The Upper and Lower Table Rocks lie just north of Medford, Oregon and are probably the easiest, most visited, local hikes in the Rogue River Valley. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) estimates that the Rocks are visited annually by more then 10,000 people; most heavily in the Spring, which is the best time for viewing the many different wildflowers (post) that fill the mesa top and the migratory birds working the oak scrub and madrone forests. But the trails are open all year round and Winter offers moody vistas, vernal pools, and many fewer visitors. Hikes on both are Hike #31 in Sullivan’s 100 Hikes in Southern Oregon (3rd edition) but Chris Reyes’ 1994 The Table Rocks of Jackson County: Islands in the Sky provides (if you can find a copy) a lot more detail about the natural history and cultural history of the Rocks. The short (3 mile round-trip), but interesting, hike up Upper allowed us to wedge some rain/snow-free exercise into a gap in the weird rain/sunshine kabuki dance being performed by our pre-Winter weather (making this yet another of the many times we’ve visited the Rocks in all seasons (post)).
There is a generous parking lot at the trailhead, along with a 2-hole pit toilet. The trail is totally obvious, wide, only slick/muddy in a few spots, and gently graded.
One of the most attractive features of this trail is what happens when it reaches the truly flat andesite tableland atop the Rock. Until then, you’ve had a few views from the trail out toward the Rogue Valley but, for the most part, you’ve been climbing through view-limiting scrub oak and madrone forest. Then, suddenly, you top the mesa, the forest is behind you, and the sky opens wide above you!
This is the wet season, so the vernal pools on the tableland are full. These pools are micro-ecosystems of habitat that support a federally threatened species of vernal pool fairy shrimp and a state endangered plant (the endemic dwarf wooly meadowfoam).
From where the trail reaches the tableland, we strolled south to the edge of the eastern cliffs,
where we found an unusual cruciform mushroom,
could look across to the cliffs of the west arm of the “horseshoe” formed when lava filled the sinuous, horseshoe-shaped channel of the Rogue River,
and get a close-up of the spires – formed by the andesite cap freeze fracturing and then being pulled apart by gravity – on the west wall of the east arm.
The cliffs on the east side of the east arm too often, very sadly, serve as a launching point for trash – mostly cans, bottles, and cups – heaved over by a seemingly inexhaustible supply of the morally and intellectually challenged (i.e., drooling idiots). On a hike earlier this year, the sight of all this crap at the base of the cliffs moved us to find a way down to pick some of it up. A vague use trail took us to the base, where we gathered two big garbage bags of assorted dreck (which was all we could carry at the time, but barely made a dent in the mess), and then found our way back through the poison oak and the ticks to the main trail. While working our way through the dross piles along the base, we came across some caves. These are mentioned in Reyes’ book as both natural fractures and futile 1850s-era attempts at gold mining in river deposits below the basalt cap. You’re not supposed to visit these caves but it’s obvious that people do so – despite the poison oak, ticks, snakes, and loose rocks. Legalities aside, it would help if they at least took some this trash back out with them!
And then it was time to make our way carefully back to the trailhead along the somewhat squishy use trail on the mesa.
We were lucky in that we had sun all morning but soon after we got back to the car, the cold and gloom reasserted themselves (usually it’s the other way around). But a positive break in this good/bad weather pattern is promised for later this week, so we’re looking forward to the possibility of some longer hikes in better weather…