Above: Jillian Stokes of Ashland stands amid a patch of blooming Kalmiopsis leachiana. Below: A close-up view. - Photo courtesy of Gabriel Howe

Only in the Kalmiopsis

Since it was discovered in 1930 by Lilla Leach, the Kalmiopsis leachiana has been coveted and sought by amateur and professional botanists alike.

The little pink flower is endemic to the 180,000-acre Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area, which means it grows nowhere else in the world. It looks like a dwarfed rhododendron, and that's exactly what it is. The relic species started evolving long before the ice ages, and like many species of its era that have survived, it grows small and sturdy to survive this harsh and ever-changing ecosystem.

It's believed to be the oldest living species in the Ericaceae family. From blueberries to rhododendron, azalea to madrone, they all came from the Kalmiopsis leachiana. Woody shrubs from all around the globe evolved from Oregon's most infamous Wilderness Area, the Kalmiopsis. Now that's just cool.

For many, finding the leachiana in bloom is mostly a pipe dream, but it doesn't have to be. This easy, 4.5-mile hike (longer with extensions) takes you into the wilderness and through a botanical area where you can see for yourself what is so magical about the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and its brightly blooming namesake.

To get around, pick up the Gold Beach Ranger District map, and the Kalmiopsis and Wild Rogue Wilderness map.

From Brookings, fill up on gas and head east on North Bank Chetco River Road. At about 16 miles you'll cross a narrow bridge and head right on Forest Service Road 1909. To stay on FSR 1909, you'll have to navigate accurately at a few key junctions using the Gold Beach District Map.

FSR 1909 eventually feeds into FSR 260. At the end of FSR 260 and about 30 miles from Brookings you'll find the Vulcan Lake Trailhead. It's a bumpy, two-hour ride suitable for (but tough on) most two wheel-drive vehicles.

From the Vulcan Lake Trailhead, walk east on the old road bed. The first junction is immediate. Heading right will take you to Vulcan Lake, which you can reach by extending this hike, but head left, staying on the old road bed. The riparian areas along this stretch are botanical zones in their own right. From them shoot tons of pitcher plants, bolander lilies and giant cedar trees given mercy by the 2002 Biscuit fire.

At just under one mile is the next junction. Heading right will take you to Gardner Mine and Vulcan Lake, though that path becomes undefinable and should be approached by only the most confident navigators. Instead, head left, maintaining a northerly direction on Johnson Butte Trail No. 1110.

Just before the old road fades into a regular hiking path, there's a "field" of Kalmiopsis leachiana on the east side of the trail as indicated on the Kalmiopsis and Wild Rogue Wilderness Map. To catch it in bloom, come to the Johnson Butte Trail as soon as the roads to Vulcan Lake clear of snow. Most years the bloom at this elevation is best throughout June.

As beautiful and alluring as they are, avoid picking flowers. These resilient shrubs have made it through ice ages, volcanic intrusions, tectonic violence, regular fires and everything else natural history has thrown at them.

But that doesn't mean they can withstand the tragedy of the commons, and that's why Lilla and John Leach successfully petitioned the Forest Service for protections of these special areas in 1947 — botanists and nursery owners were over-harvesting the plant for their own collections.

Along this ridge are outstanding views of the Pacific Ocean and Box Canyon watershed. Visiting the area without seeing Vulcan Lake itself would be an unjust denial of curiosity, and the drive from Brookings is long enough that camping out one, two or 10 nights in the Kalmiopsis is well worth it.

If you don't want to carry your gear into the Kalmiopsis, head to the Vulcan Peak Trailhead or Quail Prairie Campground to pitch a tent — both are short drives from Vulcan Lake and free.

Observing species such as the Kalmiopsis leachiana and its methods of survival may offer great insight into how we can adapt, too. The little pink flower came from a day in age when less was more, smaller was better, and only the brightest survived. That's a day in age we may be quickly reapproaching.

Freelance writer Gabe Howe is executive director and field coordinator for the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Contact him at

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