Most of us can remember a place from our childhood, maybe out behind the house or in a vacant lot, where we could go to connect with nature. Portland is blessed with many such places, but perhaps none of them feels quite so hidden, so “out back behind the house,” as Camassia Natural Area in West Linn.
That’s because Camassia is literally surrounded by houses, and also behind West Linn High School. Few signs point to it, few guidebooks sing its praises, and it seems few locals even know it exists. Google Maps doesn’t even label it; you have to search for “Portland Stove Parts” to get the right address.
But it’s still out there, a little pocket of what once covered so much of this area: a rocky plateau, dotted with meadows, ringed with forest, full of animals and rare beautiful plants, still giving us a place to wander off to.
Camassia remains in this condition because of The Nature Conservancy, which bought the 26-acre gem in 1962; in fact, it is the first Oregon property owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy. Tucked away in those 26 acres, just within earshot of Interstate 205, are more than 300 plant species, including the white larkspur, a wildflower found at only six other places in the world.
The “show” species, though, is the camas (above), which typically hits peak bloom from mid-April to early May. Visiting Camassia during this time is like finding a fairy-tale land – the last little bit of what used to be all over these parts: white oak and madrone forest scattered with rocky meadows, all of it filled with springtime flowers.
Even at peak camas bloom, you’ll also be in the company of wild roses, fawn lilies, and dozens of other flowers. While walking the easy loop trail (less than a mile long), look for wood ducks, ospreys, hummingbirds, quail, woodpeckers, and bluebirds. Stop at one of many ponds and look for newts and salamanders. In the forest, admire the stands of white oak and madrone, even one area of quaking aspen. Look among the trees for resident deer, skunk and raccoons.
This area was greatly affected by massive floods between 12,000 and 15,000 years ago; raging waters 400 feet deep scoured out the ponds, scraped clean the rocks, and carried boulders all the way from Canada. One of these “glacial erratics” is still in the old rock quarry over by the high school.
When the flowers are blooming, the Nature Conservancy often has volunteers around to answer questions and point out sites of interest. The Conservancy also works to remove invasive species like Scots broom, English ivy and Himalayan blackberry. They will also stress how important it is to stay on the trails, as some areas take years to recover after being trampled. Dogs are not allowed, even on leash, nor are bicycles.
In fact, the whole point of Camassia is to invite us to slow down, reconnect with nature and history, and look for the beauty in a small flower, a pond, the branches of a tree – and to be grateful for the people who protect these little getaways in our back yard.
Location: End of Walnut Street in West Linn
Hours: Dawn to Dusk
Paul Gerald is the author of several local guidebooks, including 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Portland look for a new edition to be out this spring!) and Breakfast in Bridgetown: The Definitive Guide to Portland’s Favorite Meal. Camassia Natural Area is profiled in his book Peaceful Places: Portland: 103 Tranquil Sites in the Rose City and Beyond. Find out more at PaulGerald.com.
Thank you, Paul, for the great post on Camassia Natural Area. We’ve visited twice before, but not in the Spring. That will definitely be remedied next month. You can see photos from a visit in December 2011 here. Paul has a Facebook page to go along with his hiking and breakfasting (is that a word?) adventures, check it out!