Another Way Up To Balm Mountain’s South End

On the way up, we stopped for lunch at the top of the quarry. John’s proximity to the edge of the cliff gave me the willies, so I sat farther back.

On October 16, it was a beautiful clear day, and John Koenig and I headed up into the Calapooyas for one last chance to visit this wonderful area before winter set in. We headed down Road 3810 that runs along the west side of Balm Mountain. In the past, John and I had planned a trip to find a way to hike up to the south end of Balm Mountain (which is really a long ridge) through some meadows we could see on the aerial images. All my previous trips were approached from the north end of the mountain. We tried several times to get down to the end of the road in the past, but trees blocked it well ahead of where we needed to start (see Another Look at Aspen Meadow and Bradley Lake). On a previous visit to what we call Aspen Meadow, a wetland along Road 3810, we had driven down the road and discovered the trees were finally cleared, but there was a huge washout—one that I can’t see ever being fixed—about a half mile from where it used to dead end.

The fabulous rock formations near the top of the south end of Balm Mountain

So on this trip, I suggested we stop right where the road takes a hard turn to the east. There’s a large meadow just west of the cliffs created by an old quarry. It looked like an interesting place to explore and a likely route up to the top. It turned out to be even more interesting and easier than we expected. We hiked up the side until we were above the quarry, then continued through a patchwork of open rocky meadows. Before long we came upon the striking rock outcrops near the top where we had been before. While about the only thing left in bloom was some Hall’s goldenweed (Columbiadoria hallii), we could see evidence of a fantastic bloom, including lots of clumps of balsamroot (Balsamorhiza deltoidea) and rosettes of skyrocket (Ipomopsis aggregata) leaves.

The colorful groundcover in the foreground is actually a miniature oak patch.

We came back a slightly different route so we could see more of the lower openings. I was surprised to see some very low-growing “forests” of oaks at about 5900′ in elevation. From what I’ve been reading as I edit the draft treatments for our upcoming Volume 2 of the Flora of Oregon, Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana var. garryana) doesn’t grow this high in elevation, so these must be Brewer’s oak (Q. garryana var. breweri), but they are still at the upper limit of their elevation range. The well-drained, rocky, south-facing slope must have been to their liking, but I imagine the high elevation is what kept them so short that we had to walk over them.

Rabbitbrush is a very late bloomer.

After we returned to the truck for a quick snack, we crossed the road and headed downhill where we could see from the aerials that there was another large rocky slope just below the road but out of sight of it. We followed along the top until it turned and went out a perpendicular ridge. Here we found lots of still blooming rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa). This pretty shrub is a great last nectar source for insects. There were quite a few plants that must have put on a great show in the spring, including mats of spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa). Another plant had me stumped for quite some time. We were pretty sure it was in the pink family, Caryophyllaceae, because of the opposite leaves, which were very narrow and hard to distinguish from the phlox, but I just couldn’t place it. John later figured out it was field chickweed (Cerastium arvense). It has lovely sprays of white flowers, but it was mostly dried out at this stage.

Rustyhair saxifrage greening up after the fall rains had begun.

New Hall’s lomatium leaves coming up beneath this year’s now dead leaves.

Also of interest to me were the many clumps of rustyhair saxifrage (Micranthes rufidula). This species is summer dormant, and many clumps were still brown and shriveled up. But some were starting to turn green after finally getting some moisture from the first autumn showers, and a few had already fully come back to life. I think it is amazing how this plant doesn’t die back but just dries out and is able to rejuvenate the same leaves from earlier in the year. I have watched these green up practically overnight where I’ve planted them on some rocks on my property. In contrast, we found some newly emerging leaves of Hall’s lomatium (Lomatium hallii). It is also summer dormant, but it dies back completely and sends up brand new leaves in the fall. Also now bright green were the moss-like patches of Wallace’s spikemoss (Selaginella wallacei). It dries up whenever it runs out of water and can green up quickly after it rains. These species have all found clever ways of handling our summer drought conditions.

Looking back at the ridge below the road from the far end of it

We walked all the way out the ridge until it dropped down too steeply to continue easily. We were perplexed by the appearance of sawed-off branches on some of the conifers out at the end. It’s hard to imagine why someone would carry a saw all that way out. Perhaps they just wanted more of a view. We also found some unusual small ferns that looked like sword ferns, more likely imbricate sword ferns (Polystichum imbricans), but they were just so small. It is hard to know whether one is looking at a different species or just an adaptation to the local habitat, like the small oaks we’d seen earlier in the day. We hated to leave after such a fabulous day. It was a fantastic way to finish up my hiking season. And we decided that we have so many reasons to return that we’re going to put this area high on the top of our list for next year. I can hardly wait until next summer!

One Response to “Another Way Up To Balm Mountain’s South End”

  • Sue Mandeville:

    Marvelous trips and writing. In the first post, you were amazed that Monarchs found the tiny patch of purple milkweed. I have a tiny patch of milkweed (A. speciosa) in my front yard and Monarchs find it every year. I wondered if they can sense it some how?

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