Sunday, June 7, 2020

South Slough

It had been a while since I'd been out to the Oregon coast. Thanks to Covid-19, pretty much the entire coast had been shut down and declared off limits. The closure orders included coastal state parks and national forests with said closure being enforced via tickets and painful fines; besides which, local governments also made it known visitors from out of town were not welcome during this time. Accordingly, hikers such as myself found more hospitable places to go. However, Oregon began a phased reopening and some of the previously forbidden coast was rendered conditionally accessible, as long as people behaved and followed the guidelines. I wasn't sure if some of the state parks in Bandon and Coos Bay were open or not, but certainly the small park with the unwieldy name of South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve was open as far as the trails were concerned.

The Ten-Minute Loop was well manicured 
Thinking "It's not ten minutes when I walk it!", I grabbed the Ten-Minute Loop Trail, which basically provides access from the parking lot to some of the longer hiking routes in the reserve. Initially, the trail was quite civilized, firmly packed with hard gravel, and with tunnels cut through the dense vegetation consisting of coastal huckleberry, rhododendrons, and salal. After maybe three minutes of the Ten-Minute Trail, an intersection with the North Creek Trail came up and now the hiking would be on real trail tread.

A salal gets ready to wet a hiker's pants leg
Southern Oregon had been experiencing a fairly sustained run of wet and rainy weather and accordingly the lush coastal jungle in the reserve was sopping wet. However, the trails in the reserve are well maintained and the ever encroaching brush was mostly kept at bay, although there were places where my pants legs were soaked from contact with the moist vegetation. At this point, North Creek was mostly a series of small random runoffs heading downhill to where they would eventually organize and coalesce into an actual creek. Lots of numbered bridges kept me out of creek wades and boots were grateful.

It's a jungle out there

The dense coastal jungle was the star of the show next to the tinkling stream of North Creek, and the rampant greenery was overwhelming and eminently beautiful. Thimbleberries bloomed, ferns were everywhere, and periodically the sun would break through the clouds, although not much sunlight actually made it all the way down to the forest floor. The trail dropped steadily down the North Creek drainage and the sound of trickling water was ever present.

Skunk cabbage is king here
Eventually, the trail bottomed out, the creek became more defined, and skunk cabbage took over North Creek in that transition area from coastal creek to tidal slough. It was well past skunk cabbage flowering time so I was thankfully spared that rubbery skunky odor emanating from the large smelly plants. 

First look at the marshes surrounding South Slough
The unimaginatively named North Creek Spur Trail is a dead end path that provided the first overlook of South Slough. Here, little North Creek widens considerably, carving a broad valley filled with marsh grass and standing water. In the middle of the scenic valley was a small channel of creek water that stealthily snaked to and fro in the waving grass like a deer stalking backpackers. 

Low tide at South Slough
A stout footbridge crossed the narrow inlet separating Rhodes Marsh from much larger Sloughside Marsh and it was all slough scenery at this point. Despite the whole freshwater surrounded by trees vibe, the still water was brackish and subject to the fluctuating ocean tides. Obviously, the tide was out as the slough channels were basically exposed ditches of pungent mud. However, a hike on an old and crumbling berm did provide a nice view of the slough as it opened up in the direction of Coos Bay.

That way to Coos Bay

There is a short spur trail that follows the edge of South Slough for a bit before it degenerates into a brushy game path that peters out altogether in the forest. Along the trail are some well constructed observation decks for bird watching, wildlife viewing, and general all-around contemplation of nature. Plus, the decks make a nice spot to enjoy lunch while engaging in one or all of the preceding activities. 

I'm not quite sure why it's called the Tunnel Trail

After an obligatory lunch 'n laze at an observation deck, I retreated to a four-way intersection. My route would follow a peninsula to the south where either the Railroad Trail or the Tunnel Trail would take me to the other end of the peninsula. The Tunnel Trail sounded way more interesting and while I can't compare it to the Railroad Trail because I didn't hike on it, I can say the Tunnel Trail was indeed very interesting.

Always a pleasure to see a gnome plant
The Tunnel Trail is aptly named, for it does actually tunnel through the rampant vegetation. Tall rhododendrons were in bloom and the ground was covered by a healthy population of the fairly rare gnome plant emerging from the mysterious depths of the earth. You rarely see gnome plants but they were a common sight here at the slough.

Skunk cabbage takes over a boardwalk
The coolest part of this hike, in my view, was the boardwalk through the marsh where Hidden Creek met South Slough. The boardwalk wove to and fro above the marsh as grassy wetland gradually morphed to skunk cabbage bog. The large leaves of the skunk cabbage encroached over the boardwalk and you had to make sure you stepped on the hidden boards instead of inadvertently stepping off into the swamp.

Hidden Creek was hiding in plain sight
Eventually, the bog transitioned to Hidden Creek, which was mostly hidden, although glimpses of the clear creek waters could be had here and there. And after a brisk uphill walk of a mile or two up and away from both creek and slough, capped off by the remaining few minutes of the Ten-Minute Loop, this loop hike came full circle at the reserve's visitor center, currently shuttered due to the pandemic. At any rate, this relatively short hike did scratch my coastal itch and I went home satisfied.

Salmonberry, not quite ready to eat
For more photos of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

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