Finding Lake Tahoe Wildflowers

Columbian Monkshood

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Looking for wildflowers at Lake Tahoe is much like going on a treasure hunt. But the beauty of searching for Lake Tahoe wildflowers is that you’re almost always guaranteed to find some in bloom. This is assuming that you’re looking during the warmer months, of course. Just be forewarned, though, if you do decide to dedicate time to look for and identify Lake Tahoe wildflowers …

Before you know it you’ll be spending over five hours on the hunt, but barely covering a few miles. And about two-thirds of the way through your adventure, you’ll realize that you didn’t bring enough water and food. That apple and trail bar you forgot to pack is still sitting on the kitchen counter at home.

How could you have overlooked such critical details when preparing for a hike? Well, you were just planning to scope out a couple of short miles after running some errands around town.

But there was so much to see in such a short distance! With every few paces there was another species worthy of admiration and study.

Time waits for no one, however, and the minutes continued to tick by as you slowly strolled along.

On top of everything, terrain dictates your route when it comes to finding Lake Tahoe wildflowers. Maybe down in that draw or up that hill or if you just followed that barely perceptible game trail, your white whale of a wildflower would waiting for you.

As the internal debate rages on as to whether or not you should pursue that off-beaten path, you can’t help but wonder if you’ll ever be back at that exact location under those same circumstances. So unless you cover that distance right now, you’ll never know what wildflowers you might find.

If all of this sounds like it came straight out of a scene from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, you’d be close. This was the obsessive and compulsive process I went through during the summer of 2019 as I dedicated myself to finding and ID’ing as many wildflowers and plant species as possible around Lake Tahoe.

More on that later. For the time being, just know that I’m prone to falling down rabbit holes.

Nevada Lewisia (5/16/16) © Jared ManninenSpreading Phlox (5/16/16) © Jared ManninenWestern Bistort (5/16/16) © Jared ManninenAlpine Lily (7/6/15) © Jared ManninenCommon Yarrow (7/6/15) © Jared ManninenCorn Lily (7/6/15) © Jared ManninenColumbian Monkshood (7/6/15) © Jared ManninenMountain Coyote Mint (7/6/15) © Jared ManninenScarlet Gilia (7/6/15) © Jared ManninenThimbleberry (7/6/15)© Jared Manninen

Shift in Perspective

Over the years, I’ve logged many miles and hiked many of Tahoe’s prominent peaks. I’ve thru-hiked the Tahoe Rim Trail.

In reality, though, I’ve probably only hiked a small fraction of all the trails Lake Tahoe has to offer.

That’s ok. I’m pacing myself.

Here’s the thing … you’re going to have fun playing in Tahoe’s backcountry no matter what activity you choose. But, for me, strictly hiking trails and peaks (especially if done at the same time of day during the same season) can get routine.

Blasphemous, I know. However, for me, it’s like watching the same movie (or genre of movies) over and over. I can do it for a while but, like anything, I need to eventually mix it up.

As easily as I could watch The Silence of the Lambs on loop for two days straight, I could do the same thing with Pitch Perfect, Gladiator, or The Big Lebowski.

Does that make me a total weirdo? Perhaps. But I’d like to think it just makes me human (i.e. we all have diverse interests).

The point I’m trying to make is that looking for wildflowers is a completely different way of experiencing Lake Tahoe’s hiking trails and backcountry.

Therefore, I recommend you mix it up at least a couple of times during the summer by specifically searching for (and identifying) Lake Tahoe wildflowers.

In case I’m not being clear … instead of just giving wildflowers a casual glance while hiking past them en route to Mount Tallac, for example, I challenge you to specifically seek them out.

Once you locate a species of wildflower, stop and study it for a few minutes. What details make it unique? For now, don’t worry about pulling out a field guide to assist you in identifying it. Just study the wildflower from different angles, possibly record some notes, and definitely take some photos of the wildflower (for future reference).

Then, move on to the next wildflower or plant species that catches your attention.

Consider this approach to hiking a lesson in mindful walking.

FYI … when I’m on the hunt for Lake Tahoe wildflowers, I generally hike no faster than 1 mile/hour. This is a snail’s pace but, again, this way of hiking provides a new perspective to being outdoors.

Besides, finding wildflowers at Lake Tahoe isn’t exactly like walking through a nursery. Due to Tahoe’s relatively harsh landscape, wildflowers can be quite small and camouflaged. So if you hike much faster than a mile per hour, chances are you’re just going to miss a lot of cool stuff.

Yellow Salsify (7/17/19) © Jared ManninenWaxy Checkerbloom (7/17/19) © Jared ManninenThyme-leaved Speedwell (7/17/19) © Jared ManninenSmall Camas (7/17/19) © Jared ManninenPretty Face (7/17/19) © Jared ManninenOne-seeded Pussy Paws (7/17/19) © Jared ManninenLeichtlin's Mariposa Lily (7/17/19) © Jared ManninenGiant Red Paintbrush (7/17/19) © Jared ManninenCalicoflowers (7/17/19) © Jared ManninenMountain Blue Penstemon (7/17/19) © Jared Manninen

Snowpack and Elevation Affects Wildflower Bloom Times

The 2018/19 winter at Lake Tahoe was epic. Outstanding. One for the record books.

Well, maybe it wasn’t the biggest snow year on record at Lake Tahoe. However, in my book it was the biggest because I logged 136 days of cross-country skiing during that winter. And, believe it or not, my last day on skis for the season was June 13, 2019, at Carson Pass.

How does this apply to finding Lake Tahoe wildflowers, you ask?

Because there was so much snow in the Sierra Nevada, the 2019 wildflower bloom season was delayed by a full month.

The wildflowers didn’t know what to do. In some locations, nothing came into bloom until July. And then when the flowers did bloom, it was like everything popped up at the same time.

At lower elevations and closer to Lake Tahoe, many flowers bloomed only a couple of weeks behind their usual schedule. However, in the higher elevations like Carson Pass, I was still finding in full bloom Marsh Marigold and Spreading Phlox in late August (which typically blooms in April or May).

For a deeper discussion of these two factors (snow levels and elevation), I recommend reading my article, Two Factors that Determine Peak Bloom Times for Sierra Nevada Wildflowers at Lake Tahoe.

The bottom line is that if you’re planning to find Lake Tahoe wildflowers, do some research to determine the current state of the snowpack.

Once summer does officially arrive, keep track of where water is still present (i.e. lakes, ponds, marshes, rivers…). These wetter locations will generally yield wildflowers far longer into the summer than drier trails that lead you the tops of peaks.

This is not to say that wildflowers and other plant life doesn’t grow in drier and higher locations. You just might not find as many varieties in that terrain. You may also have to look a little closer, as well. Species tend to get sun-bleached and parched at those higher elevations, essentially blending into the landscape.

Sierra Nevada wildflowers on the hiking trail to Winnemucca Lake.
Sierra Nevada Wildflowers along the trail to Winnemucca Lake on August 9, 2017. Round Top is prominently featured in the background. Note the amounts of snow still present even though this photo was taken in August. © Jared Manninen

Channeling OCD and Addictive Behavior into a Positive Endeavor

Getting back to the rabbit hole that was my summer of 2019…

The Tahoe Institute for Natural Science (TINS) hosts an annual project on the naturalist website iNaturalist called “Tahoe Wildflower Big Year.”

As you might imagine, the project focuses on finding and identifying as many species of wildflowers (and other plant life) during each calendar year. This wildflower hunt is much like a Big Year for birders.

I had signed up to participate in the Lake Tahoe wildflower event earlier in the year. However, with so much snow present in the mountains so late in the season (i.e. I was still cross-country skiing when I’d normally be hiking), I wasn’t in the right headspace to look for wildflowers.

Besides, in previous (normal) years most of the early blooming wildflowers have already gone to seed by mid-June. So, I had written the whole wildflower hunt off thinking I was late to the party.

At the beginning of July, however, I noticed there were only a few people who had been posting wildflower identifications to the Tahoe Wildflower Big Year project. And, I had actually taken photos of many of those same flowers for my own records.

Maybe I wasn’t so late, I thought.

For the next week I sorted through my wildflower photos. Then, I uploaded all the relevant observations to iNaturalist.

Before I knew it, I was in the top 10 for the two main categories (Most Observations and Most Species). I’ve remained there ever since due in large part to my addictive personality (and competitive nature).

I can think of worst things to obsess about, however.

Although the season isn’t technically over (as I write this article), things are definitely winding down. I’m still on the hunt, but the species I locate are becoming more challenging to find and most are well past their peak bloom.

I can’t say enough about how rewarding this whole experience has been participating in the Tahoe Wildflower Big Year. All jokes aside about turning naturalism into a contact sport … this summer has essentially been a crash-course in wildflower identification and a lesson in developing and honing my skills of perception.

One of the great benefits of using the iNaturalist website is that it does provide ID recommendations. But more importantly, the community of naturalists on the site will also confirm or correct your identification.

In many respects, sharing photos on iNaturalist and chatting with other observers and identifiers (on the site) has become my primary social media experience. It’s so refreshing to just see people doing cool things and helping to educate each other about wildlife and plant species (i.e. no politics, obnoxious memes, or photos of people’s food or their kids’ first day of school).

FYI … if you do decide to participate in future Tahoe Wildflower Big Years focus more on finding unique species (Most Species category) versus Most Observations. Posting every wildflower you find every time you find it doesn’t necessarily provide a helpful service to the community unless you’re studying a specific species of wildflowers. And, I believe, that’s essentially something different than the Tahoe Wildflower Big Year project.

From my experience, having between a 75-85% ratio of species to observations is a good goal for which to shoot. You’re ultimately going to post multiple observations of some of the same species. This is OK, but I don’t think it’s necessary for every wildflower you find.

The two reasons I end up with multiple observations for the same species is that…

  1. I forgot I had already had found (and posted) an observation of the species.
  2. I do it in order to strengthen an ID. What I mean by this is that one of the observations I previously posted may be suspect. This could be due to it featuring poor quality photos or the image of the species in question features it out of peak bloom season (i.e. is that really a … ?)
Variety of Paintbrush (5/6/16) © Jared ManninenVariety of Buttercup (5/6/16) © Jared ManninenArrowleaf Balsamroot (5/6/16) © Jared ManninenMountain Pink Currant (5/6/16) © Jared ManninenOregon Grape (5/6/16) © Jared ManninenSierra Plum (5/6/16) © Jared ManninenSmall Camas (5/6/16) © Jared ManninenSnow Plant (5/6/16) © Jared ManninenWestern Goldenrod (5/6/16) © Jared ManninenWoodland Pinedrops (5/6/16) © Jared Manninen

Tips and Considerations for Finding Lake Tahoe Wildflowers

  • Don’t pick wildflowers. Ever. Period. I don’t care how many there are on the trail, never pick wildflowers. You kill the plant and reduce its likelihood of ever returning. You deny everyone else the opportunity to see it. You steal food from the insects and critters that rely on it for sustenance. Tread lightly on the earth, it’s the only home we have.
  • Hike on the trail, not along the side of the trail.
  • Wet areas yield diverse species of wildflowers, but can be challenging to spot as everything can look lush and compete for your attention.
  • That said, marshes and meadows are extremely sensitive, so use caution when traveling through these areas. Ultimately, stick to durable surfaces (i.e. established trail, logs, rocks…). I prefer to use a telephoto lens so that I don’t have to walk right up to the flower in order to see it.
  • Wetter terrain also tends to attract diverse bird populations.
  • When traveling through drier terrain, you’ll still have to look close because wildflowers will be bleached and parched making everything look homogenous.
  • I prefer to visit new locations whenever I go on a backcountry adventure. However, when looking for Lake Tahoe wildflowers, I find myself hiking a lot of the same terrain over the course of the summer because species bloom at different times. This is another way of seeing the same old, anew!
  • This will turn some people off and raise their hackles. However, travel in smaller groups or alone. I understand classes and guided tours (of all kinds) need a certain number of participant to make the trip financially viable. However, groups larger than six (no matter the reason or how careful you are) have a massive impact on the backcountry. Other hikers have to move around you or vice versa. Your large presence changes the entire dynamics of the backcountry (i.e. scares away the wildlife). Although it’s never anyone’s intention, large groups ultimately wind up spreading out and trampling sensitive lands because everyone is simply just trying to carve out their own little space.
  • As with any new language, one of the first steps is learning basic vocabulary. What is this called? This is the approach I’ve taken when learning to identify Lake Tahoe wildflowers. Eventually I’ll take a much more scientific approach to studying them. In the meantime, however, I just like getting in the ballpark by learning what the species are that I’m looking at.
  • Don’t pick wildflowers. Ever. Period.
Sierra Bog Orchid (7/23/19) © 2019 Jared ManninenAlpine Shooting Stars (7/23/19) © 2019 Jared ManninenOregon Saxifrage (7/23/19) © 2019 Jared ManninenStinging Nettle (7/23/19) © 2019 Jared ManninenElephants Head (7/23/19) © 2019 Jared ManninenSierra Larkspur (7/23/19) © 2019 Jared ManninenWhite-flower Beardtongues (7/23/19) © 2019 Jared ManninenSeep Monkeyflower (7/23/19) © 2019 Jared ManninenWhite Marsh Marigold (7/23/19) © 2019 Jared ManninenNettle-leaf Giant Hyssop (7/23/19) © 2019 Jared Manninen

Resources for Identifying Sierra Nevada Wildflowers (i.e. Lake Tahoe Wildflowers)

If I was to recommend only one book, I’d highly encourage you to pick up The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada. It doesn’t have every species that you’ll find in the Sierra Nevada (there are so many, after all), but it does touch on everything from wildflowers to cloud formations.

This isn’t a comprehensive list of all resources available on identifying Sierra Nevada wildflowers. However, owning even a couple of these books will help you greatly.

Sierran Cushion Wild Buckwheat: Eriogonum ovalifolium var. nivale (8/6/19) © Jared ManninenPrairie Smoke: Geum triflorum (8/6/19) © Jared ManninenGordon's Mousetails: Ivesia gordonii (8/6/19) © Jared ManninenMountain Pretty Face: Triteleia ixioides ssp. anilina (8/6/19) © Jared ManninenWestern Blue Flag: Iris missouriensis (7/26/19) © Jared ManninenSpearleaf Stonecrop: Sedum lanceolatum (7/26/19) © Jared ManninenSlendertube Skyrocket: Ipomopsis tenuituba (7/26/19) © Jared ManninenMountain Pride: Penstemon newberryi (7/26/19) © Jared ManninenMonument Plant: Frasera speciosa (7/26/19) © Jared ManninenVariety of Lupine (7/26/19) © Jared Manninen

Tips for Photographing Wildflowers (for ID purposes and aesthetics)

I’ll cover in more detail some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years with regard to photographing Lake Tahoe wildflowers. However, here are some things to consider in the meantime.

  • Photograph wildflowers at their peak bloom. This provides the nicest photos as well as the best chance for identifying the wildflowers. Although I always attempt to do this, I don’t always succeed. This is OK. By becoming familiar with wildflowers before and after their peak bloom, you’ll only become savvier at identifying them.
  • Photograph wildflowers from multiple angles including their heads, stems, leafs, and bases.
  • Isolate the wildflower in frame so that it’s the focal point of the photograph. This can be challenging if there’s a lot of vegetation growing nearby. However, identification will be easier if the wildflower is clear and obvious. This is one reason I use a telephoto lens (I can blur out the background very easily by zooming in tight on the wildflower from a distance). A blurred background can also be accomplished by using a dedicated macro lens.
  • A trick to photographing a wildflower with a “clean” background is to simply move around the wildflower until the background looks more favorable or there’s a lot of space between the wildflower and objects behind it. Sometimes this just means adjusting the angle at which you’re shooting. Other times you may have to walk around the wildflower completely.
  • If you don’t succeed at framing the wildflower in camera, crop the image when you’re processing the photos at home on your computer.  
  • The reason I don’t use a macro lens (which would really come in handy sometimes) is because I can’t always walk up to the wildflower in question (due to growing on sensitive land, for example) or because I see an interesting bird fly by (and I want to photograph it). The problem with my telephoto lens, though, is that I need to be at least 4.5 feet away from my subject for it to focus properly. So when I’m shooting close quarters, I use a point-and-shoot camera (for my “macro” lens) that enables me to get within a couple inches of the wildflower in question. I also loathe changing lenses on my DSLR in the field because of the risk of damage involved, and for the fact that life will invariably pass you by while you’re busy futzing around with that camera lens.
  • Photograph the wildflower in focus. This should be obvious, but I see so many photos where the wildflower is blurry because the camera focused on the vegetation directly behind it (instead of the actual wildflower). Learn how to use the focus on your camera/phone so that you don’t waste your efforts by taking a blurry photos.
  • When you’re processing the photos on your computer (with whatever software you normally use), perform minor color corrections, sharpening edges, and cropping out unnecessary background noise. The cleaner and more obvious the image is, the better opportunity you’ll have at positively identifying the Lake Tahoe wildflower.

Bringing the Outdoors Home

So often we barrel ahead at full steam with only the end point in mind rather than being present along the journey. I’ve succumbed to this fate as much as the next person, looking to put that check in the box or cross that activity off the to-do list.

As an artist, though, I’ve trained my eyes to pick out details that would otherwise go unnoticed. So, I take this skill with me while hiking, backpacking, trail running, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. And no matter the distance, I always carry with me a digital camera in which to capture images of those small treasures or fleeting moments that would ultimately be lost in time.

I agree that the constant documentation of life is an unfortunate side effect of having digital technology readily available. However, I prefer to treat the camera as nothing more than a tool in which to extend my outdoor experience beyond the trail.

For example, when I’m out hiking and find a Lake Tahoe wildflower, I’ll study it and take multiple reference photos of it from different angles. Upon returning home, I’ll then spend some time searching through various Sierra Nevada wildflower reference books to determine what it was that I saw.

At first glance there’s nothing exceptionally profound about this exercise. Most of you probably already go through this process to one degree or another. But it’s a commitment to learning, helps you to experience the outdoors in a new perspective, and encourages you to develop your sense of awareness and perception.

Through this exercise in discovery you’ll become more connected to the world around you and have a more meaningful experience outdoors.

Alpine Lily
Alpine Lily (7/6/15) Copyright © Jared Manninen

Best Wildflower Hikes of Lake Tahoe

Please note that this is an abridged list. I’ll eventually publish a dedicated article detailing the best wildflower hikes of Lake Tahoe. In the meantime, here’s a good start (those without a link are articles I’ve yet to write):