Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

wildflowers

Looking back at Spring

A backpacker looks out an at orange sunset sky while standing on a rocky mesa covered in wildflowers

Spring is my favorite season here in central Washington. Our winters, while short and relatively mild in terms of snowfall and temperatures, can be quite dreary. Temperature inversions, freezing fog, and bad air quality are a staple of our weather forecasts from November to February. Summers can be brutally hot: the third digit on my home weather station spends quite a bit of time illuminated from June through August. While conditions in the Cascades are more tolerable, here in the arid sagebrush-steppe of the Yakima Valley, shade trees are found only along rivers and in watered urban backyards.

Spring holds the perfect balance: the days get progressively longer, conditions are perfect for outdoor exploring, and, as an added bonus, foothills of the Cascades come alive with wildflowers (one of my favorite photographic subjects the past few years.) Fall has its merits as well, but the with the onset of winter occupying the back of ones mind, the urge to get outside before the snow starts falling can feel almost stressful compared to the relaxed bliss of spring.

Here are some of my favorite photos from this past spring, from March’s vernal equinox up through June’s summer solstice:

A cluster of pink wildflowers with sun shining through the petals
A cluster of grass widows (Olsynium douglasii) backlit by the sun, Cowiche Canyon Preserve, Yakima, WA
Cluster of bright yellow sunflower-like flowers on a grassy slope
Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) plants cover a dry slope near Chelan, WA
A rocky ridge with forest on both sides. The forest on the right has been burned by a wildfire, while the trees on the left remain green.
A rocky ridge in the William O. Douglas Wilderness separates burned from unburned forest. The 2021 Schneider Springs Fire was ignited by lightning on the ridge in the upper right, and proceeded to burn 107,000 acres in the Cascade foothills west of Yakima.
Slender green stalks bearing tiny white flowers grow out of gray and black burned soil, with charcoal logs and an orange sunset sky in the background
Foothill death camas (Toxicoscordion paniculatum) plants emerge from ashy soil in an area burned by the Schneider Springs fire in 2021.
A backpacker looks out an at orange sunset sky while standing on a rocky mesa covered in wildflowers
A top-notch sunset from a wildflower-strewn plateau in the William O. Douglas Wilderness west of Yakima.
A clump of pine trees appear silhouetted against an orange sunset sky.
Scorched ponderosa pine trees silhouetted against an orange sunset sky.
City lights are seen reflected in a lake, while the light of a campfire illuminates trees along the shore.
Night on the shores of Lake Chelan, WA
A sea of yellow canola flowers fills the landscape beneath a partly cloudy sky
Blooming canola fields near Wilbur, WA
A trio of pale blue flowers nearly blend in against a partly cloudy sky
A trio of blue flax (Linum lewisii) flowers nearly blend in against a partly cloudy sky, Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, WA
Cluster of cream white, purple, and yellow wildflowers
Thompsons paintbrush (Castilleja thompsonii) and Gairdner’s penstemon (Penstemon gairdneri) on Manastash Ridge, WA
Cluster of bright pink wildflowers at the base of a scraggly woody plant
A cluster of bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) flowers beneath a gnarled sagebrush stem, Cowiche Mountain, WA

More Spring Wildflowers (this time with spines!)

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A clump of hedgehog cacti (Pediocactus nigrispinus) blooming in the deserts of central Washington

One of our favorite times of year when living in southern Utah was late spring, when the desert would come alive with a wide variety of vibrantly colored cactus blossoms (which were soon followed by delicious fruits that made superb sauces, beer, and margaritas!) Central Washington is a bit lacking in the cacti-department, but we do actually have a few species that can put on a springtime show if you know where to look. 

The most widespread species is the Columbia Prickly Pear (Opuntia columbiana), however I’ve yet to see any flowers. I am beginning to suspect that this species blooms only in certain years with the proper moisture conditions, though I haven’t been able to confirm this. 

Another species, a variety of hedgehog cactus (Pediocactus nigrispinus), is harder to find, but quite reminiscent of the stout barrel cacti of Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. Once more common in central Washington, Pediocactus nigrispinus has sadly been the target of illegal collecting and poaching, reducing its numbers to the point that it is now a threatened species here in Washington. We’ve run across patches of this cactus on two recent hikes, and the second time we were delighted to find many of the buds in bloom. This little cactus, robust but generally no more than a few inches high, has electric-pink flowers that really stand out, even when surrounded by tons of other spring flowers on the sagebrush steppe.  

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A hedgehog cactus (Pediocactus nigrispinus) blooming in the deserts of central Washington

And for good measure, a few other flowers from recent excursions:

Large yellow flowers in the sunshine

Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sp.) flowers in the Yakima River Canyon of central Washington. 

 

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Low-growing lupine (Lupinus sp.) in the Yakima River Canyon of central Washington. 

 

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Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sp.) flowers at Steamboat Rock State Park in central Washington. 

Tips on identifying specific balsamroot or lupine species are welcome! There seem to be dozens of different varieties out here, but I sure as heck can’t tell them apart…


Wildflowers and Waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge

A trio of bright pink rocket-shaped wildflowers are seen in front of grasses and a yellow wildflower.

A broad river sits at the bottom of a green valley

Looking east along the Columbia River Gorge toward The Dalles on an alternately sunny & rainy March afternoon. 

In the home stretch of its more than 1,000 mile-long journey from the Canadian Rockies to the Pacific Ocean, the Columbia River has carved a spectacular canyon that now forms the border between Oregon and Washington: the Columbia River Gorge. Nearly 100 miles in length, the Columbia River Gorge is one of the most unique landscapes in the Pacific Northwest, and home to some spectacular geology. Most of the gorge is carved into the Columbia River Basalts, layers upon layers of volcanic rock formed by vast lava flows that inundated most of central and eastern Washington about 16 million years ago. More recently, a series of large glacial outburst floods at the end of the last ice age broadened and re-shaped the gorge as they raged their way down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean, creating many of the landforms that we see today.

By the time the Columbia River enters the gorge, its elevation has already dropped to just 160 feet above sea level. The low elevation of the gorge makes it one of the warmest areas in the Pacific Northwest, and a prime destination for some early season camping. We recently spent three days in the Columbia River Gorge soaking up what passes for balmy weather this time of year around here.

A large river sits at the bottom of a broad, deep gorge.

An early spring view of the eastern Columbia River Gorge from Rowena Crest Overlook on the Oregon side of the gorge. 

A streak of headlights illuminates a winding mountain road with stars overhead.

Motorcycle headlights illuminate the sweeping curves of the Historic Columbia River Highway just below Rowena Crest. The constellation of Canis Major sits just above the horizon. While the historic highway has been largely replaced by the much less charismatic I-84, large portions remain as backroads or hiking trails.

Two of the main attractions in the Columbia River Gorge are wildflowers and waterfalls. Even now, in mid-to-late March, the wildflower show was already in full swing, particularly in the drier, warmer, eastern reaches of the gorge:

A trio of bright pink rocket-shaped wildflowers are seen in front of grasses and a yellow wildflower.

Shooting stars (Dodecatheon sp.) are among the early blooming wildflowers in the eastern Columbia River Gorge. A yellow fritillary (Fritillaria pudica) lurks in the background.

A patch of bright pink flowers at the base of a low, rounded hill

Grass widows (Olsynium douglasii) are some of the earliest wildflowers to bloom in large numbers in the eastern Columbia River Gorge.

A cluster of bright pink flowers in a grassy field next to a rock.

More grass widows…

A cluster of bright pink flowers in the middle of a hiking trail.

Most grass widows are a vibrant pinkish purple color, but white petals are also found here and there. 

A few clusters of small yellow flowers sit on a rock with a river and gorge in the background.

Pungent desert parsley (Lomatium grayi) at Horsethief Butte. 

One of the most remarkable sights in the Columbia River Gorge is experiencing the rapid change in environment as you drive through the gorge from east to west. The Dalles, located near the eastern end of the gorge, lies in the rain shadow of the Cascade Range and receives very little precipitation: just 14 inches annually. Here, the rocky slopes of the gorge are nearly devoid of any vegetation other than wildflowers and grasses. Just half an hour and a handful of freeway exists to the west, the average annual precipitation has increased to about 30 inches at Hood River, and ponderosa pine and Douglas fir cover the slopes. 20 more miles/minutes to the west, at Cascade Locks, annual precipitation rises to over 75 inches and the gorge is filled with the dense, shady, and mossy forests typically associated with the Pacific Northwest. In other words, you can travel from a true desert to a near-rainforest in less than an hour, while driving on a nearly flat interstate that hugs the shore of massive reservoirs created by dams along the lower Columbia River.

A cluster of large, yellow, daisy-like flowers sits next to a boulder at the base of a tall cliff of brown rocks.

Large clusters of balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sp.) were beginning to flower in some of the drier, eastern parts of the Gorge, like these at Horsethief Butte.

Fungus and moss grows on a rotten log on the forest floor

An unknown species of fungus shares a decaying log with some moss. Scenes like this are common in the wetter, western half of the Columbia River Gorge.

The combination of dramatic terrain and copious precipitation at the western end of the Columbia River Gorge (particularly on the more mountainous Oregon side) combines to form some of the most spectacular waterfalls in the United States. As the aforementioned ice age floods flowed through the gorge on their way to the Pacific, they removed the lower ends of valleys belonging to the Columbia’s many tributary streams. Consequently, many of these tributaries enter the gorge several hundred feet above river level, terminating in spectacular plunges that carry their water into the Columbia River:

A thin waterfall plunges from a cliff of volcanic rock and covered in bright green mosses.

Latourell Falls plunges over a cliff of columnar basalt at the western end of the Columbia River Gorge, not far from Portland. This photo is a bit blurry; the trails to several of these waterfalls were busy, even on a somewhat chilly Tuesday in March, making it hard to set up a tripod for a steady shot. 

A thin, tall waterfall plunges off of a cliff into a pool.

Elowah Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon. This shady alcove was heavily burned in the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017, but is already showing signs of re-growth. 

A waterfall and cascade flows through a verdant forest as a hiker looks on.

Starvation Creek Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

A waterfall and cascade flows through a verdant forest.

Starvation Creek Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

Let’s be clear: with temperatures in the 40s and 50s and the nearly constant winds that blow through the gorge, it was no spring break in Florida, but after a long winter and with the Cascades still buried in snow for several more months, the greenery and signs of spring were a welcome sight. (Even though we did have our tent totally chewed up by an unknown animal…a first for us in many, many nights of camping throughout the west!)