A Sunny Day on Lookout Mountain

As I drove south on I-5 on Sunday (May 30), I was thrilled to see the clouds breaking up and an actual sunny day appearing in Douglas County. I was heading to Lookout Mountain near the North Umpqua and didn’t want to miss the almost 360° view—nor did I want to spend one more day dealing with clouds and sprinkles. Enough already!

View east from summit

From the summit you can see snow remaining on Mt. Thielsen and Mt. Bailey and the ridges of the Rogue-Umpqua Divide.

Last year I had tried to get up to Lookout Mountain for the very first wave of plants but had been thwarted by snow on the road several miles from the trailhead. By the time I was able to get back there again, I had missed the early bloomers. The road to the trailhead wraps around the north side of the mountain. This creates a problem, as the south-facing side of the open, rocky summit melts out and starts blooming before the road clears out. But with less of a winter snowpack to deal with and trying a week later, I was game to give it another shot.

bear prints

bear tracks leading up the trail

What a relief it was when I was able to get to within a couple of hundred feet of the trailhead before I hit snow. I could not have come any earlier. The snow almost reached across the small spur road, but was melting enough at the edge that I was able to sneak around without walking over too much snow. Likewise, snow still covered almost half the very short trail to the top but did not completely block it except in a few places.

Someone else had been up here walking straight up the middle across the snow—a bear! His (her?) footprints were 8″ long. Somehow it seemed sacrilegious to step in its footsteps, so I was careful to skirt around them when I was forced to walk across the snow. It occurred to me that the bear might have ripped a bunch of the plants up as I had seen many times on outcrop areas—and that it might still be up there. Alas, they don’t put things back the way they found them after tossing rocks and dirt around while foraging for bulbs and Lomatium roots. But there were no obvious signs of a bear or bear damage at the top.

Dicentra uniflora

The unusual flowers of Dicentra uniflora give it the name steer’s head.

It was indeed early. On the northwest side, there was a lingering snow bank and a number of steer’s head (Dicentra uniflora), some still pushing out of the ground. Many lovely western springbeauty (Claytonia lanceolata) were blooming there as well. The way the crystalline petals sparkle like snow makes this one of my favorite snowmelt species. Sanicula graveolens was also in bloom. The strong, cilantro-like odor of this species puts it in the category of my least favorite early bloomers.

For several years, I’ve been trying to put a name on a lovely lavender-pink rockcress species (formerly Arabis, now Boechera). I was pleased to see it was coming into bloom all over the summit. Its narrow leaves are covered with conspicuously forked hairs, giving them a gray cast. Previously, I’d only seen it later in the season as it was going to seed and is harder to spot. Its curved siliques (long seed capsules) spread out and down. I brought a specimen in to the OSU Herbarium, but I’ve yet to hear if it was identified.

unknown rockcress

The forked hairs of this unknown rockcress are visible to the naked eye.

Back down Lookout Mountain Road 2703 is another special spot. Just on the other side of a berm behind the sign for milepost 12 is an open slope. I’m not sure why (probably it has something to do with the soil or the lower elevation), but a number of plants grow here that aren’t on the summit of Lookout Mountain, a mere half a mile southwest as the crow flies. On Sunday, many of the large mats of Mahala mat (Ceanothus prostratus) were coming into bloom. A few taller Ceanothus cuneatus were also flowering. Masses of the succulent, little, reddish Claytonia rubra were clumped together in the gravelly soil. The most unusual plant there, a beautiful low-growing lavender fleabane, was identified by Dr. Ken Chambers as Erigeron pumilis. This is apparently its only known location in western Oregon. There are thousands of plants on this slope. Some were just starting to bud. I will have to keep exploring the open areas nearby, as I find it hard to imagine that something so abundant here hasn’t spread anywhere nearby.

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