Waterworks Canyon

This past weekend I was on the east side of the Cascades for a Washington Native Plant Society state board meeting in Ellensburg. We had a productive session all day Saturday, but six-hour meetings are trying even when everyone is on the same track and the discussion is genial. The cure? A day tromping in the field to see what’s blooming.

Sunday, Walt Lockwood and I headed down to Yakima and west another 15 miles to the mouth of Waterworks Canyon. It’s a fairly small canyon tending north-south that drains into the Naches River. The land is on the Oak Creek Wildlife Area, administered by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. There’s a small parking area on the north side of the highway about a quarter mile west of the junction of WA 410 and US 12. [N 46° 44.921′ W 120° 47.874′]

Carey's Balsamroot & Showy Phlox
Carey’s Balsamroot & Showy Phlox on rocky hillside [Balsamorhiza careyana; Phlox speciosa]. Waterworks Cyn, Oak Cr Wildlife Area, Yakima Co., WA

The mouth of the canyon is just over 1600′ elevation. After passing through the gate, we were soon greated by spectacular displays of Carey’s Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza careyana) and Showy Phlox (Phlox speciosa), particularly on the east-facing hillside that was bathed in early morning sunshine under a brilliant clear blue sky.

There was a little Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) in bloom in the lower reaches, and lots of the shrub near the watercourse about as far as we hiked. Later in the year the canyon will be sweet with the smell of Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii), which was just leafing out and didn’t show any conspicuous flower buds.

Columbia Desert-parsley
Columbia Desert-parsley

We found four species of desert parsley in bloom. There were small quantities of Nine-leaf (Lomatium triternatum) and great masses of Fernleaf (Lomatium dissectum) and Gray’s (Lomatium grayi). Fernleaf is also sometimes known as Chocolate Tips because of the deep chocolate-red color of the flowers. Walt and I were both surprised to find modest quantities of Columbia Desert Parsley (Lomatium columbianum) because it is endemic primarily to the Columbia Gorge.

The trail, a well-worn but unmaintained boot track, meanders back and forth across the creek as it gains elevation. One local person we encountered reported that this was only the second time he’d seen the creek actually running. There was quite a good water flow, and it appeared that it probably ran consistently in the spring most years. There were brushy thickets we had to pass through in places. The basalt along the way was often encrusted with a diverse collection of lichens which Walt paid more attention to than I did.

0701812 Waterworks Canyon view south w/ Douglas Maple fgnd [Acer glabrum var. douglasii]. Waterworks Cyn, Oak Cr Wildlife Area, Yakima Co., WA. © Mark Turner
Waterworks Canyon view south w/ Douglas Maple

Toward the top of our hike, about 1100′ up and a little under a mile and a half of walking, we found fairly large patches of Trumpet Lungwort (Mertensia longiflora) with brilliant blue flowers on stems only about six inches tall. There were also a few small clumps of Sagebrush Buttercups (Ranunculus glaberrimus). We ate lunch perched on lumps of basalt just past where the trail finally breaks clear of the trees and shrubs. Looking back down the canyon, the Aspen trunks glowed white in the mid-day sun. In autumn their leaves will turn brilliant gold, contrasting with the dark basalt on the canyon walls. On this day, their buds had just started to swell.

0701808 Douglas Maple blossoms & emerging foliage detail [Acer glabrum var. douglasii]. Waterworks Cyn, Oak Cr Wildlife Area, Yakima Co., WA. © Mark Turner
Douglas Maple blossoms

We don’t often think of trees as having flowers, but they are flowering plants. This was the first time I’d had an opportunity to examine the blossoms of Douglas Maple (Acer glabrum var. douglasii) up close. I’ve often thought of Vine Maple and Douglas Maple as being quite similar, but their flowers are very different.

I always seem to carry more photographic gear on my back than I use, but I don’t seem to be able to leave extra lenses in the car or at home. We’d been told there was a possibility of seeing bighorn sheep in the canyon, so I carried a long lens just in case. The sheep hid, and I never used the lens. Everything I photographed this day was done with a 28-135m zoom or 100mm macro lens. These are really two workhorse lenses in my bag. Since the sky was brilliantly sunny, I used a 1-stop diffuser for almost all the flower close-ups. It was sometimes a challenge to hold it in place because of the near-constant wind.

We saw more plants, not all of which I stopped to photograph. You can see the entire gallery at Waterworks Canyon. Walt made a list of many of the species we saw in bloom:

Acer glabrum var. douglasii

Douglas maple

Amelanchier alnifolia

western serviceberry

Amsinckia menziesii

small-flowered fiddleneck

Astragalus purshii

woolly-pod milkvetch

Astragalus reventiformis

Yakima milkvetch

Balsamorhiza careyana

Carey’s balsamroot

Hydrophyllum capitatum var. capitatum

ballhead waterleaf

Lithophragma parviflora

Lithophragma parviflorum

Lithospermum ruderale

Columbia puccoon

Lomatium columbianum

Columbia desert parsley

Lomatium dissectum

fernleaf lomatium

Lomatium grayi

Gray’s desert parsley

Lomatium triternatum

nine-leaf lomatium

Lupinus bingenensis var. subsaccatus

Bingen lupine

Mahonia aquifolium

shining Oregon-grape

Mertensia longiflora

trumpet lungwort

Phlox speciosa

showy phlox

Phoenicaulis cheiranthoides

dagger pod

Plectritis macrocera

white plectritis

Ranunculus glaberrimus

sagebrush buttercup

Ribes aureum

golden currant

Ribes cereum

wax currant

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One thought on “Waterworks Canyon

  1. Phyllis on said:

    Hi, I really enjoy seeing where you went and I was wondering all about waterworks canyon as I looked at all the pictures. Glad you told be to check here. I was also interested in the flowers of Acer g. var. douglasii. I just noticed the flowers on a Jap. maple in my front yard yesterday, green with redish petals. Golden currant is in bloom here in the garden, best it has ever been. I love the spicy smell.

    I often tell people to check your web-site to see flowers of here or there. People are always asking me when to go someplace to see the flowers or where flowers are blooming. Your lists on your web-site is a great place to send them. I think the strong part of this blog could be listings like this one of where and how to get to a site. i.e. Catherine Creek, been hearing about it forever but did not know where to go or if I had I would not have know where to park until I was there last year. Cheers, P