bed downhill from trail
The trail opens up to a very large meadow, Upper Gardner Meadow
The trail opens up to a very large meadow, Upper Gardner Meadow

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!

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Upper Gardner Meadow   

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Directions

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.

Mertens' rush, Juncus mertensianus
Mertens' rush

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.

 

 

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.
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