Hi everyone, here’s a posting with photos of a hike we took on Memorial Day. One of my passions is wildflowers and I’m puzzling my way through learning more of the sagebrush steppe plants and flowers. Our destination was Chimney Rock above the Crooked River in Central Oregon. The trail was sand and rocks, steep in places, and the weather was not too hot. The distance (round-trip) was somewhere between 2.5 and four miles and the elevation gain about 500 feet. It took us just over two hours, without hurrying.
Before starting up the hill, we watched the cliff swallows swooping above the Crooked River and feeding their chicks housed in mud daub nests.
Across the highway from the river, the trail begins with switchbacks then trends upward through a narrow valley. The most obvious vegetation is juniper and sagebrush but there is much more. The rocks and cliffs are basalt–volcanic origin–which the Crooked River cut through (over a very long time).
The clouds kept the day cool and the shadows at bay — good weather for hiking and photographing.
Unlike rainy climates where the hills and meadows have a lush verdancy, the sagebrush steppe is arid and along the Chimney Rock trail you notice a lot of rocks. Certainly the rocks are as much the landscape as the plants.
As we hiked upwards into the narrow valley, the vegetation became denser and sometimes quite aromatic, especially the scent of juniper and sage. We lost the sound of cars on the highway which made an aural space that was filled with the high-pitched trilling of crickets (or cicadas), a constant sound not easily forgotten.
Even in the dry steppe, there is color, like the startling green of lichen splayed across a dead branch.
Hiking on a new trail is a chance to piece together–as in make sense of–a pattern of shapes and textures, colors and smells. Consider the familiar and what you hope to learn more about. I am fascinated by the open space between plants, the pattern of rocks and grass. Death Camas, always a plant I notice, because it’s poisonous, because I learned that from my Dad, when I was young.
I expect to recognize plants with a wide range, especially those I encountered in Alaska but others are new to me, and so quite exciting, like the desert buckwheat:
Emerging above the narrow valley, you get a view of where a waterfall would be if there was water.
Rocky dry slopes. We did not see any snakes.
The trail climbs with a few more switchbacks then curves around the ridge until you see Chimney Rock in the distance.
Red! A beacon for insects!
A lizard I am quite certain is a Western Fence Lizard not a Sagebrush Lizard (Amphibians and Reptiles of Oregon web site). Notice the great camouflage!
I grew up around sagebrush but this is the first time I have seen Purple Sage. Indeed, sage (actually in the mint family) with purple flowers.
Besides the view of Chimney Rock, the trail along the high ridge offered panoramas of the Crooked River and deeply etched landscape.
Paying attention to the tiniest details, the hole in this photo is the entrance to the subterranean residence (home, house, cave, palace, place) of red ants. Consider this the view you have walking along the trail. There are at least ten red ants visible in the photo.
Bitterroot is a surprising plant, one you won’t soon forget if you happen to encounter it blooming. There are no obvious leaves at this stage and it seems to have heaved its way up out of the hard soil and unfolded a glorious flower which is well adapted to desert survival, having a large root to store water. Bitterroot has been a source of food for indigenous peoples. The genus (Lewisia) was named after Captain Meriwether Lewis.
For your patience with the photo of small stones and red ants, here is a close-up of the lovely Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva), some were pale others a startling shade of fuschia.
The surprises! A fern which would have been as easy to miss as the little red ants. How does a fern survive in the desert? Perhaps, growing quickly in the spring and then going dormant when the weather gets hot?
There are many penstemons. Several pages worth in the plant books. Penstemon is clearly another plant that ekes a living from the rocky landscape. The question is: why is nothing else growing here? Does the small penstemon consume all the resources? Or is the penstemon so frugal that it survives where nothing else can? Or perhaps in a week or a month everything will have changed.
Scat. Coyote, perhaps. Bones, and what looks to me like a bird skull with beak. Comments, anyone? I am working on my Oregon Master Naturalist credentials and find the minutiae of the trail to be fascinating.
For the curious, here’s a zoomed in view of the scat and bones:
Along the Chimney Rock Trail, we had many views of lichen, from the a fake-seeming green plastered across the rocky faces of cliffs, to the longer-branched lichen on dead limbs, to various hues and patterns on boulders along the trail.
Comments anyone? Suggestions? Corrections? Plant names? Thanks for visiting!
Great Basin Wildflowers. Laird R Blackwell. A Falcon Guide (2006).
Wildflowers 2, Sagebrush Country. Ronald J Taylor and Rolf W Valum. The Touochstone Press. Beaverton, Oregon (1974).
Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest. Mark Turner and Phyllis Gustafson. Timber Press Field Guide (2006).
Photos: Katie Eberhart (5/28/2012).