Magazine article Sunset

Treasure Hunting for Tahoe Wildflowers

Magazine article Sunset

Treasure Hunting for Tahoe Wildflowers

Article excerpt

A soft wind stirs the summer air, lifting bright riffles on the surface of the lapis-colored lake. It would be tempting to stretch out on a slab of sun-warmed granite, breathe deeply, and space out for a while. But equally seductive is that glimpse of nodding red-orange in a wet spot just beyond the trail. Which delicate trumpet yields that note of clear color amid the rich green: alpine lily? wild columbine? Spellbound, you walk on, to investigate one more patch of mountain beauty and then, probably, one more.

Appearing from beneath deep snowpack for a season that comes and goes very quickly, high-elevation wildflowers seem the more intoxicatingly attractive for this foreshortened aspect of their bloom. You can see them in dazzling profusion if your timing's just right or find fewer of them with more effort, as in a treasure hunt, if you're a little early or late.

In the Lake Tahoe region, the high ridges and meadows where alpine flowers grow are within uniquely easy reach of roads and civilization: you can drive to a trail-head, hike several miles to see flowers blooming near glacial lakes or by melting snowdrifts, and return to a comfortable hotel by evening. The variety of elevations, exposures, and soils gives you many choices for a flower-finding day-hike.

To improve your chances of discovery, we've paired walks at each of three general locations considered especially floriferous by the American Rock Garden Society; for more on the society's activities, call (415) 644-1656. Two of the areas are off major highways (1-80 and State 88), with the third at a major resort (Squaw Valley); listings are on page 29.

At each place, one hike is at a higher elevation than the other, faces a different compass direction, or involves different soil composition (and, with it, a distinct plant community). If you get there and find you're too early or too late for one walk, you'll have another option to try without additional driving. And whether the flowers are many or few when you come, each of these high-elevation rambles leads you over stimulating terrain, with good trails and payoff views.

What's distinctive about these flowers?

Many mountain wildflowers are as showy as or showier than their garden-grown cousins at lower elevations. But some are more subtle, the result of adaptation to lean or stony soil and an alpine climate. Plants may be dwarfed or low-growing (to conserve heat), shaped like cushions or mats (to avoid wind damage), silvery in color (to conserve moisture), hairy or woolly in foliage (to insulate against cold and hold moisture in dry air), or dark-stemmed (to retain heat). They may appear in impossible-looking rock crevices (these, in fact, shelter surprisingly deep taproots). The adversities of their habitat actually help them thrive, freeing them from competition with plants that lack their specific adaptations. Look closely (a hand lens is a great help), and such specialization becomes part of the allure of even inconspicuous alpines.

For plant identification, the best beginners' field guide we know is Theodore Niehaus's Pacific States Wildflowers (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1976; $12.95). A more leisurely reference (with comments on many possible Tahoe walks) is Julie Carville's enthusiastic new book, Lingering in Tahoe's Wild Gardens (Mountain Gypsy Press, Chicago Park, Calif., 1989; $17.95).

DONNER PASS

From 1-80, take the Donner Memorial State Park exit and drive west on old Highway 40 (Donner Pass Road) a few miles to the summit; stop where you see a building marked Alpine Skills Institute, and pull off on (unmarked) Lake Mary Road; or park at the trailhead, a bit south on the same road.

Hike north. Cross Highway 40 and walk north (the trail is obvious) toward 1-80 and Boreal Ridge, about 3 miles away; go as far as you like, then return (or arrange a car shuttle at the eastbound rest stop on 1-80). …

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