Thursday, March 31, 2022

Lower Table Rock

Many epochs ago (before I was born, even), the Rogue River began carving out the wide Rogue Valley that now contains Medford and other cities and towns. However, while soft volcanic ash proved to be quick and easy work, the hardened lava riverbanks remained impervious to any would-be hydrologic terraforming and resolutely stood in place in what is now high above the valley floor. In present time, the two mesa-shaped remnants are local landmarks Upper and Lower Table Rocks, and the much-loved trails to the top of each receive heavy use. The hike up either mesa is not particularly long but the combination of fantastic scenery and wildflowers seemed to be just the thing to do while trying to get my post-Covid legs back into hiking shape.

A parklike grove of oak trees, replete with turkey calls

The first part of the Lower Table Rock hike is relatively easy and civilized. The trail tread is smooth and performs a level(ish) wander through parklike groves of leafless oak trees. From deep within the grove, unseen turkeys noisily gobbled the morning away while buttercup, larkspur, and shooting star bloomed at ground level. This hike was going to be easy! Oh, talking about turkeys reminds me for some reason that I should mention that I was hiking with John, Jennifer, and Dianne.

View to Sam's Valley

Anyway, like that level grade was going to last! The trail gradually inclined until at some point, it just became another steep trail. But for tired hikers with cameras, the elevation gain served up some sumptuous views of the nearby farming community of Sam's Valley, neighboring Upper Table Rock, and a bunch of clouds blocking what would normally be an epic view of Mount McLaughlin. 

Henderson's fawn lily graced the slopes of Lower Table Rock

The grassy slopes of Lower Table Rock were festooned with patches of Henderson's fawn lily, an elegant, pinkish-purple colored cousin of your everyday cream-colored fawn lily. Growing in the shade underneath the ample quantities of oak and madrone trees, were blue-colored hound's tongue flowers and flamboyant California red bells. Unfortunately, also thriving everywhere on the slopes was poison oak, the oily red leaves just beginning to bud out. 

This glade of oak trees welcomed us to the Table Rock summit

After a steady uphill trudge past wildflowers, trees, viewpoints, and rash-giving plants, the path sideswiped a large lava wall before spitting us like so many watermelon seeds out onto the flat table top of Lower Table Rock. A beautiful little glade of oak trees served as an arboreal welcoming committee as the trail struck out across the wide and flat terrain.

Popcorn flower was busy popping in the grasses

The two Table Rocks can get quite brown and dry in summer but this is spring and the flat table top was covered by green grass offering a colorful counterpoint to the vibrant blue sky above. A wide dirt path, noted as a primitive air strip on the map, led straight across the grassy plain. Patches of white popcorn flower colored up the erstwhile green vegetation while vernal pools of rainwater were mostly dry or drying up. On all sides, mountains and ranges ringed Lower Table Rock and cottony clouds hovered over the valleys. Way cool, but it would get even better.

Wow, already

My friend Jay said it best, when I brought him up here a couple of years ago: "Wow, already!" From the abrupt edge and at the feet of Lower Table Rock, sprawled the pastoral farmlands and large cities contained within the Rogue Valley. Way below, the Rogue River snaked through a series of wetlands and ponds. While relaxing and view-soaking on our clifftop aerie, we played the Name That (snow-covered) Peak game and we had ample opportunity to spot Siskiyou Mountains friends Grizzly Peak, Wagner Butte, and Mount Ashland. Toward the distant Cascades, we were able to pick out Devils Peak, Hillman Peak (on Crater Lake's rim), and Mount Bailey. Mount McLaughlin was the largest and nearest peak but remained invisible thanks to a bank of clouds giving the iconic volcano a cloudy hug.

Manzanita does its part in making this a superb wildflower hike

After a repast of both nourishment and scenery, we followed an unofficial rim-hugging path that led through thorny patches of fragrant ceanothus bushes, all buzzing with industriously busy bees. The ever evolving view provided more vistas of ponds, river, mountains, and sky. The ceanothus bushes provided none of the above but did scratch bare legs as we bushwhacked by.

Yup, flat as a table

We returned by way of the unerringly straight primitive runway like four model planes taxiing to their hangars, some more model-like than others. Now in the afternoon, the sky and valley vistas had hazed up a bit and just like me, had most definitely been clearer in the morning. Shadows lengthened on the way down as we hiked, and we arrived at the trailhead in short order, fully sated by the day's activities.

"Curse you, poison oak" he said, shaking his fist while
scratching at the rash rapidly forming on his upper arm

It had been a good hike. The weather had been superb: awesomely sunny but not hot. This had been my first shorts hike in 2022 and my white legs were probably reported as an unexplained bright light on top of Lower Table Rock. Another first, regrettably, was my first poison oak rash on my leg and arm, probably obtained when lying in the grass taking pictures of wildflowers. At any rate, the two firsts are directly related but even the subsequent itchy rash did not detract from the day's highlights.

We finally did get to see Mount McLaughlin

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

Sunday, March 27, 2022

North Umpqua Trail (Swiftwater Segment)

In 2020, the Archie Creek Fire raged along the North Umpqua River, immolating over 130,000 acres of beautiful forest, not to mention numerous homes and businesses. Also falling victim to the massive wildfire, the lower 30 miles or so of our beloved North Umpqua Trail was rendered impassable for hiking. Even if one is inclined to stealth hike on the officially closed trail, the incessant piles of scorched and fallen trees are an effective deterrent. However, rumor had it that part of the Swiftwater Segment of the North Umpqua Trail had been recently cleared and opened, so I just had to go get a look-see.

Here, the trail was untouched by fire

The fire scars and damage were eminently visible from the Susan Creek day use area, the starting point for today's venture. However, the day use area itself was relatively untouched by fire but just after the Susan Creek crossing, trees proudly bore their scorch marks like so many tribal tats. The fire did not get very far into the picnic area, although it did hop-scotch up into the surrounding slopes after jumping the North Umpqua River.

Snow queen bloomed in purple abundance

From the first step onto the trail, it was eminently obvious that spring was very much happening along the North Umpqua River. The forest floor was carpeted with healthy layers of snow queen, woodland violet, and trillium flowers. Also playing their part and vying for the Miss Supporting Wildflower sash were oxalis, bittercress, spring beauty, and candy flower. With all the flowers to photograph, this was not a very fast hike.

Here bee, bee, bee!

There's something insidious about spiders and trilliums. Here, you have an elegant and stately wildflower to entice bees, photographers, and other invertebrates. And yet, cream-colored crab spiders lurk among the pistils and stamens within the flower's interior and on more than one occasion, I have caught the conniving arachnids in flagrante delicto, happily dining on their victim. It just doesn't seem fair, from the bees' perspective, it'd be like a lion ambushing you as you ate a steak at Applebee's. Predictably enough, crab spiders were spotted on the abundance of trillium flowers blooming away on the forest floor and pity the bees.

Tioga Bridge now has battle scars

After a short walk along the North Umpqua River, the trail crossed over the river via photogenic Tioga Bridge. Built on the piers of an old roadway washed out by a 1964 flood, the stout bridge has become a local landmark since its restoration in 2012. The Archie Creek Fire had swept over the river here and while the bridge survived, scorch marks now adorn the wooden beams and trusses. However, the structural integrity of the bridge remained intact and I hiked across, safe and secure on the stout span.

What this part of the Swiftwater Segment
looks like for most of the three miles

Just after the bridge, there is a T-intersection with the North Umpqua Trail where one can go left on the Tioga Section or right on the Swiftwater Segment. The Tioga was clearly closed although the trail showed obvious signs of having been worked on. The Swiftwater at this end is an old road bed which means it's much wider than a footpath and presumably easier to clear fallen trees from. Despite some strong inner temptations to hike the Tioga Segment, closure notwithstanding, I made the right turn onto the Swiftwater.

Seasonal creeks kept things fresh

Seasonal creeks soon became a thing, as they flowed in abundance across the trail. Because the forest is now bare and stark, the noise of flowing water clearly carried all along the route. The small gullies that contained water were green and overly mossed while moisture-loving plants, such as spring beauty and candy flower, happily flourished as if there had never been a fire in the first place.

Life abounded on the forest floor

The forest was mostly dead and if not completely dead, then on life support. However, despite the arboreal skeletons standing everywhere, a veritable choir of songbirds were twittering and tweeting among the charred trees. On the ground, grass, moss, and wildflowers thrived, the vivid green vegetation in sharp contrast to the surrounding tree graveyard.

Wreckage at Bob Creek

After a couple of miles, the North Umpqua Trail morphed into a real footpath and descended steadily down to Bob Creek. The trail used to cross Bob Creek on a stout bridge but the fire ruined the bridge, the remnants of which were haphazardly piled up next to the creek. It would be indeed a strenuous and sketchy endeavor to scramble up and down the creek's formidable and bridgeless defile, only for the privilege of bushwhacking on what appeared to be an unmaintained continuation of the scorched North Umpqua Trail. I called it good here, and headed back the way I had come.

A halo of woodland violet

This section of the North Umpqua Trail used to be one of my favorite hikes because of the lush and verdant greenery flanking either side of the trail. Naturally, things are markedly different than before and during my remaining time on this planet, the forest here will never be like it was. However, I still enjoyed this walk and found it quite beautiful in its own ashy way. Forest fires are part of life, although they don't really need to be as destructive as the Archie Creek Fire had been, and life abounded among the bones, carcass, and general air of death of what once was a vibrant forest. It's just a different kind of beauty and despite the carnage, it's still very much a pleasant hike.

If you like charred wood, then this is your hike

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

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Viewpoint Mike

You may find this hard to believe, but I don't particularly like hiking uphill. Ironic, given that I spend so much time doing that very thing, but it sure seems like all good hikes inevitably wind up going uphill at some point. It's a necessary evil, when it comes to hiking. Forbearance is the key to making peace with uphill hiking though, and I've since learned long ago to simply accept the things I cannot change. However, a recent bout with Covid left me a little short of breath and now the struggle is real, the complaining justified and not all that funny. But the trail still calls to me and I chose Viewpoint Mike because while uphill, the short 5-mile hike (my first since getting Covid) would provide some good feedback as to what kind of post-virus hiking shape I'm in.

Brrr...let's go hiking already!

At the start, the temperature was a chilly 34 degrees and the cold air slapped at my face like the flipper of an annoyed seal. There's really only one thing to do in that case and that is to start attacking 1,000 feet of elevation gain between me and the 2.5 miles to the summit. If you don't get warm doing that, then check for the pulse you do not have, you zombie.

Tall trees make me feel small and insignificant

As the trail wound its way ever upward, the whole vibe was definitely Siskiyou foothill. Leafless oaks dotted low growing grassy meadows with occasional rock formations scattered throughout. Interspersed intermittently throughout the hike were shadier woods consisting of a mix of madrone, Ponderosa pine, cedar, fir, and the ever ubiquitous oak. And it almost goes without saying, poison oak grew everywhere underneath the trees, which is why I mostly stayed on trail.

A lone Oregon sunshine brightens up a bed of moss

Spring has just arrived and the early spring wildflowers were beginning to bloom. Yellow seemed to be the color du jour and desert parsley, Oregon sunshine, and buttercup were only too proud to hoist the yellow standard in the low grasses. Not to be outdone by their butter-colored brethren, lavender snow queen bloomed on the forest floor while purple grass widow, arguably the most elegant wildflower ever, gentrified the grassy slopes.

Rail and trail

The route switchbacked back and forth up a wooded ridge where at the edge and summit thereof, sits the actual viewpoint of Viewpoint Mike. On the way up to the overlook, much of the path was flanked on the downhill side by wooden rails and I can only speculate that the rails-for-trails are there to prevent bikers and hikers from shortcutting down the hillside. And I can only rail (pun intended) at the idiocy of going for a hike (or bike ride) while being unwilling to actually hike (or bike) on the trail.

The trail was relatively benign in the middle section

The first third of the route ended at a gravel roadway, where signs direct hikers down the road for a bit before the track resumes on the opposite side. This middle portion of the hike is a relatively level wander through sparse oaks and low growing grassy pastures. Water and mud was a thing though, as the hillside was leaking water through a number of seasonal seeps. My boots and pants legs became wet and muddy and they better have liked it.

Not that bad, unless you've just had Covid

After the brief level respite, the trail began heading uphill in earnest. While I have hiked on much steeper trails, my post-Covid legs and lungs really felt this section of trail. Nonetheless, perseverance won out and legs and lungs kept doing their job, despite the obligatory complaining. 

Viewpoint Mike rocks!

Just like my head, the lush growth thinned out near the top. Here, the trail wandered through an old flow of lava sludge where the only things growing on the black rock were lichen, moss, and the occasional desert parsley plant blooming in the cracks. The thinning woods allowed for ever increasing trailside vistas down the Rogue River valley, tantalizing your merry blogster when just like that, the actual viewpoint was arrived at.

Lost Creek Lake from Mike's summit

And what a view it was! Lost Creek Lake sprawled across the mountainous landscape, the dark blue-green waters contrasting with the dark forested hills and the gray sky above. To the west lay a prominent valley carved out by the Rogue River, and little pieces of the river could be seen here and there. Not quite as scenic but visually interesting nonetheless, were the complex of holding pools and ponds belonging to the Cole Rivers Fish Hatchery, sited just below the dam holding Lost Creek Lake at bay.

The weather made a decided turn for the colder

As I tarried at the overlook, the day definitely became grayer and more overcast and as a result, the temperature dropped noticeably. When I had begun the hike, it was 34 degrees at the trailhead and up here on the viewpoint, it was now 31 degrees. That was my cue to head downhill back to the car.

Grass widow grieves her dearly departed

I must say that the Covid did not affect my downhill legs at all, and I made quick work of the return leg like a veritable King of the Downhillers. If only every hike could go all downhill but then again, it wouldn't really be hiking now, would it?

Natural telescope

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