Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Glacial Heritage Preserve, Prairie Appreciation Day

Glacial Heritage Preserve - May 8, 2010

Two Wildflower Hikes: Glacial Heritage Preserve (May 8, 2010) and the Westberg Trail (May 9, 2010)

After a couple of cloudy-rainy-day hikes on Tiger Mountain I was in need of sun and wildflowers. It so happened that my friend Lola was free on May 8th; happily that was also Prairie Appreciation Day at the Glacial Heritage Preserve. Since the preserve is open to the public only ONE day out of the year we weren’t going to miss it.

The preserve is one of the last remnants of a prairie system that once covered large areas of our state. The camas-covered prairies also provided food-gathering areas for Native Americans; today the preserve serves as an outdoor classroom for students to study the plants and ecology.

Only a few years ago the entire area was covered in Scots broom but volunteers have spent thousands of hours restoring the area to it’s natural habitat – thanks to funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Forest Foundation and the Nature Conservancy. Volunteers have removed and continue to remove Scots broom and plant native plants. The Scotch broom is removed by pulling, burning, mowing, controlled fire and some use of herbicides.

The preserve is owned by Thurston County Parks and Recreation – the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife manages a portion as well. The land was purchased in the late 1980s when private citizens realized the importance of prairies and their role in human and natural history

The Preserve is not only a sanctuary for wildflowers, it is also a home to over a hundred bird species ranging from peregrine falcons to western bluebirds. Several species of butterflies can also be seen here; there are even herds of black tail deer and elk.

When we arrived the parking area was rapidly filling up with visitors but we managed to squeeze in. First we picked up a brochure at the Welcome Booth designed for the self-guided trail (a loop) with designated areas of interest (marked by numbers). There was also a shorter loop for visitors wanting an easier walk – the long loop was just under four miles. There were also activities for children including a hay ride.

Even on our way into the preserve we’d noticed camas growing in nearby fields and along the road. Inside the preserve the grassy mounds and swales were a sea of blue – from the edge of the road all the way to the horizon. Common camas was an important food of Native Americans. Bulbs were dug up in the spring and then cooked in pits dug into the ground. In addition to common camas we saw a bit of death camas as well as western buttercup and spring gold. The brochure said we’d spot chocolate lilies though we failed to spot them.

There were 38 “stops” along the self-guided trail, each with an explanation in the accompanying brochure. In one area Garry oak trees are being released from the shade of Douglas fir and shore pine. The conifers grow faster than the oak trees and have a high tolerance for shade. Prior to settlements fires destroyed some of the conifers but the oak trees withstand fires better than the conifers. Some of the oaks here are over 150 years old; the conifers are much younger. Today controlled burns and cutting are used to maintain the presence of the oak trees.

There were several displays to visit as well; one dedicated to butterflies, another to birds, another to bats, another to native plants and more. We got a kick out of the wildflower displays where volunteers had set up giant homemade plants and fashioned bee wings for children to wear so they could go out and pollinate the flowers. They were, of course, encouraged to buzz as they pollinated the flowers. It was fun to watch them; they never had stuff like that for kids when I was growing up!

I could dedicate more pages to this event but better yet – for a taste of the prairie you can visit nearby Mima Mounds year-round. Right now would be a good time to go – here you will see mounds in the earth; no one can say for sure how the mounds were created. The mystery of the mounds continues to mystify the experts. We stopped by nearby Mima Mounds after our walk through the Glacial Heritage Preserve; there were fewer people here so we pretty much had the place to ourselves. We saw more common camas and flowers we’d seen in the nearby Preserve but there were tons of violets here as well.

Mima Mounds Natural Area: To get there: From Seattle go south via I-5 to 10 miles south of Olympia, get off at Exit 95, then go west on Maytown Road SW about 4 miles through the little town of Littlerock to a T intersection turn right onto Waddell Creek Road SW, continue 0.8 miles north and turn left. To get to the Glacial Heritage Preserve you’d turn left at the T intersection but the preserve will not be open to the public again until next year – UNLESS you’d like to volunteer some time to helping various organizations on their ongoing work in maintaining the preserve. If so, visit the website for The Nature Conservancy at http://www.nature.org/ or http://www.southsoundprairies.org/ for additional information. .

Westberg Trail – May 9, 2010

Last year I blogged about the Westberg Trail, a favorite trail that has become an annual event. The Westberg Trail is near Thorp on the east side of the mountains (see driving directions below). The trail is named to honor a popular high school coach (Ray Westberg) who died too young. There are memorials on the high point of the hike in addition to a memorial for Westberg. There’s even a summit register! The views of Mount Stuart from the trail are breathtaking, especially with clumps of golden balsamroot in the foreground and a green checkerboard of fields below. We made the mistake of not bringing a wildflower guide; never again!

In addition to “cow” clover and balsamroot we saw sagebrush violets, a variety of lomatiums, lupine, larkspur, sagebrush, serviceberry and flowers we could not identify. We missed out on seeing bitterroot this year – we were either too early or too late to see them.

After the climb to the memorial we continued hiking on a Green Dot DNR road (these roads are open to motorized vehicles) to a high point with views of Mount Rainier and a partial view of Mount Adams (in the distance). There’s a network of these Green Dot roads; one goes to an observatory but that is not open to the public.

It was the first “hot” hike of the year; shirt-sleeve weather has finally arrived! But if it’s flowers you want to see, go soon. The displays will soon be over.

Getting there: From Seattle head east on I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass and get off I-90 at Exit 110 (Thorp Highway) and turn right. In about two miles turn right again on Cove Road, go straight at two stop signs. Just past the second stop sign find parking on the right hand side of the road, just before a gravel road and the beginning of the hike, about six miles from I-90, elevation 1,850 feet. There are no facilities. No permits or passes required.

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