Long-awaited Return to Mosaic Rock

The more-or-less east end of the rock above the road.

I spotted a small area of spring phacelia at Mosaic Rock. This is a new site for this easily overlooked species, which is only found in Douglas and southern Lane counties.

My husband isn’t excited about little plants the way I am, and waiting for me while I try to photograph butterflies isn’t his favorite way to spend the day either. So we don’t hike together all that often. But he does really like rocks, and I’d been wanting to take him to the amazing rock formation in the Rigdon area that Sabine and I named “Mosaic Rock” (43.4808°N, -122.4539°W) back in 2011 (see Amazing Rock Feature Worthy of a Name). It’s a magnificent example of columnar jointing, and the cracks provide a foothold for several special cliff-loving plants, including cliff penstemon (Penstemon rupicola) and Merriam’s alumroot (Heuchera merriamii). It’s several hundred feet high in places, about 1400′ long and less than 200′ wide, and reminds me of a giant that looks like a flying saucer or frisbee that crashed into the ground on its edge. While I had driven by it many times in the last decade since you pass under it on the way up to Bristow Prairie, I hadn’t explored the rock itself since that first trip. We finally made it there on May 20, on a perfect sunny but cool day.

Steeple Rock is the little pillar at the top of the ridge. We’re just getting ready to climb up the rocky slope in the foreground. There was an uncomfortable drop off on the far side, so I stayed as close to the main monolith (to my right) as I could. The madrones are a good indication we were still below 4000′.

Jim walking back along the base of the south-facing side of Mosaic Rock.

While the narrow east end of Mosaic Rock is right by the side of the road, it still took some thinking to figure out the best way to access the south side of the rock as the slope to the base of the rock is quite steep in all directions. We headed up the road so the climb through the woods would be as few feet in elevation as possible, but it was still slippery and steep, and we had to pull ourselves up using small trees in the understory. In hindsight, I don’t think that was the best way to approach it. Once up at the base of the rock, we followed it up to where the slope opened up. It was still quite steep, but at least the rocks were stable and the joints provided steps. We got fairly near where the slope almost reaches the crest of this formation closer to the west edge, well below its highest point. Having only been up here once, on that first trip 13 years ago, I didn’t remember everything about the area, but the one thing that still stuck in my mind was the sense of vertigo I felt when I reached the top where I could see over the other side. I decided to skip the last stretch to the top this time, but after some thought, Jim decided to give it a go. Unfortunately, the manzanitas were so thick, it was tough getting through them, and he gave up.

Merriam’s alumroot and monkeyflowers grow in a seep coming through the rocks.

When we arrived, a small brown butterfly kept eluding me by the road. When we returned to the road, I was surprised to see this pine elfin—presumably the same butterfly I saw earlier and much more cooperative this time. I rarely see them in this area, although they are common on the east side of the Cascades and farther south, where there are more true pines (Pinus spp.).

We headed back down, slowly and carefully. It’s a lot trickier going downhill on a steep slope than it is going up since it is a lot harder to see your feet, and your momentum is pulling you forward too fast. I think we were rather relieved to get back down to the woods. This time, instead of going down the way we came, we followed the base of the rock all the way to the east end above the road. There were some good plants along here—along with some poison oak since this is under 4000′. I found a small patch of the endemic spring phacelia (Phacelia verna) here before. I imagine there might have been more or they might have been more noticeable had it not been dry for a couple weeks. The Merriam’s alumroot was only in early bud, but it was as plentiful as I remember it. There were some gorgeous blooming cliff penstemon way above us, but most were just starting to bloom. There was also an abundance of the attractive rock fern indian dream (Aspidotis densa). We reached the end of the rock no problem. It took some thinking, and Jim and I each took different routes, but we were both able to get back down to the road along the edge of the trees without too much trouble.

Purple (or heartleaf) milkweed starting to bloom at Coal Creek Bluff. In the background are the rock formations of the west side of Staley Ridge.

We were both tired from the hard climbing, but the day was only half over, and I had also wanted to show Jim my special nearby spot that I named Coal Creek Bluff, which is just a mile to the east-southeast as the crow flies. We drove 4 miles back down the road (Road 2125 and 200 according to my USGS quad map or 201 on Google Maps) to the spur road 210 and drove down to my usual spot just before the road is bermed off. From there, we crossed a number of berms and creeks. We were prepared to get our feet wet crossing the final larger creek, but there were more rocks in the water after the Forest Service did some work while they were decommissioning the road, so we were able to traverse the rushing water without getting wet.

The late afternoon sun coming through the Menzies’ larkspurs made them glow like purple lights.

Coal Creek was still running well from all the melting snow coming down from the Calapooyas.

Upon arriving at the bluff, I was really happy to see the purple milkweed (Asclepias cordifolia) that I’d discovered here in 2017 was still doing well and just starting to bloom. I wandered around the south end photographing milkweed, frosted paintbrush (Castilleja pruinosa), Tolmie’s cat’s ear (Calochortus tolmiei), Sierra cliffbrake (Pellaea brachyptera), and other interesting plants while Jim took a short nap on the rocky but mossy ground. After he woke up, we headed across to the north end and down to the bottom of the bluff to see Coal Creek. The north-facing edge of the east-facing bluff stays a lot cooler and moister, and it was covered with stunning Menzies’ larkspur (Delphinium menziesii), along with Hall’s lomatium (Lomatium hallii) and large-flowered blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia grandiflora). Our knees were tired from the the steep climb up and down at Mosaic Rock, but I knew how floriferous it is down at the creek, and Jim had never seen it, so we couldn’t skip it. So late in the day, it was shady on the riverbank, but it was still beautiful, covered with rosy plectritis (Plectritis congesta), monkeyflowers (Erythranthe spp.), Marshall’s saxifrage (Micranthes marshallii), and Mertens’ saxifrage (Saxifraga mertensiana). It was definitely worth climbing down (and up) another steep slope and a pleasant way to end a great day.

A dipper was upstream a ways from me in the rushing waters of Coal Creek.

One Response to “Long-awaited Return to Mosaic Rock”

  • Leigh Blake:

    YES!!! Thank you!! Great hike!! And my husband does slow down and look…BUT the ROCK GARDENS!!! Wow!!! Exactly the areas I love and try to duplicate in our own garden!!! Love that Ouzel!!! I’m enjoyong your very BRILLIANT and Thrilling hpotos…on your hikes!!

    So glad you’re out exploring!!! When we can’t go…I count on you!!! Thank you Tanya!!

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