Pete Zimowsky: Visit the picturesque Camas Prairie to see the ‘blue on blue’

The blue camas spreads out across a meadow on the Camas Prairie, northeast of Mountain Home.
The blue camas spreads out across a meadow on the Camas Prairie, northeast of Mountain Home. Special to Treasure Magazine

A sea of camas turns Southern Idaho’s Camas Prairie into a neon blue collage in May as nature and the morning sunlight combine to create a vast impressionistic painting from horizon to horizon.

Look more closely. What are those streaks of lighter blue across the landscape? They look like an artist just started throwing paint.

It’s blue on blue. They’re bluebirds darting across the blue camas marsh and sage country.

Spring is the time to mountain bike or hike the county roads on the Camas Prairie, particularly along the Centennial Marsh Wildlife Management Area, and also along Bennett Mountain Road, south of the prairie. The wildlife and wildflower marsh is a quick day trip from the Treasure Valley and easily accessible.

Bring the camera. Bring the binoculars. The area is alive with wildflowers and bluebirds, and the show hits a high note in late May and early June.

Most visitors drive along the roads and get out once in a while with binoculars to see what’s going on. However, to get a bird’s-eye view of all the goings-on and to hear bird songs in stereo, bike or walk along the gravel roads. The symphony is a mix of sounds from avocets to teal and cranes to blackbirds.

This is a place, north of Mountain Home and on the way to Sun Valley along U.S. 20, that attracts photographers and visitors every year. It’s an annual ritual at the 3,100-acre wildlife area, managed by Idaho Fish and Game, and also on other marsh and farmlands across the prairie.

There’s a sandhill crane. The cranes can be seen dancing in the fields and the sighting is a highlight for your bird-watching journal. Look — a pronghorn. There’s nothing like seeing pronghorns with their ballet-style bodies in shades of black, white and brown prancing across a meadow of blue camas and fresh green grass.

And, you’ll get tired of saying, “There’s a bluebird.”

The bloom of blue camas and the number of bluebirds depend on the whims of nature. The intensity of the bloom depends on the amount of moisture brought by winter snows in the Bennett Mountains and the Soldier Mountains that border the prairie, and spring runoff along Camas Creek.

In good water years, a series of canals and ponds from Camas Creek feeds the Centennial Marsh, making it attractive for migrating waterfowl. The creek in those years normally fills bank to bank and floods the surrounding marshlands and farmlands from April to June. There is usually standing water everywhere and sea after sea of blue camas. That’s why Camas Prairie is known for its camas blooms.

Whatever the runoff, there are always waterfowl and shore birds in the area, and the camas will still bloom. Photographers and birdwatchers will still make the pilgrimage to the cathedral of color. The vibrant color is worth the trip for photos and also for listening to the concerto of croaking, squawking, cooing and quacking notes coming from critters of the marsh.

Do a little exploring on the back roads. County roads are straight as an arrow in some places, and cyclists can make rides in huge squares or rectangles 3, 6 and 12 miles long.

Then there’s Bennett Mountain Road, just off U.S. 20, where hikers and bikers will find several small meadows of camas and a bluebird trail.

Huh? A bluebird trail is a route of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of bluebird nest boxes along back roads in Idaho’s mountains. They can also be found in the Owyhee Mountains. The nesting boxes are put up because bluebirds are cavity nesters, and sometimes there aren’t enough big trees with cavities.

Diligent volunteers annually clean and maintain hundreds of bluebird boxes along the Elma Goodman Bluebird Trail, located on Bennett Mountain Road between U.S. 20 on the prairie and Glenns Ferry. It’s one of the best places to see Idaho’s state bird. Elma Goodman was a longtime advocate for bluebirds.

The birds start showing up and claiming territory in spring and can hang around through fall. They can be seen buzzing nesting boxes and sitting on fence posts. In the best-case scenario, they have at least two batches of eggs through the summer.

That makes Bennett Mountain Road bluebird central during spring and summer and a great place to see or photograph the birds without even getting off the road.

Bennett Mountain Road is also a designated part of Idaho’s Centennial Trail. Birders and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game also list the road as part of Idaho’s Birding Trail.

The Elma Goodman Mountain Bluebird Trail has been around for more than 40 years, and besides the flitting bluebirds also boasts some of the most beautiful mountain scenery through evergreens, aspens and meadows. It’s also a good place to see tree swallows and wrens in native habitat. The bluebird boxes will also attract other birds.

Depending on the time of the year, Bennett Mountain Road can be a hotspot for seeing big game animals, such as pronghorns, mule deer and elk.

Birds of prey will be seen in the area year-round.

A sign designating the Elma Goodman Mountain Bluebird Trail can be found at the intersection of Bennett Mountain and Hill City roads.

If you stop for a picnic or hike, be mindful that most of the property along Bennett Mountain Road is private.

Whichever area you explore, there’s nothing like the intense color blue that seems to be everywhere.

Pete Zimowsky (aka Zimo) has been following wildflower blooms across the West for about 50 years ever since he took a class at Utah State University on vascular plants of the Northern Wasatch. He got a D in the class, but loves wildflowers anyway.

About bluebirds

▪ About 7 inches tall.

▪ The male has a blue head, wings, throat and tail. It has a chestnut chest and a patch on its back with a gray belly.

▪ The female has blue wings but is duller than a male. It has a gray crown and back.

▪ Experts say most of Southern Idaho’s bluebirds winter in parts of Mexico.

About blue camas

▪ Blue camas is in the lily family and is known for its vast blue blooms across marshlands in the spring all across the Northwest. Well-known areas are Southern Idaho’s Camas Prairie and the Camas Prairie near Grangeville.

▪ The word camas comes from the Chinook language for blue camas. There is also a white camas that is poisonous and called death camas.

▪ Blue camas blossoms are a deep blue but may vary to shades of violet.

▪ The plant’s bulbs provided an important food source for Native Americans throughout history.

Getting there

Go to the Centennial Marsh Wildlife Management Area first. Get there by driving east on Interstate 84 from the Treasure Valley to the second exit in Mountain Home that goes to Sun Valley. Drive U.S. 20 north to Hill City and look for the signs to Centennial Marsh.

Bennett Mountain Road is well before you reach Hill City. It’s about 30 miles from Mountain Home and about 6 miles past Little Camas Reservoir. As you proceed past Little Camas Reservoir and climb through the canyon to the top of the prairie, look for one of the first main gravel roads going off to the south.

Some items for your outdoors calendar

▪ Saturday, April 16, and Sunday, April 17: Idaho Motorcycle Show and Sale at Expo Idaho. Also, Idaho Horse Expo at Ford Idaho Center Amphitheater.

▪ Saturday, April 23: Birds Boise, free event celebrating 100 years of bird conservation at the MK Nature Center in conjunction with the Idaho Native Plant Society’s sale. Also, Idaho Green Fest at 8th and Bannock.

▪ Wednesday, June 1: Sign up for FitOne on National Running Day for $20 and get a few perks. The FitOne 5k, 10k and Half Marathon is Sept. 24.