The ‘secret garden’ of the Sierra has been off-limits for a century. Until now.


Just a couple miles north of Truckee, a pristine mountain meadow was bursting with wildflowers, stretching below snowcapped peaks and mixed conifer forests for hundreds of acres. I was setting eyes on it for the first time ever, and it was every bit as beautiful as I had dreamed.

The meadow was saturated in green. Willows dotted the horizon. A quiet creek bent in horseshoe-like shapes, flowing downstream to the Truckee River. Black bears, bobcats, mountain lions roam this land, as do deer, beavers, squirrels and many species of birds. This valley is habitat for endangered species and hundreds of species of plants. The landscape is unaltered, appearing much as it did before European settlers first arrived in the Sierra Nevada in the early 1800s. 

“It literally is a secret garden,” Kathy Englar, the Truckee Donner Land Trust’s development director, told the Associated Press in 2017.

The North Fork of Prosser Creek is a tributary of the Truckee River and winds through the valley.

Julie Brown / SFGATE

Englar wasn’t exaggerating. Lower Carpenter Valley has been hidden from sight, behind a locked gate, for more than a century. As millions of people arrive in Lake Tahoe every year to hike, bike, ski and recreate all over its mountains, this valley has remained in solitude. 

Standing on its edge, I wondered how such a place could even exist.

In 2017, the Truckee Donner Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy, with a handful of other conservation organizations, joined hands under the Northern Sierra Partnership and purchased this land, permanently protecting Lower Carpenter Valley from development. 

Knowing how sensitive the ecosystem is, the land trust limited public access for several years. The only way you could visit Lower Carpenter Valley was through a guided docent hike. The hikes were free, but they often booked up fast with long wait lists. I never had the luck or the timing to go on a guided hike.

But now, thanks to a recently completed nature trail, the public has unfettered access to Lower Carpenter Valley for the first time in more than a century. Boardwalks and bridges lead over sensitive wetland meadows, allowing public access to the valley while still protecting the fragile environment.

A newly constructed nature path provides access to Lower Carpenter Valley while protecting sensitive habitat.

A newly constructed nature path provides access to Lower Carpenter Valley while protecting sensitive habitat.

Julie Brown / SFGATE

The boardwalks opened late last summer. But the best time to do this hike is right now, as spring warms up to summer and the rainbow of wildflowers start their seasonal bloom.

There is hardly anyone else in the valley except for me and my friend Heather Adams. I recruited Adams for this hike for her deep, intuitive knowledge of wildflowers. She is a well-known gardener in the Truckee-Tahoe region, teaching local gardening classes and helping aspiring gardeners select native flower varieties for their yards. 

I had been hearing about this valley for years and I wanted a wildflower guru to help me understand the small, exquisite details of the landscape. I texted Adams in the morning, baiting her with the lure of the so-called secret garden of the Sierra. It didn’t take much to convince her to rearrange her schedule and meet me later in the afternoon.

I picked Adams up in Truckee and we drove to the trailhead, eventually turning onto a U.S. Forest Service road for a couple of miles. The road was deceptively bumpy with huge potholes and rollers that I had to drive over slowly or attempt to skirt. Eventually, we reached a gate at the end of the road that marked the beginning of the trail. I parked and we set off.

Heather Adams is a well-known gardener and wildflower guru in the Truckee-Tahoe region. Friends who know their wildflowers make great hiking partners.

Heather Adams is a well-known gardener and wildflower guru in the Truckee-Tahoe region. Friends who know their wildflowers make great hiking partners.

Julie Brown / SFGATE

We walked hardly 10 steps when Adams stopped to admire a small fir tree. She inhaled the lemony scent and pointed to the tiny seed cases at the tip of the branch. I love a good tree, but I often miss details like those seed cases. That’s exactly why I wanted Adams along on this hike. 

We continued walking up the trail, and with every step, Adams called out a different wildflower’s name. 

That’s purple larkspur. That’s yellow arnica. Those are wild carrots. She spotted wild strawberries and forget-me-knots. 

“Look how fuzzy those mule ears are,” Adams said. 

And then she bent down to inspect a delicate green thing with petals that looked like tassels. Adams looked up at me. Meet meadow rue, she said. 

Adams took a botany class in college, but her knowledge really comes from curiosity and also John Muir Laws’ “Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada.” For hikers in Tahoe, this book is almost as essential as a good pair of hiking shoes. Detailed illustrations help you identify different species of wildflowers along the trail. Adams has nearly memorized the book, and since I had her as my hiking partner, my copy stayed in my backpack. 

Lower Carpenter Valley is known for its wildflower bloom in the spring and summer.

Lower Carpenter Valley is known for its wildflower bloom in the spring and summer.

Julie Brown / SFGATE

The dirt path meandered through the forest for a little bit, above a winding creek. Then it dropped down to the edge of a great meadow. 

The Washoe Tribe were almost certainly the original inhabitants of this valley. Likely, they spent time here in the warmer summer months as part of their seasonal migration through the Sierra Nevada. But the Washoe were driven from their homelands when settlers overtook these mountains during the mass migration leading up to California’s Gold Rush. 

In the summer, these verdant meadows are a land of plenty. But come winter, deep snows make the mountains inhospitable. Not far from this valley, the Donner Party was stranded for the dire, fated winter of 1846-1847.

A dairy farmer named William Carpenter and his wife settled on this valley in the late 1800s. They would travel to the Sierra Nevada from the Central Valley in the summer to graze their livestock. In the mid-20th century, a group of recreational fishermen, including newspaperman James B. McClatchy, bought the property as a private fishing retreat. 

In 1999, a survey identified the Lower Carpenter Valley for conservation, but the opportunity to protect it didn’t come until 2017. That year, the land trust and the Northern Sierra Partnership raised $10.24 million in 60 days to finalize the deal. Perry Norris, co-executive director of the land trust, said the Lower Carpenter Valley was a “key piece of the puzzle” in the greater Truckee River Watershed.

An idyllic spot for a picnic in Lower Carpenter Valley.

An idyllic spot for a picnic in Lower Carpenter Valley.

Julie Brown / SFGATE

The expanse of green seemed to go on forever. I hadn’t seen anything quite like it. Mountain meadows this beautiful, unaltered by development, are rare. There was no golf course. There was no ski resort. There was no monstrous hotel. 
The reason why this habitat is so pristine is because it has been so untouched by humans. And the irony of opening it up to the public for recreation is not lost on anyone. 

I asked Greyson Howard, communications director for the land trust, about the ethics of promoting such a sacred place to the public. He told me it’s the land trust’s responsibility to build infrastructure that will make recreation sustainable in such a sensitive environment. Public land is public. Anyone with a desire should be able to access it. 

That’s why the land trust and the Truckee Trails Foundation took such great care to build a nature path that weaves between boardwalks and bridges. Before the trail was built, an environmental assessment was completed in 2019, under the National Environmental Policy Act. The document notes how invasive and damaging recreation can be on the environment. The solution, it said, was to concentrate recreation onto a singular multi-use trail. 

The trail stays on the southern edge of the meadow. No dogs are allowed and hikers must stick to the path. At one point, the trail pops onto a private dirt road and signs ask hikers to respect the private property the road passed through. Then the trail picks back up and leads into the quiet expanse of the meadow.

Every now and then, at the exact moments when I felt like pausing to take in a view, a picnic table sat just next to the trail, courtesy of the land trust and its brigade of donors. Clouds rumbled overhead, playing with the light, illuminating green then gold. At the end of the meadow, the trail veered north. It ended in a 1-mile loop, resembling a lollipop stick. In total, the whole thing was about 5.5 miles round trip. 

We crossed a bridge over the stream when Adams stopped suddenly to point at a small bird flitting on the water. She thought it was the American dipper, a bird that’s evolved to essentially fly in the water. It’s one of her favorites. Lower Carpenter Valley is also known habitat for the threatened willow flycatcher and it is nesting grounds for northern goshawks and bald eagles. 

Evening sun turned the creek into liquid gold. We stared at the bird, perched on a branch, for a long while. And then we followed the trail, dipping back along the edges of the meadow, all the way back to the car.