Not Balmy Yet at Balm Mountain!

End of the line. The first (but not the last!) snow bank we had to walk across on our way to Balm Mountain.

Yesterday (July 20), John Koenig and I went to Balm Mountain to pre-hike it for an NPSO trip I had scheduled for the end of the month. I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to get there or not, but looking at photos of it I’d taken from various spots in the last week or two, I had some hope it had melted out enough for us to get there. It was clear sailing all the way up Staley Ridge Road 2134. We turned onto Timpanogas Road 2154 and hit snow at about 0.8 mile. It covered half the road but with some shoveling was safely passable. A tree had also fallen across the road but was held up by the steep bank. John had brought some equipment, although unfortunately he forgot his chainsaw, and we spent more effort tackling these obstacles than we should have—in hindsight . While the road seemed clear after that, we were stopped by an insurmountable snow bank covering the road a mere 1/4 mile farther up the road, just before the intersection of Road 236. Time to walk.

Crater Lake currant (Ribes erythrocarpum) is endemic to the Cascades of Oregon, mostly in the south. It is very common in the area near Balm Mountain. Its unusual orange flowers are followed by red berries.

It was 1.7 miles to where we would head up onto the Balm Mountain ridge, but, thankfully, there wasn’t that much elevation gain. Much of the road was pleasant with many blooming wildflowers and shrubs including alders, manzanitas, and five species of  currants. But then, in an area where the road dips, at a little under 5500′, it got quite snowy again—5′ high or more all the way across the road and quite a bit in the woods here as well. This went on for a ways and won’t be melting anytime soon. While this was discouraging, we were also fairly well committed in time and energy, and I wasn’t ready to give up on getting to the ridge, which we could see from where we left the car was largely snow-free. Soon enough, we arrived at the large pulloff next to the ridge and stopped for lunch. Just a little ways to the north off the road there is a steep, gravelly drop-off, similar to those up on the Balm Mountain ridge and Loletta Peak on either side of it. I was pleased to see so many wildflowers clinging to the seemingly forbidding slope. Castilleja rupicola was in full bloom. I had seen the leaves of it here last fall. This is as far south as I’ve ever found it. Also there were many pretty pink heads of Trifolium kingii var. productum, bright magenta Penstemon rupicola, and some pale pink Valeriana scouleri.

Lovely Anemone drummondii is normally found on High Cascade peaks farther east.

Flatseed rockcress (Boechera howellii) is unusual in that its flowers open white and fade to a deep purple.

The Balm Mountain ridgetop also had a good number of early flowering plants. The Anemone drummondii I was so excited to find here last fall was in bloom. Many beautiful Phlox diffusa, in an array of colors from deep pink to white, were out on the east-facing slopes, along with pumice sandwort (Eremogone pumicola) with its sprays of little white flowers. There were still lingering snow patches on the more wooded west side of the ridge. Here we found the last few glacier lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum). There were a great many blooming Claytonia lanceolata, quite a bit of Dicentra uniflora as well, and lots of Sanicula graveolens. We’d have missed all of these if we’d waited much later to come here. I was thrilled to spot a small plant of Galium grayanum. This is the rare bedstraw with pretty glaucous leaves that I discovered on nearby Loletta Peak last year (see Mystery Bedstraw Blooming in Calapooyas). We looked but could find no more, but perhaps they are growing farther down the slope.

We saw two rock cresses. These have gone through taxonomic overhaul recently, leading to some major name changes. The most common rock cress in the Western Cascades used to be called Arabis holboellii var. retrofracta; its new name is Boechera retrofracta. Only its white flowers were apparent now, but it will have abundant long, dangling seed pods later in the season. The other species is found only at high elevations. It used to be known as Arabis platysperma var. howellii (the species name refers to its wide, flat seed pods) but is now called Boechera howellii. It’s hard to keep up with all the new names. I saw a great deal of this one in seed here last year.

Cliff penstemon (Penstemon rupicola) coming into bloom among the rocks.

I would love to have done the whole ridge. It’s only a mile and a half long. But after the extra time spent getting there, the extra stretch of road we had to go back, and given that it was getting cloudier, colder, and buggier as we reached a more wooded section, it seemed like we should wait for another trip to check out the south end. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like driving to the “trailhead” is going to be possible for quite some time, and by then, most of what will be left will be what I saw last year in late summer and early fall. Oh well, as Scarlett O’Hara might have said, “Next year is another year.”

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