Early spring colors – Lake Tahoe area

Spring comes later to the Sierras than to the Bay Area, due to the elevation difference.  In this post I want to show some early spring colors in the Lake Tahoe area, mostly around 6500 feet elevation, during a visit in early- to mid-May.  In the mountains this is early spring, since higher elevations are still under snow and lake-level elevations are only recently snow-free.  I have included a few pictures at somewhat lower elevations, down to perhaps 3500 feet elevation, only a day or two later, and the difference is striking.

Especially during spring and fall, mountain weather can change dramatically in a matter of hours.  Early in my visit there was a forecast for afternoon thundershowers.  When the storm arrived, it included intense hail for 15 minutes or so, enough to cover the deck, streets, and yard with a thin layer of white, followed by rain showers.  By the next morning the hail had completely melted.

photo of hail accumulating on the deck

Hail accumulating on the deck

I have always anticipated the arrival of daffodils to announce the beginning of spring.  When I was growing up on the east coast, once the daffodils started to bloom there was no more snow.  In the Sierras, the end of snow season is not quite so clearly defined.  While on a walk around my neighborhood in Tahoe Donner there were many front-yard garden areas with pretty displays of daffodils.  In one case there was a bit of grape hyacinth mixed in (not shown here).

photo of front-yard daffodils

Front-yard daffodils

One of the first spring wildflowers, as distinct from garden flowers, is snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea).  This plant is interesting because it does not utilize photosynthesis, but rather grows by obtaining nutrients from underground fungi.  It often starts to appear not long after the seasonally permanent snow cover melts or recedes.  Usually I see one or two snow plants in a given location, but here there was a cluster of at least ten plants.

photo of cluster of snow plants

Cluster of snow plants

There is quite a bit of manzanita (Arctostaphylos) around Tahoe Donner as well as in the surrounding forest areas.  It also blooms quite early.

photo of manzanita in bloom

Manzanita in bloom

One of the characteristics of early spring in snow country is flowing water due to snowmelt.  Since the winter of 2015-16 was at least close to average for snowfall, there has been plenty of snowmelt to create ephemeral streams.  Here a low rock wall helps to create a path for the water to flow, avoiding inundating the nearby street.  There is even a small temporary waterfall.  This area will dry up once the remaining snow has melted in the upper parts of Tahoe Donner.

photo of ephemeral stream and mini-waterfall fed by snowmelt

Ephemeral stream and mini-waterfall fed by snowmelt

Not far from our cabin, along one of my favorite routes for a short walk, there is a location with a wonderful view of the Carson Range, including Mt Rose.  Prosser Hill is in the foreground, just out of view to the left.  With a summit elevation of nearly 10,800 feet, Mt Rose retains some snow cover relatively late, in good snow years extending into July.  It can be seen here roughly in the center of the skyline, with some cloud cover almost kissing the peak.

photo of Mt Rose, still snow-covered in mid-May after a nearly average snow season

Mt Rose, still snow-covered in mid-May after a nearly average snow season

During the same visit I went for a walk along the bike path that runs along CA-89 and the Truckee River between Squaw Valley and Tahoe City.  Although the Truckee River has been nearly dry the last few summers, due to the ongoing drought, for now there seems to be a good amount of water flowing.  Just before a set of rapids approaching Alpine Meadows Rd – the sign seen in the foreground warns summertime river rafters of rapids ahead – there was a calm section with pretty reflections of the forest across the river.

photo of calm spot in the Truckee River

Calm spot in the Truckee River

A special spring activity is checking out trail heads for hikes I plan to take later in the year.  As part of my drive back to the Bay Area I decided to see if I could check out the roads leading to several trail heads I plan to use during the summer.  The first trailhead was about 15 miles off CA-89, with the turnoff at Little Truckee Summit.  When I was about halfway to the trailhead I encountered snow covering the road.  With a low-clearance car and no snow tires, I decided to turn around here.  If I’d been intending to hike along the road I would have kept going, since I could easily see clear pavement not far ahead.  The elevation at this point was only about 6,800 feet, so I was a bit surprised to see this much residual snow; clearly this road is not plowed during the winter.

photo of forest road covered with snow en route to a hike trail head

Forest road covered with snow en route to a hike trail head

On my way back out to CA-89 I paused to enjoy a beautiful view of a snow-covered ridgeline overlooking a small lake formed in the Little Truckee River not far from Webber Lake.  Two hikes I plan to take in this area are on the Pacific Crest Trail.

photo of hiking country along the Little Truckee River

Hiking country along the Little Truckee River

Even though I encountered snow on two different roads on the way to trail heads, I was at least able to determine whether the roads are paved (this one is, but another is dirt/gravel) and passable in my car.  After returning to CA-89 I continued north until I reached CA-49, a designated California Scenic Byway, and followed it west and down into the Sierra foothills.  CA-49 follows along the North Fork of the Yuba River through the heart of Sierra County.  I made several impromptu stops to appreciate the river and colorful wildflowers.  I saw lots of brilliant blue lupine along the side of the road, including this hillside overlooking the river.  While I was stopped and taking pictures a car coming the other way also stopped, and two men clearly dressed for kayaking – with kayaks strapped to the car’s roof – got out to check out the rapids.

photo of lupine along the bank of the North Fork of the Yuba River

Lupine along the bank of the North Fork of the Yuba River

Several miles farther along, after I’d been seeing patches of a golden yellow flowering bush on the hillside to my right, I stopped again to investigate.  I discovered that it was bush monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus).  Later I also discovered that it is now considered to be the same species as the yellow sticky monkeyflower that is common in the Bay Area.  These two flowers do not look like they should be the same species, but the plant experts have apparently concluded that they are!

photo of bush monkeyflower along CA-49

Bush monkeyflower along CA-49

I also passed flashes of light blue and reddish purple and stopped several more times to investigate.  I found some Indian paintbrush, blue dick (Dichelostemma capitatum), and some tiny white 5-petaled flowers that somewhat resemble cryptantha.  The flashes of reddish purple turned out to be dwarf monkeyflower (Mimulus nanus).  It was the first time I’d seen any of the many species of small monkeyflower.  When I looked more closely I found several light-colored, almost white monkeyflowers.  I think they are variants of the nanus.  The dwarf monkeyflower was an especially nice find, since earlier in the spring I’d gone looking for a different type of tiny monkeyflower in Kern County and not found a single flower.

photo of dwarf monkeyflower along CA-49

Dwarf monkeyflower along CA-49

As I explored this area I noticed several light-colored swallowtail butterflies, which I believe to be pale swallowtail (Papilio eurymedon).  Mostly they seemed to fly around, but occasionally one would land on some blue dicks and remain more-or-less still as it fed.  The markings are quite pretty and include both blue and orange spots.

photo of pale swallowtail on a blue dick flower-head

Pale swallowtail on a blue dick flower-head

Farther along, and at lower elevation, I passed some white flowers that looked like mariposa lilies, one of my favorites.  When I stopped yet again to investigate, I could see that they were superb mariposa lilies (Calochortus superbus).  By this time I had left CA-49 and was traveling along Marysville Rd, probably at low enough elevation that I should not consider myself to be in the mountains, or hardly even in the foothills.

photo of superb mariposa lily along Marysville Rd

Superb mariposa lily along Marysville Rd

Close by I also found some white brodiaea (Brodiaea hyacinthina) and some yellow flowers that might be mountain dandelion.

The drive from Truckee to the Bay Area was a dramatic reminder that, especially during the spring and autumn months, it is possible to experience quite different parts of the season simply by traveling to a different elevation.  I plan to continue to collect seasonal color images at different seasons of the year.

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