Wildflowers around the Reno / Tahoe region can produce spectacular displays of color across the high desert. The spring of 2005 was unusually vivid in the desert due to heavy rain and snow during the preceding winter, while 2007 was lackluster following a dry winter. From what I've seen so far, 2011 is shaping up to be a spectacular wildflower year. The Sierra Nevada is reasonably consistent because there is always some snow to melt, bringing forth swaths of color across meadows and next to streams. This brings me to my disclaimer; with water being the key to color, the quality, timing, and extent of wildflower displays across the high desert can and does vary wildly from year-to-year, giving you no guarantees about the places I am suggesting. With this in mind, let's learn about where to see wildflowers in Reno / Tahoe country.
Speaking of timing, our high desert flowers begin blooming in early April and peak in May, before it gets hot and things dry out. Spring in the Sierra Nevada waits until June, or even July if the snowpack is deep.
Enjoying wildflowers is more fun when you know what you're looking at. The books on my list help identify wildflowers found around Reno and Lake Tahoe, from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Great Basin desert.
Places to See Wildflowers in the Reno / Lake Tahoe Area
Huffaker Hills in South Reno
Washoe County Parks and the Truckee Meadows Trails Association have jointly developed a trail system in these volcanic hills. The Huffaker Hills trailhead parking lot is about a mile up Alexander Lake Road from S. McCarran Blvd. You can only get on Alexander Lake Rd. by turning right off McCarran, so you must approach it traveling east. You will see the tallest Huffaker of them all, Rattlesnake Mountain, in front of you. Turn right on Alexander Lake Rd. and go up the hill behind the Longley Town Centre. There is a big brown water tank just before the parking area, which is also on the right.
There is an information kiosk at the trailhead with a map of the trails. The loop to Twin Peaks and the one to the reservoir offer the best wildflower viewing opportunities. Plants you might see include buckwheat, paintbrush, larkspur, Hooker's and arrowleaf balsamroot, mule's ears, and Beckwith's violet.
Hidden Valley in East Reno
Hidden Valley Regional Park is one of those places you probably wouldn't find by chance. There is a nicely developed park area at the base of the Virginia Range that includes Link Piazzo Dog Park. Trails lead into the area beyond, which is where you will find a nice selection of native desert wildflowers. Go early in the season for the best displays - the slopes have few trees and the area quickly dries out as spring temperatures rise.
Reach Hidden Valley Regional Park by going east on Pembroke Drive from McCarran Blvd. Turn right on Parkway Drive and follow it to the park entrance.
The area accessible from Timberline Road is right where the mountains and desert meet. Here you can enjoy a wide variety of wildflowers right along the road. You can also get out and hike to more - trailheads for Thomas Creek and Whites Creek are found along Timberline.
To get here, go west on the Mount Rose Highway (Nevada 431). Turn right on Timberline Drive across from the Montreaux golf course and just before the highway curves left to climb up to Mt. Rose Summit. Timberline takes you to viewing spots and trailheads behind the ArrowCreek development.
The Callahan Ranch area is across the Mt. Rose Highway (south) from Timberline Road and ArrowCreek. Open areas of sabebrush are spotted with color from a wide variety of wildflowers.
Dog Valley, on U.S. Forest Service land, is another one of those places you might not have heard of, but it's worth a visit for viewing wildflowers. West of Reno, take the Verdi exit from I-80. Drive into Verdi and turn right onto Bridge Street. Turn right onto Dog Valley Road after the second bridge. You'll see Forest Service signs for Dog Valley. Try Forest Service road 002 for the best viewing.
Washoe Lake State Park
Reach this park by driving south about 12 miles on U.S. 395 toward Carson City. After passing Washoe Lake, look for the Washoe Lake State Park sign and exit at Eastlake Blvd. Turn left toward the lake and go a couple of miles to the Deadmans Creek trailhead, which is on the right. You will see downed trunk sections of a big dead cottonwood tree at the parking area. If the spaces are taken, you can park along the road or in the fee lot next to the lake.
There is a trailhead sign and usually some brochures describing plants and other features in the area. The hike starts up a draw with Deadmans Creek on your right, then comes to a fork. If you go right, it takes you to the gazebo you probably noticed on the hill above the parking area. If you bear left, you go up the side of a hill to a dirt road, which can be followed for miles if you like. You can turn it into a loop by going uphill on the road for a mile or so and following obvious trails off to the right that lead to the gazebo, then back to your car.
Either trail will take you to abundant wildflowers if conditions are right (see disclaimer above). It helps that Deadmans Creek is spring-fed and therefore has water most of the year. Look for phlox, paintbrush, fiddlehead, yellow monkey flowers, and tidy tips, among others.
Virginia City Highlands
Take Geiger Grade Road (Nevada 341) toward Virginia City. As you climb, you'll see lots of wildflowers sprouting from the hills along the highway. This is a steep and twisty road, so use the turnouts when you want to do some serious viewing. Even without the wildflowers, this is a spectacular drive with panoramic views of Reno and the Sierra Nevada mountains. The grade flattens out for the last few miles before reaching Virginia City.