Saturday, October 30, 2021

North Umpqua Trail (Hot Springs Segment)


Last year, the Friends of the Umpqua's outing on the North Umpqua Trail's Hot Springs Segment had been all about the autumn colors. It was Halloween weekend and the weather had been gloriously sunny, the sky inspiringly blue, and the forest brilliant with fall colors. I happily hiked as one with the elements, because I too am bright and flamboyantly colorful. However, this year's hike was the exact opposite. Three weeks of rain had knocked most of the leaves out of the trees, the temperature was on bordering on cold, and the overcast sky rudely dumped water on our heads. What a difference a year makes!

Colorless grubs and crawly things

Beginning from the trailhead at Toketee Lake, ten hikers warmed up with a pleasant up and down ramble through a dimly lit forest above the mostly unseen river. This section was all green with ferns, moss, Oregon grape, and a whole forest comprised primarily of Douglas fir. The dark forest seemed to be darker than usual though, thanks to a gloomy gray sky overhead and a general scarcity of sunlight. Underneath the trees, we scuttled in the low light like so many colorless grubs and crawly things slithering away from underneath a freshly overturned garden stone.

The Golden Path

After a bit, the trail dropped down to the North Umpqua River and commenced one of my favorite sections of trail. Here the path follows the river and in autumn, is blanketed with a thick layer of fallen leaves. Just follow the Golden Path, Richard, and you will be rich beyond your wildest dreams, the richness in this case pertaining to the glorious autumn vibe. When not ambling beneath maples and their fading leaves (mostly on the ground), the trail wound its way through a cathedral of tall firs flanking either side of the trail and I gaped in reverential awe like some humble pilgrim finally reaching his sanctified destination.

Trees (and maybe a hiker or two)
get buried by the leaves

As mentioned, the forest floor (and trail) were shag-carpeted with a thick layer of leaves. Already, the processes of decomposition and soil regeneration were well underway. Individual fronds of Oregon grape and ferns had snagged some of the fallen maple leaves which were now decomposing on the evergreen plants and shrubs. The contours of fallen trees of seasons past were barely visible underneath mountains of accumulated leaf litter. Mushrooms and fungi of various ilk and specie were taking advantage of the decaying biomass and just generally thrived all over.

The North Umpqua Trail gently
climbs up to Deer Creek

At just under the two-mile mark, the North Umpqua Trail egressed onto a forest road and the path then resumed on the other side of the river. The only uphill hiking commenced here, but fortunately it wasn't daunting at all, just a steady climb through a lush and tangled forest. Here, the North Umpqua Trail diverged from the North Umpqua River but Deer Creek happily took the river's trailside place and burbled merrily somewhere down there in the forest below. As I hiked through the bucolic scenery, the peace and quiet of the forest was suddenly interrupted by John hiking in my direction with an obvious limp. Uh-oh.

Final score: This little creek 1, Knees 0

Up ahead there is an unnamed creek that was just a trickle last year. This year, it was running vigorously and enterprising hikers had fashioned a primitive creek crossing made up of branches and rocks. One of these rocks broke in two when John stepped on it, causing him to have an unwanted sit-down in the creek. Also unwanted, was a knee bending the wrong way and John had to take his sprained joint back to the trailhead, one gimpy step at a time.

Deer Creek flows under the hiker's bridge

After making sure John was in reasonable enough shape to hike back without assistance, I continued on to Deer Creek, my turnaround point. Everybody else had continued on to Columnar Falls but because I had lagged behind, this hike had turned out to be more photo shoot than hike so Deer Creek was as far as I would get. At the stout metal and wood bridge spanning the stream, I took a moment or two just to simply appreciate the beauty of the creek approaching from upstream, well on its way to joining forces with the North Umpqua River. 

Natural leaf arrangement on a log

Shortly after turning around and heading back, the ominous gray clouds delivered on their threat to rain on us. The day darkened considerably and the pitter-patter of raindrops and the surround-sound hiss of millions of raindrops striking millions of fallen leaves were a soothing counterpoint to the rhythmic noise of my boots swishing through the leaf litter cloaking the path. Since I was now ahead of everybody else, I took my appreciative and thankful time as I walked, while valiantly trying my best to keep the camera dry.

New arrival

It was a short wait at the trailhead before everybody else began straggling in, all wet and bedraggled like my dogs get when I've forgotten to let them back in the house on a rainy day. The day was now dark and gloomy with that hint of cold that says winter is on its way, and all hikers, including me, were rain-soaked and sodden. Despite the discomfiture caused by the inclement weather, nonetheless I had happily hiked as one with the elements, for I too am gloomy, gray, and chill.

A family of mushrooms make
a happy home on a rotting log

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

Friday, October 15, 2021

McKenzie River Trail (from Belknap Springs)

No matter how meticulous or painstaking the planning, sometimes things just do not go as intended. Improvisation is often the saving grace of a given hike and the unpredictability makes hiking fun, as long as it's good unpredictability. An unexpected trail closure that forces you onto a trail you'd never been on can be an enjoyable adventure, as long as you don't do something stupid like twist your ankle on the new trail. Gratefully, no body parts were injured on this hike, but because my intended route on the McKenzie River Trail was closed due to wildfire damage, I was forced mid-hike to come up with a new plan on the spur of the moment.

The cold and forbidding waters of the McKenzie

Uncharacteristically (for me), the hiking festivities started early morning, the sun had not yet risen high enough to shine down into the river canyon. Winter is coming and dang, it was cold. I could barely feel my fingers and the cold air made me rue my newly shaved head. If my ears could talk they'd be clamoring for me to immediately don a ski cap before they freeze and fall off my hairless head.

Autumn decorates a bridge railing

Initially, fallen trees covered the trail so I improvised (theme of this blog!) by walking down to Belknap Hot Springs Resort and then through the nearby campground full of still snoring campers. A short cross-country walk from an empty campsite then put me on the McKenzie River Trail proper, where the campground "scenery" was exchanged for a forest lush and light green, the understory being comprised of dense vine maple growth just starting to turn yellow.

The river takes a moment to
reflect on the meaning of life

The McKenzie River was nearby, which only makes sense, given that I was hiking on the McKenzie River Trail. The river surged dark and foreboding in the deep shade, the waters exuding an icy aura that did not even come close to inviting a refreshing swim. In the quiet parts, the surface of the river was like polished onyx and the autumn colors and what little sunlight there was reflected on the river and artfully colored it up. 

Bridge crossing at Boulder Creek

In quick succession, a pair of rustic footbridges crossed over an unnamed creek and Boulder Creek. The unnamed creek's bridge was one-railed, causing me to place an inordinate amount of trust and faith in my left hand and arm. Boulder Creek's bridge has the proper amount of rails (two!) but the creek had very little water pooling between the many boulders in the creek bed. I could see where Boulder Creek joined with the McKenzie but the unnamed creek just disappeared into the rampant greenery encroaching the creek bed. And thus ends this random tale of two creeks which much like this hike, rambled aimlessly.

A moment of Zen

I knew the Knoll Fire had trashed the McKenzie River Trail at Deer Creek, causing the Forest Service to close that section of trail. What I did not realize was that the line of demarcation for the closure was not at Deer Creek itself, but at Deer Creek Road instead. That closure site meant that my intended 8 mile hike was now going to be a 4 mile hike. The barrier itself was just a wooden sawhorse with no explanation attached and I could hear my hiking buddies saying "If you can walk around it, it's not closed!' (We had discussed trail closures on our last hike). But I believe in playing nice with the USFS, so it was back the way I had come, pondering how best to come up with some additional mileage.

Sunlight filters through the leafy woods

Duh, the McKenzie River Trail runs in either direction from Belknap Springs Trailhead. So once I reached the trailhead, it was a simple matter of crossing the road and continuing west on the trail. Now, my preconceived notion was that this trail section basically hugged busy McKenzie Highway and was generally uninteresting. Boy, was I wrong, wrong enough that I am even putting it in writing right here in my blog.

The trail wound its way through an
entrancing and captivating forest

The forest on this part was beautiful and eminently sublime. Ample greenery abounded, although the greenery was not entirely green-leafed, thanks to vine maples turning yellow or red, depending on the sunlight. Lush growth flanked the trail, the usual suspects being Oregon grape, salal, and all the ferns you could ever hope to see on a day hike. Not to mention, tall maple and conifer trees kept the hike shady and whatever sunlight made it down to the forest floor was of the dappled variety. 

Arrival at Lost Creek

The trail rapidly descended down a forested ridge crest that peeled away from the now unseen river. My reward for all that downhill hiking, besides having to hike back up, was a scenic bridge crossing at Lost Creek. The creek didn't look all that lost, as it joined the McKenzie within eyeshot of the bridge. The stream coursed in the bottom of a pronounced canyon and was nearly wide enough to be considered a river. The bridge seemed a good place as any to turn around at, and back up the trail I went, happy with the discovery of another totally awesome hike, thanks to an unexpected closure and some improvisation.

This portion of the McKenzie River
Trail invites further exploration

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

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Upper Rogue River Trail (Big Bend Trailhead, north)


A couple of summers ago, I attempted a hike on the Upper Rogue River Trail (URRT), beginning from Foster Creek Trailhead. There, a well-defined trail led from the trailhead down to the fast moving creek. And from there...? After a wet ford of the creek and some mortal combat against head-high thickets of willow, I could not find the resumption of the trail on the other side of Foster Creek. One's chances are better for finding a Sasquatch nest than locating the trail in that mess of vegetation. At any rate, this time out I figured I'd try to reach Foster Creek from Big Bend Trailhead, simply because I had never been on that section of trail.

This way to glory
This hike began where the URRT crosses gravel Hershberger Mountain Road. You really have to watch for the trail to find it and the same level of alertness was required to watch for trail markers once on the trail, for there were several dirt roads and confusing trail intersections to contend with. Fortunately, markers with tiny words but large arrows kept me headed in the right direction before the "real" trail made a short drop down to the river and commenced the "real" hike.

The first step in plant-to-pants water transfer
It was a cold and nipply morning and all the encroaching vegetation was damp with morning dew that soaked pant legs as I brushed by. I can honestly say I wet my pants, something I hope to never have to say again as I enter my elder years. Not all the vegetation was wet and dewy, for clusters of bright red wild rose hips were lightly frosted in a subtle reminder that winter cometh.

How alder does autumn
The Rogue Gorge, site of my last hike, was only 6.5 miles downstream but it was worlds apart when it came to fall colors. Here, there was a noticeable dearth of vine maples, so it was incumbent upon the alders to hold up the autumn flag. They tried, but alders just don't glow as bright or as multicolored as their vine maple brethren. So, the autumn colors tended towards light yellow and paled (color pun intended) in comparison to the vine maple carnival found further downstream.

The Rogue River, all hike long
Generally, the Rogue River was always nearby but in these parts, the river coursed slowly at the bottom of its forested canyon in a series of graceful curves and bends. There was none of that wild gorge stuff that is so prevalent downstream. The sun was out, the sky was blue, and sun, sky, and forest all reflected on the ponderous river seemingly in no hurry to reach the Rogue Gorge. The water was crystalline and clear, and boulders and small rocks were eminently visible on the river bottom from various trail overlooks.
Tall cliffs, courtesy of Mount Mazama
Something like 7,000 years ago, Mount Mazama erupted and buried the surrounding countryside in volcanic ash. Nowadays, the scars from that cataclysmic eruption are still visible across the river, mostly in the form of tall cliffs clearly comprised of volcanic ash. On the trail side of the Rogue, you could not see the cliffs because you were actually standing on top of them, and the rim thereof provided some nice scenic overlooks of the tranquil river flowing below.
Where there are ferns, there is almost no trail
Periodically, the trail would peel away from the river and duck into a forest sublime and beautiful. The map said there were footbridges on this part of the trail but I only found one, the others having been washed out long ago. Fortunately, the creeks that did the washing out were dry during my visit. Lush vegetation carpeted the forest floor, and thigh-high bracken fern were doing a mighty fine job of fading the trail into oblivion beneath their yellowing fronds. 

The meadows along the river were incredibly scenic
After traversing a dark and shady forest with faint sunbeams illuminating lucky seedlings, the trail entered an extensive meadow that flanked both sides of the Rogue. The lazy river curved around a bend and disappeared under a ginormous log jam; apparently, this is where logs come to die. Equally slow moving creeks drained marshes pooling in the tall grasses and reeds but the one footbridge I encountered allowed for boots to remain dry, unlike my pants. However, the tall grasses made the trail faint and a little hard to follow.

The trail went sketchy in the vegetation
Once past the stunning scenery at the meadows, the path ducked into the forest and then just basically melted away underneath the trees, the path becoming indistinguishable from the forest floor. I sort of could see where it might go but trying to follow would dramatically increase the probability of getting Search and Rescue involved at some point, so I called it good and returned the way I had come.

A dogwood leaf adds to the fall fun
The turnaround point was only about two miles south of elusive Foster Creek and I'd like to come back and finish off this section. Safety first, though, and I'll bring some friend or friends with me, provided I can find any willing to risk getting lost with me. Also useful would be a roll of orange flagging tape (pink, if Lane comes), so we can backtrack without getting lost. While the unexpected turnaround was slightly disappointing, I don't think I'm quite done with the URRT yet.

The forested bits of trail were just gorgeous
For more photos of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Rogue Gorge Loop

"A fallen leaf is nothing more than a summer's wave good-bye" - Unknown

A wall of yellow leaves

If that's true then then this last hike was a thundering round of applause from an appreciative crowd stomping their feet, shouting "Encore! Encore!" at the top of their lungs, hoisting in tribute thousands of lit cigarette lighters that twinkled in the dark auditorium like so many stars against a night sky on a summer campout. I may be dating myself because I don't think they light lighters at the end of concerts anymore, it's probably cell phones nowadays. But at any rate, the autumn's concert was a wonder to behold on the Upper Rogue River Trail.

The trail was oft multi-colored

And speaking of art and artists, I was Supreme Commander of this hike today. Actually Edwin was supposed to lead the charge on this Friends of the Umpqua venture but an injured foot (he'll be ok) put paid to that idea. Additionally, the Jack Fire had overrun the South Umpqua River Road, rendering his hike inaccessible anyway. All that left me free to choose where and how and maybe even why we were going. Since I so enjoyed the autumnal aspects of my last hike at Suttle Lake and was left wanting more of the colored same, it was time for yet another reprise of the Rogue Gorge loop, arguably the best autumn hike in all of southern Oregon.

It's autumn time along the Rogue River

Setting out from the Rogue Gorge Viewpoint, our first little item of interest was the Rogue Gorge itself. The gorge used to be a lava tube but became a gorge when the roof caved in. Whether tube or gorge, the mighty Rogue was not at all happy about being squeezed into the tube, and makes its opinion known in a frothing and roaring diatribe from the bottom of the narrow defile. But tell it to the rock, because rock don't care, and the immovable lava walls do what they have done for epochs, which is to guide the river out of the gorge and into a more benign canyon.

Figurative forest fire!
Someone, call figurative 9-1-1!

Almost immediately after hiking away from the gorge, this hike became mostly all about the fall colors. We were on the shady side of the river so the vegetation was still primarily green in color, but there were plenty of reds and yellows scattered throughout to hint at the upcoming show. But on the other side of the river, where it was sunny and bright, the vine maple leaves had already burst into bright reds that had us putting on sunglasses so as to prevent further retinal damage. 

Autumn reflects on the Rogue

Once the trail made a pronounced turn to the south, we hiked in bright colors for the remainder of the hike. Each vine maple tree was an explosion of color and light next to the river. The Rogue was running slow and ponderous while small whirlpools and eddies made for interesting textures on the surface. The bright colors reflected poetically and it seemed like a whole blurry and colorful world lay just beneath the river’s surface.

A small cascade on an angry river

Most of my charges had not been here before so I communicated that when the trail reached the bridge crossing the river, we were all to stop and regather. Naturally, Lane stopped at the first bridge he saw which happened to be at Union Creek so we regathered twice. No harm, no foul though, and after a quick bridgeside confab at the correct bridge, we all decided to cross the river and follow the Upper Rogue River Trail, if only for the reason I told everybody that's what we were doing.

The forest near Natural Bridge was simply sublime

The river at the bridge seethed and roiled as it was confined in yet another narrow gorge but we traded in all that sound and fury for woods peaceful and quiet, excepting the huffing and puffing sounds of hikers attacking the only uphill section of trail on this hike. The woods were eminently beautiful with colors slightly muted as this side of the hill was fairly well shaded.

The Rogue, as it approaches Natural Bridge

Once we hiked up and over that lushly wooded ridge, it was back to a level hike next to the river as we approached Natural Bridge. Natural Bridge was formed when the roof of lava tube that swallowed the Rogue in its entirety collapsed, except for one 25 yard section. As the river pours into all that remains of the lava tube, the visual effect is that the Rogue River mysteriously disappears from sight only to emerge a short distance later in a geologic game of hide-and-seek. For some reason, you never see kayakers here, probably something to do with that brief underground journey.

Why we hike

After a nice little lunch 'n laze next to a busy parking lot, we returned by way of the Rogue Gorge Trail. The afternoon sun shone brightly on an amazingly colorful trail and my inner photographer ran amok. So many leaves and so many colors and so many reflections on the river. Despite the bright sun ostensibly baking the trail, the temperature was mild so sun stroke was not an option today. The day was perfect, as was this hike.

Local color

So, just like my walk at Suttle Lake, I really enjoyed the whole autumn color thing and was left wanting more. They say that too much of a good thing is a bad thing but I disagree, I could do this again and again and again and....

Every leaf a work of art unto itself

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