The proverbial icing on the cake for my Mt Whitney hiking adventure (overview, ascent, and descent) was seeing wildflowers along the Mt Whitney Trail. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised at how many wildflowers were still in bloom in late August, especially at the higher elevations above 12,000 feet. On the other hand, I hiked much of the lower elevations (everything below 10,000 feet and one way between 10,000 and 12,000) feet in the dark – so my wildflower sightings below 10,000 feet elevation were significantly limited by the availability of daylight.
My favorite wildflower sighting was sky pilot (Polemonium eximium). I had seen a few pictures on-line of this exceptionally pretty flower and knew it grows in the alpine zone – above the tree-line – and specifically along the Mt Whitney Trail. I found this particular plant along the stretch of trail between Trail Crest and the summit, near the end of the pinnacles section at about 13,900 feet elevation. I was actually doing very well but, if I’d needed an energy boost to keep going, this beauty would have supplied it!
As discussed in more detail in my post about the ascent, my group and I were hiking in darkness until we reached Trail Camp at about 12,000 feet elevation, already about 1,000 feet above tree-line. Above Trail Camp is the famous switchback section of the Mt Whitney Trail, in which the trail climbs 1,600 feet in about 2.1 miles, traversing some 94 switchbacks. (The official number of switchbacks varies between 94 and “approximately 99”; I counted 94 on my descent.)
Not far into the switchback section I began to see my first wildflowers: cushion buckwheat (Eriogonum ovalifolium). The plant consists of a pincushion of oval-shaped, succulent, light-colored leaves with bright pink flower heads perched on top. This picture highlights a single flower head, but there are often one or two dozen flower heads on each plant.
There was also a lot of alpine mountain sorrel (Oxyria digyna) along the switchbacks. These plants typically grow practically underneath rocks, with the flower stalks reaching upward up to perhaps 12 inches in height. This picture was taken at 7:30 am, about an hour after sunrise; the shadow shows the nearly horizontal direction of the sunlight.
My next discovery – nearly all of these wildflowers were first-time sightings for me – was gray chickensage (Sphaeromeria cana), or tansy. This plant is a clump about 1.5 feet in diameter growing either from a small crack in a rock or from a tiny bit of remnant-rock soil. The flower heads are almost the same color as the surrounding granite rock and the leaves are a grayish-green color, so the plant is rather subtle in spite of its size.
A bit higher, beyond the hand rail, I found a cluster of cut-leaf daisy (Erigeron compositus). These flowers looked to be past their prime, and the information on Calflora suggests that they were late in the blooming season.
Apparently there are two “varieties” of cut-leaf daisy, the second type rayless, with only disk flowers. I found an example of this a bit higher and initially thought it was a different plant altogether. However, the leaves are identical to cut-leaf daisy. It’s possible that I’m mistaken, but these flower heads did not look like they’d ever had ray flowers.
In the upper switchback section I saw several clusters of what turned out to be sky pilot (Polemonium eximium) after completion of the flowering phase. There were some amazing clusters growing right out of cracks between the talus rocks. When I first saw this plant I thought it might be an exotic form of buckwheat (Eriogonum), even though the foliage was all wrong. Fortunately I got some good pictures, including close-ups like this one, and was able to solve the mystery once I uploaded the pictures to my computer. The foliage and the remnants of purple blossoms are key distinguishing characteristics. All of the sky pilot I saw in the switchbacks was, like this one, past the flowering phase.
It turns out that the upper section of the Mt Whitney Trail, in the 2 miles between Trail Crest and the summit and above 13,500 feet elevation, is the place to find the most spectacular high-elevation flowers. As mentioned above, this is where I found sky pilot blooming, and in fact there was quite a bit of it in the talus section above the pinnacles section around 14,000 feet elevation.
This is also where I found some beautiful, brightly-colored alpine gold (Hulsea algida). This is a high-elevation, late-season flower and it, like the sky pilot, stands out from the surrounding gray rock and seems to grow in places where life forms shouldn’t be able to survive. Also like the sky pilot, I had read about alpine gold ahead of the hike and was specifically looking for it – though it was hard to miss!
After successfully summiting Mt Whitney and taking a needed rest break, I began my descent around 1pm. The descent would take nearly 8.5 hours and end, once again, in the dark.
A short distance below Trail Camp I noticed some bright pink rock fringe (Epilobium obcordatum) that I had missed on the way up in the morning twilight. This example was at about 11,900 feet elevation. Unlike the sky pilot and alpine gold, the entire rock fringe plant and its flowers grow relatively low to the ground.
About 0.4 mile below Trail Camp the trail is built on a nice series of rock steps and crosses Lone Pine Creek. In this relatively moist area there was some larger mountain monkeyflower (Mimulus tilingii), or Tiling’s monkeyflower. Since we were literally stepping over the plants I had noticed them in the twilight of the ascent and had mentally bookmarked them for photos on the descent. They were growing literally in the cracks of the stone steps.
About 0.1 mile below Trailside Meadow – a beautiful high-elevation (11,400 feet) hillside meadow – there was some crimson columbine (Aquilegia formosa) growing right next to the trail, not far from another trail-crossing of Lone Pine Creek. This was not a first-time sighting, but columbines are so pretty that it was a delight to see.
Below Mirror Lake and approaching Outpost Camp we passed some Arizona thistle (Cirsium arizonicum). According to Calflora this type of thistle is only found at relatively high elevations in the southern Sierras and in the White Mountains just east of the Owens Valley.
Approaching Outpost Camp I found a cluster of monardella at 10,450 feet elevation. I have had a challenge with this identification. On the one hand, pennyroyal (Monardella odoratissima) is quite common in the Sierras, especially in dry areas at low-to-mid elevation (below 10,000 feet). On the other hand, sweet-smelling monardella (Monardella beneolens) occurs at slightly higher elevations (2,500-3,600 meters, or 8,250-11,900 feet) and is less associated with dry habitat. I found this cluster right next to another Lone Pine Creek crossing in a moist habitat. Also, sweet-smelling monardella has wavy-edged and moderately triangular leaves and, if I look closely at my photo, these plants appear to show this characteristic. Notably, sweet-smelling monardella is considered rare, threatened, or endangered due to limited range – but it has been observed along the Mt Whitney Trail. So my tentative identification is sweet-smelling monardella.
I found the monardella about 1/2 hour before dark and, as it turns out, it was the last daylight wildflower sighting of the day even though we were still 4 miles from the Whitney Portal trailhead. It would certainly be interesting to return to the area some other time – in the daylight! – to explore and to enjoy other spring- and summer-season wildflowers.