A Trio of Lilies

Glacier Lily (Wikimedia)

Glacier Lily (Wikimedia)

Spring and early summer in the Gorge and around Mount Hood brings countless wildflowers. Perhaps the most striking are the varied siblings of the Lily family that are so familiar to us. This list includes the stately Trillium in early spring, the spectacular white trumpets of the Washington (or is it Mount Hood?) Lily, the blazing Columbia Tiger Lily in early summer and sprawling mountain meadows of Beargrass and Cornflower in high summer. All of these iconic species are part of this impressive family of wildflowers.

Within this crowded list of celebrity siblings are a trio of smaller lilies in the Erythronium genus that can be a bit confusing to distinguish from one another. They are surely worth getting to know: the yellow Glacier Lily, white Avalanche Lily and cream-colored Oregon Fawn Lily are among the most charming wildflowers found in our wild places. This article offers a profile of each of these plants, tips for identifying them and places to see them in their native habitat.

Oregon Fawn Lily
Erythronium oregonum

Oregon Fawn Lily

Oregon Fawn Lily

First up from this trio of lilies is the Oregon Fawn Lily, the largest of the Erythronium genus, and perhaps the most elegant. The Fawn Lily grows at low elevations, preferring open forest and meadows in the Coast Range, Cascade and Siskiyou canyons and foothills.

Oregon Fawn Lily can be found in rainforest regions from California to British Columbia (USDA)

Oregon Fawn Lily can be found in rainforest regions from California to British Columbia (USDA)

Oregon Fawn Lily is found in most of Oregon's wet, western counties (USDA)

Oregon Fawn Lily is found in most of Oregon’s wet, western counties (USDA)

Oregon Fawn Lily have beautifully marked 4-9″ leaves, with a mottled pattern of green, light green and rusty brown that gives these plants their other common name of Trout Lily. These distinctive leaves are the easiest way to identify Fawn Lily. Their graceful blossoms form in clusters of 1-3 per stem, and range in color from white to cream, with yellow anthers. Each flower measures 1-3″ across on stems that range in height from 6-16″.

Oregon Fawn Lily blooms from April through early June. Like all of the Erythronium species, Oregon Fawn Lily emerges from a small bulb in spring and dies back in late summer after producing a 3-sided seed pod, going dormant for the winter.

A reliable place to spot Oregon Fawn Lily is along the Salmon River Trail, where they grace mossy slopes and cliff gardens in the lower sections of the canyon. They can also be found closer to home at the Camassia Nature Preserve in West Linn.

Avalanche Lily
Erythronium montanum

Avalanche Lily

Avalanche Lily

As the common name suggests, Avalanche Lily grows in mountain snow zones, preferring alpine and subalpine forests and meadows. These are among the first flowers to bloom after the snow melts, often forming dramatic carpets with their white, nodding flowers.

Avalanche Lily is found along the Cascade crest, from British Columbia south to Oregon (USDA)

Avalanche Lily is found along the Cascade crest, from British Columbia south to Oregon (USDA)

In Oregon, Avalanche Lily has been reported in the northern and central Oregon Cascades, along the high ridges of our basin-and-range country and on a remote outpost on Saddle Mountain, near Astoria (USDA)

In Oregon, Avalanche Lily has been reported in the northern and central Oregon Cascades, along the high ridges of our basin-and-range country and on a remote outpost on Saddle Mountain, near Astoria (USDA)

Avalanche Lily flowers are white with a yellow base, and thus similar in appearance to Oregon Fawn Lily. But Avalanche Lily is much smaller, growing just 6-8″ tall — an adaptation to their harsh mountain habitat. Their leaves are bright green, shiny and strap-shaped, growing 4-8″ long and 1/2″ wide. Notably, they lack the mottled leaf pattern of the Oregon Fawn Lily, the surest way to distinguish between these species.

Typical field of Avalanche Lily (USDA)

Typical field of Avalanche Lily (USDA)

By the time most hikers make it into the high country in mid-summer, Avalanche Lily blooms have often faded, and have been replaced by distinctive 3-sided seedpods that will ripen by late summer. Like the Oregon Fawn Lily, Avalanche Lily dies back in fall after forming a seedpod and goes dormant, with their underground bulb safely insulated from winter weather.

Avalanche Lily was among the few plants to survive the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire on Mount Hood

Avalanche Lily was among the few plants to survive the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire on Mount Hood

Their bulbs give lilies a distinctive advantage in fire zones, as witnessed after Mount Hood’s Dollar Lake Fire, in 2011. After the winter snows had cleared from the burn in 2012, avalanche lilies emerged from the charred landscape to burst into bloom, once again – their bulbs unaffected by the heat of the fire. Surprisingly, their bulbs are also an important food for bears in areas where Avalanche Lilies grow in abundance.

Avalanche Lily can be found along much of the Timberline Trail and its approaches in early summer. The upper section of the Mazama Trail, in particular, has the reliably prolific display.

Glacier Lily
Erythronium grandiflorum

Glacier Lily

Glacier Lily

The third in the trio of Erythronium lilies is the Glacier Lily, a distinctive little plant with bright yellow flowers. These are generally alpine and subalpine meadow flowers, but in Oregon, they also thrive in the Columbia River Gorge, where they seek out mossy outcrops, hanging meadows and forest margins.

Glacier Lily is so abundant in the Gorge that hikers who haven’t seen them in their more typical mountain setting probably wonder about their common name. But in alpine areas, Glacier Lily is found in the same habitat as Avalanche Lily, where they are among the first flowers to emerge and bloom after snowmelt.

Glacier Lily has the greatest range of the Erythronium lilies and are found throughout the Mountain West (USDA)

Glacier Lily has the greatest range of the Erythronium lilies and are found throughout the Mountain West (USDA)

In Oregon, Glacier Lilies are found in mountain areas across the state (USDA)

In Oregon, Glacier Lilies are found in mountain areas across the state (USDA)

The leaves and growth habit of Glacier Lily looks much like those of their cousin, the Avalanche Lily. Their leaves are bright green, 4-8″ in length and about 1/2″ wide. Their stems are typically 6-12″, though tiny, stunted versions growing just 2-3″ in height can be found in more exposed locations in the Columbia Gorge.

This diminutive Glacier Lily on Mitchell Point in the Columbia Gorge is just 2" tall

This diminutive Glacier Lily on Mitchell Point in the Columbia Gorge is just 2″ tall

Glacier Lily flowers are carried one or two per stem, and are typically lemon yellow, with cream or yellow anthers. Like the Avalanche Lily, these early blooming plants produce a seedpod by late summer, then die back to their bulb and go dormant before re-emerging the following spring.

A favorite habitat for Glacier Lilies in the Columbia Gorge is atop boulders, like this one along Moffett Creek, where they form blooming, yellow "caps" in spring

A favorite habitat for Glacier Lilies in the Columbia Gorge is atop boulders, like this one along Moffett Creek, where they form blooming, yellow “caps” in spring

Their distinctive yellow color makes it easy to differentiate Glacier Lily from the white-flowered Avalanche Lily and Fawn Lily, but there’s a catch: it turns out a surprisingly similar flower from the Fritillaria family known as Yellow Bells does a pretty good job of masquerading as a Glacier Lily at first glance. In the Columbia Gorge, the two flowers commonly grow in close proximity, and bloom at about the same time, making it easy to confuse the two.

Yellow Bells are a member of the Fritillaria family, and often grow in close proximity to Glacier Lily in the Columbia Gorge

Yellow Bells are a member of the Fritillaria family, and often grow in close proximity to Glacier Lily in the Columbia Gorge

But upon closer inspection, the flowers are quite different. Where Glacier Lily matures to form open, flared blossoms, Yellow Bells behave true to their name, with a tight, bell-shaped blossom and straight petals. Once you spot this difference, it’s easy to distinguish between these similar neighbors at a glance.

Glacier Lilies can be found in April and early May on most Gorge trails that traverse open slopes and steep meadows. One reliable place to see them is on the Lower Starvation Loop, where they are sprinkled across the hanging meadows in late April. For hardy hikers, they can also be seen in April on the airy crest of Munra Point.

Botanical note: sources for this article include the USDA, Mark Turner and Phyllis Gustafson’s Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest and Russ Jolley’s Wildflowers of the Columbia Gorge.

After the Dollar Lake Fire

The Dollar Lake Fire from Bald Butte on September 3, 2011

On August 26, 2011, a lightning strike ignited what was to become the Dollar Lake Fire, on Mount Hood’s rugged north side. The fire started in the Coe Branch canyon, just below the Elk Cove trail, and was spotted by numerous hikers.

Initially, it seemed small and manageable. But over the next few days and weeks, arid conditions and strong winds spread the fire from Stranahan Ridge on the east to Cathedral Ridge on the northwest side of the mountain, eventually consuming some 6,300 acres of high elevation forest. The blaze burned through September and into early October, when fall rains finally arrived.

Hot spot erupts along Stranahan Ridge on September 3, 2011

Some of the burn was of the beneficial form, a mosaic fire leaving islands of surviving trees, but much of the fire was too hot and the accumulated forest fuel too plentiful to prevent devastating crown fires from sweeping across the forest. Eventually, the fire destroyed most of the standing timber and burned the forest duff down to mineral soil throughout most of the burn area.

The fire was contained entirely within the Mount Hood Wilderness, thanks to the recent Clear Branch additions that expanded the wilderness boundary on the north to encompass the Clear Branch valley and the high country surrounding Owl Point, to the north. While this complicated fire fighting, it has also created a living laboratory for forest recovery, as the USFS is unlikely to assist the reforestation process inside the wilderness boundary. The Forest Service map, below, shows the broad extent of the fire.

Final extent of the Dollar Lake Fire (outlined in red)

Though the fire burned to the tree line in several spots, a surprising amount of terrain along the iconic Timberline Trail was somehow spared. While the burn touched Elk Cove and Cairn Basin, WyEast Basin and Barrett Spur are well beyond the burned area. The Clear Branch wilderness additions to the north were mostly spared, as well.

The New Vista Ridge: After the Fire

The following is a photo essay from my first visit to the burn, on June 22, 2012, and is the first in what will eventually be a series of articles on the aftermath of the fire.

The devastation left by the fire is awesome to witness, but also starkly beautiful when you consider the context of a forest fire. After all, this event is part of the natural rhythm of the forest just as much as the changing of seasons.

From this point forward, we will have a front-row seat to the miracle of life returning to the fire zone, much as we’ve watched life return to the Mount St. Helens blast zone over the past 32 years. And as my photos show, the rebirth of the forest ecosystem has already begun on Mount Hood’s northern slopes.

Untouched trailhead at Vista Ridge.

From the Vista Ridge trailhead, I followed the Vista Ridge Trail to the snow line, above about 5,000 feet. The Vista Ridge trailhead is completely untouched, though the fire swept through a vast area immediately to the south. Yet, no sign of the fire is evident at the trailhead marker (above).

A bit further up the trail, at the Old Vista Ridge trailhead, the fire zone comes into view. Where green forests existed last summer, browned foliage and a burned forest floor spread out east of the junction. This fringe of the fire is of the healthy “mosaic” form, sparing large trees, while clearing accumulated forest debris.

Old Vista Ridge trailhead spared by fire… just barely.

An unexpected benefit of the fire came last fall, when the USFS added the long-neglected Old Vista Ridge trail to official agency fire maps (below) released to the public. Volunteers began restoring this beautiful trail in 2007, but formal acknowledgement of the route on USFS maps is a welcome development.

Welcome development: Old Vista Ridge trail reappears on USFS fire fighting maps

Clearly, the restoration of the Old Vista Ridge trail helped fire fighters reach this area, and could have served as a fire line had the blaze swept north, across the Clear Branch. Hopefully this is an indication that the Old Vista Ridge trail will someday reappear on the USFS maintenance schedule, too.

Turning south on the Vista Ridge trail from the Old Vista Ridge junction, the wilderness registration box and map board seem to have received divine intervention from the fire — the blaze burned within a few feet of the signs, yet spared both. From here, the Vista Ridge trail abruptly leaves the scorched fringe of the fire, and heads into the most devastated areas.

Vista Ridge trail signs were spared… by divine guidance?

A few yards up the Vista Ridge trail, the devastation quickly intensifies.

From about the 4,700 foot level, the Dollar Lake Fire burned the forests along Vista Ridge to bare earth. In this area, the entire forest crowned, leaving only a scattering of surviving trees where protected by topography or sheer luck. Forest understory, woody debris and duff burned to mineral soil, leaving a slick, muddy surface of ash. For those who have hiked through the previous Bluegrass Fire or Gnarl Fire zones on the east slopes of Mount Hood, this eerie scene is familiar.

The surprisingly intact trail curves through the devastated forests along Vista Ridge.

Crown fires have killed almost all of the standing forests along Vista Ridge.

Amid the devastation in this hottest part of the Dollar Lake Fire, signs of life are already emerging. At this elevation, one of the toughest survivors is beargrass, a member of the lily family with a deep rhizome that allows plants to survive even the hottest fires. These plants are normally evergreen, but were completely scorched in the fire. The new grown in this photo (below) has emerged this spring.

Beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) emerges from underground rhizomes protected from the fire.

Another surprise is avalanche lily, one of the more delicate flowers in the subalpine ecosystem. Like beargrass, these plants survive thanks to a bulb located deep enough in the soil to escape the heat of the fire. As one of the early bloomers in the mountain forests, these plants area already forming bright green carpets in the sea of fire devastation (below).

Avalanche Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum) emerging from the ashes.

A ribbon of green, these Avalanche Lilies are emerging along the Vista Ridge trail.

Another of the beneficial aspects of the fire comes into view a bit further up the trail: several sections of Vista Ridge had long been overgrown with thickets of overcrowded, stressed trees that were ripe for a burn.

Over the coming years, these areas are likely to evolve into beargrass and huckleberry meadows like those found at nearby Owl Point or along Zigzag Mountain, where fires have opened the landscape to sun-loving, early succession plants.

Unhealthy forest thickets cleared by fire — a beneficial outcome of the blaze.

One human artifact was uncovered by firefighters — a coil of what must be telephone cable (below). This is a first along the Vista Ridge trail, but makes sense given the insulators and cable found along the Old Vista Ridge trail.

It’s hard to know what this connected to, but on the north end, it served the old Perry Lake Guard Station and lookout, just east of Owl Point. It’s possible this line extended to the Bald Mountain lookout, though I have been unable to verify this on historic forest maps.

Telephone cable on Vista Ridge – gathered up and coiled by firefighters?

Though much of the devastation zone still consists of blackened trees and soil, some of the burned forest has begun to evolve into the uniquely attractive second phase. This happens when scorched bark peels away from trees to reveal the often beautiful, unburned wood beneath.

Soon, all of the trees in this forest will shed their bark. The skeletons of thousands of trees will emerge in colors of red, yellow and tan, then gradually fade to a bleached gray and white with time.

The burned trees of Vista Ridge are just beginning to shed their blackened bark, revealing beautiful trunks unscarred by the fire.

Mount Hood rises behind the new ghost forests of Vista Ridge

This second phase of the fire is helped along by winter snow. As the scene above shows, the freeze-thaw and compacting effects of the snow pack have already stripped many trees of their bark beneath the now-melted snowpack. Hot summer sun will continue this process, shrinking the remaining bark until it drops from the drying tree trunk.

This process of de-barking is the first in a post-fire sequence of events that will recycle much-needed organic matter to the forest floor. Twigs and tree limbs will soon fall, and over time, whole trees will begin to drop. This is a critical phase in stabilizing the forest soil, when low vegetation is still just beginning to re-establish in the fire zone.

Strips of tree bark are the first organic layer to accumulate on the floor of the burn zone.

The next few images show the extent of the Dollar Lake Fire, as viewed from Vista Ridge. To the east (below), The Pinnacle was mostly burned, but the fire somehow missed stand of trees just below the north summit.

These trees will play an important role in reforestation of the area, partly because so few trees survived the fire, but also because of their geographic location above the surrounding forest, where wind will widely scatter their seeds.

The Pinnacle, where a small grove of of trees on the north slope survived the fire.

To the south, the area above Elk Cove known as 99 Ridge (shown below) was partly spared, though the fire did scorch the east slopes of the ridge. From this side (to the west), the Timberline Trail corridor was almost completely spared. Ironically, Dollar Lake — the namesake for the fire — appears to have been spared, as well.

To the west of 99 Ridge, WyEast Basin was also spared, but the area along the Timberline Trail to the west of the basin, along the upper sections of Vista Ridge, was largely burned.

Forests along 99 Ridge were spared by the fire.

This panoramic view (below) encompasses the entire mid-section of the fire, from Stranahan Ridge on the horizon to Vista Ridge, on the right. This is a new viewpoint along a largely unnoticed rocky scarp on the east shoulder of Vista Ridge, now revealed thanks to the fire.

(Click here for a much larger panoramic view]

A Changed Landscape

Those who have explored Mount Hood’s north slopes over the years will surely mourn the loss of the beautiful forests of noble fir and mountain hemlock that once stood here — I certainly have. But this is also a chance to watch the ecosystem recover and restore itself over time, as it has for centuries. Among the surprising benefits are the new scenic vistas that are suddenly available, giving a bit more meaning to the name “Vista Ridge.”

The new views from Vista Ridge include Laurance Lake and Bald Butte, to the east.

By following the true ridge top of Vista Ridge, the new views extend east across Laurance Lake and the Clear Branch valley to Bald Butte and the Columbia Basin (above). Most of the area below the ridge is not burned, and this new perspective on the recent additions to the Mount Hood Wilderness is both unexpected and beautiful.

To the north, the new views include the rugged and little-known Owl Point area of the expanded Mount Hood Wilderness (reached by the Old Vista Ridge trail). Mount Adams rises in the distance, above the talus fields and meadows of Owl Point.

Owl Point and Mount Adams from newly revealed viewpoint on Vista Ridge.

This suddenly very scenic “true” ridge along the lower portion of Vista Ridge is easy enough to hike by simply following the ridge top where the existing trail heads into a narrow draw, about one-half mile from the Old Vista Ridge trail junction. It’s worth the visit if you’d like to inspect the scenery and Dollar Lake Fire up-close.

But in the spirit of recasting the Vista Ridge trail in the aftermath of the fire, and taking in these new views, now would be the perfect time to simply realign the trail along the ridge top. As shown on the map (below), this project could be done in a weekend by volunteers, if approved by the Forest Service.

(Click here for a larger map]

The fire has already done the heavy work of trail building by clearing the ground to mineral soil: designing and completing a realigned trail here would be quite straightforward. The slope of the ridge top, itself, is surprisingly gentle and would allow for an easy grade, similar to the current trail.

I hope to pitch this idea to the Forest Service, so if you’re interested in getting involved, watch the Portland Hikers forum for updates. That’s where volunteer work parties will be organized if there is interest from the USFS.

Until then, take the time to explore the fire zone, and watch the unfolding forest recovery firsthand. Visit the Portland Hikers Field Guide for directions to the Vista Ridge Trailhead.