Fabulous Loop Trip Around Balm Mountain

Classic frosted paintbrush (Castilleja pruinosa) has narrow leaves that are often quite purple-tinged. Mount Bailey is the snowy mountain to the left. To its right, the rim of Crater Lake can be seen even farther southeast.

On my very last hike in the mountains last year, John Koenig and I found a great way to bushwhack up the south side of Balm Mountain, the highest point in the Calapooyas and one of the coolest places in the Western Cascades (see Another Way Up To Balm Mountain’s South End). We talked about coming back this year and doing a loop by climbing up that way, walking the entire ridge to the north, and returning via a road that leads to the north side. It was high up on both of our priority lists, so for our first trip together to the Calapooyas this year, on July 3rd, we decided to give it a try.

After a number of trips up here, this was the first time I was able to see the deltoid balsamroot (Balsamorhiza deltoidea) in good bloom at the far south end of the mountain. Some monkeyflower and large-flowered blue-eyed Mary indicates this area is somewhat seepy.

We were very disciplined driving up Coal Creek Road 2133. Passing so many of our favorite botanizing spots without stopping (okay, we did stop a few times—briefly!) was really difficult, but knew we would want plenty of time if we made it up onto Balm Mountain. We were really relieved that no trees had fallen across Road 3810 since our last trip in the fall, so we were able to drive right to our access meadow. Of course, since we were doing a loop that included the road, we could have parked earlier along the road had we at least made it down the first few miles to Road 236, which leads up to the north end of Balm Mountain. We figured it would be a 6-mile route, with plenty of bushwhacking. That may not seem like much to a true hiker, but when you have to stop and look at every plant and try to photograph every butterfly and other interesting insect, it requires a long summer day to get it all in, so we didn’t want to walk on any more of the road than necessary.

Spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa) follows cracks in the rock.

Fendler’s waterleaf (Hydrophyllum fendleri) usually grows in moist meadows, but there must be seasonal moisture keeping this going among one of the best of the rock formation areas.

We easily followed the same route up the meadow to the top of the quarry and around to the south end of the mountain. Since we weren’t going to be looping back this way—as we had done last year—we decided to detour over to where we had seen the dwarf oak forests. We both had the spot waypointed, so we knew where we were going. We had already gone too high up when we decided this, so we had to go back downhill, but it was only a little way down. When we were just above one of the oak patches, I noticed something white on a rock outcrop below. It looked like it might be an antler, but looking through binoculars, neither of us were quite sure; it could easily have been a dead branch. It was only a little way down, however, so I decided to climb down the outcrop to see. Sure enough, it was an antler, and someone had been chewing on it—getting some minerals perhaps? I also scared a fawn in this area several times, so obviously deer like it here. From my new vantage point, I spotted some white flowers below that looked unusual to me. Well, they were only a little way farther down….

Buttercup-leaved suksdorfia has very glossy palmate leaves that do look somewhat like those of a buttercup, but the white flowers look more like its relatives in the saxifrage family.

I was thrilled to find several plants of buttercup-leaved suksdorfia (Suksdorfia ranunculifolia), the rare plant we had found on some cliffs by Loletta Lakes just a couple of years ago (see Another Exciting Day in the Calapooyas). That population is just 2.5 miles due north, but the nearest other sites for it are just over 100 miles away by the California border! And the other two areas in the state are near Mount Hood and in the Wallowas. I always figured we’d find some more but hadn’t been expecting it here. It didn’t seem like a very large population, and it was in a seep that seemed to be drying up. But then I looked below and saw more white flowers farther down the slope. Once again, I had to head downhill (just a little farther down!) and now John followed me down. Here were numerous plants in full bloom, growing among a sweep of monkeyflower (Erythranthe sp., formerly Mimulus guttatus) in a still damp spot in this otherwise dry, rocky area. What an exciting start of our hike and we hadn’t even gotten up on the ridge yet!

Shasta clover usually grows in rocks in the Western Cascades

Once up at the top, we followed the ridge to the north through all the amazing and unusual rock formations. What a fascinating area—I only wish I knew something about geology! There were lots of flowers in bloom, but with quite a few clouds coming and going, we didn’t see too many butterflies. We spent lots of time poking around the rocks. We were a little late for the earliest flowers, but it was good to see some of the leaves of spring beauty (Claytonia lanceolata), a lovely snow-melt species. When we got to the spot that has numerous channels the spring water must have carved out, I invoked my “superpower” of making things appear. I was saying to John that we still hadn’t spotted any steer’s head (Dicentra uniflora). But looking down, there were its leaves in a small ravine. My favorite clover, Shasta clover (Trifolium productum), was in bloom in cracks in the rocks. Lots of mats of Newberry’s knotwed (Aconogonon davisiae) were also flowering. And we were finally able to find a few of the coppery orange flowers of the early-flowering endemic Crater Lake currant (Ribes erythrocarpum) at the edge of the woods. The snow undoubtedly built up more and lasted a bit longer here than where we were earlier on the exposed, south-facing slope.

More layered rocks, this time forming a backdrop for a show of larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum or menziesii or probably hybrids).

We continued on into the woods and came across an area I remembered where the ground was covered with Crater Lake currant, and it was still in perfect bloom! We spent quite a while photographing it since this is one of the few areas I know that it is easy to find, and it is hard to get here early enough to catch it in bloom. Several other Ribes species were growing nearby as well, including trailing gooseberry (R. binominatum), sticky currant (R. viscosissimum), and swamp gooseberry (R. lacustre).

Crater Lake currant scrambles around over logs very similar to its look-alike cousin trailing gooseberry (R. binominatum). The latter is spiny with pairs of drooping pale flowers. We saw both growing together a number of times.

The lovely flowers of Drummond’s anemone

Soon we were out on the more open ridge of the north end of the mountain. Finally, the sun was getting more consistent, as it was a bit chilly. It was also good to be out in the open as the mosquitoes were rather annoying in the woods. When we got to the large east-facing slope, I set about trying to relocate the one plant of the rare Gray’s bedstraw (Galium grayanum) I had discovered years ago. Thankfully, it didn’t take very long. As usual, I couldn’t find any other plants. One of these days, I’m going to have to make time (and save energy!) to go down the gravelly slope and do a thorough survey. Binoculars only go so far when looking for small plants 100′ away. We also tried to find the uncommon Drummond’s anemone (Anemone drummondii) we’d seen blooming soon after snowmelt 8 years ago (see Not Balmy Yet at Balm Mountain!). After finding the foliage on the open slope, John spotted some still blooming on the protected side of the ridge where the snow must have built up.

I was relieved that the one plant of Gray’s bedstraw (Galium grayanum) I had found years earlier was still here on top of the ridge

We continued up to the lookout site and climbed up for a view. By then, however, I was ready to get my feet on solid ground and glad we’d decided to save the road bit for the end. We walked back the few miles to the truck and had a bite to eat, but despite the late hour, we had to poke around the rocks below the road for a few minutes. It was 8 pm by the time we managed to tear ourselves away from this wonderful area and start driving home. But there was still one more bit of excitement ahead: just a few miles down the road, there was some movement in the shrubs alongside the road, and suddenly, a shaggy bear dashed out right in front of us! Seeing a bear is always the highlight of a day if not the year. Thankfully we weren’t caught off guard, and you can’t drive very fast on that road in any case, or it might have ended badly for all of us. Driving home so late does have the advantage of seeing more wildlife, and we saw deer 3 separate times on the rest of the drive down. What a day!

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