Oregon’s Rogue River flows some 215 miles from its headwaters at Boundary Springs within Crater Lake National Park to the Pacific Ocean at Gold Beach, Oregon. Although not as large as the Columbia or the Willamette, it is nonetheless one of Oregon’s iconic rivers. It’s been in our hearts for years but only recently have we had the time to give it the attention it deserves. Between 2012 and 2016, we hiked (in sections) the entire Upper Rogue River Trail (USFS #1034) as it roughly parallels the river from near Boundary Springs to Prospect, Oregon. In 2015, we backpacked the famous Rogue River Trail (USFS #1160) from Grave Creek to Foster Bar and also did a rafting day trip from Robertson Bridge to Grave Creek. In 2016, we bolstered the local economy again with a multi-day rafting trip on the Wild and Scenic Rogue from Grave Creek to Foster Bar. After attending a presentation earlier this year by Gabriel Howe of the Siskiyou Mountain Club on their 2015 restoration of the Wild Rogue Loop, we knew we had to hike it. With lingering snow keeping us from the High Cascades and parts of the Siskiyou Crest, now seemed like just the time to do this lower-altitude loop.
This loop through the northeast quadrant of the Wild Rogue Wilderness can be done in either direction or as a lollipop from Foster Bar or Grave Creek, but we opted to hike it counter-clockwise starting from Tucker Flat. This was primarily to avoid any surprises with the two crossings of Mule Creek and also to hike down, not up, the Clay Hill Trail. These creek crossings can be very dangerous or impassable during Spring high water – better to find that out when turning back only involves a few miles! And, for us at least, going down the Clay Hill Trail seemed to be the less arduous option.
Day 1: Tucker Flat to West Fork Mule Creek
We reached the Mule Creek South Trailhead at Tucker Flat from the south via the Grave Creek to Marial Backcountry Byway; access from the north is easiest via Glendale, Oregon. Trailhead parking at Tucker Flat was fine for us but has been reported to be difficult weekends and holidays during high season. There is a pit toilet at the trailhead.
Shortly after leaving the trailhead, the Mule Creek Trail (USFS #1159) [called the West Fork Trail by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), who manages this portion of the wilderness] crosses a bridge over the deep gorge of the main branch of Mule Creek.
One thing we noticed about some of these trails was how much they owe their existence to the irrationally exuberant hunt for precious metals. For example, the 1954 USGS map for Marial shows that today’s Mule Creek Trail (and likely the bridge) was originally built to access a prospect up the West Fork. Past the bridge, the trail starts a slow but steady climb toward Panther Ridge, some 3,000 feet above. We weren’t exactly looking forward to this climb now that summer weather was finally upon us (air temperatures were approaching triple digits down in the valley), but the trail’s gentle grade, along with ample shade and a cooling breeze, made the going almost pleasant. We’d also planned this first day as a short one, so we could take our time and stop to cool-off as needed. We also carried – and drank – a lot of water.
We reached the first creek crossing after a mile or so,
then went up and down again on another stretch of sunbaked trail,
to our second crossing of the creek. At this time of year, these were just rock-hops but we could see how their crossing could be a very risky (or insane) endeavor in high water. This crossing is your last reliable and accessible source of water until you reach the campsites in the upper West Fork.
The trail then continued its ascent through mixed forests, along cliffs and scree slopes.
It was in this stretch that the LovedOne first spotted a small racer snake, then a beautifully colored California Mountain Kingsnake, and then just missed stepping on a Northern Pacific rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus oreganus) – a subspecies of western rattlesnake indigenous to Oregon – coiled neatly in the middle of the trail. It had the presence of mind to buzz first and then flee the trail, so no harm done to either fang or foot. But that unmistakable BUZZZZZZ sure did get our FULL attention!
Once our heart rates settled, we continued on. As we gained altitude, we’d occasionally got a glimpse of Hanging Rock way up on Panther Ridge. It was our goal for the next day but looked so far, so very far, away…
Just below 2,200 feet, the trail opened up into an old road bed.
Some post-hike research found that this road (or jeep trail) had probably been built sometime between 1930 and 1960 to service the Old Red Mine in the next drainage to the east. Records show that while the mine had several owners (and names) in its 40 or so year history, it never reported making a profit. The last time this mine changed owners was in 1974; the wilderness was established in 1978.
After 5.3 miles of hiking with 2,300 feet of elevation gain from Tucker Flat, we reached our campsite in the upper West Fork Mule Creek.
It was shady and cool here, with perennial water close by. There are two tent sites near the creek (perhaps too close?), but these were taken, so we set up our tent in the road. The three people camped when we arrived, and two people who passed through doing the loop clockwise, were the only people we saw until we got down to the Rogue River.
After a restorative nap, the LovedOne broke out her Field Knitting Kit and got to work on her next sweater project.
While I was making dinner, the LovedOne happened to spot an old telephone insulator pegged to a tree across the creek. Further post-hike research showed that this was likely part of a telephone line to Camp Hope, a USFS forest camp sited near here in the 1950s. Three mines – Camp Hope, North Hope, and West Hope – were also located in this immediate area. A 1983 USGS mineral survey – done as part of the wilderness designation – showed that the entire West Fork Mule Creek drainage between Camp Hope and Tucker Flat was lined with a dozen or so old mines and prospects. It was nice to know these old futilties had now been repurposed in support of a good hike. So, after a day of sturdy hiking, a burst of snake-fueled excitement, and a tasty dinner, we crawled into the tent and embraced sleep.
Day 2: West Fork Mule Creek to Brushy Bar
A dry low pressure front with clouds rolled in overnight, temperatures dropped some 10-15 degrees, and we actually had to put on some fleece to get out of the tent and eat breakfast. After packing up, we continued hiking the old road,
to a point where it crosses the wilderness boundary and becomes the remnants of Forest Road (FR) 230. Here, a new trail contoured us over to the end of yet another old road (BLM 32-11-25.1) and that took us to the Buck Point Trailhead at the end of the still functioning part of FR 230. It was here that the clouds dissipated, the sunshine returned, and we were able to hike on in sunny, but pleasantly cool, conditions (at least for awhile).
From the Buck Point Trailhead, we ascended some 1,000 feet on the Panther Ridge Trail (USFS #1253) through tall, untouched, magnificent forests,
and extensive fields of rhododendrons, freshened by the morning’s clouds and mists,
and with some still in bloom.
About 9 miles from Tucker Flat, we came to the unsigned, but obvious, junction with the side trail to Hanging Rock, the literal (and one of the metaphorical) high points of our trip. A 40-foot wooden tower sporting an L-4 fire lookout was built here in 1939; it was abandoned in early 1950s and removed sometime thereafter. Old bolts in the rock were the only evidence we could find of its existence.
After a quick break at Hanging Rock, we continued southwest on the #1253, to a signed junction with the Hanging Rock Spur Trail (#1253-A on the map; #1113 on the USFS website) coming up from the Hanging Rock Trailhead. We continued west on the #1253 as it roller coasted (which, frankly, got a little annoying after awhile) through more primeval forests,
past a signed junction and faint trail toward Panther Camp Meadow, and then on to its signed junction with the Clay Hill Trail (USFS #1160A). The Clay Hill starts down quickly,
but then eases off into graceful, wide switchbacks through avenues of tall, spindly chinquapin trees,
past rock outcrops,
and across small meadows,
to the old Thomas Homestead at around 1,200 feet, the first perennial water source since leaving the headwaters of West Fork Mule Creek. There was an uninviting muddy puddle in the trail so we’d have had to hunt around some for a trickle of clear water.
Just past the homestead, we got our first glimpse of the Rogue River since Grave Creek,
and continued down in a series of long switchbacks through a steep, and rapidly dessicating, meadow. The thought of actually stepping on a rattlesnake hiding in the grass was a hard one to ignore…
Lower down, the trail took us along the east side of Clay Hill Creek (not the west side as shown on the map) through an oak savanna, into more old growth, and down to the Rogue River Trail (USFS #1160). By the time we got to Clay Hill Creek, the day had been more than warm for awhile, and we were hot, sticky, and tired – taking a break by the creek’s cool waters was one of life’s little BIG pleasures!
We had done about 13 miles by the time we reached the Rogue and we’d hoped we could call the day short by camping at Tate Creek, just a half-mile or so upstream. But there was already someone camped there, so we pushed on up the beautiful – but hot – canyon,
to a campsite near Brushy Bar Guard Station, where we had a spacious site, bear box, and outhouse all to ourselves. Brillient! Blossom Bar, with its fresh side creek and easy river access, would have been great but that was a campsite too far on this day.
We’d traversed some beautiful, pristine country and had been truly awed by Hanging Rock, but it had also been a long and tough day (15.8 miles; 1,100 feet of elevation gain minimum), so we made dinner and collapsed in the tent.
Day 3: Brushy Bar to Tucker Flat
Brushy Bar is not a riverside campsite (but we could hear the river), but it’s a very comfortable one, so we both slept soundly and were ready early for our hike out,
past the Brushy Bar Guard Station,
and past the signed, but faint, Devils Backbone Trail (USFS #1162), which the Siskiyou Mountain Club hopes to help restore one day. As the sun topped the ridge,
we reached the huge meadow at Paradise Bar (there’s also a lodge here – nice rooms, excellent food, and beer),
passed it under a sunny canopy of trees,
crossed Bloosom Bar, turned Inspiration Point, and traversed above the narrows in Mule Creek Canyon – stunning views from the trail of the most exciting rafting on the Rogue.
Then it was into the trees just before Marial,
along the road, and back to Tucker Flat. Our last day was only 8.1 miles with 300 feet of elevation gain.
There’s a lot of great stuff packed into this relatively short backpack: the Wild Rogue Wilderness’ beautiful, varied terrain and ecosystems, virgin old growth forests, solitude, big views, the wonder of Hanging Rock, a little mining history, reptiles, and, of course, the Rogue River. At just over 29 miles with 3,700 feet of elevation gain, it’s a moderate to difficult backpack done over 3 days (easier if you add a day) but totally worth it! Because it tops out at under 4,000 feet, it’s possible to complete the route in fall, spring, summer, and even winter, depending on snow and road conditions, making it an ideal early season adventure (as it was for us).