Posted by: columbiahighlands | January 5, 2012

Ponderosa pine

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Ponderosa pine–with its distinctive orange-brown puzzle-piece bark; open, bushy canopy; and vanilla-like aroma–is a symbol of the dry intermountain West.

A ponderosa pine belt rings the Columbia Basin; this tree is often the first travelers see as they leave the arid steppe country of central Washington. With long taproots and thick bark, ponderosas are able to thrive in this hot, dry, wildfire-prone zone. Majestic parklands of ponderosa pines can be found throughout the Columbia Highlands, with particularly impressive stands in Clackamas Mountain roadless area, west of Republic, and Cougar Mountain/Thirteenmile roadless areas, south of Republic.

By virtue of their thick bark and resin-filled trunks, old-growth ponderosas will remain standing long after they die. These snags provide homes to a variety of cavity-dwelling critters. Clackamas Mountain roadless area has one of the region’s highest densities of old-growth snags; birders have a good chance here of spotting woodpeckers and owls, including the state-listed great grey owl.

Despite the tree’s ubiquity, old-growth ponderosa pines are among the most endangered forest types Washington; clear-cutting, development and overcrowding by smaller trees have reduced old-growth ponderosa forests to just 1% of their historic range. Protection of the last stands of old-growth ponderosas in places such as Clackamas Mountain and Thirteenmile roadless areas would protect this emblem of the West for future generations.

Posted by: columbiahighlands | December 23, 2011

‘Tis the season

Sunrise from Strawberry Mountain. Photo: Aaron Theisen.

Happy holidays from the Friends of the Columbia Highlands!

Posted by: columbiahighlands | December 13, 2011

Highlands geology: Lithosols

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The bald knobs and ridges protruding from the grasslands of the western Columbia Highlands may appear lifeless and unforgiving, but these lithosols–shallow, rocky and nutrient-poor soils–benefit a surprising array of wildlife. In the winter, bobcat, cougar, coyote and rodent tracks reveal these semi-barren spots’ roles as travel routes, hunting grounds and seed-foraging oases. Come spring, these open, dry expanses shed their snow early, allowing pollinators to feast on some of the first wildflowers of the season. In early summer, buckwheat, bitterroot, and fameflower grace places such as Cougar Mountain and Clackamas Mountain with their delicate, brightly colored blooms. Although lithosol plants and lichens are remarkably hardy in the face of unforgiving living conditions, they are vulnerable to errant off-road vehicles and livestock.

Posted by: columbiahighlands | November 28, 2011

Watchable wildlife: Harvey Creek

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Now through December, witness a unique wildlife-watching opportunity in the Columbia Highlands.

Thousands of kokanee salmon are in the midst of their annual migration up Harvey Creek, the main tributary of Sullivan Lake, where they will pair off with mates and spawn in the creek’s gravelly bed.

The creek offers plenty of year-round wildlife viewing. A healthy population of cutthroat trout swim the creek, which has also been designated key habitat for recovery of the endangered bull trout.

At the headwaters of Harvey Creek, Bunchgrass Meadows Research Natural Area protects a rare high-elevation sphagnum bog that is home to a host of wildlife, including the only population of northern bog lemmings in the region.

Conservationists have proposed that two roadless areas bordering the creek, Harvey Creek and Grassy Top, be protected as Wilderness, which would preserve the creek for its aquatic and terrestrial inhabitants.

Posted by: columbiahighlands | November 19, 2011

Day hike: Elk Creek Falls

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Climb through intact forest of cedar, hemlock and aspen on this two-mile family-friendly loop to one of the most impressive waterfalls in the Columbia Highlands. The highlight, of course, is Elk Creek Falls, which tumbles down and around massive, mossy boulders and cedar roots; a bridge crossing in front of the falls allows a face-to-falls view. Along the way, peer down upon Mill Pond and Sullivan Lake, both great choices for a post-hike dip. This serene setting has been proposed as an addition to the Salmo-Priest Wilderness.

From Metaline Falls, follow State Highway 31 north for 2.4 miles to the junction of Sullivan Lake Road (County Road 9345). Turn right (south) and follow the Sullivan Lake Road for 3.2 miles to the Mill Pond Historic Site entrance and Elk Creek Falls trailhead.

Posted by: columbiahighlands | November 11, 2011

Day hike: Clackamas Mountain

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Hike approximately 10 miles through some of the last unroaded wildlife habitat in the eastern Okanogan National Forest. Clackamas Mountain Roadless Area contains one of the largest concentrations of old-growth snags in the region, which is vital for cavity-dwelling wildlife such as woodpeckers. Above, grand old ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir and western larch. Under foot, massive rocky escarpments that in late spring shimmer with the electric pink of bitterroot, yellow of biscuitroot, and pinkish-white of Okanogan fameflower, which grows nowhere else in the world outside the western Columbia Highlands. Part of a network of trails long abandoned until the local chapter of the Backcountry Horsemen rehabilitated them, this loop–scenic, easily accessible from Republic, and easy to hike even when the snows have closed the high-mountain trails–is one of the underappreciated gems of the Columbia Highlands.

Driving directions: From Republic, travel approximately 8 miles west on Highway 20 to Sweat Creek Picnic Area, on the north side of the highway. The trail system begins approximately 50 yards beyond the outhouse, past a wooden gate. The loop is easiest to follow if hiked counterclockwise; turn right once through the gate.

Posted by: columbiahighlands | November 3, 2011

Day hike: Sullivan Lakeshore

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Wander woods reminiscent of eastern hardwood forest, filled with aspen, hemlock and birch. Peer out from rocky benches over the largest natural lake in the Columbia Highlands. And keep a sharp eye for bighorn sheep, one of only two herds in the Colville National Forest, who perch precariously on the steep slopes abutting the lake. Connecting two scenic campgrounds on the north and south ends of Sullivan Lake, parties with two vehicles can hike this 4.4-mile trail one way for a family-friendly trek. Or spend a full day soaking in the scenery in woods proposed for the highest protection in the land.

Driving directions: For the north trailhead at East Sullivan Campground, follow Highway 31 north from the junction of Highway 20 for 3 miles to Sullivan Lake Road (County Road 9345). Follow Sullivan Lake Road for 12.9 miles to Forest Road 22 (Sullivan Creek). Turn right (east) and drive 0.25 mile to campground entrance. For the south trailhead at Noisy Creek Campground, follow Highway 31 north for 3 miles from the junction of Highway 20 to Sullivan Lake Road (County Road 9345). Follow Sullivan Lake Road for 8.2 miles to the campground entrance on the south end of the lake.

Posted by: columbiahighlands | October 21, 2011

Scenic drives: autumn larch viewing

Sunset lights up the larches at White Mountain Fire Interpretive Site. Photo: Aaron Theisen.

Mild, sunny days and cold nights mean that autumn colors are peaking in the Columbia Highlands. The star of the show, of course, is western larch. With its glowing gold needles, a panorama of these deciduous conifers is one of the iconic images of autumn in northeast Washington.

Below, two classic scenic drives for some of the best fall-color viewing in the Northwest:

Sherman Pass Scenic Byway

Western larch in the pre-dawn on Sherman Pass. Photo: Aaron Theisen.

Sherman Pass Scenic Byway offers the best fall-color show in eastern Washington. Several scenic overlooks and interpretive sites allow travelers unobstructed views over thousands of acres of rolling, pristine forest.

Just east of the pass, Sherman Overlook’s short intrepretive trail offers several great vantage points of postcard-quality panoramas of the southern half of the Kettle Crest. The best time for viewing is in the morning, when low-angle sunlight illuminates the swaths of larch on the eastern slope of Sherman Peak.

Driving directions: About 4 miles west of Kettle Falls on Hwy 395, cross the bridge over the Columbia River. Almost immediately (1/10 mile), turn left (west) on Hwy 20, toward the town of Republic. Drive approximately 21 miles to the Sherman Overlook, on the right (north) side of the highway.

West of the pass, the White Mountain Fire Interpretive Site surveys a forest quickly regenerating from the 1988 White Mountain Fire. Because it is the fastest-growing conifer in the region, western larch can quickly colonize areas of disturbances such as wildfires, meaning that larch viewers can see a sweeping expanse of vigorous young larch from this overlook. Visit at sunset to see a dazzling light display.

Driving directions: From Republic, drive east on Hwy 20 for 12 miles. The interpretive site is on the left (north) side of the highway.

Sullivan Lake Loop

Autumn is larch season in the Columbia Highlands. Photo: Aaron Theisen.

On the Sullivan Lake Loop, in the heart of the Selkirks, the fall-colors display mixes the Rockies with a touch of hardwood forest reminiscent of the northeast. For the best views, follow the Noisy Creek Trail 0.5 mile from Noisy Creek Campground, on the south end of Sullivan Lake. Here, western larch color the background, while the bright birch, aspen and cottonwood leaves command your immediate attention.

Driving directions: One mile south of Ione, turn east onto Sullivan Lake Road 9345. Travel 8 miles to Noisy Creek Campground, on the right. The Noisy Creek trailhead is on the east end of the campground. Scenic Sullivan Lake Road continues 8 more miles, past Sullivan Lake, Mill Pond and numerous trailheads, terminating 1 mile north of Metaline Falls.

Posted by: columbiahighlands | October 12, 2011

Scenic drive: Bangs Mountain scenic loop

The forested slopes of South Huckleberry Mountain as seen from Bangs Mountain. Photo: Aaron Theisen.

The 10.1-mile Bangs Mountain scenic loop offers roadside geologists and wildlife watchers a pleasing sidetrip off the Sherman Pass Scenic Byway.

Donaldson Draw's steep-sided canyons, carved by raging streams as ice-age glaciers melted, support a lush environment of birch, willows, and mosses. Photo: Aaron Theisen.

Beginning at Canyon Creek Campground, drive south on Bangs Mountain Road. Much of this area burned in the 1929 Dollar Mountain fire, creating a dense forest of Douglas-fir, western larch and lodgepole pine.

At 2.2 miles, enter Donaldson Draw, a half-mile long steep-sided canyon lined with lush vegetation–willow, aspen, birch, and aquatic grasses–and home to a beaver-dammed pond. This, like many similar canyons in the Kettle Range, has a turbulent history: as ice-age glaciers that covered the area melted, the rushing meltwater scoured out deep channels in the bedrock. Now such canyons are home to interesting rock formations and a myriad of plants and wildlife. Much of the area on either side of the canyon has never been logged, so the view before you is much the same as it’s been for thousands of years.

At 3.3 miles, the road splits. Take the upward-climbing road to the left. The road immediately ascends into an upland forest of Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine. The low vegetation–fescue, snowberry, currant–allows long views over deer- and turkey-rich habitat.

The open forest on Bangs Mountain's south side allows for birds-eye views of Lake Roosevelt. Photo: Aaron Theisen.

At 5 miles, the road splits again. Take either way: the route forms a small loop. From the open meadows at the apex of the loop can be seen Lake Roosevelt’s shores in the distance.

The site of a successful restoration thinning project by the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, Bangs Mountain is a model healthy forest, with big views and watchable wildlife to show for it.

Driving directions: About 4 miles west of Kettle Falls on Hwy 395, cross the bridge over the Columbia River.  Almost immediately (1/10 mile), turn left (west) on Hwy 20, toward the town of Republic. At 7.7 miles, turn left on Bangs Mountain Road (FS Road 136). Travel 0.1 mile to Canyon Creek Campground.

Posted by: columbiahighlands | October 5, 2011

Day hike: Fir Mountain

The rocky summit of Fir Mountain provides panoramic views of the San Poil valley and eastern Okanogan Highlands. In the center middle distance is Clackamas Mountain. Photo: Aaron Theisen.

Travelers approaching Republic from the west via Highway 20 can easily spot the upturned nose of Fir Mountain less than 10 miles out of town. Often overlooked, however, is the trail that reaches its rocky summit. Easily accessed from Republic, this four-mile roundtrip hike provides quick, albeit brutally steep, access to panoramic views of the San Poil Valley and eastern Okanogan Highlands. Start early, and you can be back in Republic before the bakeries open.

Beginning on an old double-track, Fir Mountain Trail #320 immediately launches a calf-cramping ascent of Fir Mountain’s east flank.

Most of the route  passes through a pleasant parkland of Douglas-fir, ponderosa pine and western larch. Pinegrass, Douglas maple, red-flowered currant, snowberry, thimbleberry and huckleberry comprise the open understory.

Open views, of the Aeneas Valley and the Kettle Range, are few, but chances are good of spotting wildlife, including white-tailed deer and woodpeckers.

The grassy understory on Fir Mountain gives way to dimpled basalt at higher elevations. Photo: Aaron Theisen.

At approximately 1.5 miles, the grassy understory begins to give way to basalt rock, smooth and dimpled , in contrast to the granitic hunks found in the Kettle Range

It may not have seemed possible, but at this point the way gets even steeper. The trail goes faint in some sections, but cairns mark the route.

The last several hundred yards of trail is cut directly into basalt; watch your step.

Western larch on Fir Mountain have begun their fall show. Photo: Aaron Theisen.

At 2 miles, reach the summit. Keep an eye out for remnants of an old lookout—anchors, insulators, an old outhouse. To the east, Republic and the Kettle Range. The camel-humped peak to the west is Bonaparte. The horseshoe-shaped array of ridges to the north bound the Sweat Creek drainage, at the heart of Clackamas Mountain Roadless Area. Beyond lies British Columbia.

Autumn's cool temperatures and bright colors make it a perfect time to hike Fir Mountain. Photo: Aaron Theisen.

Now is the perfect time to hike Fir Mountain, when autumn’s cooler temperatures and bright colors—western larch needles above, huckleberry, maple and currant leaves below—leaven some of the agony of the ascent.

Driving directions: From Republic, head west on Hwy 20. At 8 miles, turn left (south) onto FS 31, across from Sweat Creek Picnic Area. Follow FS 31 for 0.5 mile to the signed trailhead on the right. A small pullout 50 feet past the trailhead provides limited parking.

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