June 16, 2023.
5.6 mi. | 1450′ ele. gain |4 hrs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.