Kelly Butte - Trip Report

Alexander Wright

"Rock garden" along the road near the trailhead. White fluffy flowers are Eriogonum compositum var. compositum; the other silvery plant is Luina hypoleuca.

Four of us hearty NWNARGS folk gathered on July 9, 2016, to hike up Kelly Butte, in far southeastern King County. Kelly Butte is an old volcanic plug, which likely erupted about 20 million years ago. It's a short hike, 1.5 miles one direction, usually with fantastic views of Mount Rainier and the Stuart Range... That is, unless the peak is stuck in the middle of a cloud, as it was for us. So, bundled against the soaking mist and with eyes bent downwards for optimum flower finding, we leapt from the truck and proceeded to explore.

Our first expedition was to a small rock outcrop on a spur road just above the trailhead. The early season had left us some treasures here, including hundreds of luminous Eriogonum compositum var. compositum and a few large Penstemon rupicola, the latter demonstrating just how saturated and brash its pink flowers can be. Unfortunately the Luina hypoleuca was out of bloom, but its foliage mirrored the silver sky at our feet, but more grandly on the rock amphitheater above our heads, where its fuzzy undersides could see us en masse - as above, so below, and in the middle too, for good measure.

The first third of the actual trail is a narrow, rutted road to the one-time trailhead. We succeeded in identifying the leaves of Anemone oregana, but its deep blue flowers were nowhere to be seen, another victim of the early spring.

The view on the way up.

Our intrepid band of explorers

Penstemon rupicola

Halfway up the trail, a trunk showing fire damage.

The second half-mile, however, is a series of switchbacks up the crenelated ramparts of the volcanic plug, and then up the dry meadows below the plateau. In the gullies between rock towers, thin vine maple woods sheltered Castilleja hispidaC. miniata, Polystichum lonchitis, and generous dollops of purple in the form of Penstemon serrulatus. Climbing higher, Arctostaphylos nevadensis/A. uva-ursi and Juniperus communis give way to sedge grasslands with wide mats of Penstemon procerus var. tolmiei, now almost all finished blooming.

 

The meadows are sandy, covered in volcanic ash and overlaying the decomposing rockslides that still streak through. One such rockslide, about halfway to the plateau, hosts a dual population of Artemisia michauxiana and Woodsia oregana, the former a frilly and pleasingly citrus-scented mugwort which partly redeems its relations' reputation for thuggishness in the garden, the latter a pert little rock fern which at least survives in cultivation! I hadn't noticed on previous trips, but also laced throughout the rock here is Campanula rotundifolia - unfortunately past bloom, except in small patches in the adjacent meadow edges. Also unfortunately, I failed to relocate the Artemisia I had once found here that had leaves smelling not of lemon, but of artificial banana... Clearly, all of horticulture is the poorer for its absence.

The upper slopes appear to have once been forested: Charred logs litter the ground, and some still stand. The loss of the trees, however, is a boon to the botanist, and even so far into the season, Castilleja miniataAchillea millefolium, and Sedum divergens lit the ground as the sky got less silver and more gray. We also found, all in the high-disturbance but low-competition powdered trailside, Campanula scouleri, a Botrychium (grapefern) species, and yellow mutations of both Castilleja miniata and Lilium columbianum.

 

Arriving at the summit plateau, which occupies most of the last half-mile, my heart sank. Where usually the beargrass blooms by the thousands, and so densely that it turns into a cream-colored haze against the distant trees, this year almost no blooms were forthcoming. The best we could figure, the plant must form its flowerheads the summer before they bloom, so massive are they, and that the droughty summer of 2015 simply didn't allow for good bud set. And as below, so above, as the bright sky turned a deeper gray.

 

The rock crest that forms the summit, thankfully, was still in bloom, with the Penstemon procerus var. tolmiei that had disappointed us below charmed in shades of deep blue, royal purple, and even lightest pink and pure white. Pedicularis contorta studded the meadows in between the copses below, and Saxifraga austromontana (long considered part of S. bronchialis) joined with Sedum divergens and two Selaginella - S. wallacei and a delightful dwarf form, probably S. scopulorum - to clothe the rockier parts beneath the restored lookout. Of course, we had no views for lunch, so we had to rely on our packed foodstuffs to fill us. Thankfully, however, there was a handy guide to the many mountain peaks that are usually visible.

Campanula scouleri in the rocky meadows halfway up

Penstemon procerus var. tolmiei on rocks at the summit

Considering ourselves sufficiently taunted, two of us explored the scree slope to the northwest of the lookout. Here, the several-hundred-foot cliffs that drop from the north edge of the summit ridge to a pair of very cold-looking ponds (and which hide so stealthily in the mist) peter out into a dry, yellow rockslide, further yellowed by a delightfully unlovely composite: Packera flettii, more typical of the Olympics, but well-known from the ridges hiding behind Mount Rainier. Regrouping for the knee-pounding back down the mountain, we examined the fluting in the summit cliffs for plants, and found Castilleja rupicola, by now almost out of red in its bracts and relying on the burgundy of its photosynthetic leaves. There might have been an interesting saxifrage relative, but for now we shall call it Prudence Forbids.

 

Packera flettii in scree just northwest and down from the summit

A view from the cliffs at the summit, looking north into the clouds.

Pedicularis contorta in meadows immediately below the summit

As we lowered our elevation walking back down the Butte, the sky was lowering as well, but we still decided, on my borderline irresponsible suggestion, to try to find the wagon ruts at Government Meadows, just west of Naches Pass. Almost obliterated by recreational vehicles now, this wagon road was for a brief while the main migrant route between Walla Walla and the Seattle area. Getting to the vicinity is easy, and the road is broad and well-compacted (one must have standards when one is preparing to splash wildlife-remains-laced mud onto one's wing mirrors). Finding the ruts, however, proved more than a match for our mapless intuition. We followed signs and maintained roads, eventually ending up at a campground of sorts in an old clearcut, faced by a lichened palisade of still-photosynthesizing lumber. We then tried an almost-as-nice branch road, and found no ruts - only a well-sized herd of elk. Content with the ungulates, we began to descend to the lowlands in a gentle, tickling rain. (Examining the maps afterwards, it turns out we should have taken the left-but-not-a-hard-left up the iffy-looking road at that one bend - you know the place.)

Traces from some rodent, possibly a vole - they create burrows under the snow, but on the surface of the ground.

Artemisia michauxiana above a Woodsia fern. I think it was W. oregana, but there's a chance it was W. scopulina...

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