2020 Update: The Siskiyou Mountain Club has now repaired and restored this the trail, which was damaged by wildfires and landslides.
In 2015, we backpacked the justifiably famous Rogue River Trail from Grave Creek to Foster Bar and had a wonderful time doing so (Rogue River Trail). As I was researching that trip, I kept coming across references to the Illinois River Trail (USFS #1161; but the sign at the trailhead says #1162) as a worthy adjunct to the Rogue trail. The western end of the Illinois River Trail was designated as a National Recreation Trail because of its outstanding scenic qualities and the Illinois River itself was added to the National Wild and Scenic River System in October 1984. It is lauded as one of the best hikes in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, one that gives you a unique glimpse into the wonders of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, a 179,655-acre wilderness filled with deep gorges and rocky ridges and home to many rare plant species. So I put #1161 on the list for a try at it once the better weather of Spring 2016 became a reality – which happened this week. While planning for a two day backpack of the #1161, I was struck by how little detailed information (in this age of Internet-driven information overload) there was on a complete east to west through hike of it.
Current guidebooks feature out-and-back hikes from its western terminus at the Oak Flat trailhead near Agness, Oregon (Hike #87 in Sullivan’s Oregon Coast & Coast Range, 3rd Edition; Hike #86 in Bernstein & Urness’ Hiking Southern Oregon) or out-and-backs (Hike #79 in Bernstein & Urness) or loops of Bald Mountain (Hike #82 in Sullivan’s 100 Hikes in Southern Oregon, 3rd Edition) from its eastern terminus at the Briggs Creek Campground outside Selma, Oregon (this is also, confusingly, an Oak Flat trailhead – but this eastern Oak Flat is actually about 0.75 miles southeast over a ridge from Briggs Creek). For the trail in between these trailheads, there wasn’t much detailed current information. There was a good description in Art Bernstein’s 2001 Hiking Oregon’s Southern Cascades and Siskiyous but since this pre-dated the 2002 Biscuit fire which devastated much of this area, I couldn’t be sure how much of his description of the route still held. I was fortunate to find a blog based on a 2007 backpack from Briggs Creek to Silver Creek and back (Meyerson 2007 blog), which at least reassured me that the trail still went through after the fire. It’s certainly been hiked since then (I would find evidence of this on my hike) but folks just don’t seem to write or post much about it. So I did my planning with what was available and got ready for an adventure.
The biggest impediments to thru-hiking the Illinois River Trail seem to be accessing its eastern trailhead and arranging a shuttle between its trailheads. The LovedOne solved my shuttle problem when she demurred on doing this backpack in favor of hanging out in Gold Beach and visiting yarn stores on the South Coast. She would drop me at the eastern trailhead, continue on to Gold Beach, and then fetch me the next day from the western one. The western trailhead is easily accessible from Gold Beach on paved roads but getting to the eastern one is a trickier proposition – now with two options. Both start in Selma, Oregon, which is on Highway 199 (Redwood Highway) about 19 miles south of Grants Pass and 10 miles north of Cave Junction. You turn west on to paved Illinois River Road at the only intersection in Selma (marked with a blinking yellow light). After two miles, the road becomes Forest Road (FR) 4103. At 6.1 miles the pavement ends, then begins again at 6.4 miles. At 6.7 miles you come to a signed “Y” junction – FR 4103 (the usual route to the Briggs Creek trailhead) heads down to the south (left) while gravel FR 4105 heads uphill to the north (right). The FR 4103 is well described in current guidebooks, usually with the admonition that its “…last couple of miles are only suitable for a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle, and the road can be hard on your car or truck.” Instead, we turned on to FR 4105 (per instructions provided by Gabriel Howe of the Siskiyou Mountain Club in a recent Medford Mail Tribune article) and followed this good to excellent gravel road (no high center, few potholes) for 14 miles to its end at a turn-around loop at School Flat. From here, a narrower, steeper road (FR 4105-152) descends for 2.4 miles to the trailhead.
With our 4WD truck, we could have driven this smaller road (BUT the USFS suggests you not do so in 2WD passenger cars) but it seemed more expedient (in terms of The LovedOne getting on to the beach) for me to just walk down it to Briggs Creek. After about 2 miles, FR 4105-152 joins with FR 4103 and, frankly, this last bit of 4103 was worse than any of 4105-152! Either way, getting to this western trailhead can involve some interesting driving and/or some walking – not at all like just driving smoothly to the big Rogue River parking lot at Grave Creek! So, with the road fun finally behind me, I zeroed my GPS at the trailhead (USFS Illinois River East Trailhead). I’d found estimates of the distance from here to the east end varying from about 22 miles to about 30 miles; after removing my detours to the summit of Bald Mountain and to Fantz Ranch, I would eventually come up with 29.8 miles – the trail miles (TM) given below are based on that.
I went across the Briggs Creek bridge,
and over raging Briggs Creek (there are several key bridges that make this hike possible, as some of the river’s tributaries (like this one) would be hard to ford, if at all).
The trail quickly climbs above the river and I had a good view of the rapids around Panther Bar.
The trail here was in excellent condition, seemed well used, and was easy hiking – so much so that I forgot the admonitions about how this trail is “rugged, remote, and adventurous” elsewhere.
I swung around the point below York Butte, for a great view looking west down the river. It was here that I was hoping to find some patches of the Kalmiopsis flower (Kalmiopsis leachiana) but no luck – either I was too early in the season for a bloom or I didn’t recognize one happening.
I passed Hayden Creek at TM 2.0 and York Creek at TM 2.4 before coming around a bend for a good view of where Clear Creek enters the river.
At TM 4.1, I came to the forlorn Clear Creek bridge, with its missing guard rails and reportedly rotting substructure. You could possibly cross the creek without it but not easily.
Just past Clear Creek, there is a campsite and the junction with the Shorty Noble Way Trail (USFS #1185), which provides a path down about 800 feet to the river.
The good #1161 trail continued on through a pleasant oak woodland and, since the day was warming, the shade was appreciated.
At TM 5.0, I came to the junction of the Florence Way Trail (USFS #1219A), which takes you down to the popular Pine Flat area and continues (or used to do so) around and up to a junction with the #1161 near the summit of Bald Peak. The #1219A-#1161 loop over Bald Mountain is written-up in several of the current guidebooks but this route has become increasingly difficult as the adverse impacts of the 2002 Biscuit fire continue to be felt. The Florence Way Trail has recently been described as …overgrown, filled in with downed trees, arduous to pass, and quite difficult to find in many places. Doesn’t sound like much fun.
Just past this junction, I caught a good view of Pine Flat some 800 feet below.
The #1161 went from obviously heavily used to lightly used (at best) immediately past its junction with the #1219A – my guess is that the vast majority of hikers and backpackers move only between the Briggs Creek trailhead and Pine Flat and not beyond. Still, between here and its putative junction with the #1144 trail, the #1161, while encumbered with a few minor downed trees and shrubs and some amount of ravel, was in reasonable condition and easy to follow. At TM 6.7, I passed the site of Pine Creek Camp (these camps are still shown on the USGS and USFS maps but clearly no longer exist or, if they did, were obliterated by the Biscuit fire) and saw an old USFS telephone line insulator (and some #9 galvanized wire) still clinging to a tree.
Around TM 8.0, I should have encountered a junction with the #1144 trail but there was no evident junction or signage here. The #1144 is also no longer listed on the USFS website so I suspect it either withered away naturally, was done in by the Biscuit fire, or both. From here, the #1161 contoured along below the ridge through a pleasant forest, passing close by FR 091 at TM 9.0 and a supposed junction with the Florence Tie Trail (USFS #1219B) at about TM 10.0. Although the #1219B is still on the USFS website, there is no evidence of a junction or any signage here on the #1161 – the USFS presumes it to no longer be passable. Just past this point, the #1161 does one of its few steep climbs – directly up an open ridge that may have served as a fire line at one point.
The upside of this grunt was a view to the east, with still snowy Mt. Ashland on the distant horizon and FR 091 is the foreground.
The #1161 climbs a bit higher and then rounds the ridge at the east end of Bald Mountain Prairie. From here, I had a view of the trail itself and of Mt. Ashland in the distance.
This section of trail was more ravel covered and more worn than previous sections. At TM 11.5, I reached a signed and obvious junction with the upper end of the #1219A trail. The obviousness of the #1219A here obscures its faintness further down the mountain. After passing through one of the “balds” (meadows) strung out along the Bald Mountain ridge,
I came, at TM 11.8, to a junction with the #1161A trail (not listed on the USFS website) which seems to be the old trail to the former lookout atop Bald Mountain. This spur trail is fading into the forest floor but was still pretty easy to follow up to the summit. Back in the day, there may have been a 360 degree view from up here but now the trees have grown and there are limited views in limited directions.
The USFS established a camp on the summit in 1917 and then built a “Cathedral” style lookout cabin in 1929, presumably hauling all of the material for it up here by pack horse! The lookout was abandoned in 1967 and I could find no trace of it today. I’m guessing whatever remained was finished off by the Biscuit fire.
The forest just below the summit (At TM 12.2) did not burn and there is a small spring (suspiciously small given how much rain and snow we’ve had this year) among the trees with decent flat campsites closeby. Since I was already 14.7 miles into a somewhat long day, this would have been the logical place to stop for the night.
But, if I stopped here for the night, I would be facing a 16 to 18 mile day to the western trailhead the following day. So I decided to push on in the hope of finding a campsite with water further down the ridge, so as to cut down on the next day’s miles. Worst case, I knew that there were campsites and water at Silver Creek – about 8 miles ahead. Continuing along, I passed through several balds where ruined trees overshadowed verdant meadows.
From below Bald Mountain to the (now seemingly former) junction with the Pupps Camp Way Trail (USFS #1174) at TM 15.4, the #1161 undulates up and down below the ridge. The Pupps Way Camp Trail used to become the #1189 trail to South Bend Mountain and the #1174.1 trail down to the river at Collier Bar. No signage or other evidence of this junction were apparent – just a thick blanket of post-fire brush. In this section, the tread of the #1161 is very faint in places (particularly across the balds) and covered in ravel. Fortunately, there were no big fallen trees or any significant encroachment of the trail by brush through here. There were also almost no decent campsites with water. There is a small (1 tent) campsite at the #1161/#1174 junction and about 100 yards down the #1161 from this site is Polar Spring, which was still running (but weakly). I knew someone had camped here recently because they’d used the trail as a toilet and left their tent stakes and eating utensils on the fire ring! A camp fire? Really? This was not an inviting site, so I continued on, skirting Little Bald Mountain Prairie and starting my descent back to the river. The trail’s quality improves below BM 2844 and becomes markedly better below BM 1429 – but it is somewhat narrow and still looks only lightly used.
After losing another 1,000 feet in a long series of switchbacks, I passed a “campground” that the USGS map indicates with an official campground symbol – near as I could tell, there was nothing there but some relatively level grassy areas where you could probably pitch a tent. At TM 19.9, I came to a junction with the Collier Bar Trail (USFS #1182), which seemed abandoned but which I was able to follow for 50 yards or so to where it crossed a small stream – readily available water! There’s a sign here indicating that the #1161 goes uphill but there’s no signage for the #1182.
Finally, at TM 20.0, I reached Silver Creek where I found some nice grassy campsites and access to water (but you have to climb down to the creek or the river to get it). I was really, really happy to call it a day at this point. So, after a quick dinner and lots of rehydration, I fell asleep under the light of a waxing gibbous moon – and woke up the next morning in a fog bank!
I was hoping for an early start but decided to wait while the fog went through its various stages of dispersal and I could actually see the river I was supposed to be hiking along. It took about 2 hours for the fog to lift completely.
A new, very robust, bridge had been built across Silver Creek (above the high water mark) in 2005 to replace one destroyed in the 2002 Biscuit Fire.
This bridge is essential, since trying to ford fast-flowing Silver Creek would be a near suicidal act (if not an actual one).
Paradoxically, a 50 foot section of the tread at the north end of this robust bridge has been almost obliterated by a small landslide – so getting off the bridge requires step kicking and good balance. Past that obstruction, the trail is in pretty good shape as it mostly contours through an oak woodland,
past Conners Place (TM 20.7 – good campsites and some spring water; not sure about access to the river),
above the river, past (among others) Bluff and Forest Creeks,
to, at TM 23.5, a junction with a short side trail to Fantz Ranch, an old building sitting in a beautiful expanse of old farm land. The #1161 trail actually traverses up the ridge on the right in the distance.
Past Fantz Ranch, the trail climbs up a ridge, for a view of how the river has been narrowed by the canyon walls.
At the top of this ridge the #1161 reaches an unsigned junction with the Silver Peak – Hobson Horn Trail (USFS #1166), which climbs up past Silver Peak and over to the edge of the wilderness at Hobson Horn. I descended the other side of the ridge to (at TM 24.9) a stout bridge across the narrow defile through which Indigo Creek rushes on its way to a confluence with the Illinois River. Another tributary you wouldn’t want to have to ford!
From here, the river trail crosses to the south facing slope (hot and muggy on this day), passes an unsigned junction with the trail down to Indian Flat (good campsites) and climbs steadily,
with a view down to the green meadow that is Fantz Ranch,
to Buzzards Roost – a large isolated rock outcrop with a great view – at TM 26.8.
From the Roost, I could see west to the end of the trail at Oak Flat and started seriously contemplating post-hike refreshments of one kind or another.
As I trod the gradual descent down from the Roost, past (among others) Ethels and Nancy Creeks, I got a closer view of the Flats and refreshment anticipation started to increase.
Finally, at TM 29.8, I emerged at the unsigned(!) western trailhead of the Illinois River Trail (USFS Illinois River West Trailhead). There was, however, a nice yellow warning sign saying that the trail might be difficult due to the Biscuit Fire. This reminded me of when we came off the more famous Rogue River trail only to find its western trailhead unsigned too.
The LovedOne was waiting for me at the trailhead and we drove down to spend the night in Gold Beach so I could enjoy some beach time too (and where there were refreshments). All told, 29.8 miles (excluding side trips to the summit and the ranch), with a cumulative elevation gain of ~4,000 feet.
This hike proved to be all that was promised: an adventure along a magnificent river through some spectacular scenery – visiting an old lookout site and the old ranch were bonus features. It would probably be more popular if access to its western trailhead wasn’t an adventure in its own right or if the shuttle was shorter. But, then again, some trails are more fun if they AREN’T more popular or too easy. I did it as an overnight backpack (as was suggested by some of the current guidebooks) but a two night trip (eastern trailhead to Bald Mountain; Bald Mountain to Silver Creek or Conners Place; then out to the western trailhead) would match-up better with campsites and water sources and allow more time to savor the journey.