Peak Bloom at Pyramid Rock

Cliff paintbrush (Castilleja rupicola on the north side of the rock. To the east, Diamond Peak is about the only mountain with any snow left.

Cliff paintbrush (Castilleja rupicola) on the north side of the rock. To the east, Diamond Peak is about the only mountain with any snow left. The large burned area to its right is the aftermath of the Tumblebug Fire, which burned in September of 2009, just after my first trip to Pyramid Rock.

Pyramid Rock is one of a number of large rocks that pop out of the otherwise largely forested Western Cascades. I’d originally heard of it because it has one of the few populations of Columbia lewisia (Lewisia columbiana) south of the Columbia Gorge. My first trip there was back in the fall of 2009 (First Trips to Pyramid Rock and Loletta Gravel Pit Rocks), and even though the only thing left in bloom was a little of the tiny least knotweed (Polygonum minimum), I was excited to find several other unusual species along with the little fleshy rosettes of the Lewisia. What hadn’t been reported yet for the site were three of the species I’ve since been finding a lot in the area, cliff paintbrush (Castilleja rupicola), spring phacelia (Phacelia verna), and Sierra cliffbrake (Pellaea brachyptera). With all the interesting plants there, I’ve been wanting to get back ever since. The only trouble is, although it is in Lane County (a mere mile north of the Douglas County border), and it can be seen tantalizingly close from some of my favorite sites in the Calapooyas, including Bearbones Mountain, Heavenly Bluff, and the north end of the High Divide Trail near Bristow Prairie, it is on a long dead end road only accessible from Douglas County, so it’s not an easy place to get to for me.

Cliff penstemon (Penstemon rupicola) at its finest.

Cliff penstemon (Penstemon rupicola) at its finest.

To approach it, you head up the same road off of Steamboat Road that goes to Reynolds Ridge, and since I also wanted to see an odd willow I saw there late last summer, I thought it was a good destination for my first camping trip of the year on Monday (June 2). I had no trouble relocating the spot on the road where you need to park to find Pyramid Rock, which is hidden from the road. The bushwhack through the woods isn’t super easy, but it is less than 300 yards, so I was there in no time. The first thing I spotted was many picture perfect mats of cliff penstemon (Penstemon rupicola). This was certainly a good start! I relocated the area near the top of the southwest-facing slope where all the Sierra cliffbrake grew, but it isn’t terribly photogenic at this time of year when its new fronds are just starting, and the old glaucous ones are looking quite ratty. I was also a little late for the abundant early-blooming spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa) and Hall’s lomatium (Lomatium hallii), but most everything else was gorgeous. I hadn’t really planned the trip to hit peak bloom, but I could not have timed it better, as it happened. Among the many things that seemed to be at their peak on this side of the rock were frosted paintbrush (Castilleja pruinosa), mountain cat’s ear (Calochortus subalpinus), large-flowered blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia grandiflora), Menzies’ larkspur (Delphinium menziesii) and Cascade fleabane (Erigeron cascadensis).

From Columbia lewisia's little fleshy rosettes come lots of pretty pink flowers

From Columbia lewisia’s little fleshy rosettes come lots of pretty pink flowers

The star of this show, however, was the Lewisia columbiana. There were at least 100 plants tucked into the rocks. Finally I got to see it in full bloom! It was exceptionally windy for the Western Cascades, so it was a bit of a challenge getting good photographs of the these lovely plants. Their little bright pink flowers are held aloft on very delicate stems, allowing them to wave madly in the wind. It was time-consuming waiting for a moment of calm to take a shot or two, but it was hardly a burden hanging out in a stunning natural rock garden in full bloom with a fabulous view on a beautiful sunny day. I couldn’t stop looking at a very large, sloping meadow just west of me and, just north of it, another smaller and much rockier opening. Would they have any of the special plants that were here or nearby? How do I get there? So many of my special places I have found by seeing them from another nearby site after having the same thoughts.

Frosted paintbrush (Castilleja pruinosa) on the southwest slope.

Frosted paintbrush (Castilleja pruinosa) on the southwest slope. How do you get to that giant meadow on the other side of Big Bend Creek?

Sierra arnica resembles heart-leaf arnica (A. cordifolia), but it doesn't have the large teeth on the leaves and prefers much rockier habitat.

Sierra arnica resembles heart-leaf arnica (A. cordifolia), but it doesn’t have the large teeth on the leaves, and it prefers much rockier habitat.

After taking at least 6 dozen photos of the Lewisia, I headed back up the steep slope I had been exploring. I had gone down farther than I had planned to, always seeing another lewisia or other plant farther down that I had to check. I had also hoped that with that sunny scree slope and being line of sight to at least two other populations, I might find some Siskiyou fritillary (Fritillaria glauca), but there was no sign of it. The open part of the slope spreads down about 400′, but I had only gone about halfway down.

Once back near the top, I headed around to check out the north side. This side is about the same height but is basically a cliff, so only a few less steeply pitched parts of it along the edge are explorable on foot, the rest requires binoculars. I was so happy to see I’d also hit the cliff paintbrush flowering season perfectly. It was hard to tell how much of it there was on my first trip, well after their bloom, but now, with their bright red flowers catching the afternoon sun, it was easy to see they were plentiful. Growing among them were a plant I hadn’t noticed on my first trip, and one that is actually much rarer in the Western Cascades, Sierra arnica (Arnica nevadensis). Its fuzzy leaves had that strong arnica fragrance. Its bright yellow, daisy-like flowers seem to be just beginning, so there weren’t too many in bloom. Then again, I find a lot of arnicas put out far more leaves than flowers, so it might be a sizeable population. It’s hard to tell with all that hard-to-explore vertical rock . After enjoying that, I left this lovely spot more than satisfied with all I had seen and headed down to camp along the North Umpqua. If not this year, some day I’ll have to try to get back again to see the next wave of plants.

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