May 10-12, 2023
I decided to take a 3-day foray into the Southern Oregon wilderness along the Illinois River Trail. Conditions dependent, I considered a loop up Bald Mountain, combining the main trail with the Florence Way trail. This loop would have been about 24 miles. In three days, that felt like a reasonable plan.
What I neglected to consider is how formidable the Illinois River Trail could prove to be. For starters, the road to the trailhead is narrow, bumpy, rutted and carved into a steep hillside looming above the river. It was a torturous drive, and we even pulled over before the trailhead because of rumors that the last 2 miles was really bad.
On the morning of May 10, I slung on my backpack and began the walk to to Illinois River East trailhead. The first mile or so of road was fairly flat and even, but it ran through private property so we would have had no place to park. After that, it became more narrow and rugged, with some big puddles at the end. I was glad we made the decision to leave the van where it was.
I hiked across the bridge spanning the raging Illinois and met with the next trail obstacle: poison oak. This stuff grows like a weed throughout Southern Oregon. And since I’ve been impervious to it in the past, I was a little nonchalant about walking through it on this trip (this would prove to be a very bad choice a few days later). The hot sun bore down on me as I crossed the burned, open forest. It had an eerie vibe, and as I passed a big pile of poo that consisted mostly of fur, I started singing some Capoeira songs aloud to keep myself company.
The trail was alive with irises, buttercups, mariposa lilies and much more. I frequently stopped to admire and identify the local flora. Far down below, the Illinois River dipped in and out of view. This was no ordinary river trail; while technically the trail followed the river, the water was often several hundred feet down and not visible at all. The steep mountains tumbled and crumbled down into the valley. The slopes were likely made unstable by the wildfires, which devastated many of the existing trees that held the rock and soil together. At times, walking on the trail felt like walking on the edge of a precipice that could give way underfoot. I don’t have much of a fear of heights, but feeling the wobbly overnight pack on my back made me walk a little slower and choose my steps with precision.
I crossed several little creeks along the way, including one that was lined with Darlingtonia, my favorite Southern Oregon native. Near that creek, I also got to meet a new endemic: Kalmiopsis. This pretty little pink flower cascaded profusely down the hillside, a beauty to behold. I only saw it in this one specific location on this trip. I’ll have to learn more about this plant to find out where it likes to grow and see if I can scout some more on future trips.
At last I reached a trail junction that led down to river level. This junction was brushy, obscured and unmarked, so I let my trail map guide me to the right spot. It was very steep and covered with dry, slippery leaves. Several fallen trees made a little obstacle course of the trail but I made it down without falling. Near the bottom, I changed into sandals to wade through a creek before the trail disappeared into the brush. I emerged onto a wide, flat area of bedrock, adjacent to the flowing water. It was time for lunch, so I found a spot near a calm pool of water where I could dip my feet and eat a sandwich.
By now the sun felt really hot. The idea of sitting blissfully by the water’s edge, reading a book and painting, was not going to happen. I put my pack back on and kept walking. I had to see if the Florence Way trail, allegedly brought back to life a couple of years ago, actually existed. This was the questionable link in my planned loop.
The “trail” through this section was more of a suggestion, as I’d find bits and pieces of a route that inevitably vanished shortly later. Clearly, not many humans come this way. As the route led back into the forest and prepared to ascent 4000′ in the next 5 miles, It was again obscured by massive trees down. I looked ahead to see if I could find any semblance of a passable route, but all I saw was ferns and underbrush. There was no way I was going to piece together a route through this unrelenting forest up that much elevation the next day, let alone with an overnight pack. I resigned to backtracking here and scheming a plan B.
Pine Flat was a fine area to camp, with lots of options. I ended up choosing a campsite in the forest on the other side of the creek I’d waded earlier because it was out of the wind and it had a nice use trail to a sweet little rocky spot on the river. From there I saw my first humans of the day: a small party of kayakers and one raft. I painted the river, made dinner and looked for wildflowers.
That night I lay in my hammock, memorizing the map for the next day.
I awoke at 6 am, as I always do now, and walked out to my riverfront “porch” to have my coffee and apple pie for breakfast. That little 79 cent hand pie I picked up at Grocery Outlet a few days ago made a delicious, easy and calorie-full meal to fuel my morning. I hiked slowly back up the steep path to regain the main trail. At the upper junction, I dropped my main pack and bundled up a few supplies to take a side trip up the Illinois River Trail, just to see how well maintained it was.
Less than a half mile up the trail, I came across a smooth madrone branch across the trail. It was easy to step over, but I noticed an ominous message carved into it: “It’s f*cked up ahead.” Melodramatic, or…accurate? It turned out to be the latter. I soon came across another madrone down, this one large and filled out with leafy branches. I had done enough crawling over and through blowdown that I heeded the warning and turned back towards my backpack. There was only one more item on my list for today: Nobles House.
Another 0.8 miles back towards the trailhead, the Shorty Noble Way trail led down, on my map, to a spot just above the river. Based on the topo lines, it appeared to end at another flat area like the one I’d camped at the night before. It also looked less steep, and I had nothing better to do anyways. I started down this mysterious trail, curious as to what I’d find.
It began pretty pleasant and enjoyable, considerably less steep than the other river access trail. But soon it fell prey to the same hazards: tons of poison oak, blowdown everywhere. I took my time negotiating all these obstacles and got within spitting distance of an obvious camp. Then, there it was. The biggest and blowiest-down of them all. Madrone. Such a beautiful tree when it’s alive and vertical. But an actual monster when fallen to the ground. I literally just had to get to the other side of it. There was no going around; a brushy creek roared to my left and a dense forest created a barricade to my right. I had to go over. Fingers of poison oak reached up between the twisted branches. I took off my pack, scrambled over the main trunks, then reached back to retrieve my pack and hurl it down ahead of me.
At last, at the camp. Or, not. There was a ton of historic trash there, plus some modern garbage. Not super pleasant. I found a path to an overlook of the river, with no way to get down to it. When I tried to settle in, it just didn’t feel like the right spot. I found a way to cross the creek and poked around on the other side. There, I found several more camping options, including a primo hammock site with shade and easy access to the river rock outcrops. Perfect.
I spent the day napping, reading, napping, eating, daydreaming, napping and painting. I worked on attributing value to not being productive and not hiking all the miles. This is a major mindset shift. Normally, when we go on roadtrips, the time is ticking. We need to pack in as many things as we possibly can because every minute not spent doing something rad is wasted. But when the roadtrip is years-long instead of days-long, that breakneck pace is not sustainable or enjoyable. I convinced myself that reading an entire book in two days was the most productive I could be, and I happily did that thing.
On the last day, I just needed to return to the van. I sadly said goodbye to my lovely campsite and returned to do battle with my madrone. It was a thousand times easier on the way back, maybe because I already had a functional strategy or I was more mentally prepared or ?? I slowly ambled back up the trail, noticing so many more flowers than I’d seen on the way down. I was moving with the intention to see flowers instead of the intention to reach a destination. It still blows my mind how much intention impacts experience.
I stopped to squat and photograph all the flowers, including the secretive marbled wild ginger. So many loaded squats on this trip; I think botanizing will be my new workout regimen.
The early start meant I got to enjoy much more shade on the hike out than I did on the hike in. The temperatures were rapidly rising each day and I do NOT do well in the heat. I appreciated my newly developed 6 am built-in alarm clock. Blissfully, I backtracked through the lilies, kalmiopsis, arnica, monkeyflower, paintbrush, serviceberry, poison oak.
Back in the late morning, I had a quick recap with Aaron and made a plan for the next day. We decided to do part of the drive back out this awful road before there was much of a chance of oncoming traffic, due to the dearth of opportunities to pull off the side of the road. We made it back to Sixmile Recreation area, where we spent the afternoon splashing in the river, relaxing and enjoying the remainder of a perfect spring day.
Based on trip reports I’ve read about the Illinois River Trail, it is a very special place when it is clear and navigable! I knew that taking this on early season, especially in a late snow year, involved a high risk of severe blow down. It’s hard enough to get people doing trail maintenance on busy trails, let alone remote and relatively obscure ones. Maybe the trail was perfect past one rogue madrone? But I doubt it. I’m keeping my eyes open for opportunities to volunteer in this ranger district to help clear some trails. I’m also going to swing by a hardware store to pick up some clippers to keep in my backpack!
A reminder to myself and to you: contributing is far better than complaining. See a problem? Figure out how you can contribute to a solution rather than sitting back and complaining about it. Even better, figure out how to recruit others to help with your solution as well.
One final note: It turns out I am *not* impervious to poison oak. It didn’t start bothering me until the day after I got off trail. And I’m suffering dearly, with huge, itchy, puffy welts all over my legs. Four days later, they seem to be getting worse, not better. So, do what you can to avoid the stuff. Then, wash everything: your skin, your clothes, your gear, once you get off trail. Stock up on Tecnu products ahead of time. When we stopped into Safeway in Grants Pass, they were out of stock in all their poison oak products and Calamine lotion. Obviously top sellers in this area!