Wickersham Hike and Early Season Wildflowers

The view from Wickersham Dome in the White Mountain National Recreation Area near Fairbanks, Alaska. Seemingly endless green hills and a bit of the Elliott Highway winding around them.
The Elliott Highway winds through the hills viewed from Wickersham Dome

On Sunday, my wife, Cat, our dog, Tut, and I ventured on a hike to Wickersham Dome. I had been eagerly waiting to capture my first wildflower photos of the season and collect images for my Alaska Wildflower identification guide. We were a bit early for the more widespread bloom, as only a few flowers had started to open. However, this was fine because I had planned another visit for the end of the week.

Despite our timing, I captured images of 12 distinct flower species. Although none were new additions for my guide, as they were all quite common to Alaska’s interior. It was exciting to find these early-blooming species, particularly the woolly lousewort and northern kittentails, known for their wool-like texture that protects them during the colder nights of the early season, particularly at higher elevations.

A macro photo of the purple flowering northern kittentails, with tiny purple flowers poking out through thick, white woolly fibers.
Purple flowers poking through the thick wool of the northern kittentails (Synthyris borealis)

We hiked via the Summit Trail, with trailhead off the Elliot Highway just before mile-28. The trail was snow-free but relatively muddy, especially for the first 2 miles. The new boardwalk sections starting at about mile-2 are a game-changer, and they’re getting ready to install more sections.

I was concerned for the dog, as I don’t believe he’s ever hiked much further than 3 miles, and this would be double that. He became stubborn and grumpy a few times but generally seemed pretty happy. He managed to stay strong and pulled pretty hard on the way down, as he was very ready to return to the car.

A landscape photo of Wickersham Dome with some sparse scraggly black spruce trees in the foreground
Looking at Wickersham Dome (Summit at the tower on the right) from the Summit Trail

The weather was absolutely perfect, although a bit windy near the top. We decided not to push it with Tut and go all the way to the true summit, another half-mile or so on relatively flat but rocky tundra. Instead, we turned around at the first rock outcroppings along the summit ridge.

The Flowers

Close up of the pink flowers of woolly lousewort covered in white wool and reddish leaves
Woolly lousewort covered in white silky wool, pink flowers, and reddish leaves

There were no wildflowers for the first mile, which was also some of the muddiest terrain. The first clearing, a somewhat rocky and open area where the foresty taiga blends into alpine tundra, brought the first bit of color. Here I found eight-petaled mountain avens (Dryas octopetala), narcissus-flowered anemones (Anemone narcissiflora), alpine azalea (Kalmia procumbens), and some tiny arctic willows (Salix arctica). We spotted some northern kittentails (Synthyris borealis) and woolly lousewort (Pedicularis lanata) a little further up the hill.

A close up of a male catkin of the arctic willow flower, with reddish filaments and large red anthers
Close-up of the tiny arctic willow – the red anthers on this male catkin are not yet open to reveal their pollen

After these two clearings, the trail dips back into the muddy forest, and the flowers disappear. The trail climbs gradually out of the mud after making a left turn at a spur trail that returns to the Wickersham Creek trail. While the Summit Trail continues, an unofficial social trail turns left again, bringing us up a short and steep climb to the open ridge.

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Landscape of the green rolling hills surrounding Wickersham Dome
Gorgeous views from the top as the hills turn green

I frequently see marmots at the first sets of rock outcroppings, and the way Tut was frantically sniffing around the area, I’m sure he sensed them. They must not have wanted anything to do with the dog since we didn’t see them or hear their loud whistling.

A hiker with a dog near a rock outcropping on Wickersham Dome
Cat and Tut at our “summit” rocks

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The flowers here were harder to spot as they blended well with the rocks. Pincushion plant (Diapensia obovata) was the dominant species here. This plant was previously considered a subspecies of Diapensia lapponica (var. obovata) but is now considered a separate sister species to D. lapponica, a much more widespread species found in eastern North America and Europe.

White flowers of the pincushion plant
Mat-forming pincushion plant between the rocks
Close-up of the pincushion plant's white flowers showcasing its white petals, yellow stamen and green style
Close up of the pincushion plant’s flowers with white corolla, yellow stamens, and a single green style

There were a few specimens of another cushion-forming plant, blackish oxytrope (Oxytropis nigrescens). This tiny, purple-flowering plant was easy to miss.

The purple tubular flowers of blackish oxytrope forming a mat
Blackish oxytrope

Hiding in the bushes at the edge of the rocky tundra were a few flowers of the nakedstem wallflower (Parrya nudicaulis) and arctic sweet coltsfoot (Petasites frigidus). Also barely visible were some tiny, almost translucent bells of the red bearberry (Arctous rubra) mixed in with some lowbush cranberries that weren’t flowering yet.

Purple flower known as nakedstem wallflower
Nakedstem wallflower – also commonly known as Parry’s wallflower

As we made our way back down to the car, a dark cloud stayed overhead most of the way, shading the path and everything around us. Off in the distance, the hills were glowing green in the sunlight. It was a remarkable sight to end the day and a wonderful hike!

Landscape with light on the greening hills near Wickersham Dome in the White Mountain National Recreation Area
The hills glowing green

In my ongoing efforts to refine and amplify my wildflower guide, I’m expanding into macro photography to capture more detailed images. I’ve discussed this and shared some insider scoop on my current photography gear in a recent subscriber-only post on Substack, titled “Behind the Lens: Some of My Current Photo Gear for Hiking and Backpacking.” This new approach will provide a closer look at the unique characteristics of flowers, leaves, and stems, aiding better identification.

Additionally, more of these photos will be available in a 4k resolution, allowing you to zoom in to see all the intricate features close up.

Looking ahead, I envision using these intricate details to create a robust search feature that allows users to find flowers based on descriptions, such as leaf shape, stem size, or flower color. This is a significant stepping stone toward creating an app to accompany my future print field guide.

As always, my goal is to bring you closer to the rich flora of Alaska and foster a deeper appreciation for its natural beauty. To continue this journey and create more valuable content, I depend on the support of my readers. If you’ve found value in my work and would like to contribute, please consider becoming a paid subscriber on Substack, Patreon, or Ko-fi, where you can access identical exclusive content across platforms.

Your support will not only help enhance the wildflower guide but will also ensure that this knowledge remains accessible to nature enthusiasts just like you. Thank you for considering, and I hope to continue bringing you deeper into the world of Alaska’s vibrant wildflowers.

Macro photo of the stem and cauline leaves covered in erect white hairs on a narcissus-flowered anemone
Macro photo of the stem and cauline leaves covered in erect white hairs on a narcissus-flowered anemone

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