New Trail to the Base of Buffalo Peak

How many snakes do you think are here?

How many snakes do you think are here?

Back in January, I heard Bill Sullivan give a talk on new hikes he’s added to the latest version of his Central Oregon Cascades book. My ears perked when he mentioned the Forest Service had added a section to the North Fork trail, off the Aufderheide (Road 19), that passed along the base of the Buffalo Peak. I once climbed up from Road 1939 to the base of this grand rock feature on the north side and found one of my personal favorite plants, Heuchera merriamii, growing on the cliffs. I had wanted to explore the much larger south side that reaches almost to the river, so this new trail was a dream come true.

On Monday (April 7), Sabine and I decided to check  out the new trail section. We stopped at the ranger station in Westfir to double check the directions to the trailhead and were given a copy of an area map, showing the trailhead at the end of a spur road off of Road 1939, on the north side of the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Willamette River.

Heart-leaved twayblade and snow queen.

Heart-leaved twayblade and snow queen.

The forecast for a very warm sunny day was right on target, and it was a gorgeous drive along the river on the Aufderheide. Unfortunately when we turned onto Road 1939, we were stopped almost immediately by a number of fallen trees across the road. Darn! We decided to walk down the road and see if we could at least find the trailhead, which was perhaps a mile and a half away. So we were surprised when after only 0.4 miles, we came upon a brand new trailhead sign on 1939, leading to what looked like a well established trail. We headed down the trail following the river, figuring that in such a beautiful spot on such a gorgeous day, wherever we ended up would be fine. The forest was magnificent, with lots of old growth Douglas-fir and numerous relatively large Pacific yew. Lots of wildflowers were blooming, including western trillium (Trillium ovatum), evergreen violet (Viola sempervirens), snow queen (Synthyris reniformis), and quite a few of the adorable little heart-leaf twayblade (Listera cordata).

Now you can see the large snake with four little ones in tow.

Now you can see the large snake with four smaller ones in tow.

One of the highlights of the day was discovering a tangle of garter snakes, which I almost stepped on sunning in the trail. Sabine saw them right after I had stepped over them. How did I miss them? I must have been absorbed with looking for more tiny orchids. I’d never seen anything like it before, although Sabine had. After we disturbed their sunbathing, their long, skinny tails, which were all facing the same way, started wiggling. I could really see where the Greeks had come up with the idea of cursed Medusa with her hair transformed into snakes! Apparently female garter snakes are larger than males. The snakes form “mating balls” where numerous males are attracted to females by a pheromone they give off. Perhaps this is a small mating ball. Photos on the internet show hundreds of garter snakes forming huge, writhing congregations. That would be an astounding sight!

While the whole trail was beautiful, one especially pretty spot was a creek that widened out into a small delta filled with glowing yellow skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) as it flowed into the main river. I could smell the pretty floral fragrance of the skunk cabbage before I even rounded the corner to where they came into view. We passed over a number of other side creeks as well, often a bit too wide to jump across (at least for those of us with short legs!). Luckily, there always seemed to be a convenient fallen log to climb across.

A beautiful stand of skunk cabbage marches out to the river

A beautiful stand of skunk cabbage marches out to the river

After walking for a couple of hours, we were really wondering if we were going to find Buffalo Peak or if this was a different trail. My GPS indicated we had already passed where the spur road ended, and we hadn’t seen any spur trail that might have come from the trailhead we were told about. Wouldn’t you know I had apparently lost the map the FS had given me (also not surprisingly, I discovered I had it all along in the one pocket I forgot to check!). Oh well, we had a little more time and would head on a bit farther before turning around. At one point earlier on, we had spotted the very small decapitated head of a gold star (Crocidium multicaule) that was still fresh. Where on earth could this have come from? There was no appropriate habitat underneath these giant trees. Finally, there it was, the spectacular rocky prominence of Buffalo Peak, hundreds of feet above us. And on the steep, rocky slope that spread down almost to the trail, there were the gold stars—sheets of them. Mystery solved—our lonely wayfarer must have caught a ride from here on a deer or some other traveler.

Actually, when I later matched up my GPS track with Google Earth, it turns out we walked right under Buffalo Peak itself without seeing it. The rock feature in the photo below is about a quarter of a mile to the west and not quite as high—though it seemed pretty impressive to me! The summit of Buffalo Peak is about 3200′, while the one we saw topped out at about 2900′. Still, the rock at the top of the photo is over 500′ above me here. Another good use for that jet pack I’m wishing for!

Gold stars decorating the mossy rocks on the steep slope below Buffalo Peak.

Gold stars decorating the mossy rocks on the steep slope below Buffalo Peak.

We had gotten a late start (stopping to see a gorgeous display of fawnlilies (Erythronium oregonum) at Lowell State Recreation Site), and it was over 3 miles to get back to the car, so we didn’t have time or energy to really explore this awesome area. This being the first long hike for either of us this season, we weren’t in shape yet. But I simply couldn’t head back without climbing up a little ways to where the wildflowers were blooming on the open rocks. Along with the gold stars, there were a number of larkspur (Delphinium menziesii) coming into bloom and a few cute chickweed monkeyflower (Mimulus alsinoides). It looked like there would be quite a show of rosy plectritis (Plectritis congesta) in the next couple of weeks. With binoculars, I could see lots of flowering Lomatium hallii in the cracks of the neat columnar jointing of the rocks above, along with some spots of red, which must have been paintbrush (Castilleja, probably hispida). Reluctantly, I climbed back down the trail and we headed back, but I am certainly going to try to get back to check out the rocky area, despite the challenging slope. Hopefully the road will be cleared and the hike shortened. Who knows what other wonderful plants may be lurking above?!

4 Responses to “New Trail to the Base of Buffalo Peak”

  • Today I spoke with Brian McGinley at the Middle Fork Ranger District office. We were at the correct and only trailhead. So directions for this trailhead are to take Road 19 (the Aufderheide) east past the Kiahanie Campground. The road soon crosses the river. Turn left on Road 1939, just a third of a mile or so after the crossing. Stay left when you reach the intersection of Road 758 on your right after about 0.6 mile. Continue for a half mile until you see the trailhead sign on the left. The trail is about 4 miles one way. It is about 3.3 miles to where the base of the rocks appear.

    Brian also told me it should really be called “Buffalo Rock” as it is a rock not a peak. They would like to get the name formally changed by Oregon Geographic Names Board. Until then, I guess you can call it Buffalo Rock or Buffalo Peak.

  • Great hike! Thank you so much for posting about it. The road had been cleared to about 1/4 mile before the trail, so access was easy. By the time I was hiking out there was a guy there clearing the road, working on the last big log. I would imagine that by the end of this weekend it will be clear to the trailhead. Very nice of him!
    I really appreciate you taking the time to post the hikes you go on. I learn at least one new species from each one! This trip was special to me as I was able to find the wild ginger flower! They always seem to elude me. :)
    I also had a couple of questions I thought you might be able to answer. I found a fairy slipper orchid that was very pale. Do the fairy slipper orchids have pale varieties, or is that particular bloom just fading? Second, I found a very large pine cone about 12 inches long. The only pine I know that has cones that size is the sugar pine, but I always think of it as a southern Oregon tree. I did find a few 5 needled pines in the area, but also found some more typical western white pine cones with the slight curve.
    Thanks again for everything that you do!

  • Hi Dustin,
    That’s great that the Forest Service got the road cleared so soon after I called. Such service!

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the trail, too (and thanks for letting me know!). In answer to your questions, fairy slippers do fade to a cream color. I’ve only once seen an albino flower, and it was pure white—quite different. Sabine and I also looked at pine cones and found both white pines (Pinus monticola) and a sugar pine (P. lambertiana). There are a number of sugar pines scattered around the Oakridge/Hills Creek area, but I was surprised to see one up there. According to the Oregon Flora Project Atlas, they range up the Cascades all the way into Clackamas County, although by far the majority of sites are south of Lane County.

  • Thank you so much for the information! I have always told people that if you find a 5 needled pine north of Cottage Grove and you are not way up in the mountains, then it is P. monticola. I will have to change my story! I suppose I can still say it is likely P. monticola, but be sure to look for cones!
    You are so knowledgeable and willing to help out! Thank you so much for everything!

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