After a spring of heavy, late snow in Washington's mountains, many wildflower meadows are still under snow. Veteran hike leader Karen Sykes offers this list of five Cascade mountain hikes accessible now, with good wildflowers.
Sometimes hikers may find it hard to choose between finishing a hike and identifying wildflowers — recently we identified 44 wildflowers but didn’t have time to finish the hike! That was a hard choice.
Following a trail through a meadow of knee-high flowers is an experience hard to capture in words. Our senses come alive — the combination of flowers, some blowzy, others dainty, their scents mingled with pungent evergreens, the tense silence before a thunderstorm, the smell of dust just after it has rained, the small-talk of hidden birds.
However this has been a strange year, with heavy spring snow making it a challenge this summer to find snow-free trails with wildflower displays. (Wildflowers, like most of us, prefer sun and warmth.) In Mount Rainier National Park, probably our state’s best-known destination for wildflower viewing, almost 7 feet of snow still covers meadows and trails at Paradise, where wildflowers aren’t expected until mid-August at the earliest. At Sunrise, another of the park’s drive-to flower havens, the slow meltout is patchy, with only the Mount Fremont Lookout Trail being snow-free earlier this week.
Janet Killam, interpretive ranger at the Sunrise Visitor Center, believes the best wildflower displays at Sunrise will occur around mid-August, but cautioned, “Some trails, like the Burroughs Mountain trail, might not even melt out this season.” In mid-July only Western pasqueflower and glacier lilies were blooming at the visitor center and along the Sunrise road.
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While you wait for snow to melt at Paradise and Sunrise, here are five wildflower hikes where you won’t need an ice ax:
Boulder-DeRoux trail: Flowers are fading in most places east of the mountains but just getting off to a good start along some trails in the Teanaway district (the Teanaway is close to the Cascade crest, where snow is melting later than further east).
As the trail enters pine forest, it’s lined with yellow violets, vanilla leaf, arnica and columbine. At four miles the trail descends to DeRoux Creek — ford it or cross on a log. Get there any way you can — the meadows there are a lavender haze of shooting stars. While some campsites at popular Gallagher Head Lake are still under snow, where it has melted the ground is carpeted with glacier lilies. Strong hikers can make a loop via the Esmeralda Basin trail. Look for bead lily, stream violets, shooting stars, Indian paintbrush, lupine, glacier lilies and more.
Stats: About 8.5 miles round-trip to Gallagher Head Lake, with 2,100-foot elevation gain.
Map: Green Trails Mount Stuart, No. 209
Getting there: From eastbound Interstate 90 east of Cle Elum, take Exit 85. Cross over the freeway and turn right onto Highway 970. Continue six miles; turn left on North Fork Teanaway Road and go to the end of pavement (13 miles). Turn right on Forest Service Road 9737; continue eight miles, turn left onto spur to trailhead. Northwest Forest Pass required.
Information: Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Cle Elum District, 509-852-1100; www.fs.fed.us/r6/oka/recreation.
Stevens Pass area
Rock Mountain: This steep trail is best-suited for strong hikers. On a visit in June, views and wildflowers were plentiful from trailhead to snowline (then 4,800 feet). The trail is so open, with views from bottom to top, that hikers can call any point a satisfying turnaround — or, as snow recedes, continue to Rock Lake (6,000 feet) and/or Rock Mountain at 6,852 feet (site of a fire lookout) for a different mix of wildflowers and views. Look for lupine, Indian paintbrush, penstemon, phlox and more.
Stats: From trailhead to Rock Lake, 9.5 miles round-trip, with 3,625-foot elevation gain. To the summit, about 10.5 miles round-trip; 4,000-foot gain.
Map: Green Trails No. 145, Wenatchee Lake
Getting there: From Stevens Pass continue east on U.S. Highway 2 (8.5 miles). Beyond Milepost 73, turn left on spur road, cross westbound Highway 2 to trailhead parking. No Northwest Forest Pass required.
Information: Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Leavenworth district, 509-548-6977; www.fs.fed.us/r6/oka/recreation.
Sauk Mountain: Update 7/30/11 12:24 p.m.: The U.S. Forest Service is reporting that snow on the trail is preventing public access. Last summer we celebrated birthdays on Sauk Mountain and hiked wearing birthday-party hats. Another reason to celebrate: This is one of the best wildflower hikes in the North Cascades, and suitable for most everyone in the family. The trail has 26 switchbacks but you won’t be counting — there are too many flowers and views on the way to the summit (a lookout site), at 5,537 feet.
At 1.5 miles stay straight at a junction — the right fork descends to Sauk Lake. Wildflowers start from the trailhead and don’t stop. Neither do views: Mount Rainier, San Juan Islands, other North Cascade peaks. Flowers: hellebore, Indian paintbrush, tiger lilies, lupine, valerian, heather and more.
Stats: Four miles round-trip, with 1,235-foot elevation gain.
Map: Green Trails No. 46, Lake Shannon
Getting there: From Sedro-Woolley, follow State Route 20 east 32 miles. At Milepost 96, near Rockport State Park, turn left on Sauk Mountain Road (Forest Service Road 1030). Continue on Road 1030 seven miles to the junction of Road 1036. Turn right on 1036 and continue to road’s end. Northwest Forest Pass required.
Information: Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Mount Baker district, 360-856-5700; www.fs.fed.us/r6/mbs.
Snoqualmie Pass area
Ira Spring Trail: Here’s one closer to Seattle. Hike through restful forest to the Mason Lake/Bandera junction. Mason Lake is family-friendly; Bandera is steep. Strong hikers can continue from Mason Lake to Mount Defiance (5,584 feet). The trail to Mount Defiance climbs through hanging meadows with displays of beargrass, lupine, Indian paintbrush and fireweed. It’s like walking through a sea of wildflowers on your way to the summit. Enjoy views of Snoqualmie peaks, lakes, Mount Rainier and more. Flowers: beargrass, valerian, Indian paintbrush, lupine and fireweed.
Stats: Mason Lake: 6 miles round-trip, with 2,800-foot elevation gain to lake; 11 miles round-trip to Mount Defiance, with gain of 3,900 feet.
Map: Green Trails No. 206, Bandera.
Getting there: From eastbound I-90 on the way to Snoqualmie Pass, get off at Exit 45 (Forest Service Road 9030). At road junction of 9030 and 9031, go straight on Road 9031 to trailhead. Northwest Forest Pass required.
Information: Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, North Bend district, 425-888-1421; www.fs.fed.us/r6/mbs.
Sheep Lake: Start on the Pacific Crest Trail, heading north from Chinook Pass. This gentle, scenic trail to Sheep Lake (5,800 feet) is snow-free; the trail starts on a south-facing slope. The first mile parallels State Route 410 through a corridor of flowers, entering forest before it reaches the lake (5,800 feet), which is tucked away in a subalpine bowl of wildflowers. The lake’s a good turnaround, lunch spot or campsite for families with children. Strong hikers can continue 1.2 miles to Sourdough Gap (6,400 feet) and/or further along the PCT. Flowers: harebells, asters, lupine, penstemon, valerian, hellebore, mountain ash, Indian paintbrush and more.
Stats: From PCT trailhead to Sheep Lake, about 4.2 miles round-trip, with 400-foot elevation gain.
Map: Green Trails No. 269S, Mount Rainier Wonderland.
Getting there: Take state Highway 410 from Enumclaw, skirting the east side of Mount Rainier, to Chinook Pass. Park on the south side just below the pass at the Pacific Crest Trail trailhead. Northwest Forest Pass required.
Information: Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Naches District, 509-653-1400;www.fs.fed.us/r6/oka/recreation.
Freelance writer Karen Sykes, of West Seattle, is a longtime leader of hikes for The Mountaineers, and co-author with Art Kruckeberg and Craig Romano of “Best Wildflower Hikes: Washington” (The Mountaineers Books).