Gorgeous Day at Coffin and Bachelor

The show of beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) is once again outstanding on the open slope of Coffin Mountain. The Penstemon procerus and mountain sandwort (Eremogone capillaris) were also quite showy.

I’ve been trying to get back to Coffin and Bachelor mountains for several years, and, coincidentally, I finally made it back this past Wednesday, August 3, exactly three years to the day of my last trip. These two mountains have fairly short trails and are side by side, but it is still hard for me to do both in one day (without rushing too much) unless I camp nearby to give myself more time. Otherwise, I’d head up there at least once a year. They really are jewels for flowers and butterflies. I don’t know why more people don’t know about them. They deserve the popularity of Iron Mountain and Cone Peak, but I can’t complain too much about how much quieter they are.

Douglas’ catchfly (Silene douglasii) is quite pretty when it is fully open.

It was an absolutely gorgeous day, and since I was camping in nearby Marion Forks, I was at the trailhead far earlier than my usual time. The early morning light is really beautiful. And no one was on the mountain for quite a while until the substitute lookout showed up late morning. The butterflies were already out at 8:30am in the sun, along with numerous bees and other pollinating insects all enjoying the flowers in the first rock garden area. I was really interested to see that the multitudes of Douglas’ catchfly (Silene douglasii) were fully open and actually rather pretty. This is a species I’ve only had luck photographing on cloudy days because the petals are always shriveled up in the sun. I’d never seen them early in the day. I kept track of them as I headed back and noticed that by late morning they seemed to be closing up. It had never crossed my mind, but it makes sense that a white flower with a deep tube might be pollinated by moths and therefore might be open primarily at night or on dark days. I’ll have to find out if that is true.

Like other sunflowers, Helianthella uniflora tracks the sun. Mount Jefferson beyond is catching some of the early morning light. Bachelor Mountain lies in between.

One of the special plants on both Coffin and Bachelor is little sunflower (Helianthella uniflora). This bright yellow composite is common in the Great Basin and Rocky Mountains. I saw huge meadows of it in Utah a few years ago. But it only sneaks over into the Western Cascades in a few places, so it is a real treat for me. I hit the bloom perfectly this time. Also growing in this area are large patches of blue-violet Penstemon procerus. I once saw a pink-flowered form here, but if it is still alive, it wasn’t blooming. The mountain sandwort (Eremogone capillaris) were a bit past peak but still added their delicate, airy white blossoms to the show. Just past this area is where the beargrass kicks in. It looked a little past peak near the beginning, but the lookout told me it had barely started the week before. It seems like an odd place for it, but underneath the beargrass were many pretty Viola adunca in full bloom.

The long proboscis of a bee fly (Bombylius) is perfect for tubular flowers such as this Phlox diffusa. He also has pollen on his long front leg.

Continuing up the trail, the flowers got fresher, now including many Phlox diffusa and columbines (Aquilegia formosa). When I reached the ridge on the last stretch to the lookout, there was a large snowbank. This is always the last spot for snow and a good place to find the tail end of the early bloomers. Some fresh Anemone oregana and bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) could be found in this area. The lookout area itself has a lot of small shrubs and some rock plants, but the most interesting plants lie over the north side of the cliff. Even those of us who love cliffs can find this one a bit unnerving. Measuring on Google Earth, it looks like the cliff itself is 500′ high, and the talus slope below ends another 400′ down. This is not a place for those afraid of heights! Alas, some of the coolest plants grow on the cliff faces. With my binoculars, I could see blooming Penstemon rupicola, Castilleja rupicola, and Saxifraga bronchialis. A Douglasia laevigata I had once photographed in bloom (on my belly with Sabine holding my feet—just in case!) was all finished. Luckily at least a couple of plants of each of these could be found on top or over to the west side where the dropoff wasn’t so lethal.

The rayless yellow heads of silvercrown luina (Cacaliopsis nardosmia) sit on top of large palmate leaves.

When I returned to the snowbank, I stayed on the ridgetop and followed a small path that leads to a radio tower. Fresh Phlox diffusa were everywhere and were being frequented by bee flies and hover flies. Little flatseed rockcress (now Boechera howellii) were popping up in this area, their white flowers aging to deep violet—so sweet. Things were farther along in the rocky spine at the south end of the ridge, with lots of Eriogonum umbellatum and more penstemons. There were lots of hilltopping butterflies up here, moving way too fast to photograph. From here, I decided to torture my knees by heading down through the beargrass meadow to get to the trail instead of going back the way I’d come. I’m so glad I did because I discovered there is a population of silvercrown luina (now Cacaliopsis nardosmia) here. I’d seen it along the trail at Bachelor many times, but it is rare in the Western Cascades, and I didn’t know it was on Coffin. The columbines were also outstanding here. Why the place wasn’t overrun with hummingbirds I don’t know. Perhaps they prefer the thick patches of skyrocket (Ipomopsis aggregata) that were in bloom over at nearby Bachelor.

I guess I don’t have time to share what I saw and how much I love Bachelor Mountain. It is also an outstanding trail for flowers, insects, and much better for hummingbirds. And there was plenty in bloom (lots of everyone’s favorite Cascade lilies) and in flight on this trip. Guess you’ll just have to see it for yourselves!


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