Summer is peak wildflower season in Washington. Add some color to your weekend hikes with this guide to local hotspots for the best and most abundant blooms.
They can be as much fun to say — fairy lantern, bog candle, goose grass, honeysuckle, glacier lily, foxglove, fiddleneck, Sitka mistmaiden, fragrant fringecap, Columbia kittentails — as they are to see.
Wildflowers, from Anaphalis margaritacea (pearly everlasting) to Antennaria howellii (Howell’s pussytoes), are the natural world’s most enchanting ornaments, reappearing each summer to infuse even stark and seemingly inhospitable mountain landscapes with color, fragility and whimsy. Nature’s jewel box, opulent and overflowing, contains no finer accessory.
The Pacific Northwest’s annual high-country wildflower season is gradually emerging in some locales, and still awaiting a meltout in others. This year’s show is shaping up to be a good season, says David Giblin, collections manager of the University of Washington Herbarium at the Burke Museum.
“A year like this year, when we had an above-average snowfall in much of the Cascades and the Olympics, should mean that it will be a very good year for wildflowers,” said Giblin, who’s also an editor for the nonprofit Washington Native Plant Society and a contributor to the Burke’s flower-identification app.
Many variables influence the showiness of annual wildflower displays, Giblin says: rate of snowmelt, aspects of the terrain (south-facing slopes see more sun and melt quicker), elevation (higher terrain melts out last), latitude (meadows around Mount Baker, near the Canadian border, melt out about a month later than those around Mount Rainier, 145 miles south) and temperature.
“Snowpack probably has the greatest influence on wildflower seasons in the mountains,” he says. “When it’s low, there’s less moisture available for the wildflowers during the summer months. So maybe the plants don’t grow as tall as they do when they have ample water, and they probably flower for a shorter period.”
This May was warmer and much drier than normal—0.45 inches of precipitation at Paradise in Mount Rainier versus a normal of 5.89. A mid-June streak of temperatures in the high 80s showed hints of a pattern similar to 2017, when flowers exploded at the start of July but faded hastily due to persistent high heat. Yet if 2018 temperatures are closer to normal this July, Giblin sees potential for a substantial bloom.
“I think it’s going to be great,” he said in late June. “The higher elevations in the Cascades still have a lot of snow.”
When are optimal flower-viewing times? Giblin says that each year is different, but provides an estimate: Flowers in the Olympic Mountains are usually best from late June through “about the third week of July.” Mount Rainier? Mid-July through mid-August. Mount Baker and the North Cascades? August to early September.
So, that’s when. Now, where? I got some tips from Giblin, field guide author Mark Turner and guidebook author Craig Romano.
In Olympic National Park, Giblin likes Klahhane Ridge (five miles round trip, 1,700-foot elevation gain) and the winding, not-for-the-timid, dirt-road drive to Obstruction Point and the access it provides to glorious Grand Ridge. The out-and-back trek to Deer Park is nearly 15 up-and-down miles, but less ambitious hikers can elect to walk as far as they prefer, then turn around. When blooms are in season, flowers abound on both trails.
Though he has yet to explore either trail himself, Giblin has heard good reports from fellow flower-watchers about Colonel Bob Peak (8.2 miles, 3,500-foot elevation gain) southwest of the park, and Mount Ellinor to the southeast (6.2 miles, a stout 3,300-foot climb).
Closer to Seattle, the best hike along the Interstate 90 corridor, Granite Mountain (exit 47; 8.6 miles round trip with a demanding 3,800-foot elevation gain), is also the site of an above-average wildflower display, particularly when Xerophyllum tenax—bear grass—erupts throughout the upper meadows. Bear grass, the thin white duke of wildflowers, can grow up to 5 feet tall and electrifies open slopes with its verticality and dazzling, strength-in-numbers displays.
Mount Rainier gets nods from all three experts as a can’t-miss wildflower destination. The park provides a wildflower status webpage and, near its Paradise visitor center, a network of nature trails, some paved, that meanders through acres of flower-filled meadows. Request a handout at the visitor center. Giblin is also a big fan of the Mazama Ridge route that leads to Reflection Lake.
A family-friendly loop with a wilderness feel starts at Tipsoo Lake below Chinook Pass on the park’s east side. The Naches Peak Loop (3.2 miles round trip, 600-foot elevation gain) is a classic walk when the flowers are out. Hike clockwise for the best views, and expect plenty of company.
Out of Sunrise, two decidedly different wildflower displays are separated by only a few miles but a considerable difference in elevation. Berkeley Park (7.7 miles round trip, 1,700-foot elevation gain) was full of blossoms in early July last year, but they faded fast when temperatures stayed hot and wildfires broke out near the park. If the meadows come even close to matching the 2017 showing, it will be worth a look.
A few thousand feet above it is exposed, windswept Fremont Lookout (5.6 miles, 800-foot elevation gain). The flowers that grow on its flanks are hearty adapters—the very reason Giblin is attracted to the spot.
“The abundance of wildflowers on those talus slopes, in those rock crevasses, is just spectacular,” he said. “It’s a great contrast to the austerity of the area.”
North of Seattle, Giblin, Turner and Romano all suggest a visit to Sauk Mountain (4.2 miles, 1,200-foot elevation gain). “It’s such a reliable destination,“ Turner said. As he has for numerous trails, Turner has created a plant list for the route. Photos from the 1,247 images found in Turner’s book are used in the Washington Wildflowers app.
Later in the summer, Giblin and Romano suggest heading north to trails near Mount Baker. Try Yellow Aster Butte (7.5 miles roundtrip, 2,550-foot elevation gain) and Skyline Divide (9.0 miles, 2,500-foot elevation gain; plant list) for starters. “There are just so many good places in the Northwest to see wildflowers,” Giblin said.
Field guides, education:
Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon (Lone Pine Publishing)
Washington Native Plant Society: Field trips open to the public (see Get Involved > Events)
WNPS Facebook page: members share images of wildflower finds
The Best Wildflower Hikes: Washington, by Craig Romano, et al. (The Mountaineers Books)
Washington Wildflowers, by Burke Museum; iOS, Android, $9.95