Flora of the PCT: NorCal Wildflowers Part I

At the end of our trip in San Francisco we were faced with the difficult decision of going through the Sierras or skipping ahead to less treacherous trail. While the choice to interrupt our continuous thru hike was not an easy one, the potential of continuing to see more wildflowers eased the pain. And boy have we seen wildflowers!  

Meadow of mule’s ear in Lassen Volcanic National Park

But first we started at Echo Lake near South Lake Tahoe where there was still a lot of snow. Who’d a thought a place famous for skiing would have so much snow…

A small section of exposed trail before Donner Pass

Recently melted saddles are where we saw most wildflowers in the 63 miles from Echo Lake to Donner Pass. One of the biggest bloomers and most recognizable being broadstem onion (Allium platycaule). 

Broadstem onion

This member of the onion family is native to northeastern California, south and central Oregon and northwest Nevada. Named for its thin and strongly flattened scape. 

Another common flower in these areas was California valerian (Valeriana californica). 

California valerian

Not to be confused with common valerian (Valeriana officinalis) used in valerian root herbal supplements. It is native to the same regions as broadstem onion, often favoring a little more shade. 

More of a sun lover, and anexciting new plant for me, was the longhorn steer’s-head (Dicentra uniflora). 

Longhorn steer’s-head

Had I known that’s what the flower was, I would have taken this picture from the opposite angle to really show the steer’s head…but hindsight’s a bitch. This dwarf perennial is related to the common garden plant, bleeding heart. It is one of the first flowers to bloom after snow melt and can be quite difficult to spot. 

We haven’t seen much of the aforementioned plants since jumping ahead, but one that has remained common is woolly mule’s ear (Wyethia mollis). 

Woolly mule’s ear

Named for he woolly hairs on its leaves, this member of the aster family is found on east facing slopes of the Sierra Nevada. It thrives in volcanic soils thanks to its deep roots. The seeds are edible and said to taste similar to sunflower. 

Another common, but much less showy flower has been one-seeded pussypaws (Cistanthe monospermum). 

One-seeded pussypaws

It is native to western North American from Oregon to Baja California. Grows in various habitats, from forest to rocky talus in April-September. 

After too much snow and not enough flowers we jumped ahead again to Chester, CA.  This beautiful snow free stretch of coniferous forest could not have been more uplifting.  It was full of flowers, many related to plants commonly found in Midwest gardens like this western columbine (Aquilegia formosa). 

Western columbine

Native to much of the western United States, this flower is attractive to hummingbirds and sphinx moths.  Flowers are are edible with a sweet taste. Seeds and most other parts of the plant can be leathal due to the presence of cyanogenic glycosides. When chewed these enzymes break down into hydrogen cyanide, so beware!

In the same genus as longhorn steer’s-head and another common garden relative is pacific bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa). 

Pacific bleeding heart

Native to the pacific coast (as you might infer from the name) this is another plant that’s attractive to hummingbirds and a food source for butterfly larvae. It blooms in the spring, goes dormant during summer heat reemerging to bloom again in fall. 

Like in the desert, there continue to be various species of lupine, many too tedious to identify. But there have been two that we’re distinct enough to identify: narrowflower lupine (Lupinus angustiflora) and saffron-flowered lupine (Lupinus croceus). 

Narrowflower lupine

Endemic to volcanic soils of Northern California, narrowflower lupine is tall and slender with a deep red stem.  The saffron-flowered lupine is also endemic to Northern California growing in dry, rocky habitats. 

Saffron-flowered lupine

Both species of lupine are extremely dangerous if ingested. 

Another recognizable wildflower loved by monarch butterflies is heartleaf milkweed (Asclepias cordifolia). 

Heartleaf milkweed

This species of milkweed is found in Northern California, southern Oregon and Nevada and is named for its milky sap and heart shaped leaves. The sap contains alkaloids that caterpillars ingest and continues to make them unpalatable to predators into adulthood. Miwok Native Americans used to dry the stem of these milkweed and process them into cordage. 

Milkweed is a member of the dogbane family. The term is suspected to have originated from its use on dog bites.  Characteristics of this family include oppositely arranged leaves and the milky or latex sap. Both are characteristic of spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium). 

Spreading dogbane

Spreading dogbane is native to most of the United States. It’s interior flower parts are lined with barbs, making it common to see small dead insects hanging from the proboscus, or mouth parts. 

Another member of the dogbane family, but much less common is Sacramento waxydogbane (Cycladenia humilis). 

Sacramento waxydogbane

This species is found scattered at high elevations. A subspecies of it, Jones waxydogbane, is listed as a threatened species. 

Mountain beebalm (Monardella odoratissima) remained common through this section and showed great variety in coloration. 

Mountain beebalm, white variety
Another member of the mint family that has been quite common is nettleleaf horsemint (Agastache urticifolia). 
Nettleleaf horsemint

Both species of mint are attractive to butterflies. Nettleleaf horsemint can make good forage for sheep, deer and elk while also having seeds edible for human consumption. 
Grand collomia (Collomia grandifolia), a member of the phlox family,  has become a common garden plant in the west. It readily self seeds and will take over under moist conditions. 

Grand collomia

This species of phlox is attractive to bees, butterflies and hummingbirds and found in variable habitats.  This specimen was found in partly shaded coniferous forest. 

Another species fond of partially shaded forest is diamond or forest clarkia (Clarkia rhomboidea). 

Diamond clarkia

This is a small species of Clarkia not exceeding a meter in height. It is native to western North America and common in forest and woodland habitats.  

Native to the same parts of North America, but more variable habitat, such as sagebrush chaparral, is the sagebrush mariposa lily (Calochortus macrocarpus). 

Sagebrush mariposa lily

Traditionally, First Peoples of southern British Columbia harvested these bulbs from April to June. They can be eaten raw or cooked. 

Two other wildflowers found in sagebrush chaparral, are rough eyelashweed (Blepharipappus scaber) and bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus). 

Rough eyelashweed
Bachelor’s button
While rough eyelashweed is native to California, bachelor’s button is native to Europe. It has been naturalized in much of North America and is considered a contaminant in seed crop mixes.  These flowers were discovered in King Tutankhamen’s tomb woven into wreath on top. 

Next we entered the Shasta Trinity National Forest.  This was a beautiful stretch of trail, dense old growth forest with some amazing talus, rocky area that gave way to views of Mount Shasta. One of the most prolific and drought tolerant bloomers we saw in these rocky, exposed areas was scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata). 

Scarlet gilia

This flower is a biennial, meaning its first year of growth is just a basal rosette of leaves followed by stalks and blooming flowers the second year. Another plant that’s incredibly variable in its native range from the Rockies west, it is well adapted to herbivory from elk and mule deer. It is a favorite of hummingbirds, sphinx moths and long tounged bees. 

Another flower that is endemic to California is the sierra iris (Iris hartwegii). 

Sierra iris

This iris was common in some of the more exposed stretches on low elevation slopes. 

Though the yellowleaf iris (Iris chrysophylla) is not endemic to California, it ican be found in Northern California and southern Oregon.  

Yellowleaf iris
This iris is most commonly found in open coniferous forests. It is easily distinguished from the sierra iris by the deep purple veining on the petals. 

Another plant with many edible parts is fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium). Young leaves and shoots can be eaten raw or cooked while the root requires much cooking. 


The name stems from its ability to recolonize areas after fire. It’s rhizomatous root system allows it to grow in large colonies. Seeds of fireweed are wind dispersed allowing them to travel great distances. 

Thriving in disturbed areas and another rapid colonizer after fire is blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum). 

Blue dicks

Like many wildflowers, seeds of blue dicks will remain  dormant in the soil for decades until conditions are favorable for growth. 

Growing in large colonies in burn areas is beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax). 


Native to the western United States, beargrass is found in subalpine meadows and coastal mountains. It’s rhizomes are capable of surviving fire when other plants at the surface burn. 

Found in damp, grassy regions of the Great Basin is meadow penstemon (Penstemon rydbergii). 

Meadow penstemon

One of the most widespread species of penstemon, this species is adapted for pollination by small bees. The bees crawl into the small opening that is the corolla tube to drink nectar and in turn pick up pollen. 

While purple penstemon has been very common along the trail, this northern section has been home to more pink penstemon like mountain pride (Penstemon newberryi). 

Mountain pride

This species of penstemon grows on rocky, talus slopes and was John Muir’s favorite flower. 

Native from California to Alaska, Drummond’s anenome (Anenome drummondii) is found in coniferous forests and alpine elevation. 

Drummond’s anemone

A member of the buttercup family, Drummond’s anemone is related to western columbine.  Though the flowers are very different in appearance, members of the buttercup family characteristically have multiple simple pistils at the center of the flower. 

Something I was not anticipating to see much of in Northern California were succulents.  There have been several species of sedum occupying the sunny talus slopes. One of the first we spotted was coast range stonecrop (Sedum radiatum). 

Coast range stonecrop

Sadly, we were a little late to catch it flowering, but it still adds some wonderful color to the landscape. 

We were more lucky to see some Sierra stonecrop (Sedum obtusatum) flowering, but it too was mostly past its peak. 

Sierra stonecrop

This sedum can be a host for variegated fritillary butterflies and is common to high elevation sunny talus. 

The most exciting plant for me in this section was cliff maids (Lewisia cotyledon).

Cliff maids

I’ve been seeing this plant in my app for weeks and finally on our last stretch into Etna they were everywhere on talus slopes. The basal leaves are fleshy, similarly to a succulent, however this flower is a member of the purslane family.

Stay tuned for some more exciting flowers in Part II coming soon!

7/11/17 – Mile 1597.2, Etna, CA

7/6/17 – Met a former PCT hiker at the bar last night, always nice when people know and understand what we’re up to!  Slept in a bit this morning and eventually made our way out of the hotel.  Relaxed in the park behind the health food store for a bit sipping on one of our favorite town luxuries, coffee.  Went back to Black Bear Diner again (hiker friendly and affordable, well portioned food!).  Afterwards we got a ride back to the trail from a trail angel, Tony.  We met him yesterday outside the post office, but today he was dressed different – he’s a Highway Patrol officer!  Thought we were about to get cited for loitering and instead got a ride to the trailhead in the back of a cop car.  Strangest hitch so far for sure…  Made quick work of the next ~10 miles and setup camp near Disappearing Creek at mile 1508.6.

Tons of waterfalls this section.

7/7/17 – One of the most scenic days on trail yet.  Endless mountains, waterfalls, spires, and forests.  Twenty six miles today, 6800+ ft gain, most of it at the start of the day.  Saw a ton of deer today, on trail, in our campsite… After a final push in the late afternoon we made it to the Deadfall Lakes and camped.  Mile 1534.3.

Sara cooking dinner; watching the fish.
Deadfall Lakes
A deer came up to our tent to visit here.

7/8/17 – Easier day of hiking today terrain wise.  Still tons of epic views, we hear they get even better in the Trinity Alps Wilderness coming up… Hiked in 6-7 mile pushes today with breaks in between to air out the feet – can’t wait to get our trail runners back in Etna!  After about 24 miles we camped at Scott Mountain Campground, mile 1557.8.

There were some surprisingly flat parts, surrounded by boulder fields and ridge walking.
Scott Mountain Campground. Had a few sites, but mostly a free for all.

7/9/17 – Another day of hiking.  Views of the Trinity Alps Wilderness occasionally stolen by Shasta.  A slightly shorter day today as we are ahead of schedule!  More food than the last segment, but starting to have coffee and omlettes on my mind.  I’m not sure why, but for me breakfast foods and coffee drive my hunger a little more than even burgers and beer.  Hiked up and down a few more times then camped on a saddle at mile 1578.6.

7/10/17 – Short day today, but quite a bit of elevation gain and loss.  About 10 miles into the day, we started seeing the smoky haze of a forest fire near Etna.  Neither of us have any experience with forest fires, so it was a bit surreal, especially as we started smelling it too.  As the wind picked up and the trail headed northeast, the smoke dissipated.  The next several miles flew by and we ended up arriving at Sawyer Bar Road, our hitch point into Etna.  Had a nice dinner with great views and a ton of people watching – Etna Summit is a busy place!  Lots of noisy high schoolers gettin’ drunk… Camped by the parking area at mile 1597.2.

7/11/17 – Today Sara and I celebrate not only one thousand (techinically a little more) miles of PCT completed together, but also two years together!  Easy hitch into town with a friendly county worker and a great breakfast at Bobs Ranch House.  The Hotel Etna was super accommodating and let us into our room before noon!  Super hiker friendly, let us do laundry there as well.  After a brief stop to the post office and a trip to the grocery store, we’ve settled into a great day off!

7/5/17 – Mile 1498.7, Mount Shasta, CA

Back to beautiful shaded woods this whole section.  Snow free, a bit warm, and a few mosquitos out now.  It’s been fun watching Mount Shasta grow closer – it takes our breath away each time we emerge from the woods and it’s there, taking up the horizon. Apparently the spirit chief Skell lives within the mountain and fought with Llao, god of the underworld.  Llao resides in Mount Mazama.  There is a lot of fascinating lore surrounding Mount Shasta…

6/30/17 – Low mile day; letting our feet heal at the Burney Mountain Guest Ranch.  Spent most of the day watching the birds and other wildlife at the pond outside our cabin.  Also plenty of time spent utilizing the cell service/wifi (and a little printer troubleshooting for the hosts).  Waited out the afternoon heat and stayed for a delicious homemade pizza and salad dinner.  Thank you Mike and Linda for knowing and providing just what hikers want!  Late evening we headed out from the ranched and walked an easy ~5 miles until we found a meadow to camp in at mile 1412.4.

Custom fireplace, welded by Mike and Linda’s friend.

Trail magic!

7/1/17 – Good rhythm today; around five miles of hiking followed by a half hour to hour break then repeat several times.  Nice shady woods most of the day.  While we gained several thousand feet, the grade was gradual.  A few parts of the trail were very overgrown.  Camped by Clark Spring at mile 1434.4.

Lake Britton Dam
Deer carcass.
More of Mount Shasta
Just a little overgrown around these parts…

7/2/17 – Good views, shade, and ridge walking most of the day!  Pushed 6 miles in the morning then took a break to air out the feet.  Another 7 or so miles and a lunch break.  5 or so after that, another break, then another 3 miles.  We’re both a little light on food this section, but hey at least the packs are lighter.  Camped near Gold Creek, at mile 1455.6.

Sara rolling over a blowdown.
Seemingly endless mountains and trees…

7/3/17 – Easy ~12 miles of downhill to start off the day.  Mostly shaded, too dark for sunglasses in some parts of the woods even.    A few more miles and we took a siesta.  Another push late afternoon and we stopped to camp at mile 1475.6.  We’re well ahead of schedule to get into town on the 5th, so no reason to push on.  Lots of skeeters around today; probably time for the bug nets.

Snow free ridges are the best ridges.
Sara gathering plant photos for later identification…
McCloud River

7/4/17 – Textbook trail through the woods again.  First day in a long time I haven’t worn sunglasses.  Took a break after 6.5 miles at Squaw Valley Creek, then continued on another 5.5 miles (uphill, ~2,300ft!) until taking a lunch break with a good Shasta view.  Walked another 4 or so miles then a brief break for water.  A few more miles and we camped just before I-5 at mile 1495.8.

Waterfalls, everywhere.
Some more or less textbook trail.
So hot at night now. Didn’t get below ~70.

7/5/17 – Easy couple miles in the morning down to I-5.  Took about an hour but got a hitch into Mount Shasta and breakfast at the Black Bear Diner.  Been fantasizing about hot breakfast and coffee for days!  Short walk to the post office, hotel, then onto the usual town activities – specifically beer, ice cream, resupply, shower, laundry.  Not quite in that order.  We’re both looking forward to a relaxing evening around town!

6/29/17, Mile 1407.2, Burney Mountain Guest Ranch, CA

6/18/17 – Back on the trail at mile 1092.3, Echo Lake.  Snow covered after about 2 miles, snow was the same slush all day.  Used Gaia GPS and Guthook to find our route.  Warmer than we expected, doesn’t seem to be dropping below freezing up here at night.  Found a couple of other thru hikers that skipped ahead as well and a section hiker.  We all camped in the snow on the banks of thawing Lake Aloha, mile 1098.4.

Echo Lake
The best path we had this section, thanks day hikers!
Sunset from Aloha Lake

6/19/17 – Started early and finished Dick’s Pass before noon.  A few feet of trail exposed here and there, but mostly snow covered.  Snow was same slush all day, didn’t seem to get much worse in the afternoon.  Compass/apps to find route, or footsteps of hikers in front of us.  Had a couple river crossings and reroutes due to flooded areas.  Camped in a nice dry patch at mile 1112.3.

Found a snow free pocket to camp in.

6/20/17 – Started the morning crossing Phipps creek – 0.3mi upstream log goes most of the way across for now.  A little exposed trail here and there around 7500′.  Crossed a few more creeks and had our first waist deep one – there’s a section ~0.3 upstream before the two creeks combine that was slower.  Met up wit Double D and Tops and hiked for the rest of the day.  Plenty of dry, flat places to camp up on Barker Pass.  Great views all around.  Mile 1124.8.


Trail starts here somewhere.

6/21/17 – Mentally and physically exhausting day today!  Started out right back into the snow making our own trail, descending steep switchbacks, avoiding tree wells and blow downs.  Caught up with DoubleD and Tops mid day. Lots of steep snow to traverse and some rock scrambling.  Around mid morning we hit some exposed trail on a ridge, nice for awhile until happened upon a snow chute covering the trail – thank you to Tops for leading and kicking in a track.  Descended pretty directly down to Five Lakes Creek – crossed where we descended, probably a mile or so downstream from the PCT – knee deep and not too fast.   Trail was expose for the next mile or so then turned back to snow as we climbed.  Found a place to camp in the snow at ~8000ft, mile 1139.1.  Hail storm rolled in as we were setting up camp!

Not a fan of snow chutes with rocks and fatal fall potential.


Another night on the snow. It’s actually pretty comfy!

6/22/17 – Another day filled with snow, some trail visible in clear spots.  Lots of traversing, more sketchy snow chutes, etc – micro spikes and ice axe needed for sure.  While the day wore us down, we lifted our spirits by stopping a little earlier and making a campfire at mile 1149.7.

Tinder Knob in all its glory.
Selfies have been requested.

6/23/17 – Traveresed one sketchy switchback up to Mt. Lincoln, then took the long but safer and snowless climb up to the summit/ski gondola.  The alternate was crossing the snow covered front,  very steep with runout over rock faces.  After taking a look at the trail coverage, we decided to descend the ski area via various runs down to the Judah Lodge, then road walked to Donner Pass. Amazingly, we ran into a hiker we knew from the desert being dropped off by a trail angel.  Nancy took us into Truckee and to her house, told us to make ourselves at home and welcomed us to spend the night.  I can’t get over the generosity of wonderful people like this!  Our spirits were lifted and we went out to dinner with Nancy and four other hikers staying at her place.

The safer path down.
Typically the tree wells have been 10-15ft, not like these couple foot ones pictured here.
More hazards!

6/24/17 – Zero day in Truckee, cool town!  Lots of outdoor shops, food, and things are mostly within walking distance.  Nancy has been a wonderful host and we spent the day figuring out the next couple resupplies. We’ve decided to go north again to Chester, CA, mile 1328.8.  Tired of GPS nav all day and slushy snow.  A couple hikers set off from Donner summit then bailed and returned to the house, affirming our decision.  Nancy is driving us up to Chester tomorrow and sadly we have to take another zero, until the post office opens Monday morning.   Will be nice to get back into the swing of things again hopefully.

6/25/17 – Woke up at 6 and enjoyed he scenic drive up 89 to Chester, CA.  After dropping off Mitten and The Kid at the trailhead we headed into town and got a quick bite, cheap room, and hung out by the river until the room was ready.  Pretty uneventful day, prepped a box for Old Station and rested up.

6/26/17 – Back to cruising!  After stopping by the post office we got back on trail around noon.  To our surprise we got in 20 miles before stopping.  Exposed trail makes for fast hiking.  Around mile 1345 we had our first bear encounter!  Adolescent blonde colored one on the trail about 30 yards from me.  We both started trying to scare each other off and I won.  Most importantly, neither of us shat ourselves.  After a few more miles we got to Warner Valley Camp, a beautiful managed campground.  Flat sites, fire rings, clena pit toilets, picnic tables – feeling spoiled at mile 1347.8.

Flat and snow free!
Giant pinecones, were hoping to find one bigger than Sara.
Warner Valley Camp

6/27/17 – Another easy ~20 mile day!  The trail is spoiling us with boardwalks even.  Lassen is beautiful.  We made it just about to Old Station then decided to camp early as we have to wait on packages arriving tomorrow – their PO is only open 11am – 3pm.  So a lazy morning of sleeping in then some more easy miles.  Camped by Hat Creek at mile 1367.2.

Eerie burn area.
Raging river whirlpool plus lava rock pumice stone makes for happier feet.

6/28/17 – Easy few miles in the morning into Old Station.  Very friendly lady at the post office was able to bounce the boxes we were expecting there north for us!  Walked a few more miles to JJs Cafe – delicious burger and beer shortly followed.  Checked out a lava tube cave and then got back on trail.  Got water down an epic set of switchbacks/boulder problems, then camped nearby at mile 1383.0.

Walking out of Old Station.

Lava tubes!
First views of Shasta, excited to stare at this for the next 100 or so miles!

6/29/17 – Long day of hiking – 25 miles and not much shade!  Beautiful views of Burney mountain and Shasta from Hat Creek Rim.  Took several breaks to air out our suffering feet and made it to the Burney Mountain Guest Ranch by mid evening.  Had a wonderful home cooked meal, did some laundry, and took a much needed shower.  Looking forward to jumping in their pool tomorrow!  Spending the night here at mile 1407.2.

The San Francisco Layover

So we’ve been off trail and in Morro Bay/San Francisco now for more days than I can count – thanks to Sara’s friend for a place to stay, we could easily stay here even longer.  The food is too good, especially with the added hiker hunger.  But the trail is calling and we’ve been itching to get back to the hiking and out of the big city.  

We’ve been vigilantly scouring Facebook, Instagram, WhiteBlaze, and messaging friends on the trail to consider our next move.  While the snow seems like a challenge we can deal with, the rivers are getting more and more dangerous and unpredictable day by day.  After hearing about many people bailing, skipping ahead, or just having miserable times, we’ve decided to skip ahead about 390 miles, to South Lake Tahoe (by the time this posts, we’ll be on the trail in that section).  We’re gonna bring some of our snow gear, but get to (thankfully!) leave our bear canisters for now and use Ursack’s instead.  The plan is to come back and finish the Sierra’s in the late season – as an added bonus we’ll hopefully skip the mosquitos.  This has not been an an easy decision, but my gut is telling me its the right call.  No sense in taking on too much unecessary risk, the only benefit would be to my own ego.

With that said, we’ve been keeping active here and haven’t fallen completely into binging on luxuries.  Sara’s parents flew in from Michigan for a few days and teamed up with us for some microadventures.  Over the past couple weeks we’ve tackled:

  • Morro Bay/Morro Rock

  • Alcatraz Island

  • Muir Woods National Monument

Baby fox!

  • Muir Beach

  • Sutro Baths

  • Coit Tower
  • Golden Gate Bridge walk

  • Golden Gate Park – Tea Garden, Botanical Gardens
  • Rosie the Riveter WWII Homefront NP

  • Various section hikes of the San Francisco Bay Trail

  • Anchor Steam Brewing Tour
  • Dogpatch Boulders

And so on.  I tried to only list the things that involved being active, the food could probably use it’s own post.  But since this is more or less an adventure/hiking blog, I’ll just give one special mention to Bellota where I had my birthday dinner – damn good paella!

Of course we also spent quite a bit of time preparing for and figuring out this next stretch of our trip.  We probably went to REI or Sports Basement every other day.  We cleaned our gear while catching up on some Netflix.  I even got a hair cut!

Thanks again to Danielle and Lu for hosting and providing us with a place to stay! 

Expect our next blog post to be in a week or two from Quincy, CA.