Spring is time for a low-elevation hike

You say the March sunshine is calling, but most of the hiking trails are still shrouded in snow? That's a symptom of the need for a low-elevation hike. One possibility is the trail that follows the Middle Fork of the Applegate River.

There's no centerpiece, really, no stunning views — just a walk through ancient forest along a rushing stream. But the crashing water and abundant ferns and heavy moss create a rainforest-like atmosphere, and that's worth the trip.

Take Highway 238 from Medford to Ruch and head up the Applegate River Road past the reservoir to where the pavement ends at the state line. Take Road 1040 five miles to Middle Fork Trail 950, where you'll find lots of parking alongside the gravel road.

The trail starts as an old gravel road, but not for long. How did this happen? Who began, then abandoned it, and why? Within a few hundred yards of the trailhead the path forks, one side heading up the side of the hill, the other approaching the river.

If you take the path to the river, you'll find it's a lovely spot, and it no doubt calls to hikers once the summer heat is on us. But the trail you want is the one heading up into a towering forest of Douglas fir, ponderosa pine and sugar pine with madrone scattered here and there.

Below you, the water rushes and roars over moss-covered boulders in the drops between pools. The summer swimming must be outrageous.

Soon, you'll cross the stream on a log. See that downed tree spanning the roaring water? All sway-backed from being fractured when it fell? That's not it. The one you cross is big and sturdy and sawn flat on top.

After you cross the river, the trail climbs again, finding its way along the hillside. In 100 yards or so, the remains of an old cabin are strewn about off to your right. Don't look for a structure though; it's pretty much melted.

Do check out the towering trees above, the profusion of ferns around you. Don't forget to watch for poison oak, with its three-leaf clusters.

You're getting into the part of the trail that people like to compare to the Olympic Peninsula. That's a bit of a stretch, but the ferns and mosses are impressive.

As the path descends into gullies and climbs out, there are places where you have to rock-hop across rivulets or wade through them. Hiking boots or shoes with sturdy soles are a good idea because the path, though generally good, is rocky in spots.

There are spotted owls here, and chickadees and kinglets. Occasionally the eye catches a silent, furtive movement, as if of a bird, on the downhill side of the path. Sometimes that will be a shadow thrown down the north face of the canyon, resulting from a bird high up the hillside to the south caught by the March sun.

In another mile or so you come to another crossing, this time with no bridge. But the water is shallow, and you have a choice. You can try rock-skipping, or take off your shoes and socks and wade. It figures to get shallower as the season goes on.

From here on it's more of the same, pretty much. Up and down, ancient trees, cascades and pools, ferns and moss. There's another defunct cabin, but it doesn't amount to much, either. There are springs that issue from the side of the hill. But there's no Big Payoff.

The trail follows the Middle Fork for 3.5 miles, and it hooks in with several other trails if you follow it far enough, including Frog Pond, with its meadows and views of the Red Buttes. You're also in the neighborhood of a section of the Pacific Crest Trail, Azalea Lake, Devils Peaks and other stuff, but that's another day.

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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