Friday, March 25, 2016

Illinois River Trail (to Silver Creek)

On Easter weekend, everybody became consumed with the yearly ritual of searching for tinted eggs in tall grass before they show up months later when the lawn mower runs over them and sprays a putrid multicolored mess on sandals and shins. But Lane and I instead eschewed the Easter egg hunts and used the holiday weekend as an opportunity to sneak in an early season backpack trip, weather permitting. The only eggs we would encounter on Easter Sunday were the freeze-dried powdered variety which constitute a putrid multicolored mess of a different sort. 

We saw the Easter Froggy
The weather was predicted to be overcast, cool, and often rainy: in other words, it was perfect weather for hiking. Good thing it was cool too, this was the first backpack trip of the year and our poor little pee-pee legs were rusty from the winter layoff. We both felt the strain and pain of lugging packs uphill on a rugged trail. If it had been sunny and warm, we'd have been dripping more sweat than a high school student taking a calculus final.

Day 1

Nancy Creek
The Illinois River Trail spends all of its miles inside the boundary of the catastrophic Biscuit Fire burn area. In 2002, the fire incinerated a half million acres of wilderness forest. Initially, the Illinois River Trail pleasantly ambled in a shady forest where the tree trunks had been just lightly toasted by the Biscuit. However, a mile later, the lovely forest transitioned to ghostly snags and barren hillsides scoured clean by the fire.

Feeling the burn
However, despite the harsh appearance, the area is in healthy recovery. Madrone and laurel trees thrive in the open sunlight and all the dead trees make the woodpeckers happy. Also very happy because of the increased sunlight were thick stands of poison oak, the ostensibly pretty red leaves disguising the odious nature of Satan's favorite shrub.

A herd of fawn lily
Spring was in full song along the trail with millions of fawn lilies claiming the hillsides. Not to be outdone, brook wakerobin, azalea, larkspur, siskiyou iris, red currant, snow queen, and wedge-leaved violet were all putting on a floral clinic. Much photography abounded. Also competing for camera attention were the numerous creeks tumbling down the slopes in photo-friendly cascades. 

View down the Illinois River canyon
One good thing about a disatrous fire is that all that annoying clutter previously referred to as "the forest" no longer impedes views. Accordingly, there were superb views of the Illinois River heading north to join forces with the larger Rogue River. The turquoise color of the water flowing through the dark mountains was astounding. The low clouds occluded much of the surrounding topography but did allow intermittent signs of Horse Sign Butte. We saw no sign of horses, though.

Silver Peak looms over Frantz Ranch and the Illinois River

Buzzards Roost, a prominent rocky pinnacle right next to the trail, offered perhaps the best view of the Illinois River. There was another extended photo shoot at the roost before commencing the gradual descent to Indigo Creek. From the trail, a green pasture next to the Illinois was spotted and that would be Frantz Ranch, our camp spot for the weekend. Above Frantz Ranch rose the formidable Silver Peak which I will hike someday when I feel like punishing myself. However, on this weekend, my legs were sufficiently taxed by the climb to Buzzard's Roost. By the way, if you visit Buzzard's Roost with your wife, don't tell her you found her ancestral home. Just sayin'.

The ticks lie in wait
Here, the hills had been scoured clean by the Biscuit and the sun made a weak appearance. The brush flanking the trail harbored a healthy population of ticks and de rigueur tick checks were performed every quarter-hour or so. There were always a few crawling up our pant legs but I'm glad to report that no tick made it into the tick holy ground of warm human flesh.   

Shadow Man visits Indigo Creek
Indigo Creek flows in a narrow chasm and the water flow, the color of the creek, and the scenic trough rival that of the Illinois River. You could almost call Indigo Creek the Illinois River Jr. A well constructed bridge spanned the boisterous creek and we took pictures of our shadows in the late afternoon sun.

Trail, in the near dark
The crossing of Indigo Creek was followed by a rather rigorous climb up a forested ridge with creeks running across the trail as the sun sank behind the mountains. But once up and over the ridge, a short downhill plunge delivered us to the grassy pastures of Frantz Ranch (an old homestead site that is no longer a working ranch). Camp  was pitched in the sunset and sleep soon followed, accompanied by the soothing tap-tap-tap of rain on tent walls.

Day 2

Sunrise on Day 2
Morning dawned wet and drizzly and Lane and I donned our Hikpro's and wandered briefly around the ranch, searching for the continuation of the Illinois River Trail. There were a couple of other backpackers nearby, eating breakfast under a tarp and they told us where they had found a trail that continued on to parts unknown. Sounded like our trail! Turned out, the Illinois River Trail does not actually go to Frantz Ranch, we had unwittingly taken a side trail to the ranch in the semi-darkness the evening before.

It's a jungle out there
There was a faint use trail leading away from our campsite and after a short walk and an even shorter jump across Forest Creek, we were back in business on the Illinois River Trail proper. The Biscuit Fire had visited the forest here too, but had just singed the trunks and probably cleared out the undergrowth. Fourteen years later, the forest was as vibrant as ever with undergrowth thick and lush. We hiked through a veritable jungle, just like Tarzan and Jane and I'm not saying which one of us was Tarzan and which one of us was Jane. Maybe we hiked more like Tarzan and Lane, but I digress.

Satan's favorite plant

The day before, we had hiked on slopes open and barren, courtesy of the Biscuit Fire. On the bare hillsides, poison oak grew everywhere, leading me to conclude poison oak particularly thrives in open sunlight. However, here in the dense forest south of Frantz Ranch, poison oak also grew in equal profusion. So the conclusion that one can draw from all this is poison oak is just happy to grow anywhere and everywhere. Unfortunately, poison oak just had to poke its itchy little head into my Illinois River experience. I had laid my hiking poles down so I could take some pictures and when I picked up the poles, a frond unbeknownst to me had strategically placed itself between arm and pole. So when the pole was picked up, the pernicious plant frond raked my inner wrist just like a thorny bramble would. So very rude, and I sported a good sized itchy souvenir for the next two weeks. 

Black Rock Creek
The trail rolled gently up and down and alternated between dense forest and exposed trails above the river. The river water was colored a rich turquoise hue that really stood out on a grey and dreary day. A number of small creeks full of water crossed the trail and pictures were taken of the mini-waterfalls on each creek. All the creeks were just a bit too wide to hop across dry-footed so I'm happy to report boots did get wet on this hike.

Silver Creek runs into the Illinois River
Silver Creek was our destination and up ahead was the chasm where Silver Creek met the Illinois River. Closer to the narrow canyon, the rather large creek flowed right below the trail and under a well constructed bridge spanning the chasm. We really couldn't take in the scene just yet because the sketchy path crossed over the face of a landslide. Concentration was required as the soil shifted under boots while rocks rolled down the slope and into the creek below.

Trail across a landslide
I was taking a picture of Lane crossing the landslide when I noticed the narrow defile containing and constraining Silver Creek. I actually uttered out loud an awestruck "Wow!". Lane reached safety on the bridge, looked up, saw the same thing and uttered an equally awestruck "Wow!" There was simply nothing else to say.

Silver Creek
Silver Creek flowed out of a narrow canyon of dark rock covered with moss and the view was stunning. The former bridge (since destroyed) had been sited much closer to creek level and the old trail remnant allowed us to perch closer to the creek's edge and much photography ensued. The creek is almost large enough to be a river, being much too wide and deep to wade either across or upstream. What a pity, because a spectacular canyon like that just begs for upstream exploration.

The colorful Illinois River
After checking out a backpack campsite just beyond Silver Creek, we turned around and headed back towards Frantz Ranch. The pace was leisurely, full of gawk-stops at all the small creeks waterfalling into the turquoise waters of the Illinois. A rather large herd of deer was spotted in a meadow next to the trail, causing me to hiss in loathing as I sincerely detest the hiking-pole stealing antlered larcenists.

Cabin at Frantz Ranch
Once back at camp, we took a short after-dinner walk around the pastures of Frantz Ranch. The ranch is an old homestead site and there was plenty of rusting farm equipment hiding in the grass, all too ready and all too eager to painfully bark unsuspecting shins. Gnarled apple trees bloomed in an orchard that had long ago gone feral. Daffodils, presumably escapees from a former ranch garden, grew everywhere in the grassy meadow.

Day 3

Daybreak on Day 3
Day 3 was mostly all about the weather. It had rained during the night but the clouds were breaking up and leaking sunlight when we slithered out of our tents. Although the vegetation was wet and damp, things were relatively dry on the climb out on a steep trail covered with freshly fallen trees. What goes up must come down and once the forested ridge was crested, a steep drop down a muddy trail brought us to the bridged crossing of Indigo Creek.

Indigo Creek
What comes down must then go up and as we started the 2 mile climb away from Indigo Creek, the sky went dark and it started to rain. Then the rain stopped, the clouds disappeared, and the sky went blue. Periodically, it would still rain even though the sun was out. Weird, but that was our day.

Back to the burn on a temporarily sunny day
As we hiked out, we took lots of pictures of all the flowers blooming along the trail, the magnificent vistas of the Illinois River, and of each other gasping for breath as we hiked uphill. Rounding a crest near the top, we were all happy because Buzzard's Roost (the high point and the end of the uphill hiking) was just around the corner. Except that it wasn't, there was another crest just above and ahead. Buzzard's Roost wasn't around that one either. Or the one after. Or the one after that. After rounding around 25 more crests, the rocky point finally hove into view and we sat down for a rest stop and lunch.

"View" from Buzzard's Roost

And of course, the very second we sat down, the blue sky disappeared, the temperature dropped, the wind picked up, and here comes the rain! So we quickly put on the rain gear, hoisted our packs and resumed hiking. Fifty yards later, the sun came out, the temperature went uncomfortably warm, so we stopped and removed our rain gear. Fifty yards later, the sun disappeared, the temperature dropped, and here comes the rain again! You could practically hear the weather gods chuckling in wry amusement "Oh look, they're putting on the raincoats again!"

Bridge at Nancy Creek

I gave up trying to figure out the weather and just hiked in shirt sleeves and one layer. I was cold and wet half the time but on the other half, I was perfectly comfortable. As the trail continually lost elevation, nice views were had of the Illinois coursing in the canyon below, well on its way to meet up with the Rogue River. More importantly, a large grassy area visible a couple of miles ahead was Oak Flat and our trailhead. Eventually, we left the burn zone and entered the shady forest before reaching a joyous reunion with a car and the return to civilization that the vehicle represented. All in all a great weekend even though we didn't find any Easter eggs or chocolate bunnies.

One giant step for Lane-kind
For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.
Wow! at Silver Creek


  1. Glad to hear that Lane is still out there hiking. Poison oak likes you as much as ticks like me!!! Beautiful area and despite the weather, the views say it was worth it.

  2. A lot, in fact most of the burned area in the upper part of Illinois River trail #1161 is from the 2017 Chetco Bar Fire. The Biscuit Fire didn't make it to Oak Flat.