Finally, a Visit to Upper Elk Meadows

Mama grouse with adorable baby grouselings seem to be everywhere along the mountain roads now.

A golden longhorn beetle enjoys the flowers of Umpqua frasera (Frasera umquaensis).

I’ve heard about Upper Elk Meadows, south of Cottage Grove, for years, but I’ve never managed to go check it out. But last Friday (July 8) was the perfect opportunity as I was heading south to the North Umpqua for our annual NARGS campout, which I’ve been organizing the last few years. There are several nice cutoffs over the mountains via Cottage Grove that are actually paved all the way to Hwy 138. One of these, south of Cottage Grove Lake and London, via Big River Road, goes right by Upper Elk Meadows—or almost right by. I had a whole bunch of maps with me, but I’d forgotten to make sure I knew where it was on the map, and I hadn’t bothered to get directions from anyone, since I was far more concerned with planning the weekend camping trip, which had to be changed twice due to the low snowline. Neither of my BLM maps had it marked, nor did either of the nearby Forest Service district maps. After I arrived at the intersection of Rock Creek Road and had obviously missed Upper Elk Meadows, I checked the last possible map I had with me that might cover the area: the Umpqua National Forest map. Thankfully it was marked on there, even though it is not in their jurisdiction—it is actually a BLM RNA (Research Natural Area). Once I knew about where it was, it wasn’t too hard to find, off a gated-off side road, and small paths made it obvious where people had gone in there before.

Water montia (Montia chamissoi) can be recognized by its pairs of succulent, spoon-shaped leaves.

Once I managed to find my way into the wetland, I noticed ribbons that led me right the location of a number of Umpqua frasera (Frasera umpquaensis), the rare plant that makes this area special. I’d seen it down south in the Rogue-Umpqua Divide but never up at the northern end of its limited range (see OregonFlora map). It was just coming into bloom. It’s a really striking plant, a large basal clump of long, shiny green leaves with a tall inflorescence of pale greenish white, 4-lobed flowers, which the insects seem to like. It is not quite as showy as its relative, monument plant (F. speciosa), which I’ve seen in the Rockies several times. That species has larger, more colorful flowers but is otherwise fairly similar.

The main thing in bloom was the hawthorn (Crataegus suksdorfii) surrounding the wet meadow. Somehow, I’d never realized how sweetly fragrant it is. Most of the herbaceous plants in the wetland were just starting, including Camassia leichtlinii, Veronica americana, and Bistorta bistortoides. I was very pleased to discover one of my favorite wetland denizens, Montia chamissoi. This little succulent plant creeps around under much taller plants, spreading by delicate runners, and is easy to miss if you don’t spot its sparkling white flowers. It is more common east of the Cascades, and here it is over 20 miles from either of the two nearest sites I know of: Patterson Mountain and Bristow Prairie. In the drier surrounding areas were pretty clumps of peachy-colored Polemonium carneum and a great show of Iris chrysophylla. Many more things will be blooming later, hopefully in time for an NPSO hike led by Alan Curtis on July 23rd.

Clumps of Iris chrysophylla along the roads seem to be bursting with flowers.

Back on the road, there were some amazing displays of Iris chrysophylla and Penstemon cardwellii, Sedum spathulifolium, more Polemonium carneum, gorgeous Phlox adsurgens, which just loves roadcuts despite normally being found in the woods, and loads of bright yellow Thermopsis gracilis. This last one seems to be ubiquitous along the roads in Douglas County although I rarely see it in Lane County and never see it on trails. One of the other reasons I wanted to take this road was to time it to see how it compared with the longer route south on I-5 and over to Hwy 138 via North Bank Road. Unfortunately, I had to get out of the car to take pictures so many times, I lost track of the time. But with all those flowers and some great views, I’ll probably take this road again even if it doesn’t save any time.

One Response to “Finally, a Visit to Upper Elk Meadows”

  • Kelley Leonard:

    Wow Tanya!
    You weren’t kidding when you said the Iris chrysophylla had tons of blossoms! Amazing.

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