It started as a simple trip to a good wildflower hike we know of along the lower Rogue River. It ended somewhere else entirely, and even the somewhere-else required a somewhere-else to make it succeed properly. But the day ended well, and I have the pictures to prove it. Keep reading.
The whole thing was a result of COVID-19, really. This would normally be the time of year for the Table Rocks, southern Oregon’s premiere spring wildflower hike: but the BLM and The Nature Conservancy, which jointly manage the two big mesas, have closed the trails to enforce social distancing during the ongoing pandemic – and even if they hadn’t, at our age (both of us are 77), we’d avoid the place right now like the pl … no, because of the plague. So we are constantly looking for trails that no one else is likely to be hiking. One of these, I thought, just might be the Umpqua Joe Trail, which starts across the road from Josephine County’s Indian Mary Park, just beyond Hellgate on the Rogue River, and climbs to wildflowers and views. We’d driven past the trailhead three times this spring and had not seen any cars there. It seemed – innocently, I now know – like a good choice.
Umpqua Joe is a short trail – about a mile and a half, one way – and it was 32°F outside the house when we woke up, so we waited until about 11:30 AM to leave the house. The hour’s drive to the trailhead was uneventful – right up to the time we pulled into the parking lot and saw the sign announcing that the trail was closed for repairs due to the damage caused by the Klondike Fire in 2018. No wonder we hadn’t seen any cars parked there.
Well, never mind: I’d planned an alternative, just in case. Right across the river from Indian Mary there is a large rock-and-scree bluff, and the bluff has a trail up it. No cars parked there, either. But when we crossed the bridge and took the gravel side road to the bottom of the bluff, we were met by a wire fence and another “closed trail” sign, this one evidently because the trail – constructed only by feet and bicycle tires, even though it has a nice trailhead kiosk – was now considered too hazardous to use. There are a couple of paths to the river there, also, but there were already people down them; we could see their car in the trees further down the road. Sigh.
Back up-river a short way, to the old side road that can be walked to the river just below Hellgate. There were people down that road, too.
At least the Hellgate Overlook parking lot was empty. We parked there and walked the gravel path along the roadway. It runs about a quarter of a mile and offers some nice views of the gorge and a few flowers, but with traffic whizzing by just a few feet away, it wasn’t exactly what we were looking for. However, I’d also prepared a third alternative. Sexton Mountain, north of Grants Pass, is well-known to travelers on Interstate 5 – the freeway runs over its western shoulder, through a deep road cut, and there are signs beside the road identifying the road cut as “Sexton Mt. Pass.” What is not so well known is that there is also a road over the EAST shoulder of Sexton Mountain.
It is a narrow gravel road badly in need of repair, it leaves from a paved Josephine County back road called “Jumpoff Joe” that is itself very little traveled. It probably sees only a few cars each week – if that. Off that road, right at the pass over the shoulder, there is an even smaller road, an old BLM logging road, gated and going back to earth. We’d walked that old road before, and we knew it to be a great spot for spring wildflowers. So I pointed the Bolt’s nose in that direction.
The quickest way from Hellgate to Hugo – where the Jumpoff Joe Road leaves the freeway – is via the Pleasant Valley Road from Merlin. Unfortunately, I hadn’t researched that, so we took what was labeled the “Hugo Road” instead. I have to say it was a pleasant drive, over a well-maintained, paved, two-lane road through a sunny, woodsy valley, but it takes you quite a ways north before curving around and bringing you back to the freeway. Another oddity. The Jumpoff Joe Road is similarly pleasant, but the Jack Creek Road – which is the one which leads to the back side of Sexton Mountain – is poorly marked, and we had driven about a mile past it before my wife convinced me that I’d missed the junction and I turned us around. The Jack Creek Road is gravel, and steep, and erosion is taking its toll: in several places I had to creep the Bolt over, around, or through dips and potholes and the occasional partial gully. This, of course, is one of the things that keeps the area we were headed for isolated, and I was congratulating myself and announcing loudly to Melody that we should definitely be alone up here when we pulled up to the saddle and spotted a parked SUV. Damn.
Fortunately, the gated logging road – which I was pretty sure the people in the SUV had taken – wasn’t our only choice. The Jack Creek Road continues north (as the Shanks Creek Road) all the way back to the freeway; there is a BLM road that heads east from the saddle, through private property; and a high-voltage powerline also passes through, with a corresponding cleared area and service track. After an abortive start walking up the east road – during which we encountered very few flowers or views, but plenty of “no trespassing” signs (and also the signs’ owner, in a large black SUV: he was pleasant enough to us, at proper social distance, since we were on the road and not on his land directly) – we opted for the powerline. The service road was rough, with rocky ruts and occasional large spring-filled puddles, but it kept a gentle slope for the first third of a mile or so before plunging straight down the mountainside. That was the point at which we turned around. There was a great deal of trash littering the beginning of the service road, but it thinned out after 100 yards or so. And there were flowers. Lots and lots of flowers. I had a new telephoto lens to try out. Enjoy the pictures.