Pretty in Pink: Bitterroot Lewisia

Although snow is still falling in some parts of Yellowstone, early wildflowers are experiencing spring fever at the lower elevations. Near my home at the North Entrance the delicate pink bitterroot (Montana's state flower) decorates the hillsides like earthly pink stars.

Bitterroot Lewisia

If you are interested in exploring how Yellowstone's unique geography influences its wildflowers, I recently wrote an article for the Yellowstone Association entitled "The Geology of Wildflowers." This link will give you a preview--you need to be a member to view the full article. Please consider joining and supporting a great non-profit!

An excerpt from the article:

"With freezing temperatures possible every month in the year, and snow accounting for a large portion of the precipitation, the growing season for most of Yellowstone is brief—June through August. Additionally, the majority of Yellowstone’s terrain derives its moisture source from the melting snowpack and spring precipitation, not from summer rains—another factor shortening the growing season.

As a result, the park’s wildflowers experience a botanical spring fever, knowing the days of plentiful sunshine and water are in short supply. Some of Yellowstone’s wildflowers attest to the truth of the Chinese proverb—“spring is sooner recognized by plants than men.”

Even before winter has fully retreated, the impatient marsh marigold (Caltha leptosepala) emerges from hibernation, seeking sunshine by extending its blue-tinted buds through the melting snowbanks, which blossom into showy white flowers within forty-eight hours. Montana’s state flower, bitterroot lewisia (Lewisia rediviva) also appears anxious for spring. As the snow recedes, the fleshy leaves sprout excitedly from the ground, followed shortly by delicate, rose-pink flowers."

More Merced River Canyon Wildflowers

Emerson once remarked, "the earth laughs in flowers." Laughter has been abundant in the Merced River Canyon outside Yosemite this spring! Yesterday, I strolled up the Burma Grade Road over the Merced River to observe the new wildflower arrivals for the week. Visit my photo gallery for more pictures.

Spring Poppies in the Merced River Canyon

Yesterday I drove up Highway 140 to Yosemite and witnessed one of the most spectacular poppy blooms I've seen in my twenty years in California. The hills radiated sunshine generated by the orange fire of the poppies. 

Here's a video I made of the poppies:

Below are a sampling of photographs as well. For more images you can visit my photo gallery.

Mount Washburn

Mt%20Washburn%202.JPG.jpgI invite you to join me on my amazing hike up Mount Washburn. The Anderson’s, in their book A Ranger’s Guide to Yellowstone Day Hikes, advise that, “If you can hike only one trail in Yellowstone, it should be Mount Washburn.” The authors also quote a description of the peak from a early park visitor:

"If I could only choose one sight in the wonderland, it would be, by all means, that view from the top of Mount Washburn for you see there the entire park spread out before you in a single picture."

Dunraven%20Pass.JPG.jpgOn my drive to the trailhead, I rise over Dunraven Pass, awash with yellow flowers, and obtain a great view of the summit of Mt. Washburn. It’s original name might have been Elephant’s Back, but in 1870 the Washburn Expedition named it for General Henry Dan Washburn, leader of “one of the most important early explorations of Yellowstone,” according to Whittlesey’s Yellowstone Place Names. Dunraven Pass, 8,859 feet in elevation, bears the namesake of the First Earl of Dunraven, an Oxford educated man who was once guided in his explorations of the west by Buffalo Bill.

Early on my hike, I encounter a yellow-bellied marmot munching on a tree limb.
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As I turn a corner, I see the Lookout Tower on the summit of Washburn. I also pass bouquets of the exquisite Sky Pilot gathered among the volcanic rocks.
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At the top of Mt Washburn, 10,243 feet, I gaze at the spectacular 360 degree view of the park.
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The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
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Hayden Valley and the Grand Tetons in the distance
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While I munch on my Luna Bar, a herd of bighorn sheep--with several lambs--join me.
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One bighorn ewe gazes at me inquisitively, perhaps wondering why I am munching on a chocolate bar when so many yummy grasses surround me.
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A lamb considers me as well, as two others graze nearby.
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Something catches an ewe’s attention, which turns out to be a mother and lamb running to catch up with the herd.
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On the return trip, I stop to smell the flowers: paintbrush and silky phacelia
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Hellroaring Creek Trail

hellroaring trail.jpg.jpgHow could I pass up exploring an area with such an enticing name? The origin of the title, however, has no ties to Hades. According to Yellowstone Place Names, a prospector on a hunting trip in 1867 reported back to his group that the next stream was “a hell roarer.”

The beginning of the trail descends through a Douglas fir forest until it reaches the Yellowstone River. A sturdy suspension bridge spans the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, and the river underneath rushes fiercely through the rock walls, perhaps angry at being confined to so small a space.

hellroaring mountain.jpg.jpgVelvety green rolling hills welcomed me once I climbed out of the river canyon, and the distinct Hellroaring Mountain dominated the landscape as I headed toward the creek. Hellroaring Mountain belongs more appropriately in my Yosemite world—it’s one of the rare peaks in the park composed of granite; indeed it’s Yellowstone’s largest granite outcropping. Most of Yellowstone’s peaks display rock formed from surface volcanic eruptions.

forget me not on hellroaring.jpg.jpgHellroaring Creek definitely lived up to its name. The mighty waters surged toward their destination and I was very glad I did not have to ford the creek. Instead, I picked a comfortable spot on the soft grass near the banks of the creek, and watched butterflies flutter from wildflower to wildflower.

Beaver Ponds Trail

wildflowers on beaver pond trail.jpg.jpg John Muir is a ubiquitous presence in Yosemite and I often joked about the world not needing another John Muir book when I worked there. Yet he remains one of my heroes and his voice has followed me to Yellowstone. When he visited the park in 1885, he described the landscape I traveled along today: “beaver meadows are outspread with charming effect along the banks of the streams, parklike expanses in the woods, and innumerable small gardens in rocky recesses of the mountains...while the whole wilderness is enlivened with happy animals.”

My footsteps carried me along a series of forests and grasslands in the Mammoth Hot Springs area that passed by several small beaver ponds. Although I was not lucky enough to see beavers, I did observe their handiwork of impressive dams.

larkspur.jpg.jpgThe wildflowers dared to blossom today, perhaps finally sensing the end of winter (I hope!) and I encountered larkspur, primrose, balsamroot, woodland star, and many other colorful flowers I could not name. I have to admit to using my friend Jack's Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada to help identify some species--his book is just easier to use and I never tire at looking at his beautiful illustrations.

duck and ducklings.jpg.jpgA mother duck and her ducklings paddled along the water on one pond. I also found some large wolf tracks, but saw no wolves. Two mule deer munched on grass in a small forested alcove, and clark's nutcrackers loudly alerted me to their whereabouts.

In one of those “it’s a small world encounters,” a family stopped me on the trail to alert me about a bear and her two cubs playing ahead; the family turned out to be Chip and Laurie Jenkins and their two boys, who I worked with in Yosemite. Last week at the new Canyon Visitor Center, I met a past employee of mine from Yosemite as I gazed at the wonderful new exhibits. In the national park community, it truly is a small world.

At the end of my hike, I stopped quickly as this incredibly long snake slithered across the trail. At first I though it was the biggest rattlesnake I had ever seen, but I later found out from my guidebook this is a common mistake. I had encountered pituophis catenifer sayi (common name bull snake), Yellowstone’s largest reptile, which can grow up to six feet.