Inviting green pools appear one after the other along the Illinois River, but the trail stays high above, so if you want to get wet, you’ll have to make your way down over loose rock that looks solid but often isn’t. - Bill Varble

Cool oasis awaits just one county away

When the going gets hot, the hot get going to a watery destination. As Southern Oregon swelters through a relentless July, sensible hikers head for spots that include the possibility of a cooling swim.

Outdoor enthusiasts from Jackson County often seem to overlook nearby Josephine County when planning outings. But with the western Siskiyous, the lower Rogue River and the Illinois River, Josephine County is worth the short drive. A day hike took us to the cool green pools of the Illinois.

Take Highway 199 from Grants Pass to Selma and turn right onto Illinois River Road at the flashing caution light. Several trailheads lead into the Illinois canyon and some very nice swimming holes. The first one you'll come to is Kerby Flat at 4.3 miles, with a wide pullout for parking.

There are a couple of interpretive signs here. One offers a thumbnail of natural history. The serpentine terrain means botanical riches and rare plants. The other presents the extirpation of the region's American Indians at the hands of invaders of European descent as a "clash of cultures."

The trail starts to the right as you face the viewpoint. The views are excellent as you descend along a ridge and into stands of Jeffrey pine, which looks almost, but not quite, like Ponderosa. Watch for poison oak. William Sullivan's "100 Hikes in Southern Oregon" says you'll come to a junction in the trail with Jeffrey pines and stunted Douglas firs at .6 mile, but I didn't find it.

If it's there, and if you can find it, you can choose to head right and downward, then loop upstream along the Illinois River upstream to Deer Creek, then walk up an old dirt road and take a trail that climbs out of the Deer Creek drainage back to the junction and on out, completing a 4.3-mile loop.

Or you can do as I did and follow the trail as it bears left and down and dumps you on the old dirt road next to Deer Creek. Follow the creek down to a sandy beach where the creek hits the Illinois. This is a good spot for a swim, or at least to get your feet wet, because the water is right there and accessible without a scramble.

I realized I'd reversed the loop, so I hiked downstream a mile or so along a trail that follows the river. Inviting green pools appear one after the other, but the trail stays high above, so if you want to get wet, you'll have to make your way down over loose rock that looks solid but often isn't. Take care not to become part of a small landslide.

I had lunch and a dip at a lovely pool and hiked back upstream to Deer Creek and back out the way I'd come down and discovered back at the car that my keys weren't in my pocket. I emptied my day pack. No keys.

There was only one thing to do. Back down the trail, winding left, down the creek to the river, down the river to find my lovely green pool. Which is when I discovered that one green pool looks pretty much like another. I scrambled down to a pool that wasn't mine but looked like it, and back up to the trail again, before I found the right one. I picked up the keys and hiked back out, with the temperature now in the 90s.

My plan had been to do three other short hikes after Kerby Flat, each from a trailhead farther up the river road: Snailback Beach, Horn Bend and Fall Creek. Doing Kerby Flat twice, and having hiked 6 or 7 miles instead of 3 or 4, that was no longer doable in daylight.

So I skipped Snailback (the trailhead for which is 1.1 miles past the Kerby trailhead) on the grounds that several cars were parked at the trailhead and it would be "crowded." I skipped Fall Creek, which is 7 miles down the road (2 miles past Store Gulch) because I'd been there before and because with its 240-foot footbridge, it's a crowd magnet.

That left Horn Bend, whose trailhead is 2.7 miles past Kerby Flat, and where again mine was the only car parked. The trail shoots off to the right and descends slowly, staying close to Illinois River Road. In a half-mile or so it gets much steeper as it plunges down a rough, old cat road to a sandy area by the river. There are a couple picnic tables here, and deep pools nestled in the massive rocks.

It's probably a bit less than a mile down to the pools, and it'll probably seem longer on the way out, where there's little shade on the steep, rocky section. By the time you reach your car, you'll probably be ready for another plunge, but that will have to wait.

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at

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