In these worrisome times, connecting with nature provides great comfort, inspiration, and hope. And nature is never very far away. I’ve found it in my garden, on long walks through my neighborhood at dawn, and at the bird feeders hung outside my dining room windows.

The Cowiche Canyon Conservancy (CCC) provides Yakima with more places to get outside and breathe fresh air. However, that doesn’t mean that popular public places like this are safe refuges. CCC trails are currently open — and if you follow the rules the organization suggests to ensure that you and your family stay healthy outside, the CCC can keep them open.

Hiking CCC trails safely in the pandemic

  • Do not gather or move in groups other than those you live with.
  • Share the trail. Alert others when you are approaching. Pass at a safe distance (at least 6 feet).
  • Avoid outhouses and benches as they may contain germs.
  • If you have any symptoms of illness (coughing, sneezing, runny nose, fever, etc.), stay home.
  • Practice good hand hygiene. Wash your hands before and after hiking. Bring hand sanitizer. Use it.
  • Keep trails clean. Pack out your dog waste and garbage.
  • Avoid places and times of high use. Leave anywhere you cannot safely maintain 6 feet of distance from others.
  • Do not congregate in parking lots or at trailheads. Stay back until the gate is clear and you can enter safely.

In spite of all this — now is the perfect time to enjoy the splendor of wildflower season in the CCC. I’ll never forget my first visit 25 years ago. My best friend Betsy Frank, the Conservancy’s first executive director, had to drag me out there. That’s because our familiar shrub-steppe landscape is deceptive from a distance. What I could see from the road seemed uniformly brown, barren, and botanically uninteresting. Yet every spring, up close, the hills are alive with an array of brilliantly blooming plant communities. More than 200 species in riparian and shrub-steppe ecosystems provide a glimpse of the sublime that changes, week-by-week.

After all these years, I still knew little about local wildflowers, so a friend arranged a wildflower hike for us with David Hagen. David took his first hike in the Canyon more than 35 years ago and never really stopped. He joined the Conservancy’s board shortly after its inception in 1985. Over the years, he’s served as its president, trail builder, wildflower expert and eminent photographer.

Maybe it’s in his blood. After all, his father was the REI Cooperative’s 18th member. Hagen has a photo of himself as an infant, bundled in a homemade baby carrier, and toted by his wildflower loving parents on a hike near Mount Baker. Since then, he’s combined his own love of wildflowers and hiking with a passion for photography. After taking 4,500 photos in the Canyon, he has an ease and familiarity with every plant that grows out there.

Precipitation is the most critical and most unpredictable factor affecting wildflower bloom, and our Valley experienced a very dry winter and spring. David observed that this year’s wildflower parade pales in comparison to 2019. Abundant snowfall and spring precipitation last year made for the most dazzling wildflower shows anyone can remember.

Don’t think we were disappointed. We hiked the Uplands Trail off Scenic Drive, one of the most popular wildflower viewing sites in the state. 30,000 visitors passed through its entry gates last year. Greeting us was a cache of Sagebrush Violets. This diminutive is host to the Coronis Fritillary, a butterfly that starts and ends its life cycle in Conservancy habitat. Flying in from the mountains every September, female butterflies lay their eggs on puffs of dry violets; all that’s left of the dormant plants. First-stage caterpillars overwinter there unfed, and awaken in the spring to feed on violet leaves. They’ll escape the heat by returning again to the mountains for the summer.

Goldstars, Yellow Bells, Grass Widows, Foothills Onions and Thyme-leaf Buckwheat were also blooming. The Conservancy is well-known for supporting 12 different species of Lomatium, also known as biscuit root or desert parsley. We spotted a rare Lomatium lithosolamans, an endangered plant found nowhere else on Earth than on a few lithosols in Yakima and Kittitas counties.

Lithosols are extremely thin soils, consisting of partially weathered rock fragments, and often occur on steep slopes. While they have minimal water-holding ability, you often find the best wildflower displays on lithosols.

Don’t let all those seemingly fragile, dainty blossoms fool you. They were produced by the very toughest of plants. Many are perennials that survive by compressing their growth and seed production into the few short months when the weather is mild and moisture is most available. Then they die back, leaving underground roots to rest until the cycle begins again next season. Some are annuals that grow from seed each year and completely die in summer, avoiding the dry season altogether.

On most of these plants, leaves are often small and covered with hairs, powders, waxes, or oils that slow water evaporation. Some flower species have deep roots to search the soil for moisture that can be stored in leaves and stems.

This is the shrub-steppe ecosystem that Yakima developed in. Shrubs, mainly in the form of sagebrushes and bitterbrushes, are found where the soil is relatively deep. At night, 6-foot taproots pull moisture up and distribute it to shallow branching roots near the surface. Tiny hairs on the thick leaves of sagebrushes slow evaporation from heat and wind. Shrubs capture plant litter, which breaks down and adds to soil fertility and provides shade for understory plants.

Steppes are low-rainfall natural grasslands. Bunch grass grows in tufts or bunches from a single root, and you’ll find it throughout the Conservancy. The foliage provides an “umbrella” to shield the root system from sun and evaporation. Their funnel-like growth pattern directs precious rainfall into the center of the grass, where it’s captured by the roots. The most typical species here is Bluebunch Wheatgrass. A “cool season” perennial, its growth is mainly in spring and early summer, when soil moisture is available. Needle and Thread Grass and Indian Rice Grass grow in even drier soils. At higher elevations, look for Idaho fescue.

In the spaces between, you’ll find the wildflowers. The extravaganza of bloom peaks in the spring, but continues into the fall, thanks to some late-blooming species.

Cryptobiotic soil crusts knit these diverse plant communities together. Composed of living organisms such as lichens, mosses, and algaes, the crust captures nutrients and stabilizes the soil. This enables a host of plant species to grab hold, germinate, and get growing. Make sure you stay on the trail, since disturbances to the crust can create openings for invasive plant species.

In the weeks to come, the bloom of a succession of native wildflowers will greet Conservancy visitors. They’ll find Buckwheats, Balsamroots, Phloxes, Lupines, Vetches, Penstemons, Lomatiums, Sages, Shooting Stars, Wallflowers, Blue Bells, Camas, Columbine and Larkspur.

The Conservancy owns 2,300 acres and helps manage another 3,000 acres in partnership with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. Cowiche Creek winds between the towering basalt and andesite cliffs of Cowiche Canyon, six miles west of downtown Yakima. A 2.9 mile unpaved trail runs along the canyon floor and was once an old rail line that moved fruit between Yakima, Tieton, and Cowiche. In addition to the Canyon Trail, the 2.3 mile South Rim Trail connects the Uplands trail system from east to west. The Uplands and Lone Pine Trails originate in the Uplands of Cowiche Canyon along the lithosol and shrub-steppe zone and drop sharply into the riparian area of the Canyon along Cowiche Creek. There are four trailheads that connect into the Cowiche Canyon trail system: Cowiche Canyon East, Cowiche Canyon West (Weikel), Scenic (Uplands), and Summitview.

Snow Mountain Ranch covers 2,000 acres, with an elevation gain of over 1,000 feet from the South Fork of Cowiche Creek to the summit of Cowiche Mountain. You’ll find 10 miles of unpaved trails accessible from the parking lot on Cowiche Mill Road. A short trail leads down to a bridge crossing Cowiche Creek. From there, you’ll find a range of trails of varying length and elevation gain.

Rocky Top is a trail network located west of Summitview Avenue, 10 miles from downtown Yakima. Nearly 15 miles of single track trails were designed for mountain biking, and are also popular with hikers. The trail system is maintained by Single Track Alliance of Yakima.

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