A Blooming Spectacle at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park


I kept my eyes open throughout Death Valley for signs of wildflowers. It was one reason why we wanted to visit. Last year, the national park experienced a superbloom that happens once in a blue moon because of specific environmental conditions. It’s not enough that California got literally drenched this January and February, a record downpour that broke a years-long drought, certainly grounds for optimism. A park ranger told me that a good rain in October is a prerequisite for a great flower display. One that happened in October 2015 led to the superbloom of 2016, only rivaled before then in 2005. It didn’t happen this year. Flowers were barely to be seen anywhere. Big disappointment, to say the least, but of course Death Valley has much more to offer than flowers.

Meanwhile, the internet was abuzz with reports that Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, located northeast of San Diego near the Mexican border, was in fact experiencing a superbloom unrivalled in years. DesertUSA, which reports on Southwest wildflower displays, gave Anza-Borrego an almost perfect ’10’ rating, while Death Valley managed only a ‘4’ during the same time. That pretty much settled it. I saw this as an opportunity not to be passed up. My wife and I decided to make an unplanned visit, with an overnight stay in Borrego Springs (which I was very lucky to get as there were no other vacancies anywhere).

We weren’t let down this time. The timing couldn’t have been better; the flowers were barely beginning to fade.

We entered the park through Montezuma Valley Road (S22) on the west side. Intending to go to the visitor center, I made a wrong turn onto Hwy 78 toward Tamarisk Grove Campground when we came across hillsides covered in brilliant yellow brittlebush, hummingbird bushocotillo and a few less conspicuous. The moment was breathtaking, as it was for other passersby who likewise gawked.

A fellow visitor informed us that a herd of bighorn sheep was seen at the ranger station down the road. It was pointless to jump in the car; the animals would have long been gone by the time we got there.

We continued on Hwy 78. Across from the campground, we spotted some flowering cacti, parked the car and hiked the mile-long cactus loop trail. While the peak flowering month for the spiny plants is April, there was already plenty to see then (March 23).

A crowd was already overwhelming the visitor center, even on a weekday. I read that the past weekend was much worse with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Word got out that Anza-Borrego was exploding with flowers. A volunteer was handing out a map that identified the best spots for wildflower-viewing. At the rear of the building, a garden with walking paths had many specimens. I wish I’d spent more time there.

In the valley surrounding Borrego Springs, different flowers were popping up along the roadsides. In normal years, these would be easy to overlook but this year their abundance was hard to ignore: evening primroses, sand verbenas, lupines and desert sunflowers.

The field of desert sunflowers along Henderson Canyon Road, in particular, was unusual in another respect: they were crawling with sphinx moth caterpillars in such numbers that I had to be careful where I stepped. These weren’t little critters either, but big, fat ones, easily 3-4″ long.

Sphinx moth caterpillars

Our final outing was a hike up into the hills of Palm Canyon where the concentration of brittlebush was as plentiful as the first encounter along Hwy 78. The hills were awash in yellow, with excellent specimens of ocotillo, agave and cacti for variety. The ocotillo here were more richly tipped with their red flowers than elsewhere in the park.

Brittlebush

As harsh as the Mojave Desert can be, there is a rich life of plants and animals. It takes the right conditions to see them. Once in a long while, I get lucky and catch a rare glimpse of something special like a wildflower superbloom that I may never experience again.

Desert iguana

Desert iguana

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Seward Park: Seattle’s Great Urban Walk


It’s not so easy to find old-growth forest within Seattle city limits anymore, yet Seward Park has the Magnificent Forest featuring evergreen trees aged 200 years or more. The park was designed by the famous Olmstead brothers and remains a wonderful legacy of a time when city officials saw fit to set aside forested areas for public enjoyment. It occupies all of Bailey Peninsula that juts out into Lake Washington.

At this time of year, what strikes you more than the tall trees are the kwanzan flowering cherries that were blossoming throughout the park. My wife and I saw them almost immediately on the first trail we took and along the park’s periphery. A spectacular stand is located in the amphitheater area.

kwanzancherries

Kwanzan cherry trees (click to enlarge)

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A network of footpaths winds through the park, a walker’s paradise when you consider that much of the park is inaccessible to motor vehicles. Over its 277 acres, trails diverge and connect, signposts clearly marking their names and distances. We were never far from the park’s edge no matter which path we took; they all eventually connect to the paved 2.4-mile walking and biking path that encircle the park. Walking along here reminded us of the Seawall trail around Stanley Park in Vancouver with its similar surroundings of water on one side and forest on the other though not as spectacular.

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The forest understory was carpeted with the usual native plants, including lots of huckleberry shrubs. New-growth licorice ferns were unfurling their fronds. Grassy areas showed signs of spring, too. It looked as though the flowers blanketing them were just ‘weeds,’ but a closer look revealed tiny wildflowers, including pinkish-white, sometimes reddish asters.

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douglas aster

Douglas’ aster (Aster subspicatus)

licorice fern

Licorice fern

Seward Park is an urban oasis that we need to visit more often.

 

The Hiking Trails and Wildflowers Around Sun Mountain Lodge


The first time my wife and I stayed at Sun Mountain Lodge over a decade ago, there were abundant wildflowers on the trails nearby. In spots, they were so profuse that the ground was covered with them. It was an experience that stayed in my memory, one only matched by the wildflower displays on the Big Quilcene trail in Olympic National Forest and in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Over a month ago, I planned our current arrival for an estimated peak flower display in mid-May, a few weeks earlier than normal because of this winter’s low snowpack and unseasonably warm weather recently. When we arrived on Monday afternoon, I was a little let down when the receptionist informed me that the flowers had blossomed earlier and the best show was behind us. Not to worry though because there was still plenty to see.

The lodge maintains an extensive network of trails, approximately 40 miles in total, with the help of the Forest Service and other organizations. A free handout of the trail system is available at the front desk, the Activities Center and here. If you plan on taking any of these, the Activities Center is a good source of information, where the staff will tell you where the best wildflower viewing is on any given day.

The Kraule Trail is splendid for breathtaking views of the mountains and valleys that conjure up European alpine scenery.

alpine scenery

Because of the relative shade along this trail, I was informed that there would be a better chance to see flowers that haven’t yet begun to disappear, unlike Sunnyside Trail that is mostly exposed to full sun.  The yellow, showy arrowleaf balsamroots were already dying down almost everywhere, but there were plenty of lupines to admire. Aside from these two which comprise the most prolific flowers, there were many less conspicuous, more sparsely scattered ones that revealed themselves if you looked closely.

We took Sunnyside early next morning to take advantage of the cooler temperatures. Almost right away, a vast field of meadow death camas greeted us alongside a stand of birch trees.

Meadow death camas

Meadow death camas

Sunnyside and the parallel View Ridge Trail afford the best view of Patterson Lake. The trail continues for a distance with very few stands of trees, although as we got closer to the Hough Homestead (where outdoor breakfasts or dinners are held during horseback tours), the tree cover population thickened and along with it, scores of dive-bombing mosquitoes. These pests are commonplace in the forested areas here, so repellent or tenacity is advisable. Repellent can be purchased at the Activities Center.

Patterson Lake

Patterson Lake

After reaching the Homestead, we turned around and took Yellow Jacket Trail back to the lodge. Without question, this was our favorite; it had more profuse wildflowers than any other trail. Not only were the balsamroots and lupines abundant, not to mention Indian paintbrushes, but we came across small gems like the rare and tiny calypso orchid, no more than 2-3″ tall, and old man’s whiskers, which look like tiny upside-down tulips.

Indian paintbrush

Indian paintbrush

Arrowleaf balsamroot

Yellow Jacket connects to Rodeo Trail that skirts the edge of Beaver Pond.

Beaver Pond

Beaver Pond

We’ve never taken any of the more challenging trails, but doubtless that the ones at higher elevation, such as Thompson Ridge Road that rises to 3,600ft, would have their own treasures.

The following is a gallery of some of the flowers we saw on all the trails combined.

Hiking in the Cougar Mountain Regional Park (WA)


The greater Seattle area—as a matter of fact, the entire western Pacific Northwest—has been basking in sunshine since late last week, and is expected to continue to do so through the next. I can’t ever recall sunny skies with temperatures in the 70s-80s this early in May and for such an extended period. The inevitable rains will come as a big disappointment. What better way to celebrate the sunshine than to go outside. My wife and I decided to go for a hike.

There are many urban hiking trails on the Eastside (a general area east of Lake Washington which separates it from Seattle), but none more unspoiled and wild than the 3,100-acre Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park, which is bordered by the cities of Bellevue, Issaquah and Newcastle and by Squak Mountain. The nice thing is that the park is about 15 minutes away from our house. There are 47 miles of hiking trails which feature wetlands, streams and forests. It would be easy to get lost in this vast maze were it not for the efforts of King County with the help of the Issaquah Alps Trail Club to signpost the 50 designated trails. We hiked almost 4 hours through mature second-growth forest, crossing several streams in the process and admiring the awakening of spring. The wildflower show included the western trillium, Pacific bleeding heart, western spring beauty, salmonberry, wild strawberry and Oregon grape. I didn’t realize until today that the Pacific bleeding heart was so abundant in the wild; they were everywhere. It was fascinating also to look at the fiddleheads of the sworn ferns as they were in the process of unwinding, forming curious hairpin shapes.

Besides deer and raccoons, Cougar Mountain is also a haven for black bears, bobcats and, of course, cougars. We didn’t come across any, not really sure what we’d have done if we did.

There will be more hikes for us here in the future. We’ve barely tapped the extensive, interconnecting trail system.

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Big Quilcene Trail, Olympic National Forest (WA)


One of the great hikes for wildflower viewing is in my own backyard, on the east side of the Olympic peninsula, part of Olympic National Forest. The Big Quilcene River Trail climbs 3,500 ft in a little over 5 miles, past old growth forest of hemlock and Western red cedar, yellow cedar and subalpine fir. The scenery changes from dense, old-growth forest, alpine meadows and scree-littered hillsides as you ascend to tree-less Marmot Pass where spectacular views of the Hood Canal, Puget Sound and the Cascades will be the reward. While the hike is supremely worthwhile for these alone, it’s when the wildflowers bloom in July after snowmelt that the hike takes on a more splendid character. But, be forewarned that the trail at this time of year is muddy for much of the way and negotiating the exposed tree roots and slick soil will be a challenge. You’ll expend more energy just trying to stay on drier ground. We were glad we took along hiking poles.

Those who enjoy photographing flowers (like I do) will find many subjects. There seems to be a convergence of late spring and early summer flowers because of the delayed thaw. It was an all-day hike. We started at around 10:30am and didn’t get back to the parking lot until 7:30pm. By then, we had probably hyperextended our out-of-condition muscles. But, what a unforgettable time we had.

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Wildflowers of the Great Smoky Mountains (NC)


I was surprised to learn that the Great Smoky Mountains have the most species of wildflowers of any place in North America. There are reportedly over 1,500 that bloom year-round, and all you have to do is take one of the many trails in the park to view them. Because my wife’s cousin and her husband live in Asheville, they take many of those hikes. They have become experts at identifying them and knowing what time of year the various flowers blossom. Since we were visiting them, they were happy to take us on a few trails.

Since we arrived in late April/early May, the literature points out that this is the time for what are called spring ephemerals, flowers that blossom as early as late winter and into early spring before the deciduous trees overhead leaf out, lasting only a month or two before they die.

The following are photographs that were taken on two separate hikes.

Western Azalea


One of the glorious native shrubs that grows along the coasts of California and Oregon is the western azalea. It is really not an azalea, but rather a rhododendron, a deciduous one at that. When in bloom, the shrub is very prolific. Since it was late spring, our road trip coincided with its peak blossoming period. We didn’t plan to seek it out, but as we pulled into Prairie Creek State Park, we noticed a number of them just outside the visitors’ center. As we approached, we caught their characteristic heady perfume well before we got a closer look at the flowers. It was an unexpected treat.

Azalea shrub outside the park visitors’ center