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.
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.
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.
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.
Snow has not yet come to the high country of the Siskiyous. This is worrisome for the winter we are about to have, but it is also an opportunity. On November 6 we took advantage of that opportunity, with a ramble along the Split Rock Trail from Road 20 to the summit of McDonald Peak.
The Split Rock Trail begins at a tiny parking area just west of the ridge that forms the west wall of Grouse Gap, the large basin west of Mt Ashland. It ends at the summit of Wagner Butte, five miles to the north along the same ridge. A “use trail” for many years, maintained by hikers’ feet, it has recently been adopted into the Rogue River-Siskiou National Forest trail system, and now rates a trailhead sign and occasional maintenance. McDonald Peak is roughly a mile in. It is 7226 feet high, but that is less impressive than it may sound; the trail goes almost directly over its summit, and the entire route from trailhead to summit stays above 7000 feet.
I suffer from Reynaud’s Syndrome, which cuts off the circulation to the tips of my fingers if I get too cold, so we didn’t leave the house until after noon. The drive up was uneventful (although I do wish Road 20 would get some proper maintenance for what are developing into some pretty bad potholes), and we were on the trail by 1:30. There was haze in the valleys, but we were above most of that, and the views were glorious, stretching from Mt Shasta to the Crater Lake rim and almost everything in between. A flock of bluebirds swirled past as we climbed the south slope of the small knob we call “Little McDonald Peak” near the trailhead: they flew in 15s and 20s, fifteen or twenty feet in the air and then fifteen or twenty seconds on a convenient rock or red-fir limb. Near the same spot we found a few sulphur flowers still partially in bloom.
The actual summit of McDonald Peak is a rock outcrop about fifteen feet high, which the Split Rock Trail bypasses on the west side. It’s an easy scramble, so of course we summited. This was the site of the “geezer climb” my old friend and former climbing companion Cliff Olin and I made together in August 2017, roughly 50 years after our last previous climb together (and a lot easier than that one was!). Being there brought back pleasant memories of that trip.
It was still early when we got back to the car, so we added the half-mile round trip to the top of the gentle, nameless knoll west of McDonald Peak along the main crest of the Siskiyous. The electric propulsion system of the Bolt performed its magic on the way home, actually adding fuel to the battery instead of using it up as we came down the Mt Ashland Ski Road and the stretch of I-5 between Siskiyou Summit and Ashland, so we reached our garage with about the same charge showing on the range indicator as it had shown at the trailhead (just try to do that in a gas-powered vehicle). What I hope is the first of our winter storms is expected to come through at the end of this week, so this was probably our farewell trip to the high country for 2019.
There is a certain mystique about mesas. Part of that comes from their association with the Old West of the movies, and from the even older west encountered in places like Mesa Verde and the First, Second, and Third Mesas of the Hopi people. Another part comes from the appearance of impregnability that mesas present because of the cliffs that partly or completely surround them. Most of it, though, comes from their isolation – from a sense that their broad, flat surfaces are a place apart from the mundane world below, a place which might hold marvelous things: lost mines, or lost species, or even lost civilizations. There is actually some truth to this last point. Lost mines and lost civilizations are almost always the stuff of myth, but lost species often do find refuge on the tops of mesas. Mesas are islands in the sky, and like islands in the sea, they can develop unique communities of living things. Sometimes these include species that are rare or absent elsewhere.
Mesas are commonly associated with arid landscapes, but they can be found anywhere. There are two standing side-by-side here in southern Oregon. They tower some 800 feet above the Rogue River, which winds closely past them on the south, and they go by the unimaginative but apt names of Upper Table Rock and Lower Table Rock – “upper” and “lower” here referring to their locations along the river, not their elevations, which are nearly identical. The Table Rocks owe their existence to a long-extinct volcano; to the Rogue River itself; and to seven million years of time. The ancient volcano, usually identified as Olson Mountain (south of what is now Lost Creek Lake), spewed forth lava in liquid-enough form to flow more than 40 miles down the channel of the ancestral Rogue and spread out over the sandstone flat that now underlies the Rogue Valley; the river and time then conspired to carry most of that lava away again, along with several hundred feet of the sandstone. The largest remaining remnants of that flow are the Table Rocks. Each sits on a pedestal of sandstone, and each has a summit that is several hundred acres in extent, thinly covered with soil, and flat as the tables they are named for.
The Table Rocks are popular hiking destinations, receiving, between them, some 45,000 visits each year. Both rocks are botanical preserves, managed jointly by the BLM and The Nature Conservancy: More than 200 flower species have been identified on those two sky-islands and their surrounding cliffs and hillsides, including one, small meadow foam, that is endemic to the rocks – meaning that it grows nowhere else. So most of those visits, including most of ours, come during wildflower season. But the rocks hold charms in other seasons, too. This Wednesday (October 9), we decided to see what they might provide in the middle of Autumn.
Since the trailheads are only half an hour from our home, we are able to do either rock as a half-day hike, and that’s what we chose to do this time. We arrived at the Lower Table Rock parking lot around 1:30 PM. The weather was sunny but slightly hazy, with temperatures in the 60s. Climbing slowly through oak savannah, chapparal, and then mixed forest, we reached the rim, 1.5 miles from the trailhead, by 2:30. We spent the next hour wandering south along the east rim, in the company of scarlet leaves, bright-red madrone berries, and the distant cone of Mt McLoughlin, tinted white by a recent light snowfall. There were a few late-blooming flowers.
After a fifteen-minute-or-so pause on the southern tip of the mesa, we headed back via the main trail, down the center of the summit plain on the mile-long grass airstrip built in 1948 by developer John Day as part of a scheme – never realized – to sell mesa-top homesites to wealthy Californians. The airstrip has been decommissioned for many years, but it still appears on some maps, and small planes still occasionally attempt to land there.
The light was gorgeous in the woods as we descended in the late afternoon. We reached the trailhead shortly after 5:00. I took the obligatory photo of the Bolt in the parking lot – this is an electric-car blog, after all – and we headed for home. We’ll be back to this trail again in the spring.