If you’ve traveled from California to Oregon on Interstate 5, you’ve seen the Klamath River. The freeway crosses it at the Collier Rest Area, a few miles south of the border. It is a big, muscular river there, narrow but deep, flowing rapidly past the lawns and tables of the rest area, clearly intent on getting somewhere else as fast as possible. Leave the freeway, head west along the river on California 96, and you almost immediately enter the Klamath Mountains. The riverbed’s gradient increases: rapids appear, contrasting with the steep, nearly treeless canyon slopes on either side. This beast of a river has already cut all the way through the Cascade/Sierra Mountain chain – the only river south of Canada to do so, save the Columbia – and now it’s chewing through the Klamaths. Nothing is going to stand in its way between here and the Pacific Ocean.
Seven miles in, the highway briefly leaves the river to climb over the neck of a tall horseshoe parapet, and in this unlikely spot, 250 feet above the water, you come across a sign to a boat ramp. A narrow, paved side road plunges over the edge. Down that road, a steep third of a mile below you, is the Tree of Heaven Campground.
Melody and I were there most recently on the afternoon of March 11, 2020. We went in search of flowers (in the spring, we are always in search of flowers). The campground was closed for the season, so we parked near the gate and walked down the entrance road. The campground, on a flat perhaps ten feet above the river, was lovely and green and entirely deserted except for us. Exploring upriver along a designated nature trail gave us very little in the way of either flowers or views, but downstream we found signs pointing to a “River Trail,” and that was a different story. The River Trail is hacked out of the north wall of the canyon for roughly a mile, from the campground to Masonic Bar Rapid – the first whitewater downstream from the boat launch at Tree of Heaven. And there we found the flowers.
Silk tassel bush, Garrya elliptica, grows naturally only along the Pacific Coast of North America – the Tree of Heaven campground is about as far inland as it gets. The picture at left is a closeup of one of the tassels.
The trail crosses a little flat beside the rapid, where a white oak woodland has found a tentative foothold. Here we found red bells, Fritillaria recurva – common in the Rogue Valley, but I’ve never seen it on the Klamath before.
Beavers have been at work in the woodland.
We spotted this little guy on the way back. I think he’s a western fence lizard. He held still long enough for both of us to photograph him.
The slant of the late-afternoon light almost matched the slant of the hill as we walked back up the entrance road, lighting up the trees on the opposite side of the canyon while leaving the slope behind them in the dark. A lovely end to a lovely day.