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Trail Sign Information

Bernard St and High Dr

Ponderosa Country

"Went down the river keeping mostly in the woods, which are of fine red fir (ponderosa pine), many trees about 3 fathoms (18 feet) round."

David Thompson
Heading south from the Pend Oreille River, Sept. 30th, 1809


Pines near Spokane 1917  (Asahel Curtis)

When Canadian fur agent and cartographer David Thompson traversed the Inland Northwest in the early 1800s, he was impressed by open stands of ponderosa pine that he saw in the vicinity of Spokane House trading post. These large mature trees were spaced widely enough that a horse could gallop through. They reminded the English-born Thompson of parklands from his homeland. Parklands like this can still be found along portions of the bluffs above Hangman Creek.


Early spring on the Hangman Creek Bluffs: emergent bluebunch wheatgrass

(Jack Nisbet)

Several species of native bunchgrasses anchor the open portions of these bluffs; the most common of these is bluebunch wheatgrass. All of these bunchgrasses emerge from tightly packed root masses into distinct clumps called crowns. The leaves die back each winter; new stems sprout from nodes above ground and achieve most of their growth during the wetter months of spring and fall. The larger the clump, the older the bunchgrass.


"The country all day has been hilly, with fine clear woods. Much grass in places and plenty of shrubs."

David Thompson
Approaching the Spokane River, June 13, 1811


Bluebunch wheatgrass and heart-leaf buckwheat alongside various mosses and lichens on an open Bluffs slope in early springtime. (Jack Nisbet)


"Saw a large fire across the river a little below us in the evening."

David Thompson

Crossing Rathdrum Prairie into the Spokane Valley, March 18, 1812

The landscape Thompson saw had been managed by local tribes for generations. They periodically set low ground fires to thin dense stands of sapling growth and encourage a fabric of deep-rooted bunchgrasses, wildflowers, and shrubs beneath well-spaced, fire-resistant ponderosa pines.


Fire-scarred ponderosa pine on Hangman Creek bluffs  (Jack Nisbet)


Sagebrush mariposa lily, Calochortus macrocarpus  (Jack Nisbet)

Scottish naturalist David Douglas also admired this parkland habitat when he traveled from Kettle Falls to the Spokane River in the spring of 1826, then again in late summer when he followed the Hangman Creek downstream from the Palouse grasslands to Spokane Falls. Here Douglas collected seeds of sagebrush mariposa lily, glacier lily, and yellow bells, as well as several different buckwheats and penstemons.  After he carried the seeds back to London, many of these wildflowers became prized introductions to British gardens. All of them still thrive along the Hangman bluffs today.


"I can hardly sit down to write, not knowing what to gather first."

David Douglas
Spokane River, May 1, 1826


Beautiful penstemon, Penstemon speciosus

(Edward’s Botanical Register 1830, vol 15 T1270)

Berries & Roots

"I found three fine species of Ribes (currants) in flower: the golden currant bears a very large and excellent yellow berry."

David Douglas, 1826

Many of the flowers and shrubs that Douglas described were cultural plants that tribal people depended on for nutrition. A host of flowering shrubs, including currants, elderberry, hawthorn, rose, and serviceberry produce fruits that contain essential vitamins. Douglas also noted a wide range of biscuitroots, which offer nutritious tubers, leaves, shoots and seeds. No less than eight species of biscuitroots grace the bluffs today.


Golden Currant  (Edward’s Botanical Register Vol. 2 T125)

Below: Serviceberry, Amelanchier alnifolia  (Mark Turner)



"The seeds of this pine are eaten by several of the native tribes, generally dried or roasted in the embers."

David Douglas

Some American Pines, 1829

The nutritious seeds of ponderosa pine still provide food for rodents such as chipmunks and squirrels, birds including pine grosbeaks, crossbills, and Clark’s nutcrackers, and untold numbers of insects. Seeds that these creatures cache and forget often sprout into healthy bursts of young sapling pines.


Ponderosa Pine Seeds, Lambert, Genus Pinus (vol. 3. 1832)


The Old Ones

"In times past the growth of timber must have been considerable as shown by the numerous abandoned sawmills at many locations in the Hangman Valley."

John B. Leiberg

Field journal, May 15, 1893

Clump of mature ponderosa pines  (Charles Gurche)

Mature ponderosa pines make beautiful lumber, and many trees were harvested from the Hangman Valley during the first wave of logging that built the city of Spokane during the late 1800s. Yet open pine and bunchgrass habitat remains visible across the sweep of the Hangman Creek bluffs, with a mosaic of different aged trees. Several prime examples have been aged at around 350 years old.


Mature ponderosa pine on a winter’s day, upper Hangman Creek  (Jack Nisbet)

Further Reading

Ponderosa: People, Fire, and the West’s most Iconic Tree

Carl. E. Fiedler and Stephen F. Arno

Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula MT 2015


Food Plants of Interior First Peoples

Nancy J. Turner

University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver BC 1997

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