Spectacular Sierra wildflowers will bloom through August. Here’s where to find them

Wildflowers blanket the hillside just below the summit of Mount Tallac in July 2013.
Wildflowers blanket the hillside just below the summit of Mount Tallac in July 2013. Sacramento Bee file

In the Sierra and other California mountain ranges, the big bloom is coming. But unlike the flourish of flowers that opened in March and April at lower elevations, mountain “spring” arrives in summer.

So far, 2017 has been a spectacular wildflower year. As if celebrating the end of California’s epic drought, vast expanses of wildflowers covered swaths of the Central Valley and southland deserts this spring. At higher elevations, more wildflowers are expected to put on their own prolonged show well into August.

First, the snow has to melt.

“This is so unprecedented, to have this much snow so late,” said native plant expert Glen Holstein of the California Native Plant Society, Sacramento Valley chapter. “I don’t expect areas will have a ‘super bloom’ like the Valley – there’s too much snow on the ground – but once the snow melts, it will be very colorful and long lasting.”

Usually, June is the high point of Sierra wildflower hunting. This summer, flora lovers should still find prime viewing into August.

“Actually, typically at higher elevations, July is best,” Holstein said. “The flowers come out first at intermediate elevations, then work their way up.”

Due to weather, fire and availability of water, mountain wildflower years vary greatly. Post-drought seasons can be special.

Wildflower expert Julie Carville, author of “Tahoe’s Spectacular Wildflower Trails” (Mountain Gypsy Press, 277 pages, $29.95), remembers an amazing Sierra bloom year in the summer of 2014 with dazzling displays.

“They may be this gorgeous again this year,” she said.

Some 870 photos – including several from that bountiful 2014 season – fill her guidebook, which published last June. It is available at the Avid Reader in Sacramento and Davis as well as stores in Nevada City, Grass Valley and the Tahoe area.

“My book covers the 21 best wildflower trails at Tahoe and has two sections – ‘Flowers by Color’ and ‘Tahoe’s Trees’ – to make exploring the wildflowers fun and easy to identify,” she said. “My book covers the whole experience of wildflowers, from animals and pollinators to Indian plant uses and knowledge.”

That lingering snow at higher elevations delayed this year’s wildflower show, she said.

“I believe there will be (a good wildflower year), but the blooms will most likely be about one month later than normal, especially at the higher elevations above 7,500 feet,” Carville said. “Lake level blooming (in the Tahoe area) probably will be in late June or July – normally it’s in mid-May – and we may not have wildflowers in full bloom until late July or August above 7,000 to 7,500 feet. Usually, the peak bloom at Tahoe is late June through mid-August, with July the best time for full bloom.”

Flower hunters should expect great variety as well as quantity.

“I think most flowers will bloom profusely,” Carville said. “This could be an extravaganza year … I think it will be wonderful. People should definitely head up to Tahoe in July and call the Forest Service offices at North and South Tahoe to get updates.”

Big bloom years also can yield rarities.

“One that’s always exciting to see is the snow plant,” Holstein said. “It’s bright rose red with no chlorophyll. It grows in conifer forests. It’s a really special plant only found in the mountains of California.”

Mariposa lilies, a favorite of flower hunters, should be in abundance in the Sierra foothills.

“You’ll find them in open areas throughout the Mother Lode country,” Holstein said. “They show up earlier (than other flowers), usually in May. Browns Valley is particularly good.”

At higher elevations, Holstein expects to see elephant heads, tall stalks of pink blooms that look like lupine from a distance but, on closer inspection, resemble tiny pachyderms with up-turned trunks.

“There will be plenty of paintbrush and a quite a number of shooting stars,” he said. “There will be lots and lots of flowering shrubs. There will be a greater variety of color and diversity than we get in the Valley. You won’t see that huge mass of one color like we get in the Valley – but you’ll see a lot of flowers.”

In the Tahoe area, flower hunters should find mule’s ears, balsamroots, paintbrushes, penstemons and lupines, Carville said. Mariposa lilies and other lily species should be plentiful, too.

In search of color, Carville has several favorite Sierra wildflower hikes. For the North Tahoe area, she recommends the Mt. Judah-Donner Peak Loop; Castle Peak to Basin Peak; Shirley Canyon in Squaw Valley; and Sagehen Creek, which is north of Truckee off Highway 89.

“For those heading to south shore from Sacramento, I’d recommend Thunder Mountain and the Carson Pass hike to Winnemucca Lake,” Carville said. “These last two may not be hike-able because of deep snow at their high elevations – 8,000-foot-plus – until late July or early August or even mid-August.”

Many of the showiest flowers grow in meadows, Holstein said. “Any place you can find a meadow cut (out of the forest), you’ll find flowers. The Yuba Pass (on Highway 49) between Downieville and Sierraville will be very good. Tuolumne Meadows (in Yosemite) will be outstanding.”

Wildflowers should be plentiful not far off Interstate 80 near Truckee.

“Some are really close to the highway on your way to Reno,” Holstein said. “Donner State Park is always good.”

Easy hikes at Donner Pass and Carson Pass offer colorful rewards.

“Carson Pass is one of the best hikes,” Holstein said. “You’ll see an incredible number of wildflowers. The best time for that hike is definitely July; it’s covered with snow right now.”

As summer temperatures climb in the Valley, a mountain hike in search of wildflowers will be a welcome getaway, he said.

“It definitely will be worth a trip up to the mountains,” Holstein said. “It should be really beautiful, once the snow starts melting.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Celebrating wildflowers

Find areas with peak bloom, information on what plants are in flower and tips galore at the National Park Service’s special website, “Celebrating Wildflowers,” www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers