A Steep Climb to the Top of Stone Mountain

From the gravel pit below, the cliffs on east side of Stone Mountain are impressive.

Yesterday (June 8), I returned to Stone Mountain, the little known cliffy peak Sabine and I first visited last fall (see A Visit to Stone Mountain). My main goal was to get to the top and explore the open south-facing side. Stone Mountain is shaped very much like a classic camping tent. From the narrow ridge at the top, it slopes steeply down on both the north and south sides, while the front is mainly vertical cliffs. The rocks are distinctly columnar jointed, creating beautiful patterns. In the gravel pit down below, there are piles of these perfectly faceted boulders. They look like they would be spectacular in a rock garden but, on closer inspection, they crumble down into slippery gravel—something that was even more obvious as I attempted to traverse parts of the south slope on top.

I was surprised by this toad peeking out at me from the slope of the gravel pit.

While the disturbance of mining has brought in a number of weeds, including scotch broom, there were also some nice annuals colonizing the gravel. Two species of blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia grandiflora and C. rattanii) were coming into bloom, along with Cryptantha intermedia, Boechera retrofracta (formerly Arabis holboellii), and Collomia heterophylla. Both Ribes roezlii and R. sanguineum brightened the area up with their gorgeous flowers. Searching the cliffs with binoculars, I was thrilled to see bright pink patches of Phlox diffusa. The first Penstemon rupicola were just starting to open their even brighter magenta flowers. The most prominent plant in bloom was Lomatium hallii. I doubt I’ve been anywhere in the last month or so where this hasn’t been one of the most abundant plants. The equally common Sedum spathulifolium was just beginning to bloom. A few paintbrushes had also started, but, just like the ones I passed along Hills Creek Reservoir on the drive out, it is unclear if they are Castilleja hispida, pruinosa, or some hybrid progeny of the two.

Looking down the steep south slope from the ridgetop

After enough stalling, I decided it was time to tackle the main task and head to the top. On my previous trip, I had decided that it might be easiest to walk up through the woods on the north side. It’s only a 300′ or so gain up to the ridge, which I could even see brightly lit through the trees. But I don’t think I’m exaggerating to think it must have been a 30-degree pitch. It took me a half-hour to get to the top, picking each step with care. When I finally reached the top, I briefly despaired it was all for nought, as it appeared it was going to be too steep for me to see much from here either. But after wandering a bit right along a narrow ridge, I realized there were places I could get out farther, and even spots that might allow me to go down to the meadow below the rocks—if I had enough energy to go down and up again before heading back down the steep woods. This is not the first (or the last!) time I’ve wondered why I keep getting myself into these difficult places.

Spring phacelia, a rare annual of gravelly slopes

Many of the same plants I could see on the cliff front were also on these rocks. Lots of gorgeous Phlox, unfortunately staying at arm’s length on vertical portions of rocks, Lomatium hallii, Sedum spathulifolium, Eriogonum compositum just leafing out, and rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseousa), which won’t bloom for months yet. There were many manzanitas in bloom, but what caught my eye was the creamy white blossoms of buckbrush (Ceanothus cuneatus). This low-growing twiggy shrub is typically found in southwestern Oregon and also in the Valley but is not very common in the Western Cascades (click here for the OregonFlora map of this species). I have found it, however, along the cliffs at Hills Creek Reservoir and at nearby Youngs Rock, so it was not a total surprise. The other uncommon plant I was delighted to find up here was the darling little spring phacelia (Phacelia verna), an endemic to a small area of Douglas and southeastern Lane counties (see map). It is always good to find a new site for this limited species.

Phlox diffusa, Ceanothus cuneatus, and Penstemon rupicola flourish on the seemingly harsh rocks on the exposed ridgetop. Snow remains on Groundhog Mountain to the east.

I decided not to spend much time exploring lower down the ridge, partly because I was not entirely welcome on this rarely if ever visited area. Off and on during the several hours I was at Stone Mountain, I heard the squeaky cries of a hawk. Although it took me a while to see it, my guess from the habitat was that it was a peregrine falcon. Most of the trails near known sites for peregrine nests are off-limit to people until after August 1. This is to make sure they are not disturbed while nesting. So while I was excited to see and hear a peregrine, I was also uncomfortable being in its home territory. It appeared off and on, mostly circling around above the valley to the south. It seemed to be enjoying riding the thermals, squawking occasionally but not paying attention to me. I tried to stay near the trees when it was in view, but at one point, when I hadn’t seen it for quite a while, I was trying to photograph the Ceanothus on one of the highest points of rock when suddenly, there it was heading closer and closer and seeming to chastise me for trespassing on its mountain. I skedaddled back under the trees as fast as I could, and it flew off again. I once got dive-bombed while up on Smith Rock—or so I thought—whatever went by was faster than a speeding bullet and sounded like it had broken the sound barrier. That’s not something I wanted to experience while perched precariously on a ridge. Nor did I want to upset the magnificent bird.

I guess I’ll have to wait to return until later in the summer when nesting is over. The rabbitbrush at least ought to be blooming, and the little oaks on the lower slope will be leafed out. Who knows what else might be there later? Going down was as difficult and time-consuming as going up. I wondered if I shouldn’t have taken the ridge all the way down and followed it as it bent and met the lowest part of the spur road. Or maybe next time I should head around the south side and climb through the woods to the lower part of the meadow. There really isn’t any easy way, but if it were easy, it wouldn’t be as exciting!

One Response to “A Steep Climb to the Top of Stone Mountain”

  • Kris:

    Hi Tanya, you are quite the intrepid explorer. Reading your articles and seeing your pictures is almost like being there. You find so many interesting things. :)


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