CENTRAL POINT — Lois Smith remembers an innocent-sounding request made of her in the mid-1970s that created an outdoor staple of her life and the lives of Rogue Valley students.
Smith, who taught pre-kindergarten in the Central Point School District at the time, grew up with the Table Rocks as her childhood playground. A grade-school teacher asked Smith whether she'd be willing to lead a hike there.
"I said, 'Yes, I would,' and that was a mistake," Smith says with a laugh. "I was occupied with field trips for the next 20 years.
"I tell you what, though. I enjoyed every field trip I ever did."
Smith's early forays onto the iconic mesas became widely popular and eventually dovetailed into the successful series of spring hikes now on many Rogue Valley residents' bucket list.
The federal Bureau of Land Management's Outdoor Education Program, which hosts the weekday field trips for school groups and weekend hikes for all comers, is marking its 30th anniversary by expanding for the future.
Since the BLM joined The Nature Conservancy in managing the hike series in 1986, 71,689 kids have joined guides hiking Upper or Lower Table Rock and another 7,826 people have taken part in the weekend hikes — all highlighting the flora, fauna and geological and historical aspects of the mesas.
"The hikes are so popular because the Table Rocks are an iconic landscape in the Rogue Valley," says Molly Allen, the BLM's environmental education specialist who helps organize the hikes.
"They can go on a different hike every year and learn something new," Allen says. "That creates a sense of ownership, a want to protect them. That's what we want."
Scheduled April through May, the hikes highlight a different aspect of the Table Rocks each weekend, with some hikes traversing the longer Lower Table Rock Trail and others exploring the more popular Upper Table Rock Trail off Table Rock Road north of Central Point.
This year, however, the BLM and Nature Conservancy have expanded into winter to highlight other aspects of the rocks.
The first new hike comes Saturday, Feb. 27, and visits Lower Table Rock's vernal pools, which are home to threatened fairy shrimp and are ringed by dwarf woolly meadowfoam, a plant found naturally only on the Table Rocks.
"We've kind of been doing the same thing, with new hikes added only now and then," Allen says. "But we were thinking, why haven't we done one for vernal pools? It'll be interesting to see if we get different hikers up there."
That hike will be followed March 13 with a trek highlighting lichen and a general family hike March 26, both at Upper Table Rock.
Spaces are limited and registration is available by telephoning 541-618-2200.
On April 30, the BLM and Nature Conservancy will host a party of sorts, with regular guided hikes and other events planned, Allen says. The regular April and May hike series will be publicized in March, Allen says.
The lion's share of the visitors in the educational program comes through the scheduled field trips for teachers such as Trey Jenkins, whose Sams Valley Elementary School fifth-graders often get introduced to the area on these hikes despite their school being about a mile from Lower Table Rock Trailhead.
"I always have at least a half-dozen students who've never been up there and others who said they were there last weekend," Jenkins says.
"It's a great opportunity to learn some really interesting facts about the flora and fauna and history," Jenkins says. "So when they do go back with their parents, they can be the mini-rangers. That's pretty wonderful."
The school-group hikes all follow a format that the series' matriarch set during that first hike more than 40 years ago.
Smith first would visit the kids' classrooms to talk about where they were going and lay down the ground rules. The actual hikes were five hours, and she always got the students back to the bus on time without losing one or seeing one injured, she says.
While the current set of hikes focuses on specifics, the founder and self-described amateur naturalist was a generalist on the trail.
"Birds were my specialty, but you can't depend upon them," says Smith, 80. "So you have to know all the flora and fauna to keep 130 kids entertained, and they were."
Word of Smith's hikes spread and she was conducting about 30 a year. Third-graders were her faves.
"The hormones haven't started to percolate yet," she says.
"You could convince them that an Indian could jump out from behind a rock," Smith says, laughing. "That was on a bad day with no lizards."
When the more formal program began, Smith joined the troops and was glad to see hikes led by specialists. But bad vocal cords forced her out of the program in the mid-1990s.
"That was all a long time ago," Smith says. "But it sure was a pleasure."