Oregon’s forests may be mostly conifers, which stay green all year, but that doesn’t mean they’re entirely devoid of color. There are hardwoods in the understory, and they change into fall dress that’s every bit as bright and cheery as that worn by their siblings in the forests of New England; it’s just that there are far fewer of them, and they are usually much smaller. So you have to seek them out.
In Southern Oregon, the best place to find native fall color is along the upper Rogue River, in the Cascade Mountains west of Crater Lake. The color there is provided mostly by three species: bright red by vine maple, maroon by dogwood, and yellow by bigleaf maple. Vine maple is a forest-edge species, and it likes large linear openings such as those provided by rivers and highways; bigleaf maple is riparian, and is largely limited to stream bottoms. Dogwood is a shade-lover, and may be found just about anywhere where there are enough larger trees to protect it. Usually these trees are loners, providing splashes of color here and there; but occasionally they bunch up, forming displays that are as fine as anything that has been imported by homesick New Englanders into our city parks.
The morning of October 22 was teetering on the edge of rain, and the air was hazy. That was all predicted to go away by afternoon, so we set out anyway. We stopped for breakfast – with fresh-squeezed orange juice – at a lovely little restaurant in Eagle Point called Crackin’ and Stackin’, and headed upriver. The air was still grey at Casey State Park, and the colors were muted.
At the top of the hill above Lost Creek Reservoir we turned onto Mill Creek Drive and took it into Prospect; up there, what had been overcast lower down was mist, dancing around the trees, and things began to get interesting.
The day’s goal was Woodruff Bridge, down a side road off of highway 62 a little more than halfway between Prospect and Union Creek. Colors are often good there, but this year they were a bit of a disappointment, so we didn’t spend long.
There is a back road down the west side of the Rogue in this area, to a bridge lower on the river; the road and the bridge bear the unimaginative but apt names of River Road and River Bridge. The road was rough, with occasional potholes full of muddy water, but the Bolt handled it comfortably, and we were soon crossing the river again and parking at the River Bridge Campground for another roam along the river – nice mists, and interesting geology, but still not much color. The only really good color show of the day to that point was partway along the road back out to 62 from River Bridge. But that was about to change.
Back in Prospect, we made a spur-of-the-moment decision to stop at the Pearsony Falls trail, part of the Prospect State Scenic Area. This short trail – barely half a mile long – is one of our favorites, and this was a great day to be there. The mists were beginning to burn off, and the woods were full of color. The area around Pearsony Falls has the feel of a rain forest, with much moss and sword fern; the falls themselves, on Mill Creek, are only about 15 feet high but are about as lovely as any waterfall I know of anywhere.
We walked on down to the river, reaching it just as the sun broke out. Sometimes, you just have to have faith that things will eventually come out right.