Bluff Mountain trail: Big views, wildflowers galore

By Al Thomas, Columbian Outdoors Reporter

Published:

 

Follow Gifford Pinchot National Forest road No. 41 from Sunset campground for 9.1 miles to the unmarked trailhead. The parking lot is on the south side of the road at a sharp turn at the top of a ridge.

Eric Luchterhand of Portland rested at his car at the end of a 12-mile hike on Bluff Mountain trail to the summit of Silver Star Mountain and back.

“I can’t think of any other place where I can stand and see eight peaks in a 360-degree view,” he said.

His hiking partner, Rachel Moore, also was impressed with the big views from Bluff Mountain trail No. 172 in the southern Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

“Despite the tough footing the majority of the way, the spectacular view from Silver Star makes the entire 12.4 miles really worth it,” Moore said. “We only saw a handful of people the whole day, which makes the trail that much more enjoyable.”

Follow Gifford Pinchot National Forest road No. 41 from Sunset campground for 9.1 miles to the unmarked trailhead. The parking lot is on the south side of the road at a sharp turn at the top of a ridge.

Moore is correct: Bluff Mountain trail is rocky.

And here are other downsides:

o It’s a bumpy drive on road No. 41 for the 10 miles between Sunset Falls campground and the unmarked trailhead. Passenger cars can make it, but high-clearance vehicles are better.

o Most of the year the trail is dry, so don’t count on water available to filter or for dogs.

Now here’s the upside of Bluff Mountain trail.

o The grandeur of the views of Little Baldy and Silver Star mountains, with their open hillsides and rocky slopes, is special. It feels like being in the northern Rocky Mountains.

o The long-distance views of Mounts Hood, St. Helens, Adams, Rainier, Jefferson and the Three Sisters.

o A dazzling display of wildflowers with such a variety of species that the bloom is on from snowmelt in late spring until Labor Day.

Bluff Mountain trail is the eastern, and least-used, of the popular routes up Silver Star Mountain. The most popular way is from the trailhead at the end of road No. 4109. That’s the shortest way up and with the least elevation gain.

The also are trails and former routes coming in from the south, primarily from the Grouse Vista trailhead.

All are good, but Bluff Mountain trail is a long ridge-top route. The first two miles are on a long-abandoned road before the trail proper starts.

Nestled in the southwest corner of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Silver Star Mountain and its environs are very unlike most of the backcountry on the west side of the Cascades.

Burned by the Yacolt fire of 1902, plus a later fire, the 4,382-foot peak and its surrounding terrain are mostly treeless.

Silver Star is a wonderful mix of steep ridges, cliffs, talus slopes, upland meadows and an amazing diversity of wildflowers.

“Bluff Mountain is one the best ridge routes in Southwest Washington,” said Ryan Ojerio of the Washington Trails Association. “The wildflowers are exceptional and thanks to the scorching fires of the Yacolt Burn in the early 1900s the rocky ridges and meadows provide unobstructed views.”

Ojerio said WTA had a crew early this summer brushing out the east end of Bluff Mountain trail.

“My only complaint is the nearly 3-mile stretch off the eastern trailhead that is an old road grade that was never properly restored to nature or made into a sustainable trail,” he said.

The late Nicholas Dodge in his 1987 “Silver Star Mountain A Short History and Plant List” also touted the wildflowers.

“The variety and profusion of tiger lilies, penstemon, phlox, avalanche lilies and columbine present a tapestry of color equal to that found in the national parks of the Pacific Northwest,” Dodge wrote.

Add to Dodge’s flowers lots of lupine, paintbrush and beargrass.

The late Russ Jolley used to say Silver Star Mountain reminded him of eastern Oregon or northern California.

Jolley pretty much said it all in his 1976 book “Hiking the Gifford Pinchot Backcountry.”

“The views are unexcelled.”

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