Gorgeous Day on Middle Pyramid

The view from the summit was spectacular on this clear day. Looking north we had a clear view of Mt. Hood and even Mt. Saint Helens framed by Coffin Mountain (left) and Bachelor Mountain.

The view from the summit was spectacular on this clear day. Looking north we had a great view of Mt. Hood and even Mt. Saint Helens framed by Coffin Mountain (left) and Bachelor Mountain (right). Trappers Butte is in front on the left.

Cliff penstemon can live in the harshest spots and still look beautiful—much nicer than the ones in my garden, which wouldn't even bloom this year. Three-fingerd Jack is in the background.

Cliff penstemon can survive in the harshest spots and still look beautiful—much nicer than the ones in my garden, which wouldn’t even bloom this year. Three-fingered Jack is in the background, looking east.

After all the super hot weather we’ve been having, it was a glorious weekend, and I was thrilled to get back into the Western Cascades on June 12 with four friends: Nancy Bray, Ginny McVickar, Sheila Klest, and her friend Sherry. I’m going to be leading a short trip to Park Creek during the upcoming NPSO Annual Meeting, which our Emerald Chapter is hosting next month, so I had wanted to take a look at how things were shaping up in the area. I realized I hadn’t been to the Pyramids since 2010 (see Yellow Cliff Paintbrush Still at Middle Pyramid), so, since Park Creek is on the way to the Pyramids trailhead, I figured I could do both. None of my companions had been to the Pyramids Trail before, making it a special trip for them as well.

We really couldn’t have picked a better day. There were few clouds in the sky until late afternoon, and the temperature wasn’t too hot or too cool. As Goldilocks would have said, it was “just right.” The air was much clearer than it had been during the high humidity of the recent heat wave, giving us awesome views at the summit. The foliage was quite lush, and the flowers were also fabulous, with a great many things in their prime.

Almost immediately from the parking area, the trail crosses the creek eminating from the wetland inside the U-shaped glacial valley below Middle Pyramid, our destination. It was running quite vigorously, evidence that there was still plenty of moisture left in spite of the recent heat and barely any rain for weeks. As we headed up the trail, we had more views of the creek, including one scenic spot where it plunges over a rocky dropoff. The forest floor was rich with vegetation and flowers. Gorgeous bunchberry (Cornus unalaschkensis) formed large mats at the base of the stately old growth trees. The greenish inflorescenses of Devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus) were attracting lots of insects. I had to keep bending over to smell all the strongly scented false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum). Coralroots (Corallorhiza maculata and C. mertensiana) were just beginning to flower, and less show plants like western twayblade (now Neottia banksiana) and leafy mitrewort (Mitella caulescens) were also spotted.

Some very confused bunchberries! The true flowers are very small and are surrounded by the showier white bracts. In these plants, the bracts got out of control and are green like the leaves. I've seen a lot of oddities in this species, but this was something new.

Some very confused bunchberries! The true flowers are very small and are surrounded by the showier white bracts. In these plants, the bracts got out of control with some extra ones green like the leaves. They’re blocking pollinators from even seeing the flowers, so this is not a very helpful mutation! I’ve seen a lot of oddities in this species, but this was something new.

After a time, the trail levels out for a bit, and we crossed the small wetland in the woods. I spotted a little marsh violet (Viola palustris), a new plant for my list. The lovely tall bluebells (Mertensia paniculata) was also in bloom. We all managed to safely skip over the rushing creek via some stones and shortly entered the amphitheater-like open area on the east side of the mountain. Scanning the giant cliffs with binoculars, I could see some dots of color, but most of the plants will remain a mystery until I’m able to buy that jet pack I’ve been hankering for. We also discussed the possibility of sending up a drone with camera, but it would probably have annoyed the other parties on the mountain that day as well as the animals living there.

Lunching ladies among the larkspur (left to right): Sheila, Ginny, Sherry, and Nancy

Ladies lunching among the larkspur (left to right): Sheila, Ginny, Sherry, and Nancy

The trail soon starts what seems like an endless series of switchbacks as it climbs up to the ridge. We stopped for lunch in a small but floriferous open area with a nice view of the wetland. We were hoping to see a bear below, but although it looked like the perfect habitat for them, none appeared while we were watching. A few more switchbacks up, there is a gorgeous seepy spot, probably just a small sample of the flora covering much of the cliffs. The beautiful shooting stars (Dodecatheon pulchellum) were finished, but the harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispida) and larkspurs (Delphinium menziesii) were glorious. We searched for the little purple naked broomrape (Orobanche uniflora) flowers and spotted quite a few among the not-yet-in-flower Oregon stonecrop (Sedum oreganum) and finished rustyhair saxifrage (Micranthes rufidula).

A few more switchbacks and we arrived at the open rock garden at the ridge. The spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa) was in perfect bloom, forming numerous pink mats on the rocky slope. There were also tufts of slender mountain sandwort (Eremogone capillaris) among the rocks, its pretty white flowers floating above the curly grass-like leaves. We waited for everyone to catch up and had a few more bites of food while enjoying the growing views. Looking up at the summit rocks ahead of us, we could see the pink glow of cliff penstemon (Penstemon rupicola). I could hardly wait to see what else was ahead.

Trilliums and newly emerged vanilla leaf (Achlys triphylla) leaves below the cliff.

Western trilliums and emerging vanilla leaf (Achlys triphylla) leaves catch a few rays of light on this shady area below the cliff.

From here we headed along the north-facing side of the ridge to my favorite spot, a shady, north-facing cliff. I didn’t notice until the way back that there was a tiny bit of snow on the talus slope below the trail, but it was evident that a snowbank had just melted off the steep slope below the cliff, as there were oodles of fresh trilliums (Trillium ovatum). I had mentioned this to my friends as a highlight on previous trips, so I was glad it did not disappoint. I spent a while looking at the cliffs above through my binoculars, hankering in the worst way to get up there and get a closer look but not wanting to make my companions wait for me. Nor was I about to encourage anyone else to try to climb the short but steep slope—too smooth to get any good footing. The cliff paintbrush (Castilleja rupicola) and tufted saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa) were at their peak. We found one patch of smooth douglasia (Douglasia laevigata) with a few flowers left on the slope that we were able to get a closer look at. I’ve never been up early enough in the year to see this beauty in full flower here. No doubt there’d still be some snow on the trail.

The small slope below the north-facing cliff is deceptively difficult to climb. The bare ground and fresh trilliums are evidence of a recent snowbank—the last to melt.

The small slope below the north-facing cliff is deceptively difficult to climb. The bare ground and fresh trilliums are evidence of a recent snowbank—the last to melt.

It’s always a bit farther than I think, but we all made it up to the saddle. At this point there are rocks above you on both sides. I never remember which way the trail goes as it is somewhat hidden behind a rock. So first we climbed up a short ways up the north knob. There was a most stunning cliff penstemon dripping off a vertical rock. Above it was another bright pink cliff penstemon, a similar but taller and more purple Cardwell’s penstemon (P. cardwellii), and a third plant in between whose color was right in between its neighbors. Sheila and I thought it might be a hybrid. I’ve seen this before in the occasional spot where the two are growing side by side. I was really glad we went up this way, but it clearly wasn’t the correct way to the summit where a lookout once stood.

Nancy and Ginny had caught up now, so we all went up to the top of the southern knob. What a view! I’d seen it before, but it is still pretty terrific—and terrifying at the same time. There’s a very small flat area and a whole lot of dropoff! Not a place for those with a fear of heights. We were welcomed by a red admiral and a checkerspot and had just seen a California tortoiseshell on the other rocks. We had been greeted at the parking lot by a Lorquin’s admiral, a meadow fritillary, and another tortie (two in one day—hopefully this means their population is starting to rebound after several years of seeing hardly any). Oddly, we’d seen hardly any butterflies in between.

Nancy found a snug spot on the summit from which to admire the view. Behind her, looking south, we could see a few remaining spots of snow on Cone Peak, Browder Ridge, and other nearby spots. Immediately to the south is South Pyramid.

Nancy found a snug spot on the summit from which to admire the view. Behind her, we could see a few remaining spots of snow on Crescent Mountain, Cone Peak, Browder Ridge, and other nearby spots to the south. Immediately to the south is South Pyramid. Diamond Peak is just barely in view in the distance on the left.

The yellow cliff paintbrush just out of reach over my head has survived there for at least the 13 years since I first spotted it, but it looks a little smaller than back in 2010.

The yellow cliff paintbrush just out of reach over my head has survived there for at least the 13 years since I first spotted it, but it fewer stems than back in 2010. The normal red form is flowering below.

The others were enjoying their first time to the summit and a well-earned rest after the steep climb to the top. I was still thinking about getting up to the base of the cliff below—I can be pretty obsessive if there’s something I want to see—so I headed down ahead of them, hoping to have enough time to get up there before they caught up with me. I couldn’t remember how I had previously accessed the narrow, flat (i.e. walkable) strip at the base of the cliff. I started up the slope in a spot that seemed doable, but when the others came down the trail, I was more or less stuck halfway up. I couldn’t get a good foothold to go up, the rocks were too loose, and there were no little trees to grab on to. Very reluctantly, I headed back down.

Okay, so I at least had to look for the yellow cliff paintbrush I’d seen in 2003 and 2010 with the binoculars. Everyone else started to head down when I spotted it and hollered for them to come back and take a look. Although I’ve seen yellow forms of harsh paintbrush (C. hispida), this is the only yellow cliff paintbrush I’ve ever found, so it seems pretty special to me. Now, rather than being satisfied that I’d at least relocated it, I was hell bent on getting up there. Nancy kindly stayed behind while I tried again, this time going up where it was much rockier. She informed me that she wasn’t going to be much use helping me if I got stuck, but it was just nice to have someone who could keep an eye on me and help guide me back down if I wasn’t sure of my route—it always looks different going back down rocks than it did going up them. Luckily, this was a piece of cake. I was up onto the level area in a couple of minutes, dashed over to the lovely lemon paintbrush four or five feet over my head, snapped a few photos of it and some other flowers, and got back down to Nancy in under 10 minutes. NOW I was finally satisfied and ready to head back down the trail—and happy to know that 13 years since I first spotted it, the yellow paintbrush has survived in its tenuous spot on the cliff. How long had it already been there—and how much longer can it hang on?

This red admiral had staked out its spot on the summit, returning there repeatedly so I could wait to take its photo.

This red admiral had staked out its spot on the summit, returning there repeatedly so I could wait to take its photo.

Looking back at photos of my most recent trip on July 9, 2010, I was struck by how the flowers were at almost exactly the same place in the season as on that trip, a good 4 weeks later. That year was a big snow year, and everything was much later than “usual”. Still, it had seemed like a pretty decent snow year this past winter. Since then, however, we’ve frequently had temperatures as much as 25° above normal, rapidly speeding up the season. It was fairly late when we got back to the car, so we only made a few quick stops along Park Creek, but there, the season wasn’t as far ahead as on my 2010 trip. No doubt the snow was so deep and long lasting up high on Middle Pyramid that there was a greater difference in the flowering season at the different elevations than this year. Figuring out the phenology of flowering in the mountains is very complicated and requires considering temperature, amount and type of precipitation, and elevation. While fascinating, sometimes it is best to just enjoy the pretty flowers, something we all did on our trip to the Pyramids.

One Response to “Gorgeous Day on Middle Pyramid”

  • Ginny:

    Outstanding photos, Tanya!
    So happy (and a bit sore) to have been able to join you on this trip.

Leave a Reply

Archives
Notification of New Posts