Veteran hiker Karen Sykes offers three of her favorite Washington wildflower hikes. The high-country wildflower season will peak in coming weeks.
It’s a bit like walking into a candy store on an empty stomach. Hikers know what I’m talking about. Flowers are popping out everywhere, so which trails are “best” for wildflower displays?
You can’t always depend on guidebooks for an answer. Flowers are on their own schedule, not ours. Hence, guidebooks can only suggest the best time for wildflower displays.
Flowers bloom as early as March on the east side of the Cascades; a good reason to head east when westside trails are snowbound. Trails near Leavenworth, Ellensburg, Yakima, Wenatchee and the Columbia Gorge are good for early-season flowers. The best time to experience the flowers on Mount Rainier is mid-to-late July; flowers were starting at Paradise and Sunrise last week.
Mountain meadows are so fragile that you can practically feel them flinch as you approach. Stay on established trails; if you must hike cross-country, step on rocks whenever possible. Tread especially carefully on the tundralike terrain of Burroughs Mountain in Mount Rainier National Park.
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Here are three favorite wildflower hikes you can try now.
On the Ingalls Creek trail, in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness off the Blewett Pass highway, flowers bloom spring through summer. The wildflowers are near their peak now. On a recent hike we saw sego (mariposa) lilies and the rare mountain lady’s slipper in addition to Indian paintbrush, mountain bluebells, tiger lilies and scarlet gilia.
Ingalls Creek is also a good hike. By early June hikers can usually get to Falls Creek camp at 6 miles. The trail is in good condition with gentle ups and downs; spurs invite leisurely lunch spots near the creek. The 15.5-mile trail eventually climbs to Stuart Pass (6,400 feet) and other spectacular destinations once snow melts.
Some of the finest wildflower displays we’ve seen are at Grand Park in Mount Rainier National Park.
There are two approaches: a trail from Sunrise that drops into Grand Park (uh oh, that means uphill on the way out). For a shorter hike with less gain you can also get there via the “backdoor” route from Highway 410 and Forest Road 73, a road that lives up to its reputation of gnarly. The hike begins in a forested stretch outside the park but enters the park almost immediately, passing Lake Eleanor (5,000 feet). The terrain gradually transitions from forest to meadows. By mid-July the meadows are a brilliant, shimmering sea of magenta paintbrush, Sitka valerian and lupine — with the added bonus of views of Mount Rainier. Silver snags with skirts of colorful mountain ash make this an excellent fall hike; look for blue gentians and asters in August as meadows transition from green to gold.
The bad news: When flowers are at their peak, so are mosquitoes. When we visited, the bugs were waiting for us at the trailhead and followed us into Grand Park. We hiked in rain gear and used up our insect repellent; some hikers resorted to head nets. Is battling mosquitoes too high a price to pay? We don’t think so — the photographs and memories of wildflower displays last much longer than mosquito bites. Prepare as best you can; don’t let bugs ruin the show.
Summer is ideal for wildflowers in the Teanaway, between Cle Elum and Leavenworth, though heat can be a factor by July. On a recent hike to Esmeralda Basin, about five miles southwest of Mount Stuart, purple shooting stars bordered the trail at lower elevations. Find them near streams and in boggy meadows. The trail continues through forest and meadows, eventually climbing through rocky, serpentine barrens toward Fortune Creek Pass with views of Esmeralda Peaks, Fortune Peak, Mount Daniel and more. At higher elevations we saw Western pasque flowers, Douglasia and spreading phlox.
Karen Sykes is a West Seattle-based freelance writer who regularly leads hikes for The Mountaineers. She is a co-author of “Best Wildflower Hikes: Washington” (The Mountaineers Books).