One highlight of this trip is driving to the mountain in spring time. The rough road leaves the freeway and rapidly climbs into the hills south of the mountain. One does not appreciate these from the valley below, but once in them their beauty and enormity can is quite impressive. The whole world is a bright green, basin after basin of bunchgrass and sage.
Also of interest is the vegetation zones one sees on this drive; there are five in all. The start passes through low elevation, xeric rock outcrops with mahogany, bluebunch wheatgrass and a few small cacti. Soon the arid flora and rock outcrops give way to straight slopes and rounded hills of the Canyon Grassland vegetation type. These are also dominated by the bluebunch, but blue grasses, June grass and fescues among others are present along with a plethora of forbs. Sage brush can give the landscape a blue-green hue in areas. Next is the juniper zone. These large shrubs or small trees mark the lower end of the larger woody vegetation and will soon be followed by a mixed coniferous forest. Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir occur in the drier areas with grand fir and western larch situated in the moister and sheltered slopes. Stands of aspen are situated throughout giving the overstory diversity. The pyramid of the mountain itself marks the extent of the upper tree line. Only a few stunted fir trees exist with the cool north aspect supporting grasses, sedges and a variety of forbs with the warmer south end similar but with some sage.
After the interesting ecological tour I arrived at the gate of the summit road. There is only room for one car to park. A dense band of tall shrubs separates the perfect summit pyramid from the parking area so I walk on the road to the first switchback on the northeast corner of the mountain. From here I headed straight up the slope toward the summit. The footing was good, but sometimes a bit spongy in the dense sticky phlox (Phlox viscida) that covered the ground in hot pink and bright purple mats. There were a few stunted fir Douglas fir trees, boulders and snow patches.
The top was a bit of a downer. I realized there were buildings and such on the summit, but the size of the building and all the communications equipment was much more development than I had anticipated. But the incredible view made up for it. Big Lookout Mountain is the highest peak in its neighborhood and gives a clear 360 degree view. To the north the spectacular Wallowa Mountains were still decked in snow. The Blue Mountains to the west and the expansive semi-desert rangelands to the south filled out the view of Oregon. Looking east across the broad expanse of the Snake River Canyon, the endless mountains of north-central Idaho filled the view beyond the horizon.
I was on top for only a short time due to a sudden icy wind. For the descent I chose the southeast pyramid corner, which would dump me out on the road just above the shrub belt separating me from the truck. This aspect is much drier and once off the top the temperatures actually got a bit warm here. There was a lot of sage brush and later season forbs to look at. Most notably was desert phlox (Phlox austromontana), which is a Great Basin species that reaches its northern limit on the slopes of mountains in eastern Oregon and adjacent Idaho.
The drive out was not as nice because the higher sun did not light the world up the way it did in the morning. Also I was glad I came early because there were a fair number of people now heading up the road. But I was able to keep it interesting with several stops for pictures and to make some interesting botanical collections. Soon I was back at the freeway and heading to the in-laws where I was staying. The mountains saved me from them again, but unfortunately it couldn’t last forever.