Kelley's Lily in Lundy Canyon

Kelley’s Lily in Lundy Canyon

By Kimberly Wilkes, author of Eastern Sierra And Death Valley Camping With Privacy

Summer is winding down and fall is right around the corner, but there are still places in the Eastern Sierra where you can admire wildflowers. In fact, at this time of year, Mother Nature seems just a tiny bit confused: red paintbrush pops up near a yellow willow taking on the first shades of fall. This blending of summer colors and fall hues makes for some beautiful vistas not to mention some great photo opportunities. Here are four hikes near Carson Pass, Virginia Lakes, Lee Vining, and Mammoth Lakes where you can still view a colorful array of flowers.

Hiking Among The Snowball Flowers from Woods Lake to Winnemucca Lake

In the past, I’ve hiked to Winnemucca Lake around Labor Day and splashes of color along the trail greeted me where wildflowers continued to bloom. But that was in a summer following a heavy winter. Wildflowers often linger later the summer after a big winter because the snow melts later and the flowers pop up out of the ground later. But this year was a drought year. So when I hiked up to Winnemucca Lake from Woods Lake on August 5, I was surprised at the number of wildflowers still in bloom.

Lupine WLAcross the road from the trailhead parking lot, a dozen or so large-leafed lupines were going strong. Alongside the trail, wildflowers mingled with low-growing vegetation that was already turning red. I startled a family of five flickers, who took flight in a flurry of wings, and I felt bad to break them away from whatever delicacy they had been eating on the ground.

After crossing the road and picking up the trail again, I spotted daisy-like lavender fleabane dotting the forest floor here and there along with clusters of little white flowers I haven’t been able to identify. Along the stream bank, the dark pink flowers of rocky spirea delivered a colorful show along with a lonely yellow daisy-like member of the Asteraceae family that brightened up the forest like a ray of sunshine. Soon, I passed fields of white yarrow.

 

The first colors of fall on the Winnemucca Lake Trail

The first colors of fall on the Winnemucca Lake Trail

A movement to the left of the trail caught my attention. A doe stood there appraising me. After a minute, she began to munch on something, but then thought better of it and wandered up a hill. I continued forward and noticed a particularly nice deep-purple lupine where the deer had been standing. Just as I was about to take the flower’s photo, I looked up and realized the deer was still on the hill about 15 feet away watching me. “I won’t hurt you,” I said. Then she graciously let me take her photo, although she was really too far away to get a good picture.

Beyond that point, fuchsia fireweed was in full bloom in a moist area of the forest. I enjoyed admiring these flowers, but the mosquitoes loved it here, too, so I hurried onward.

Fireweed

Fireweed

I left behind the forest, which gave way to a sagebrush-carpeted hillside and a view of Round Top Peak. In July, this hillside is covered in paintbrush, lupine, and mule’s ears. Now, in August, some lupine and paintbrush added a touch of splendor to the hillside. But the true stars of the show were the flowers I call snowball flowers, even though they’re really poison angelica. The snowball flowers covered the hillside for nearly a mile. This was a pleasant surprise since I had not expected to find any flower on this hike in peak bloom.

Poison Angelica—aka "snowball" flowers—and Round Top Peak

Poison Angelica—aka “snowball” flowers—and Round Top Peak

It was getting late, so I had to turn around before I reached Winnemucca Lake. I had told my husband Patrick, who was traveling, to call me by 8 p.m. to make certain I arrived home safely from the hike, and I didn’t want him to worry. There’s no cell phone reception up by Carson Pass, so I couldn’t call him from there.

By the time I returned to the car I counted at least 10 varieties of flowers still in bloom.

Distance: It’s 2 1/2 miles from the trailhead to Winnemucca Lake.

Elevation Gain: About 800 feet.

Finding the Trailhead: From the intersection of Highways 89 and Highways 88 in Hope Valley, turn right (west) on Highway 88 toward Carson Pass. From the intersection, drive 10.7 miles to Woods Lake Road. Turn left and drive about 1.5 miles to trailhead parking. There’s a $5 parking fee.

Nearby Campgrounds: Hope Valley Resort, Hope Valley Campground, Kit Carson Campground. For more information about which campsites have the most privacy, read our book Eastern Sierra And Death Valley Camping With Privacy: Your Guide To The Most Private Campsites Near Mammoth Lakes, Tuolumne Meadows, Death Valley And Beyond. Woods Lake Campground is another great option for anyone hiking to Winnemucca Lake.

Giant Larkspur in Lundy Canyon

On August 9, the wildflower display in Lundy Canyon refused to quit for the year. It was past its peak, but plenty of colorful blooms continued to add splashes of color to the sides of the trail. I found wildflowers I expected to see still blooming such as poison angelica, lavender pennyroyal, paintbrush, and white yarrow, but I encountered a few surprises, too.

Wild rose in Lundy Canyon

Wild rose in Lundy Canyon

Penstemon greeted me near the beginning of the trail, their bright red flowers shivering in the breeze. From there to the first stream crossing wildflowers were sparse but still present: more penstemon growing among the rocks, red paintbrush, the miniature cream-colored puffs of buckwheat flowers growing with the beaver pond far below as a backdrop.

Just before the first stream crossing is where the show really began. Bouquets of red paintbrush were the opening act. Then on the banks of the stream I saw my first surprise: two pink wild rose blossoms, amazingly still in bloom even though the rest of their kindred gave up the ghost weeks ago.

Along the stream banks, Mother Nature had decided to decorate using the orange accents of Kelley’s lilies and Sierra tiger lilies.

Near the second stream crossing, cinquefoil infused its sunny yellow presence into the lush green vegetation bordering the trail. Arnica daisies bloomed along the banks of the stream.

Arnica daisies still blooming in Lundy Canyon

Arnica daisies still blooming in Lundy Canyon

This larkspur was taller than I am.

This larkspur was taller than I am.

There were larkspurs here, too, growing on the other side of the stream, but the grand daddy of all larkspurs graced the shores of the second beaver pond on the trail. This larkspur was taller than I was so it must have been six feet tall. At least 12 dark purple blooms sprouted up from the plant.

Near the cascade that spills into the beaver pond I encountered my second botanical surprise of the hike. I had just been thinking that you don’t see mule ear flowers at this time of year when I looked down and there it was: the golden flower of a mule ear, one lonely bloom somehow persisting this late into the summer.

Beyond the beaver pond flowers popped up here and there: red paintbrush, the daisy-like flowers of white fleabane, poison arnica, white yarrow, and more.

In the upper reaches of Lundy Canyon, the willows were already starting to take on their fall hues. Yellow arnica daisies seemed to compete with the willows, to see which would provide the most color to the alpine meadow.

I turned around before I reached Upper Lundy Falls. Storm clouds gathered along the crest, and I wanted to have time to check out the wildflowers near Virginia Lakes, the next canyon over.

In July, columbine blooms in the rocks just before the trail ascends toward Upper Lundy Falls. If you continue on the Lundy Canyon Trail past the point where I stopped, you might catch a few late bloomers in that area as well.

Distance: Upper Lundy Falls, 5 miles, but you can go as few or as many miles as you like and still see a lot of spectacular scenery.

Difficulty: Moderate

Elevation Gain: About 800 feet elevation gain to base of Upper Lundy Falls.

Finding the Trailhead: From Lee Vining, drive 7 miles south on Highway 395. Turn left on Lundy Lake Road (watch for the Lundy Lake sign). Continue past Lundy Lake at five miles. Drive two miles farther to the trailhead at road’s end. The pavement will end at Lundy Lakes Resort but the dirt road is passable for passenger cars with very careful driving.

Nearest Campground: Lundy Campground. For more information about which campsites have the most privacy, read our book Eastern Sierra And Death Valley Camping With Privacy: Your Guide To The Most Private Campsites Near Mammoth Lakes, Tuolumne Meadows, Death Valley And Beyond, available on Amazon.

Virginia Lakes to Cooney Lake: From a Wild Iris to Wild Onions

A wild iris clings to late season life by Blue Lake.

A wild iris clings to late season life by Blue Lake.

Although at this time of year there aren’t as many wildflowers on this hike as there are in Lundy Canyon, flowers continue to bloom here and there along the trail. Watching for them became like a botanical treasure hunt for me as I trekked up the trail.

Early in the hike, near Big Virginia Lake and on the hillsides above Blue Lake, red paintbrush perked up the otherwise lackluster sagebrush-studded slopes. Poison angelica also added some personality into the landscape.

On the shores of Blue Lake, about a half mile into the hike, a surprisingly vibrant wild iris clung to life. Plenty of yellow cinquefoil was in bloom here, too. The waters of Blue Lake, which in the late afternoon lighting looked more emerald green than blue, beckoned me to stay and visit awhile. But I decided to move on to see what wildflowers I could find higher up.

Pennyroyal above Blue Lake.

Pennyroyal above Blue Lake.

The best wildflower payout was on the rocky slope above the lake. The trail cuts through a talus slope here and on the impossibly dry and barren mountainside grows a rock garden of lavender and white pennyroyal. Soon the rabbitbrush, just starting to bloom, joined the pennyroyal’s party. The yellow rabbitbrush with the magnificence of Blue Lake as a backdrop was the type of sight that makes me thank God for the beauty of the Eastern Sierra.

Farther up the trail, along a forested creek, orange Kelley’s lilies, some yellow groundsel, and even a cluster of wild onions with their solitary purple blossoms continued to add splotches of color to the forest.

Wild Onion on the trail to Cooney Lake.

Wild Onion on the trail to Cooney Lake.

By the time I reached the north shore of Cooney Lake, which sits at 10,246 feet above sea level beneath the imposing Virginia Crest, the wind had picked up and a storm cloud hovered over the peaks to the west. A scenic lake at timberline, Cooney Lake has some interesting cliffs on its south shore. Also on that shore, deciduous vegetation promises to put on a fall show. The lake is named for a miner named Cooney. You’ll see his old log cabin a mile into the hike.

As it started to drizzle, I turned back. The rain was bad news for me, but good news for the wildflowers, which drank up the moisture. Maybe the rain would extend the wildflower season even longer.

Don't let the barren rocky slope fool you. Wildflowers grow there.

Don’t let the barren rocky slope fool you. Wildflowers grow there.

Distance: Blue Lake, less than a half mile from the trailhead. Cooney Lake, about 1.3 miles from trailhead.

Elevation Gain: 546 feet to Cooney Lake.

Difficulty: Moderate, but be aware this is at a very high elevation so it’s best to acclimate first.

Finding the Trailhead: From Bridgeport, travel south on Highway 395 for 13.5 miles. At Conway Summit, take a right on Virginia Lakes Road. Drive about six miles to the trailhead at road’s end. Be certain to take the trail that departs just in front of the bathroom doors. It follows the shore of Big Virginia Lake.

Nearest Campground: Trumbull Lake Campground. To find out which campsites have the most privacy, read our book Eastern Sierra And Death Valley Camping With Privacy: Your Guide To The Most Private Campsites Near Mammoth Lakes, Tuolumne Meadows, Death Valley And Beyond.

 

Wandering Among The Rabbitbrush in McGee Creek Canyon 

Rabbitbrush blooming in McGee Creek Canyon.

Rabbitbrush blooming in McGee Creek Canyon.

Patrick calls me “Rabbitbrush Maiden” because the first photo he ever took of me was in front of rabbitbrush. So this plant has a fond place in my heart and I love seeing it in bloom, especially in someplace as beautiful as McGee Creek Canyon.

Known for its earlier season display of mule ears and paintbrush, McGee Creek Canyon sports a yellow display of rabbitbrush flowers by mid- to late August. The geology of McGee Creek Canyon is some of the most interesting in the Eastern Sierra. Swirls of color weave their way in and out of the rock. A black stripe slashes across one mountain. Photos of the golden puffs of rabbitbrush flowers with these mountains as a backdrop are particularly stunning.

Hiking up the first part of McGee Creek Canyon in August and early September is scorching hot so getting an early start is a good idea. Plus, in the morning, it’s easier to take photos with the sun to the east, spotlighting the colors on the mountains. If you try to take photos here in the late afternoon, the sun will wash out the colors, as in the photo above.

For me, the hike up McGee Creek Canyon is more about the journey than the destination. I often only hike a mile up the stream, listening to the copper birch and aspen leaves rustling in the wind. They seem to say to me, “Slow down. Don’t hurry so much. Take time to smell the flowers.” So I listen to them and linger here a little longer than I should.

Patrick and I have hiked more than a couple miles up into the canyon in the fall, and it truly is one of the most spectacular hikes in the Sierra. It doesn’t need wildflowers to make it a memorable excursion, but the yellow rabbitbrush is an even greater delight for the senses.

Distance: Hike as far as you want to on this trail. Most of the rabbitbrush grows on the first mile of the trail. Trek farther up the trail and you’ll likely see other wildflowers still in bloom through Labor Day. Steelhead Lake is six miles from the trailhead.

Elevation Gain: 2,300 feet if you go all the way to Steelhead Lake.

Finding the Trailhead: From the intersection of Highways 395 and 203 at Mammoth Lakes, drive south for 8.5 miles. Turn right on McGee Creek Road. Travel up the hill for 3.9 miles to the trailhead at road’s end. They recently installed bear boxes at this trailhead, which is good news for anyone like me who gets nervous leaving any food in the car.

Nearest Campground: McGee Creek Campground. For more information about which campsites have the most privacy, read our book Eastern Sierra And Death Valley Camping With Privacy: Your Guide To The Most Private Campsites Near Mammoth Lakes, Tuolumne Meadows, Death Valley And Beyond.

 

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