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.

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.

Early Flowers at Cathedral Hills

Wildflower season has finally arrived in southern Oregon. Two weeks ago, we took the Tunnel Ridge trail in the Siskiyou foothills south of Jacksonville – an excellent early-season wildflower hike, most years – and saw nary a flower. This week, though, in the Cathedral Hills just outside Grants Pass, the story was different. There was a scattering of milkmaids (Cardamine californica) along the two trails we took. There was a concentration of grass widows (Olsynium douglasii) along one ridge. And Indian warriors (Pedicularis densiflora) were popping out of the ground everywhere.

Indian warrior (Pedicularis densiflora) in early shoot stage

The weather was still cool early this week, with nighttime temperatures dropping into the 20s, so we didn’t leave Medford until after lunch. Reveling in the sunshine, we avoided the freeway, staying on back roads for all of the 45-minute drive to Grants Pass. We entered Cathedral Hills through the Sky Crest trailhead, the northernmost of the area’s several trailheads, and my personal favorite. The parking lot was nearly full, but I was able to find a spot for the Bolt. We climbed into the woods via the Sky Crest trail, then turned east onto the Sky Crest Loop. (You approach the trailhead along Sky Crest Drive. Someone in Grants Pass really likes that name.) The Indian warriors showed up almost immediately, in large bunches but mostly immature; they are semiparasitic on the roots of members of the heath family, including madrones and manzanitas, which are common in the open mixed oak/madrone woodland that covers the Cathedral Hills.

Indian warrior in nearly full bloom
Milkmaids (Cardamine californica)
Madrone (foreground) and California black oak.

Completing an amble along the Sky Crest loop, we crossed the Timber Riders trail and picked up the Madrone Trail (aren’t there madrones everywhere here?) a few feet further along. The trail climbed gently from this junction to a ridge with big views of Grants Pass through open oak woodland; plenty of Indian warriors; and a lovely collection of grass widows, which hadn’t shown themselves at all on the Sky Crest loop.

Grass widow (Olsynium douglasii).
Grants Pass from the Madrone trail.

We wandered slowly along the ridge, savoring the views and shooting photos of the flowers. All too soon (though it was approaching 4:00 PM) the trail dropped off the ridge through a series of switchbacks, back to the Timber Riders trail and a short hike to the parking lot, which was now almost competely empty. Overall distance, between 2-1/2 and 3 miles. Overall time, about three hours. Overall experience, beyond measure. It stayed with us all the way home.