Wildflower season in Tahoe changes weekly, sometimes daily, with flowers flourishing one day at lake level, moving to flourish in higher elevations the following week. Meanwhile, new colors emerge to take over at the lower elevations for a brief time.
June and early July are prime wildflower viewing times around Lake Tahoe, with most blooms moving to higher – and cooler – locations by mid July. The Ward Creek section of the Tahoe Rim Trail leading to Twin Peaks offers a great variety of wildflowers at every elevation. Hikers may make the steep climb to Twin Peaks, head to McCloud Falls for a moderate hike or enjoy the summer colors along the relatively flat section that runs along Ward Creek.
I embarked on the trail on a recent Sunday morning from the trailhead at Ward Creek Boulevard with my sister, Michelle Allen, my nephew, Anikin Allen, and our friend, Alanna Misico, along with our canine pals Rusty and Sierra.
The trails begins along an old road through mixed Jeffery pine forest filled with White firs, Lodgepole pines and aspens running along the edge of Ward Creek. We hadn’t gone far before the brilliant colors of the season’s wildflowers caught our attention and Alanna and I were snapping photos. In fact, I took about 100 photos on the hike, stopping every few minutes to marvel at the flowers from the brilliant red of the protected snow plant that has an alien-look about it to the delicate pinks and white of Pussy Paws. Enjoy the walk through this watershed and stop and take in the beauty of the flowers; keep your eyes on the forest floor, as well, as many of Tahoe’s wildflowers are miniatures. We saw about 40 varieties of wildflowers on our hike.
As you travel on the trail, you’ll notice split-rail fences along the edge of the forest. This is part of the restoration work that’s been done along Ward Creek to restore the fisheries, as well as to repair damage to the 2,510-acre watershed, which feeds into Lake Tahoe.
The North and South Bowls of Ward Creek were formed by glaciers grinding away volcanic rock, making the canyon geologically unique in the basin because of the Andesite. The volcanic materials at the headwaters of Ward Creek weather away into small particles that are easily eroded and eventually flow into the lake. As well, the canyon has a long history of logging and sheep and cattle grazing dating back to 1870 that continued through the early 1900s, which eroded much of the land letting sediment flow into Ward Creek and then into Lake Tahoe.
The trail crosses sections of Ward Creek several times allowing for drinking water for the dogs as it slowly climbs until you reach Ward Creek bridge at a little more than 2 miles from the trailhead. Here, the creek is flowing fast and is not accessible from the steep hillside. Take the time to enjoy the small waterfalls along the creek surrounding by lush flora and fauna as you climb into riparian forests; it’s amazing through this section to McCloud Falls.
You’ll begin a series of gentle switchbacks on single track for an easy to moderate climb to the falls. It’s a little more than a mile to the falls, and the scenery is breathtaking. Glimpses of Ward Peak are now in view with some patches of snow still near the top of the canyon, Ward Creek is on the north side of the trail down a steep hillside with its rushing waters making for a soothing sound paired with the wind gently blowing through the dense aspen forests. Corn lilies and Large Leaf Lupine filled large swathes of the mountainside as they were just preparing to bloom during our visit, and most were waist-high. Keep your ears open through this section, as well, as mountain bikers are often traveling rather fast on the downhill.
Before long, you’ll reach the 30-foot tall McCloud Falls and its time to sit down, enjoy a snack and take in the scenery with views of Ward Peak and some of the lifts on the backside of Alpine Meadows. The falls descend into a deep ravine, so you won’t be able to jump into the water; you’ll have to wait until you’re nearly back to the trailhead to enjoy a dip into Ward Creek.
This is where we ended our hike for the day, but you can continue on the trial for about another mile to Twin Peaks through a series of steep switchbacks.
To reach the Ward Creek trailhead, take Highway 89 along the West Shore and turn onto Pineland Drive. Follow the road onto Twinpeaks Drive and to Ward Peak Boulevard.
Ward Creek to McCloud Falls
Easy to moderate