PCT – Paradise Lake Trail to Tahoe NF Road 86

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The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) winds through the Tahoe National Forest for almost 40 miles in Nevada and Sierra Counties between I-80 and CA-49 near Sierra City.  For this hike I covered a little less than 8 miles of trail as an out-and-back hike, starting at a road crossing of Forest Road 86 (Meadow Lake Rd) and turning around at the junction with a jeep road to Paradise Lake.  I had previously hiked (before I started this blog!) from the Paradise Lake junction to I-80 so the intent of this hike was to fill in the next small section to the north.  In terms of official PCT mileage, the hike was between mile 1167.1 and mile 1174.7.

Although there were many beautiful wildflowers in season, I think my favorite view from the hike was from a viewpoint overlooking Tom’s Valley down a fairly precipitous rock wall.  The valley floor was gloriously green, with a ring of trees around the perimeter.

picture of view toward Tom’s Valley

View toward Tom’s Valley

I started the hike at Meadow Lake Rd, Tahoe National Forest Rd 86, where the PCT crosses it about 6 miles south of Tahoe National Forest Rd 07, which is a good paved road that travels west from CA-89 at Little Truckee Summit to Jackson Meadows Reservoir.  Meadow Lake Rd is a gravel road, but it is of sufficient quality that I had no trouble getting in and out in a regular passenger car (a Prius).  On the GPS track the starting point is shown as an orange dot.  The route crosses jeep roads 3 times, in addition to passing the Mt Lola Trail and crossing White Rock Creek.

GPS track

GPS track

As shown in the elevation profile the elevation gain was moderate: the range of elevations spanned only 600 feet or so, with a total of just under 2300 feet of elevation gain for the round trip.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Much of this section of the PCT passes through pretty forest, like this example view.

picture of PCT passing through Tahoe National Forest

PCT passing through Tahoe National Forest

I encountered numerous wildflowers during the hike, including at least two types of arnica, several types of buckwheat, and three species of monkeyflower, to list a few.  One of the first flowers was waxy checkerbloom (Sidalcea glaucescens). Although many of the blossoms I came across in the early part of the hike were nearly closed, this one was open, showing off the contrasting white reproductive parts.

picture of waxy checkerbloom

Waxy checkerbloom

Most of the mule’s ears (Wyethia mollis) were finished blooming for the season, but there were some clusters of plants nicely illuminated by the sun.  There were several dense cobwebs covering what appeared to be burrows for spiders that live underground.

A wildflower I found throughout the hike was sulphur buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum).  In the early part of the blooming phase the flowers are bright yellow, as shown here.  Later in the blooming phase the flowers turn to a burnt orange color, almost red or brown.

picture of sulphur buckwheat

Sulphur buckwheat

Also there was plenty of mountain, or western, pennyroyal (Monardella odoratissima), mostly past the peak blooming period.  In a few places I found scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata).  Between forested areas there were intermittent views of nearby ridges.

I was interested to find what I think is broad-scaled owl’s clover (Orthocarpus cuspidatus).  In some references this wildflower is called Copeland’s owl’s-clover.  I particularly noticed the rounded bracts, the upper ones with light pink-purple tips.  I thought this was an especially pretty plant, simultaneously robust and delicate.

picture of broad-scaled, or Copeland’s, owl’s clover

Broad-scaled, or Copeland’s, owl’s clover

Related to other types of owl’s clover are many types of paintbrush (Castilleja sp.), with two shown here.  As with Copeland’s owl’s-clover, the noticeable part of the paintbrush plant actually consist of bracts.  In some species of paintbrush, the reddish-tipped bracts are single lobed, while in others the bracts have three lobes.  The plant on the left is earlier in the growth phase, while the plant on the right is actually blooming; the light yellow-green pointed structures are the flowers.  Although these pictures may not show clearly, the bract color was definitely different between these two examples.

picture of paintbrush

Paintbrush

There were several clusters of meadow penstemon (Penstemon rydbergii), with whorls of relatively small-sized blossoms in layers up the stem of the plant.  This is a fairly common type of penstemon in the Sierras, though others are more dramatic.

picture of meadow penstemon

Meadow penstemon

In addition to sulphur buckwheat I found some white-colored buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.).  I had some trouble making an identification of this one, based on the leaf type, but I thought the flower heads were pretty when viewed up close.

picture of white buckwheat

White buckwheat

About 3 miles from the trailhead I arrived at the viewpoint mentioned above, with the spectacular view across Tom’s Valley.  Just as I was leaving this area a through hiker approached from the south and, as is my custom, I asked where he was headed.  His reply: “Canada, of course.”  Then I asked where he’d started hiking, and learned he’d started at Donner Summit, less than 15 miles away – it turned out he was just on his second day of hiking, and he was proud/amused to point out how clean he was!

Over the next 2 miles the trail makes a small dip, then climbs again to about 8000 feet elevation before descending 500 feet with a nice, comfortable 6% grade.  Near the highest point I was surprised to find some monkeyflowers.  I think this is called larger mountain monkeyflower (Mimulus tilingii), or Tiling’s monkeyflower.  The bright yellow petals are plain except for some hairs.

picture of larger mountain monkeyflower

Larger mountain monkeyflower

A short distance farther I found some fan-leaf cinquefoil (Potentilla flabellifolia).  One thing that is interesting about this picture is that the flower only has four petals!  But I have other pictures of the same plant and all of the other blossoms are 5-petaled.  I should note that some plants do characteristically have variable numbers of petals.  The details of the blossom really look like cinquefoil, especially the small structures that look like round paddles.  Note the sepals showing through in the gaps between the petals.

picture of fan-leaf cinquefoil

Fan-leaf cinquefoil

Not far away there was a pretty meadow with numerous moisture-loving plants fed by Snowbank Spring: bright yellow arnicas, lavender wandering daisies, puffy white flowers, crimson columbine (Aquilegia formosa), and big-leaf lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus), among others.  Across the trail from the meadow there was an 8500-foot elevation hill with a patch of snow.

picture of meadow near Snowbank Spring

Meadow near Snowbank Spring

During the descent mentioned above, the trail returns to forest, then emerges into clearings.  In a clearing there was a notable pair of nearly car-sized boulders.  Here I found what I think is a pale dandelion (Agoseris glaucus). A small bug paid a visit as I took pictures.

picture of pale dandelion

Pale dandelion

There is a short section of trail marked by a couple of 4×4 wooden posts etched with PCT logos.  I presume the posts are to assist with way-finding, but I didn’t have any trouble determining where the trail was supposed to go.  In this damp area there were obvious seeps along the northeast side of the trail.  There were also more monkeyflowers: first musk monkeyflower (Mimulus moschatus), with delicate dotted stripes on the lower petals.

picture of musk monkeyflower

Musk monkeyflower

There was also what I think is primrose monkeyflower (Mimulus primuloides).  The pattern of red dots on the lower petals, plus the white reproductive part, are distinctive and guided my identification.

picture of primrose monkeyflower

Primrose monkeyflower

There were more wandering daisies (Erigeron glacialis var. glacialis) and a related, more intense purple, flower.  I’m not sure if the latter is an aster, a daisy, or another similar species.

picture of wandering daisy (left) and a more intense purple aster-like flower (right)

Wandering daisy (left) and a more intense purple aster-like flower (right)

This damp area continued until the trail crossed White Rock Creek on a nicely constructed wooden bridge, about 5.3 miles from the beginning of my hike.  The creek is descending from White Rock Lake at 7800 feet elevation to North Creek, which empties into Fordyce Lake at 6400 feet elevation.  These two lakes are only about 5 miles from each other.  Barely 0.1 mile past White Rock Creek there is a trail junction with the Mt Lola Trail.  Next to this trail junction I noticed several tall alpine lily (Lilium parvum) plants near another large boulder.

picture of alpine lily

Alpine lily

Past the Mt Lola Trail junction the trail climbs again, gaining 400 feet on the way to a saddle.  Along the way the trail passes right through a nice patch of Sierra larkspur (Delphinium glaucum).  This is a relatively tall plant, about 5 feet tall, with large leaves somewhat reminiscent of maple leaves and with beautiful, tall flower spikes.

picture of Sierra larkspur

Sierra larkspur

There was miniature lupine (I’m not sure of the species) and pink Lobb’s buckwheat (Eriogonum lobbii) nearby.

At the top of the climb there was a saddle on the side of a rather bare hill, where I found some Leichtlin’s mariposa lilies (Calochortus leichtlinii).  The contrast between the white petals, dark maroon chevrons, and hairy yellow nectar glands is stunning.  I was pleasantly surprised to find these beauties still blooming in early August.

picture of Leichtlin’s mariposa lily

Leichtlin’s mariposa lily

After passing the saddle and beginning to descend again I came to one of several places where I saw Anderson’s thistle (Cirsium andersonii).  There are many types of thistle in California, and this one is notable for the nearly cylindrical shape of the bracts and flower head, essentially without bulges.  It is mainly found in the Sierras.

picture of Anderson’s thistle

Anderson’s thistle

Several minutes later I noticed a couple of butterflies flitting around the trail, so I paused to determine whether one of them would land on a flower and stay still long enough for me to get a picture.  This butterfly, later identified as a Lorquin’s admiral (Limenitis lorquini) apparently decided that my pants leg was a good place to land!  It stayed there for more than long enough for me to take pictures – the challenge was coaxing my camera to focus at that unusual distance, and I didn’t dare bend over to get close enough to use the macro setting.

picture of Lorquin’s admiral visiting my pants leg

Lorquin’s admiral visiting my pants leg

About 7.8 miles from the beginning of my hike I arrived at the junction with the jeep road to Paradise Lake, clearly marked with a rock cairn.  Since I didn’t recognize the trail junction from my 2010 hike I decided to hike a little farther, just another 0.1 mile or so.  I found a nice rock to sit down on and enjoy a lunch break.  Part of my view included some more impressive boulders among the trees.

picture of impressive boulders at my lunch spot and turnaround point

Impressive boulders at my lunch spot and turnaround point

On an out-and-back hike I enjoy re-visiting views and wildflowers I’ve already seen on the outbound leg of the hike.  I also enjoy discovering new views, since sometimes an interesting view is behind on the outbound leg and then in front on the return leg.  This is one example, approaching the saddle where I’d found Leichtlin’s mariposa lilies.  There was a wonderful view to the northwest, with an impressive tree appearing to watch over the vista.

picture of Sierra view with a tree keeping watch

Sierra view with a tree keeping watch

On the return trip I noticed fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium), common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and a type of bottle grass (Elymus sp) that reminded me of eastern bottle grass I’d seen in Wisconsin a few weeks prior.

Shortly before I reached White Rock Creek I encountered a pair of backpackers hiking southbound.  Since most long-distance hikers hike the PCT northbound, I asked them about their destination, then their starting point.  It turns out that they were on their way to Mt Whitney and had already hiked about 150 miles.  They still had quite a distance to go before they reached the beginning of the John Muir Trail in Yosemite Valley to begin the famous 215-mile-long high Sierra trail that eventually goes to Mt Whitney.  Clearly they were focusing on the high Sierras for their adventure, and their comments demonstrated that they were excited to be on the journey.

picture of hikers on their way to Mt Whitney

Hikers on their way to Mt Whitney

The remainder of my return trip was uneventful but very pleasant.  Just past the place I’d parked my car next to Forest Rd 86 there was another pretty meadow, and I spent several minutes exploring before driving home.

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This entry was posted in Nevada County, Pacific Crest Trail, Sierra County, Sierras, Tahoe National Forest, wildflower hikes and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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