There are many wonderful hikes in Southern Oregon: From the short (Grizzly Peak) to the long (Lone Pilot Trail), from the high (Mount McLoughlin) to the low (Upper and Lower Table Rocks); from the gripping (Mount Thielsen) to the mellow (Jacksonville Woodlands). These – and many others – are “usual suspect” hikes in that you’ll find them mentioned or detailed in almost every hiking guidebook, travel brochure, blog, or website that speaks to foot-powered travel in the southern part of the Beaver State. We’ve hiked all of the usual suspects, often several times, but have also hiked some that are less usual, ones you don’t see discussed very often (if at all). Below are five such hikes for summer. But, fair warning, these are not “…slip on the flips, grab a half bottle of warm Pepsi, and wander into the woods…” kinda hikes; you’re going to need some stuff and, for a few of them, real navigation and off-trail travel skills too. That said, hiking these will likely provide you with a different – and probably well-earned – perspective on the natural side of Southern Oregon. It could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
(1) Cottonwood Creek Falls (Mount Thielsen Wilderness)
Springs in the Cottonwood Creek Basin (the bowl on the east side Mount Thielsen in the Mount Thielsen Wilderness) give rise to Cottonwood Creek, which tumbles over an impressive waterfall on its way to the Klamath River Basin. These falls can be reached from the west by ascending the Howlock Mountain Trail (USFS #1448) to the Thielsen Creek Trail (USFS #1449), then following that trail up to the PCT at Thielsen Camp. From there, it’s cross-country up the left (north) side of the drainage to the divide northeast of Mount Thielsen, and then down the scree slope on east side (descending at an angle to the left (north) is easier than going straight downslope). Once you’re down, it’s an easy walk across the pumice-covered basin, under the looming presence of Thielsen’s massive east face, to the falls.
(2) Hummingbird Meadows (Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness)
This hike is in a portion of the Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness that escaped being burned by wildfires in 2011, 2015, and 2017. The trails are generally good (but not always so) inside the wilderness but those outside of it to the east are impacted by Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) “trail” building. The easiest way to start this hike is from the Muir Creek Trailhead off Highway 230. From there follow the Muir Creek Trail (USFS #1042) along Muir Creek to the Buck Canyon Trail (USFS #1046), then follow that trail through beautiful Hummingbird Meadows, past the Devils Slide, over the ridge, and through huge Alkali Meadows to a junction with the Meadow Creek Trail (USFS #1044). Follow the #1044 down to Forest Road 6540-700. Go north on that dirt road to OHV Trail #27 (formerly FR 6540-760), follow that downhill to FR 6540-900, then find (at 43.0555º, -122.3618º) a now abandoned – but readily followable – piece of the #1044 that will take you, in less than 0.5 miles, down to the Muir Creek Trail and the trailhead. If you can’t find the #1044 remnant, just head downhill cross-country from FR 6540-900 and you’ll soon hit the #1042.
(3) Cow Creek Old-Growth Forest
Cow Creek is a major tributary to Oregon’s South Umpqua River and an important stream in Southern Oregon’s early history. Levi Scott and Jesse Applegate, who pioneered the southern wagon route into Oregon, named the creek in 1846 when they found a dead cow beside it (why they skipped the “dead” part is lost to the mists of history). The six mile-long Cow Creek Trail (USFS #1424) follows the upper reaches of the South Fork of Cow Creek through a herb-rich floodplain stocked with mature and old (500+ years in some cases) Douglas fir and other trees. Most of the old-growth is in the first four miles. The trail ends at Railroad Gap near the divide that defines the watersheds of the Rogue and Umpqua Rivers. This hike is best done in mid- to late summer because of the necessary creek crossings (6 to 10 depending on whether you only visit the old-growth or go all the way to the Gap).
(4) Historic Layton Mine Ditch
Hydraulic mining was the principal form of gold mining in Southern Oregon and ditches were often dug for considerable distances to convey water to the mines. The Sterling Mine Ditch is the best known of these, but J. T. Layton’s 21-mile long ditch from Williams Creek to his mine (the first hydraulic mine in Southern Oregon) in Ferris Gulch is also pretty impressive. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and local volunteers have worked hard to restore a trail along some 10 miles from the Chinese Wall in the north to the head of Williams Creek in the south. The ditch trail will eventually have several trailheads but, at present, the most accessible one is on the Panther Gulch Road. Going north from there will take you to the Chinese Wall, built (as was the ditch itself) by Chinese laborers to get the ditch around a rocky outcrop. Going south will take you to where the ditch was fed by an inverted siphon (no trace of which remains) from the Pipe Fork of Williams Creek.
(5) Parsnip Lakes (Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument)
The Parsnip Lakes, located within the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, are a series of water bodies formed by natural springs and wetlands, and partially maintained by beavers. The Oregon Spotted Frog (Rana pretiosa) was seen here again in 2003, after having been unobserved for some 40 years. You can visit these lakes as part of an on-trail/off-trail loop hike from the Hobart Bluff Trailhead. From the trailhead, descend through the forest (stay out of the meadow) into the South Fork Keen Creek drainage, find a faded old road at its bottom, and follow it downstream to where another old road goes northwest along the west shore of the lakes. Past the lakes, yet another old road climbs west uphill toward the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Follow this road up until directly west of the PCT, then head cross-country through the forest (not much undergrowth here) to intersect the PCT. Take the PCT back to the trailhead, diverting to see the impressive view from Hobart Bluff, a popular local hiking destination, along the way.