Autumn at Hills Peak

The fall color was outstanding in the wetland east of Hills Peak, mostly from the vast stretches of bog huckleberries.

A Cascades frog floating in one of the many channels near the lake.

On October 5th, John Koenig and I headed up to Hills Peak at the east end of the Calapooya Mountains. We both wanted to get in one more trip to the Calapooyas before winter, and we were looking for an easy trip—especially after John had injured his knee on our last trip out together (see Butterflying on Coal Creek Road). There are many places of interest around Hills Peak, so we can never see them all. On this trip, we made three stops: a wetland, the top of the peak, and the talus at the north end.

It was a gorgeous fall day. The clear blue sky was heavenly after months of smoke. We headed first to the large wetland east of the peak off of Road 2154, where there is a shallow lake and bog. While there was little left in bloom, the fall color was outstanding. The backlit huckleberries made the area look like it was on fire—but in a good way.

Bog huckleberry turns a lovely plum color in the fall. Growing among the huckleberries are reddish subalpine spiraea (Spiraea splendens) and sweetberry honeysuckle (Lonicera cauriana), just starting to turn yellow. The tall bright red shrub is western mountain ash (Sorbus scopulina).

While the glaucous leaves of bog huckleberry look plum with the sun on them, when they are backlight, they appear bright red.

We considered going to one of the other wetlands in the area, but ever since the first time I came to this area back in 2010 (see First Trip to Hills Peak), I had been wanting to go back up to the top of Hills Peak. There are so many wetlands to check out that I always ran out of time or figured it was too late in the season to look at the rock plants up on the ridge. John had never been up there, so he was game and drove us up Road 2153 around to the west side of the mountain to a small side road that leads to the south end of the Hills Peak ridge.

Looks like someone was nibbling on this brightly colored mushroom.

We parked and walked the half-mile to the end. Others had clearly driven this road, but it was quite wavy, and the walk was quite pleasant although there weren’t any terribly interesting plants. I was surprised to see the picnic table was still up there, although the deck was a little worse for wear. The view was outstanding. We also enjoyed watching a few warblers bouncing around in the trees. The ridge looked a lot harder than I remembered it, so I’m not sure I will try to walk down it after all, but I do think I’ll come back to the top in the near future.

Looking west at the north end of Hills Peak. The south end is out of sight behind the trees.

From the top of Hills Peak, there’s a great view north of the very dry south side of Diamond Peak. What a spot for a picnic!

Our last stop was to the old quarry and talus slope at the north end of the mountain. We never skip this spot, and with the days getting shorter, it was getting late. As we headed toward the base of the talus, I was thrilled to see some movement right away—a pika! Although there are a lot of interesting plants on the slope and the cliffs, the main reason to stop here is to look for pikas. I’d been disappointed on recent trips, but this time, we didn’t even have to wait. There were actually two active pikas, and though one only appeared briefly, the other one kept us amused for a solid hour. We watched it running up and down the slope gathering plants to add to its cache. They must get extra busy as the season winds down because rather than hibernating, they stay active all winter, surviving under the talus on what they’ve managed to gather during the summer and fall. What a thrill to be able to hang out with a pika for so long. I felt very satisfied that if it ended up being the last trip of the year, it was such a great one.

We were very lucky to get to watch this little pika gather some leaves of bleedingheart (Dicentra formosa) and carry them back all the way to its cache. It had to make some adjustments several times and even dropped the leaves once. Pikas move extremely fast across the rocks, so I slowed the motion down for most of the video below. I’m no videographer, so this is not very professional, but it gives you a rare glimpse of a pika at work.

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