Iron Mountain and Browder Ridge

Click to view some incredible wildflowers.

Our daughter Alicia’s 10-year high school reunion coincided with the 4th of July celebrations in Ashland this year. It’s remarkable how fresh are the memories of our arriving in Ashland in ’89 and Alicia’s first year in local schools. Fast forward to last week with us enjoying the city parade and Independence Day events in lovely Lithia Park, Alicia and many long-separated acquaintances reconnecting on our blanket in the shade at the bandshell, and thousands of passers-by energizing the festivities of this annual celebration.

The night before, we celebrated with a group of neighbors and friends who wished to toast Alicia’s graduation from PSU with her masters in social work. The meal and conversation blended nicely with the warmth of a summery evening, and a few of Alicia’s friends dropped by for drinks.

“You won’t believe the wildflower show happening right now just east of Sweet Home,” her friend and fellow-cyclist to Costa Rica informed us. Kate Richards is a botanist with the National Forest Service and told us exactly where we should go to see some of the best displays of wildflowers in Oregon. Well, that made planning pretty easy.

The drive to Sweet Home is a mere 4 hours from Ashland, and we continued on Highway 20 (AKA South Santiam River Highway) about 35 miles to our evening destination, House Rock Campground. The camp host is a disabled vet who was thrilled to share his excitement at landing this primo volunteer position located on a gorgeous bend of the So. Santiam river. We practically had the site to ourselves and gorged on our good fortune. The next morning, rather than breaking camp and scrambling to join the masses blissing in the flowers, we opted instead to explore the area around the campsite and discovered the remnants of the South Santiam Wagon Road that, as recently as 1905, connected Albany with Sisters with 105 miles of good highway. It’s now a terrific hike/bike trail that goes on and on, and the mile or so we walked was remarkable and well worth revisiting.

This visit, however, was inspired by the annual wildflower show in the nearby hills, and we weren’t disappointed. Our introduction to Oregon’s botanical wonderland was on Iron Mountain where, after a series of steep switchbacks, we summitted to what was once a lookout and is now an attractive viewing platform. The next day, however, was the bonanza. Alerted to the likelihood of heavy trail traffic at Iron Mtn. due to its proximity to the highway, an alternative was suggested that had us hike the 9 mile round trip to Browder Ridge, a couple miles to the south. This area is far less visited, a bit more challenging, and considerably more interesting—alternating meadows of bracken ferns and dense collections of multicolored flowers. One after the other; mile after mile. Truly breathtaking, and certainly worthy of additional exploration.

Our return via Highway 126 along the McKenzie River was lovely, and Sooney spent the better part of an hour poring over our maps trying to figure how to return to this area entirely on forest roads. It’s certainly doable, and far more interesting than the the I-5 corridor. Oregon offers so much diversity, and it’s amazing how enjoyable every adventure has been.