It might be the most fun and educational recreation in the Rogue Valley that you can do for free, it only takes an hour and a half and you walk away with new eyes for seeing nature.
It's the Lithia Park Nature Walks, now in its 20th year, and it starts May 1. You meet your nature guide — a trained naturalist from the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department — at the park entrance and mosey along for two miles, learning the names and life stories of scores of trees, bushes and occasional wildlife, as well as the history of the much-revered park, which goes back a century.
Warming up for the season, chief guide Tom Foster this week points out the giant trees of the park — Ponderosa pine, incense cedar, black oak, Douglas fir — and many structural and biological additions since a devastating 1997 flood.
The tour winds its way through the bamboo, western red cedar, viburnum and Japanese maple of the lower duck pond, which is outfitted with a new waterfall (manmade).
It moves on through the big grassy areas where the Feast of Will (Shakespeare) is held each June and where you'll find Colorado blue spruce, big leaf maple, black locust and three types of hemlock.
Hardy, fast-growing alders dot the tour. They're the first ones to come back after a big flood and you can tell which are the alders of '64 or '74 or '97.
At the playground, you'll find the "wedding tree" — where a black oak romantically embraces an incense cedar. People marry there and if you look closely you can often see an owl stick its head out of a hole in the oak.
Just beyond the playground, your guide will point out a large boulder where, 75 years ago, longtime park superintendent Chet Corry first noticed a tiny oak growing through a small crack. The oak split the boulder in two, grew large and has since died, leaving its dead trunk behind.
You wander along the creek, noticing how that old manmade falls has been wiped out by the flood (it was a couple feet high) and biologists said to leave it out, so salmon can get upstream to spawn.
At the band shell-gazebo area, you'll find yew and filbert trees, lots of creekside scouring rush (good for scrubbing out pans on a hike), thimble berry (whose leaves are good for toilet paper on hikes) and be invited to taste the legendary Lithia Water, crammed with minerals, salts and bubbles, supposedly healthful but definitely an acquired taste. It's piped in from the Emigrant Lake area.
At the far end of the hike, you'll see towering trees — sequoia (planted 80 years ago by the Boy Scouts), deodora cedar and a remarkable sight of a mountain ash growing out of a pocket of a Western juniper.
Immediately adjacent is the stunning Japanese garden, the artistry of park horticulturist Don Todt, with mondo grass, barberry bamboo, atlas cedar, nicely sculpted boulevard cypress, flowering cherry, fern, English linden, mountain laurel and, of course, Japanese maple.
Winding through these is a stream whose 11 tiny falls are all tuned at different notes along an octave, including one spot where you sit on a bench equidistant from three falls and hear them tinkle in harmony, says Foster.
Another remarkable feature of the park is the meta-sequoia, a giant deciduous redwood that ages ago covered the Northwest but was thought extinct. It was discovered in the 1980s to be growing in China under a different name, the water fir, but comparisons with fossils here showed them to be the same. Now it's back, says Foster.
Walking back toward the Plaza, you wend your way along a majestic grove of sycamore, standing in rank and file, then to the Butler-Perozzi Fountain, purchased at the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915 in San Francisco — and still functioning in summers. After a stop at the hybrid rose garden, you're done.
Taking the tour, teacher Dianne Eyer of San Francisco exuded, "I'm so glad places like this are being saved. It reminds us of what's important. I also appreciate all the names, dates and details of life here in this place. These focus and help people understand and appreciate the ecology."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.