Late July to early August is the time that meadows across the Cascade Mountain range come alive with wildflowers. Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park is perhaps the most well known location for wildflowers here in the northwest but it’s by no means the only location. A few years ago, I learned of a meadow on Oregon’s Mount Hood that’s home to an amazing display of beargrass, which is a grass like perennial but actually a member of the Lily family. Beargrass “blooms” follow a cycle so the number of beargrass that do bloom each year will vary. Once every so often, a super bloom will occur resulting in an impressive display and 2009 was such a year in a place named Paradise Park on Mount Hood.
Located in the Mount Hood Wilderness, Paradise Park is a four mile hike north from the famous Timberline Lodge via the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s actually quite an interesting hike in a number of ways. A typical wildflower hike starts low and climbs high but trekking out to Paradise Park starts high, loses 1,100′ of elevation, and then regains 1,000′ to reach the start of the meadows. The other aspect of this hike I found interesting was the variety of ecological zones that the hike travels through. The first mile or two traverses across a corrugated alpine pumice landscape followed by a brief re-entry into high elevation forest. This brings you to the rim of the impressive Zigzag Canyon, which is where the Zigzag River has cut down nearly 1,000 feet down through volcanic deposits. The 4,800′ bottom of the canyon crosses through classic western Cascade forest before reversing the experience on the way up to Paradise Park.
I was ultimately inspired to make my first visit by a hiker’s comment on the Portland Hikers forum (a great resource for hiking in Oregon) which indicated that the wildflowers were at peak condition right now. While there would be no beargrass blooms, I felt a change of pace from the rat race of Mount Rainier’s Paradise was in order (more on that in another blog post). Forecasts pointed to good weather for the most part but always with a “chance” of thunderstorms. My plan was to overnight in Paradise Park one night, hike out the next day, drive around the mountain and do it all over again at another meadow-y setting. Sure enough, I set out under sunny skies with an ever growing cloud above Mount Hood. Temperatures in the upper 70s made the hike a bit toasty, particularly with heavy pack. I’ve tried to pare down the weight of my backpacking set but I think I have a bit more work to do!
Even with 40+ lbs on my back, I found myself an hour later at the rim of the Zigzag Canyon (2.3 miles from my starting point at Timberline). After a break and some photos, an hour later I was crossing the Zigzag River and beginning my climb up to Paradise Park. The mid afternoon sunshine was still cooking so my climb up to Paradise Park took close to another 90 minutes. It seemed like I would never reach Paradise Park but eventually I turned the corner and there it was. Now, before I continue, I feel the need to explain something. Photographers use a lot of adjectives to describe scenes such as amazing, grand and stunning. So much so that they, perhaps, loose their impact.
Despite my numerous outings over the last five years, I will admit that the number of times I’ve been truly moved by the scene in front of me have been few. What’s my definition of “moved”? I’d say it’s the desire to share what you’re experiencing with someone you hold dear. It’s wishing someone was with you at that moment because it’s the only way they can ever truly understand why you do what you do. Rounding the corner as the first meadow of Paradise Park came into view was one of those moments for me (only my second time this year). As picturesque as any meadow I’ve ever seen, I just wanted to drop everything and just stare. The sweat and fatigue of the journey to get here was but it was so, so worth it at this moment.
If I was to get ready for sunset, I needed to get going and set up camp. Not too far after entering Paradise Park is the South Fork of Lost Creek and the first campsites found in Paradise Park. The creek was lined with all sort of wildflowers along with one of the finest campsites I’ve ever seen. As good as it seemed, I decided to keep going, at least until the crossing of the North Fork of Lost Creek. Again, the creek was lined with wildflowers but the campsites were much more exposed. There was still a threat of thunderstorms so the prudent thing to do was to retreat back to the more sheltered campsites along the South Fork. I set up my camp and took a little nap before setting back out to the first meadow for sunset.
Behind the Paradise Park Loop Trail signpost is a way path that meanders up through the meadow towards Mississippi Head and the rest of Mount Hood. The flowers here were thick, in perfect form, and consisted mostly of Lupine, American Bistort, Arnica, and some sporadic Indian Paintbrush. As I’ve grown fond of doing, I brought along my GoPro so that I could also shoot a time lapse series. The only downside of this is that you have to pick a spot and stay there. Sometimes this doesn’t work out to your advantage. At this lower location in the meadow, the focal point are the flowers and Mount Hood; not much else is visible due to the treeline which is literally all around you.
On this night, this didn’t work in my advantage. The large billowing clouds from the afternoon had pretty much disappeared by sunset. Minus the clouds, there wasn’t much left to capture and reflect the warm light of sunset. Behind me, though, the skies were filled with pinks and oranges. I worked my surroundings as best as I could before calling it an evening. Clouds seeped back in the darker it got and I pretty much knew that any star photography wasn’t going to be an option. I was tired enough that I didn’t have a big problem with that.
Waking up at 4:45am the next morning, I hiked back to the same meadow for sunrise serenaded by the cooing of a mourning dove. It was quite evident that I was in for a gray sunrise. Still, there was little wind and the no bugs. True sunrise greeted me with a few moments of light rain. This area was so nice that I had been toying with the idea of extending my stay one extra night. The weather (and myself, frankly) wasn’t looking too good so I kept with the decision to hike out and head home. Before breaking camp, I continued furthered up the path to the upper slopes. I found it interesting that the wildflowers (primarily asters) were actually a little bit past prime and somewhat “burned” out. Lower slopes normally burn out before the upper slopes simply because that’s the way the snowpack melts back during the course of summer.
By the time I had packed up camp and hit the trail, the sun appeared. A bit bittersweet but frankly it didn’t last too long. Most of the uphill hike out was graced by cloudy skies which did keep me a bit cooler. Even with dubious forecasts, I crossed paths with lots of people hiking in towards Paradise Park. After returning home, I found that that Timberline Lodge received 2.5″ of rain during the time I would have still been out there had I extended my stay. One thing I sometimes do after a trip is re-examine my “research” on an area to better understand and merge the on the ground reality I experienced and the textual or other information I had leading up to my visit. I discovered AFTER the fact that there were two waterfalls in the Paradise Park area which I could have photographed. Doh! Even with such a quick introduction to the area, I know I’ll be back. Acres of wildflowers that I didn’t have to share with anyone? Why would I NOT return??! I would highly recommend a visit to Paradise Park!
Lastly, I’d like to give a special hat tip to Oregon photographer Wesley Picotte who generously shared some of his knowledge with me while I was researching my trip. Check out his great work also from the Pacific Northwest. Thanks again, Wesley!