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.

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.

The North Umpqua: waterfalls and wildflowers

In an earlier blog post (“The saga of the Bolt and the bolt“), I told about the blowout that brought an abrupt end to our waterfalls-and-wildflowers excursion on the North Umpqua River last week. This post is about the more pleasant parts of the trip that preceded the blowout.

The Bolt at the Mt Thielsen viewpoint near Diamond Lake

It started out well enough. Southern Oregon is blessed with something called the Rogue-Umpqua Scenic Byway, made possible by the fact that two of the state’s most scenic rivers, the Rogue and the Umpqua, both head out near Diamond Lake, a large, lovely natural lake on the crest of the Cascade Mountains a short distance north of Crater Lake National Park. Beginning in the small town of Gold Hill on Interstate 5 north of Medford, the Byway uses existing highways – Oregon 234, Oregon 62, Oregon 230, and Oregon 138 – to climb the Rogue, circle Diamond Lake, and come down the Umpqua to Roseburg. The mountain scenery is spectacular around Diamond Lake, but that’s not the main draw: the main draw is waterfalls. Waterfalls of all shapes and sizes, from frothy rapids a few feet high to Watson Falls, the third-highest in the state at nearly 300 feet. Gems of white water set in dark evergreen forests and decorated with bright wildflowers. For waterfall lovers – and there are many of us – traveling the Rogue-Umpqua Scenic Byway is somewhat akin to finding the Holy Grail.

Watson Falls

We can do the full Byway as a day trip from our home, but there is so much to see that we usually overnight on the North Umpqua, and this trip was planned that way. Near the tiny community of Dry Creek, roughly 2/3 of the way from Roseburg to Diamond Lake, there is an RV park and a set of rustic cabins that together go by the name Umpqua’s Last Resort. We planned to go up the Rogue, come down the Umpqua as far as the Last Resort, and spend the night in one of their cabins. A major draw for us, driving the Bolt, was NEMA 14-50 plugs in some of the RV slots. I emailed the management and was assured that, although none of the cabins had plugs associated with them, they would let us use an RV slot to charge the car. Charging would be free with our stay. There was one quirk: we couldn’t actually rent a cabin. All of them were already reserved. They did, however, have a large travel trailer permanently set up on one of the sites, and we could rent that for the price of a cabin. So all was set.

The first day went well. We got a leisurely start, had an early lunch at Beckie’s in Union Creek, and were at the uppermost falls on Highway 138, Clearwater Falls, before 1 pm. (We had elected not to stop at any of the wateralls along the Rogue, because we’ve been visiting them all spring.) And at this point, I’m going to let the pictures take over.

Whitehorse Falls
Columnar Falls
Tokatee Falls, probably the most famous of the Umpqua waterfalls)
Clockwise from upper left: violet (shot at Whitehorse Falls); calypso orchid (Watson Falls); Pacific starflower (Tokatee Falls); and twisted stalk (Columnar Falls).
charging, with chair

The highlight was Columnar Falls. It’s only fifteen feet or so high, and carries a modest amount of water, but the interplay of water, moss, and basalt columns is magical. The trail to it uses the same parking lot as Umpqua Hot Springs, so the parking lot was full, but we had the falls to ourselves.

The evening at Umpqua’s Last Resort was pleasant. The staff was welcoming, and interested in the Bolt – it was the first non-Tesla EV that had stayed with them. We had to borrow a lawn chair from our rented RV to hold our Juicebox off the ground, but there were no other problems, and the car got a full charge overnight. Late light on the river was lovely. The next morning we backtracked to Tokatee Falls and then….but read the earlier post. I’m going to just leave this right here.

The North Umpqua River in late afternoon light