Saturday, August 28, 2021

Saddle Mountain, Revisited

Saddle Mountain is the highest point of Oregon's northern coast range.  A mere 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean, views stretch for miles from it's prominent summit.  But this peak's claim to fame isn't the views - it's the fabulous flower-filled meadows that line Saddle Mountain's grassy slopes, erupting into bloom during the months of May and June. 

Foggy, spooky coastal forest near the trailhead

The last time I'd hiked Saddle Mountain was back in June 2015.  Although the wildflowers at the time put on the best display ever, this particular trip was notorious because I injured my foot on the descent.  Two pins placed in my big toe joint from a recent bunion surgery decided they needed to push their way out - immediately.  Five days later I ended up in the doctor's office enduring an emergency procedure to have them removed.  Needless to say this incident curtailed my hiking for most of the summer.  I think the bad memories from that day explain my 6-year absence.  

Finally above the fog!

Another reason for the long stretch between visits - Covid.  Saddle Mountain and the surrounding forest are owned by the Oregon State Parks Department.  Back in April 2020, when the virus was just getting started, the state of Oregon closed all of it's state parks.  Saddle Mountain was one of the last state parks to reopen.  It remained closed throughout all of 2020 and had only reopened about a month before my hike in mid-May.

Chocolate tiger lily

So you could say my revisit to Saddle Mountain was long overdue.  When I heard the trail had finally reopened I decided to run up there on a weekday - not only to avoid the crowds, but because I'm retired now and can hike any day I want!

Wild iris

Although skies were sunny in Portland, by the time I'd driven west to Saddle Mountain I found it's lower base cloaked in a thick fog.  Made the mossy old-growth forests near the trailhead look downright spooky.

Indian Paintbrush

However this hike is known for it's steep trail - 1650 feet of elevation gain in 2.5 miles.  Zig-zagging through the lower forests, it didn't take long for me to climb high enough to get above the fog bank.

Another shot of the spectacular fog-filled valley

At one of the first open areas, I gazed at the spectacular sight of fog-filled valleys below.  Nearby Humbug Mountain poked it's summit through the cloudy obstruction.

Prominent rock about halfway 

About halfway up to the first summit, I made a brief photo stop at a prominent rock outcropping.  Although it obscured most of the lower views, the fog layer did add some drama to this image.

Fairy lanterns

The Oregon State Parks website explains that Saddle Mountain was formed when a huge lava flow of Columbia River basalt touched the sea.  Steam explosions from the hot rock hitting the water broke the rock into fragments.  This action created thin, rocky soil at high elevations.  These unique soils support the abundant wildflower meadows on top of Saddle Mountain.  It is believed Saddle Mountain served as a refuge for many plant species during the last Ice Age.

I enjoyed the foggy views below

Some of the rarest and oldest species of wildflowers, lichens and moss can be found atop Saddle Mountain.  A few of the rare flowers are found nowhere else.  One, the early blue violet, is the main food source for the threatened silverspot butterfly.

Flowers and fog

Because of the many rare flora and fauna found here, Saddle Mountain has the designation of not only a State Park but a State Natural Area.  This classification designates the highest level of protection to the mountain and it's environs.

Colorful flower field

I was appreciative of everything Oregon State parks has done to protect this unique habitat as I passed through an open grassy slope chock-full of chocolate tiger lilies, and then further down the trail another colorful meadow sporting orange Indian paintbrush and yellow flowers.  Although I spotted many wildflowers in bloom, things were just getting started.  I was too early for the main flower show - it usually doesn't occur until mid-June. 

Dramatic overlook 

Saddle Mountain has two distinct summits, with a curving saddle-like slope between the two (hence, how Saddle Mountain got it's name).  

The view behind me

The saddle area is a huge grassy meadow, with tremendous views.  Even with today's fog settling in the mountain valleys it was still an impressive sight.  A ridge jutting out from the main trail creates a dramatic overlook.  

Tiny figures on an overlook

Normally I'll walk down to the end of the ridge for the great photo ops.  However, today the narrow ridge trail already had a group on it, so I stayed away.  The people did give scale to the knife edge and made for a neat perspective.  However, when I zoomed in on the people in the photo, I was disappointed to see instead of taking in the fantastic views, nearly all of them were on their phones!

The last half mile is steep!

Past the saddle the real climbing begins!  A steep trails winds up the side of Saddle Mountain's second summit.

Much of the trail is covered in chicken wire to prevent more erosion

Because of steepness and overuse, many parts of this trail have been reconstructed with chicken wire tread.  Not the greatest to walk over, but I understand why this material was used.  The crumbly rock soil doesn't hold up well to thousands of visitors footsteps tramping up and down this fragile surface. The chicken wire adds stability and durability to this wildly popular trail. 

Mt. St Helens and Mt. Adams views

The final summit push is always the hardest part of this hike.  Gasping, I plodded along, making frequent stops to photograph the few flowers that were blooming (the main show in the summit meadows doesn't occur until mid-June).  Nearby Cascade mountains can also be seen from Saddle Mountain's summit and I was happy to spot Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier, and Mt. Adams, their white-capped peaks poking out of the fog.

Looking back down Saddle Mountain's slopes

After slogging the final hundred feet on loose, crumbly soil I was never so happy to reach Saddle Mountain's lofty summit!  The thick fog prevented any ocean views, but after snapping a few quick photos, I was ready to just rest and eat lunch.

The summit is in sight!

The only place to sit is a three-sided bench at one end of the summit proper.  Lucky for me, a group was just leaving, so I quickly plopped myself on one of the three boards.

Cloud-filled valley views from the summit

I'd been leap-frogging a group of four older ladies all morning.  After I sat down on the summit bench, I noticed them approaching.  Since there was still plenty of seating, after announcing I'd been vaccinated, I invited the ladies to join me.  They ended up being great company.  All the women were well over 70 - but still went on backpacking and ski trips together and had plans to visit all of the National Parks in the US.  When one lady mentioned their plans included visiting South Dakota later in the summer, I gave them lots of information about the Black Hills and Badlands National Park.

Orange Indian Paintbrush

What wonderful company to spend lunchtime with!  Those ladies were great role models for someone like me, for my goal is to keep hiking and skiing well into my 70s and beyond.  When everyone had finally consumed their food and readied themselves for the hike down, I was sad to see them go.


Although the hike up I'd concentrated on wide scenic views, for the return trip I decided my focus would be the different wildflower species.  Slipping on my macro lens I slowly made my way back downhill over the loose scree.  

This unique bloom is called "Prairie Smoke"

There were only a few types of wildflowers in bloom on the upper summit meadows.  But I was able to find a couple of interesting specimens.  This unique maroon-colored flower called "prairie smoke" was one of my favorites.


There were a few small patches of delicate, purple phlox blooms.

Fawn lily

In the woods between the saddle and the upper summit, dozens of pink fawn lilies bloomed profusely.

Salmonberry bloom

I loved this shot of a rose-colored salmonberry bloom.  I think this was my favorite image from the entire day.


Where there's a trickle of water, monkeyflowers can be found.  On the wet slopes of some of the steeper trail tread, I found a few hardy yellow blooms.

Chocolate tiger lilies from the large bloom

I spend a little extra time at the lower meadow with all the chocolate tiger lilies.  One of my favorite wildflowers, I wanted to capture as many of the blooms as I could.

Another chocolate tiger lily

I'm not the slowest hiker - but my extended trailside photography sessions sure don't make me the speediest!  

Looking back down into the foggy forest

But that's not why I hike.  I'm not out to break any land speed records.  I walk in nature deliberately to fully appreciate all the beauty I see.  As John Muir famously once said - "People ought to saunter in the mountains, not hike!"  I totally agree!

It was a great day to saunter up Saddle Mountain and reacquaint myself with the mountain's lovely scenery after so many years.

My 2015 blog post about Saddle Mountain can be found here.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

The Badlands

Before I delve into the rest of my spring hikes I wanted to write one final post from my extended South Dakota stay.  The good news - I'm finally back in Oregon!  Although I enjoyed the nice long visit with my family and am grateful to my parents for taking care of me post-surgery, it's good to be home.

The grand view

One of my favorite places to visit while in South Dakota is Badlands National Park.  Before my illness, hospitalization, and surgery, it had been firmly on this trip's agenda.  But - life threw me a curve ball, so change in plans.   Now recovering from my ordeal, it took a few weeks before I felt well enough to think about venturing to the park.  Also, since I didn't have a vehicle, I had to rely on family members for transport.  Luckily I was able to talk my sister into driving there one July evening.

Colorful hills

It was a hot and extremely humid late afternoon as my sis and I made our way along the scenic road through Badlands National Park.  Although the Badlands is known for it's unique landscapes - colorful eroded hills stretching for miles - my main reason for this trip was to capture wildlife.  Two years ago, I came upon a large herd of bighorn sheep and was hoping to have the same luck finding them again.

Small roadside flower

My sister was glad to have an excuse to visit the Badlands.  Despite living in South Dakota all of her life, she had only been to the Badlands once before - a couple of years ago with me.  Even though people live close to these wonderful natural attractions, often the only time they visit is when there's company.  I was happy to provide the reason!

Eroded hills

The plan was to drive through the park, and my sister agreed to pull over anywhere that caught my eye.  First up was an area of the park called the "Yellow Mounds" where the soil had muted yellow hues.  Although I stop here every time I visit, it's always good for a few more photo ops!

My happy sis!

We pulled into another scenic overlook parking area.  I spotted a lady looking up into a large tree, so of course I went over to check it out.  The tree was full of yellow and gray birds (which I later identified as Kingbirds).  Several young fledglings were perched in the branches, waiting for their mothers to return with food.

Kingbirds waiting for mama

I'd never seen Kingbirds before (I don't think they live in the Pacific NW) so I was fascinated by these lovely yellow birds.

Feeding time

A pair of fledglings sat on a tree branch in full view, so I only had to zoom in to capture the two cuties.  Even better, I was also able to photograph their mother's arrival and get in on feeding time.

Another baby kingbird being fed

The Kingbirds were a welcome sighting, but I was after some Bighorn sheep.  Sis drove the park road for a few miles but there were none to be found.  I was beginning to think I'd miss out.  But then we rounded a bend and noticed vehicles parked along the road.  And walking among them were the sheep!

Bighorn sheep!

A large herd of mothers and babies - ewes and lambs - were contentedly munching grass along the road.

Little lamb right by the road

Oh my gosh I'd hit the jackpot!  Excitedly I jumped out of the car and started firing my camera's shutter.

I loved their fluffy ears

There were lots of young Bighorn sheep.   Many were just starting to grow their horns - I noticed tiny nubs on the top of some heads.  And I just loved the lamb's white fluffy ears.

Ewe standing on a hill

Speaking of horns, of course I kept a safe distance from both the ewes and lambs.  Those mama sheep had fairly large horns and sharp hooves.  I didn't want to upset any of the mothers by getting too close.  Thank goodness for my big zoom lens!

Feeding time

I was lucky enough to observe several lambs feeding from their mamas.  Although now old enough to eat vegetation, the lambs must've still needed to supplement their diet with mother's milk.

Talkative ewe

A few of the ewes were equipped with radio collars around their necks.  It appeared as though the National Park staff was monitoring the Bighorn sheep herds.

Another cute lamb

My sister took a few pics of me in action.  Since I'm always behind the lens, it was great to have a few photos of myself - which I can share with you all.  Thanks sis!

Capturing the action (photo courtesy of my sis)

I took way too many images of the adorable baby Bighorn sheep.  And I couldn't decide which ones to feature in this blog so I'm including them all in a huge photo dump.  Enjoy the cuteness!

A gang of lambs

Sweet baby

Checking out the scenery

Checking me out

High on a vantage point

Two inquisitive lambs

Finally after logging several hundred images of Bighorn sheep babies I finally decided I'd taken enough photographs, so my sis and I jumped back in the car and headed further down the park road.  We traveled another mile or so when we spotted another interesting vantage point.  Pulling into the parking area, I noticed several people looking into a nearby draw.  Peering into the small canyon, we noticed two Bighorn sheep rams.  One was lying on top of a small hill and the other was walking towards the first guy.

Two rams challenging each other

The second ram ventured to the top of the hill where the other ram was resting, and started pawing the earth with his hoof.  Accepting the challenge, the other ram rose up and began walking towards him.  

I think there's gonna be a fight!

And then the fight was on!  The two rams ran towards each other and knocked heads.  Their huge, curled horns locked together and the rams wrestled, each trying to overturn the other.

Crashing horns

What a sight!  My sis and I stood in awe watching these powerful animals battle.  The rams would scuffle for a few seconds, their horns locked tight.  Then they would retreat for a moment, only to instantly rush at each other for another round.  Although we were thankfully a safe distance away, we could hear the crash every time the ram's heads and horns collided.  The animals fought for about 5 minutes, then both rams abruptly stopped their skirmish and both laid down on top of the hill as if nothing had happened.

Prairie dog

Talk about being at the right place at the right time!  My sister and I felt very lucky to have witnessed a Bighorn sheep fight.  It was the highlight of our evening.

Colorful rock bands

After watching the duel, my sis drove down an adjacent gravel road that was full of prairie dog towns.  I was hoping to capture some pictures of burrowing owls, who nest near prairie dog holes, but we didn't spot any.  Still it was fun to watch the prairie dogs freak out when we got too close to their homes.  The little guys would squeak loudly, jump up and down, and frantically run in circles to warn their fellow mates.


My sis and I stopped at a few more scenic overlooks which I took full photographic advantage of.

More colorful eroded hills

The last item I wished to capture was a sunset over the Badland's eroded hills.  Spotting what I thought would be a nice sunset place, I asked my sister to retrace our route back to that specific overlook.

Another pic of me in action (Thanks sis!)

However, we misjudged sunset time and the sun started lowering much earlier than I'd anticipated.  When it didn't look like we'd get to my chosen overlook in time, I decided to stop at a different nearby location and see what I could get.

Evening light on the rock formations

The evening light illuminated the colorful cliffs and spires, producing some great color.

This area was especially colorful

The above shot was one of my favorites for color.

Panoramic view

There was a thick cloud bank hovering near the western horizon which combined with smoky, hazy skies from distant forest fires, didn't produce the amazing sky color I was hoping for.

Sun going down in hazy skies

I was able to capture this orangish glow emanating from the sun as it sunk behind some of the taller sculpted hills.

Another sunset pic

Higher up, the sun glowed an eerie red - again thanks to smoke from far-away forest fires.

The setting sun lit up these storm clouds

The better show was to the east, where a bank of thunderclouds began to light up in brilliant oranges and pinks, this colorful light due to reflections of from the setting sun.

Fantastic evening light on the Badlands

Once the sun slunk behind the horizon, I took advantage of some great shadow-free light on the surrounding colorful canyons (a very slow shutter speed and high ISO were necessary for this capture.)

Day's last light

My sis and I hung around until the light was nearly gone from the sky.  Then we settled in for the one-hour drive back home.  It was a late night for me, and I totally wore myself out (forgetting that I was still very much healing from my recent surgery.)  But despite overdoing things, seeing the Bighorn sheep (especially the rams fighting), the Kingbirds, the stunning scenery, and sunset was totally worth any fatigue.  

Badlands, I'll be back next year!