Nature Alert: Mountaintop Meadows

Field Larkspur

While there are still many native wildflowers in bloom on the valley floor, every stroll I take sees the area more and more on the cusp of browning up. This is a time when many Corvallisites choose to head farther out and up to bask in the bursts of colors that are just reaching their full glory. To aid in those journeys, the following is a selection of hikes that take you to higher elevation meadows, ascending in order, just as the flowers do. 

But before you read on, do recall some important wildflower etiquette, as meadows are generally fragile ecosystems vulnerable to the impacts that their allure may embolden. Some easy don’t’s: don’t walk off trail; don’t pick any flowers. Do: cheerfully address the hominids around you, and point out what they may or may not already be noticing to share in the glee that can be derived from the ascendance of wildflowers. 

Rock Penstemon

Mt. Hebo, Coast Range
Summit elevation: 3,153 ft
Trail mileage: 5.4 miles out & back
Travel time from Corvallis: 2 hours

Located in the Coast Range not far inland from Pacific City, the meadows of Mt. Hebo’s summit are highly underrated for their quality flowers, Pacific Ocean views provided on fog-free afternoons, and lack of high trail traffic. The Mt. Hebo Trail begins at Hebo Lake Campground, and travels through a young but mature Douglas fir forest that, in itself, is not much to write home about. But once at the top, the value of the time and effort taken to arrive there becomes realized. Species such as red columbine (Aquilegia fermosa), Oregon iris (Iris tenax), and various lupines (Lupinus spp.) allow for red, white, and purple hues to compliment the already stunning background. These bloom earliest on of all the listings here, so should be visited sooner than later. 

Red Columbine

Marys Peak, Coast Range
Summit elevation: 4,098 ft
Trail mileage: 2-mile loop
Travel time from Corvallis:
50 minutes

Much more frequented by the average Corvallisite is the Peak that we can so easily see from various points around town, with its iconic silhouette held dear to many an onlooker, and featured on too many logos to count. While many make their way to the summit of the tallest peak in the Coast Range solely for the views of the Cascades it can provide on a sunny summer day, others venture to this meadow due to the botanical bounty which call it home. To avoid what sometimes can be a weekend parking fiasco and to get a bit longer of a summit stroll, park at the Marys Peak Campground and walk the Meadow’s Edge Trail. This leads to the top via a stretch through an old-growth Noble fir forest. At the meadow’s edge, patches of Columbia lilly (Lilium columbianum), Indian paintbrush (Castilleja hispida), and Cardwell’s penstemon (Penstemon cardwelli) can be spotted and increase in abundance the higher you travel. Another flowering favorite in the rock gardens at the top is field larkspur (Delphinium menziesii). 

Indian Paintbrush

Cone Peak & Iron Mountain, Cascade Range
Summit elevation: 5,337 ft
Trail mileage: 7.1-mile loop
Travel time from Corvallis:
1 hour 40 minutes

After switchbacking through old growth Douglas fir forest from the Tombstone Pass Trailhead just off Highway 20, hikers are greeted by dense patches of paintbrush and larkspur (same species as at Marys Peak), dotted with a mix of hundreds of other species in an almost overwhelming array, in the meadows of the aptly named Cone Peak.  Continuing from there to the old fire lookout platform on Iron Mountain is well worth the extra mileage, as it offers up views of Cascade Volcanoes, as well as different flower species (such as rock penstemon) in the rocky outcrops.

Castle Crest Wildflower Garden, Crater Lake National Park
Summit elevation: 6,434 ft
Trail mileage: 0.4 miles
Travel time from Corvallis: 4 hours

Though it may be a journey from the Willamette Valley, Crater Lake ought to be visited by any who call themselves an Oregonian, as it is our state’s only National Park, and home to fascinating geology that allows for both challenging mountain hikes and more easily accessed wildflower meadows, which bloom later in the summer (July is prime time) due to their higher elevations. Located just a mile away from the Park Headquarters on East Rim Road, the Castle Crest Wildflower Garden Trail was constructed during the Civilian Conservation Corps era in 1929 and consists of a pathway of flat stones so as to prevent trampling of its signature feature.  Floral sightings include Lewis’ Monkeyflowers (Mimulus lewisii), Gorman buttercup (Ranunculus gormanii), shooting stars (Dodecatheon alpinum), Columbia monkshood (Aconitum columbainum), Mountain Violet (Viola purpurea, var. venosa), and pearl-everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea).

For more wildflower spotting guidance across the state, check out reports made on: http://www.oregonwildflowers.org/index1024.html

By Ari Blatt