Further afield: Spring wildflower preview
There’s a saying, April showers bring May flowers. But even in March, any color that punctures winter’s gloom makes us wonder “when will the wildflowers arrive?”
Wildflower season brings big crowds to the region’s most accessible mountain meadows, which are renowned for producing dense displays of short-lived summer blooms.
Beginning March 31, 2018, Skamania County will provide shuttle service on busy weekends at Dog Mountain in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area to help alleviate traffic that created parking and safety issues, and visitors who don’t use the shuttle on those dates will need a Forest Service permit before they go.
More information: https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/crgnsa/fire/?cid=FSEPRD572962.
Mark Skinner, regional botanist for the Forest Service – Pacific Northwest region spring, 2018 seems like a relatively typical wildflower season so far, in that the first spring flowers don’t seem to be significantly ahead or behind schedule in most areas.
But it’s notoriously difficult to predict when flower displays will “peak,” he said.
“Any place you go there are things that bloom early and there are things that bloom late. There are irises blooming the second week of April on the Umpqua (National Forest), but the lilies aren’t going to bloom until early July,” Skinner said.
Some of the first spring flowers in the northwest arrive as early as late winter, such as the blossoms on native cherries and other fruit-bearing bushes and shrubs.
The glacier lily, Erythronium grandiflorum, is among of the first flowers that emerges at higher elevations, appearing as snowbanks retreat in sub-alpine areas.
One such area, Mary’s Peak, on the Siuslaw National Forest, is known to be an excellent site for spring flower spotting.
The area is a Forest Service-designated special botanical area.
“It’s a little earlier of a season than other spots in the Cascades, on higher peaks, and it’s also easy to access,” Lisa Romano, the forest’s Public Affairs Officer, said.
The Marys Peak day use area and parking lot are located alongside the largest of the mountain’s five sub-alpine fields, with a dirt road a path around the summit’s other meadows, a rock garden and a streambed, where a variety of other flowers can be found.
If you’re up for a more of a challenge, Tatoosh Ridge on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington, offers views spectacular views of Mount Rainier beyond exuberant summer flower displays in July.
Longtime northwest hiker Jay Stern filed trip reports from the trail on nwhikers.net in 2016 and 2017.
He recommends waiting until the July snow melt is well underway, bringing hiking poles, plenty of water, and watching other hiker’s trip reports if you are trying to time your trip around “peak color.”
“It’s worth the effort,” Stern said. “But that first section, the first two miles are going to be steep… you’re going to work for it.”
For a less intense hike, Willamette National Forest botanist Ryan Murdoff suggests the Tire Mountain trail, where visitors can find Washington lily (Lilium washingtonianum), wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca), vanilla leaf (Achlys triphylla), field chickweed (Cerastium arvense), Oregon Sunshine (Eriophyllum quamash), broadleaf lupine (Lupinus latifolius), and other wildflowers. The trail leads into the Pacific Crest Trail system and is also open to horseback riders and mountain bikes.
For access to a variety of hikes and an expansive assortment of wildflowers, public affairs specialist Chiara Cipriano suggests the Iron Mountain, also located on Willamette National Forest.
More than 300 species of wildflowers grow in the area, and nearby trailheads offer several hiking options.
Two popular routes include the short summit hike, which leads to a viewing platform, and the Cone Peak trail, a longer trail but at a a gentler grade that takes hikers through several meadows.
Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest botanist Helen Lau likes to send flower-seekers on a scenic driving tour: from Reecer Creek Rd. in Ellensburg, Wash., to Forest Service Rd. 3500 on the forest, and then follow the road up Table Mountain.
“The diversity of habitats within this drive are wonderful,” Lau said.
Visitors who time their trip right can see forested roads carpeted with yellow balsam root (Basamorhiza sagittatta), dotted with showy phlox (Phlox speciose), and brightly-colored penstemon species. At higher elevations, they’ll find rugged, rocky meadows studded with brightly colored blossoms.
Cheryl Bartlet, a botanist based on the Olympic National Forest, also suggested a forest drive; Forest Road 24 to Lake Cushman, outside Hoodsport, Wash.
“It’s accessible to everyone, and is very easy to get to,” she said.
On their way to the lake, travelers pass cliffs and rocky areas supporting a diverse mix of summer wildflowers, including harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispida), Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum), blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia parviflora), seablush (Plectritis congesta), farewell-to-spring (Clarkia amoena), checker lily (Fritillaria affinis), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), columbine (Aquilegia formosa), and sticky cinquefoil (Drymocallis glandulosa).
“Every spring, there’s a pretty spectacular display of seep monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus) and chickweed monkeyflower (Erythranthe alsinoides) on the cliff faces,” Bartlet said.
Just watch out for the equally-bountiful poison oak along the roadway, she warned; wait to reach the lake before getting out to enjoy the scenery, or extend your trip by following trails from the Dry Creek, Mt. Rose or Mt. Ellinor trailheads.
Three Peaks Botanical Area, located in the upper Wynoochee River watershed along Forest Service Rd. 2270, is another top spot for wildflowers on the Olympic Peninsula.
The area was designated as a botanical area to protect ancient stands of Alaska yellow cedar (Callitropsis nootkatensis), but is also home to wet meadows that support a particularly diverse mix of species, such as the yellow-flowered sedge (Carex anthoxanthea) and northern Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia palustris), Bartlet said.
Other species include elephant’s head (Pedicularis groenlandica), pale larkspur (Delphinium glaucum), sticky false asphodel (Tofieldia glutinosa), arrowleaf groundsel (Senicio triangularis), Canadian burnet (Sanguisorba canadensis), marsh violet (Viola palustris), broad-leaved Caltha (Caltha biflora), leatherleaf saxifrage (Leptarrhena pyrolifolia) and yellow willowherb (Epilobium luteum).
Visitors may even catch a glimpse of Bartlet’s favorite flower, the common butterwort; a small plant, with a purple flower rising from a bundle of yellow-green leaves and one of the Pacific Northwest’s few native carnivorous plants.
The leaves secrete a digestive enzyme that slowly dissolves small insects, and it’s scientific name, Pinguicula vulgaris, means “greasy little fat one.”
“What’s not to love?” Bartlet said.
For earlier blooms, Patrick Lair, public affairs officer for the Ochoco National Forest, suggests visiting the Big Summit Prairie, near Prineville, Ore.
As early as April, visitors can find pink desert shooting stars (Dodecatheon conjugens) and lavender grass widow flowers (Olsynium douglasii).
In May and June, yellow wooley mule’s ears (Wyethia mollis) and purple camas flowers (Camassia quamash) begin to bloom in the fields, while pink and white bitterroot blossoms (Lewisia rediviva) emerge on the dry, rocky flats.
In June and July, look for western blue flag (Iris missouriensis), coastal larkspur (Delphinium decorum), giant red paintbrush (Castilleja miniata), Oregon checkermallow (Sidalcea oregana), and arrow-leaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata), and Peck’s mariposa lily (Calochortus longebarbatus var. peckii) – a delicate blossom with round, blue-lavender petals that grows only in the Ochoco Mountains.
For a longer drive, the forest’s Paulina District created a “Scabland Tour” that maps an all-day trek through several forest habitats. The route includes juniper and pine forest, wet meadows, and rocky scabland, views of the Snow Mountains, and a spectacular array of wildflowers, including Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamhoriza sagittata), mule-ears (Wyethia amplexicaulis), Sagebrush mariposa lily (Calochortus macrocarpus), lupine, and tapertip onion (Allium acuminatum).
In southwest Oregon, the T.J. Howell Botanical Drive through Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest offers several vantage points for viewing wildflowers and unusual plants, including Eight Dollar Mountain Botanical Wayside, Days Gulch Botanical Area, Josephine Camp, and Little Falls Trail.
Howell’s saxifrage (Micranthes howellii) and Howell’s mariposa lily (Calochortus Howellii) can be seen at various locations. Both named for Thomas Jefferson Howell, one of the state’s earliest botanists.
Another of the Northwest’s few carnivorous species, the California pitcher plant (Daringtonia californica), is found in wetland areas.
The forest’s Rough and Ready Flat Botanical Area is another area known for unusual plants, including several rare, threatened and endangered species.
McDonald’s rock-cress (Arabis macdonaldiana), a federally listed endangered species, Hooker’s Indian-pink (Silene hookerii), and the two-eyed violet (Viola ocellata) are among the more unusual blooms, and appear alongside more common species like nodding arnica (Arnica cordifolia), coast larkspur (delphinium decorum), and western buttercup (Ranunculus occidentalis). Flowers begin to emerge in March, with peak blooms in later April through May.
Further north, the Sauk Mountain day hike on Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest offers 1500 feet of elevation gain over two miles, with sweeping views of sub-alpine meadows, North Cascades mountain peaks, and the Skagit River valley.
Trailhead parking tends to fill up on weekends during peak wildflower season, so mid-week hikes are recommended. The mountain’s wildflower season is typically peaks in late July.
And although Heather Meadows is better known as home to Mount Baker ski area, forest staff say it’s also an excellent setting for wildflower hikes in late July, when the snow pack briefly recedes.
The Fire and Ice interpretive trail includes a 100 yard, accessible paved path with seating and an overlook, while Artist Ridge trail is a one mile loop featuring fields of Alaska bell-heather (Harrimanella stelleriana) and species like Avalanche Lilies (Erythronium montanum), broad-leaf lupine (Lupinus latifolius) and spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa).
The Bagley Lakes trail features a 3/4 mile path, with waterfalls and wildflowers along the route.
Green Mountain, accessible via Suiattle River Rd. (Forest Service Rd. 26) off State Route 530, is another popular hike on the forest. Its wildflower season peaks in mid to late July, and is best visited mid-week to avoid crowds.
In northeast Washington, the 44-mile Kettle Crest – South trail, part of the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail on the Colville National Forest, offers numerous opportunities for wildflower seekers, as it follows the ridgeline over multiple peaks. One highlight is the White Mountain trailhead, located 30 miles outside Colville, Wash.
Kettle Crest – North also features numerous mountaintop meadows along the route.
For non-hikers, the portion of State Route 20 from Usk to Cusick, Wash., near Colville National Forest, features plentiful flowers along the roadway in mid-to-late May. The route is paved and passable by passenger vehicles.
If you have a vehicle capable of driving off-road (pick-up truck or SUV), consider entering the forest via Iron Mountain Rd. (Forest Service Rd. 9535) outside Addy, Wash. in late May or early June. Look for a rocky outcrop about 1 mile southwest of the junction with Forest Service Rd. 300, for “a stupendous view of the Colville Valley, north and south,” Franklin Pemberton, the forests’ public affairs officer, said.
Highlights include prairie stars (Lithophragma parviflora), desert parsley and biscuitroot species (Lomatium sp.), and shooting stars (Dodecatheon hendersonii), plus “a few surprises,” he said.
But while flowers are a great way to get people excited about the outdoors, regional botanist Skinner believes sometimes people focus too much on timing trips in search of peak blooms, and overlook the flowers blooming all around them, every day.
“We have one of the outstanding floras of the world, with plant diversity being especially rich. We’ve got hundreds of species found nowhere else, and some of the most spectacular forests in the world. It’s a fantastic place for plants.” Skinner said.
One place visitors are guaranteed to see plenty of wildflowers is at the Glide Wildflower Show, April 28 and 29, at the Glide Community Center in Glide, Ore. Forest Service botanists will be among those helping identify more than 600 flowering plants gathered from local forests and fields by volunteers for display! Find news about the exhibition and related events on the show’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Glide-Wildflower-Show-377053879003054/