Two Factors that Determine Peak Bloom Times for Sierra Nevada Wildflowers at Lake Tahoe

Copyright © 2014 Jared Manninen

Although the United States is composed of multiple climates, and spring weather manifests at various times around the country, generally speaking the month of May is when most Americans expect to see flowers in bloom. This is evidenced by our repeated use of the old English proverb April showers bring May flowers.

However, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at Lake Tahoe, our bloom season for wildflowers is a bit more unpredictable than many places across the United States. Two of the primary factors (that go hand-in-hand) in determining ideal bloom times for Sierra Nevada wildflowers at Lake Tahoe are:

  • the range in elevation of the Lake Tahoe Basin
  • the previous winter’s snowpack

The lowest point in the Lake Tahoe Basin is Lake Tahoe itself at 6,229 feet and the highest point is Freel Peak at 10,881 feet. The more than 4,500 feet of difference in elevation between Lake Tahoe and the higher peaks in the Lake Tahoe Basin yields varying wildflower species and bloom times. Simply put, most varieties of Sierra Nevada wildflowers will bloom within specific elevation ranges at specific times of the year. So, a wildflower that thrives during early summer in a wetter environment such as a meadow located at a lower elevation will most likely not grow in late summer in a dry rocky zone at a higher elevation. Reference books that feature Sierra Nevada wildflowers will often list the unique elevation ranges, climates, and time of year at which a given wildflower will reach its peak bloom.

Whether you are seeking out a specific Sierra Nevada wildflower or just want to find some general fields of wildflowers in full bloom, probably the more important factor you want to consider is the previous winter’s snowpack. The first reason is that the snowpack level ultimately determines the moisture content of the soil. A normal winter will produce wildflowers on track with what the reference books list as their peak bloom times.

Copyright © 2015 Jared Manninen

Alpine Lily blooming in wet soil (approximate elevation 6,300 feet) at Washoe Meadows State Park on July 6, 2015. © Jared Manninen.

However, big snow winters (and normal winters followed by cool temperatures in the spring) can shift the Sierra Nevada wildflower bloom season a month or two back. In these cases where the previous winter yielded a large snowpack, the ground at lake level in May and into June can be saturated (particularly in meadows such as Cathedral Meadows or Washoe Meadows State Park on the south shore of Lake Tahoe) due to snowmelt and runoff. Depending on the specific area in which you are traveling, you could find yourself hiking through ankle-deep water at a time where other places across the country are experiencing summer-like conditions. And, by mid-June and July after those big winters, the ground at lake level will probably be dry and show signs of summer, but there will most likely be multiple feet of snow in the upper elevations.

The winter of 2016/17 brought massive amounts of snow to the Lake Tahoe region. For example, on the west shore of Lake Tahoe the Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows Ski Resorts reported a season total of 720 inches of snow and, on the northeast side of Lake Tahoe, Mount Rose Ski Resort reported a grand total of 768 inches of snow for the season!

So it stands to reason that the trail to Winnemucca Lake, which is near Carson Pass (south) and sits at just over 9,000 feet, would have a lot of snow on it in July of 2017. I mention this particular trail because it is a favorite among Tahoe locals for viewing Sierra Nevada wildflowers due to the diverse soil and terrain found in the area. But even Lake Aloha, which is located below Pyramid Peak in Desolation Wilderness and only sits at 8,116 feet, was almost completely covered with snow and ice on July 8, 2017 (as reported by the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit in their July 17, 2017, Facebook post). Lastly, to provide just a little more context for how crazy things can be up here at Lake Tahoe, the Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows Ski Resorts officially concluded their 2016/17 ski season on July 15th! Keep in mind that most ski resorts at Lake Tahoe, even after a big snow winter, close in mid-April.

Copyright © 2017 Jared Manninen

Desolation Wilderness viewed from Angora Peak on July 18, 2017. Smoke from the Detwiler Fire (Mariposa County near Yosemite National Park) obscures the view of the Crystal Range. Pyramid Peak is on the left side of the distant ridgeline. Snow surrounds it, but the majority of the peak is bare. This is a typical example of lower elevations in the Lake Tahoe Basin being summer-like while the upper elevations still feature multiple feet of snow. Follow the above LTBMU link to see Lake Aloha (below Pyramid Peak) covered in snow and ice only 10 days prior to when this photo was taken. © Jared Manninen.

In seasons following low snow and drought years you can usually find some dry trails at lower elevations (6,300 to 8,000 feet) to hike by April and see some wildflowers blooming by May. In those same dry years you might even be able to hike as early as March, but don’t expect to see any wildflowers yet. During a dry year the peak bloom season may shift ahead by a month or more, and the length of time for any given Sierra Nevada wildflower’s peak bloom may only be a fraction of time compared to a normal year.

The long and the short of it is this, if you’re planning to visit Lake Tahoe from a location closer to sea level (i.e. no elevation) and hoping to find Sierra Nevada wildflowers in bloom (or just to go hiking or backpacking), perform some research before leaving home. Consider the time of year in which you are planning to visit Lake Tahoe and learn what the current snowpack level is in order to determine where best to hike and view wildflowers.

The first resource I would check is the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, which is a division of the US Forest Service that specifically manages the wildlands immediately surrounding Lake Tahoe. Their website provides up-to-date information about the state of outdoor-related activities at Lake Tahoe. And if they don’t have the answer, they’re great about pointing you in the right direction. I would also check with the Tahoe Rim Trail Association. The TRTA offers classes and other information regarding hiking and backpacking around Lake Tahoe. After that, I would check some of the Tahoe online news and information sites such as Tahoe Daily Tribune, South Tahoe Now, and Tahoe South.

Copyright © 2015 Jared Manninen.

White Rabbitbrush blooming in dry rocky terrain on September 2, 2015, near South Camp Peak (approximate elevation of 8,500 feet). © Jared Manninen.