Category Archives: Wildflowers

Jasper National Park

June 5-8, 2024.

Typical driving scene

Photo album

I had been looking forward to Jasper National Park as an alternative to the hectic and overcrowded Banff. I’d heard it had wonderful scenery, great campgrounds (with free firewood!) and lots of incredible hiking. But a number of things conspired against me. First, I was still SICK. Second, the weather was not great. Lastly, it was still early season so much of the hiking was locked up in snow. Nevertheless, we had some great moments in this vast National Park. Here are some high- and low-lights.

Columbia Icefield

After a day of work in a day-use parking lot, we drove excitedly to the Columbia Icefield. I knew there was a giant parking lot where you could camp overnight, and while it wouldn’t be enjoyable we’d at least have pretty scenery.

We arrived in on-and-off snow flurries with no view of the icefield. No matter, let’s head inside, I thought. There must be an interpretive area or visitor center. When we opened the door to the main building, it felt like we had entered a crowded mall. People were standing in line at Starbucks, lingering in the hallways in packs and shoving their way into the gift shop full of tchotchkes. Bored attendants stood behind desks where you could book guided walks, bus tours and other curated experiences. We found the bathrooms and then hurriedly returned to the van. This was not it.

View of Columbia icefield from parking lot

The next morning, the skies cleared enough for us to see the glacier. There it is, and we are outta here.

Kerkeslin campground

After some driving, we found some breathing room by way of the first-come, first-served campgrounds. We pulled into Honeymoon Lake and found it half full, so we continued to Kerkeslin. The sites right near the lake were all full, but the remaining sites were practically empty. We picked a spot with enough of a clearing for Starlink and paid for two nights. It felt so good to be back in some quiet.

We walked to the river’s edge just to stretch our legs. I was absolutely floored by all the wildflowers! I eagerly squatted down here and there to get a look at the local flora. I punched all the clues into my Alberta Wildflower Search app (Android or iOS) to try and identify the unfamiliar ones. I found elephant ear lousewort, paintbrush, vetch, butterwort and a few I couldn’t figure out! The sun’s reflection off the water was so strong I had to look away from the gorgeous river and stay focused on the vegetation. We made a little loop through the woods back to our campsite and made preparations for dinner.

Flowers and river

Before we settled down, we walked to the huge pile of community firewood that’s available to registered campers. We amassed enough wood to last for the night and Aaron started chopping. I made another fire in the morning. Considering how long we’ve been on the road, we’ve hardly made any campfires. This was a rare treat. The sprinkles chased us back in the van both days, but this is a great resource available at many Canadian government-run campgrounds.

Athabasca Falls

We took one detour from the campground to Athabasca Falls. It was beautiful, but it was too overrun with tourists to really enjoy it. There was a tour bus in the parking lot that had flung all its occupants out onto the short network of trails. They were vying for the same handful of viewpoints, not to look at and appreciate the falls, but to take selfies. I was already grumpy upon arrival but this did not help.

I’d recommend coming here early in the morning, before people are out and about. Several walkways offer various viewpoints of the multi-level waterfall, an old rocky river channel and the turquoise river below.

Turquoise water below Athabasca Falls

Town of Jasper

Jasper was far, far, less crowded than Banff and I actually wish we’d chosen to spend more time there. We found an incredible business combo called 3Sheets. There, we shopped for art and stationery supplies while DOING OUR LAUNDRY. The laundromat combos we’ve discovered on this trip are usually on point. This was no exception; they even stayed open late just so we’d have enough time to throw our clothes in. I highly recommend a visit!

Freshly clad in clean clothes, we walked to Syrahs for a nice dinner. On this day, we celebrated Aaron’s last day of work before his one year sabbatical! Truly a cause for celebration. I had an incredible halibut meal and Aaron had a steak. The food was good, service attentive and environment fine. Besides the grocery store (packed, stressful, chaotic) we didn’t really see much else there. It has all the amenities you’d imagine in a tourist basecamp, but for us it was simply a place to do some chores before moving on.

Yum

Jasper Sand Dunes

As we high-tailed it north to the Alaska Highway, I positioned the Milepost on my lap. The Milepost is an extremely detailed guide that covers all the major highways to/from Alaska as well as the Alaska highway system itself. Multiple people told me before starting this trip that I must acquire this book. As Aaron drives, I look up to check the milepost (km in Canada) on the road and compare it to where we are in the book. And sometimes I notice things that are worth stopping for.

As I looked a little ahead on our route, I noticed an entry for “Jasper Sand Dunes”. WHOA! Let’s check that out!

Jasper sand dunes

We found a small dirt pullout with a pit toilet and enough room for several vehicles to park. We exploded out of the van and wandered along the use trails in the dunes. It felt so weird to be walking in the sand in the middle of this massive mountain range. I poked around at the shrubs and flowers, we took in some views of the forest, dunes and snowy peaks and watched a small herd of bighorn sheep grazing on a grassy dune nearby.

That would be our last stop in Jasper, as we had over 2,000 miles to get to Fairbanks by the end of the month.

Waterton Lakes National Park

May 26-29, 2024.

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I first learned about Waterton Lakes National Park back in 2019, when I was beginning to plan a trip to Glacier in the summer of 2020. We all know what happened that year, so Waterton remained on the back burner until now. It felt weird to book a campsite in a town inside a National Park, but this appeared to be our best option. I signed up for an account at Parks Canada, checked the calendar and typed in the number of the debit card I specifically ordered that has no foreign transaction fees. We were set!

Townsite

Our drive from Glacier across the Canadian Border was smooth sailing. No lines, no inspections, just a few questions plus our passports and we passed through. Soon, we arrived at the entrance to Waterton National Park, purchased an annual parks pass and headed into town. I’d read about the wind here, and as soon as I stepped out the van door, confirmed the rumors. I zipped up my coat all the way and we walked around the waterfront to get oriented. Since we were a little early to check into our campsite, we picked up lunch at a cafe, grabbed coffee and wandered through a few gift shops.

On first glance, our campground seemed pretty bleak. It was your typical RV park with angled parking slots lined up one after another, with just a little grass and a few small trees scattered about. But once we settled in, I realized it was actually pleasant. I enjoyed watching the flurry of ground squirrel activity as they ran about the lawn.

Bear’s Hump

We decided to hike from our campsite to the Bear’s Hump trailhead for our first excursion in the park. That added a short, relatively flat warm-up mile before the steep climb. As soon as we reached the parking area, we got our poles out in preparation for the 700′ of vertical in less than a mile. Since this is a very popular hike, I was glad that we’d waited until after dinner to start walking. The lot was almost empty.

Bear’s Hump as seen from the Townsite

As we huffed and puffed up each switchback, I took time to enjoy all the lovely Canadian wildflowers: paintbrush, clematis, baneberry, Canada violet and more. Each time we visit a new place I am excited to see some familiar plants while also searching for new ones.

As we came around the final turn up to the summit area, we were thoroughly blasted with wind. “And you thought it was windy at the lake?” the mountain seemed to say. We placed our bags carefully beneath the benches atop the rock outcrop and braced ourselves against the wind to take some photos. It was breathtakingly beautiful looking down at the lakeside campground, surrounded by mountain peaks. It was definitely worth the effort and weather to get up there!

Townsite as seen from the Bear’s Hump

We casually walked back and returned to the van well before sunset, despite having started at 7 pm. It’s so great to have this much daylight for playing outside and being able to start walking right from camp.

Red Rock Canyon and Goat Lake

Our trip to Waterton was a little early for many of the classic hikes due to snow in the upper mountains. But based on our conversations with the ranger, we thought we’d give Goat Lake a try. The hike begins from the Red Rock Canyon area, which is also a destination of a scenic drive. However the hike turned out, I knew we’d have a great day.

Red Rock Canyon

We arrived to a parking area that was buzzing with activity. We geared up for our hike and decided to immediately do a short detour along the Red Rock Canyon Loop, a paved trail around the aptly named little canyon. The rock was very beautiful, as was the plethora of wildflowers all around. Many others were there enjoying the canyon, so I was a little itchy to start hiking up the trail.

As soon as we veered off to hike towards Goat Lake, we were stuck behind a group of birders excitedly pointing their binoculars up to the trees. As we sneaked past them, I listened closely to figure out what the hubbub was about. A western tanager. We got some distance up the trail, then stopped, looked and listened. There! He was the first of many birds today.

The trail follows an old fire road through some gentle ups and downs and a couple of creek crossings. We learned that the entire area had burned in a 2017 fire that impacted 80% of the park! We looked through the charred remains of tree trunks for evidence of bears, elk or any other large animals but never found anything more notable than our tanager.

Huge mountains with sheer rock faces created a horizon line far above the treetops. It was a stark, beautiful landscape. Once we left the birders behind, we didn’t encounter anyone else heading up the trail. There was peace in this solitude.

Meadow-rue

We reached the junction with Goat Lake Trail and immediately began hiking uphill. We tried to pace ourselves as the trail climbed relentlessly. The grade seemed to get steeper and steeper as we went. Along the way I found many wildflowers that had taken root after the burn: blue-eyed Mary, clematis, pasqueflower, meadow-rue, avalanche lily. As the trail traversed the upper slopes, we crossed a few small snowfields that, if they’d have been any bigger, would have caused us to turn around. The consequences of slipping would have been a fast ride to the bottom of the canyon.

Steep hillside and waterfall

Snow completely filled the lake basin and the trail just beneath it. We stepped in other people’s postholes that we’d hoped were on route. Just as we were feeling like turning around, we spied the partly-frozen-over lake. I scouted out a dry patch for us to sit down and recover a bit before the hike down.

Not much of a lake

There were no goats at the lake, but Aaron spotted a few sheep above the trail just after leaving our resting spot. Once we got back to the fire road, we started seeing lots of hikers who had finally made their way up the trail. I was glad we didn’t have to pass or be passed while we were on the steep, exposed trail near the lake!

I can imagine this trail is a real stunner once the wildflowers peak in the bloom. But it also must be devastatingly hot at that time. You get what you get, I guess?

Cameron Falls

With not much time left to explore the park, we fit in one more short walk to Cameron Falls. But first, ice cream. The best park about camping in a town is ready access to all the amenities, so why not stop for an ice cream cone first? We stopped at Big Scoop Ice Cream Parlor, then walked at a casual pace to Cameron Falls. It’s literally right in town, so there’s no need to drive. We walked to the viewing area at the top of the falls, then back down to the bottom. The thick, gray clouds in the sky threatened to rain on our parade, so we didn’t linger too long. We looped back to camp through a park and giggled at the ground squirrels the whole way back. It was a great way to wrap up a day.

Cameron Falls

Highlights

I loved Waterton Lakes National Park. In the exit survey I completed for Parks Canada, I gave it high praise. But I noticed that most of the questionnaire revolved around how I felt about overcrowding and finding parking. Since there were barely any crowds on this visit, I wonder how crazy it gets during peak season. I am grateful that I got to experience this park without a glut of visitors. While I am sure you can access more hiking and see more wildflower meadows later in the season, that comes with the pressure of being surrounded by mobs of tourists. Honestly, I’d rather see it off-season.

That being said, I would be interested in going back during the peak of the summer, but perhaps with a backpacking route in mind. My hunger to see all the flowers must be balanced with my deep need for solitude. I felt great about all the times I had to myself on this visit, including the painting session I sneaked in during a gloriously non-windy weather window one morning.

On our very last day, we parked near the hotel so Aaron could work and while we were there, a black bear super casually strode across the parking lot. He waved his hands and pointed so I just caught a glimpse of the bear as it disappeared over a hill. It was exciting to get an animal sighting as our parting gift from Waterton.

Glacier National Park adventures

May 22-26, 2024.

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Arriving at the park

It was not my intention to visit a national park on Memorial Day Weekend. It never has been, and never will be. However, our route itinerary just happened to put us at Glacier National Park for this time frame, and I racked my brain to figure out how to make the most of our visit. If you’re not interested in trip planning, skip to the next section.

I was still sick; I’d been sick for the last couple weeks. All I wanted to do was sleep. But I spent a bunch of time looking up camping options and untangling the complicated reservation windows, driving distances, park closures and all the other annoying logistics that comes with camping at a national park. It’s hard to believe people do this for fun for their one vacation of the year.

I knew that the east side of the park was less popular, so we put ourselves in position to arrive on that side. I also knew that camping was available at St. Mary Campground (the ONE option) by reservation only starting May 24. We planned to be there from May 21-26. So that was a problem.

I found out that the sites are first-come-first-serve before the reservation window. But there was no way to tell how busy this campground would be before we arrived. And after talking with two rangers (and then just figuring it out on the confusing website on my own), while the reservable sites appeared to be completely booked, I learned that a number of reservable sites are released a few days ahead of time. I set a calendar appointment on my phone to remind me to go online the instant they were released. Then I snagged a site for the dates I needed.

Last obstacle: I just had to hope there was an open campsite when we rolled into Glacier well after dark, after driving several hours. We pulled into the campground, saw site #1 was open, parked and breathed a huge sigh of relief. We’d made it.

Welcome to bear country

Despite having hiked over ten thousand miles in the course of this lifetime (no, really, I have a spreadsheet), I’d never really spent time in bear country. Thus, leading up to this trip, I did a ton of reading about the subject. I’d listened to podcasts with experts on bear behavior. I’d learned from stories of survivors of bear attacks. I knew a few general principles of travel in bear country, but now it was time to put the knowledge into practice. Here’s official guidance from the NPS, if you’re interested in learning more.

When I got up the next morning and saw snow-capped mountains towering above me, I knew I needed to go for a walk. I still felt very sick and unmotivated. However, I couldn’t sleep forever. I decided to walk from the campground to the visitor center on a little connector trail and then see how much energy I had.

Hiking solo is not recommended in bear country, but I thought since I would be in the main area and not off in thick, brushy forest I’d be okay. Nonetheless, I made a few bear-aware choices: I carried bear spray on my hip belt and I made noise while hiking.

I thought the latter would be a challenge. I generally like quiet when I’m hiking because I listen for birds and other animal sounds. How else would you enjoy the trickle of a stream or the rustling of aspen leaves? But I found out that I normally do make noise when I’m hiking. Naturally, I talk to the birds, chatter at the squirrels and squeal when I find a new flower. I didn’t know I’d carried bear repellent all along.

Going-to-the-Sun Road by bike

Feeling a little better the next day, and knowing this trip would blow by really fast, I decided to take a bike ride up the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road. The road was closed 13 miles ahead, which gave me plenty of miles to explore.

I only had a couple hours anyway, so I filled up my water bottle, packed an extra layer, put on my helmet and started pedaling.

Immediately, the mountains captivated me. I was lucky that there were not many cars out early in the morning, so I could ride comfortably in the road without fear of being hit. In fact, the vehicles that shared the road with me were all extremely bike-aware and gave me plenty of room while passing, which I appreciated. People generally drove at slow speeds and I even had a car sit patiently behind me as I climbed up a hill with a blind corner and waited for a safe opportunity to pass. I never felt pressured to get out of the way and had a really positive experience on this ride. This is rare and notable to me.

As I rode up the road, mouth open and eyes wide, I tried to see and feel everything. I stopped to gawk at this patch of wildflowers. I veered into a pullout to see the sweeping overlook above a gigantic lake. Then, I pedaled faster to see what was around the next corner. Everywhere I looked was a new kind of magic. I texted Aaron, “I’ll turn around soon to make you lunch!” If I hadn’t had that chore to do, I would have gone all the way to the road closure.

Since I hadn’t planned on riding so far, I had no food with me. I never do that! I sucked on a throat lozenge, one of two that I packed for the ride. As I coasted into my final pullout, I layered on a wind jacket for the ride down. I hoped the slight decline would help me get back to the campground in less time than it took me to get here.

What I didn’t realize is how much I climbed on the way up the road. Gravity eased my decent back to the van; at times I felt like I was flying. Please note that I’m a climber: I enjoy going uphill in all things, whether its on foot, on skis or on a bike. And I don’t like speed. So it was an exhilarating return ride. I stopped to savor that second throat lozenge and continued all the way back in time for lunch. My only regret was that Aaron didn’t get to see the scenery, which we remedied later that day.

Going-to-the-Sun Road by van

After work, I told Aaron he must see this road. And in the van, we could go all the way to the closure. We took an evening drive through somewhat finicky and tumultuous weather. We made several stops, including a few brief walks to get a closer look at the flowers, water features and mountainscapes.

My favorite stop was the Sun Point Nature Trail, where we saw a ton of flowers, including a variety of fairyslipper that doesn’t grow in Oregon. Despite seeing many thousands of these flowers in the past, I was overjoyed to see the unfamiliar yellow throat of this cute little guy. We also saw one sheep, learning that they like to come down to the road for the salt. It was odd to find him vigorously licking at the road stripe when he had this whole majestic landscape in which to roam.

Grinnell Glacier Trail hike

After taking a full rest day, we took the park ranger’s advice and drove to the Many Glacier area to hike the Grinnell Glacier Trail. She warned us that it would be closed by snow at some point so we could not complete the hike to the upper lake. But, since I was still feeling under the weather and the clouds looked ominous for the day, I’d be happy with any distance of walk we could do.

In fear of Memorial Day crowds, we left camp early to grab a parking spot at the trailhead and made breakfast there. By 8:30 am, we hit the trail.

Loaded up with bear spray, art supplies and plenty of food, we began our hike on the Swiftcurrent Nature Trail. Later in the summer, boat shuttles schlep hikers across two large lakes adjacent to the trail, shaving about 4.5 miles off their round trip distance to the lake. Without that luxury, we walked along the scenic lakes. Considering I would have greatly preferred being curled up in bed all day, this was a great option.

The trail was lined with flowers. Birds sung complicated songs all around us. Using Merlin as our helper, we identified Pacific Wren, Wilson’s warbler, Townsend’s warbler, Northern waterthrush, fox sparrow, song sparrow, yellow warbler and golden-crowned kinglet! We also saw some birds in the lake: Barrow’s goldeneye and common merganser.

A few other hikers passed us on their way up the trail. We took our time, stopping several times for rest breaks, especially on the steeper sections. If I’d been in full health, this trail would have felt a lot easier. But I honored what my body needed that day and dialed it way back.

We ended up going further than I anticipated: all the way to the snow closure. This had become the theme of Glacier National Park! The landscape compelled me to do more than I wanted to do at the start. I knew I had only so much time here and I wanted to make the most of it.

And it was a legitimate snow closure. The trail disappeared under deep, wet snow just before traversing a steep hills with high-consequence drop-offs. Even with no illness, traction and an ice axe I would not have continued on this route. We stopped for a quick snack break as now the clouds were spitting rain and it was getting miserable up there.

On the hike back, we passed many more people. By the time we returned to the van, the lot was full. Our bodies felt cold and damp, so we changed into warm clothes, made lunch and cocoa, and relaxed in the comfort of the van for the rest of the afternoon.

Becoming a Junior Ranger

As soon as the visitor center opened, we picked up a copy of the Glacier National Park Junior Ranger booklet. All you have to do is ask someone there. Over the course of our visit, we did the activities in the book. Some involved answering questions about the park, others required some coloring or drawing and all of them had elements of fun and discovery. We brought our completed booklet back to the visitor center on the way out of the park. The ranger on staff that morning asked us a few questions about our work in the book and then swore us in as “Junior Rangers.” Although the booklets are designed for children middle school age and younger, we have found the activities to be enjoyable, too. They also encourage us to pay attention to things that we otherwise would have skipped.

I’ve done a few of these books at other parks too, including Saguaro National Park and Nicodemus National Historic Site in Kansas. They’re extra fun to do with friends or family instead of on your own. At Saguaro, two friends and I collaborated on inventing a desert animal and writing park-inspired poetry, for example. If you naturally don’t connect with your creative side (believe it or not, you have one) or child-like wonder, these books facilitate both of those things.

I’m so glad we visited Glacier National Park in the shoulder season and on the less busy side. I’d still like to return in the summer to see the high country, even if that means more planning and likely backcountry camping permits. This is a really special place.

Lewis and Clark Caverns

May 19-20, 2024.

lewis and clark caverns

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Caves

I was excited to explore a new cave. We arrived in the morning to secure a campsite and pick up tickets for a cave tour at Lewis and Clark Caverns in Montana. Still feeling pretty run down from my latest illness, I was not excited about the hike *to* the cave. But, I survived the three quarters of a mile uphill to the opening, being the first to arrive. We enjoyed scenic views of the moody mountains, with threatening gray clouds slipping between the distant ridgelines.

Views on the way to the caverns

Our enthusiastic tour guide gave us a comprehensive history of the cave and its previous caretakers before heading inside. She casually slipped in several local references that went way over our heads. I wonder how many of the people in the tour group picked up on anything related to this remote area. Still, I enjoyed her charisma and extensive knowledge of all things related to the park.

We stepped inside the cave, staying to the back of the group. I looked in awe at the many cave formations. The tour guide’s description of the geology faded into the background, as I had seen these things before. But every cave is a little different. This one had a small cluster of bats clinging to the ceiling right new the entrance! In most parks I’d visited before, they close the cave passageways that contain bats. Not here!

Turquoise pool in the caverns

For the next hour or so, we wandered through room after room of new shapes, colors and features. At one point we had to slide down a passage on our butts. Other portions of the cave had staircases and other built features to allow people to travel through it safely. At the end of the tour, we had a straight, flat walk back to where we started. I calculated before today’s outing that I’d hit the 10,000 lifetime hiking miles mark, so we stopped for a quick photo op before finishing up. Ten THOUSAND miles. That feels like a lot. I was a little annoyed that I didn’t reach this milepost on some ridiculously epic adventure. But then I reminded myself that every opportunity to get outside and walk is a joy and a privilege, and why not cross off that goal in this stunning landscape after an interesting and educational tour?!

10,000 lifetime miles hiked.

By the time we returned to the visitor center, I was wiped. Luckily, there was a small cafe attached to the gift shop, where we dug into bison burgers, chicken fingers, fries and a local huckleberry soda.

Wildflowers

Against my better judgment, I decided to go on a second hike along the nature trail. It would be easy, of course, in my normal state. But my body was still pretty angry as it fought off whatever bug decided to ruin my trip. Knowing this would be my last chance to hike this trail before leaving, we went for it anyway.

The forecasted rain still hadn’t come, so we enjoyed a partly cloudy walk at a casual pace. Along the way, I found what I’d been looking for: fairybells, buttercup, shooting star, balsamroot and yellow corydalis, among other things. No bitterroot, but I knew that would be a long shot. No bears either, another long shot.

Yellow corydalis! A new one for me.

When I worked on my Hike366 project, I learned that every hike counts, no matter how long or short, fast or slow. This really helped me savor every step of today’s short and mellow hikes in the cave and on the nature trail. I’ve also come to learn in the past few years that the slower you walk, the more things you SEE! I’m enjoying my time spent learning about all the wildflowers and being able to identify them as I hike. Even when I’m in excellent help, this curiosity about the natural world ends up slowing me down. Why rush when you’re surrounded by so much cool stuff, anyways?

And then, art

Later that evening, I completed my first ink sketching class in a series of five. I also did my first practice sketch in a 30-day sketching challenge. It felt so good to be working in black and white, and I can already tell that I’m beginning a love affair with the ink brush. I’m so interested to see what I learn and where this new tool takes me.

Ink sketching, day 1

Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area

April 22-24, 2024.

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I dropped Aaron off at the Denver Airport early in the morning. While he attended a work trip for a few days, I gallivanted off to Nebraska. My first stop: Panorama Point, the highpoint of Nebraska. This was not a hike; I drove on back highways and long gravel roads for a awhile to an entry to a private bison ranch. I dropped my $3 entrance fee in the box and finished the drive to the parking area.

Since leaving Oregon nearly a year ago, I’ve visited the summits of three state highpoints: Black Mesa (OK), Taum Sauk (MO) and Mt. Sunflower (KS). While I was way out in the middle of the country, I figured I may as well grab Nebraska’s highpoint. I might not be in spitting distance anytime soon. Now I’ve got nine peaks out of 50, which is not much to write home about, but I’m much closer to completing the list than I was last year!

Flora and fauna

By the time I arrived at the Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area, I was so sick of driving. I booked a campsite for the next two nights and settled in. My spot had a couple of trees perfect for setting up a hammock, so that’s the first thing I did. Looking up from my relaxing perch, I noticed quite a bit of bird activity. I spent the afternoon switching between reading, napping and birdwatching. I noticed a pair of mountain bluebirds gathering up nesting material and bringing it to their hole in a snag near my hammock trees. Then I observed as a pair of finches flew in and out of their nesting site in a jumble of mistletoe right over my head. And on the ground, several chipping sparrows bobbed their cute little red heads up and down searching for snacks.

I had spent so much time on the go lately that I didn’t even know how much I was craving this down time. My body melted into the hammock in a way that was so soothing and natural. Tomorrow, I thought, I’d gather myself up to explore.

The next morning, I set off on a nature walk. Well, after coffee in the hammock, of course. Along the way, I met many birds: mountain chickadees, pine siskins, red breasted nuthatches and even a turkey. I searched relentlessly for cactus flowers. While I never found a single one, I did make a wonderful discovery: SAND LILIES! I was very excited to see them, since they are one of my favorite Central Oregon wildflowers. I love how I get to visit the Oregon natives even while out of the state.

Much to my surprise, I was also delighted to see dandelions because of what else was attracted to them: bees and butterflies. I spent quite a bit of time crouched down in a squat watching them gather pollen and nectar.

Having no agenda

The best part of my day was not having to move the van. I really embraced having so much downtime with nowhere to be, no reason to be productive and no one to answer to. Aaron is an extremely easy person to live with, but things just feel different when I’m totally on my own. I found out today that he bumped his flight back out one day so he could visit with a friend in the Portland area. Great, I thought, I just got another day to enjoy having no agenda. The Wildcat Hills, kind of a bleh place that’s managed primarily for hunters, ended up being a decent spot to see wildlife and flowers while mostly relaxing under shade trees (did I mention it was HOT).

It’s important in life in general, but also while doing long-term travel, to have some days as nothing days. As a recovering Type-A planner, this is a lesson that I’ll likely need to learn a few more times before it truly sticks. But, it’s becoming easier the longer we spend on the road to go with the flow and not try to jam-pack every day with activities and/or driving. A relaxing hammock day is just as valuable, and necessary, as a double-digit hike day or long drive to some epic destination.

Romero Canyon

March 18, 2024.

13.7 mi | 2930′ ele. gain | 7:30 hr.

Photo album

In search of wildflowers and a good, long hike, I strapped on my backpack and ventured up into Romero Canyon. My hike began from our campground in Catalina State Park, which was no more than a gravel parking lot stuffed to the gills with monster RV’s, trailers, vans and multi-room tents. It was an absolute nightmare. I couldn’t wait to disappear up a trail. Ringtail campground: do not recommend.

I walked up a multi-use path to the main trailhead, where I immediately took off my shoes to cross the creek. On the other side, my heart and soul were soothed with big views and colorful wildflowers. The cacophony of voices swiftly dissipated as I gained more distance from the creek. This was a popular place, and for good reason! Lots of folks were out enjoying the beautiful morning.

The trail climbed up and over some rocky business before dropping down into the canyon. I made frequent stops to photograph and identify flowers. To an Arizona native, these flowers were likely nothing to stop for. But, since it was mostly all new to me, each bloom was a miracle of nature.

Upon reaching Romero Pools, I soaked in the views, crossed the creek and kept exploring. Each step was more and more beautiful. The trail weaved back and forth across the water, but rocks in the creek let me hop across with dry feet. As I continued up and up, the vegetation changed from saguaro to alligator juniper, poppies to paintbrush. It’s so fun to read the elevation of the landscape in the plants that grow there.

The forecast called for afternoon thunderstorms, and I noticed the clouds building all morning. As the canyon ahead of me became more sinister gray than fluffy white, I decided to turn back. Shortly after, I felt a few raindrops. A couple of hikers still heading up canyon brushed past me, clearly unconcerned about the change in weather. I did not want to get stuck in this canyon in a thunderstorm, so I kept barreling downhill.

As I got closer and closer to the parking lot, I saw more and more people, not a single one reading those clouds the same way I did. Maybe the locals knew their weather patterns better than me. No matter, I stuck with my gut decision and headed out. I got two lovely rewards as a result: a coati butt sighting and open tuber anemones. The anemones had been closed earlier in the day, but they must have gotten enough sunshine to spread their petals wide by the time I returned.

The foreboding skies never evolved into a thunderstorm, so maybe I could have kept going. I’m still happy with the decision I made because I would have just been stressed out and not enjoying my time had I continued further up canyon. Plus, if the storm had materialized, I would have been screwed. Always strive to hike another day!

Mt. Ajo

January 24, 2024.

9.3 mi. | 2750′ ele. gain | 5:30 hr.

Photo album

I woke up before sunrise to drive to the Mt. Ajo trailhead in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. It was cool and overcast, which is great weather for southern Arizona hiking! As soon as I geared up and hit the trail, I found myself in a cactus paradise. Since it had rained a ton lately, I kept my eyes peeled for wildflowers. Within the first mile, I found two ocotillo plants in bloom. Their bright red flowers exploded from the gangly, green branches twisting into the sky.

Still feeling sick, I plodded uphill slowly, taking many short breaks. I committed at the start of the hike to take a longer sit-down break on the hour every hour, no matter how I was feeling, plus any additional stops I wanted. This strategy allowed ample recovery time so that I could keep hiking all day. I was the tortoise, not the hare.

I could hear water running in the canyons; an unusual sound. The trail crossed a few seasonal creeks as it climbed to its end. An unofficial route continues up to the summit of Mt. Ajo. For much of its length, the trail was well marked and brushed out, a rarity for summit scrambles! But I think Mt. Ajo is a relatively common destination and it’s located in a National Monument.

Every aspect of the route offered something new to look at and lots of reasons to stop and catch my breath. The low clouds kept the summit shrouded in mystery for most of the hike. I huffed and puffed up the steep gully leading to the final traverse, taking a few steps at a time before resting. This cold was really kicking my ass.

On the long, high traverse, I spied a few flowers: a mustard and a few paintbrush. The rocky ridge went in and out of view as the clouds shifted. When surveillance aircraft were not flying nearby, it was spectacularly quiet. Here, just a few miles from the US-Mexico border, you’re constantly reminded of how dangerous migrants are. There is lots of official signage telling you to report any suspicious activity. When I overhear conversations among tourists in the area, there’s a lot of fear, anxiety and blame. It’s unsettling, to say the least. I feel heartened when driving through local towns where there are resources for migrants and yard signs reminding folks of the basic humanity that all of us share. Hearing helicopters and sonic booms while hiking in the mountains reminds me that the U.S. sure does have a lot of money to spend, but not necessarily on the things that will reduce fear and help people thrive.

As all these thoughts swirl in my head, I reach the summit, completely immersed in water vapor. I was glad that I made myself stop for a snack break just a half mile before. It was not a pretty spot since there were antennas and equipment everywhere. I tagged the top and immediately started my descent.

Once I went down enough to get out of the coldest, wettest air, I sat down and pulled out my thermos of ramen. At that moment I was really glad I took a real lunch on my hike. So satisfying and energizing!

The rest of the day, I walked in peace. I relished every shrub, rock, trickle of water, cactus, fleeting cloud and flash of feathers. I was glad I dragged myself out of bed to be in nature, despite how bad I felt. As always, and especially as I get wiser, I give myself the option of turning around at any point. The summit is a nice treat, but it’s not a requirement. I know that every minute I spend outside is valuable no matter what I “accomplish” while I’m out there. It took me many years to come to this realization, but I think this attitude will help me continue to seek joy and solace outdoors no matter what my physical state happens to be.

As I returned to the trail and began the loop down, I ran into one other hiker. It was an older woman, wearing a big sun hat, with an InReach mini on her pack and a huge smile on her face. We shared a few lines of conversation and went on our respective ways. Her stoke filled me right up and I rode that wave of happiness all the way down to the parking lot. Damn right I’m going to be that older person one day.

Monkeyflowers at Diamond Craters

September 17-18, 2023.

Look, a crater!

Photo album

On our way to Steens Mountain, we made a last minute decision to pull off for the night at Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area. Most folks will never make it here once in their lifetime; this would be my third visit. It is remote, there are no services and it gets no press. But it truly is outstanding, and this visit it was unusually so.

Nesom’s monkeyflower

As we drove past one of the first volcanic features, I had an “Aaron, stop the van!” moment. What at first looked like autumn red leaves on the ground turned out to be a superbloom of Nesom’s monkeyflowers: showy, bright, fuchsia blooms peppered throughout the cinder. It was a magnificent sight. I jumped out of the vehicle to get a closer look. While I was out there, I also noticed some delicate buckwheat flowers and the characteristic late summer bloomers: smoothstem blazing star.

Yes, we’d stay here.

Another surprise on our evening walk

Further up the road, we found a nice pullout with a hilltop view of the surrounding hills and craters. According to the BLM website, this designated area has the entire suite of basalt volcano features, such as spatter cones, lava tubes and maars. If you are curious enough to Google those things, you might want to schedule a trip to Diamond Craters to see them in person!

That evening, Aaron and I took a short stroll along a the road. We found thousands more flowers in bloom, and then…a flurry of activity. Hummingbird moths were busily zipping from flower to flower, feeding on the sugary nectar inside. I’d never seen so many of them at once! The pastel colors spreading across the dusky sky provided a beautiful backdrop for the scene unfolding in front of us. Sometimes the most memorable moments are unplanned.

Can you see the hummingbird moth?

Take a hike

The following morning, Aaron got to work and I took off on a hike. We were within a few miles of Malheur maar, a volcanic crater with a spring-fed pond inside. I made that my destination.

It would be another oppressively hot day, so I started walking right after breakfast. Along the road I saw some interesting flowers in bloom, which I later learned are introduced weeds. Nonetheless, I enjoyed looking at the delicate, translucent petals tucked between sharp points projecting from the stems. Apparently, some local butterflies appreciated the plants too.

So pokey.

I veered off the road at Twin Craters, following a use path along the east side of one of the twins, then bushwhacking around the northern perimeter to the other one. The whole time, I was very cognizant of the possibility of running into a rattlesnake like I’d done just a few days before. No snakes today.

On the other side of the craters, I stumbled across many other cool lava features, including deep cracks in the ground and what I like to call sourdough loaves. I think these are more properly called “tumuli,” but they look so much like the cracked tops of freshly baked loaves of bread that I can’t resist renaming them.

I wandered through the features, poking around anywhere that looked interesting, until I eventually made it to a lava balcony above Malheur maar. This location was incredible because here, out in this hot and dry expanse, I heard a cacophony of water-loving birds. I saw a ring of luscious green grass. I felt like I was transported into a new and unexpected landscape. The maar is quite small, but it creates its own riparian ecosystem surrounded by sagebrush and craggy volcanic rock.

Malheur maar

It was a scene that asked to be painted. So, I sat there to paint. As I did so, the morning clouds began to part and make way for the blazing sun. The hike back was much hotter and sunnier than before. The bright light now glinted off of the many bottles and cans carelessly thrown from vehicles years, even decades, before. I collected them as I walked.

Another feature distracted me from my beeline to the van: an old wooden structure. I veered off the road to investigate, and even as I walked all around it, I couldn’t figure out what it was. It couldn’t be an entrance to a mine, out here? It was just lava for miles. And it couldn’t have been a bridge, because why? Perhaps a little encampment? Again, why here? The mysterious wood remnants brought me, however, to another magnificent patch of monkeyflower. I lingered for a few more moments to bask in their beauty before the sweaty hike back.

This brief stop reminded me of several things about travel. One: just because you’ve been somewhere once doesn’t mean you’ve checked that place off your list for good. You can have many different experiences in the same place, especially if you visit during a different season, with a different person, in different weather or with a different attitude. Two: it’s important to leave flexibility in your travel agenda. I had no plans to stop here. About twenty minutes from the road intersection, I just happened to notice it while scrolling around on my map and said “hey let’s stop at Diamond Craters tonight.” Three: the unexpected little things often bring more delight than the big, much anticipated ones. Seeing the purple wildflowers carpeting the desert in September shocked and amazed me. Then, when we saw all the moths flying around, I felt like I’d found myself in paradise.

I love the childlike sense of wonder that I often feel when we’re on the road. That’s one reason I think we’ll keep doing it beyond our initial timeline. We’re already about five months in, but it seems like we’re just getting started…

Elkhorn Crest Traverse

August 8-11, 2023.

Some okay views from here

Photo album

The Elkhorn Crest Trail had been on my to-do list for many years. I had an opportunity to spend 4 days on the trail while in Northeast Oregon, so I researched the route, made a list, packed my backpack and hit the trail.

Day 1: Orientation

5.4 mi | 1130′ ele. gain | 2:30 hr.

Moody clouds

Upon seeing the weather forecast, I took my packraft and paddle out of my backpack. Highs only in the 70’s and mostly cloudy? That didn’t feel like it was worth the weight of a boat. I had mountains to climb, anyways, and I already hate backpacking. That decision would make the next few days slightly easier.

Hate backpacking? That can’t be right? Sure looks dreamy on Instagram. However, my body has never adapted to carrying an overnight pack, ever. No matter what shape I’m in, how much backpacking I do (which, arguably is never that much), what pack I have, how much weight is in it, etc. I just feel awful. It’s not just the “I’m working really hard” kind of awful, it’s the blisters and tweaks and aches and rubbing of pack against skin over and over and over that makes me ask, couldn’t I have just done this as a dayhike?

Sure, there are some humans who can cruise the Elkhorn Crest in a day, but that was never my intention. I wanted to move at a pace at which I could really experience and enjoy it. Besides, there were side objectives I wanted to see. Mt. Ruth, Rock Creek Butte and Elkhorn Peak were all on my agenda in addition to the trail.

I set off from the parking lot at Anthony Lakes Ski Area after a long, slow breakfast and packing session. The morning was overcast and chilly, so I was in no rush to get out the door. The start of the trail wasn’t terribly remarkable. There were lots of tiny huckleberry bushes and just past prime wildflowers. The forest opened up near Angell Pass to provide a preview of the views I’d enjoy for the remainder of the hike. I then made my way down to Dutch Flat Lake, a pretty little lake with some giant campsites that indicated it got heavy use. After eating my lunch there, I decided to scout out a campsite away from the lake shore just in case a group decided to show up and be obnoxious.

Hammock camping

I was right about a group showing up but I was not right about how far away from the lake I’d have to go to not hear them literally yelling for 8 straight hours after setting up their camp. I put my headphones in and laid in my hammock, alternating between napping and crossword puzzles until dinner time. Wanting to enjoy nature, the whole reason I came here, I briefly took my headphones out to try and identify the various lovely bird songs filling the air. But they soon got drowned out by more yelling, so the headphones went back in.

Day 2: Finding a rhythm

9.8 mi. | 1765′ ele. gain | 5:20 hr.

Morning sun

Bright rays of sunshine brought me out of my quiet slumber. Ah, the sun! It was a beautiful sight to see after yesterday’s thick gray cloak. I had coffee and pop tarts and watched the clouds flitter across the sky. I got packed up to leave, and just about when I took my first steps, the group starting roaring awake. It was just in time.

The clouds eventually overtook the sun, which meant the air was cool and refreshing for hiking. I made my way up the trail to the base of Mt. Ruth’s northwest ridge. There, I switched to a tiny day pack and picked my way past granite boulders and twisted whitebark pine to the summit. The top of the mountain provided a comfy place to sit and enjoy the view for a bit. I munched on a bag of salty-sweet popcorn from Bend Popcorn Company; this was an excellent trail snack!

I returned to my pack, continued along the Elkhorn Crest trail to a very confusing trail junction, then found the path to Summit Lake. A mile of ups and downs led me to a picturesque lake surrounded in part by dramatic cliffs. I found a nice, well-established camp spot with trees for my hammock near the lake and settled in. I could hear a small family nearby but they mostly kept to themselves. This camp was a stark difference from the previous night. I didn’t mind having these folks as neighbors!

I read a bunch of my book and did a little painting at the lake. Dinner was a delicious dehydrated chili with crumbly cornbread topping. I do miss having access to a dehydrator, as I used to make all my backpacking meals from scratch. This one tasted pretty good, although it was expensive and it wreaked havoc on my digestive system later.

Summit Lake

Briefly, I caught a glimpse of a mama and baby goat racing through my neighbor’s camp. But in a flash, they were gone. I was promised goats on this hike, and so far it was pretty disappointing for wildlife sightings.

Day 3: The longest, hottest day

14.8 mi | 2640′ ele. gain | 8 hr.

Little pink buckwheat

In preparation for this trip, I used various mapping apps to calculate my daily mileage and elevation gain. Although there are many write-ups on the internet for the Elkhorn Crest Trail, none of them did exactly what I was planning to do. Today’s estimated mileage was 9.5, with a summit of Rock Creek Butte towards the end of the day. Anything under ten feels pretty doable with an overnight pack for me, so I wasn’t terribly concerned about getting an early start or getting psyched for a big day.

However, my calculations were wildly wrong. I figured out after I was done with the hike where I had gone wrong with my math, but that didn’t matter in the moment. The weather was much sunnier, which made for prettier views but hotter hiking conditions. The heat sapped my energy and I stopped for multiple breaks in just the first few miles. At some point, I saw a large cairn just off the trail, and it was not indicated on my map as a junction or point of interest. I had to see what it was though.

A phone to God? I immediately remembered seeing pictures of this thing while researching trip reports. I would love to know the whole story.

Sure.

I looked ahead on my map and chose a spot that I thought would make a reasonable lunch destination. I just needed to keep moving until then. As I rounded my final turn towards the spot, I saw a pair of eyes staring back at me. A cow. And her whole posse. I’m familiar with cows, as I frequently end up biking or hiking where they’re grazing. Generally they just get annoyed enough as you get close to them that they walk away. But this band of cows wanted to stand their ground. I managed to herd them away from my precious lunch stop for about 20 minutes, but then they were stubbornly piled on top of the trail headed my way. No amount of yelling, waving my poles around, walking towards them would get them to move. So I had to walk a big semi-circle off trail to get back on course on the other side.

Also not helping: foot pain and afternoon heat. I had no idea why my foot was hurting so badly, but nothing I did seemed to make it better. I did manage to figure out how to make it worse, though.

As I complained loudly about my ungrateful foot, I passed under peak after peak after peak. And at each one, I asked myself, “is this it?” The trail felt interminably long. How far have I gone, anyways? It had to be over nine miles at this point. And this is when I realized I’d messed up my planning. I sat with my map, using the distance calculating tool in CalTopo to help me re-orient for the remainder of the day’s route. I was so annoyed about this error. Had I known I was in for a nearly 15-mile day, I would have mentally prepared for that.

But, there was nothing to do but trudge ahead so that’s what I did. When I finally arrived at the base of Rock Creek Butte, I almost blew right by it, thinking it was just another blip on the ridge. I left my backpack under a large tree right above the trail and slowly hiked uphill. I was so tired that I used the step-counting method to help keep my pace. 1-2-3…15. Rest. 1-2-3…15. Rest. I repeated that on the steepest parts, then increased the number of steps to 20, 30, 40 as the grade mellowed out.

At least there were flowers along the way

At last, I collapsed near a huge cairn at the top and paged through some of the thousands of entries in the summit register. Apparently, this is a very popular place! I felt lucky to have it all to myself at this moment.

But, my day wasn’t done. I had to keep walking to the junction with Twin Lakes trail and then hike the horribly long and flat switchbacks to the lake. These were the most insanely gradual switchbacks I’d ever seen, and the last thing I needed to end a frustrating day. As soon as I found a campsite that had a couple good hammock trees, I called it good. I immediately dunked my feet in the lake and started chilling a beer.

At dinnertime, I got my stove set up to boil water, then I received my first visitors.

Mountain goats. A dozen of them. They barged right into my camp, so I cautiously backed away to give them space. They were not at all frightened or impressed by me, so they kept pushing towards me. I backed up, they came forward. Over and over again. I knew there was one other party camped at the other end of the lake, so I decided to hustle over there and find safety in number as the goats were clearly not afraid of me. When I arrived, I met two kids who were standing around a campfire (don’t even get me started). We stayed together until the goats moved past the lake. I thanked them for letting me barge into their space and retreated to my camp.

Goat…friends?

The goats visited me again that evening, but I was comfortably bundled up in my hammock and was too tired to be bullied out. I yelled and waved at them and waited until they left to fully relax into my book. Then I reminded myself that I wanted to see goats…

Day 4: The long walk home

10.5 mi | 1410′ ele. gain | 5 hr.

Lupine

I awoke early, with the sun, and slowly began preparations for breakfast. The goats wouldn’t have it, however. This time, twice as many animals appeared and completely overran my camp. I desperately tried to give them adequate space as I hurriedly shoved food in my face and packed up what I could. Being completely acclimated to people, they did not give me any space and practically ran over all my supplies. I aggressively shooed them away so I could load up my bag and get out of there. The whole encounter felt so ridiculous.

No zoom needed

But the baby goats were so cute.

I put my head down and marched up the horrible switchbacks. At the saddle, I stashed my backpack and headed up towards my last summit: Elkhorn Peak. Although it is the namesake peak of the range, it’s not the highest (that’s Rock Creek Butte). However, I found this scramble entirely more interesting and fun than Rock Creek Butte. At the top, there was no summit register. But I did find an odd, makeshift beacon-looking thing. I just never know what I’m going to find at or along the way to all these highpoints. One of many reasons why I love chasing after them!

Back at my pack, I knew I only had a few more miles to hike before reaching the other end; the end of the trail, not of my hike. I still had many miles of road walking to do to get to a place where Aaron could pick me up in the van. Tales of the shittiness of this road have traveled far and wide.

I barreled though this last part as fast as I could, slightly annoyed that I couldn’t enjoy it. The Elkhorn Crest Trail, famously one of the best high routes in Oregon, according to hikers on the internet, and here I was just trying to get it over with. But I reminded myself that there is no “best” and “top ten lists” are meaningless.

A hike is an entire experience. It’s the trail, sure. But it’s also the weather, the conditions, the wildlife, the solitude, the companionship, the frame of mind, the physical state of your body, and so many other things. And just the idea that I was supposed to enjoy this trail more than other spectacular trails I’ve been on felt a bit silly. I’m very fortunate to have spent time in so many incredible spaces across the state of Oregon. As nice as this was, it wasn’t quite the standout that I expected. And perhaps the expectation set me up for feeling this way.

On the way to the trailhead, I encountered two groups of mountain bikers and two pairs of backpackers. These were essentially the only people I saw on trail in fours days. It was wild that they all came in a sudden blast. I knew a shuttle ran on Friday mornings, dropping people off at this end. I assumed that was the result.

Elkhorn Crest, traversed!

I took a break at the trailhead, airing out my feet completely. Meanwhile, I sent Aaron a check in on my Garmin InReach to let him know my progress, then began the questionably long road walk past the bad sections of road. I estimated up to a 6-mile road walk, so I screwed my head on for that. Based on previous flubs, I checked my estimate multiple times before embarking on this last leg!

To my great surprise, a beautiful wildflower display greeted me along either side of the road. They were the best flowers I’d seen on the entire trip! What a treat. I had not looked forward to the drudgery of a road walk, but it was actually one of my favorite sections. What was that about expectations?

Roadside bouquet

About 5 miles down the road, I stopped near a rushing creek. The road surface had been consistently good for at least a half a mile, so I felt confident that Aaron could drive the van there. I sent one final check in, dunked my feet in the ice cold water and laid down with a book. A couple hours later, my chariot arrived, loaded with fresh wood-fired pizza from Anthony Lakes!

In sum, I turned a 28-mile trail into a four day, 40-mile adventure with three highpoints, three lakeside camps and some mountain goat encounters I’ll never forget. The wildflowers didn’t wow me, but so many other things did. I am just glad to have these opportunities to spend multiple days alone on the trail as we travel full time in the van. And I can’t complain about a warm pizza upon pickup.

Steens Mountain wildflower hunt

July 24 – July 31, 2023.

How many different wildflowers can you see?

Photo album

One of my must-see destinations for my cross-Oregon wildflower hunting trip was the Steens Mountain. Located in Southeast Oregon, the Steens is a unique fault-block mountain rising up from the expansive desert. It’s shaped like a wedge, gradually ascending from the west to a highpoint of nearly 10,000 feet. Then it drops abruptly in a series of craggy cliffs about 5,000 vertical feet to the Alvord desert. In most years, visitors can drive a loop road up from Frenchglen to the summit of the mountain and back, passing by multiple scenic viewpoints overlooking glacially carved canyons. And at the right time of year, you can marvel in an explosion of wildflowers, many of which grow nowhere else but there.

It was that time of year.

Unfortunately, a landslide and subsequent road work closed a portion of the loop road. We had to make a choice about which way to go. For me, it was a no-brainer; we drove the north side of the loop, which was open to the summit and several miles down the other side. That gave us the most opportunities for exploring, camping, hiking and hanging out.

Page Springs campground

Our trip began at the base of the mountain, elevation 4200″. We’d camped at Page Springs before, but only in the fall/winter. It’s a different experience in the summer. The heat of the late July sun was absolutely brutal. The only respite we had was the cold Blitzen River running along the edge of our campsite. At every chance we got, we plunged into the refreshing water.

Western clematis seed heads along the river trail

I attempted to take a hike along the river trail that emerges from the campground, but I ran into two problems: voracious mosquitoes and a trail long abandoned by the BLM. It’s too bad, because it has the potential to be a lovely place to walk. I’d hiked it back in 2013 and I even described it as brushy back then. Despite the challenges, I made it about a mile up before turning around. On the way I found some pretty flowers and even saw teasel (invasive but whatever) in bloom for the first time.

Iconic viewpoints

One nice thing about Steens Mountain is that it is an experience right from the car. You don’t even have to go on any massive hikes to have an enjoyable experience. Of course, if you are able to and want to go hiking I strongly recommend it!

Aaron and I pulled off at every signboard and marked viewpoint along the north loop road. We learned about history, geography, weather and more as we putt-putted along the drive. It became refreshingly cool as we ascended the road. I had to put some layers on as temperatures dipped into the mid-fifties at time. It was a far cry from the 90-degree weather we had down below.

Fields of yellow as seen from the loop road

With each gain in elevation, we got to see new and different wildflowers. Aaron’s favorite is the elk thistle. This unusual plant grows up to 6 1/2 feet tall, has long leaves covered in spines and produces bright purple flowers. It is one of the more aggro plants I’ve seen in the world.

Elk thistle

My favorite is quite the opposite. It’s a subspecies of cushion buckwheat that is made of a low-growing mat of leaves, from which long stems protrude. Each stem is topped by a pink pom-pom looking thing that is a cluster of tiny flowers. Many of the plants lie prostrate, like they are resting. Others stand tall and look like they were invented by Jim Henson (the Muppet guy). They are cute and precious and I just want to stop and touch every one.

Cushion buckwheat ala Steens Mountain

We saw both of these flowers growing right by the road and at our feet at the highest elevation pullouts. Other high mountain finds included silky phacelia, balloon-pod milk vetch, orange sneezeweed and the tiniest little lupine.

At the tops of each U-shaped valley, we tried to imagine a time where they were filled completely with ice. Over time, glaciers carved the incredible landscapes we see today. It fascinating to learn the geologic history of such a special place.

View from the Steens summit trailhead

Freedom to roam

In my opinion, the best way to experience the Steens is on a cross-country adventure. And with such a wide-open landscape, this is easy to do. I did a few hikes on my own while Aaron worked. I plotted routes that led down into the canyons, across vast meadows, along stunning creeks and up to the rocky ridges. Despite the elevation, the days still got pretty hot so I tried to stay near water whenever possible.

I was impressed both by the number of different types of wildflowers as well as the overall volume of flowers. In places, the ground looked as if it was painted yellow or purple or a collage of colors, simply due to the density and number of plants in bloom at once. Any creeks or wet patches were easily identified because of the deep green adjacent to whatever was flowering there. In the span of a couple minutes, I could walk from a boggy swamp to a dusty, dry desert. And back again!

These pretty yellow paintbrush were everywhere.

It was on one of these excursions that I ran into my most unusual hiking find yet. Below the summit, on some random, rolling ridgeline lay what appeared to be a death mask. I didn’t have the heart to touch it or get too close but I took some photos and video of this object. People seem to think it was someone’s art project. I thought it was utterly creepy without any explanation next to it. Although I hike alone a ton, I’ve never felt as weirded out as I did at that moment. I hurried out of there to get back towards the road, which is when I discovered a little cliff. It took just a couple of rock climbing moves to get up over it, which made that find feel even more out of place. Whoever left that mask there really wanted to get to that spot.

Go ahead, you explain it.

What I wanted to see was bighorn, but no luck. That’s the thing with wandering around outdoors. You never can be quite sure what you’ll find.

Wildhorse Lake

Our friends Kevin and Casey joined us up in the Steens for the last few days of our visit. We took them to all the scenic pullouts as well as a couple of short hikes, including this one. If you’ve been up to the top of Steens Mountain, you’ve likely done this one too. It’s only 1.2 miles to walk to the lake, but it’s nearly 1000 vertical feet downhill. That’s a lot of climbing up to get back out to your car.

So close, so far away.

I was not going to waste the opportunity to get our packrafts in the lake, so I took my 60L pack and loaded both rafts, paddles, picnic supplies, art supplies as well as the usual ten essentials to make for a fun day. It was worth the effort. Once we found a nice spot on the lakeshore, we settled in for the afternoon. Aaron swam, Kevin read, Casey painted and I dreamed up a plan for rafting. A strong wind blew across the lake, which was not ideal for our flatwater boats. But I decided we’d hike to the opposite side of the lake, put in and let the wind blow us back to our beach. And that’s what we did. For an added bonus, the hanging meadows we saw from our put-in spot were astonishingly beautiful.

We had to stop many times on the hike up to catch our breath, which meant lots of time for wildflower watching! There were many varieties of paintbrush, buckwheat and penstemon. We also saw bog orchid, desert parsley, field chickweed, asters, thistle and a variety of GDYC‘s.

Nature’s bounty

Steens summit

I visited the summit twice on this trip, once alone and once with Kevin. By far, the best native plant on this walk is the balloon-pod milkvetch. I’m usually not a big fan of the plants in the vetch family, but this one is a stand out. I’m not even sure what the flowers look like, but the seed pod it creates is so bizarre. Picture a hollow kidney bean that’s translucent yellow-green in color with mottled red spots. Now picture thousands of them covering the ground in clusters, dangling from vetchy leaves. When new, the pods are plump and squishy. When they dry out they become hard, detach from the plant and shatter as the wind blows them into surrounding rocks. This spreads the seeds and thus spreads the plant. What a weird, alien life form!

Balloon-pod milkvetch

But this is not all there is to see on the Steens Mountain summit. Buckwheat grow in great profusion. Some form rather large mats with flowers embedded between the leaves, sprawling out like tentacles along the ground or spiking tall above the plant. Clumps of yellow composites, some with ray flowers and some without. In stark contrast, beautiful purple penstemon blooms nearby. All with the surreal backdrop of the vast Oregon desert.

Steens Mountain is one of Oregon’s treasures. Whether you visit for an hour, a day or a week; whether you hike, bike or drive; whether you know your wildflowers and geology or not, you will have a novel and beautiful experience there. Anyone who’s spent any time living in Oregon should make it a point to journey there. For tips on planning a trip, check out ONDA’s Steens Mountain region guide. Or, post your questions in the comments. I’ve visited several times in different seasons and I’ll likely go back and visit again!