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!

Life on the road: update 1

July 19, 2023.

Soon after we hit the road, people asked, “How does it feel?” And my reply was, “ask me in 3 weeks.” At that point, I thought, we would have been gone for longer than our longest vacation, so it would feel like a real shift had happened. Well today, it’s day 83, and I still feel like we’re on an extended vacation.

It’s past time that I sit down and record some thoughts about how things are going. What’s on our minds, what’s working, what’s not working, etc. I know that folks living in homes that stay in one place are very curious about how mobile living works. While I have no intention of starting a YouTube channel to capture every moment of our travels, I do think it’s fun to occasionally check in with a snapshot of road life. This will likely be the first in a (very irregular) series.

New routines

The ebb and flow of life is much different than it was just a few short months ago. On weekdays, we ideally need to wake up in a place from which Aaron can work. Then, he goes through his morning ritual while I hang out and catch up on email and reading. Once he’s settled into his office, I can make breakfast, clean up and then either head out on an adventure or work on a project in camp.

If I’m back in time for lunch, we’ll eat together but if not, we take care of meals on our own. I’m in charge of dinner, which I can cook either on the induction stove inside the van or on the propane camp stove outside. Depending on our battery power, the weather, what I’m making and a few other factors, I’ll choose an option and get to cooking. We eat pretty well out here. There’s always a protein and veggies, usually accompanied by a prepared side like mac and cheese or ramen, plus various accompaniments like sauces, crunchy things, etc. I make creative use of leftovers so that no scrap of food gets wasted. And when we’re feeling really fancy, Aaron will whip up some cream with our immersion blender to have with fruit.

In order to make all this work, I spend many hours each week meticulously scouring maps and Google satellite images to find places to land each night. We often move every day or every other day, and since we need very specific requirements to be met for Aaron to have internet, this takes a lot of planning. On the flip side, we get to see a lot of cool places and we haven’t even left Oregon yet!

At the end of the day, we wrap up by reading a single page in The Vagabond’s Way: 366 Meditations on Wanderlust, Discovery and the Art of Travel by Rolf Potts. Well, most days we remember to. Each page-long chapter offers a quote and some commentary that gets us thinking about some aspect of travel. It normalizes the adventure that we’ve chosen to embark on and lets us feel like we’re surrounded by kindred spirits. I think a lot about “normal,” what is normal and who gets to define normal. Living in a van and moving home each night has quickly become normal.

Things we love

Before driving away from our home in Bend, we had to make a lot of decisions about the few precious items to put in our van. We had to make a lot of guesses based on what we anticipated our lives would become. These are a few of our favorite things.

  • Collapsible silicone tea kettle: I use this thing every damn day. We were sitting at the kitchen table one night with a friend, brainstorming a solution to find an easy way to boil water for coffee every morning. I don’t remember how this idea came up. None of us knew this product existed. But now I can’t live without it. It’s the perfect size for 2 cups of coffee/tea and the water boils in under 2 minutes. It uses hardly any energy and doesn’t take up much space.
  • BluTech “No Dirty Water” pump, filter and hose system: This slick setup allows us to toss a hose into any water source, pump it into the van through a filter and fill up our water tank with potable water. That could be from a lake, stream or campground/gas station spigot. We haven’t had to buy water once on this trip.
  • Hammocks: Having a place to relax outside the van is key. Now that the summer is really heating up, it can feel stuffy in the van. Slinging up a hammock takes just a few minutes and it provides a nice place to read, take a nap, do research, chill out or drink coffee.
  • Built in fridge: The bane of my camping existence was digging through wet packaging in a cooler filled with melted ice to find what I need to make dinner. The solution is having a fridge. I’ll admit, I thought the fridge was poorly designed when we first got the van. But now that I’ve actually used it, I absolutely LOVE the design. It can fit so many things in an efficient manner. I only wish it was a tad larger, since fresh vegetables are so bulky. As a result, I’ve learned to embrace canned, frozen and dried vegetables, frequent grocery runs and dense produce. I’m loving the combination of Grocery Outlet and local farmer’s markets for the best prices and variety of foods.
  • Bug nets: The bug nets roll down quickly and easily so we can keep the slider door open for fresh air. They also pack up easily when we’re ready to move on. These will prove to be invaluable when we go to Alaska.
  • Bikes: Y’all, this is the most I’ve ridden a bike since my bike commute days in Portland. And sometimes I’m actually riding it for fun. Having a bike that’s capable on pavement, gravel roads and beginner/intermediate mountain bike trails has opened up so many possibilities for getting around.

I could go on and on, but these are the highlights.

Things we don’t love

Lest you think each day is filled with rainbows and ice cream, let’s talk about the not so great parts.

  • Endless planning: If you know anything about me, you know I love planning. But this is really stretching my skills and abilities. The number of things I need to balance in order to find a sufficient spot, and to connect a string of spots with reasonable drive times between them is pretty intense. Not to mention, I’ve been doing it for 83 days straight and we’ve just barely gotten started. I have 4 mapping apps on my phone, each with various bits of information. Pair that with internet searches and phone calls to rangers and that adds up to a lot of labor. I understand why people end up making campground reservations at the same places every year, 6 months in advance: it takes no mental effort.
  • Gas bills: We knew this was coming, but it’s still a bit of sticker shock at the pump. Not to mention we have a 47 gallon tanks, so some of those fill ups are pricey. But we consider this expense to be our “mortgage,” since we’re rolling around in our house.
  • Constantly being connected: It’s a blessing and a curse. Aaron needs to be connected for work, so the internet is always available. On our previous camping trips, we were happy to spend time in areas of the backcountry where cellular data doesn’t reach. Now, we have to make a conscious effort to balance our offline and online time.
  • Mice: We were not ready for this. Within 2 weeks of traveling, a mouse took up residence in the van. We’ve battled mice on and off for most of the trip. Aaron has taken on this battle with research, equipment and strategy. Mice are formidable enemies. They’ve eaten our food, nibbled on non-food items just to piss us off (I presume) and once we eliminated them from the cabin, they made nests in the engine with our insulation material. Aaron now has a mouse prevention protocol that he engages with on a regular basis. It’s only a matter of time before the rodents outsmart us again, so it’s just one more thing we have to remain vigilant about.

I had to think harder about this list, and this is all I could come up with. Call me when I’m having a bad day and maybe I’ll have something else to gripe about.

Oh one more thing: what we miss the most is…


Unexpected shifts

I had grand ideas about our travel route and destinations before we hit the road. With my precious wildflower project in mind, I saw us spending most of our time in southwest Oregon poking around the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, Siskiyou Mountains and Southern Coast Range. While we have spent some time there, the bulk of our journey has led us into northeastern Oregon, clear across the state! We’ve also had to make multiple trips back to Bend for various reasons. Because of all these changes in itinerary, I’ve learned to do detailed planning for only one week at a time. If I try to do any more than that, things are likely to change and all that planning time is wasted.

I also saw myself doing a lot of art in the van. However, on days that I spend most of my time out in the sun, I’m usually too wiped to pull out all my art supplies when I get back. Another barrier is not having space to spread out and work for a while. Besides, I’m prioritizing summer for wildflower research in the field. I’m collecting a ton of photos that I can convert into art this fall. I recently discovered that when I do have access to a picnic table where I can sit down and hammer out some work, that I can complete several paintings in a day. Thus, I’ve begun work on my $20 Art Show entries. Get the date on your calendar.

We haven’t missed one book club meeting since we left! Our group has graciously allowed us to Zoom in from wherever we are, and we have read all the books too. This has served as an essential community connection for us. I hope that we can keep this streak going, and if our in-town dates ever coincide with book club meetings, it would be really fun to drop in.

Looking forward

We have both adjusted really well to our new flow of life. Right from the start, we had to solve problems, negotiate unexpected obstacles and learn to live with each other in a very small space. Our experience camping, camping with each other, spending lots of time outdoors in every type of weather has all come in handy. The stuff I think most other people find to be the most difficult adjustments have come easily for us. We’ve basically been training for this our entire lives.

Next up: more time in northeast Oregon, more time painting, more farmer’s markets. I need to work on getting a few more people to take a trip out to visit us (we have our next visitors coming in under two weeks!). I’d also like to plan a backpacking trip or two, leaving Aaron at one trailhead and having him pick me up at another one. I need to continue searching for volunteer trail projects and local events that we can take part in to support groups we care about. The next volunteer gig I have is in September, so it would be nice to find something before that.

Mt. Melissa

June 26, 2023.

14.4 mi. | 3850′ ele. gain | 7 hrs.

Mt Melissa scramble
Wilderness sign.

Photo album

We made it all the way out to the Wallowas and I just wanted to get into the high country. My research took us to the McCully Basin trailhead, just outside of Joseph, that did have a trail running deep into a lakes basin. From there, I thought, I could scramble up to a saddle and do some ridge walking to a summit.

While perusing my map, I noticed a north-south ridge adjacent to the McCully Basin trail with a high point at its northern end. On some maps, it’s called East McCully Basin peak, on others it’s just noted with its elevation (9,128′). But the locals apparently call it Mt. Melissa, and once I found a write up on Summitpost describing some variants on accessing this peak, I knew I found my objective. I read “easy access” and “6 miles one way” and thought yeah, I can do that.

In order to make a quick and early get out the following morning, I packed up all my gear the night before Food, layers, poles, ice ax, microspikes, water, first aid, Garmin, etc. I had a plan.

McCully Basin Trail

I charged up the McCully Basin trail as fast as I could, hoping to give myself plenty of time to navigate the potentially more difficult terrain in the upper basin and get back down before the possible afternoon thunderstorms arrived. The miles evaporated quickly; I stopped to catch my breath. As I hiked, I ran through my plan and my gear list. “Microspikes…” I knew there would be snow and potentially lots of it, based on a report I got from a couple of trail runners the night before. “Where did I pack my microspikes?” A flash of heat radiated from my chest.

Western meadow-rue

I threw off my pack and emptied it out. Damn. They’re not there. Although I had taken them out the night before, I reasoned they must be camouflaged in their black bag on the black seat in the van. I missed taking them from my gear pile and putting them in my pack. My heart sank. I was so excited to get up there today, but I failed in my prep tasks. I didn’t have time to turn back, so I pressed on.

As I walked, my mind spiraled through all the possibilities of today. Where might I encounter obstacles? What decisions will I have to make? How can I salvage this trip? What’s the best and worst case scenarios? This scenario: I’m outside, I’m walking, I’m in the mountains, life is good.

The snow begins

“You can follow our tracks,” said the ladies I met in the parking lot last night. Except they didn’t do exactly the route I was planning, and I’ve learned from experience not to try and follow other people’s tracks. Instead, I’d use them when they were convenient and rely on my maps and intuition otherwise. I focused on getting to the basin, as long as the snow wasn’t rock hard.

McCully Basin

Luckily for me, the snow was just soft enough to get sufficient traction with my hiking boots but not so soft that I was slipping and post-holing on every snow patch. The isolated patches turned to continuous, rolling snow fields. I made my way across the creek and up into the basin proper. From that point, the trail became more difficult to follow and it often wasn’t the best route due to snow conditions. I picked a line that took me up the good snow and avoided the worst of it. I was shocked to find an abundance of alpine wildflowers in bloom, including lupine, wallflower and phlox. What a treat!

Near the saddle, I approached one final snowfield that looked pretty intimidating. It had one steep face but then appeared to mellow out on top. I took my time and carefully poked my way across it. With that behind me, I was confident that I could make it to the saddle.

The wind whipped across my face, carrying with it a light, soaking drizzle. The temperatures were mild, so the weather felt more like ambiance than an assault. At the Wing Ridge saddle, I paused to enjoy the dramatic view on the other side. Snow-capped mountaintops peeked through ethereal clouds. The raspy, rattling calls of Clark’s nutcrackers filled the air. They were hustling to store pine nuts for the coming winter. Meanwhile, summer had just begun.

Wing Ridge to Mt. Melissa

Here I had a decision to make: call it a day here or continue towards Mt. Melissa? By now, the clouds had nearly completely enveloped me. I looked up towards the summit of Wing Ridge, a possible intermediate stop or turnaround point. I thought at least if I could get one summit I’d be happy, and it was right there.

Heading to Wing Ridge Summit

I began searching for a route up the loose, wet rock up to the top. My visibility was poor, so I moved slowly and took the path of least resistance. I stayed mostly to the north side of the ridge, avoiding any tantalizing but unnecessary rock outcrops. Soon, I made it to the summit, where I found a rockpile encircling what looked like a very eroded statue of Mary. Odd.

By this time, the clouds had gotten so thick that I could no longer see the ridge leading to Mt. Melissa. I had to pull out my compass to figure out which way to go. I knew that steep, rocky cliffs ran down from the edges of the ridge, so again I moved slowly to keep myself on the tamest terrain. My backup plan was to bail down into the basin at one of the less steep sections of hillside. With that in mind, I kept moving forward.

The first part of the ridge walk was the steepest and trickiest, made even more challenging in low visibility. I played the familiar Wallowas scrambles game show: “Which Side of the Ridge is LESS Bad? Neither option was great, but one side generated less fear than the other, so I opted for that. I frequently swapped sides based on rock quality, snow, exposure, etc. Despite the weather and obstacles, I was still having fun and I was well-within my time window. Once I got through the steepest part of the ridge, the rest of it was a joyful romp. Wildflowers in profusion. Rolling terrain. Dramatic clouds. Mountain goat tracks. What a place.

Ridge to Mt. Melissa
Phlox streaks across the alpine ridge

At the summit, I looked everywhere for the elusive summit canister. Nothing. I sat down to eat my ramen and made a game plan for the return hike. Last night, I planned on a 12-mile day: 5 miles to the saddle, 1 mile to Melissa, return the way I came. But it was 6.5 miles to the saddle and just over a mile to the last summit. Sure, I could reverse my route and do a 15 mile day, but I could do better.

Gets windy up here!

Back to the parking lot

On the way up, I scouted possible return routes that involved dropping down into the basin without going back up (or around) Wing Ridge summit. I’m sure glad I did, because the thick clouds obliterated any views I had once I reached the saddle. About half a mile back down the ridge, I saw my opportunity to descend. It was a “familiar kind of terrible”: loose volcanic scree. With almost 2 decades of scrambling in the Oregon Cascades under my best, this was not a deterrent. I lost elevation quickly, returning to the snowy forest and then the marshy basin.

Aforementioned marshy basin

Back on the trail, I breezed back down, making time for rest and wildflower breaks. I noticed so many more on the hike down than I did on the way up! When I get fixated on completing a task, I effectively block out most extraneous data. I very much enjoyed seeing the extras on the return trip.

Unsurprisingly, I saw no other people out on this day. And despite a number of reasons why this trip could have gone sideways, I was able to carry it out to plan! That’s never a guarantee in the mountains, and I was prepared to turn back several times. I had to talk myself into continuing at each decision point, and I’m so glad I did.

When I returned to the van, I collapsed on the bed. Can tomorrow be a rest day?

Zumwalt Prairie

June 25, 2023.

Wide open spaces.

Photo album

Zumwalt Prairie had been on my to-visit list since watching an Oregon Field Guide episode about it many years ago. But, it’s a very long ways from anywhere and there aren’t any mountains on it. So, it fell pretty far down in my priorities. But this year’s project, to see as many different wildflowers across Oregon as possible, brought Zumwalt to my attention. The Zumwalt Prairie Preserve, managed by the Nature Conservancy, is designated a National Natural Landmark. It is known for its spectacular plant diversity, outstanding elk habitat and intactness as an ecosystem. We had seen several elk as we drove through several days earlier and were excited to spend more time on the ground to discover what else called this place home.

Horned Lark Trail

1.9 mi | 290′ ele. gain | 1:20 hr.

Old man’s whiskers. No, really.

HIking on the preserve is limited to official trails only, so we began our tour on the Horned Lark Trail. The cool morning air made for a pleasant walk. Dewdrops hanging on all the tall plants and grasses dripped down our legs as we walked. We wore shorts and sandals in anticipation of this!

Immediately, we were taken by all the birds we heard and saw. We pulled out our phones to use the “Sound ID” feature on Merlin. Western meadowlark. Savannah sparrow. Red-winged blackbird. Song sparrow. Wilson’s snipe. Just to name a few. The trail descended through dense grassland and mostly spent wildflowers to a pond teeming with life. Birds squawked, sang, chirped, chipped, called and warbled all around us. Waterfowl paddled around the water’s surface. Blackbirds balanced on the tops of reeds. Raptors soared overhead. And then, the insects. To me, insects represent a gaping black hole in my knowledge. I can distinguish a small handful of critters, but mostly when I get a good look at a bug I think, “wow, I’ve never seen THAT before?!”

We used the zoom feature on our phones like binoculars, trying to get closer views of all the things hurtling through the air. It was like a zoo but better; all of the animals were free.

I was neither surprised nor disappointed that most of the wildflower bloom was over. Instead, I was thrilled by the millions of funny looking seed heads filling the fields. Call them old man’s whiskers or prairie smoke, one of the funkiest little wildflowers dominated the landscape during our visit. Each individual tuft of fluffy seed hairs was a unique spectacle. I wanted to photograph each one. But alas! We had other places to go. As we hiked back out of the depression in the field, we noted some white mariposa lilies, yarrow and Mexican bedstraw.

Patti’s Trail

2.6 mi. | 160′ ele. gain | 1:15 hr

Aaron in the wild.

We continued up the road towards the main visitor information station, which also serves as the trailhead for Patti’s Trail. In the parking lot, Aaron opened up the hood to check the oil and noticed that a rodent family had built a nest in the engine. The industrious critters used not only the local grasses but also our van insulation. Hooray. Another mouse problem.

On that annoying note, we took off on another little walk. The beginning was underwhelming compared to the previous trail, but after climbing over the first fence, things got more interesting. First of all, in order to climb the fences, we used these built-in stepladders that made the job much easier. Once on the other side, we were greeted by colorful buckwheat flowers, purple asters and something we hadn’t seen yet. Clematis seed heads. These frizzy creatures resemble the prairie smoke we’d seen innumerable times before, but the strands of fuzz are a little longer, less dense and they tend to hang down from the stem. I had to stop and examine them for a while to be sure I’d found something new.

The temperature rose as we ambled along the trail. It eventually ran along a little creek and some riparian shrubbery. We poked at white-stem frasera, paintbrush, cinquefoil , lupine and stonecrop. Birds kept swooping and buzzing overhead. It was quiet and peaceful.

By the time we returned to the car, it was hot and we were hungry, so we decided to eat lunch at the van, then go into town for a lazy afternoon. If I were to visit the Zumwalt again, I’d go in late spring to catch more of the wildflower show. And I’d also want to visit in the dead of winter with cross country skis! One visit to a place is never enough.

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

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.


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.