How to plan a wildflower hike

The famed balsamroot bloom on Dog Mountain

Got wildflowers? I’ve spent the bulk of the last three months chasing wildflower blooms across Oregon, and I’d like to share some things I’ve learned about how to plan a wildflower hike.

Timing is everything

Flowers are in bloom for a specific time period each year. Some kind of wildflower is generally blooming somewhere between early spring and early fall. But if you’re looking to see a specific type of wildflower then you’ve really got to get the timing right. So, if I want to see the lupine blooming on the rim of Crater Lake, I’ve got to go in the middle of summer. Or if I want to catch the western pasqueflower before it goes to seed, I’ve got to hit some mountain slopes just as the snow is melting.

Frosty western paqueflower

For most people, just seeing any splashes of color along the trail is just fine. And the good news is, there’s no “best time” to see a wildflower bloom if you’re not particular about what you see. There are always the early bloomers, mid-season bloomers and late bloomers. Some wildflowers are only open for a few days and others will go on and on. Consider the climate where you’re looking to visit and that will give you a good sense of when to see the best flowers. For example, spring is best in the desert since it gets very hot and dry during the summer. But summer is ideal in the mountains because the ground will still be snow-covered in spring. Or, search on the internet or on social media to see where people are going and what they’re seeing on the trail.

Here’s a tip for social media research: join a local wildflower group or follow the land management agency for the area you intend to visit. There, you’ll see what’s blooming and where and you might learn about upcoming guided flower walks or nature presentations to fuel your wildflower stoke.

Diversify your habitats

If you’re looking to see a wide variety of flowers, choose a trail or route that travels through different types of habitats. So for example, if your trail follows a stream, crosses a meadow, climbs up along some exposed rocks then travels to the base of a mountain, you’re going to see different things blooming in each of those specific areas.

Notice that some plants prefer full shade, some like dappled sun filtered through the trees, others grow in the blasting sun. Notice that east facing slopes often display different plants than west facing slopes. The more you hike, the more you’ll recognize the factors that determine which flowers grow where. You’ll learn about what to expect when you head outside and you’ll be more likely to find it when you know what you’re looking for.

Roadside corn lily bloom

Elevation matters

Similarly, if your trail includes a significant amount of elevation gain, you’ll see a greater variety of wildflowers. When I’m huffing and puffing up a trail that climbs up a mountain, I think of it as traveling back in time. Since snow melt begins at lower elevations and gradually makes it up the mountain, you’ll see later season blooms at the base of the trail and earlier season blooms closer to the recent snow melt! That’s how you can continue to see early bloomers like trillium well into July; you just need to go up high to find them.

Trillium in July at 6500′

Stop and smell the roses (duh)

When you’re out on a wildflower hike, give yourself enough time to stop and see what you are after! This should go without saying, but if you really want to see a lot of flowers, you’re going to need to spend some time moving slowly, investigating spots that look interesting, crouching down to find the little guys and taking lots of pictures.

Notice how when you stop to have a snack or take a bathroom break that you suddenly begin to see more flowers. Take a seat every now and again, and look around. Things will appear to you that you would have overlooked while in motion.

You might even build time in to flip through a guidebook or scroll through a plant identification app to learn about what you’re seeing in the field. There are many quality and free apps available to download to your phone so you don’t have to carry a book on your hike. My favorite for Oregon is simply called Oregon Wildflower Search and I’ve found similar apps for several states. Just search for “state name” + “wildflower search” in the app store. Steer clear of the ones where you take a picture and ask the app to ID it; they are notoriously inaccurate…at least for now!

Leave no trace

Finally, remember to leave no trace. That means staying on trail in popular areas instead of trampling wildflower meadows to get a sweet pic. Look at, but don’t pick, flowers. Instead, take photos, sketch or paint them! Plan ahead and prepare for the conditions the day of your hike by carrying appropriate gear, wearing appropriate clothing and researching your route. For more information on Leave No Trace, check out the series I wrote on my Hike366 blog.

Questions? Leave a comment below. Happy trails!

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