December 20, 2006.
Located just north of the California-Oregon border, Oregon Caves National Monument is located within the Siskiyou mountains.
I packed up camp in the freezing cold morning and drove up to Oregon Caves, which I found to be closed for the season. I parked in the lot and walked up to the buildings where people were milling about, packing up cars and taking care of ranger business. I asked one guy about the trails and he said it would be wise to bring snowshoes, so I ran back to the car and geared up for a more serious hike.
I’d planned to do the Big Tree Loop, a mere 3.3 miles altogether. There wasn’t a whole lot of snow at the trailhead but since the trail gains 1000 feet or so, I suppose that could change. I quickly began climbing through some open forest where the wind whipped through the trees and I could feel the cold on my red face. I’d dressed very warmly today, which would cause me to overheat on the ascent. The snow was imprinted with a variety of different animal tracks, which I stopped to admire. I imagined cute little forest creatures tromping through the snow much like I was now, a peaceful and lovely scene. Shortly, however, I came across these big paw prints which I assume are mountain lion. My fairytale vision shattered as I started picturing bloodthirsty, big cats stalking a tasty lone hiker like myself. I debated whether or not to turn back, but soon the prints disappeared, my blood pressure returned to normal and I continued on.
The snow on the trail was soft and never too deep. The clouds covered much of the sky, and the trail wasn’t incredibly impressive. But I was enjoying what little white stuff there was, and the fact that there were no human footprints to be found. In most places the trail route was very clear. In fact, it appeared that several animals follow the summer hiking path in winter as well. I was hoping those deer prints wouldn’t lead me astray.
I wiped the snow off the “Big Tree” sign, looked at how big the tree was, and went on my way. Soon, the trail thankfully started to drop in elevation and my body temperature moderated a bit. Almost back at the trailhead, I reached a junction with a nature trail that only added another few tenths of a mile to the trip so I checked it out. Almost immediately I got amazing views of the Siskiyou range and there were several informative signs telling of the geology, geography and biology of the place that I enjoyed very much.
I also got to pass by the outside of the actual Oregon Caves, which was covered in giant icicles. As I retreated to the parking lot, I caught a glimpse of three deer that quickly bounded out of view. Even without getting a chance to explore the caves, I had a great experience here.
Before proceeding with my journey, I stopped to put snow chains on my car just to see how they worked. It turns out I wouldn’t need to use them on this trip, but driving in Oregon in the winter can be quite dangerous, so I’m sure I’ll need to use them one of these days. Rather than trying to figure it out for the first time in a blustery snowstorm, I did it in the relative comfort of an empty parking lot.
Driving along, I suddenly became distracted by the amazing beauty of several miles of road that seemed to have dropped in from another planet. Everything was tipped in white, from fenceposts to houses to trees and flowers. I drove slowly, taking in the subtle whites and grays that seemed to cover everything. I took a short detour following signs for Table Rock (the one near Medford) and stopped at a wayside to take some pictures and really get a good look at the frost. It was surreal.
Joseph H. Stewart N.R.A.
I was headed for Union Creek, where I had secured a place for the night. As I continued along the Rogue River on this scenic byway, I encountered many options for exploration. I noticed a large body of water and decided to pull off into the park here, which was technically closed for the season but ungated.
I was greeted by a couple of deer grazing in the field near the reservoir. I quietly walked past them towards the water to check out the views. This place was also very bizarre. The ground changed from grass to sand to a spongy, red soil. The soil was littered with volcanic rock, tree stumps and debris. The reservoir was perfectly motionless and seemingly out of place, just like everything else. I walked out to the edge of the land, which dropped steeply to the water below.
I’m not sure what strikes me about these places, why they feel so unusual. Perhaps I’m still not used to the terrain produced by volcanic activity. Perhaps places abandoned by people in wintertime are left with an unsettling feeling. Maybe I’d just spent too much time by myself on the road!
Rogue Elk Forest
My last scenic stop would be a waterfall tour. I had second thoughts about coming here because I’d seen so many damn waterfalls in the Gorge and in New Hampshire last year, so to drive out of my way to see another one seemed a bit inane. But they are irresistible, so I followed the little signs which led me to a parking area and short trail system. Weaving my way down the trails, passing innumerable unmarked herd paths and passing lots of interesting signs, I found two waterfalls within spitting distance of each other: Mill Creek Falls and Barr Creek Falls.
These falls were massive and fringed in ice on either side. Water plummets nearly 200 feet into the Rogue River from each waterfall. The viewing areas aren’t well developed at all, so I perched as carefully as I could on rocks that overhung a sheer drop to the bottom of the canyon. Tree cover blocks the views pretty well, too, so it’s not surprising that these falls aren’t well marked or often visited (I assume).
There were no signs leading back to the main road so I drove around a little before getting back in the right direction. I was left with lots of weird vibes today. And the place I’d stay at tonight was a room on the upper floor of a lodge where no one else was staying. The proprietors weren’t even there. But, it had a fridge and a microwave so I had a hot turkey and cheese sandwich and popcorn. That’s living!