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.

Fall in Southern Oregon, Part 2: Along the Upper Rogue River

at Woodruff Bridge.

Oregon’s forests may be mostly conifers, which stay green all year, but that doesn’t mean they’re entirely devoid of color. There are hardwoods in the understory, and they change into fall dress that’s every bit as bright and cheery as that worn by their siblings in the forests of New England; it’s just that there are far fewer of them, and they are usually much smaller. So you have to seek them out.

In Southern Oregon, the best place to find native fall color is along the upper Rogue River, in the Cascade Mountains west of Crater Lake. The color there is provided mostly by three species: bright red by vine maple, maroon by dogwood, and yellow by bigleaf maple. Vine maple is a forest-edge species, and it likes large linear openings such as those provided by rivers and highways; bigleaf maple is riparian, and is largely limited to stream bottoms. Dogwood is a shade-lover, and may be found just about anywhere where there are enough larger trees to protect it. Usually these trees are loners, providing splashes of color here and there; but occasionally they bunch up, forming displays that are as fine as anything that has been imported by homesick New Englanders into our city parks.

The morning of October 22 was teetering on the edge of rain, and the air was hazy. That was all predicted to go away by afternoon, so we set out anyway. We stopped for breakfast – with fresh-squeezed orange juice – at a lovely little restaurant in Eagle Point called Crackin’ and Stackin’, and headed upriver. The air was still grey at Casey State Park, and the colors were muted.

The Rogue River at Casey State Park.

At the top of the hill above Lost Creek Reservoir we turned onto Mill Creek Drive and took it into Prospect; up there, what had been overcast lower down was mist, dancing around the trees, and things began to get interesting.

Along Mill Creek Drive near Prospect.
Avenue of the Giant Boulders from the Mill Creek Drive bridge.

The day’s goal was Woodruff Bridge, down a side road off of highway 62 a little more than halfway between Prospect and Union Creek. Colors are often good there, but this year they were a bit of a disappointment, so we didn’t spend long.

The Rogue River, looking upstream from Woodruff Bridge.

There is a back road down the west side of the Rogue in this area, to a bridge lower on the river; the road and the bridge bear the unimaginative but apt names of River Road and River Bridge. The road was rough, with occasional potholes full of muddy water, but the Bolt handled it comfortably, and we were soon crossing the river again and parking at the River Bridge Campground for another roam along the river – nice mists, and interesting geology, but still not much color. The only really good color show of the day to that point was partway along the road back out to 62 from River Bridge. But that was about to change.

Looking downstream from directly beneath River Bridge.
Forest road color, Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
The Bolt in the parking lot for Pearsony Falls.

Back in Prospect, we made a spur-of-the-moment decision to stop at the Pearsony Falls trail, part of the Prospect State Scenic Area. This short trail – barely half a mile long – is one of our favorites, and this was a great day to be there. The mists were beginning to burn off, and the woods were full of color. The area around Pearsony Falls has the feel of a rain forest, with much moss and sword fern; the falls themselves, on Mill Creek, are only about 15 feet high but are about as lovely as any waterfall I know of anywhere.

Pearsony Falls.

We walked on down to the river, reaching it just as the sun broke out. Sometimes, you just have to have faith that things will eventually come out right.

Trail between Pearsony Falls and the Rogue River.
The Rogue River at the bottom of the Avenue of the Giant Boulders.

Cottonwood at Stewart State Park on Lost Creek Reservoir, on the way home.