Round Top Botanical Area | Discovering Botanical ‘Gold’

In January of 1830, Kit Carson stood near the area we recognize today as Carson Pass. He was followed in the 1850s by a flood of gold seekers traveling through the area. Today thousands of visitors come from near and far to this special place in the Eldorado National Forest in pursuit of a different kind of natural resource. Rather than the luster of gold, they seek the vibrancy of a spectacular wildflower display that comes into its own each July when a long, harsh winter gives way to an all too brief spring and summer.

For thousands of years the wildflowers have been blooming seasonally in the Round Top Botanical Area. Different soil types combine with varying elevations, exposures, and snow depths to produce an impressive collection of plant life in this special area at the junction of three botanical provinces. Whether it is the wildflower season or not, there is a fascinating world of plants to discover here. To protect the delicate balance of the area, it is important to follow the guidelines on the reverse side. There you will also find a map introducing you to the area and its trails. Welcome to the Round Top Botanical Area!

The trail from Frog Lake to Round Top Peak leads you through a breathtaking wildflower display that is like a celebration of the plants’ short growing season. These plants live in an area where, most of the year, the ground is covered with snow and temperatures hover below freezing. To survive these challenging conditions, many of the plants have developed roots with large food storage capacities. Plants reflect changes in the environment. Each has adapted to its particular area. Follow with us as we explore the various habitats that make up the botanical area and discover how they determine the plant life found there.

To see samples of the wildflowers noted here, go to the Round Top Area Wildflowers Page.

Enter the Red Fir Forest . . .

In the areas around Carson Pass and Woods Lake you enter the cool red fir forest. You may know these trees as silvertips. Notice their furrowed red bark and springy needles. This shady environment is home to plants that lack chlorophyll (green color). They depend on soil fungi for nutrition and have names like snow plant and pine-drops. Look for the phantom orchid with its pure white stems and flowers.

Sagebrush Communities

Hiking in the sagebrush scrub on the volcanic ridges beyond Frog Lake is like a hike back in time. Many of the plants found growing here originated in the desert environment found east of the Sierra in the Great Basin. They are drought tolerant and thrive on dry, sandy soils. As geologic forces raised the Sierra Nevada more than 10,000 feet over the past sixty million years, these plants were separated from their typical habitat. Sagebrush and western juniper are two such plants commonly seen throughout the area. Another is mule ears, which has survived because of its ability to dominate any available water by suppressing nearby plants.

Meadow Splendor

Melting winter snows supply the botanical area’s alpine meadows with an abundance of moisture. The rich assortment of plant life here provides a painter’s palette of color during the blooming season. Blues of the western blue flag iris, larkspur, and lupines are interspersed with giant red paintbrush, pink elephants heads in two varieties, and green gentians towering at the meadows’ edges.

Winnemucca Lake Diversity

Consider the elements surrounding you at Winnemucca Lake. The shade, rocks, and wet areas support many species from the heath family, such as huckleberry and red mountain heather. White heather, with its bell-shaped flowers, thrives in the environment provided by sunny rock ledges. You will see the bright pink spikes of the mountain rock rose growing alongside the fuzzy, low growing willows and the shimmering aspen trees. Many wildflower enthusiasts come here just to enjoy the Sierra primrose. This magenta flower grows in areas where snowmelt is trapped by rock outcrops.

Subalpine Exposures

Beyond Winnemucca Lake the plants are influenced by extreme exposure to wind, sun, and cold. This harsh environment can reduce the vegetation to shrub height. Notice how the whitebark pines that dominate the exposed slopes have been twisted and gnarled by the severe winds. An array of hardy perennials including rabbitbrush, buckwheat, and phlox have also adapted to this rocky landscape. Western white pine, mountain hemlock, and lodgepole pine are found in the more sheltered areas.

Rugged Alpine Landscapes

The wild and harsh environment of the alpine region is evident in the shortness of the plants growing here. Found only in the highest parts of the botanical area, this rugged plant community survives the fierce wind and freezing temperatures that occur, not only in winter, but throughout the growing season. Vegetation takes the form of low growing, thick leaved cushion plants. Look for phlox, cushion buckwheat, and penstemon in addition to a variety of colorful lichen dotting the bleak terrain.

Much of the Round Top Botanical Area lies within the Mokelumne Wilderness. You can protect this fragile environment by practicing these no trace skills:

  • Pack out what you pack in.
  • Tread lightly and stay on the trails.
  • Take photos instead of flowers; leave the flowers for the next visitor to enjoy.
  • Limit your group size to no more than fifteen people.
  • Camp outside the botanical area if you intend to have a campfire. Permits are required for overnight camping in the Mokelumne Wilderness.
  • Keep your pet on a leash.
  • Camp at least 100 feet from all lakes and streams in the wilderness.
  • Keep pack animal feed containerized to avoid the introduction of non-native plants within the botanical area.

The Round Top area is also designated as a geologic special interest area because of the diverse and unique geologic history found here. For additional information about these and other areas of particular interest in the Eldorado National Forest, please contact the Eldorado Information Center at (916) 644-6048. With the assistance of botanists and other resource specialists, the USDA Forest Service manages our national forests for many uses.