After the Great Storm (aka the Big Dump) of 2017, we were able to sneak in a quick hike before the Spawn of the Great Storm was upon us. Now that too has passed and a period of sunny high pressure is settling in for a few days. Oh, bluebird days ahead! To celebrate the return of the Sun, while waiting (yet again) for the snow to settle, we decided to try the short low-altitude hike to Viewpoint Mike overlooking Lost Creek Lake, where the William L. Jess Dam impounds the Upper Rogue River. The trail meanders 2.5 miles (and gains ~1,000 feet) across several ridges on its way to a rocky outcrop about 600 feet above the dam. An out-and-back hike is fine but a loop hike is better still, so when we found that, back in 2009, the Ashland Hiking Group had made a loop out of this hike, we decided to try that. This was Plan A. But 2017 is not 2009 and we would discover, part way into the loop, that a Plan B was needed.
The trailhead is a large paved parking lot (no amenities) on Crowfoot Road off State Highway 62 just north of Casey State Park. It was sunny but cold (mid-20ºF) when we started up the signed trail that begins just to the east of the parking area, and then works its way back and forth through some mixed stands of white oak, madrone, and buckbrush.
Every leaf and twig was lightly dusted in frost, the air temperature was gripping, and the arrival of the sun was a welcome event.
At 0.7 miles, the trail swings near Highway 62, and the noise from cars and trucks grinding up and down the hill below becomes obvious. This bothers some hikers but we were so taken by the the trail’s passage through a corridor of majestically tall trees that we hardly noticed the noise.
Oaks gave way to conifers as the trail wound onto the north side of the ridge, where the sun is less intense.
The firs gave way to oaks again, and we crossed a rocky meadow, shortly before the trail met up with a gravel road (McNeil Creek Road).
We turned left on the gravel road and followed it about 0.1 miles to where the signed trail starts uphill on the east (right) side of the road.
The trail soon began a series of long switchbacks that encompass the bulk of the climb toward the viewpoint.
Near the top, we ran into a little bit of crusty snow where the trail crosses a stretch of bare lava rock, reflecting the same kinds of hexagonal basalt columns that are visible beside Highway 62.
This hike can be a pretty hot one during the summer months but it’s a local favorite for the Spring wildflower season. For much of its length, the trail crosses a landscape dotted with widely spaced white oaks and many species of wildflowers thrive in the bright sunshine around these oaks. Today, however, we had a cold sun and no wildflowers and the brilliantly clear view from the viewpoint came at the cost of standing in the shade in a light breeze.
Later in the year, the viewpoint would be the natural place for an extended break and a snack but today we needed to keep moving – both for warmth and to get on with the loop. So we left the viewpoint, heading southwest into the forest.
We had expected to have to do some bushwhacking; instead, we almost immediately came upon an old road prism (not shown on current maps) that provided a clear and easily followed path through the forest,
right up to the lip of the huge gravel pit that does show on the map.
It’s our understanding that this, and possibly several other gravel pits nearby, were the source of the rocks used to build the dam. This makes some sense in that it’s expensive to transport rock any distance, so a local source is preferred. This particular quarry is huge – 1,000 feet on a side and pushing 100 feet deep in places.
We looked into this a little further (giving way to our inherent geekiness) and discovered that one of these quarries had played a small role in Operation Plowshare – the program established in 1958 to explore the technical and economic feasibility of using nuclear explosives for industrial applications. The Lost Creek Project was a non-nuclear, high-explosive blasting experiment in hard rock which was conducted in 1972 at one of the Lost Creek Dam quarries. Ah, those were the days…
Our Plan A was to join-up with the old dirt road leading to the top of the quarry and then follow it to the gravel road that leads down to Highway 62. This is what the Ashland Hikers had done back in 2009 but in the intervening years the property around the old road had changed hands and now this road is blocked by “no trespassing” signs. We could hear all kinds of dogs barking and howling back in the trees and would later learn that this property is now home to a huge kennel operation. So, on to Plan B. This involved skirting the south edge of the quarry and then working our way down through the forest of the quarry’s east side to its old service road. We followed that road, uneventfully, down to Highway 62.
From where the service road meets the highway, we went straight north across the highway and down the forested slope on the other side to meet-up with the lake’s South Shore Trail. Going down the slope wasn’t too hard but probably not something we’d want to do in summer. We’ve enjoyed hikes before on the lake’s North Shore Trail, but this was the first time we’d been on the south side. As we noted in our earlier post, the Corps calls the trails that go around the north and south shores of the lake, as well as the trail that goes east up the Rogue River from Peyton Bridge, the “Rogue River Trail.” From where we gained the South Shore Trail, we got another big view of Flounce Rock off across the lake.
The highlight here was Rumley Creek Falls, which has a lower section that is only visible when the lake is at low water during the wet season; then it can be seen tumbling down some very severely contorted columnar basalt.
A little further along the trail, we crossed a sturdy footbridge,
where we could lookup and see Upper Rumley Falls – not affected by the lake level but probably not much during the summer dry months.
After that, we simply followed the South Shore Trail (the Corps calls both the North and South Shore Trails the “Rogue River Trail”, which is confusing) past the dam and down between Highway 62 and the dam’s massive spillway. We were pleased to find that this stretch of trail is arranged such that you can’t hear the highway or see the spillway, so it does feel like a walk in the woods. The trail ends at a gravel road next to the Rogue River, and we followed that road out to the highway and then across to Crowfoot Road and the trailhead.
Despite the need for Plan B, this proved to be a fun and interesting (Operation Plowshare? Who knew?) hike (6.7 miles; 1,000 feet of elevation gain) but probably not one we’d do again unless there was a more convenient way around the quarry and down the slope to the lake. Likely lots of poison oak and ticks on that slope in summer! But definitely a hike to do again as an out-and-back during the Spring wildflower season!