Where-To: Find Desert Wildflowers

Alan Majchrowicz   Website

Author: Scott Bowler  |  Published: July 28, 2023  | Category: Where-To

This article originally appeared in The Source on July 5, 2023.


Head east of Bend anytime between early spring into high summer to see Oregon’s high desert painted in color

I’m often asked, “Where can I go to find wildflowers?”

If I’m feeling snarky, I might reply, “Seriously!? Pretty much anywhere!”

But truthfully, while there are abundant locations in which to find beautiful flowers, several sites in Oregon’s high desert really stand out. Those areas are listed below in bloom order, beginning in early spring and extending into high summer. It’s important to note that in an exceptionally cold and wet winter like 2022-23, start dates might be later than “usual” by a month or more; conversely, in a dry and warm winter like 2021-22, bloom times were considerably earlier with flowers less abundant and long-lasting.

Early spring

Some of the first areas to show spring color will be places on southern-facing slopes, with deeper soils and minimal disturbance from grazing or vehicles. Just south of Prineville, one of my favorite spots this time of year is the short and scenic Chimney Rock trail, located above the Crooked River. It is an ideal location to spot Lewisia and other rock or cliff dwelling species. Following a dry and warm winter like 2021-22, the first flowers bloomed here around mid-February, while in 2022-23 first blooms were not seen until early April. Go more than once – it’s worth it.

Lupine (Lupinus), paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), and Prairie mallow (Sidalcea) join the blooming dance in mid-spring. Photo: Stu Garrett

listen

Greater Sage Grouse and Sparrows at Hart Mountain

Greater Sage Grouse and Sparrows at Hart Mountain

watch

Tibetan Monks Visit Sutton Mountain

Tibetan Monks Visit Sutton Mountain

success

Oregon’s first desert wilderness

Oregon’s first desert wilderness

Steens Mountain: Oregon’s first desert wilderness

On October 30, 2000, Congress passed the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act, finishing the work that had taken ONDA and the other members of the Steens-Alvord Coalition decades  

Steens Mountain is a land of startling contrasts: dramatic u-shaped

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Mid spring

A bit later in the season, find healthy sagebrush communities to the east and explore. During this time of year, you’ll find your options are as abundant as the wildflowers.

Northeast: A lovely hike close to Bend is the trail to Stein’s Pillar in the Ochocos, just east of Prineville. This very scenic trail takes you to the Pillar — an amazing geologic feature — and transits several distinct habitats with some unusual flower varieties. If you continue heading northeast toward Mitchell, another gorgeous area surrounds the Clarno Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, where there are plenty of trails offering stellar diversity and abundance — not to mention excellent views.

Also in the same general area, in the hills just to the south, is the spectacular Spring Basin Wilderness Area. This diverse and highly scenic landscape has great hiking with fantastic flower displays. Some of the real standouts there are the glorious magenta-pink hedgehog cacti, huge swaths of balsam root, Lupine, Calochortus, paintbrush and many others.

The blooms in this northeast region typically begin in early April into May or June, but expect start dates up to a month later due to a very wet spring.

Southeast: East of Bend, along US Highway 20, wander around Glass Buttes for breathtaking views of flowers from above. Go farther east, just west of Burns, and walk the excellent short nature trail at the Sage Hen Rest Area. If planning a multi-day adventure, continue east to the Owyhee Canyonlands and explore the higher hills traversed by the road into Leslie Gulch. This remote area is filled with lupine, balsamroot, paintbrush, owl’s clover and much more.

This year in particular, the Owyhee’s uplands should be top-notch due to the extra winter moisture. The wildflower season in the southeast region typically starts in late April and extends into May, but will certainly still be abundant in June of this year.

Late Spring

Late spring into early summer, two Wilderness Study Areas near the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument are fascinating to explore: Pat’s Cabin and Sutton Mountain. Both offer superb exploratory hiking, few visitors and great flower species diversity. These locations offer a fairly long season for wildflowers due to elevation changes and varied soil types and moisture levels.

At this time of year, you may also want to continue to explore Glass Buttes and Sage Hen Rest Area— you’ll hit the jackpot pretty much anytime you drive out that way.

Wyethia in full bloom in the Owyhee Uplands. Photo: Stu Garrett

 

Summer

Summer means higher-elevation areas will be open, and there are lots of possibilities to try.

Northeast: East of Prineville, Lookout Mountain in the Ochocos has quite amazing and abundant flower displays. A bit farther east but still close to Bend, the upper basin meadows and wetlands on the North or South Forks of the Crooked River are wonderful areas to spot wildflowers, with terrific hiking, camping and exploring options throughout.

These areas are typically at their peak from May into July, but perhaps later this year due to snow levels.

Southeast: There are some real stand-out higher elevation destinations in southeastern Oregon that deserve to be explored when they’re painted in color. Hart Mountain and Steens Mountain are scenic jewels all season long, but they especially shine in high summer. Not only will you see many marvelous flowers, but with a keen eye you’ll spot lots of wildlife, too. Hike up DeGarmo Canyon at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge or down to Wildhorse Lake on Steens. Perhaps try an overnight backpack trip so you can take time to really explore and enjoy the flower abundance and diversity.

And if you really want to get out there, find your way out to Anderson Crossing on the West Little Owyhee River and explore the canyon and uplands. You won’t regret it.

Now go: grab a flower guide, map your routes, take plenty of photos and have fun exploring Oregon’s desert wildflowers!

 

About the Author: Scott R. Bowler is a retired science educator and a volunteer with Oregon Natural Desert Association, a nonprofit organization that protects and restores Oregon’s high desert public lands and waters. Read more of his work at onda.org/author/scott-bowler.