June 25, 2023.
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.
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.
2.6 mi. | 160′ ele. gain | 1:15 hr
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.