Category Archives: Wildflowers

Buckhorn Lookout to Eureka Point

June 23-24, 2023.

10.4 mi | 2225′ ele. gain | 6:45 hr.

Snake River views

Photo album

Far, far up in the northeast corner of Oregon lies an old, boarded up fire lookout called Buckhorn Lookout. It’s only about an hour’s drive from Joseph, but the little mountain town of Joseph is many miles away from most places. Based on the write up in Matt Reeder’s Extraordinary Oregon, I decided to put this on the list of places to visit while wildflower touring around Oregon.

We arrived just before sunset and took in the incredible light show in the sky from the lookout viewpoint. The van looked particularly majestic in this colorful skyscape. The lookout itself is perched atop a remarkable canyon rivaling the Grand Canyon. But here we were, in Oregon, enjoying a quiet and peaceful vista worthy enough to be in a National Park.

Eureka Point hike

In the morning, I pointed my GPS towards Eureka Point. I began my walk from Eureka Lookout, following rough dirt roads, to the official trailhead for this hike. I think this is actually the better place to begin the hike, especially during wildflower season. I walked past so many vibrant patches of flowers, including buckwheat, mule’s ears, larkspur and geranium. It was a very scenic road walk that was about to get even more scenic.

Hills of various wildflowers

The route follows an old road, so the tread is wide and generally pretty gradual as it descends into the Imnaha Canyon. Bees and butterflies buzzed and flitted among the plethora of perky blooms. A cool breeze blew up from the canyon below; I knew it wouldn’t last, so I enjoyed it while I could. Along the road, I passed through shady clumps of trees, wide open meadows, rock gardens. It became notably drier and dustier the further I went. It amazes me how hiking a trail with significant elevation gain is like time travel; what’s in peak bloom at the top is long gone at the bottom, and vice versa. I traveled through spring to early summer to late summer all in the course of a few hours.

The last third of the hike was extremely hot, brown and desperate looking. I debated whether it was worth going to the end point noted in the book or whether my time would be better spent prancing through the wildflower meadows back towards the lookout. But I was so close, and I thrive on hitting known targets, so I carried on.

Despite the book describing an actual route to this slightly-off-trail viewpoint, I made my own way out there (mostly because I’d forgotten this narrative existed). I climbed over a barbed wire fence, poked around at a few overlooks, then almost get poked back: prickly pear cactus! It was of course, too late to see them in flower, but I was still excited to find a new-to-me patch of cactus in Oregon!

Prickly pear cactus

It was very windy up there. I found the most reasonable spot to sit, eat lunch and paint. I couldn’t imagine ever being back in that area again, so I really wanted to savor my time there. Painting has given me a good reason to sit and enjoy a space. To really see a space. And to notice just how much I don’t see when I’m in motion. I still can’t believe how much time I’ve wasted trying to move as quickly as I could through a landscape. And just how much I’ve missed.

On my way back, I stumbled into the route Matt described, which was a totally normal and reasonable way to go. Of course. The walk back was hot, hot, hot. The sun’s position in the sky meant far fewer opportunities for shade, so I stopped at every chance I got. One really nice shady spot was already occupied by a really angry robin, who screeched at me incessantly until I got up and moved. I hoped that I’d brought enough water (I did).

Just another meadow.

On the way back, I watched the clouds drift across the sky. I noticed the palette of colors sprayed across each hillside. I marveled at the history carved into distant canyon walls. The landscape had so many stories to tell, if only one took the time to stop and listen.

We’d spend another couple nights at the viewpoint, since it was such a special place. Worth a visit for anyone who calls Oregon home for a day, a year, a lifetime.

Lower Deschutes River Trail bike ride

June 21, 2023.

26.5 mi. | 800′ ele. gain | 4.5 hr.

lower deschutes river trail bike ride
Deschutes River

Photo album

It had been many years since I’d last visited the Deschutes River State Recreation Area, and all I had were bad memories. All I could envision was a packed campground with over-watered fields of grass that were actually more goose poop than grass. And the trains, rumbling through at all hours of the night. We had stopped there to tent camp for a night on our way from one interesting place to another and it was the only option I could find at the time.

I was long overdue for a second try with this park.

We camped elsewhere for the night and rolled up in the early morning. We left the van in the free, day-use parking area and I got my bike ready for a ride before the temperatures got too hot. The Deschutes River trail follows an old railroad grade on the east side of the river for dozens of miles, although the first 13 miles is what’s recommended by the parks department. That seemed to be a reasonable goal for the day.

Indian blanket flower
Indian blanket flower

The trail climbs up above the campground right away, then levels out for most of the remainder of the ride. I breezed past fields of dry, golden grasses and clumps of green trees. A few wildflowers remained: Indian blanket flower, thistles, asters. The late bloomers.

All along this stretch of river, there are pit toilets and designated camping areas for hikers and bikers. I was grateful for a backcountry pit toilet, although they were all downhill rides from the trail. The miles ticked away as I followed the gently curving banks of the mighty Deschutes. In places, the water formed a wide, blue ribbon across the dusty landscape. In others, it was pinched through ancient lava flows, which created little riffles and pools.

Wildlife kept me company the whole way. Deer burst out from below the tops of the tall grasses, running gracefully across the hillsides. Birds flitted and fluttered about. At one point, a small, coyote-like animal ran down the road right in front of me. It was just far away enough so that I couldn’t get a great view. I followed it for at least a half a mile. But the instant I looked away, when I looked back, it was gone.

lower deschutes river trail bike ride

For a novice mountain biker like me, this was the perfect kind of ride. Easy, mostly flat, plenty of room. At about the old Harris Homestead area (the buildings destroyed by wildfire in 2019), I was greeted by two large raptors in a nest high up in a tree. This is roughly where the roadbed surface became more loose and difficult to ride through.

Shortly after, a large downed tree blocked the road entirely. Not wanting to let a tree deter me from seeing more of the trail, I got off my bike and picked my way over the mangled branches, carrying my ride up and over. On the other side, the road surface continued to deteriorate and I kind of wished I would have turned back at the tree. But now committed to the journey, I pushed on a little further than maybe I should have before stopping to eat a snack.

two raptors in a nest
Nesting

There was not a shred of shade to be found. I had been hopeful that “well maybe around that next corner” I would find some. No dice. I hopped back on my bike, climbed back over the tree and cruised back down the road as quickly as I could. There was one spot on the way back where the road passed just below a cliff. The cliff provided some much appreciated shade and I took my time completing that section. I took one more long break to paint, then bombed back to the van.

If I were to do this trip again, I’d cut off the last 3 or so miles. The riding gets more difficult, the views aren’t any better, plus at this point you have to negotiate that fallen tree (although I’m sure that will be taken care of quickly). My butt hates being on a bike seat for that long, so a shorter trip would mean a happier tush. I’ll save the long mileage days for when I’m wearing my hiking shoes.

Grouse Mountain

June 16, 2023.

5.6 mi. | 1450′ ele. gain |4 hrs.

Grouse Mountain

Photo album

Aaron and I drove out to one of the best dispersed campsites we’d yet found on this trip, just spitting distance from the Zig Zag Springs trailhead. We arrived in the evening, just in time to make dinner and watch the sunset. Perched high above the Umatilla River, we watched the colors of the hillside soften and shift, mirroring the color changes in the dusky sky. It was a beautiful backdrop for another quiet night of camping.

Home for the night.

The next morning, I got up to do a “summit” hike from our campsite: Grouse Mountain. I am happy to chase after anything labeled a highpoint on my map. Highpoint, to me, is a pretty loose term. It’s just an excuse to get out and explore. Having a destination is helps me narrow down the thirty bazillion ideas I have, and incorporating a specific point to reach appeases my goal-oriented brain. I found it especially comical that the elevation of the trailhead was higher than my intended highpoint!

The trail begins in a lovely, shaded forest with a smattering of wildflowers. Bright yellow lupine formed a welcoming committee near the start of the trail, and otherwise there was a variety of little white forest flowers.

Hello, lupine

But the shade didn’t last. Soon, the trail entered a blazing hot and dry desert hillside. Despite the lack of water and cover, a surprising amount of lush vegetation lined the trail. I enjoyed rambling amidst hundreds of buckwheat, prairie smoke, paintbrush, cat’s ear, penstemon and even a few balsamroot hangers-on. The profusion of wildflowers slowed down my progress; as the day wore on and the temperature rose, I knew I was going to have a very hot walk back. But it was worth the extra time and sweat to enjoy the blooms while they lasted.

The trail peters out at the end of a high plateau overlooking the winding river. I sat there to paint among the flowers, with the benefit of a hilltop breeze. The scene was majestic and yet familiar. I’ve spent countless hours hiking and camping in these grand landscapes. I’d yet to feel successful in capturing an accurate portrayal of them on the page. With each painting, I get a little closer.

Painting the canyon

After a nice snack, I turned back to find the actual summit of Grouse Mountain. It was tucked away into a thick, twisted thicket of shrubs and scrappy trees. I poked around trying to find the best way in, then decided it would be more efficient to just dive in. There was no best way.

I knew I was at the top when I looked at my GPS and saw that I was standing on the triangle icon; there was no other way to know. Content that I’d gotten my prize for the day, I headed straight back to the trail for the return walk. Soon after I ran into my first people of the day, a group of three smiling hikers headed for that end of trail viewpoint.

So much buckwheat!

I couldn’t help stopping for more photos (read: more squats) on the walk back. Even on an out-and-back hike, that change of perspective tends to reveal things I hadn’t noticed on the hike in. Sure, Grouse Mountain wasn’t a tall mountain or a prominent mountain. It gets no Internet cool points and most people living nearby probably don’t even know it’s there. But to me, Grouse Mountain sits high on a long list of places that I would never have visited until I just happened to notice it on a map. I wonder where the map and my curiosity will take me next.

Phillips Lake circumnavigation by bike

June 12, 2023.

16.7 mi. | 650′ ele. gain | 3 hr

Phillips Lake mountain bike ride

Photo album

From our basecamp at the beautiful Southwest Shore Campground on Phillips Lake, I planned a ride that would connect the trails on the south side and the north side. It looked like just a couple short roads would let me make a full loop. And you know, I love a good loop…

South shore

The morning air was cool and clear, but I knew thunderstorms were on the way. I got an early start by riding towards the trailhead on the east end of the campground road. I immediately got disoriented. An obvious, but overgrown, road led right down into the lake. That wasn’t right. I poked around at the edge of the marshy grass. I looked at the map on my phone, which showed me as being in the lake. That wasn’t right either. Back in the parking area, I looked around for signage and sure enough, I had to wiggle through a narrow gap in the fence and take a sharp switchback to get onto a barely discernable single-track trail. Here we go.

Once on the trail, I was in heaven. The tread was narrow, lined closely by tall, wet marsh grass. My legs dripped with the morning dew. Wooden boardwalks crossed the wettest areas as the trail snaked along the undulating edges of the water. I felt like I was tracing the outline of an amoeba.

There were a few gentle ups and downs, but they weren’t too bad. I stopped several times to look at the wildflowers and the ever-changing view of the lake.

The South Shoreline Trail terminates at the Mason Dam. This dam is the whole reason this lake exists; it blocks the flow of the Powder River so that the water can be managed for irrigation as well as flood control. It is quite an impressive structure. As I munched on a snack, I tilted my head up towards the highway above me. Oh no, I thought, that’s my connection to the other trail. It was time to get ready for a hill climb.

I rode across the dam, up a gravel road to the main highway, then turned left to ride on the highway. Thankfully, only one vehicle passed during this time and the driver moved well out of the way to give me some room. Since there was no shoulder, I much appreciated this kindness.

North shore

From the road, I dropped down a steep, paved hill towards a boat launch. There, I picked up the North Shoreline Trail. This side was drier, with a bumpy paved section through a massive campground. And all my mountain views were gone. But, I enjoyed seeing some new wildflowers and getting to look back at where I just was. The sun felt hotter now, and there was less shade to boot. I took a few more rest breaks.

At the west end of the lake, things suddenly got more interesting. Suddenly there were birds. Lots of birds. I had made some recordings of sandhill cranes from camp the previous night, so I knew they had to be in here somewhere. I stopped riding and walked slowly, intentionally, along the edge of the water. And there they were, a pair!

One of the sandhill cranes

Since the initial confusion at the very start of the ride, the entire trail was easy to navigate. But here, the trail dropped down to what looked like an old road, then entered a maze of wetlands. Again, I looked at my map and I appeared to be underwater.

The only directional signs I could find were located in places where it was quite clear where the route went, of course. At one point, I got off my bike and walked in each cardinal direction to assess my options. I was on the edge of what the map labeled “Powder River Tailings.” These are piles of rocks left behind by old gold dredging operations that took place on the Powder River. From my perspective, I was trapped in a web of loose rubble, lake water and thick riparian shrubbery with nowhere to go than back the way I came.

When I feel this way, I give myself a few minutes of rest. Obviously I wasn’t stuck. There was a way out, I just couldn’t see it yet. Maybe the water was a little higher than normal, as it seemed to have been for this entire trip so far. My route was hiding at the moment, and it was my job to seek it out. I looked at the map, then I looked all around. I eliminated the ways that were absolutely not possible, then I began to get more clear about what could be possible. Exasperated, I took my shoes off and was prepared to wade through however much water I needed to find my way. And then, there it was.

Phillips Lake Mountain Bike Ride
Now, it seems so obvious!

Two lines of rock on either side of a TRAIL! I picked up my bike and walked through the shin-deep water to a dry patch on the other side. The trail continued to reveal itself ahead of me, with breaks in the vegetation and rocks piled in cairns on top of the tailings. What an adventure this had become!

I made my way through the final gauntlet, popped back out on to a road and followed that to the turnoff for our campsite. I was almost finished. One final stretch of trail took me back to the van and I completed the circumnavigation of the lake.

This ride took me three hours, although I’m sure if you’re a more competent biker who doesn’t stop to look at every wildflower, you could do it faster. And if you really like to take it easy and enjoy your time, you could spend all day out here. If you’ve only got time to do one section, I recommend the South Shoreline. I found it more scenic, with more interesting variety of terrain and plenty of shade. Although, you’ll miss the wetlands, which were quite magical.

Logan Valley in bloom

June 6-9, 2023.

Photo album

I had a date in Logan Valley to meet up with ONDA, the Oregon Natural Desert Association, to work on a fence-raising project. Aaron and I drove down to the Big Creek Campground, on the Malheur National Forest, a night in advance. We arrived shortly before sunset.

Sunset wildflowers

Day transitioned to evening with a dramatic display of purples, oranges and pinks. In addition, the bloomiferous (is that a word?) meadow sparkled beneath the sky. We frolicked through the meadow. Blissed out, we returned to camp, where our neighbor ran a generator all night. This is why we don’t stay in campgrounds.

Easy rider

The next morning, generator still running, we moved the van up the road so Aaron could work. I hopped on my bike and followed “Big Creek Loop B,” one of three beginner biking routes posted at the campground. It wasn’t much to write home about, but it provided an opportunity to stretch my legs and get a feel for the landscape. I was just excited that anyone had bothered to map out an easy route for beginner riders like me.

Fence-raising

Later that evening, we drove up the road to Burns-Paiute managed land, where we met up with the volunteer crew. As expected, it consisted of a team leader from ONDA and a bunch of retired folks. One younger guy joined us later that night. I can only hope I’ll still be signing up to do physical labor when I’m in my 70’s! I figure the best way to do that is to keep doing it now.

In the morning, we split up into two work crews and began putting up a “let-down fence,” a barbed wire fence designed to be put up part of the year and taken down for the rest of the year. Since cattle were going to be grazing the neighboring property soon, we needed to help put this fence up. The cows would easily trample and destroy the beautiful riparian area on the other side of the fence. The Burns-Paiute were working on restoring the creek for more beaver and fish activity. Cattle don’t mix well with that plan.

It rained and rained as we methodically leap-frogged each other along the fence, raising the wooden posts and securing them against metal beams with loops of wire. It’s tricky work being around so much barbed wire, especially while wearing rain gear that’s easily snagged and torn. My outdoor gear is great for recreating in bad weather, but not for working in bad weather. If I do much more of this, I might need to go shopping.

While driving back to the camp, we saw lots of beautiful splotches of blooming flowers. At one point, we stopped the car to investigate some wildlife. “Do you see that?!” the driver practically squealed. I said, “a deer?” kind of incredulously. Like, why did we stop the car for a deer? But as I panned to the right, I saw two giant wading birds that looked like they belonged in a zoo. I had absolutely no idea what they were. The driver informed us we were seeing a pair of sandhill cranes. She had suspected they were here the previous evening, based on a sound identification from Merlin.

A sidebar: the Merlin app has a sound ID option where you can make a recording of a bird and the app will identify it in real time. It’s surprisingly fast and accurate. We have since become obsessed with using it to identify any squeak. song, rattle, trill or screech.

We finished with lots of time to spare, so in the afternoon I took a walk back up the road to investigate a beautiful patch of purple blur I noticed while driving. Elephant-head lousewort! Plus, some more exquisitely colored paintbrush. This place was a dream.

The next day was a repeat of the first, except the stretch of fence we worked on was a but more cantankerous. There were segments that required tensioning with a specialized fence tool in order to get up. Tangles of barbed wire, missing loops and swampy stretches were among the many obstacles we faced. And that’s not including the soaking rain.

Fortunately we finished earlier than expected, again, and returned by lunch time. In the afternoon I took a short walk with one of the biologists as he walked the property checking bird boxes for eggs. We found several nesting tree swallows and one bluebird. He used a device that looked like a camera at the end of a long cord. On the far side, it was attached to a screen the size of a cell phone. He’d snake the camera into the box and then look at the display to see what was inside. I was enthralled.

Take aways

I signed up for this trip for a few reasons. One, I really wanted to make service a part of our travels. The stereotypical travel story is one of extraction and exploitation. I did not want to make that our story. Instead, I wanted to be engaged in the communities and wild spaces we spend time in.

Second, I’d never even heard of Logan Valley before seeing it on ONDA’s trip list. A place in Oregon that was off my radar? I had to go.

And lastly, I want to learn some new skills as I have this precious opportunity to be unemployed for a while. It was soon very clear that the old-timers in my group were far more capable with hand tools and fence work in general than me. The tools felt clumsy in my hand and it took me longer to solve problems than it did for them. So obviously, I just need to spend more time building stuff and working with my hands in this way. They were all very kind and easy to partner with, so I never felt incompetent or unappreciated. I enjoyed working as part of a team and learning to be patient with myself as I figured it all out.

Whatever I do, I often feel like I get more than I give, even when the purpose is giving. What I got was: new friendships, skill building, bird education, wildflower education, resource management education, great food, smiles and laughter. What I gave? A few hours of labor towards a project. I am grateful for the folks who spend their time coordinating these opportunities and managing volunteers. This experience has made me even more curious about what else I can get my hands into. I’ve already signed up for a fall trip with ONDA, and I’m constantly looking for other ways to give back.

Rabbit Hills

June 2, 2023.

11 mi bike | 8.5 mi hike | 2600′ ele. gain | 7.25 hr.

Photo album

I rarely share details on my cross country routes, but due to the remoteness of this area, extremely low probability of anyone repeating it and the likelihood that no one’s ever Googled “Rabbit Hills” with the intention of locating this area in Oregon, here we go.

Another day, another bike ride

It would be our last day in Camp Hart and I wanted to see as many more wildflowers as I could before leaving this magical place. I hopped on my bike and rode 11 miles of gravel road to the base of the Rabbit Hills. I only found this area because I spent the last few days zooming in on the map at any high point within biking distance of our camp. From afar, it looked like a cluster of boring, barren lumps on the landscape.

The highpoint

I left my bike behind a lone, scraggly sagebrush and began walking across a cheatgrass-covered field towards a break in the slope ahead. The occasional deep purple larkspur poked up between the nodding stalks of grass. As I climbed up the wash, I noticed that any depression in the landscape was choked in tumbleweed. Cow pies littered the ground. It was definitely not my best pick of the week.

But, I had a highpoint to find, so I kept going. I found some large, sun-bleached cow vertebrae. An animal leg with some fur still left on it. Clumps of milkvetch. Buckwheat. A pronghorn raced along the horizon. Okay, I thought, this is getting more interesting.

A cold breeze blew as I crested up to the top of a rocky pile. I looked across a small saddle towards my summit. Based on zillions of trips like this, I knew it looked farther away than it actually was. I took a sip of water and wandered downhill to start the next uphill section. At the bottom of the hillside, I found thousands of reddish bitterroot buds, just waiting for their chance to burst open into beautiful blooms. Plus lots of phlox and buckwheat. I rolled under a barbed wire fence, giddy to find out what else these hills had in store for me today.

My progress screeched to a halt as I found myself in wildflower heaven. Joining the previous lineup was paintbrush. Brilliant red, orange, peach and so many delicate combinations of shades. And every time I thought, it can’t get any better, it did. As I crested the final flat spot before the summit, I found myself in a wildflower garden to rival any I’d seen before. HOW could I keep feeling this deep sense of awe so many times in one week?

At the summit, I pulled out my map, looked around and concocted a plan for what to do next. I’d already given Aaron my pickup point, just not a time. Originally, I thought this would be a quick hike. But once I got out here, I knew I needed time to explore. Across a valley, I noticed an abrupt change in the rock color and type. From there, I could string together all the highpoints on the horseshoe-shaped ridge. I had a plan.

Up and down

I wanted to race down off the highpoint so I could get to the next part, but the rocky hillside with all its grass clumps and holes and dips and sagebrush branches wouldn’t let me. I carefully made my way down so as to not break an ankle, salivating over what cool discoveries I was sure to make on the next section.

Nothing could have prepared me for the profusion of wildflowers I’d find. The number of different species was quite low, but the volume of flowers couldn’t be beat. The largest threadleaf phacelia plants I’d ever seen, with numerous stalks of cheery, purple blooms. Vibrant clusters of paintbrush in even more colors than I’d seen before. Bouncy buckwheat flower heads sticking their necks out as if to compete with the flashier wildflowers. And bitterroot, now with their petals open to the sun. And some with green buds instead of the familiar red. What a treat.

The rock on this hill was so interesting. It was a lighter color, practically white, providing a different color contrast to the vegetation. As I continued along the rolling ridge, the rock became red and then black. The piles of red boulders in the middle section reminded me of places I’d explored in the southwest. Such a diversity of experiences in one short hike.

As I gleefully ascended the last bump to complete the traverse, I saw a familiar sight: a pronghorn. I saw its pointy head rise up above the rocks at the summit, followed by its body…it began coming down the hill in my direction. NOT AGAIN.

With my eyes looking over my shoulder, I slowly descended a bit down the hill. It kept tracking me. This one had big antlers, too. We played this game for several minutes. I’d walk downhill, stop and turn around. He’d continue downhill in my exact direction. And, repeat. Ultimately I determined that this summit was off-limits for this hike, and I began quickly and decisively descending towards the valley bottom. I needed this animal to know that I was not a threat. It was his home, anyways, so if he didn’t want me there then I had to leave.

As I tromped through the beautiful field, I looked towards the road and noticed the van. I had an easy spot to walk back to, but I wasn’t ready to be done yet. So, I found a little bump with a nice view of the surrounding hills where I could sit and paint. I enjoyed watching the shadows of the clouds pass over the landscape and tried to replicate that feeling in my painting. Was it a success? Who knows. But every time I take time to paint, I learn new things.

The walk back was hot and boring, but I was still riding high from the day’s delights. I can never tell what the experience will be by just looking at the topo map and satellite views. However, that’s part of the fun for me. It’s a bit of a treasure hunt with every un-tested hike. Despite a lackluster beginning, this one lives in my top ten list for sure.

DeGarmo Canyon to Warner Peak

May 31, 2023.

14.2 mi | 4110′ ele. gain | 9 hours

Photo album

This route was born out of a desire to get up into the high country while the access road from Warner Basin was closed. From Camp Hart, I hopped on my bike and rode the roughly five miles to the DeGarmo Canyon trailhead. I definitely walked some sections of the dirt access road to the parking area, which was great because I could get a good look at the wildflowers. A preview of what was sure to come.

I ditched my bike, changed into hiking pants and started up the unofficial trail to DeGarmo Falls. Almost immediately I had to do a rock scramble and creek crossing, then at last I had my feet on some semblance of a trail. I couldn’t get far fast; wildflowers bloomed profusely along the path. Blue flax, paintbrush, chokecherry, penstemon. It was glorious! As I walked along, I wondered, how would I know that I reached the waterfall? I know these desert hikes. There’s not much water to see…oh there it is.

DeGarmo Falls

I heard it, I saw it, up ahead a beautiful cascade of water poured over a cliff in the canyon. Spectacular! I sat in the cooling spray of the falls for a few minutes, eating a snack and re-reading the route descriptions I had researched. One from the website Less Traveled Northwest and the other from Matt Reeder’s latest book, Extraordinary Oregon. Based on these write-ups, I knew there was a way to continue a couple miles up the canyon, at least. From there I’d be on my own, routefinding up to Warner Peak. I wasn’t sure I’d make it all the way, especially with impending thunderstorms, but I set it as my reach goal for the day.

Hiking up canyon

From my rest spot, I back-tracked just a little bit to the base of a talus slope, the route up and around the waterfall. There were a few cairns along this portion of the route, but I only saw them when I was standing right next to them, making them effectively useless. It’s hard to see a rock pile when you’re walking on a rockpile.

For the next two hours, I rambled through the canyon, sometimes on an obvious path, sometimes not. I marveled at how much shade was provided by towering ponderosa pine and other shrubs and trees. This was unlike any desert hike I’d done lately.

Among the rocks, the meadows, the shady forest, the dust, the streambanks, were thousands of wildflowers. Here I found Brown’s peony, Columbia puccoon, so much lupine, different varieties of balsamroot, peas and of course, more paintbrush. Paintbrush in every shade of red, pink, coral, orange, yellow, white. Colors I’d never seen before.

As I climbed higher in the canyon, the trees grew smaller and fewer. The stream became narrower and the riparian areas more tame. In order to avoid a random rectangle of private land, I knew I needed to escape the canyon and barrel up a side wall to the south. So, I hopped over the creek and began huffing it up the hillside towards the highest peak on the landscape.

Disbelief while ascending the seemingly dry and dead hill: sand lilies, bluebells, phlox, onion. The spring desert provides.

Toward Warner Peak

And the disbelief continued as I crested the ridge and looked at what was ahead. Now, carpets of tiny, alpine wildflowers bursting from between every pebble. I still had about three miles to go before reaching the summit, meaning a total of six miles of exposed hiking above treeline amidst foreboding cumulus clouds. At this point, I was still not committed to this one and only outcome. I was just thrilled to be up there enjoying the wide expanse of rocks, flowers, snow fields and groves of mountain mahogany.

However, if there was any chance of making it, I had to move. With tired legs, I hauled my butt as fast as I could, avoiding any unnecessary elevation gains or losses. Occasionally I just had to stop for photos, as it was indescribably beautiful. But I was in rare form. In just over an hour, I was standing atop the summit of Warner Peak.

I don’t know what it is about the highpoints that captivates me. I feel like I experience an alternate phase of reality when there’s a chance of standing on top of a thing. Elated, I plop down on my sit pad near a giant cairn and pull out the summit register. It was covered with ladybugs. I recognized a few names as I flipped through the last few years of entries, then I added mine. It sure looked a lot different today than the last time I hiked Warner Peak!

summit of warner peak

After all the work it took to get up there, I figured I deserved a little bit of rest and relaxation. I kept an eye to the clouds and formulated a plan to get back. I dreaded the bike ride back to the campsite, as it would be mostly uphill. And that would make for an extra long day. I messaged Aaron on the Garmin, asking him to meet me at the trailhead with the van. He agreed. Also, there was one more marked highpoint on this ridge (simply called “High Point” on Peakery) that I could hit on my way back down. So…you know what had to be done.

The return

Again I walked with a sense of urgency as I raced the weather, tagging High Point along the way. That small detour disoriented me a little bit, so I got a little off route on the way back. Noticing that error, I quickly got back on track and began my descent into the canyon.

I was almost all the way back down when I noticed a group of three pronghorn on the same slope. I sat down and watched them for a few minutes. Once the group got a whiff of me, two animals started running and one stayed behind. It walked slowly and with an air of purpose. Then, it looked right at me and snorted. This didn’t seem right. The pronghorn kept looking at me, kept walking in my direction. I’d always been annoyed that I can never get a good look at wildlife because they run away so quickly; in this moment all I wanted was for this pronghorn to run away.

Instead, I decided it was me who needed to run away. I stood up and walked down the canyon, angling away from the pronghorn. Once it realized I was not a threat, it bounded up the hillside to re-join the other two.

Back underneath the ponderosa, I bounced back down the creek, looking to see if there were any wildflowers I’d missed. The skies continued to grow darker, and soon it began to rain. It felt more like a drizzle, and honestly it felt good. I didn’t put a rain shell on, instead savoring the lovely desert moisture on my skin.

The colors of the blooms became even more vibrant as the rain fell. My pants and shoes soaked through from brushing past wet sagebrush and tall grass. While annoying, I knew there were dry clothes waiting in the van.

When I got back to the creek crossing, I splashed right through in my already wet shoes and socks. And just like that, I was done. It was a long but extremely rewarding day, and I’m glad the lightning held off for me to complete my hike safely. I felt extremely lucky to be able to experience the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge in peak wildflower season. I’d even call it a superbloom.

Columbia River Gorge wildflower hunting

May 22-24, 2023.

Photo album

Tom McCall Preserve

6 miles | 1330’ ele. gain |3.5 hr.

After dropping Aaron off at the airport for a work trip, I pointed the van north and drove towards the Columbia River Gorge. I’d spent countless hours there when I lived in Portland, so I was excited to revisit an old friend. I parked at the Rowena viewpoint, where I could go on two short hikes. I started on the trail that ambled along the edge of the plateau above the Columbia. The wind blew ferociously. I remembered how bad the wind could get here, but this seemed even a bit much for the gorge. I cinched up the hood on my wind shell and began walking.

It was evident from the beginning that I missed the peak balsamroot blooms; the withering yellow flowers looked battered and sad. But there was plenty other things to see: arrowleaf buckwheat, lupine, yarrow, onion, peas. And my old pal poison oak!
I was ready for poison oak now. I could see it from a mile away. Instead of comfy shorts and sandals, I wore long pants, socks and trail shoes. I would no longer brush off poison oak as no big deal. Now on day 2 of steroids after 8 painful, itchy days of a vicious poison oak attack, I gave that heinous plant a wide berth.

The sign at the trailhead implores visitors to stay on trail, but it’s not well-marked and user trails braided this way and that. I did my best to follow the main route plus the side loop, but somehow I veered off onto another path. If you want to keep hikers in line, you gotta let them know where to be!

Back at the parking lot, I reset my trip odometer and headed uphill towards Tom McCall Point. This trail was much more my style, switchbacking uphill through blooming meadows and pockets of shady forest. Here, I saw large-flower triteleia, paintbrush, bedstraw, wild roses, white-stem frasera and the star of the show: sticky penstemon. These gigantic purple flowers stopped me in my tracks as they stood tall and vibrant in the upper meadows. Stunners!

After that hike, I’d pretty much had it with the wind. I drove to nearby Memaloose State Park to find a campsite and relax. I knew I had an early wake-up the next day.

Dog Mountain

7 miles | 3075’ ele. gain | 5:50 hr

I met up with my friend Greg just after 6 am at the Dog Mountain Trailhead. I remembered this place being popular, and I know I’d hiked it a few times before. But its popularity had grown since I lived in Portland. Plus, the flowers were peaking and people lose their minds over this trail. I’d never actually gone for the wildflowers before so this would be a new experience. All of this to say: the 6 am start time would be crucial for enjoying this hike!

A few short steps up the trail and I realized that I’d met my match for photo-taking. It was nice to be able to take our time, identify every little flower, and try to document as much of the interesting flora that we could on the way. We had all day, in fact, so why rush?

Before getting remotely close to the famous yellow blooms, we saw so much: ookow, inside-out flower, spotted coralroot, Columbia anemone, to name a few. Every time I stopped to look at one thing I discovered three more things. The cool, dark forest was resplendent with a staggering diversity of plant life. I know there are plenty more flowers I don’t even have photos of, mostly because I’ve already got a zillion (I’m looking at you, woodland stars).

The famed balsamroot meadows were, in fact, spectacular. And even though I’ve seen the same damn image more times than I can count on social media, it was still really cool to be standing among thousands of cheery, yellow blooms swaying in the incessant wind.

Although the wind was not nearly as bad as the previous day, the sky was overcast and the air was cool. Despite my layers I was chilled to the bone. These conditions did not stop Greg from taking many, many photos. So at one point I headed up to the summit to wait for him as he captured every last thing that needed capturing. I gladly found myself a coniferous La-Z-Boy, downed some food and savored being out of the wind.

Eventually, Greg joined me at the top and he got to take his break as well. It was too cold for me to paint today, and I had other people to see in the afternoon, so we headed back down. We took a slightly different route that detoured into a light and beautiful forest filled with new wildflower treats. Fendler’s waterleaf, vine maple, Hooker’s fairybells, Oregon grape and the very last of the Dutchman’s breeches were on display. In addition, there were more checker lilies than I’d ever seen on a hike before, wow!

Each section of trail had its own joys and surprises. Among the shadows of the darkest parts of the forest, Phantom orchids sprouted in the hundreds. They were not quite in bloom yet, but they were getting ready to put on a good show.
But alas, I had to leave that to Greg for a future hike. Back at the parking lot, I spied a familiar face en route to the trailhead. “Is that Linda?” I cried.

Yes, it was. I had a nice time catching up with one of my old climbing buddies from Portland and remembered that this was my home for a while. I’ve got roots here. And I spent the rest of the afternoon visiting a few more old friends, watering the roots so to speak, and preparing for the next leg of the journey.

Eagle Creek

14.5 mi | 1080’ ele. gain | 6:20 hr.

The last stop on my top Gorge hikes tour came on Greg’s recommendation: Eagle Creek. Again, my only preconceived notions/memories of this hike were something like: this is really popular and ten million people are going to be tripping over each other on this trail. Again, I showed up early, and there were only three cars in the parking lot.
I started at the Fish Hatchery and did the short road walk to the actual trailhead, where I immediately stopped to take a bunch of photos of the wildflowers growing on the vertical walls along the trail. Water seeped down the steep rock and moss, creating a perfect growing environment for arnica (probably), monkeyflower, maidenhair ferns and a new one to me: Oregon bolandra. I knew I had a 14 mile day ahead but I didn’t care. Nature made me stop.

The last time I hiked Eagle Creek, it was during a blizzard that shut down the highway in the Gorge just hours after we drove back towards Portland. I had only a vague memory of this trail, with its narrow passageways and bolted cables. As I hiked, I tried to imagine the work it took to create this trail on the side of a canyon, with vertical basalt walls, numerous waterfalls, inlet creeks and a host of other natural barriers. It must have taken a grand effort to make this come to life.

And how grateful was I at that moment that this trail existed! Every stretch had its own special beauty, despite the fire that ripped through mere years ago. Wildflowers blossomed and stretched up towards the sunlight. Shrubs and tiny trees sprang to life. Among the burned and scarred corpses of trees, many others grew lush and tall. After spending years hiking through the massive burn scars across Central Oregon, this landscape did not feel jarring at all. In fact, it was much livelier and robust than I’d imagined from what I’d read.

After hiking several miles, I finally began to hear the roar of Tunnel Falls. I appreciate a well-named entity, be it a waterfall, wildflower or mountain. The trail literally enters a tunnel behind the waterfall, making for a rather exciting experience. The anticipation grew as the sound got louder and the waterfall spray filled the air. I rounded a corner, walked into the belly of the beast, and emerged on the other side, surrounded by white shooting star and a carpet of vertical green vegetation. The trail was barely wide enough for me to stand, with a precipitous drop down to a pool of churning water. I could see how a fear of heights would paralyze any visitor here.

From there, I wasn’t sure how much further to go. I knew the Eagle Creek trail went on for many more miles. But there seemed to be some more waterfall commotion up ahead. Plus, I wanted to find a nice spot to sit and have a snack. Those opportunities were few and far between on this narrow trail! I was glad to have only seen two other people so far on my walk.

At this point, the dramatic trail paralleled a narrow, rocky gorge. Happy green plants sprung from every crack and crevice, seemingly reaching for the suspended droplets of water from the rambunctious creek.

To my surprise and delight, I came to the also-well-named Twister Falls. It took my breath away. I thought that I must have come here before, but after looking back at my hiking spreadsheet it appears this was my first time.

Occasionally, when out in nature, I am overcome by a feeling that must be described as “awe,” although I find it impossible to truthfully describe. It is a visceral feeling that takes over some part of my body. In this case I could feel a kind of expansion and warmth in my chest. I stood there at the falls, surrendering to this unusual but overwhelmingly positive sensation, as I felt a deep connection to this place at this time.
Once the feeling had passed, I sat down in a small gravel bar near the top of the falls and ate some food. The warmth of the day had begun to set in, and I still had a seven mile walk back to the car, so I didn’t linger long. Plus, I wanted to do some painting. I had scouted a good spot near one of the bridges about halfway back, which would serve as a good painting and secondary snack break.

I opted for a quicker pace on the way back, since I’d stopped for seemingly every wildflower and riffle of water on the way up. But, that did not stop me from discovering a few more flowers and scenic viewpoints that I’d missed on the way in.

Yes, the Gorge hikes are crowded. I did pass a bunch of people hiking in while I was motoring out. But, there are many reasons why these hikes attract so many visitors. I felt privileged to be able to return to the Gorge this week and hike three classics in near peak condition without feeling suffocated by weekend crowds.

But, if the only time you can get out there is on a summer weekend, I say go anyway. Go early or late in the day if you can, and either way brace yourself for an absolute mob scene. These trails are there to be enjoyed. And most normal people don’t abhor crowds as much as I do. Right now, the flowers are absolutely popping!

Illinois River Trail

May 10-12, 2023

Photo album

I decided to take a 3-day foray into the Southern Oregon wilderness along the Illinois River Trail. Conditions dependent, I considered a loop up Bald Mountain, combining the main trail with the Florence Way trail. This loop would have been about 24 miles. In three days, that felt like a reasonable plan.

What I neglected to consider is how formidable the Illinois River Trail could prove to be. For starters, the road to the trailhead is narrow, bumpy, rutted and carved into a steep hillside looming above the river. It was a torturous drive, and we even pulled over before the trailhead because of rumors that the last 2 miles was really bad.

Day 1

On the morning of May 10, I slung on my backpack and began the walk to to Illinois River East trailhead. The first mile or so of road was fairly flat and even, but it ran through private property so we would have had no place to park. After that, it became more narrow and rugged, with some big puddles at the end. I was glad we made the decision to leave the van where it was.

I hiked across the bridge spanning the raging Illinois and met with the next trail obstacle: poison oak. This stuff grows like a weed throughout Southern Oregon. And since I’ve been impervious to it in the past, I was a little nonchalant about walking through it on this trip (this would prove to be a very bad choice a few days later). The hot sun bore down on me as I crossed the burned, open forest. It had an eerie vibe, and as I passed a big pile of poo that consisted mostly of fur, I started singing some Capoeira songs aloud to keep myself company.

The trail was alive with irises, buttercups, mariposa lilies and much more. I frequently stopped to admire and identify the local flora. Far down below, the Illinois River dipped in and out of view. This was no ordinary river trail; while technically the trail followed the river, the water was often several hundred feet down and not visible at all. The steep mountains tumbled and crumbled down into the valley. The slopes were likely made unstable by the wildfires, which devastated many of the existing trees that held the rock and soil together. At times, walking on the trail felt like walking on the edge of a precipice that could give way underfoot. I don’t have much of a fear of heights, but feeling the wobbly overnight pack on my back made me walk a little slower and choose my steps with precision.

I crossed several little creeks along the way, including one that was lined with Darlingtonia, my favorite Southern Oregon native. Near that creek, I also got to meet a new endemic: Kalmiopsis. This pretty little pink flower cascaded profusely down the hillside, a beauty to behold. I only saw it in this one specific location on this trip. I’ll have to learn more about this plant to find out where it likes to grow and see if I can scout some more on future trips.

At last I reached a trail junction that led down to river level. This junction was brushy, obscured and unmarked, so I let my trail map guide me to the right spot. It was very steep and covered with dry, slippery leaves. Several fallen trees made a little obstacle course of the trail but I made it down without falling. Near the bottom, I changed into sandals to wade through a creek before the trail disappeared into the brush. I emerged onto a wide, flat area of bedrock, adjacent to the flowing water. It was time for lunch, so I found a spot near a calm pool of water where I could dip my feet and eat a sandwich.

By now the sun felt really hot. The idea of sitting blissfully by the water’s edge, reading a book and painting, was not going to happen. I put my pack back on and kept walking. I had to see if the Florence Way trail, allegedly brought back to life a couple of years ago, actually existed. This was the questionable link in my planned loop.

The “trail” through this section was more of a suggestion, as I’d find bits and pieces of a route that inevitably vanished shortly later. Clearly, not many humans come this way. As the route led back into the forest and prepared to ascent 4000′ in the next 5 miles, It was again obscured by massive trees down. I looked ahead to see if I could find any semblance of a passable route, but all I saw was ferns and underbrush. There was no way I was going to piece together a route through this unrelenting forest up that much elevation the next day, let alone with an overnight pack. I resigned to backtracking here and scheming a plan B.

Pine Flat was a fine area to camp, with lots of options. I ended up choosing a campsite in the forest on the other side of the creek I’d waded earlier because it was out of the wind and it had a nice use trail to a sweet little rocky spot on the river. From there I saw my first humans of the day: a small party of kayakers and one raft. I painted the river, made dinner and looked for wildflowers.

That night I lay in my hammock, memorizing the map for the next day.

Day 2

I awoke at 6 am, as I always do now, and walked out to my riverfront “porch” to have my coffee and apple pie for breakfast. That little 79 cent hand pie I picked up at Grocery Outlet a few days ago made a delicious, easy and calorie-full meal to fuel my morning. I hiked slowly back up the steep path to regain the main trail. At the upper junction, I dropped my main pack and bundled up a few supplies to take a side trip up the Illinois River Trail, just to see how well maintained it was.

Less than a half mile up the trail, I came across a smooth madrone branch across the trail. It was easy to step over, but I noticed an ominous message carved into it: “It’s f*cked up ahead.” Melodramatic, or…accurate? It turned out to be the latter. I soon came across another madrone down, this one large and filled out with leafy branches. I had done enough crawling over and through blowdown that I heeded the warning and turned back towards my backpack. There was only one more item on my list for today: Nobles House.

Another 0.8 miles back towards the trailhead, the Shorty Noble Way trail led down, on my map, to a spot just above the river. Based on the topo lines, it appeared to end at another flat area like the one I’d camped at the night before. It also looked less steep, and I had nothing better to do anyways. I started down this mysterious trail, curious as to what I’d find.

It began pretty pleasant and enjoyable, considerably less steep than the other river access trail. But soon it fell prey to the same hazards: tons of poison oak, blowdown everywhere. I took my time negotiating all these obstacles and got within spitting distance of an obvious camp. Then, there it was. The biggest and blowiest-down of them all. Madrone. Such a beautiful tree when it’s alive and vertical. But an actual monster when fallen to the ground. I literally just had to get to the other side of it. There was no going around; a brushy creek roared to my left and a dense forest created a barricade to my right. I had to go over. Fingers of poison oak reached up between the twisted branches. I took off my pack, scrambled over the main trunks, then reached back to retrieve my pack and hurl it down ahead of me.

Gosh it doesn’t look so bad in the picture

At last, at the camp. Or, not. There was a ton of historic trash there, plus some modern garbage. Not super pleasant. I found a path to an overlook of the river, with no way to get down to it. When I tried to settle in, it just didn’t feel like the right spot. I found a way to cross the creek and poked around on the other side. There, I found several more camping options, including a primo hammock site with shade and easy access to the river rock outcrops. Perfect.

I spent the day napping, reading, napping, eating, daydreaming, napping and painting. I worked on attributing value to not being productive and not hiking all the miles. This is a major mindset shift. Normally, when we go on roadtrips, the time is ticking. We need to pack in as many things as we possibly can because every minute not spent doing something rad is wasted. But when the roadtrip is years-long instead of days-long, that breakneck pace is not sustainable or enjoyable. I convinced myself that reading an entire book in two days was the most productive I could be, and I happily did that thing.

Day 3

On the last day, I just needed to return to the van. I sadly said goodbye to my lovely campsite and returned to do battle with my madrone. It was a thousand times easier on the way back, maybe because I already had a functional strategy or I was more mentally prepared or ?? I slowly ambled back up the trail, noticing so many more flowers than I’d seen on the way down. I was moving with the intention to see flowers instead of the intention to reach a destination. It still blows my mind how much intention impacts experience.

I stopped to squat and photograph all the flowers, including the secretive marbled wild ginger. So many loaded squats on this trip; I think botanizing will be my new workout regimen.

The early start meant I got to enjoy much more shade on the hike out than I did on the hike in. The temperatures were rapidly rising each day and I do NOT do well in the heat. I appreciated my newly developed 6 am built-in alarm clock. Blissfully, I backtracked through the lilies, kalmiopsis, arnica, monkeyflower, paintbrush, serviceberry, poison oak.

Back in the late morning, I had a quick recap with Aaron and made a plan for the next day. We decided to do part of the drive back out this awful road before there was much of a chance of oncoming traffic, due to the dearth of opportunities to pull off the side of the road. We made it back to Sixmile Recreation area, where we spent the afternoon splashing in the river, relaxing and enjoying the remainder of a perfect spring day.

Based on trip reports I’ve read about the Illinois River Trail, it is a very special place when it is clear and navigable! I knew that taking this on early season, especially in a late snow year, involved a high risk of severe blow down. It’s hard enough to get people doing trail maintenance on busy trails, let alone remote and relatively obscure ones. Maybe the trail was perfect past one rogue madrone? But I doubt it. I’m keeping my eyes open for opportunities to volunteer in this ranger district to help clear some trails. I’m also going to swing by a hardware store to pick up some clippers to keep in my backpack!

A reminder to myself and to you: contributing is far better than complaining. See a problem? Figure out how you can contribute to a solution rather than sitting back and complaining about it. Even better, figure out how to recruit others to help with your solution as well.

One final note: It turns out I am *not* impervious to poison oak. It didn’t start bothering me until the day after I got off trail. And I’m suffering dearly, with huge, itchy, puffy welts all over my legs. Four days later, they seem to be getting worse, not better. So, do what you can to avoid the stuff. Then, wash everything: your skin, your clothes, your gear, once you get off trail. Stock up on Tecnu products ahead of time. When we stopped into Safeway in Grants Pass, they were out of stock in all their poison oak products and Calamine lotion. Obviously top sellers in this area!

Eight Dollar Mountain Botanical Area

April 30- May 9, 2023.

Photo album

Southern Oregon is a hot spot for rare, endemic wildflowers. It’s also one of the earliest places to bloom in the spring. I headed this way in to try and see some of the region’s unique and special plant life during its prime. While the Eight Dollar Mountain Botanical Area has little for developed trails or viewing areas, the flora are abundant and if you take just a little effort to poke around, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful blooms in every direction.

During this time frame, I went on several hikes in or adjacent to the Botanical Area. Of those, two were on trails: the Eight Dollar Mountain Boardwalk and Kerby Flat Trail. Otherwise I used roadside pullouts, old roads, elk trails and did plenty of cross-country exploring.

Darlingtonia magic

The highlight of my visit was the California pitcher plant (Darlingtonia) flowers on full display. Although the fen visible from the boardwalk was in bloom, the plants were too far away to get a very good look. That was okay, because there were several other areas blooming just up the road. There are several pullouts along the road, making it easy to park and walk to anything of interest that you spot from the car.

Darlingtonia flowers
Darlingtonia flower up close

Before visiting, I downloaded some information from the Rogue River-Siskyou National Forest. They provide suggested itineraries, some background information and an extensive plant checklist. This was immensely helpful in determining which maps to have on my phone and where to begin walking around.

Flower power

Here are some of the plants I found:

Siskiyou fritillary
Western azalea
Showy phlox
Oregon violet
Silky balsamroot
Purple mouse ears
Wedgeleaf violet

This is just a sampling of the impressive array of wildflowers. There are more in the photo album linked at the top, and way more out in the field. I loved taking the time to learn more about each new plant I found instead of racing to capture the miles on this trip. The slower I walked, the more I noticed. And the more I noticed, the more curious I got.

Some of these flowers are tricky to spot. I stepped on a Siskyou fritillary twice, because it blended in so well to the grasses around it. Somehow the maroon and yellow speckled petals creates a greenish hue from above, rendering it nearly invisible. But I learned that the more attuned my eyes became to the familiar flowers, I was more likely to spot something unusual. At the tail end of my Eight Dollar Mountain summit hike, I came across some opposite-leaf lewisia scattered throughout a meadow. I noticed the flowers resembled that of bitterroot (another Lewisia species). So, I pulled out my phone and opened the Oregon Wildflowers app (yes, that’s a thing and it’s free and you need to download it). I typed in Lewisia and it took me no time to identify this rare plant that grows in a very narrow range!

Now, the treasure hunt continues. Onward to explore deeper in the wilderness along the Illinois River…