ASHLAND — On a Tuesday walk through Ashland's Siskiyou Mountain Park, botanist Kristi Mergenthaler wasn't too busy admiring the majestic magenta colors in the park's trees to miss what was underfoot.
"Looking down, I saw dropped madrone berries next to bright red leaves and glowing lichen," Mergenthaler says. "It was beautiful.
"Most people in the fall get fixated on tree leaves," she says. "But there are all sorts of amazing colors on the ground. And shrubs are beautiful, too."
Fall colors are available at all angles now on the Rogue Valley floor and surrounding foothills and mountains that come to their fluorescent peak each fall, and day hikes provide a front-row seat to nature's colorful floor show.
As a scientist, Mergenthaler knows that the fall-color phenomenon happens when the chlorophyll in leaves starts to decay, revealing other pigments, such as carotenoids that yield yellow and orange hues. A plant's anthocyanins, she says, show up as red and purple. These chemical compounds act as "sunscreen" for plants, she adds.
But as an aesthete, Mergenthaler knows the bright colors are the yin to the yang of winter's darkness, so you better get out while the hiking is good.
Here are five hikes in and around the Rogue Valley where the fall hues pop like nature's fireworks in the air and on the ground.
1. Upper Rogue River Trail around Natural Bridge
Under the towering conifers that line this pristine stretch along the upper Rogue River, you'll find an especially nice display of pink to lilac-colored Pacific dogwood in the understory. Don’t forget to look down on occasion at the palette of freshly fallen and decaying leaves, fruits, cones and mosses found in the leaf litter, Mergenthaler says. Take Highway 62 north toward Union Creek and follow the signs. The trail parallels the river and is accessible from any of the campgrounds in the area.
2. Sterling Mine Ditch Trail
This low-elevation trail abounds with fall color and history, with a combination of wide vistas, colorful forest stretches and the burbling of the Little Applegate River. The trail follows the historic Sterling Mine Ditch, and informative displays at the trailheads add to the allure of this hike. Common fall-color sightings along the trail last weekend included numerous piles of fresh bear scat oozing with purple elderberries. To reach the trail from Jacksonville, follow Highway 238 to Ruch. Turn left on Upper Applegate Road. Continue for 4 miles and turn left on Little Applegate Road. In 3 miles, at the historic town of Buncom, Little Applegate Road veers to the right. Continue on this road, and after 6 miles, the Bear Gulch Trailhead will be on your left. If you continue less than 1 mile farther, the Tunnel Ridge trailhead is on the left.
3. Bear Creek Greenway
With early snow already coating the ground at higher elevations this fall, low-elevation trails like the Greenway might provide the best color shows in the region. Keep an eye out for spawning chinook salmon, river otter and belted kingfisher along Bear Creek while strolling on the paved Greenway through streamside forests of black cottonwoods, white alder and Oregon ash, with occasional white and black oaks, Ponderosa pines, and other trees and shrubs.
"Notice how far the red leaves of poison-oak climb up the trees," Mergenthaler says. "Look for bright splashes of orange on the hardwood trunks — this is a terrestrial green algae."
4. Oredson-Todd Woods
The trail along Ashland's Clay Creek glows this time of year with golden, bigleaf maple leaves that fill the canyon bottom. For a more vigorous hike, head up the ridge into the adjacent Siskiyou Mountain Park on the White Rabbit and Mike Uhtoff trails to see red madrone and whiteleaf manzanita berries.
"You might also get glimpse of roving berry-lovers like band-tailed pigeons, American robins and cedar waxwings," Mergenthaler says.
The gilded black oak leaves in the forest understory are also lovely, especially with views of the valley, the colorful ornamental trees in Ashland below, or even the top of the valley fog bank, she says.
To get to the Oredson-Todd trailhead, head south on Tolman Creek Road from Siskiyou Boulevard in Ashland. Less than half a mile from Siskiyou, turn right on Green Meadow Drive, and after a couple of blocks, take a left on Lupine, where there is a parking area and a map.
5. Pacific Crest Trail on the Dead Indian Plateau
A special attraction along this relatively flat section of the Pacific Crest Trail in the Cascade Mountains are the raspberry-colored leaves of the knee-high huckleberries under the big fir-tree canopy, with scattered yellow and pink hardwood leaves, Merganthaler says. This is also a great location to see a diversity of fall mushrooms, from LBMs (little brown mushrooms) to golden chanterelles, unless this week's storm covered them with snow. Access the trail on the Greensprings summit off Highway 66, Dead Indian Memorial Road near Lake of the Woods, and off the Keno Access Road near Howard Prairie Lake.