Fire, Falls, and Flowers: the Taylor Creek Trail

Oregon is under shelter-in-place orders in an attempt to control COVID-19, but – although most activities have been curtailed – hiking is specifically allowed as long as social distancing is maintained. So Melody and I have been drawing on our large repertory of little-known Southern Oregon trails. One of these is the Taylor Creek trail in the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains west of Grants Pass. There are no great scenic panoramas here, but the trail has just about everything else: waterfalls, wildflowers, rock outcrops, and several different forest types, through a wide range of lush to dry. And although cars have occasionally passed us when we have been parked beside the road on each of our several trips up there, we have yet to encounter anyone else on the trail itself.

To get to Taylor Creek, you leave the freeway at the small town of Merlin and head west along the Galice Road, the popular highway to the Grave Creek trailhead and boat launch at the eastern end of the Rogue River Canyon. Immediately after you pass Morrison’s Lodge – roughly 12 miles in – you’ll see a road on the left, with a brown sign on the right pointing to “Briggs Valley.” That’s the Taylor Creek Road; Briggs Valley is beyond, over Lone Tree Pass at the creek’s head.

The road is paved, but it’s only about a lane and a half wide, so oncoming traffic must be passed with care. It climbs quickly up the mountainside, with glimpses across Taylor Creek’s valley to the tall waterfall on Schoolmarm Creek (no place to park for a photograph, dammit). In a little over two miles, you’ll see a small parking lot on the left. Pull in. A short trail here leads to the Taylor Gorge Overlook, a stone-and-concrete platform perched on the lip of the narrow, deep gorge through which Taylor Creek leaves its valley. It’s wild, and rugged, and the only certifiably spectacular scenery you’ll see on this trip. Enjoy.

Beyond the overlook, the road levels out, winding along the side of the valley high above the creek. Trees line your course; rock outcrops hold wildflowers. Taylor Creek’s forest was burned over in the 2018 Klondike Fire – second largest in Oregon history – but the burn was spotty, and most of the overstory here in the lower end of the valley remains intact. After roughly half a mile, a sign points to the Taylor Creek Trailhead, on the left. We choose to pass this one; it’s a long, steep, mostly boring way down to the creek. In another quarter-mile, an unmarked parking area provides a second trail access point, through an abandoned homestead meadow called English Flat. We think of stopping here – we once had a gorgeous (though chilly!) morning in a hoarfrost fog in that meadow – but another vehicle is already present, so we pass that, too. Social distancing. The best, we know, is yet to come.

A bit beyond English Flat the road and the creek finally converge, and the quiet, intimate beauty of this out-of-the-way valley begins to show itself. The broad, limpid creek – one of the few places I know of where that overworked word actually fits – alternates between tumbling over rocks and flowing gently among alders. A small side-stream waterfall tumbles down a roadside cliff. A riot of spring gold (Crocidium multicaule, a small member of the sunflower family) spills over just about everything.

After a mile or so of this, Burned Timber Creek enters through a narrow gorge on the far bank; and shortly after that a gravel side road branches left, crossing the main creek on a narrow concrete bridge. The Taylor Creek Trail intersects that road a few feet beyond the bridge. We park in the large parking area at the main-road end of the bridge and gear up for a walk. We cross the bridge and, knowing what will be in store, head north.

The trail climbs gently up a hillside through a small patch of burned-over timber. Yellow violets and blue-purple snow queens sprawl beside our path, mixed with a few cream-colored Oregon fawn lilies. We round the end of a ridge and come, as we knew we would, into a tiny paradise. The trail skirts the rim of a small bowl; at the head of the bowl, Burned Timber Creek laces gracefully down a 30-foot cliff. To the left, beyond a bit of woods, the ridge we have just crossed ends in a long, gently sloping rock outcrop. The rock is bright yellow with spring gold.

We take a faint way trail out to the rock outcrop and spend the next thirty minutes among the flowers.

Oregon fawn lily
Sea blush
Clockwise from upper left: round-leaf violet, Howell’s saxifrage, chickweed monkeyflower, snow queen.

The rest of the day was anticlimatic, so I’ll keep this brief. Back on the trail, we crossed Burned Timber Creek a few dozen feet above the falls on a makeshift log bridge placed by the trail crews who cleaned up after the Klondike Fire and contoured up the steep hillside beyond. A mile or so from the trailhead, an unmarked but well-built trail forked off to the right: we followed it to the Burned Timber Creek Road and strolled down that to the point where we had begun, a couple of hours before. Back in the car, we drove south to Lone Tree Pass, stopping briefly at a small gorge near the mouth of Minnow Creek and again at a massive display of Oregon fawn lilies near the China Creek trailhead. The road to the pass narrowed for the last mile after leaving the creek, winding through the charred remains of one of the hottest burns of the fire; the pass provided views of green mountains through burned timber.

We stopped once on the way out, at a trailhead near China Creek, to check the status of a footbridge built there just two years before the fire (it had survived) and headed for home, pulling into the driveway shortly after 5:00 pm with half of the Bolt’s battery still unused. We could have done it again, but although the car had plenty of energy, the two humans in it were happily tuckered out. Another time.

New gallery: The Ruby Mountains

I’ve added a new page to the “places” gallery of this website – this time, on Nevada’s Ruby Mountains. Here are a couple of pictures to whet your appetite: find the rest by clicking on “Galleries” in the menu above and selecting “Oh, the Places I’ve Been!” and then “The Ruby Mountains.” As usual, clicking on the pictures will allow you to view them full-sized in a new tab.

Tree of Heaven

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.

Looking upstream (east) from the parking area at the top of the entrance road to the campground.

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.

Tree of Heaven campground. This USFS recreation site is named for a grove of “trees of heaven” (Ailanthus altissima) planted on this flat by miners in the 19th century.
Looking downstream from the boat ramp. This is not a small river.
The River Trail, looking upstream from about its halfway point.

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.

Clockwise from upper left: violet (probably Howell’s violet); hairy bittercress; red henbit; and clasping henbit. The bittercress and the two henbits are non-native plants. The violet is probably native.
Silk tassel bush.

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.

Masonic Bar rapids, from above.

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.

Clockwise from upper left: red bells (Fritillaria recurva); Shelton’s violet; slender phlox; and western buttercup.
White oaks arching over the trail.

Beavers have been at work in the woodland.

Beaver marks on a white oak trunk.

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.

Back at the car, ready to go home. Since this is really an electric-car blog, I’ll use this picture to remind you that we make all of these trips on electricity alone. This particular 100-mile round trip left us with 130 miles left on the range indicator when we got home – not exactly straining the Bolt’s batteries.