Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Fall Creek Falls and Susan Creek Falls


At the trailhead and right next to our vehicle, somebody had spray-painted an outline of a human figure on the asphalt, like something right out of a homicide investigation. Somehow that was apt, for we had most definitely hiked in a mass casualty scene. You see, in 2020 the Archie Creek Fire had swept through this area, leaving behind charred carcasses of what once had been live trees. Because of the extensive fire damage, the Fall Creek Falls Trail had been closed for over a year, but on an overcast weekday morn, Rheo, Dianne, Jane, and I went out for a an investigative look-see at the newly reopened trail to the falls.

Fall Creek is a little worse for the wear
Prior to the fire, the walk to the falls had been the quintessential green hike. Back then, Fall Creek burbled next to the trail, nearby boulders were heavily mossed, and ferns ruled the creek banks. What a difference a catastrophic forest fire can make, for now the boulders were moss-free and bore the scorch marks of the rampaging conflagration. Tall and very dead trees flanked the trail, and debris choked Fall Creek.

Queen Anne's lace 
However, not all was lost, for beneath the many acres of dead trees, thrived a healthy population of sun-loving plants and late-season bloomers such as fireweed, pearly everlasting, thistles, and Queen Anne's lace. The vibe is not as green as in years prior, but these new vegetative populations are doing their best to prettify the trail.

Maple beetles are thriving in the burn area
Insect life has returned to the burn zone too, mostly in the form of numerous maple beetles crawling on the trail and on most of the aforementioned plants and flowers. Ladybugs were also spotted huddling together for shelter on the underside of common yarrow flower heads. 

Lower Fall Creek Falls
Because of the lack of foliage, we could actually now observe both upper and lower falls at the same time from a fair distance away. Even though the picturesque cascade was fully visible, it still was much cooler to admire the lower falls from the splash basin and the upper falls from a railed overlook, and we obliged both.

It was a berry nice hike
The hike to the falls is pretty short, which is one reason I haven't hiked there all that much. So, for some extra mileage we explored the forest road at the top of the cascade. The homes that had been here before had also been lost to the fire and the road was clearly sagging, ready to slide downhill at the slightest provocation, like hikers walking on it. The atmosphere up here among all the death and destruction was somewhat on the forlorn side, although the blackberries growing here were delicious.

The "forest" at Susan Creek
Susan Creek was likewise ravaged by Archie but it was conveniently located on the way home, so we stopped there for another short hike to another spectacular waterfall. Just like at Fall Creek, the hike took place among the charred skeletons of trees past. But at least there was no coroner's pictograph on the parking lot pavement.

Pretty to look at but common tansy is not welcome
There were the same type of wildflowers seen at Fall Creek but there were some different ones too. The yellow daisy-like flowers of common tansy were pretty to look at but are most unwelcome, since tansy is a prolific invasive species. Pale blue wild chicory and lavender-tinted aster were more abundant here than they had been at Fall Creek.

Susan Creek Falls
Susan Creek Falls tumbles over its rocky ledge in spectacular fashion, although it's still a bit odd for us old-timers to see the falls in bright daylight instead of in its former mossy and shady basin. Get used to it Richard, it's not going to change much during your remaining time on this planet. We lunched at the picnic area below the falls and enjoyed the scene as we ate our respective fruits, snacks, hot peppers, and gummy worms.

Stink bug gendarmes escort the St. John's wort beetle prisoner
As at Fall Creek, insect life abounded on the surrounding vegetation. Shiny black St. John's wort beetles thrived not on St. John's wort, but on fireweed instead. Stink bugs wandered among the St. John's wort beetles, trundling along like insectile armored tanks warring over the same patch of fireweed. Not willing to engage hostile bug forces in combat over fireweed apparently, maple beetles crawled all over thistle plants and not on maples as their name would suggest. 

Western tailed blue butterfly
Not all of the insects were of the beetle variety as numerous butterflies danced from flower to flower. Of note were some brilliant sulfur-colored butterflies that would not stay still long enough for stealthy photographers. Oh well, I had to settle for a photo of a gray butterfly thingy but the fun was all in the chase.

One small piece of Fall Creek Falls
All of us on this outing are long-time (also known as "old") hikers and are quite familiar with how things used to be along this section of the North Umpqua River. To keep sane, which is a relative term, one just needs to accept the basic fact that things will never be like they were, at least during our lifetime. However, it's not necessarily a bad thing and these two short hikes proved the point that there is still great beauty along the river post-fire, it's just a different kind of beauty than what used to be.

Upper Fall Creek Falls
For more photos of the Fall Creek hike,
please visit this Flickr album.

Not the trail it used to be
For more photos of the Susan Creek hike, please visit this Flickr album.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Stuart Falls

In 2017, the Blanket Fire burned around 5,000 acres of the southwest corner of Crater Lake National Park, along with a much larger tract of the Rogue River National Forest. Flash forward five years and the area is well on its way to recovery and is beautiful in its own stark way. However, the lack of viable forest meant that much of our thirteen-mile hike to Stuart Falls was done in open sunlight, which can get pretty warm in this summer of global warming. And surprise of surprises, the heat got to me.

"But Richard said this hike was easy!"

There is a shorter route to Stuart Falls that approaches from the west but I'm not sure if that trail or trailhead is open, given the fire that wreaked so much havoc in the area in 2017. Besides which, there's so much more glory to be gained by hiking the thirteen mile route beginning from Crater Lake National Park. I enticed Cleve, Terry, Edwin, and Missy to come along by telling them it was only ten miles long and it was all downhill, purposely omitting the part about having to walk uphill in the hot sun on the way back.

The Pumice Flat Trail was flat and full of pumice

We started out on the Pumice Flat Trail, which basically follows an old roadbed through some relatively thin forest. In keeping with its name though, the one overriding feature of the Pumice Flat Trail is that it is virtually flat for three miles in what is a rather utilitarian route to the Pacific Crest Trail.

Typical forest scene on the Stuart Falls Trail

We'd only be on the PCT for a hiker's minute though, as we'd peel off onto the Stuart Falls Trail and basically commence the real hike. Here, the PCT runs along a ridge perched above the headwaters of Red Blanket Creek and the Stuart Falls Trail would then drop us several miles down into the creek’s canyon. The fire damage was readily apparent as the Stuart Falls Trail was surrounded by a vast expanse of dead trees.

Paintbrush livened up the rock gardens

Despite the death and destruction surrounding the faint (at times) trail, the hike was eminently beautiful. Green grass, fireweed, and bracken fern carpeted the ground beneath the tree skeletons in vegetative homage to the increased post-fire sunlight. Rocky outcroppings cropped up above the trail, and rock gardens abounded. Stuffed into cracks between individual boulders were stonecrop, blooming pale yellow; and paintbrush with its eye-scalding bright red color. 

If the trees were living, we wouldn't be
able to see Tom and Jerry Mountain(s)

I'm beginning to sound like an advocate of burn areas as I continue to extol the virtues thereof, and one of those virtues was increased visibility due to the dearth of live trees. Readily visible, the nearest peak to us was the symmetrical volcanic cone of Goose Egg. There was a complex of more rugged peaks to the west that were Tom and Jerry Mountain, located in the Seven Lakes area. And let us not forget the disturbingly-named Bald Peak looming on the north side of Red Blanket Creek's canyon.

Sketchy trail, to put it mildly

Because of the abundance of meadows and flourishing vegetation, the trail was overgrown and very sketchy, to state it charitably. But while it was challenging to stay on course, it never got to the point where the tread completely disappeared. More concerning was the continual loss of elevation as we hiked. It was nice to hike downhill but we all knew that an arduous hike back up to the PCT awaited us on the return leg. 

Stuart Falls was simply beautiful

Finally, we arrived at a backpacking campsite next to Red Blanket Creek. And just upstream was Stuart Falls itself, delicately fanning white across a cliff comprised of dark black rock. Much oohing and aahing took place and we all scrambled upstream to the base of the falls, happy to bask in the cool mist emanating from the cascade.

All those trees and no shade

After a lengthy lunch and general all-around gawkery at the picturesque waterfall, it was time to begin the slog back up to the PCT. By now the day had warmed up considerably and with no shade to shelter us from the sun, the hiking became as scorching as an illicit affair. I noticed that my legs felt tired and my mouth was as dry as the dust my listless feet were kicking up, no matter how much water I drank. My real cause for worry came when the dry heaves started. The struggle was real but I hiked piecemeal, making frequent stops along the way. So not fun.

Life flourishes at the feet of dead trees

I was so glad to reach the PCT, for it would be flat and slightly downhill to the trailhead. Even though the forest surrounding the trail was thin and sparse, faint shade is better than no shade at all, like in the tree graveyard within Red Blanket Creek's canyon. The hike was closed out in the lengthening afternoon shadows and despite the travails of the heat, I really did enjoy the beauty of the scenery I had been retching in.

Typical scenery along the trail

At the trailhead, Missy doled out seltzer water from an ice chest she had hidden in her car. My recovery was immediate and total upon drinking the precious liquid, although I think we would have all been better served if she would have toted the ice chest down to Stuart Falls.

Red Blanket Creek, below Stuart Falls

For more photos of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Iron Mountain

Who knew Iron Mountain was such an amazing wildflower hike? The short answer is everyone but me, but that's not entirely accurate, either. I had heard rumors about the wildflower display on Cone Peak and Iron Mountain but had only ever gone on this hike either in winter or late autumn. During those two seasons, any vegetation capable of decorating the two peaks were either all dried up and shriveled like a mummified ancestor, or buried under a layer of snow like a mummified Eskimo ancestor. So, it was high time to make a July sortie out to the Tombstone Pass area and have a look-see.

The trail slices through some of
that Tombstone Prairie greenery

Accompanied by trusty side-kick Missy, I set out on the Santiam Wagon Road which immediately dropped down into Tombstone Prairie. Here, the verdant meadows of the prairie reposed in the valley laying between Cone Peak and Browder Ridge. Rampant greenery flourished under a deep blue sky and already we were off to a fine start.

Columbia tiger lily, always elegant and eye-catching

After an appreciative gawk-stop at the green prairie, we grabbed the Cone Peak Trail and began heading uphill in earnest. At least the hiking was done in a beautifully shaded forest which gave rise to more greenery and a different cast of wildflowers to admire, causing us to almost forget we were walking uphill. The forest floor was strewn with queen's cup, Sitka valerian, Columbia windflower, and other white-colored flowers. Representing the non-white end of the color spectrum were peavine, Columbia tiger lily, woodland penstemon, and a small reef of Merten's coralroot

Golden yarrow, one of the brightest flowers around

Maybe it was a pre-existing condition, but our opinion was that the flowers in the forest were pretty spectacular. Nothing could ever top this. Oh, we were naive then, so early on in our hike. After a mile or two of steady uphill walking, the trail began to break out into intermittent rock gardens with golden yarrow, rock penstemon, and stonecrop stuffed into the cracks between rocks. Nearby, bloomed single specimens of dark purple larkspur, hinting at the larkspur show in our near future.

The larkspur hordes

One larkspur is elegantly beautiful but multiply that by a factor of 4.7 googols and you have the Cone Peak experience in summation. The trail passed through open areas with massive armies of larkspur marching forward to champion the cause of all things purple. Interspersed among the larkspur hordes were occasional specimens of white larkspur, something I had never seen before. The purple meadows were simply amazing and beyond words, although it seems I've managed to come up with a few.

Cone Peak looms above its wildflower gardens

Eventually the path made its way into the pumice barrens below Cone Peak, although they were not as barren as I have seen them in winter. A veritable rainbow of colored petals resided at the end of various flower stalks, splotching the slopes of Cone Peak with color, like a geologic paint palette. All hiking came to a screeching halt as we perused and/or photographed the fields of flowers.

South Peak rises next to Cone Peak

Even without the wildflowers, the loop hike around Cone Peak and Iron Mountain is pretty cool. Views of nearby peaks abound and to the east of Cone Peak, rise South Peak, Echo Mountain, and North Peak, seemingly placed there just for hikers to admire. Apparently, the colorful flower displays are not limited to just Cone Peak, for the other mountains sported large swaths of yellow on their shoulders, to go along with their green meadows.

Missy leads the charge up Iron Mountain

After several miles of mouths-agape hiking through the scenery and wildflowers, we rounded Iron Mountain by hiking through a shady forest of mossy fir trees before intersecting with the Iron Mountain Trail. Yup, it was time to hike up Iron Mountain itself, and this trail definitely put the "up" in "yup"

Dizzying view from the trail

Back and forth and always up, the switchbacking trail went to and fro through the ever ubiquitous meadows and wildflowers, affording me the opportunity to gawk or rest, depending on who you listen to. Iron Mountain is a rugged beast, and accordingly, we hiked past a series of rocky outcroppings, jagged cliffs, and one lone arch. The elevation gained served up ever increasing views of the surrounding river valleys and mountains.

Mount Jefferson was like a ghostly pimple

There is a wooden observation deck on the Iron Mountain summit and a 360 degree panorama that allowed us to play the Name-That-Peak game, although a nearby signboard inspired some of us to cheat. Beginning with Diamond Peak to the south, the Cascades stretched north in a successive chain of volcanoes, the taller ones being snowcapped. The Three Sisters, Mount Washington, and Belknap Crater all loomed on the near eastern skyline, but it was snowy Mount Jefferson looming over Scar Mountain that commanded the most attention. Further to the north was Mount Hood and amazingly, we could even see Mount Adams from all the way in southern Washington.

Bunchberry bloomed in bunches

All good things come to an end though, and regrettably, we hiked off Iron Mountain's summit and then down to Tombstone Pass via the Santiam Wagon Road, which is actually a trail that follows the old historical wagon route. The Santiam Wagon Road ran through another shady forest that sported the same wooded and flowered scenery we had started out through, so many epic hours ago.

Iron Woman on the Iron Mountain Trail

So, now Missy and I both know Iron Mountain rocks in July! Not sure if I'm quite ready to say I'll hike here every July, but that's a distinct possibility.

The Cone Peak flower show

For more photos of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.