Exploring the West Side of the Rogue-Umpqua Divide

Last summer, while I was hiking around the Yellow Jacket Loop at Hemlock Lake (Searching for Erythronium at Hemlock Lake), I saw something in the distance that always gets my heart racing—a big cliff. It was a ways off to the southeast, presumably in the Rogue-Umpqua Divide. Checking it out later on Google Earth, it turned out the cliff was on the north side of Grasshopper Mountain in Douglas County (not to be confused with the one I usually go to in Lane County). I was thrilled to discover there is a trail right to the summit where an old lookout once stood, as well as a number of other trails in the area. While I had been to the east side of the Rogue-Umpqua Divide a number of times—and it is one of my favorite areas in the Western Cascades—I’d never done much exploring on the west side. Twice I’d driven through Tiller to go up to Abbott Butte and Donegan Prairie, but my only real stop had been to the World’s Tallest Sugar Pine, just off of Jackson Creek Road 29. I was determined to do a trip there as soon as possible, but somehow I never made it. Every time I had a block of time when I could spend a few days camping, there was a heat wave, expectations of thunderstorms, smoke, or some other deterrent. Since it is more than a 3-hour drive to get there, I didn’t want to spend that much time or energy if the conditions weren’t optimal.

From Buckeye Lake, there is a great view of the imposing 800' cliffs of Grasshopper Mountain.

From Buckeye Lake, there is a great view of the imposing cliffs of Grasshopper Mountain.

While it was at the top of my list of places to go this year, it was looking like again I might not make it before the flowering season was over. The season is so advanced this year, I had to wait until after my NARGS camping trip, and then it was just too hot. Finally, the long heat wave abated, and I figured I’d better drop everything and get down there. So on July 13, I headed south for a three-day exploratory trip of the area near Grasshopper Mountain. I was pretty excited to be going at last. Exploring new sites is one of my absolute favorite things. On the other hand, I’m also a little nervous when I head to a new area. What if the roads are in bad shape? What if the trail is hard to follow or non-existent? What if it is just plain old boring?

What with all the last minute packing and the long drive and a stop at the Tiller Ranger station for a new map and info about road conditions, I only got to the Skimmerhorn trailhead for Cliff and Buckeye Lakes at 2 pm. I chose this hike for my first day because it looked relatively short and easy, and I knew I wouldn’t have a full day. While Bill Sullivan (in 100 Hikes in Southern Oregon) suggests getting to the top of Grasshopper Mountain via this trail, I had seen that there is a much closer trailhead to the top via a different road. My plan was to only check out the lakes that day and go to the top later. Preferring to walk slow enough to look at and photograph plants, the full 8-mile loop looked like way too much to do without having to rush.

It had been 13 years since a fire swept through these woods. Many of the shrubs like this Scouler's willow were recovering well, and small trees have sprouted as well.

It had been 13 years since a fire swept through these woods. Many of the shrubs like this Scouler’s willow were recovering well, and small trees have sprouted as well. Quartz Mountain near Hemlock Lake can be seen in the distance.

I've only seen pyrolas that look like this a few times, also in Douglas County, but I don't think they are a variant of white-veined wintergreen (Pyrola picta).

I’ve only seen pyrolas that look like this a few times, also in Douglas County, but I don’t think they are a variant of white-veined wintergreen (Pyrola picta). These have narrow, much lighter leaves. Typical Pyrola picta was also found on this trail.

As I headed into the forest, I noticed it looked a little singed but didn’t think much of it. I was more intrigued by the odd-looking pyrolas that had narrower, paler leaves than the usual common white-veined wintergreen (Pyrola picta), and I thought they might be what has sometimes been called Pyrola dentata or perhaps P. chlorantha. But then I arrived in a full-fledged post-fire area that went on for quite a ways. This area had burned as part of the Tiller Complex of 2002. Burned areas are rather depressing, but it can also be quite interesting seeing which plants survive or recover well and which don’t. Naturally, the well-named fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium) was abundant and in good bloom. Quite a number of shrubs seeming to be thriving. Snowbrush (Ceanothus velutinus) is typical of burned areas. What surprised me was the number of Scouler’s willows (Salix scouleriana). I’ve never seen so many and hadn’t thought of them as being associated with burned areas. The currants and gooseberries (Ribes spp.) seemed to be happy as well. I saw many individuals of Ribes viscosissimum, roezlii, lobbii, and binominatum, mostly with ripening fruit. I’ve often seen arnicas respond very favorably after a fire, but perhaps there were none here to begin with because they were notably absent. For me, this particular burn was more depressing than some. Weeds were everywhere, including nipplewort (Lapsana communis), a plant I fight with in my garden but rarely see in the mountains.

Bumblebees seem to love the flowers of swamp cinquefoil. The deep red inside surface of the sepals resemble petals, which in this species are quite small and inconspicuous.

Bumblebees seem to love the flowers of swamp cinquefoil. The deep red inside surface of the sepals resemble petals, which in this species are quite small and inconspicuous.

I was relieved to finally reenter a forest of large, healthy trees and soon found myself near the larger of the two lakes, Buckeye Lake. What a beautiful spot! I could see why people come here to camp by the lake. There were areas of open wetland at the north end of the lake. These were filled with cattails (Typha latifolia). Beneath them were the tiny blue forget-me-not flowers of small-flowered forget-me-not (Myosotis laxa), a plant I’ve seen in the Willamette Valley, but the only other site I’ve encountered in the Cascades was also in the Rogue-Umpqua Divide, at the Abbott Creek campground. Water hemlock (Cicuta douglasii) was also in bloom, but its leaves hadn’t taken on the fiery colors of late summer that I’ve often seen while it is still blooming. The unusual maroon flowers of swamp cinquefoil (Comarum [Potentilla] palustris) were attracting throngs of bees to a large area at the edge of the lake.

Star duckweed (Lemna trisulca), floating just below the more familiar lesser duckweed (L. minor).

The oar-like leaves of Star duckweed (Lemna trisulca), floating just below the more familiar lesser duckweed (L. minor).

I was also intrigued by the aquatic plants, although frustrated at my inability to get close enough to get a look at some of them. While the usual ones I look for, pondweeds (Potamogeton spp.) and bur-reeds (Sparganium spp.) were nowhere to be seen, there were some I wasn’t familiar with. Growing among the tiny round leaves of duckweed (Lemna minor) were some very strange looking things, kind of flattened oar shapes forming crosses of sorts. I wasn’t even sure what structure I was seeing, leaf or stem. They seem to be floating just below the surface. Later online, I found photos of star duckweed (Lemna trisulca)—a perfect match. I would never have guessed it was a duckweed! A couple of other submersed aquatics will have to remain mysteries for a bit longer, as I couldn’t get a close enough look, let alone a piece of plant to use to identify them with.

A tattered tiger swallowtail nectaring on non-native Canada thistle at Cliff Lake.

A tattered tiger swallowtail nectaring on non-native Canada thistle at Cliff Lake.

A butterfly chrysalis, most likely that of a wood nymph species.

A butterfly chrysalis, most likely that of a wood nymph species.

My last stop, the smaller of the two lakes, Cliff Lake, wasn’t too much farther through the forest. It too had a good-sized wet meadow associated with it. But this one shocked me. It was filled with weeds, especially Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense). As common a weed as it is elsewhere, I don’t see it too often in the Cascades, and even then, it isn’t so abundant. It had taken over most of the meadow. At least its pretty lavender flowers were providing abundant nectar for one happy tiger swallowtail. Also in this wet meadow were several bull thistles (Cirsium vulgare) and some huge umbellifers that I believe are poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), a weed I don’t think I’ve ever come upon in the Western Cascades before. While I wasn’t going to touch the poison hemlock, I thought I could at least pull a couple of weedy sow thistles (Sonchus sp.), but I was stopped by the sight of a lovely green chrysalis hanging from one of the spiny leaves. While it looked a bit like a monarch at first glance, I believe it is some species of wood nymph butterfly, whose caterpillars live on grasses. I’m glad another butterfly was getting some use from the weeds. In the lake itself was a pondweed I’d never seen before, with curly leaves but smaller than largeleaf pondweed (Potamogeton amplifolius). I believe it is another non-native, curly-leaf pondweed (P. crispus). Where did all these non-natives come from, and more to the point, why have they taken over? Was there some disturbance not obvious to me that happened here but not at Buckeye Lake? Something else to wonder about, but it was getting late, so I had to head back and leave the questions for another day.

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