When it comes to five-star wildflower hikes, Carson Pass in the Mokelumne Wilderness south of Lake Tahoe has few rivals. The side-of-the-path bloom in mid-July is so profuse that hundreds of camera-toting hikers each weekend show up at the Carson Pass Information Station on Highway 88 to walk amid head-high stands of lupin, paintbrush and Queen Anneís Lace, and to admire hillsides flecked with purple penstemon, golden mule ears, orange columbine and mountain daisies.
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), a 2,650-mile footpath stretching from Mexico to Canada, is the main backcountry artery here, and the five miles on either side of the highway are heavily used in summer.
Even small children can hike the easy mile from the information station at 8,650 feet to scenic Frog Lake, at roughly the same elevation. The majority of hikers continue a mile farther on a spur trail leading to Lake Winnemucca, a scenic lunch spot at 8,983 feet. One steep, huffer-puffer mile beyond is Round Top Lake, a frigid circle of water at the base of a dramatic, 10,381-foot peak of the same name.
For a loop trip rather than an out-and-back, start at Woods Lake Campground a few miles down the road.
On the south side of the highway, in a region known as Meiss Country, the PCT takes hikers to Showers Lake, at 8,760 feet the highest body of water in the Upper Truckee River Basin. The 10-mile round trip is rated moderate, but if youíre coming from sea level, you might find it strenuous.
Leashes are required on the trail to Lake Winnemucca and some other parts of the Mokelumne Wilderness. Use your judgment elsewhere on whether to leash up or let Rover trot alongside. Expect patches of snow at higher elevations well into August, and carry hiking poles to test depth in places where the trail is not visible. No matter how fair the weather, be sure to pack a rain poncho, as mountain thunderstorms pop up fast.
Photo: "Sierra Waterflowers, North of Showers Lake"- Steve Dunleavy (CC)