The Rogue River Trail, a 40-mile path that parallels the north bank of the lower river, provides hikers with spectacular views while introducing them to the area’s history, plants and wildlife.
My wife Peggy and I recently chose to backpack the trail. It has been on Peggy’s bucket list ever since she rafted the river six years ago.
I decided it would be a good test this spring of whether my 75-year-old body is prepared for the 1,000-mile backpack trip down the PCT I am doing this summer. I also wanted to check out the new ultralight equipment I purchased for the trek. My 45- to 60-pound pack of yesteryear has morphed into my 25- to 30-pound pack of today.
We arrived at Grave Creek at 11 a.m., and the sun was beating down on the paved parking lot. I could see the trail snaking off to the right up the cliff with little shade. It looked hot. We slathered on sunblock, said goodbye to our Toyota Tacoma, hoisted our packs and started to climb. We had arranged with a shuttle service in Merlin to deliver our truck to Foster Bar.
The trail climbed quickly and then leveled off. Trees provided a bit of welcome shade. Monkey flowers and golden iris cheered us on. Breaks in the trees and brush provided views of the river below. We watched rafters squeal with delight as they went through rapids. I thought briefly of the advantages of rafting. The raft carries you and your gear! None of the river runners were huffing up and down hills while carrying their bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms and food on their backs. But neither rafts nor lodges were part of our trip, at least this time. We would be hiking, camping out, and preparing our own food the whole way.
An hour on the trail reminded us that this was our first trip of the season. We had planned for this, however, with a leisurely six-day outing. The first day could be short. This thought was occupying my mind when I fell off the cliff. The trail had dropped to within 50 feet of the river and the cliff had given way to a steep slope. My foot slipped on some loose gravel and I used my walking poles to try and regain balance, but I found myself slowly toppling over and sliding head first down the bank, gaining speed.
Peggy, who was behind me, said it looked like I had fainted or had a heart attack. A quick, painful trip to the river followed by a plunge into the icy water flashed before my eyes. I forced my left arm into the rocks, using it as a brake. I could feel the rocks tearing at my skin, but I slowed down. And stopped.
“Are you OK?” Peggy yelled. Apparently, I didn’t answer quickly enough. She threw off her pack and scrambled down to where she found me busily checking my arm. It was covered in blood but not gushing or broken. Peggy helped me out of the pack, and I carried it back up to the trail as she gathered my walking poles. We found some shade and I squirted filtered water over my arm. The damage was minimal, considering. A dozen or so small cuts oozed while a slightly larger one was bleeding. Mainly, there was road rash. We smeared Neosporin over the cuts and rash, slapped a bandage on the larger cut, and I was good to go.
When I shouldered my pack and picked up my poles, I noticed that the left one was much shorter than the right. It had collapsed — and was the reason I toppled over and began my downward journey.
While the rest of the trip was much less eventful, it was a delight. The trail continued to make its way up and down the canyon moving from rocky cliffs to grassy woodlands while providing views of the river and a multitude of wildflowers. We were surprised by the numerous streams tumbling down the canyon to the river. Many of them featured waterfalls, some of which were quite striking. Our favorite was the Flora Dell Falls, followed closely by the Tate Creek and Stair Creek falls.
A number of campsites are located along the river and streams. Four provided us with our nightly lodging. Each was scenic and enjoyable, but Quail Creek deserved a five-star rating. The Rogue River was out our front door and Quail Creek out our back door.
Being something of a history buff and fan of the Old West, I was impressed by the efforts of the BLM and Forest Service to preserve elements of the region’s past. The Rogue River Ranch is a jewel. Cowboy-shoot-’em-up enthusiasts will find Zane Grey’s cabin of interest. The area is also rich in mining and Native American history.
A few words of caution. The trail is best done in the spring and fall. It can be sizzling hot in the summer. Folks with a fear of heights might find the route uncomfortable with its cliff trails. There is a lot of poison oak! While the literature warned of rattlesnakes and bears, we saw neither. I would describe the trail as moderate in terms of difficulty. Ups and downs aren’t extreme, but they are numerous. And for beginners, 40 miles can be a lot.
By the way, our truck was dutifully waiting at Foster Bar. If you would like to learn more about our trip on the Rogue River Trail or follow along on my 1,000-mile backpack trip, see my blog at wandering-through-time-and-place.com.
Curtis Mekemson lives in Jacksonville, but he is currently on the PCT.