Saturday, June 27, 2015

Wildflower Hikes: Gordon Meadows

In the Old Cascades of Oregon, tucked against a shoulder of Soapgrass Mountain, a series of moist meadows offers one of the most spectacular wildflower displays in the state. Often passed by in favor of the more well-known spots, these meadows are not difficult to reach and the variety of spring blooms is unparalleled.

Two different trailheads give access to the meadows: the west trailhead off of FSR 2032 and the east trailhead off of FSR 230 (Latiwi Creek Road). This article focuses on the latter, a three-and-a-half-mile hike past two small mountain lakes.

Driving from Sweet Home, Latiwi Creek Road is 27 miles east on Highway 20. Those familiar with this highway will recognize it as the entrance road to House Rock Campground, a lovely riverside campground that is best suited to tents and small trailers. Once past the campground, pavement ends. It is well to remember that the Forest Service considers this a "good" road. It is, in fact, quite drive-able, but very narrow in places and accented with random potholes. It is also steep at times (learn from a certain author and gear down on your way out; otherwise, you may find yourself nursing badly overheated brakes). Follow the directions to a small spur road and the trailhead. Dispersed camping is possible here, but it is mainly just a wide spot at the end of the road.

Walk into the lush Oregon forest for about 1/4 mile and watch for the first lake on your left. A little further on, the second lake appears on your right. Dispersed camping is easier at the second lake, and campers also pitch their tents near the trail in this area. The easy hike makes these lakes an excellent choice for families, and it's a great place to pack in an inflatable boat. There are also rumors of cutthroat trout in the lakes, but we have not yet pursued them.

Watch for woodland flowers as you continue uphill through the woods. After about two miles past the lakes, start watching on your left for the meadows. These are not so much a specific destination as a series of spacious openings in the forest. Wander at will into the clearings and you will find that they are liberally sprinkled with a wide variety of wildflowers.

Some hikers camp near the meadows, but be aware that snow meltoff leaves the ground quite moist, and mosquitoes love the area, as well. The meadows are best enjoyed as a delightful day hike, with camping near the lakes or in a nearby campground.

While the relatively easy access might occasionally attract a rowdy group, most hikers are here for the flowers. Equestrians and even mountain bikers enjoy this trail, as well. Don't miss this beautiful place simply because it's off the beaten path. Bring your camera, and maybe an inflatable boat. You will be glad you did.

Photographer's note: I must have spent three to five minutes trying to get a picture of this. I thought that the red and yellow spider would really look superb set against the backdrop of the blue flower. However, said spider had just settled down to enjoy a recently acquired fly and was not about to have his meal disturbed by irritating photographers. What ensued was a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse, with me lining up the perfect shot only to have my subject scurry off to the far side of the flower. In the end, this was the best I was able to do, but I am still proud of this shot and its little story.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Wildflower Hikes: Iron Mountain

As Highway 20 writhes, snakelike, over Tombstone Summit on its way from Sweet Home to Sisters, observant travelers will notice a rugged peak with a "finger" pointing skyward. This peak is Iron Mountain, one of the stellar wildflower areas of the state; in fact, over 300 different species have been noted on its rocky slopes. Peak bloom time varies depending on snowmelt, but by early July the flowers are usually in full splendor and snow fields are confined to near the peak. This year (2015), however, snow pack is light and the flowers are blooming in June.

This short hike is not for the faint of heart, as it climbs nearly 1300 feet in a little over a mile and a half. The wildflowers begin almost immediately, though, and as the trail climbs, the species change and the views improve; photo stops are inevitable and give hikers an excuse to rest.

To find the most popular trailhead, drive 34 miles east of Sweet Home and turn right on Forest Road 15. A short road leads to a small parking lot. The trail begins in lush woodland, then heads up the mountainside.

Cone Peak
This is an out-and-back trail, but we have also done Iron Mountain as a loop with the Cone Peak trail. To find that trailhead, drive a little further to the Tombstone parking area. There is a small, moist meadow here known as Tombstone Prairie, itself known for its wildflowers. Walk along the edge of the meadow, cross the highway, and head uphill. This trail passes along a shoulder of Cone Peak and meets up with the Iron Mountain trail. After visiting the summit, descend on the Iron Mountain trail, then look for a tie trail to the Old Santiam Wagon Road, which will take you back to your car. While this route is several miles longer, it is less traveled and passes through more extensive wildflower areas.

Panorama from Cone Peak, Iron Mountain to the right
Another trailhead for Iron Mountain is accessible from Civil Road (FR 035), about 33 miles from Sweet Home. This approach reduces the length to one mile, but we have not taken that particular route. We invite comments from hikers who know this part of the trail.

However you may choose to reach the summit of Iron Mountain, you will be rewarded with breathtaking views in all directions. This was once the site of a fire lookout, and until recently the charred and twisted remains of the old building littered the mountaintop. Now the Forest Service has replaced the old lookout with a wooden viewing platform.

If You Go
Be prepared to pay a parking fee (currently $5) if you do not have a Northwest Forest Pass. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes and carry drinking water. Keep children and dogs under control, as this trail passes along some steep dropoffs. A walking stick can be helpful when crossing snowfields.

The closest camping is available at House Rock Campground to the west and Lost Prairie Campground to the east. Lost Prairie can accommodate trailers, but please note that individual camping is only available here when the campground is not reserved for groups. House Rock is best suited for tents and small campers.

This is a rewarding hike any time during the summer and fall. Hikers who miss the big spring show will enjoy the quieter trails of late summer and early fall, and the views are always well worth the climb.