McKenzie Highway Cliffs Followup

This gorgeous, steep, rocky meadow lies “hidden in plain sight” above the highway.

Tiny moths were nectaring on many of the Cryptantha. Someone had evidently been eating the flowers as well.

It was a busy weekend with collecting, setting up, and attending the Mount Pisgah Arboretum Wildflower Festival. Finally, I have a chance to report about my return trip last week (May 16) to the seepy roadcut and upper meadows along the McKenzie Highway. I was so excited about seeing the beautiful shooting star (Dodecatheon pulchellum) along the road several days before (see Floriferous Roadcut Along McKenzie Highway) that I wanted to get back as soon as possible to look for more above the road before they finished blooming. Before I left the first time, I scouted possible ways up. I decided to follow my best guess that hiking up through the woods from the southern end would be possible. Thankfully, it was, and it didn’t take very long to get up to the southern edge of the rocky meadows part way up. The good news was that they were lots of shooting stars coming down the wet seepy slope. In fact, there were shooting stars everywhere—this population rivals that of Cloverpatch. There was also lots of Thompson’s mistmaiden (Romanzoffia thompsonii), along with abundant larkspur (Delphinium menziesii), common cryptantha (Cryptantha intermedia), and pretty field chickweed (Cerastium arvense). The bad news was that there was no way to walk across the slope. There were just too many large rock outcrops with dropoffs below.

The deer trail from the road leads to the top of the slope. Not a good place for anyone with a fear of heights!

Tiny little broomrapes poke up from the seeps. Most likely they were parasitizing the abundant Micranthes (Saxifraga) integrifolia.

I zigzagged my way up the slope, carefully avoiding the wettest and rockiest spots. It was tricky but not really scary. When I reached the forest, about 300 feet or so above the road, I tried to follow just above the top of the open slope. But the farther up I went, the easier the walking was, as the slope was far gentler and the woods were fairly open. Armed with an aerial photo and my GPS, I easily found Road 2653, a fairly major gravel road that parallels McKenzie Highway for a little ways a few hundred feet from the top of the slope. I walked down the road a short ways until I guessed I was opposite the main part of the open meadowed slope. A small rushing creek crossed under the road and down toward the open area. A well-worn deer trail seemed like an obvious route to take. It quickly led right to a rocky promontory overlooking the open slope. What a great view! Unfortunately, there was simply nowhere to go from here. The drop below was rather dizzying. Clearly, this was not the place to access the plants. I was starting to fear I might not be able to look at the flowers here up close. But I was sure the deer would know how to get to all those tasty plants, so I followed another deer path to the north and finally found where they made another trail that headed back out into the meadow. Although still quite steep, I was able to safely walk across to a very seepy spot covered with shooting stars and other beauties. While squatting down to take photographs, I noticed a great many small-flowered naked broomrape (Orobanche uniflora) among the fading saxifrages. They were quite pale, almost white. I also noticed a threadleaf phacelia (Phacelia linearis) in bud as I was lunching on top of a mossy rock. I couldn’t find any in bloom so only a return trip will tell whether they are white like most of the Lane County populations or purple like they are everywhere else. This is the farthest north I’ve seen this species, more commonly found east of the Cascades.

The seepy outcrops seen beyond the larkspur are the perfect habitat for Dodecatheon pulchellum, Romanzoffia thompsonii, and many other special plants.

Tempting as it was to go farther downhill, I headed back the way I came. I didn’t want to exhaust myself by going down only to have to come back up again (I had a good laugh about that later on!). After reaching the road, I decided to go back along the front of the cliff by the road the way I had the first day. This time I had my binoculars with me. I really wanted to get a better look at the pretty white shooting star. Only three days later, things didn’t look that different, but I did notice more of shooting stars than I had seen on the earlier trip. When I reached where I could see the white-flowered plant, I got that dangerous itch to get closer. I walked back and forth a little, looking for a possible way to climb up to it. Time for one of those “DON’T DO THIS AT HOME!” disclaimers. I found a spot toward the north end that was a steep slope rather than vertical rocks. I pulled myself up with the help of a small conifer and some shrubs. The steep outcrops and numerous shrubs forced me to head uphill from here. Again, the easiest route was to follow a deer trail. There, right in front of me, was the white-flowered shooting star! Or so I thought. When I looked down to the road below, I realized I was as much as 100′ up. The one I’d seen from the road was no more than 20′ from me. So this was another plant! A little poking around revealed two more white-flowered plants. I wondered if I was above the first plant, and the seeds or small plants were following the seep down. Would they even grow true from seed? Another interesting difference was that along with their lighter petals, these white flowers had pale “beaks” unlike the pink flowers with their very dark stamens.

Thank heavens my travails were not without reward and I did get up close to this lovely white-flowered Dodecatheon pulchellum still in perfect bloom.

After enjoying the spot for a short while, I turned around to head back. This is where things went downhill—so to speak. I instantly realized I had no idea where I was, or, more importantly, where I had come up. Of course, I did know where I was, relatively speaking. I could see the road and the river just down below, although my view was somewhat obstructed. But in this case, I needed to know precisely where I was relative to the spot I had climbed up. I had made the huge mistake of not at least turning around to see what the spot looked like from the opposite direction. Better still, I should have marked my route (Sabine surely would have had her pink ribbons with her for just this sort of thing!). This probably wouldn’t have happened had I taken someone with me, but I don’t like to drag any of my friends out on tricky bushwhacks until I’ve scouted it first—not if I want them to remain friends!

With all the rocks and shrubs, there were many landmarks, but, alas, they also all kind of looked alike. Did I go past this rock? Had I already seen that seep? The GPS was completely useless. It wasn’t accurate to the distance I needed. In fact, it told me I had been walking on the other side of the road. And it couldn’t tell me how to avoid all the obstacles. Oh well. I knew I hadn’t gone more than a few hundred feet, but I couldn’t see the front of the cliff at all, and I certainly couldn’t follow along it. The idea of repeatedly going down to the edge looking for the right spot and then coming back up seemed futile and exhausting.

Dogwoods (Cornus nuttallii) were blooming well in the forest near the upper road. The tiny true flowers are pleasantly fragrant.

It was clear I could not return the way I came up. I walked north to the edge of the woods, but it was still really steep here. I knew it would head down to the road eventually, but not knowing how long or how hard it would be, I quickly decided the only safe way to return to my car was the long way—all the way back to the woods at the top and around the way I did the first time. Reluctantly, I headed back up until I found where I had first accessed the meadow. I hadn’t been panicking, but I still felt relieved to see a familiar clump of old pinedrops stalks. All in all, it only took 45 minutes to reach my car, but you can imagine how tired I was by then—up and down the steep slope twice. I’d like to say that I’ve learned my lesson, but the best I can say is I’ll be more prepared next time. Better load up my hiking vest with colored ribbon right now. And on my return trip, I’ll start from the road on top instead.

One Response to “McKenzie Highway Cliffs Followup”

  • Kris:

    I can see it now:

    Breaking News!

    This afternoon a woman had to be rescued by helicopter from a steep, rocky outcrop in the Cascades. When asked why she had climbed up the dangerous slope, she answered: “Well, I saw some pretty flowers up there and I just had to get a better look and a picture!”


    Nice shot of the white shooting stars. They are gorgeous.

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