The Wild Rogue Loop is seriously challenging, but well worth the effort.
The 25-mile route resurrected from trails that bisect and connect previously sparsely traveled wild lands above the Rogue River and ties in with a section of the well-traveled river trail, is a backpacker's dream.
While getting to one of the route's trailheads is difficult, the often demanding trail explores a dreamscape of steep-walled, narrow river canyons, seemingly endless fields of seasonally flowering rhododendrons, old-growth forests and dramatically rugged landscapes.
And that's before dropping 3,000 vertical feet back to the Rogue River Trail for the walk along some of the river's most scenic sections.
Credit for restoring the Wild Rogue Loop goes to the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Volunteers from the Ashland-based group spent the past two seasons rebuilding and reopening sections of the Mule Creek, Panther Ridge and Clay Hill trails and incorporating them with the Rogue River Trail. Although the still-sketchy maps show several trailheads, most people recommend beginning and ending the loop at the Tucker Flat Campground near Marial. Reaching Marial is challenging because of the lack of signage on the route from Glendale and the prospect of encountering loaded, mill-bound log trucks on the better-signed, shorter route from Galice and Grave Creek.
After hearing reports about the lack of parking at Tucker Flat, Steve Underwood and I spent our first night at Marial Lodge, a mile from the campground. After an overnight stay that included soft beds, dinner, breakfast and a packed lunch, we left from Tucker Flat's Mule Creek Trailhead. It's recommended the loop be done counter-clockwise.
The rewards came immediately. The trail follows the west fork of Mule Creek Canyon, which is mostly unseen because it flows through a narrow niche in the deeply gouged canyon. Just past a bridge, the trail passes alongside the rusted remnants of a former mining operation.
Twice the trail drops to the river for a pair of tricky crossings that should be easier as water flows retreat during the summer. The serious uphill began after the second creek crossing, steadily gaining elevation along a narrow trail seemingly scratched into the hillside. The grade eased along a former road, passing along stands of white oak and Douglas fir along with smatterings of madrone, western red cedar, Pacific yew, sugar pine and tanoak. Along with the ubiquitous poison oak — go prepared, it's everywhere below an elevation of about 2,000 feet — were colorful displays of various orchids, lady and sword fern, paintbrush, twinflowers, iris, bear grass and other flowers.
We camped the first night near the Panther Ridge Trailhead, a site most notable for the happily chirping chorus of birds.
The next morning we refilled water containers after climbing through verdant fields of tall, blooming rhododendrons and oak forests to a trailside seep. All water should be treated. The evocative floral displays continued along the braided, undulating trail to an unsigned junction to Hanging Rock, a worthwhile half-mile plus out-and-back detour. True to its name, the massive rock hangs over a sheer cliff.
Back on the trail, infrequent trail signs helped verify our location on the impossibly large Powers and Gold Beach Ranger District Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest map. We occasionally tip-toed to avoid smushing slugs and snails. After several miles along the Panther Ridge Trail, we reached the junction with the Clay Hill Trail, the beginning of a sometimes seriously steep downhill to the river.
We followed the river east, camping at Lower Solitude Bar. Because it was mid-afternoon, we had passed other campsites filled with earlier-arriving raft groups. While exploring the area, Steve found a long-abandoned arrasta wheel, which had been used by miners to break up the ore and remove the minerals, lying in the bushes.
Our final morning, we followed the Rogue upstream, stopping to visit Brushy Bar and its closed guard station before passing through Huggins Canyon, Paradise Bar Lodge and Devils Staircase. We detoured to a viewpoint below Blossom Bar, the Rogue's most challenging rapids. For several years I paddled the 40-mile Wild and Scenic Rogue in a whitewater canoe, so seeing Blossom Bar from shore always evokes memories of navigating the watery minefield of car-sized rocks.
The trail continued along and above the cliffs overlooking Mule Creek Canyon. Views of the canyon and tumbling Stair Creek Falls are especially dramatic from aptly named Inspiration Point. Peering into the Coffeepot, the river's narrowest area that's fraught with swirling whirlpools and crashing waves that percolate (hence the name coffeepot), inspires — and perspires — memories of a years-ago, unforgettable near misadventure.
From the Coffeepot, the trail left the river, following a road nearly two miles past the Marial trailhead, Mule Creek Guard Station, Marial Lodge and back to Tucker Creek Campground.
The Wild Rogue Loop's very real challenges include steep elevation gains and losses, minimal signage, sections with little access to water, ticks, abundant poison oak and, especially by mid-July and August, searingly hot temperatures. That's why it's necessary to go prepared.
Challenging, yes, but also be prepared for days of stunningly diverse and beautiful scenery in an exhilarating, truly wilderness setting.
Lee Juillerat has been writing about outdoor adventures in Southern Oregon and elsewhere for more than 30 years. He is also a regular contributor to the outdoor-travel website High On Adventure at www.highonadventure.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-880-4139.