Monday, October 14, 2019

Embracing Alpine Summer: Hiking Round Top and Winnemucca Lakes Loop Trail

A blooming slope uphill of the Winnemucca Lake Trail

Date: August 10, 2019
Place: Mokelumne Wilderness, Markleeville, California
Coordinates: 38.685059, -120.009478
Length: about 5 miles
Level: Strenuous

This year isn't over yet but I already have my top favorite hike of 2019, and that's the hike I did with my family and a couple of visiting friends at Mokelumne Wilderness last August. Our friends asked us to take them for a good sturdy hike with a lot of pretty nature to see. I figured that any hike in the High Sierra would deliver the goods but even I was surprised at how beautiful this place was, and we were there at the perfect time too.
Our hike as captured by my GPS
We started at the Woods Lake Picnic Area. Our first challenge was to find parking - the place was very busy that nice Saturday. I think we found the last two spots available and, after some getting ready time we started up the trail.
Going up the round Top Trail
 I had my eye on this trail for some time now, and I was happy for the opportunity. Having spent a good amount of time in the mountains before that, including a five-days backpacking trip in Yosemite, I was acclimated to the altitude and racing forward. Before long I had to stop and adjust my pace to the others, who were huffing and puffing below.
Acer Galls 
Before long I didn't need to remind myself to slow down - the numerous wildflowers that bloomed along the trail did a good job of holding me back.
Mountain Pretty Face, Triteleia ixioides sap. anilina 
A few years ago I camped with my family and friends at Woods Lake and planned to hike up to Winnemucca Lake. The chikas were much younger at the time and our friends weren't enthusiastic about going on a strenuous mountain hike so I had to put this trail on hold. But its time has come and now I was enjoying every step of the way.
Alpine Paintbrush, Castilleja pilosa
The trail led us up on a fairly steep ascend. There were switchbacks but big sections of the trail were fairly steep and slippery with gravel. Even so, we had very few pauses. A quick sip of water, a few deep breaths, and on we went.

Large granite boulders dotted the mountain slope. The boulders had flat surfaces and sharp angles, unlike the smooth rocks of Yosemite's high country. While some of these boulders were clearly formed by recent breaks, most had been formed and placed where they were for some time now, enough time to have their cracks filled with soil and grow vegetation.
Brewer's Cliff Brake, Pellaea breweri
We were walking at a fairly quick pace, gaining altitude with each step. Every now and then I paused to look around an appreciate the view of the mountains around. Not the awe-striking glacier-chiseled granite slabs, but soft and round, forest clad mountains with the occasional peak peeking above the tree line.
This nice peak in the photo below was visible throughout a large part of our hike, making a great reference point.
Red Lake Peak
We stopped for a short refresher that extended to a somewhat longer one when Pappa Quail spotted a woodpecker in the trees. He was very excited about that one - it was the first time he had seen the Williamson's woodpecker.
Williamson's Sapsucker
August already, but the creeks were flowing, fed by the heavy snow pack that the mountains were blessed with last winter.

I knew we were really making altitude when I saw the phlox cushions between the rocks and boulders. These alpine flowers are always a happy sight for me to see.
Spreading Phlox, Phlox diffusa
One of the plants there caught my attention. It wasn't one of the magnificent, colorful wildflowers. Rather, it was a small, spreading shrub with tiny, white flowers. A knotweed. I liked the delicate little flowers and spent good time looking closely at the knotweed shrubs and the insects that visited its bloom. It was only after downloading my photos at home that I realized how many photos I took of just this species.
Davis Knotweed, Aconogonon davisiae
On we went, up and up. If at first we were struggling for air, now we have settled into a convenient pace. Large clouds crossed the sky at an astonishing speed shifting sun and shade patches on our trail.

We arrived at a patch of trees and decided to pause for a short break. We saw there the rusted remains of an old vehicle and a covered digging. I speculated that it might have been and old speculation but had no one to ask for a verification.
Old History
Meanwhile, Pappa Quail found a bird.
Clark's Nutcracker
The day was windy and cool. We kept warm while on the move but each time we stopped the chill forced us to don our sweaters. After starting on again we would pause in turn after a few minutes to take the sweaters off.
Mountain Gooseberry, Ribes montigenum
At least while we were in the trees the wind was down. Under the cover of the forest we had our first big  break, snacking and chatting, and estimating how long we have to walk before reaching Round Top Lake. So far the hike was nice, but not unusual for me. Our friends however, which came from overseas, were really impressed. Before long, the would be mindblown as would all of us, including me.

We reached snow. Little snow patches at first, then larger ones. At the first one we stopped for some time so the chikas and our friends could touch and enjoy the cool snow a little bit. I was more focused on the plants that were blooming in the area that the snow-melt water had soaked.
Alpine Shooting Star, Primula tetrandra 
We broke through the trees and walked into a gorgeous alpine meadow that was lush green and dotted with wildflowers. While crossing this pretty meadow the trail was level, and we had a chance to catch our breath.

I was delighted to see the splendor of the bloom and so was my friend who kept pointing them out for me to photograph. It was very rewarding to see the wide smile on her face. I presume I wore a similar expression of giddiness.
Alpine Prairie Dandelion, Nothocalais alpestris
We met a few people on their way down the trail. The warned us that it was very cold up there by the lakes and that the wind was really strong. They also encouraged us, saying it was really beautiful up there.
A large snow field gave a silent testimony of the anticipated coldness. At that point however, we were enjoying a sunny moment and the wind protection that the slopes surrounding the meadow gave us.  Either way, we weren't about to turn around. Be as it will, we were heading forward.

I've seen many pretty wildflowers in that little alpine meadow, the first patch of big bloom we encountered on that hike. For nearly all of these I got better photos later on. Right by the trail however, a flax plant was begging for closer attention, and I happily obliged.
Lewis's Flax, Linum lewisii 
The most common bloom in that meadow was of the big leaf lupine, but I couldn't get a good wide shot of the lupine field. I did however, get a nice view of the slope as we were ascending from the meadow. The slope was covered by low shrubs of lupine of a different species, all in full bloom.

In the gravel near the trail bloomed in bright yellow little shrubs of the aster family. I had never seen this one in bloom before and I was happy to add it to my life list of California wildflowers.
Heath Goldenrod, Ericameria suffruticosa
We exited the meadow and continued on a milder slope up toward Round Top Lake. The wind picked up and I had to hold on to my hat. I saw the others huddle too, and one of my friends pulling down his wool hat over his ears. The clouds seemed bigger and darker, and each time one of them blocked the sun I wondered if we would get rained on.
Every now and then I'd turn around and look behind me. Like Lott's wife, I would stand motionless, in full admiration.
View north from Round Top Trail
Eventually, however, I had to tear my eyes from the back view and go on. It helped that the view forward was just as beautiful, and that there were plenty of wildflowers everywhere.
Sierra Beardtongue, Penstemon heterodoxus
In the past I would probably ignore plants that appeared too modest but the time I had spent observing and learning developed my sense of appreciation to the small and inconspicuous wildflowers. Sometimes I would be rewarded by seeing a rarer species too.
Sierra Saxifrage, Micranthes aprica
Small birds chirped and hopped among the granite rocks. There were quite a few of them, of several species. Pappa Quail and the elder chika had made their pauses to capture some of them on camera.
Purple Finch, female
We arrived at Round Top Lake. It was a small lake, full to the brim with snow melt water and belted with a grayish-green impassable willow thicket. Where the trail met the lake was a group of large pine trees. The chikas wanted to stop and cook lunch there but just as the hikers we met earlier had told us - the wind was very strong and we got very cold very quickly. We decided therefore, to go on and find a wind-protected place to cook lunch.
Round Top Lake 
As we turned from the lake and headed to the trail leading to Lake Winnemucca I caught a glimpse of a tent pitched in the far side of the pine grove. I felt mixed feelings stirring in side me. I was envious of that fellow, all alone in the wilderness enjoying the splendor of Nature, but then again, camping in such a strong wind is no fun at all.
I huddled inside my sweater and quickened my gait, following the others up the trail.
Mountain Monardella, Monardella onoratissima
The next phase of our hike was focused on finding a suitable shelter from the wind where we could have our lunch break. The chikas kept running between large boulders and pine stands, testing putative locations. I regretted not having my gloves with me because my fingers were getting stifff with chill. At lease the wildflowers scene was very hear warming.
Sierra Arnica, Arnica nevadensis 
there were happy colors all around us, and we did get some sunshine every now and then, which helped us keep high spirits.
Woolly Mule's Ears, Wyethia mollis 
I followed the chikas to one pine grove where they said we could have our break. The small pines were very beautiful, but didn't provide much protection.

As I prodded back to the main trail I noticed a small patch of larkspur and paused to appreciate them. When I straitened up, everyone else was already over the ridge.

Few-flowered Larkspur, Delphinium depauperatum 
When I got up and over the ridge (which at 8,129 ft was the highest altitude point of our hike) I once again had to stop and take it all in: the awe-inspiring view of the roof of the world. Lake Winnemucca nestled between snow-patched peaks, like a blue jewel framed in exotic tapestry.
Winnemucca Lake 
All the others in our little group were far below me. I started jogging down, trying to catch u with them, but soon paused once more. for wildflowers.
Hoary Aster, Dieteria canescens var. canescens 
While most alpine plants I've seen there on the ridge were low and flat, the monument plant, true to its name, stood tall and erect against the vicious wind.  I took a gazillion and one close up photos of its magnificent flowers but eventually I chose to post here an image of the entire plant. It really is a big eye-candy.
Monument Plant, Frasera speciosa 
Another shrub that was very common there was of a genus I only recently got acquainted with, on our 4th of July trip to Washington State. Of course this one was the Californian species of valerian, but it was that family resemblance that warmed me up, like meeting again a far away friend.
California Valerian, Valeriana californica 
Another cutie that bloomed all over that ridge seemed familiar to me - I've encountered it on my backpacking trip in Yosemite the week before, and on previous hikes in the High Sierra. This time however, I took a closer notice of it. It was just before its peak bloom and very beautiful.
Alpine Ivesia, Ivesia gordonii 
And the very familiar and impressive mountain pride, here sharing the rock crack with the modest-looking knotweed.
Mountain Pride, Penstemon newberryi 
I was able to catch up promptly with the rest of my family because Pappa Quail and the elder chika were watching a group of mountain bluebirds. The birds kept teasing them - popping in and out of view and maintaining a constant, almost too far, distance.
Mountain Bluebird
Almost down by the lake the chikas found a suitable place for lunch break. Hidden in a nook between boulders and pine trees we found a relatively protected are where I could operate my backpacking stove and cook the offspring hot lunch, while everyone else settled for sandwiches or other dry snacks. And we all enjoyed a good, long break that at that time was well needed.
Winnemucca Lake
After a good long rest stop we got up and continued downhill to Winnemcca Lake. A large group of hikers came from above us and passed us, marching past the lake without stopping. We took it slowly, enjoying the sights. I stepped off trail to sink my hand in the snow. The snow looked pretty white from afar, but u close it was pink with algae growth.
Old Snow
The snow melt water drenched the trail, rendering it muddy for a good long segment. Not too far from the receding snow line the muddy ground was covered with a green mat of something that looked awfully familiar to me but I couldn't quite place it. At home I found that this was snow willow. In my mind a willow is a tree or a bush, but snow willow is a spreading, very low plant, well adapted to the alpine conditions.
While sifting through these photos I realized that this was the plant I had photographed in a tiny melted are of the snow covered mcCabe Pass just a week before, in Yosemite. That one was at a much earlier stage of budding but it was still astonishing how quickly this plant goes into boom once the snow cover is removed. Now willow indeed!
Snow Willow, Salix nivalis
Another wildflower that I've seen in big numbers in Yosemite's High Sierra on the week prior was the Leichtlin's mariposa lily. I have taken many photos of it there but that didn't stop me from taking many more photos of it on this trail as well. I always love to see mariposa lilies.
Leichtsinn Mariposa Lily, Calochortus leichtlinii 
We were walking eastward, descending to Winnemucca Lake. I looked over to the north into the gulch where we would later walk through on our way back to Woods Lake. It looked green and lush, and shaded. From this far I couldn't see what was waiting for us there. I was therefore, completely surprised when I did.
Red Lake Peak
Hints of what was ahead were already everywhere. Down near the lake where most of the snow had long melted away the shrubs were racing to peak bloom and the annuals following them closely.
Ciliate lungwort, Mertensia ciliata (the hanging-down flowers), together with Big Red paintbrush (Castilleja miniature) and Broadleaf Lupine (Lupinus latifolius). 
All of us, even the avid birders in our company, were audibly excited about the splendor all around. Looking at each plant, taking many photos in many compositions and different angles, and forgetting the chilly wind that kept whipping at us.
California Cornlily, Veratrum californicum var. californicum, together with Broadleaf Lupine, Lupinus latifolius.  
Not all of the colors were of floral origin., and not only plants were rushing to get their next generation going in the short alpine summer. The leaf of the creek willows had many of these red galls where little midges lay their eggs and their larvae grow protected from predators.
Willow gall
But the flowers! Oh, the flowers! And this was just the review!
Nature's Bouquet: Paintbrush (red), Lupine (blue), Groundsel (yellow), and Cornlily (white). And 50 shades of green. 
We didn't stop at the lake. The ground was too muddy and the wind too strong. We took in the view, waved goodbye, and moved on, turning to the trail down into the northbound gulch.
Lake Winnemucca
Pappa Quail and I did walk briefly down to the lake shore. He was scouting the water for ducks and I admired the pretty rhododendrons that bloomed down there, like those I've seen in Yosemite earlier.
Western Labrador Tea, Rhododendron columbianum

The creek draining the lake (for which I didn't find the name) was swollen with snow melt water and we crossed it balanced on two logs that were conveniently placed across. We still had to walk in the mud for some distance before we were once again on dry earth. The soil there dries out really fast, leaving the plants there thirsty soon after the snow thaws. That adds to the speed in which the alpine plants need to complete their reproductive cycle. Alpine summers can be very short.

Turning the corner, the lake behind me, I looked down on the slope and gaped. It took me a long while to recover my speech, and when I did, I couldn't hold it back. The photos I must say, don't do any justice to what we've seen there.
A blooming slope uphill of the Winnemucca Lake Trail
The winter of 2018-2019 was good in California. The rains did start late, too late for the November wildfires, but once started, precipitation came down heavy throughout the state, officially ending the longest drought period in post Gold Rush California. The following spring vast areas in California responded in super bloom. Fields upon fields of wildflowers matted California's meadows and hills, and the poppy fields of Southern California were so bright they were visible from space.
And I missed all that.
Bound by a tight work and school schedule, I remained at home, drooling over super bloom photos streaming through my feed while everyone else (or so it seemed to me at the time) was out and about, glorifying in endless carpets of colors (mostly orange).  Not that I didn't get out at all - I did catch some very nice bloom in the Gold Country and some other places, but not the big boom bloom I desired.
And here I was, staring down a long slope just below Lake Winnemucca, and before me was the most glorious spread of wildflowers I have ever seen in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Unlike the poppy carpets of orange, this slope was artfully quilted with many blooming species of many colors and hues.
Lake Winnemucca Trail
The snow pack of the Sierra Nevada was thick, and lasted long into spring and early summer. It is possible that had it been a shorter winter we would have arrived just in time to see the end of this magnificent bloom. As it was, it wasn't even at its peak. I saw no fruit and many young buds were ready to burst open near the mature blossoms.

Sweet fragrance was in the air, and I inhaled deeply. Little by little, I returned from my ethereal reverie and started looking at individual wildflowers as well.
Here too, there were those flowers I've been seeing for the first time.
Narrow Tube Ipomopsis, Ipomopsis tenuituba

And also very familiar wildflowers, like the crimson columbine which Pappa Quail captured with the hummingbird that was his primary target.
Allen's Hummingbird, female on Crimson Columbine, Aquilegia formosa 
While many plant species were blooming on that slope, a large part of them (I'd carefully estimate more than a half) were of the genus Castilleja - paintbrush plants of at least two, possibly more, species.
Castilleja pilosa (the yellow) and Castilleja miniata (the red)
The passing clouds made it difficult to capture the intensity of these colors and I tried not to manipulate the photos much, leaving them as close as I could to the natural image I've seen.
Winnemucca Lake Trail 
I enjoyed the brief periods of time when the clouds moved away and the sun broke through, illuminating the slopes and warming us.
We moved slowly down the trail. Although walking downhill, none of us wanted to hurry back. I could see everyone grinning, embracing the magnificent sights into their souls.
A blooming slope uphill of the Winnemucca Lake Trail
Paintbrush, lupine, and monument plants made the majority of the colorful bloom, complemented by the silvery green of the Artemisia shrubs. But there were many other wildflowers blooming there, some small and visible only when standing right over them.
Monkeyflower, Erythranthe 
Then, just as I thought I've seen all there was to see on that slope I spotted the unmistakable she of an orchid. Although small and green, an orchid is nonetheless royalty.
Bog Orchid, Platanthera sparsiflora 
A few backpackers were making their way uphill and I looked at them longingly. As slow as we walked we made progress still, and soon we would be back in the woods and out of the open slope of many colors. Now I was looking up at the mountainside, already sorry to be leaving it behind me.  
A blooming slope uphill of the Winnemucca Lake Trail
The steep trail leveled just before dropping below the tree line. In perfect timing the sun came out again, allowing us a last illuminated view of the rich quilt of Nature.
I felt as if I was floating when I entered the forest, and no longer felt any self pity for missing the spring super bloom. I finally caught up with it, in August, at this amazing trail of the High Sierra.
Lake Winnemucca Trail
One inside the forest our pace got much quicker. We felt as if everything that was worth seeing was behind us.
Lake Winnemucca Trail
That was not true, of course. The forest was very pretty too and the forest floor, although not like the carpets of the higher slope, also displayed a very nice bloom.
Cinquefoil, Drymocallis sp. 
But the best part of being back in the woods was that once again we were protected from the wind. It was getting late in the afternoon though, and still pretty cold.
It was my friend who found the tiger lily near the flowing creek and waited for me to show me. A very nice find it was, because the lies there were also before their peak bloom and had perfect flowers with intense color still.
Sierra Tiger Lily, Lilium parvum 

It was easy to miss the onion though, but I have been looking for it and very happy to find it. It's a low plant and although colorful, it blends all too well in the background of the forest floor.
Dusky Onion, Allium campanulatum 
The trail ended all too soon for me. We arrived at the creek crossing right by the Woods Lake campground. My family stormed on across the bridge, the chikas eager to get back to the car and everyone else ready to call it a day. I lingered behind briefly, breathing in the forest one last time before heading across the bridge.
What a hike that was!

At home I found that Pappa Quail didn't rush all the way to the car without stopping. He came across a squirrel, one of several we saw that day.
Golden-mantled Squirrel
Back in the car my friend became pensive and quiet. When I prodded she said that we had more than a week long trip ahead of us, but she cannot imagine any hike to top this one. I nodded. This hike was certainly one of the best I've had, one that more than compensated me for missing out on this year's big spring super bloom. 

Many thanks to Dean Wm Taylor and other members of the California Native Plants Society for their great help in identifying plants!


  1. What a wonderful hike! Other than the views, the hummingbird and the flowers boom , the Alpine Shooting Star and the Leichtlin's mariposa lily are amazing. The monument plant is very impressive

    1. Yes! It was a perfect hike for my taste and very rewarding on so many levels! I was happy to have had the chance to see the alpine super bloom!