Hike to the mouth of the South Fork

Even at low water with the last of the fall colors lying in an autumnal patchwork on the forest floor, the Rogue River Trail from the Peyton Bridge trailhead to the mouth of the Rogue River's South Fork (four miles) leaves a lasting impression. You can hike on this trail in any season and develop a deepening appreciation for the river with each return.

I hiked here in May when Lost Creek Lake's impounded water backed up into the South Fork and buried the trunks of living trees under sluggish water. Cascade Gorge gushed with vigor, and you could look up through unfurled leaves to waterfalls that seemed to flow from the sky. The spill of water expanded the stream crossings well beyond the footbridges.

A chainsaw's chain caught in a fallen tree explained why winter blowdowns still littered the path. The poison oak was poised to explode, its oily red leaves smaller than fingernails. Purple flowers hid under the heart-shaped leaves of ginger in water soaked grottos. A strong scent of mint floated through the air. An osprey whistled and dove toward the water.

Six months later, the river has retreated to a thin ribbon below the bald, mechanically contoured slopes of the reservoir. As the leaves drop, empty tree limbs expose tamer waterfalls. Water oozes down rock, where five-fingered fern anchor in the crevices. The water stays in its ditches, and I don't have to balance precariously on drenched volcanic rock to proceed. Mist swirls above the river's surface. The poison oak is leafless and nondescript. The scent of mint is restrained, and I have to crush the leaves between my fingers for a reminder of spring. A mature bald eagle flies upstream in an effortless glide, so close that I can see his determined eye and formidable yellow beak.

To reach the southern end of this trail, take Highway 62 to the 35-mile marker. Cross Peyton Bridge and turn left on Lewis Road. Immediately turn left into a small parking area and follow the trail under the bridge and along the northern bank of the river. The trail climbs through dense forest to exposed red rock and sturdy white oak. Hikers reach the first bridge over a side creek in about a mile, the second bridge at two miles and the third bridge, with the highest waterfall views, at three miles.

Less than a mile beyond the third bridge, the South Fork of the Rogue flows into the main river. An old dirt road intersects the trail .2 mile beyond the confluence. You can hike to the trail on this road if you don't mind a 600-foot descent in .7 mile. To find this northern access point, turn right off Highway 62 at Mill Creek Drive near the 38-mile marker. Go 1.8 miles to a turnoff blocked with low posts and boulders.

Hikers can continue north along the main river about one mile before the trail deteriorates. The river is noisy with rapids here. A curved footbridge crosses Skookum Creek, and many board bridges covered with slippery leaves span deep grooves in the canyon walls. Thin sheets of orange bark peel from madrones to reveal olive-green trunks, and the yews shed slices of red and gray bark.

Come prepared for multiple temperature changes because you could easily pull gloves, hats and jackets on and off during the course of the day. Not only can overall weather conditions change quickly, but microclimates along the path — and your own exertion level — will affect your comfort.

Celebrate the seasons with a hike to the mouth of the South Fork.

Mary Beth Lee is an Ashland writer. Reach her at gentlejourneys@ashlandhome.net.

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