My favorite California wildflower region is the Carson Pass area in Alpine County. I’ve talked about the Carson Pass to Lake Winnemucca trail, and the Meiss Lake trail, this time we’ll take a loop from Woods Lake to Lake Winnemucca and then to Round Top Lake and back. A VERY energetic hike at altitude, but well worth the effort!
I’ve seen this trail in the past, from the top looking down, and I’ve avoided it because of the elevation change. A lot of climbing! But, this has been a drier than normal year so we had to work harder to find great wildflower displays. There is roughly a 1200 foot elevation change, starting off at 8200 feet at Woods Lake.
Note: Click on any photograph to see a larger image.
To hike this loop you take three trails. Before starting, though, I recommend checking in at the Carson Pass Information Station on Highway 88 to get the latest information on trail (and flower) conditions. This is manned by volunteers from the El Dorado National Forest Interpretive Association (ENFIA), and they are a wonderful source for information on where to find flowers in this area. They have maps for all of the common trails.
We started at the Woods Lake trailhead, which is at 8200 feet. There are two ways to go, either the east part of the loop towards Winnemucca Lake or the west part of the loop towards Round Top Lake.
This time we headed towards Winnemucca Lake. This is the easier climb of the two. It starts as an easy hike through the forest, more or less following along a stream. Eventually you’ll climb out of the trees into an area that has open hillsides that can be covered with wildflowers. There is a lot of variety here with the exposed hillside on your left and the damper stream area on the right.
Lots of wonderful flowers! Hillsides covered with Paintbrush and Lupines, Larkspur and Penstemon along the stream, a great variety that made the climb well worth the trouble.
It’s about 2.5 miles up to Winnemucca Lake, which is at 8980 feet. One of my favorite wildflower meadows/hillsides (see my Carson Pass Hike article) can be reached by taking the trail to the north a short ways (which heads back to the Carson Pass info station), but we didn’t take that side trip this time as we were told that the flowers there were past their peak. The Woods Lake to Winnemucca trail is a different exposure and tends to bloom later.
From Winnemucca Lake you’ll turn west towards Round Top Lake (the trail junctions are very well marked). You’ll continue climbing along the side of Round Top Peak. This is a very exposed area, drier except for the occasional snow-fed seeps and streams that you’ll pass. It is interesting to take this trail because you’ll see a very different collection of wildflowers along the way.
At this elevation this section of the trail can be a bit challenging. After about a mile you’ll reach Round Top Lake at 9347 feet. We didn’t spend a lot of time here because it was noticeably cooler than the lower area.
Again, the trail junctions are clearly marked, and we turned north onto the trail back down to Woods Lake. This leg of the trail is much steeper and has a different exposure than the first leg. We didn’t see as wide a variety of flowers. There is another stream here, along the middle section. This trail is about two miles long, so you drop down quickly (the climb UP was done in 3.5 miles). I think I preferred going the direction we did, with the more leisurely climb up (with lots of opportunities for flower pictures) and the steeper climb going down (making good use of our trekking poles).
Timing is Everything
We took this hike at the very end of July 2013. This was a drier than normal year so the bloom supposedly was lighter and earlier than usual. I’m glad that we checked in at the Carson Pass Info center, as I don’t think that we would have taken this particular hike without their recommendation.
You can also call ahead to the Info Center and talk to the volunteers there to get information about which hike has the best flowers before you head up: (209) 258-8606. There are several hikes in the area (we’ve done the Carson Pass trail and Meiss Lake trail), and each hits its peak at a different time.
The area around Round Top is very exposed, so you want to keep an eye on the weather. We were very lucky and had temperatures in the upper 70’s at the start – a bit chilly at the top but not bad (but a bit too windy for good flower pictures).
From Sacramento take Highway 16 east until it meets Highway 49. Head south on 49 to Jackson. From there go east on Highway 88. It is roughly 55 miles to the Kirkwood Inn and Station (just past the Kirkwood ski resort). Continue on 88 past Caples Lake for roughly three miles, you will see a sign for Woods Lake on your right.
The side road to the trailhead is narrow but paved, and roughly a mile and a half. You are looking for the day use parking, not the campground. Not a lot of parking, but this is a more out-of-the-way trailhead and you shouldn’t have problems. There are restrooms at the trailhead.
Please feel free to help me with the identification of any “unidentified” flowers listed here, as well as correcting any errors I may make. It was a windy day so the closeups aren’t as sharp as I would like. Click on any photograph to see a larger image. I’ll start with a few favorites, and then the “gallery”. All pictures were taken with either a Nikkor 18-135mm zoom lens, or a Nikkor 60mm closeup lens.
Pink elephants! I love this flower, but it is hard to photograph. I’ve come across it on occasion but it has been pretty rare – except on this hike. We found them on the lower trail, and we found a LOT up around Round Top.
The stars of this hike were the Paintbrush. Hillsides of them, and more scattered along the stream on the way up to Winnemucca.
Mountain Larkspur is one of the larger varieties, and there was a very nice patch of them along the stream on the upper part of the trail to Winnemucca.
There also were a lot of Crimson Columbine. More than I would expect in a drier year, away from the stream. The flowers were smaller than usual.
Nice specimens of Sierra Penstemon (also called Whorled Penstemon). Usually some of the florets are turning brown just as the next round are coming in, not conducive to a nice picture.
Sierra Primrose. Bright, and found high up on the Round Top trail.
Another flower found at the higher elevation – first time I’ve seen this in California. Prairie Smoke, also known as Old Man’s Whiskers.
There weren’t as many flowers on the back trail, down from Round Top (or, was it because we were tired from the altitude and in a hurry to get back?). There was a nice section along a stream (look for remains of some old mining camps), and a nice patch of Monkeyflowers.