Down the River

It is just over 50 easy miles, as the crow flies, from Grants Pass, Oregon, to the Pacific Ocean. If the crow has to travel by land, it’s a different story. Between Grants Pass and the ocean lie the Siskiyou Mountains, a confused jumble of ancient peaks and ridges rising to a height of as much as 5000 feet above sea level. The Siskiyous are made of some of the oldest, toughest rock in western North America. Through them, the Rogue River has managed to slice a deep sliver of a canyon, forming the only water-level connection between the populous Rogue Valley, where we live, and the coast.

19th-century railroad builders attempted to develop the canyon as a transportation route. They got in only as far as the mouth of Grave Creek, about 30 river miles below Grants Pass. Here the northbound river – already deep in the earth – makes an abrupt 90 degree turn to the west and enters a narrow slot canyon with near-vertical walls rising several hundred feet above the water before giving way to timbered slopes, only slightly less steep, that shoot a good 3000 feet higher. The railroad builders looked at that and recoiled. So did the road builders that followed them. Not so much as a path penetrated the canyon any further until 1907, when a pack trail was hacked out to serve the small mining community of Marial, tucked onto a tiny flat fifteen miles further downriver. The trail took advantage of a natural ledge on the south bank for a mile and a half, then crossed a sturdy bridge to the north bank. The river ate the bridge in 1927, ending that experiment after just two decades. No further attempts at a route through the canyon would be made until 1961, when the current recreation trail was built.

The Rogue River trail wisely dispenses with river crossings, remaining on the north bank from Grave Creek to Marial and all of the rest of the 40 miles through the canyon to Agness, where the road struggling upriver from the coast is forced to a stop. For much of its first several miles below Grave Creek, the trail occupies a tiny vertigo-inducing ledge thirty inches to four feet wide, 60 to 200 feet above the river. Side streams tumble down at intervals. The roar of rapids is almost constant. And there are flowers.

Spring gold (Crocidium multicaule)

Heat reflected off the canyon walls starts bringing them out as early as mid-February. For many years, now, the Rogue River trail below Grave Creek has been one of our favorite early-season hikes.

The most recent of those hikes took place last Thursday, February 27. The air was barely above freezing when we left the house around 7:00 AM, but the sun was shining and the temperature was predicted to get into the high 60s later in the day. We made a leisurely stop for breakfast at Patti’s Kitchen in Gold Hill. Mists from the river drifted in and out across the road and made Hellgate, where the river first enters the mountains, look like a scene out of Lord of the Rings.

The last wisps were evaporating as we parked the car at the Grave Creek trailhead, and it was already too warm for heavy clothing. We picked up the cameras and started down the trail.

The flowers began almost at once: yellow lomatium and spring gold, pink milkmaids and sea blush, and white saxifrage.

Clockwise from top: lomatium; sea blush; milkmaids; Howell’s saxifrage.

Lots of white saxifrage.

At China Gulch, two miles in, a pair of snow queens and a few buttercups.

Snow queen (Synthyris reniformis)
Western buttercup (Ranunculus occidentalis)

Our plan had been to hike to Whiskey Creek, a bit over three miles downriver from the trailhead, but – delayed by the flowers – we gave up the effort with about a quarter of a mile left to go. A half-hour of basking on a large flat rock by the river gave us the energy to get back to the trailhead; the Bolt took us the rest of the way home.

Flat rock beside the river near the mouth of Whiskey Creek
Almost back to the trailhead.
The Bolt, parked as far down the canyon as roads can get you.

For those keeping track, we left home with a 95% charge and got back from our 120-mile round-trip drive with almost half of that remaining. The range indicator as we pulled into the garage read 105 miles. I’d tell you how this trip affected my range anxiety, but I’ve almost forgotten what that actually feels like.

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