First Exploration of Balm Mountain

While exploring the part of the Western Cascades called the Calapooya Mountains over the last few years, I have repeatedly been drawn by the seemingly bleached open slopes of Balm Mountain (see map). After finding so many unusual plants at the next peak to the NNW, what I’ve dubbed Loletta Peak (see previous posts on Loletta Peak), I’ve become even more obsessed with finding out what treasures await on Balm Mountain. Yesterday (August 23), I finally indulged my curiosity. I decided to approach this mountain from my usual route up Coal Creek Road 2133. I’d never driven to the end of Road 3810, which goes just below the south sides of Loletta Peak and Balm Mountain and can be accessed from the north only by Road 5851, which is most quickly reached via Coal Creek Road. When I investigated the Skipper Lakes trail last year (see Some Oddities at Skipper Lakes), just below the southeast side of Balm Mountain, I headed in from the north side, which was a shorter drive. Unfortunately the spur road was bad and the trailhead non-existent. I eventually found the trail and discovered a real trailhead at the south end, right where road 3810 deadends.

Amazing weathered rock formations along the ridge south of the lookout site (seen at the top)

The caterpillars of Hoffman's and Northern checkerspots are gregarious when young and nest together on Cascade asters (Eucephalus ledophyllus). After overwintering as small caterpillars, they separate the following spring and continue growing until it is time to turn into a chrysalis and later a butterfly.

I drove up to the intersection of Road 3810, successfully resisting the urge to stop and look at all the pretty things on the way up, but I could see that the Epilobium luteum was still blooming. It’s hard for me to pass any plants by that way, but I wanted as much time as possible to explore this new area. I parked at the corner of Road 436 and walked the mile to the top. I’d been on this road once in John Koenig’s truck and did not want to put my high-clearance but not so rugged minivan through the rocks and waves of this second rate logging road. It was an easy walk to the top, and I passed quite a few butterflies nectaring on Cascade aster (now Eucephalus ledophyllus). There was also a little Oxypolis occidentalis, an uncommon plant in Oregon, growing in a wet ditch, and over 30 blooming stalks of pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea) catching the light in a small area of uncut woods. It’s depressing how hammered this terrific area has been by logging. On reaching the top of the road where it meets the crest, I walked a short ways north toward Loletta Peak above some very steep open slopes that I’d admired many times from below. There were lots of EriogonumPenstemon rupicola, and other nice plants, but of course, everything was completely toasted at this time of year, and the steep slope required binoculars to see most of the plants. I was thrilled to see a number of Castilleja rupicola. This moves the range of my sightings of this northern plant another 2/3 of a mile farther south. No sign of the little Galium grayanum, however. Back across on the south side of the road, I hiked up the ridge along the edge of a clearcut a mere quarter of a mile, quickly reaching the summit of Balm Mountain on what appeared to be a trail of sorts.

At 6129′ (according to the USGS quad map, there seems to be some difference of opinion on the height), Balm Mountain is the highest point in the Calapooyas. I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover an old lookout site on an outcrop at the summit. The view was outstanding, especially on such a clear day, with High Cascade mountains including Diamond Peak, Mt. Thielsen, Mt. Bailey, and even Mt. McLoughlin evident, and much of the North Umpqua and southern Lane County in view. Spreading below me to the southeast was a steep eroded slope quite similar to the chasm below Loletta Peak. Many of the same plants could be seen there and farther down the ridge. I even found lots of Stephanomeria lactucina on the ridge above but was quite disappointed that only one was in bloom. At Loletta Peak, two weeks ago, there were numerous ones in bud, so I had high hopes that if it grew here as well, I’d be able to see it in bloom. While looking for flowers or even buds on the Stephanomeria, I found a number of Eucephalus ledophyllus covered in webbing with young checkerspot caterpillars in it.

Drummond's anemone (Anemone drummondii) growing abundantly down the rocky slope

As I had hoped from the aerial photos, the whole ridge seemed easy to traverse, and, in fact, there seemed to be a path worn in many places. My favorite spot was a little south of the summit where there was another steep open slope, this one reaching almost down to the base of the mountain where the Skipper Lakes trail lies. Unlike the raggedly channelled slope below the summit, this one was fairly even, and although it was still steep and covered with loose gravel and small rocks, it was quite possible to explore. I was really surprised to find some clumps of unusual feathery leaves. My first thought was that they were some type of Anemone, but except for the common forest anemones, I’ve only seen rock-loving ones in two places in the Western Cascades. After looking around and finding dozens of these with no signs of blooming, I finally discovered a few with the telltale cottony seed heads of Anemone drummondii. Normally found in the High Cascades, there are a few on Rattlesnake Mountain farther south, which also lies fairly close to the High Cascades and is one of the tallest peaks around. This was a much larger population, however. How cool! At the south end of this section were some amazing rocks. They were striped from many layers of deposits and must have been very soft to have weathered in such round shapes. I only see rocks like this rarely in the Western Cascades, but they do seem more common in Douglas County.

Luina hypoleuca was one of the few things still blooming, a real boon to the remaining butterflies.

I continued on along the ridge, following narrow rocky areas. There were lots of good plants although very little was still in bloom. I did managed to collect seeds of Boechera howellii, Castilleja pruinosa, and Linum lewisii. It’s some consolation for being too late for flowers, but it will be that much more exciting when I return next year to see this mountain in all its glory. I was worried about running out of time and had planned a loop by going down the west slope somewhere and returning to the car along Road 3810. Of course, the “somewhere” part was where my careful planning broke down. My GPS was also on the fritz, telling me how far I had walked but not showing any map whatsoever, so I wasn’t sure where along the road I would end up. I knew vaguely where I was along the ridge from the aerial photo, and that the road was only 600—700′ down below. It wasn’t a matter of getting lost, only of how difficult a descent it would be. Except for one nervous moment when it suddenly became prohibitively steep and I had to head in the wrong direction, it was actually quite easy, and I made it down in 20 minutes. On the way down, I was struck with how much Ribes erythrocarpum there was. While walking down the road, it continued in vast stretches. This uncommon endemic is found mainly near Crater Lake, but where I’ve seen it, it often creeps along the ground for many yards.

The map indicates this was an old quarry, but the plants seem to be reclaiming this cliff along Rd 3810.

When I reached my car, I decided I still had time for a little exploration, so I drove all the way down to the Skipper Lakes trailhead at the end of the road. Near the end, things became more open, and I had to keep getting out to check out some meadows and rocky spots. One was filled with a beautiful green fountain-like grass, perhaps Festuca viridula, and large mats of Horkelia fusca, still with a few blossoms. Very little else grew in with them. The most dramatic spot is a huge cliff above a bouldery slope, not quite what I’d call talus, however. Many large clumps of Ageratina occidentalis were still blooming here. On the way back, I made a second stop at a wet meadow John and Sabine and I had stopped at a few years ago, the only other time I’d been on this side of the ridge. There were many open Kyhosia bolanderi in the morning, but, as I suspected, at 6pm, they were all shriveled up. I still don’t know what their schedule is nor which direction they face, as these were all facing toward the sun in the morning, and I usually find them facing away from the sun. Another mystery to solve, and another rich botanical area that begs for more exploration. I can hardly wait until next summer!

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