Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Posts tagged “wildflowers

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!)


Mt. St. Helens: 40 Years Later

A field of red and purple flowers with a tent and mountain views in the background
A tall volcanic peak dotted with snow rises behind a field of bright red wildflowers

The volcanic cone of Mt. St. Helens rises above grassy slopes covered with scarlet paintbrush (Castilleja miniata).

This past May marked the 40th anniversary of one of the most significant natural disasters in U.S. history: the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. 2004 to 2008 brought another series of eruptions, but today Mt. St. Helens is quiet. Stratovolcanoes such as Mt. St. Helens generally provide some degree of warning (often in the form of earthquakes or surface deformation) before erupting. Given that Mt. St. Helens is one of the most closely monitored volcanoes in the U.S. (if not the world), the lack of activity in recent years has once again made the surrounding landscape a recreational destination.

The northeast side of Mt. St. Helens is just a few hours from our front door, accessed via a series of forest service roads that, while technically paved, are in such poor condition that one pines for the sweet rhythm of dirt washboards. Much of the land most directly affected by the 1980 eruption is protected as the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, established two years after the eruption. Camping and off-trail travel is restricted across a large swath of the monument to allow scientific study of how the landscape evolves post-eruption, with minimal human disturbance. Recently, we took a short backpacking trip to the northeast flank of the mountain, where camping is allowed, but where recurring volcanic activity has still left the landscape relatively devoid of tall vegetation. The result is spectacular views of Mt. St. Helens itself and the surrounding terrain (and, it turns out, any bright comets that happen to be gracing the skies.)

This was my third visit to the area but first in about 10 years. My previous visits had been in late summer and early fall, when the only wildflowers to speak of were some hardy stalks of late-blooming fireweed. On this visit, in early July, the grassy slopes of the lower mountain were awash in what can only be described as a riot of wildflowers. Paintbrush and penstemon dominated the scene, resulting in slopes that glowed red and purple from miles away and absolutely lit up at sunset and sunrise. It was truly one of the most spectacular wildflower displays I have ever seen!

A field of red and purple flowers with a tent and mountain views in the background

Scarlet paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) and Cardwell’s penstemon (Penstemon cardwellii) frame our campsite on a barren pumice slope on the northeast flank of Mt. St. Helens.

We settled on a campsite located on a small, barren ridge of pumice and ash where we could set up for the evening without impacting the gorgeous display all around us. Shortly thereafter, a handful of mountain goats came wandering through…with a good deal less regard for the wildflowers. While this was slightly concerning at first, as mountain goats can be aggressive, they seemed to be enjoying the buffet too much to notice our presence. We watched them slowly eat their way up-slope behind our campsite for well over an hour (as we somewhat nervously heated up our cans of soup and baked beans, while hoping that they continued to find the scent of the penstemon more attractive) before they finally bedded down on a distant ridge for the evening.

A mountain goat grazes a field of bright purple and red flowers

A mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus) is paralyzed by indecision while looking at the wide array of tasty offerings, Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Washington. 

Two mountain goats graze a field of bright purple and red flowers

“The paintbrush looks tasty!” 

A mountain goat grazes a field of bright purple and red flowers

Mountain goats, Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Washington

A white mountain goat looks out over the lower slopes of a volcanic peak

A mountain goat surveys the lower, barren slopes of Mt. St. Helens.

On just a few hours of sleep, we hiked back out to our car the next morning and enjoyed some day hikes to the north of Mt. St. Helens over the next two days. This area provides the best vantage point for viewing the effects of the 1980 eruption. The blast reduced the elevation of Mt. St. Helens by over 1,000 feet, replacing the formerly sharp summit with a massive crater. Part of the crater has since been filled in by a lava dome extruded in the months following the eruption, and again during the eruptive sequence of 2004-2008. Another dramatic feature of the landscape is Spirit Lake. This once idyllic destination was directly in the path of the eruption on May 18, 1980. The massive landslide associated with the eruption filled in a large portion of the lake with debris, pushing the entire lake northward and raising the water level by about 200 feet, burying numerous buildings, camps, and, unfortunately, Mt. St. Helens Lodge owner Harry Truman, who had steadfastly ignored evacuation orders in the weeks leading up to the eruption. To this day, a massive raft of logs floats on the lake surface, the remains of trees uprooted in the 1980 eruption.

A volcanic cone rises behind a lake covered with floating logs

Mt. St. Helens from Bear Pass. In the foreground is Spirit Lake, covered with floating logs: the remains of trees uprooted by the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens and washed into the lake.

Thousands of logs float on the surface of a high mountain lake

The log raft as seen from lake level at the end of the Harmony Trail, the only legal access to the shore of Spirit Lake.

As a geologist, I find the landscape around Mt. St. Helens endlessly fascinating. Changes since my last visit 10 years ago were clearly visible in many places. Mt. St. Helens is the most active of the Cascade volcanoes and will certainly erupt again. Perhaps nowhere is it more clear that the current configuration of the Earth’s surface is ultimately temporary.


Wildflowers in the Foothills

Brown and yellow spotted bell shaped flower on the forest floor
Brown and yellow spotted bell shaped flower on the forest floor

Chocolate Lily (Fritillaria affinis), Teanaway Community Forest, Washington

Today was our first 90 degree day, so I can confidently say that summer has arrived here in Central Washington. As Washington slowly begins to relax stay-at-home restrictions, the last few weekends have brought our first few forays into the mountains since early this year. We’ve deliberately avoided  highly visited areas, which in Washington is basically synonymous with “trails with views”. The highlight of these excursions instead has been the wildflowers, which are currently in full bloom at elevations between about 2000 and 4000 feet. With higher elevations still buried in snow, the off-the-beaten path trails in the Cascade foothills are the sweet spot right now:

Large three petaled pink flowers with very large leaves

Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum), Teanaway Community Forest, Washington

Purple-pea shaped flowers with whorled leaves holding small droplets of water

Lupine, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington

Six petaled yellow flowing hanging downward on the forest floor

Glacier Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum), Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington

Blue-purple flower on the forest floor with water droplets

Oregon Anemone (Anemone oregana), Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington

Bright pink uniquely shaped flowers on the forest floor

Fairy slipper (Calypso bulbosa), Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington

Pink and deep red flowers hanging from a shrubby plant

Gummy gooseberry (Ribes lobbii), Teanaway Community Forest, Washington

Brown mushroom on forest floor with deep cavities

Morel mushroom, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington

Small green frog on the forests floor with black stripe across its face

Pacific tree frog (Pseudacris regilla),which, oddly enough, lives in the ground