Aaron Babcock stands atop Hanging Rock.

Hanging out at Hanging Rock

In 2005 I was caretaker at the Rogue River Ranch, a historic public property nestled on the Wild Rogue River. I quickly turned my back on the busy river corridor and started looking up into the 35,000-acre wilderness surrounding it for a little solitude from the hundreds of visitors we'd see during busy days.

It turns out I was a lousy caretaker who let the weeds get tall. I wasn't around a lot to field important visitor questions, and I got caught inner-tubing down Mule Creek Canyon without a permit. Looking back, my supervisor at the Bureau of Land Management had some valid complaints. But my experiences there were formative, and I fell in love with the Siskiyous and have never looked back since.

One of those experiences was hiking to Hanging Rock, a crumbly outcrop that looms over a famous river protected by a federal wilderness that is a lot less popular. Maybe that's because of the drive. It's long and on improved gravel roads tough on a two-wheel drive sedan. It takes me about three-and-a-half hours from Grants Pass.

Before you go, fill up on gas, consider bringing an extra few gallons, and be prepared for anything, as you will find yourself many miles from any services. Pick up a Medford BLM transportation map and the Powers and Gold Beach District Map. From Grave Greek Bridge on Galice Road, head west on BLM Road 34-8-1.

Near Mt. Bolivar Trailhead, the road changes to Forest Service Road 3348. Head left (southeast) on FSR 5520 to FSR 5520-230 and follow it to its terminus. This is one of three Panther Ridge Trailheads, and I call it Panther Ridge Trailhead-East. You can follow FSR 5520 longer to FSR 5520-140, which is the official Hanging Rock Trailhead. But the hike from Panther Ridge Trailhead-East is worth the extra mileage.

From the trailhead, it's a three-mile roundtrip hike to Hanging Rock. Start by walking south along a primitive path, Panther Ridge Trail #1253. After less than a mile the trail comes to a shallow ravine with seasonal water underneath a charming cedar grove. Continue heading toward Hanging Rock. There are a few trees down along this section, and on dewy mornings the brush will soak you through, though the trail is well-defined and impossible to lose. But you may get lost in time as you gaze through his primeval forest.

These virgin stands of fir, pine and cedar are unlike anything I've seen west of Interstate 5 in Oregon. Most of Oregon's big forests are in the Cascades, and I'd wager there's no other old-growth this contiguous anywhere else in the Oregon Coast Range.

The firs' deep furrows look like woody bunting that folds and fans into itself. They're growing 5, 6, 7 feet in diameter. The trees here were kissed by the 2005 Blossom fire, but the fire served its purpose without leaving a skeleton forest. It burned out the brush and understory that had built up, leaving the big conifers happy and healthy.

You may notice the old mileage markers left on legacy trees, as well as ceramic conductors from when there was a telephone line that connected early settlers here. The trail starts getting steep as it heads straight up a ridge. At 1.2 miles you'll reach an unmarked junction. Head left on Hanging Rock Trail #1113.

Hanging Rock is actually a quarter-mile downhill from this summit, and you'll know it when you see it. From on top of the outcrops are vast views of the Wild Rogue Wilderness. The river canyon below is so famous. But enveloping it is a 35,000-acre federal wilderness that is seldom explored. These ridge systems that fall into steep tributary canyons are some of the wildest in the lower 48, and the opposite side of the river has very, very limited access.

Standing up there feels like peering down on a million little secrets, and it is a great vantage point if you're interested in doing some off-trail hiking in the area. After spending some time at Hanging Rock, consider extending this hike with some more miles on Panther Ridge. The elevation changes are moderate, and every step is worth it. Camp at the trailhead or Buck Creek Campground.

The Siskiyou Mountain Club is spearheading a project to restore a 30-mile loop in the Wild Rogue Wilderness Area that includes this hike. Ten years after my short tenure at the Rogue River Ranch, it feels a little bit like rediscovering home.

Freelance writer Gabriel Howe is executive director and field coordinator for the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Contact him at howegabe@gmail.com.

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