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Originally published Thursday, July 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Karen Sykes: Head for the hills, hikers — it's wildflower season

Veteran hiker Karen Sykes offers three of her favorite Washington wildflower hikes. The high-country wildflower season will peak in coming weeks.

Special to The Seattle Times

If You Go

Wildflower hikes

Ingalls Creek trail

Ingalls Creek Trail to Falls Creek Camp: 12 miles round-trip (1,450 feet elevation gain). Maps: Green Trails maps No. 209 Mount Stuart and No. 210 Liberty.

Getting there: From Seattle drive east on Interstate 90 to Exit 85 (Highway 970 North, which merges with Highway 97). About 12.5 miles north of Blewett Pass turn left on Ingalls Creek Road, continue to trailhead. Fill out an Alpine Lakes Wilderness permit. Allow about 2.5 hours drive time.

Grand Park

Grand Park from Lake Eleanor ("backdoor route"): about 6 miles round-trip (1,000 feet elevation gain). Maps: Green Trails No. 238 Greenwater and No. 270 Mount Rainier East.

Getting there: Via Forest Service Road 73: From Enumclaw head east about 24 miles on Highway 410, turn right on Forest Service Road 73. Cross Huckleberry Creek at about 6 miles, stay on Road 73 (right); at 8.5 miles turn right at junction and at 10 miles find the unsigned trailhead at Eleanor Creek, elevation 4,500 feet, no facilities. Allow about 2 hours drive time from Seattle. Check road conditions before you go; call the Snoqualmie Ranger District (Enumclaw) at 360-825-6585.

Esmeralda Basin

Esmeralda Basin trail to Fortune Creek Pass: 7 miles round-trip (1,750 feet elevation gain). Map: Green Trails No. 209 Mount Stuart.

Getting there: From Seattle head east on I-90 to Exit 85 (Highway 970 North). In 7 miles turn left on Teanaway River Road, continue past 29 Pines Campground where pavement ends and Forest Road 9737 begins. Continue on Road 9737 to road end and trailhead, elevation 4,200 feet. Fill out a permit at the trailhead — dogs (leashed) are allowed on the Esmeralda Basin trail but not Ingalls Lake. Allow about 2.5 hours drive time from Seattle.

Traveler's tip

A Northwest Forest Pass is required for all these hikes.

More information

For Ingalls Creek conditions, call Wenatchee Ranger District, Leavenworth: 509-548-2550. For conditions, backcountry permits, rules and regulations at Mount Rainier National Park, call 360-569-2211 or see www.nps.gov/mora. For Esmeralda Basin conditions, call Cle Elum Ranger District, 509-852-1100.

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It's a bit like walking into a candy store on an empty stomach. Hikers know what I'm talking about. Flowers are popping out everywhere, so which trails are "best" for wildflower displays?

You can't always depend on guidebooks for an answer. Flowers are on their own schedule, not ours. Hence, guidebooks can only suggest the best time for wildflower displays.

Flowers bloom as early as March on the east side of the Cascades; a good reason to head east when westside trails are snowbound. Trails near Leavenworth, Ellensburg, Yakima, Wenatchee and the Columbia Gorge are good for early-season flowers. The best time to experience the flowers on Mount Rainier is mid-to-late July; flowers were starting at Paradise and Sunrise last week.

Mountain meadows are so fragile that you can practically feel them flinch as you approach. Stay on established trails; if you must hike cross-country, step on rocks whenever possible. Tread especially carefully on the tundralike terrain of Burroughs Mountain in Mount Rainier National Park.

Here are three favorite wildflower hikes you can try now.

Ingalls Creek

On the Ingalls Creek trail, in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness off the Blewett Pass highway, flowers bloom spring through summer. The wildflowers are near their peak now. On a recent hike we saw sego (mariposa) lilies and the rare mountain lady's slipper in addition to Indian paintbrush, mountain bluebells, tiger lilies and scarlet gilia.

Ingalls Creek is also a good hike. By early June hikers can usually get to Falls Creek camp at 6 miles. The trail is in good condition with gentle ups and downs; spurs invite leisurely lunch spots near the creek. The 15.5-mile trail eventually climbs to Stuart Pass (6,400 feet) and other spectacular destinations once snow melts.

Grand Park

Some of the finest wildflower displays we've seen are at Grand Park in Mount Rainier National Park.

There are two approaches: a trail from Sunrise that drops into Grand Park (uh oh, that means uphill on the way out). For a shorter hike with less gain you can also get there via the "backdoor" route from Highway 410 and Forest Road 73, a road that lives up to its reputation of gnarly. The hike begins in a forested stretch outside the park but enters the park almost immediately, passing Lake Eleanor (5,000 feet). The terrain gradually transitions from forest to meadows. By mid-July the meadows are a brilliant, shimmering sea of magenta paintbrush, Sitka valerian and lupine — with the added bonus of views of Mount Rainier. Silver snags with skirts of colorful mountain ash make this an excellent fall hike; look for blue gentians and asters in August as meadows transition from green to gold.

The bad news: When flowers are at their peak, so are mosquitoes. When we visited, the bugs were waiting for us at the trailhead and followed us into Grand Park. We hiked in rain gear and used up our insect repellent; some hikers resorted to head nets. Is battling mosquitoes too high a price to pay? We don't think so — the photographs and memories of wildflower displays last much longer than mosquito bites. Prepare as best you can; don't let bugs ruin the show.

Esmeralda Basin

Summer is ideal for wildflowers in the Teanaway, between Cle Elum and Leavenworth, though heat can be a factor by July. On a recent hike to Esmeralda Basin, about five miles southwest of Mount Stuart, purple shooting stars bordered the trail at lower elevations. Find them near streams and in boggy meadows. The trail continues through forest and meadows, eventually climbing through rocky, serpentine barrens toward Fortune Creek Pass with views of Esmeralda Peaks, Fortune Peak, Mount Daniel and more. At higher elevations we saw Western pasque flowers, Douglasia and spreading phlox.

Karen Sykes is a West Seattle-based freelance writer who regularly leads hikes for The Mountaineers. She is a co-author of "Best Wildflower Hikes: Washington" (The Mountaineers Books).

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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