Fourteen years after the fire the area is teeming with life
Except for the occasional lingering smoke, which keeps the windows closed, I dont mind wildfires. Plus, I enjoy hiking in the burns after the last of the flames have been extinguished. One of my favorite burns to hike is the Hash Rock Burn in the Ochoco National Forest.
On August 23, 2000, a lightning strike ignited the Hash Rock Fire that burned over 18,000 acres, mostly within the Mill Creek Wilderness Area. Although there are about 20 miles of trails in the wilderness, I prefer bushwhacking.
Its been 14 years since the fire and the area is teeming with life – both plant and animal. On our last hike, my wife and I sat by a spring and watched a variety of birds in the vicinity. I enjoy scanning for woodpeckers. The blackened snags attract woodpeckers and if you stop and listen you can usually hear them pecking away either in search of food or communicating with each other. Common ones seen are Williamsons sapsuckers, black-backed woodpeckers, northern flickers, white-headed woodpeckers and a hairy woodpeckers. I often discover a few of their nest holes.
Wildflowers bloom throughout the burn. One of the most colorful is the crimson columbine, which stands out against the blackened logs. These wildflowers attract a variety of butterflies. One of my favorites is the pale tiger swallowtail, which usually let me get close enough for a few photos.
Bushwhacking can be fun, but its like hiking in a maze of logs and brush in most of the burn. We hiked for a few hours but probably covered only about two miles at the most. Besides looking for birds and other wildlife, our goal was to get out to the rim for views of Twin Pillars, Wildcat Mountain, and the Three Sisters.
At the rim, we got a great overview of the burn as well. As with most wildfires, not all of the trees or other vegetation burned. The fire left a mosaic pattern of low, medium, and high intensity burned areas as well as areas that didnt get burned at all. The result is good wildlife habitat and a healthy forest.
Throughout the burn, we saw lots of fresh deer and elk tracks. One mule deer doe ran out ahead of us and we heard an elk crash through a thicket of brush and logs. The fresh tracks revealed it was a pretty big bull.
One of my favorite forest birds is the western tanager. I can usually see these birds when hiking in most places of the Ochocos and did see a bright male a short way into our hike.
Although fairly common, they can be inconspicuous, spending much time in the upper reaches of trees. Its habitat is most of western North America, but it migrates long-distances, traveling every year between its wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America to its breeding grounds back north.
In spring and summer, males have a red head. Rhodoxanthin, the red pigment in the male western tanagers face, is rare in birds. Its not manufactured by the bird, but instead is acquired from their diet, presumably from insects that themselves acquire the pigment from plants.
For those not opting for cross-country hiking, there are three trails that dissect the wilderness and can be accessed from four trailheads two at the south end and two at the north end of the wilderness. The Twin Pillars and Wildcat trails are close to nine miles in length. The Belknap Trail connects these two trails, forming an H, and is just over two miles long.
There are several possibilities for day hikes or overnight backpack trips within the wilderness. If possible, shuttle two vehicles, parking one at Wildcat Campground, then driving to the Twin Pillars Trailhead at Bingham Meadow and hiking back to the campground. Or park a vehicle at White Rock Campground and start the Wildcat Trail at Whistler Campground. Stop at the forest headquarters for a map.
Besides the three campgrounds mentioned above, there are also many dispersed camping areas surrounding the wilderness. Bring along a compass, GPS, and map whether you choose to hike on the trails or go cross-country.
No matter where I hike, I can look around and see fire scars everywhere. When I see a green forest, its most likely because it was blackened at one time by wildfire.