Spring or Summer in the Mountains?

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Glacier Lilies w/ Mt. Baker
Glacier lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum) on High Divide with Mt. Baker on the skyline.

We’re just a few days away from the summer solstice, but up on the high ridges of the North Cascades it’s still early spring with the snow just now melting away.

On Saturday Brian and I hiked up the very steep Welcome Pass trail to High Divide. The trail climbs some 3,000 feet in about 2.5 miles, with most of the gain in the last 1.5 miles. Did I say the trail is steep? While most North Cascades trails climb briskly from valley bottoms to stunning ridge-top views, they usually have alternative steep and not-so-steep sections. Not this one. It’s unrelenting. Rare for me, I had to stop every few switchbacks (there are at least 67 of them) to rest briefly and catch my breath. We still made it to the top in just over 2 hours, gaining more than 30 vertical feet every minute we were hiking.

Once on the ridge we climbed another few hundred feet to a high point with grand views in all directions. All the usual mountains in the area were visible: Mt. Shuksan, Mt. Baker, Yellow Aster Butte, Goat Mountain, Mt. Sefrit, Mount Larrabee, Winchester Mountain, Tomyhoi Peak, American Border Peak, and Canadian Border Peak.

White heather with Mt. Shuksan
White heather (Cassiope mertensiana) on High Divide with Mt. Shuksan on the skyline.

The flower meadows were just getting started with their brief and spectacular bloom period. The big show was from large patches of glacier lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum) and western spring beauty (Claytonia lanceolata). Both white heather (Cassiope mertensiana) and pink mountain-heather (Phyllodoce empetriformis) were beginning to bloom. We found a few cliff paintbrush (Castilleja rupicola), several nice patches of spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa), a bit of small-flowered penstemon (Penstemon procerus), Sitka valerian (Valeriana sitchensis) and American bistort (Bistorta bistortoides) just beginning to bloom, dinnickinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) and Cascades blueberries (Vaccinium deliciosum) growing together, and a few precocious broadleaf lupines (Lupinus latifolius) and mountain arnica (Arnica latifolia).

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We didn’t get as much snow in the mountains last winter as the 30-year average, and it’s been a warmer and drier spring so the snow we did get is melting out faster. Not as fast as the very low 2014-2015 winter’s snow, but the mountain wildflower season is definitely earlier than history suggests is normal. That doesn’t bode well for our summer water supply, nor for the potential of wildfires.

Lower down along the trail several favorite woodland plants were in bloom, including a spectacular patch of star Solomon’s seal (Mainthemum stellatum) with a few Pacific bleeding hearts (Dicentra formosa) and foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata) mixed in.

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