In a remote corner of southwest Oregon, there’s a patch of forest that feels like something out of a science fiction novel.
Squat emerald trees sprout antennae that stretch and twist into a canopy dripping with the pungent smell of fresh bay leaves.
The northwest is home to countless trees that fire the imagination, but none quite so peculiar as the old-growth Oregon myrtle.
That was my sense, anyway, as I rambled along Myrtle Tree Trail, a charmed little pathway east of Gold Beach in the realm of the Rogue River.
The trail is short, less than a mile out-and-back, but it's long on geologic and botanical diversity.
That includes myrtle, officially known as California laurel or umbellularia. The trees grow only in coastal forests of California and southwestern Oregon.
Countless shops along the Oregon Coast sell myrtlewood items, but primeval groves are rare. Normally, you’ll come across a solitary tree at roadsides and campgrounds with an interpretative sign.
Forests of intact myrtle can be found at Loeb State Park, west of Brookings, and Coquille Myrtle Grove State Natural Site.
But neither of those match the lush weirdness found on Myrtle Tree Trail, a little-traveled pathway in Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
The hike starts on the side of a gravel road above the Rogue River. There’s a handy brochure at the trailhead with troves of interesting information.
“Myrtle trees have the ability to regenerate by seeding, sprouting from the base of the tree, or if blown over, the limbs may grow vertically to become new trees,” the guide says. “Myrtle trees also have large root masses which help them regenerate after fire.”
The trail moves uphill as you duck below the myrtle limbs that seem to criss-cross wildly through the canopy. The trail ends at the main attraction, one of the world’s largest myrtle trees and apparently the largest in Oregon. The undisputed monarch of the forest is about 400 years old, 88 feet tall, 42 feet in circumference with a canopy 70 feet wide.
Yet those numbers don’t really capture a tree that begins with a wide, blocky base and sprouts four branches high overhead.
The best part of the big tree is that former fires hollowed out the tree’s base, and you can climb underneath, into a little hideaway below the trunk. It was a cool moment, crawling under this marvel of a tree, and it made me wish I could have brought my daughters.
Hopefully, that chance will come. Because while Myrtle Tree Trail is remote, and short, it’s such an interesting, otherworldly place that it’s worth visiting more than once.
— Zach Urness is the author of the book “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.