A chinook salmon makes the leap over Rainie Falls last week. - Nancy McClain

Leaping salmon, white water and fall color

Even the most restless hikers wait in rapt anticipation at Rainie Falls on the Wild and Scenic portion of the Rogue River for the chance to see giant chinook salmon leap a 15-foot waterfall. Soon, they discover they are not alone. Bald eagles, great blue herons and dippers wait nearby for their share of the river's bounty.

In a rafter's vocabulary, Rainie Falls is a Class V rapids that can flip a boat and send its occupants into deep, churning water. It's no less of an obstacle for the river's biggest and most powerful fish, which will slam against the rocks and seemingly swim through air to continue a single-minded journey to upriver tributaries where its life began three or more years ago.

The two-mile trail to Rainie Falls starts on the south side of Grave Creek Bridge opposite the Grave Creek boat launch. To reach the trailhead, exit I-5 at Merlin (exit 61), about three miles north of Grants Pass, and travel 22 miles west and north on the Merlin-Galice Road. Two trails head west along the Rogue from Grave Creek — one that follows the north bank 45 miles to Foster Bar and one that follows the south bank to the falls.

The steep canyon wall on the south bank casts a shadow that inspires a lush assortment of ferns, such as the goldback fern, which pushes up between cracks in boulders while hiding golden-yellow spores on its underside, and the licorice fern, which frequently grows out of moss on tree trunks. Look for the black and white trunks of bay-scented myrtle trees, once used by Native American hunters to disguise their human scent, as well as black oak, live oak, madrone and Douglas fir. The route alternates between dry banks, where the leaves of poison oak have turned brilliant red, and wet ravines, where seeps nourish ferns and fall-yellow stands of big-leaf maple.

The trail stays close to the river, sometimes suspended above the water and sometimes an easy side hike away from a sandy beach, where you can enjoy a peaceful interlude and chance views of river otter, osprey and merganser ducks. At about one mile, you may notice concrete piers at the water's edge. In 1907, a bridge was built here to support a mule pack and foot traffic. Twenty years later, a flood took everything but the concrete.

The trail to the falls is an ancient one, used by Native American fishermen and later by a steady stream of fortune hunters, settlers and recreationalists The falls is named for an old man who lived in a small cabin below the falls and made a living gaffing salmon.

While you wait on rough black boulders for a 25-pound chinook or much smaller steelhead to propel itself into the froth, you can look toward the north shore where late-season rafters and fishermen with drift boats are bypassing the falls by lining their boats through a fish diversion channel. From time to time when the water level is right, rafters negotiate a narrow Class IV chute that dumps into the main river just below the falls.

The hike is not particularly difficult, but the path's precipitous drop-offs and angular, potentially slippery, rock require agility. Wear shoes with firm support and plenty of traction, and keep your dogs and children at your side. Bring water, snacks, a jacket and binoculars.

Mary Beth Lee is an Ashland writer. Reach her at

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