Butterfly Valley Botanical Area Nature Trail wildflower adventure

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Butterfly Valley Botanical Area is a specially designated botanical area in the Plumas National Forest a few miles north of Quincy, California. It is about 500 acres in size. It was designated as a botanical area in 1976 and currently hosts a Nature Study of 5 species of plants including the California pitcher plant, also known as the cobra lily (more about this plant later).

I learned about Butterfly Valley in connection with a recent hike on the Pacific Crest Trail not far from Quincy, and immediately resolved to return for a wildflower visit as soon as it was practical. A formalized list of vascular plants found in the botanical area exceeds 500 species, including significant biodiversity. The most famous of the plants is the California pitcher plant, but the list includes some 4 insectivorous plant species, 12 orchid species, 24 species in the lily family, numerous ferns, etc.

My visit was somewhat late in the spring wildflower season and therefore was kind of a tantalizing introduction to this special place. I’m sure there were many more wildflowers a bit earlier, but still my visit was highlighted by numerous wildflowers, many still unidentified (by me, anyway). In this post I’m including pictures of some that I thought were pretty, interesting, and/or photogenic.

Recently the Forest Service has constructed a nature trail that loops around the heart of the Botanical Area. My GPS data recorded 3.1 miles not counting a deliberate backtrack. I spent nearly an hour tromping around in the area where the pitcher plants are, so the actual loop distance without this tromping around would be somewhat less. But who would come here and not spend some time marveling at the stars of the wildflower show?

Finding the nature trail turned out to be a bit of an adventure, especially since I’m not familiar with the local roads. The way that visitors usually get there is via Blackhawk Rd, less than 0.3 miles north/west of the Forest Service’s Mt Hough Ranger Station on CA-70. When I arrived in the area I went to the ranger station for information and was given (partial) directions and a map to access via Butterfly Valley Rd. Unfortunately I continued to refer to some information I’d found on the internet regarding the Blackhawk Rd entry route, while trying to figure things out with the Butterfly Valley Rd map. No wonder the mileages, turns, road markings (where present), etc did not agree!

Eventually I did a full restart after nearly an hour of driving around and scratching my head. And I turned on my GPS to at least record my path for my subsequent edification. The first GPS track shows the two driving routes. The orange track is my path from CA-70 to the trailhead I’d actually found while driving around, and the grey part of the track is my exit path, which shows the approach via Blackhawk Rd.

GPS track - driving routes

GPS track – driving routes

In any case, during my pre-hike drive I stopped several times to investigate wildflowers that I saw along the road. One of the first was some chicory (Cichorium intybus). I’d also seen some along CA-70 driving into the area, so was planning to stop as soon as I saw some off the high-speed road. I see chicory often in Wisconsin but had not noticed it previously in California.

image of chicory

Chicory

There were several patches of brilliant pink everlasting pea (Lathyrus latifolius), also called perennial pea or sweet pea. I simply had to stop and investigate the colorful flowers!

photo of everlasting pea

Everlasting pea

Another bright pink flower also caught my eye. This one’s blossom is fluted, with a flare to an almost flat tip. I haven’t yet discovered what it is.

picture of tall bright pink wildflower along Butterfly Valley Rd

Tall bright pink wildflower along Butterfly Valley Rd

And yet another distinctive flower by the roadside was this one. The right picture shows the leaf structure at the lower part of the long stem, with separated platter-like layers of leaves. The left picture shows the pretty white blossoms.

image of tall white flower with layers of leaves

Tall white flower with layers of leaves

The information pamphlet provided by the ranger – so new that it is clearly labeled DRAFT – shows 3 trailheads for the Butterfly Valley Botanical Area Nature Trail. The Butterfly Valley Rd entry goes to the north trailhead, indicated as the orange dot on the GPS track. I decided to go around the loop in the counterclockwise direction, saving the pitcher plants for near the end of my mini-hike. The pitcher plant area is the dead-end part of the track at the upper center of the loop. There was relatively little elevation change, only about 260 feet, so I’m not including the elevation profile.

GPS track - nature trail

GPS track – nature trail

The trailhead, at the junction of Butterfly Valley Rd (PC [Plumas County] 417) and Bog Rd (25N47), is well-signed with a parking area for 3 or 4 cars. About 0.1 mile down the trail there is a Y junction; I went right to go around the loop counterclockwise. Most of the trail passes through forest. I passed some pincushion plants and a down log with some white fungus. Shortly I found what I think is leafless wintergreen (Pyrola aphylla). Notable characteristics include the red stem and inverted (nodding) flowers with 5 cupped petals.

photo of leafless wintergreen, I think

Leafless wintergreen, I think

I saw quite a few of this next flower all along the trail. They might be wild orchids, but I don’t know the orchid family well enough to make an identification. The flower heads have what I call an apartment house type of structure, with rows of bracts(?) denoting where blossoms will emerge. Note that the lower petal of each blossom has a fringed edge. Some plants had reddish flower heads, like these, while others’ flower heads were green – perhaps earlier in the blooming cycle.

picture of unidentified wildflower noted all along the Nature Trail

Unidentified wildflower noted all along the Nature Trail

The trail crosses Bog Rd at the south end of the loop, about 1 mile from the trailhead. There was signage at the road crossing for Beargrass Glade, so I decided to backtrack to see if I could find the feature that was prominent enough to have signage. My trail information mentioned finding a small trickle and then following it off-trail. I didn’t find a trickle, or any other evidence of moisture, near the right location so I abandoned the search and continued around the loop. At the Bog Rd crossing there is another trailhead. About 0.4 mile after the road crossing there is a T junction; it looks like a sideroad on the GPS track. I went left (north) here, to approach the bog area. Along the next section of trail I encountered some white brodiaea (Triteleia hyacinthina), or white wild hyacinth.

image of white brodiaea

White brodiaea

Approaching the bog the forest gives way to a meadow-like area, with plants that appreciate more sun. Here I found a shrub with pretty light purple flower spikes. The smaller flower clusters almost make a spiral pattern around the main stem.

photo of shrub with light purple flower spike

Shrub with light purple flower spike

Continuing along the trail, perhaps 0.3 mile past the T junction, I finally found my first California pitcher plant (Darlingtonia californica)! Pitcher plants use various means to attract insects into an opening under the hood. After that, the insect gets trapped in liquid that the plant stores inside the lower part of the leaf, and the insect decomposes and is digested. This is why the plants are designated as insectivorous.

picture of California pitcher plants

California pitcher plants

Another example shows the prominent leaf structure that extends from the main leaf. It certainly looks like a forked tongue! It is easy to see why these plants are also called cobra lilies.

image of pitcher plant

Pitcher plant

To be clear, the part of the plant that people marvel over is the leafy part of the plant. There is also a flower, which grows on a taller stem. Here is what the flower looks like: nodding, with yellow-green petals. The structure in the center is the fruit, or seed pod.

photo of California pitcher plant flower

California pitcher plant flower

The pitcher plants were growing among shrubs with long leaves and clusters of small white flowers.

picture of shrub with white flowers, growing among the pitcher plants

Shrub with white flowers, growing among the pitcher plants

In the damper areas near the bog – which was no longer very boggy – there were quite a few leopard lilies (Lilium pardalinum), with spectacular orange blossoms with large, backward-curving petals with maroon spots. The spots are only partly visible in this picture. These flowers are also, for some reason, also called tiger lilies; I didn’t see any stripes!

image of leopard lily

Leopard lily

In this area there was hedgenettle, some tiny blue-eyed Mary-like flowers (less than ¼ inch across), a couple of past-prime star tulips (Calochortus family), and what may be rein orchids (Piperia or Platanthera families). There were also some Macloskey’s violets (Viola macloskeyi).

photo of Macloskey’s violet

Macloskey’s violet

On my way back to the T intersection I took the very short spur trail over to Bog Rd, where the third official trailhead is located, then continued around the loop. On the east side of the bog area the trail is close to the meadow/bog, but mostly back in forest. Here I noticed quite a few more wildflowers, including pretty California chicory (Rafinesquia californica) and some mallow-like flowers.

After returning to my car, I drove out via Bog Rd and Blackhawk Rd, passing areas identified as Rubble Gap and Fern Glen. I stopped several times for brief explorations. Near the Big Blackhawk Creek crossing there were more leopard lilies, rein orchids, possible wild orchids, and ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare). When I reached CA-70 via Blackhawk Rd, perhaps 2.5 miles southeast of Butterfly Valley Rd as shown in the GPS track, I began my 70-mile return drive to Truckee. Quincy hosts the campus of Feather River College, a two-year community college. Near the road to campus I noticed several groupings of everlasting peas, including some that were a lighter shade of pink.

picture of light pink everlasting pea

Light pink everlasting pea

Along the roadways there were several types of wildflower, some of which I tried to identify on-the-fly and others that required a careful stop on the road shoulder for a quick look. There were at least two, perhaps more, types of lupine (Lupinus), as well as johnny-tucks and, near Sattley, patches of smooth vetch (Vicia dasycarpa). One of the roadside stops revealed some yellow seep monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus) and what I think are common madia (Madia elegans).

image of common madia, I think

Common madia, I think

Although this visit entailed a 150-mile round-trip drive from my local base in Truckee, the array of wildflowers – even almost off-season – made the trip well worthwhile. I look forward to return another time, closer to the peak of the wildflower season!

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