My son and I got away for a quick and easy overnight this week, fairly close to home in the northern Clearwater Mountains. The landscapes of eastern Washington and northern Idaho make a great smooth sweep from the Columbia river to the Northern Rockies, rising steadily from scabland deserts through the rolling, fertile hills of the Palouse, into wooded hills and lushly forested mountains, and finally the higher peaks or the Bitterroot Range on the Montana border. The Clearwater Mountains are basically the final 25% of that sweep.
The Clearwaters aren’t terribly high or rugged by western standards, though they do have their bigger peaks, granite outcrops and glacier-carved terrain. But they are vast and lush, an enormous acreage of rolling subalpine ridges covered in thick forests and laced with luminously clear rivers and creeks. Many parts of them, especially to the north, have been heavily roaded and logged, but significant wild pieces remain, some protected, most not. But the region is big and tangled enough that grizzlies have been making inroads in recent years.
Our hike was an easy one to Grandmother Mountain, through shady woods, small meadows and outcrops of metamorphic rocks gleaming in the sun. We camped on the smooth slabs of one such outcrop with a view of endless green and hazy ridges.
The flowers weren’t quite in full swing, but there were some excellent patches.
The northern Clearwaters are largely made of metamorphosed sedimentary rocks, outcrops the were high enough not to be buried by the Columbia flood basalts or the Palouse silts to the west. Here the rock was mostly heavily micaceous schist, and the mica absolutely glowed and shimmered in the light. I’ve long had a yearning to photograph the kind of sparkles one sees in such rocks, but it’s a very difficult thing to achieve. I’ve had many failures over the years, and this time was no exception, though one image perhaps hints at capturing the shine of these stones.
It’s been a blessedly mellow fire season so far up north, but there are some blazes starting to pop up. The haze was glowing as we looked west during dinner.
This patch of the northern Clearwaters has some 35,000 roadless acres, definitely enough to be legally designated a respectable wilderness area. Jurisdictional problems and logging pressures have so far prevented that from happening. It’s a pity, because the hiking is quite good (even if the access road was lousy), the habitat is fine, and the place could play a much needed role as a relatively pristine island in a region that really needs more protected land and venues for primitive recreation.
Eli looking back at Grandmother Mountain from the road:
The northern Clearwaters may not be the most dramatic country in the West, but they are a beautiful and vibrant landscape.