Picking “the best” seems to be an American pastime these days. So I want to share with you what, in my opinion, is the very best hike around Tahoe. My criteria is not simple since I am not looking for just one dimension of greatness, but the best overall - a hike that shows all the scenic beauty at Tahoe, that has several varieties of flower gardens, is fun physically, and keeps you guessing at what is coming next around the corner.
And the winner is……… Barker Pass!!!!!! Barker Pass does not have the best breathtaking views from the top of the world, like Tallac or Round Top. Barker Pass does not have the unforgettable fields of flowers like Carson Pass. And it is not the first early summer outing of the year as is Sagehen Creek. You cannot have a beer at the top (unless you carry one up too) and tram back down like Shirley Canyon. But Barker Pass is fun from beginning to end. And I like it because I’m not the best at anything either :).
What makes Barker Pass so special? The first thing you will notice that getting to the trail head is a wonderful adventure in and of itself. The road around the Lake (Route 89 at this part of the Lake) dips very close to Lake Tahoe itself and you can almost touch its serenity even as you approach the turnoff early in the morning. As you turn away from the Lake you experience one of the most pleasant drives into the mountains. A perfectly straight stretch is both peaceful and unhurried with the usual joggers and bikers getting their systems tuned up. Then you turn left and cross a creek that can be raging or docile depending on the season. Now you have a long drive up. Along the way you will see many flowers in bloom and special small garden tucked away along the sides wherever a snowmelt stream is running. You are tempted to stop (and I often do) but there is a long way to go and even better sights ahead. If it is still early season you may find snow on the road, which automatically triggers the “can I make it?” thought. As you continue up you will wonder why is there is such a long paved road going to nowhere???? And eventually it does turns to dirt. You have arrived.
At the Start
Before beginning the hike I like to start my Sierra Club outings by simply asking the group what flowers they see. Usually they glance around a find a couple of flowers here and there. I tell talk about the few they have found and then challenge them to look harder. And sooner or later someone notices that we are standing among hundreds of small but perky tiny flowers! They are usually the Blue-Eyed Mary each with two blue and two white petals that are hard to miss once you see them. This is the first lesson for enjoying flowers. You can’t just look, you must also see. Many of the flowers in the mountains are very small but beautiful once you really see them. Now, it is time to do the hike.
On the Trail
The first section of the Barker Pass hike is through a forest of Red Firs. These are majestic trees and the trail below them is soft with the debris that as fallen there over the years. We mainly find shade loving flowers here. They are well spaced and strategically located to grab a little life giving sun. But the real feeling here is of grand size, majesty, and the permanence of the trees.
Just as you are beginning to warm up you come to some open slopes. If your timing has been right these slopes are a riot of yellow – big bold flowers. They are above and below as you traverse the mountain side. And off in the distance you get a view of the Desolation Wilderness which seems to go on forever. It is not hard to see how this area came to be named as the main feature is granite rock running in endless furrows over peak after peak. But surprisingly there are still trees. Not the dense thickets like those surrounding you on the trail but scattered randomly throughout the granite. One can only wonder how they survive. Where is the soil needed to nourish them??? There is one particular large rock outcropping that stands high above its surroundings. And on top is a small private forest standing alone. That is where I would want my "get away" home to be, a place of quiet contemplation surrounded by breathtaking views.
A little further on you come to an intersection. You can go left, right, or straight. I am going to take you "right", although this is not my normal inclination :). In just a few steps you get your second view of that deep blue Lake you left not long ago. Lake Tahoe is distant and mysterious perfectly framed by the lands below which draw your eye downward to the water.
Roger's Garden and the Peak
There is no official trail ahead so you just wander, without stepping on the flowers, to the open land ahead. The great expanse of the Desolation Wilderness to your right blows the air towards you and then down into the canyon to your left. This treeless opening seems to accelerate the wind like the upper edge of an airplane wing. You feel buffeted and assaulted even when the winds, elsewhere, are only modest. As for flowers, you find unusual alpine species growing low to the ground – keeping their heads down. These flowers normally exist several thousand feet higher but the special conditions here save you a climb up. This narrow funnel is soon behind you and you find yourself doing a short but steep climb to a very special place.
You have arrived at Roger’s garden pictured on the webpage devoted to Barker Pass. The first thing you will notice is that the wind has disappeared. Perhaps it is that line of trees that protects you, but it still seems a bit curious. Surrounding you should be a fine pallet of colors – yellows, blues, oranges and the like. I have spent many moments here trying to get an even more perfect picture of the Scarlet Gilia, a bright orange/red flower that seems to be in motion while standing still. When I finish my photography, there are boulders all around to let me rest. This is a perfect place to sit relax and enjoy some food and sun. This is my favorite spot.
After resting in Roger’s garden, there is Barker Peak just a little ahead of you. It is a fairly easy climb but for the rock slag field. So you need to hop from rock to rock always wondering if the one you choose will stay put or cause your heart to leap. Barker Peak itself is narrow and rocky so you have to pay attention until you find a seat at the top and enjoy your victory. There is a feeling when you are on a mountain top that is hard to describe other than to say it is a really good feeling.
That’s the end of my story. Even though the hike is hardly done, we have enjoyed a welcoming forest, viewed the austere Desolation Wilderness, marveled at Lake Tahoe in the distance, braved the winds, relaxed in a tranquil garden of flowers, and conquered a mountain top!
However, there is much more to the Barker Pass hike. Elsewhere there is a wonderful stream garden that persists long after most of Tahoe’s flowers have gone back to sleep. And you will find close to the trailhead a vernal pool that slowly leaks water allowing many very special flowers to grow at the edge of wet and dry. A fantastic volcanic plug made of crumpling red rock overlooks a great view of Lake Tahoe. And should you really be hankering for some exercise, you can walk to Canada or Mexico from its trails. So I invite you to find your own story here.
But if you ever need to find me, just visit my garden.