Grayback Mountain

Phantom orchid along the O’Brien Creek trail.

If I had to describe the O’Brien Creek trail in one word, it would be “brutal”. The trail, built long ago to supply a herders’ cabin in a large subalpine meadow in the Siskiyou Mountains, heads uphill abruptly from the trailhead and climbs 2000 thigh-challenging feet in two miles, all of it through dense, dark, mostly dry conifer forest. Not my normal idea of a good time. But it is also the best way to reach Grayback Mountain, and Grayback is definitely worth reaching. Grayback is the highest peak in Oregon’s Josephine County, and one of only a few Siskiyou summits to top 7,000 feet. The meadow spoken of a few minutes ago, Grayback Meadow, spreads up the bottom of a shallow bowl on the mountain’s steep east slope for nearly 1000 vertical feet – acres and acres of grass and little springs and wildflowers, edged by trees and capped by a lovely line of granite cliffs below the summit ridge. And from the summit, it is said, on a clear day you can see the ocean.

All of which is why Melody and I found ourselves in the Bolt last Friday morning, creeping up a road specified for high-clearance 4wd vehicles only, headed for the O’Brien Creek trailhead and that damned mountainside fall-line of a trail.

We didn’t quite get there – not in the car, anyway. Roughly half a mile before the road’s end, a fallen madrone had sprawled into the roadway. There was space to go around, but that space was occupied by a deep, rocky pothole followed immediately by a large rock. I had managed to work my way around all potholes and rocks until then, but I’d had the full width of the road to maneuver. This one looked impossible. So I backed the Bolt into a convenient flat area on a switchback 100 feet or so back down the road, locked it up, and we began walking. In fifteen minutes, we were on the trail.

The way up that steep, essentially switch-back-less two miles seemed very long. But there were woodland flowers to contemplate (wildflower photography is a great excuse to take rest stops), and there was a small side stream with a lovely little waterfall on it to cross, and eventually we broke out into the little clearing where O’Brien Creek itself tumbles across the trail. At that point the worst was over. It’s a half-mile from the creek crossing on a nearly level trail, past a small snow-survey cabin, to the site where the old Krause herders’ cabin stood at the foot of Grayback Meadow. The cabin burned down over a decade ago, but its stove is still there. So is its view.

Grayback Meadow.
White rushlily, Hastingsia alba. Not in the guidebooks.

We moved slowly up the meadow, savoring. The slope was even steeper than the trail had been, but here there was sunshine, and the cliff far above us (but growing nearer), and views out that grew longer and vaster as we climbed. And nearly every square inch under our feet was covered with flowers. The Siskiyou Mountains are part of the larger Klamath Mountain system, which is mostly made of ultramafic rock – peridotite, serpentine, and their relatives – and ultramafic soils grow unusual plants. Grayback is actually made of granite, but it has its share. One flower, in fact – prolific here – is rare enough that it doesn’t appear in either of the standard wildflower guidebooks I use (see the accompanying photo). Others are Klamath Mountains endemics that would probably be happier on serpentine, but will also grow on granite. Add to those the standard mountain-meadow flowers you find everywhere in the west, and you begin to get the idea.

Clockwise from upper left: tiger lily, cobwebby paintbrush, Davidson’s penstemon, Oregon checker mallow.
Coiled lousewort along the Boundary Trail.
Paintbrush and woolly sunflower on the summit ridge.

An hour later and two-thirds of the way up the meadow we hit the Boundary Trail, so named because it runs along the western and southern boundaries of the Rogue River National Forest, beginning at Windy Gap – a little over a mile north of where we hit it – and ending many miles away at Lily Pad Lake, near the eastern end of the Red Buttes Wilderness. We took the Boundary Trail south for a mostly level half mile to the mountain’s south ridge, left it, and started boulder-hopping up the ridge. An hour of that, and we were on top. On top of the world.

I’m sorry to say that we couldn’t see the ocean. The air was too hazy to make it out, although the pictures I took do show, on close examination, a level line separating two slightly different shades of blue that I wistfully hope is the ocean horizon. We were able to make out a white line of what were clearly coast-hugging clouds far off to the southwest, and we had to make do with that. That, and the rest of the tremendous, hundreds-of-square-miles view in every conceivable direction.

We were on top for roughly 20 minutes. Then we picked our way down the north ridge, found Windy Gap and the start of the Boundary Trail, and headed for the car. We were home and comforting two anxious cats by a little after 7:00 pm. The Bolt’s GOM said that we could still go 200 miles, if we wanted to.

I wasn’t tempted.

The Phacelia that wasn’t. Or maybe was.

If I had any doubts left about the adequacy of the Bolt’s range for anything Melody and I want to do, they were certainly put to rest by last week’s outing. We drove to a trail nearly 100 miles from our home, over two passes one way and three the other (slightly different routes), plus making a stiff, winding climb to the trailhead, a bit over 6,000 feet above sea level in California’s Scott Mountains. Three of the passes were on the freeway, and were taken at freeway speeds, including the highest pass on the entire Mexico-to-Canada length of Interstate 5: Siskiyou Summit, between Ashland, Oregon and Yreka, California. All this, and we still got home with 30% of the battery left. And this is summer, which means that our solar panels are providing pretty much all of our electricity. Which means, in turn, that we spent the whole day powering the car on sunbeams instead of fossil fuel. I simply couldn’t be more pleased.

And the hike itself was wonderful, the best outing we’ve had so far this summer. It began at Kangaroo Lake, a gem of a mountain lake, tucked up under a high granite wall in the Scotts – a subrange of the Klamath Mountains that top out at over 8,000 feet and form the divide between the waters of the Trinity and Scott Rivers. We started on the Fen Trail, which begins at the lake and climbs 600 vertical feet in a little over a mile to a low spot on the divide, where we picked up the Pacific Crest Trail and took it east to the 7,100-foot saddle over Bull Lake. The weather was mixed clouds and sun, which kept us cool but didn’t obscure our view of the distant granite spires of the Trinity Alps, in the rugged heart of the Klamaths (although it did prevent us from seeing what has been described as a “picture-postcard view” of Mt Shasta across Bull Lake). There were still a few snowfields around, and all the mountain springs were alive. And of course there were the flowers.

Clockwise from upper left: Mountain pride, Fendler’s waterleaf, azure penstemon, Beckwith’s violet.
Mt Eddy lupine
Cobra lily (California pitcher plant)

Of course, there were the flowers. These were the Klamath Mountains – pretty much ground zero for wildflower lovers in the western United States. They have two things specifically going for them. They were glaciated less extremely than other western ranges; and they contain large areas of peridotite and other ultramafic rocks, rocks composed primarily of minerals containing heavy concentrations of magnesium and iron. These factors have given the Klamaths a much larger-than-average number of endemic species – plants that grow no place else in the world. Some are there because they thrive on ultramafic soils, which tend to kill many plants; others are pre-ice-age relics that managed to survive the cold in the Klamaths, but no place else. Among the endemics are the carnivorous pitcher plant, or cobra lily (Darlingtonia californica), which thrives in the acid water of fens by eating insects and small frogs; the Mt Eddy lupine (Lupinus croceus), whose brilliant yellow flowers stand out in a genus that produces mostly purples and whites; and the Siskiyou phacelia (Phacelia leonis), a pale blue flower on a nearly invisible stem that floats in ghostlike masses a few inches above the rust-brown gravels of high peridotite ridges. And then there is the Scott Mountain phacelia, which is not a phacelia at all. Or maybe it is. Stay tuned.

Siskiyou phacelia

The trip began, as our trips south usually do, with breakfast at the Breadboard in Ashland; then it was up and over Siskiyou Summit, under gray skies that we hoped would burn to blue before the day was done. We chose the route along the Shasta River to avoid the freeway’s climb over the Anderson Grade, and were soon sorry: the bridge over the Klamath River along that route is being replaced, and we were stuck on the old bridge for 20 minutes waiting for a flagger to give us the go-ahead (this was the reason for our different return route). Eventually, though, we did reach the Gazelle/Callahan Road, climbed up and over Scott River Summit, and made the 2000-foot ascent up Rail Creek to Kangaroo Lake. A quick jaunt along the lakeshore for photos, and then we hit the Fen Trail.

Almost immediately we spotted the Scott Mountain phacelia, although I have to admit I thought it was something else. It looks very much like a distantly-related plant called the California hesperochiron, and that’s what I thought I was seeing. But as I knelt to photograph it, I thought, “That doesn’t look quite right;” then I looked up, and spotted the information placard a dozen yards or so further up the trail.

Scott Mountain phacelia

The placard gave us part of the plant’s story; I have since pieced together the rest. The Scott Mountain phacelia was first collected in 1936 on the summit of Scott Mountain, by a wildflower enthusiast named Ella Dales Cantelow and her husband, Herbert, who sent the dried plant to a friend of theirs, a botanist named Thomas J. Howell. Howell was pleased by this “remarkable new phacelia”, and named it Phacelia dalesiana in Ella’s honor. It was soon established that it had a very limited range, growing primarily on ultramafic soils, and only in the Scott Mountains and adjacent parts of the Trinity Alps. It was also noticed that it wasn’t quite like any of the other phacelias. In 1953, it was placed in a new phacelia subgroup, named Howellanthus (after Thomas Howell); more than a half-century later, it was still the only member of that subgroup. In 2010, a San Francisco State University graduate student, Genevieve Weldon, published a paper coauthored by the eminent botanist Robert Patterson which suggested that the subgroup Howellanthus should become the genus Howellanthus. Given Patterson’s status, the change rapidly gained acceptance, and the botanical world had a new genus.

Or not. Browsing through the literature just this morning, I noticed that one online naturalists’ reference, iNaturalist – which changed the plant’s genus along with everyone else soon after Weldon and Patterson’s paper came out – had recently changed it back. Botanists’ food fights being what they are, I think I’ll refrain from dipping into this one any further. But I do think we should probably keep “phacelia” in the common name.

The Scott Mountain phacelia was the highlight of the day, so I’ll just describe the rest briefly. The Fen Trail lived up to its name, passing multiple fens, most of them full of Darlingtonia; it also provided a spectacular viewpoint, on a granite knoll overlooking Kangaroo Lake.

Snow blocked the trail a little way below the ridge, forcing us into some steep cross-country scrambling, which was rewarded by a ridgetop full of flowers and big views southwest to the distant, snowy Trinities. It was three miles via the PCT from there to the saddle over Bull Lake, and none of it was dull, from the rocky peaks above us to the flowers and snowfields at our feet to the four small lakes we passed along the way, all of them well below the trail. The sky cleared, although not entirely: I was hoping to see that world-class view of Mt Shasta over Bull Lake from the saddle, but all I got was a bit of the mountain’s base peeking out from the skirts of some of the few remaining clouds. But we did get a great view of Mt Eddy, and we had a wonderful time, no matter what genus that phacelia eventually turns out to belong to. Check out the pictures.

Bull Lake and Mt Eddy. Mt Shasta’s base can be made out to the left of Mt Eddy, above the black shadow on the far ridge.