Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Return to Flowerland

I'll admit it, I'm a flower follower.  During spring and summer my hikes are planned around the local wildflower bloom.  Whenever I hear an area is at peak, you can bet I'll find a way to get there.

Paintbrush going crazy!

One of the best early summer wildflower shows can be found on the flanks of Silver Star Mountain.  Located in SW Washington, this small patch of National Forest-designated scenic area is sandwiched between logged clear cuts and rural homes.  The Yacolt Burn, largest wildfire in Washington state history, swept through in 1902 leaving huge gaps where trees failed to reseed.  Luckily for us wildflower lovers, these bare areas have cultivated into spectacular meadows full of every color flower imaginable.

Pyramid Rock in morning light

Last year, the wildflower bloom was the best I'd ever witnessed.  As a matter of fact, my friend and I took so many photographs we joked about needing a flowervention.  With memories of last year's show still fresh, I was looking forward to my annual summer visit.

Beargrass bonanza

By late June I started getting reports that Silver Star's bloom was on.  Picking the final Friday of that month, I arose early to get a jump on the hikers.  With the numerous flower reports hitting social media, I assumed the place would be crawling with people.

Pretty white unknown flower

Many trails cris-cross the mountain, but access is primarily from two trailheads, the north Ed's Trail and the south Grouse Vista.  Parking at Ed's trailhead meant navigating a horrible rutted, rocky road, so I always head to Grouse Vista.  Arriving before 8 am, I was pleased to see only two other vehicles in the parking area.

Views from Silver Star summit

The only downside to parking at Grouse Vista is enduring a steep, rocky boring trail for nearly three miles to reach the mountain's base.  But that's the price of admission to these lovely flower fields, so I put my head down and chugged uphill.  About a mile and a half in, the forest cleared and I was rewarded with sweeping views of the surrounding forested (and clear-cut) hills.

Another summit vista

It was here that the flower show started.  Hundreds of bright orange Indian paintbrush dotted the adjacent hillsides. Directly below Pyramid Rock was a huge patch of beargrass, their mauve stalks standing at attention.  While photographing the sights a group of people passed by heading back towards the parking area.  Wondering about such an early departure, one person mentioned they'd tried to catch sunrise on Silver Star, only to be foiled by heavy cloud cover.

Flower show from the old road

Continuing onward, I dived back into the forest, and up more miserable rocky trail.  Finally, arriving  at the four-way junction below Silver Star's summit, a quick half mile climb and I was taking in the panorama from the mountain's very top.

Tiny aster

So far the only people I'd met were the group heading back to the parking area.  But, as I made my final steps onto the top of Silver Star, I noticed two other people were right behind me.  So much for having the place to myself!  But the couple that arrived soon afterward were very nice and we both marveled at the views and flower show.  After many photos and a good conversation, it was time to move on.

Mt St Helens hid behind the clouds

Despite an awful road, the hike from Silver Star's northern trailhead, Ed's Trail, is the most popular way to access this scenic area.  The trail boasts jaw-dropping scenery.  Following a ridgeline where on clear days, three snow-capped mountain peaks are visible, hikers meander through fields thick with colorful wildflowers.  Not wanting to miss this show, I decided to add a loop through Ed's trail to the day's agenda.

Lovely yellow butterfly

Normally, the best wildflowers can be found along an abandoned road paralleling Ed's Trail.  But approaching this road, I was disappointed to see the bloom was nowhere as colorful or diverse as the previous year.  Although it was still quite lovely, last year's amazing flower show had set the bar quite high.  I'm assuming our hot, dry spring months were to blame.

Sweeping views

Although the morning's overcast skies began to clear, the mountains remained hidden behind some stubborn clouds.  Mt St Helens teased a bit, her base partially visible at times, but that was the extent of it.  No mountain views today.

Trailside color

The old road meandered downhill, and although the mountains weren't visible, the adjacent foothills were.  It was still a perfectly acceptable view, and although the wildflowers didn't match last years phenomenal bloom, they still weren't too shabby.

Tiger lilies

Approaching the junction with Ed's Trail, the beargrass became more numerous until I came upon a slope covered with white, poofy stalks.  I love beargrass, so seeing such a large concentration was a huge treat.  Perfect place for lunch break!

Huge fields of beargrass at Ed's trail

Body refueled, it was time to tackle the wonderful Ed's Trail.  Wandering uphill along a sharp ridge, the flowers were at their colorful best.  Such a wide variety - beargrass, wild iris, tiger lilies, lupine, Oregon sunshine, and tons of orange paintbrush.  By now it was early afternoon, and butterflies began floating between the blossoms.  Truly wonderful!

Wild iris

My camera's memory card was on overload as I snapped image after image of this gorgeous alpine paradise.  I could see why so many folks braved the horrible road to hike Ed's Trail.  It's truly one of the Pacific NW's showcase hikes.

The amazing Ed's trail

However, despite the glowing online flower reports, Silver Star's trails weren't busy at all that day.  I ran into a handful of people on the old road, and only a half dozen on Ed's Trail.  Not sure if the cloudy forecast, or the fact it was a Friday, kept people away, but, hey - I wasn't complaining!

More butterflies!

Yes, Ed's Trail delivered in a big way.  I sauntered across the ridge, through an interesting rock arch, and climbed up a few steep slopes, all the way admiring more meadows of floral splendor.  Before I knew it I was back at the road junction below Silver Star Mountain.

Lots of color along Ed's Trail

Then I had to retrace my steps back down that miserable, rocky first trail back to my car.  Although the return trek is never as fun, I did encounter lots of butterflies enjoying the afternoon heat and partial sunshine.  Some of the butterflies seemed to follow me as I trekked down the trail.  And although catching them standing still was tricky, I did manage to capture a few with my camera.

Ed's Trail's famous rock arch

For all you photography geeks out there - Some readers may remember my purchase of a mirrorless camera last August, the Fujifilm XT-1.  After a undergoing a huge learning curve (the controls were totally different than my standby Canon 7D) I've come to love this compact, lightweight little camera.  It's a perfect size and weight for hiking, and produces images that are nearly as good as my Canon.  I've been using the XT-1 almost exclusively on most of my hikes this summer.  All photos from this post came from my Fujifilm XT-1.  You can compare with my photos from last year's trip (which were shot with my Canon 7D) and tell me what you think.

One more butterfly!

Although not as spectacular as last year's mega-bloom, Silver Star Mountain still lived up to it's reputation as the place to go for fabulous early summer wildflowers.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Barlow Pass, Palmateer Point, and the PCT

There's a danger in reading online hiking reports - you just might be motivated to visit the exact same places.  Such was the case last June, when a Portland Hikers contributor described a route near Mt Hood that traversed an ancient wagon road, ascended to a panoramic viewpoint, passed by two woodsy lakes, and finished with a return trip via the Pacific Crest Trail (aka PCT).  Access was from Barlow Pass, a place I'd yet to visit.  In keeping with my "try new hikes" summer goal, I immediately added this route to the following weekend's agenda.

Morning sunlight filters through the forest

Hot weather was in the forecast, so I made sure to get an early start, arriving at the Barlow Pass Trailhead before 8 am.  Although I've hiked from most of the trailheads near Mt Hood, this one had somehow escaped my attention.  Being unfamiliar with the area, I had to do a bit of searching to locate the PCT, let alone the Barlow Road trail, my desired starting point.  While puttering around the parking area, another car pulled up.  Out jumped a man in running clothes.  Turned out he was an ultrarunner visiting from Scotland, who had decided to get in a quick 30 miles on the PCT.  After a bit of wandering we located both our desired trails.  With that, I wished the man good luck, and we parted ways.

Old Barlow Trail Wagon route (apparently)

My trail plunged downhill through a lovely old growth forest of Douglas Fir and hemlock.  Early morning sunlight filtered through the thick branches creating stunning patterns.  I noticed a couple of signs denoting the original Barlow Road wagon route.  The Barlow Road was an alternate route for Oregon Trail pioneers to reach the Willamette River Valley (the other option being a dangerous float down the Columbia River).  Online research mentioned pioneer artifacts had been unearthed from a nearby meadow.

Devils Half Acre

A short half mile ramble brought me to the wide open meadows of Devils Half Acre.  The meadow was boggy and still wet with morning dew.  A few tents were visible from a nearby primitive campground.  Somewhere nearby my trail was supposed to intersect with the Palmateer View trail, which would then take me to Palmateer Point.


Except that my current trail dead-ended in the meadow and the Palmateer view trail was nowhere to be found.  I asked a couple camping nearby for directions, and they pointed me up a steep slope where I intersected with the rough gravel campground access road.

This lovely blue butterfly posed for me

Which direction should I follow this road - uphill or down?  Thinking my trail junction was nearby I opted to hike up.  I walked for half a mile with no sign of any trail.  Another quarter mile with no luck made me realize I'd turned the wrong direction.  But I wasn't about to retrace my steps now (there was no guarantee the trail would be the other way) so I kept following the road until it deposited me back at Barlow Pass, right where I'd started!

More flowery goodness

Time for plan B.  Consulting my map, I found the PCT would also take me to the Palmateer View Trail.  It meant a bit more mileage, but at least I'd be following established trails.  Opting for the sure thing, I started again, this time following the PCT southbound.

Mt Hood from Palmateer Point
The PCT was wide and well-graded, if not a bit of a steep climb.  A mile of uphill huffing brought me to the junction with the Palmateer View Trail.  Finally we meet!
The trail then descended steeply, losing all the elevation I'd gained and more.  In winter months, all the trails in this area are used for skiing, and I couldn't imagine traversing down this path on skinny cross country skis.

Mt Hood close-up

The forest was especially beautiful here, with more majestic tall firs and a few pines mixed in.  I even found a few bushes showing the last of the rhododendron bloom.  Several lovely blue butterflies floated in the breeze, and I was lucky enough to capture one with my camera.

Mariposa Lily (or Cats Ear)

Then I came upon an unmarked trail junction.  Judging by the distance I'd traveled since the PCT, I was pretty sure this was the path to Palmateer Point.  I climbed steeply up a knoll and traveled across an open ridge lined with hundreds of creamy white mariposa lilies.  And there at the very end was Palmateer Point with it's killer view of Mt Hood.

A fine view of Hood

Early morning light lit up the mountain perfectly.  If not for a few tall trees blocking Hood, the view would've been picture perfect (although it still wasn't too shabby).  I wandered along the ridgeline's very edge, clicking my camera shutter, vying for the best image.

Vanilla leaf (I think)

My early arrival meant I was lucky enough to have Palmateer Point all to myself the entire time.  After a good half hour of gazing at the mountain, photo-taking, and a quick snack, I was ready to continue the day's trek.  Voices from nearby hikers coming up the trail hastened my departure.

Upper Twin Lake

From Palmateer Point it was a quick mile and a half ramble to the first of two Twin Lakes.  It was on this trail that I began to run into other hikers.  The Twin Lakes, Upper and Lower, are popular destinations so I wasn't all that surprised. 

The tip of Mt Hood is visible

Upper Twin Lake totally charmed me.  A tiny bright blue water body, it sparkled in the sunlight.  Mt Hood's very tip rose above the adjacent forest.  Stopping for a break, I was pulling a snack out of my backpack, when who should come bounding out of the forest than the Scottish runner I'd met at the trailhead.  So funny to run into him for a second time!  We both instantly recognized each other and chatted for a few minutes about where we'd been hiking (or in his case, running).  I took a couple photos of the man in front of Upper Twin Lake and then we said our goodbyes once again.

Lower Twin Lake

Another 3/4 mile downhill trek brought me to Lower Twin Lake.  Unlike it's upper cousin, the place was swarming with people.  A mere two-miles from the Frog Lake Trailhead, this lake was a popular destination for backpackers and day hikers.  Several groups had tents set up nearby, while a few others were sitting on the lakeshore, skipping rocks, swimming, or just enjoying the view.  Needless to say I didn't linger. 

Return via the PCT

What goes down must come back up, so I climbed a steep 3/4 mile path that connected back to the PCT.  From here I had a 3.5 mile march back to Barlow Pass.  This stretch of the PCT wasn't the most interesting, so I put my head down and tried to cover ground as quickly as possible.  The mid-afternoon heat didn't help, so this leg was long, dusty and hot.  As always, it was a relief to finally glimpse the parking lot back at Barlow Pass.

Another new trail checked off!  Although I'm glad to have explored this area, I don't know that I'd do it again anytime soon.  But it was good for 12 miles and a couple thousand feet of elevation gain on a sunny summer's day. 

Friday, September 7, 2018

Flower Time on MSH

In mid June I did a smart thing.  I convinced my supervisor to let me have every Friday off.  Although this meant a little less money in my paycheck, it opened up another day for hiking.  In my mind, that's worth much more than a few extra dollars.

Indian Paintbrush

So what did I do on my very first Friday off?  Naturally, I headed to Mt St Helens to hike the Boundary trail and take in it's annual wildflower show.  (Blogging buddy Helen, this post is for you!)

Fog and color

Of course when planning hikes, one can never predict the weather.  So I wasn't surprised to pull into Johnston Ridge Observatory's parking lot that morning and discover heavy clouds obscuring the mountain.

Raindrop-spangled penstemon

Although I'd miss the sweeping panoramas of MSH and her barren plains, foggy weather did mean I'd be able to photograph wildflowers shadow-free. 

Furry friend

So I happily wandered amongst the flower field for the first two miles, snapping pics as I went.  The trail to Devils Elbow was still closed (it appeared permanently) so I trudged up and over via the new "alternate" route.  I came upon a friendly ground squirrel and the little guy was nice enough to pose for me.

Spirit Lake and foggy hills

Near the Truman Trail junction, low clouds obscured adjacent hills, barely giving up a glimpse of Spirit Lake's southern end.

Wild raspberry flower

Upward I ambled, through a small canyon, full of trees and brush reestablished since Mt St Helen's 1980 eruption.  Every year I hike this trail I've noticed the trees slowly getting taller, with some of them now nearly eight feet in height.  Positive signs of this area's recovery.

Spirit Lake emerging from the fog

I climbed up to a saddle overlooking Spirit Lake.  Usually boasting outstanding vistas of the lake and surrounding mountains, today everything was covered in white.  Nothing to see here, I continued upwards.

The rock arch

The ridge above Spirit Lake is one of my favorite stretches of trail.  As one climbs slowly through a barren slope of fallen gray tree trunks (casualties of the eruption) Spirit Lake, Mt St Helens, and the adjacent foothills anchor the skyline.  But not today.  The best I got was a few peek-a-boo glimpses of Spirit Lake through breaks in the fog.

St Helens Lake

From the ridge's very top I looked down into a bowl that held the tiny circular St Helens Lake.  It too wandered in and out of clouds, but I got lucky with a few short views.

Mt St Helens slowly emerging from the fog

The trail continued through a famous natural rock arch.  Beyond this arch, the it circled the ridgetop crossing the Coldwater Trail.  Although the day's initial destination was to summit nearby Coldwater Peak, from the trail junction I could barely make out the peak's cloud-choked top.  Deciding that the uphill slog wasn't worth a viewless summit, I made the Coldwater Trail my turn-around point.

Volcano sighting!

It was a cold lunch break, hunkered down against the frigid wind, in a foggy cloud.  I was disappointed not to have seen any of the fantastic views, but consoled myself with the promise of another trek through the flower fields on my return trip.


Then a wonderful thing happened.......

As I was packing up my lunch, the clouds began to lift.

Spirit Lake now completely clear

Retracing my steps back across the ridge, the skies were nearly clear by the time I returned to the arch.

Barren hills

What a quick turnaround!  I couldn't believe my luck.  Descending back to the Spirit Lake saddle, I soaked in the views I'd missed.

Better views on the return trip

Although cloudy skies are great for photographing vivid colors and even light, I was happy for the clear skies and sunshine.  Spirit Lake sparkled blue in the sunlight as I passed back by.

Crater and wildflowers

And the flower fields were just as wonderful the second time around.  I may or may not have spent way too much time capturing all the beauty.

Colorful hillside

But now all you readers will be able to enjoy the flower show too.  (Photo overload ahead!)

The show continues

Progress was slowed....

Paintbrush stole the show

Another colorful meadow

Mountain and flowers

Favorite shot of the day

Another fave vantage point

More paintbrush

And more paintbrush

Parting mountain view

What a great use of a day off!  Here's to more amazing Friday hikes.