The Sun Having Risen on Upper Table 02-Apr-2017

Amtrak Sunset Limited Los Angeles California

During our recent excellent railroad trip, we kept checking the weather at home – expecting it to have gotten all sunny and Spring-like just as we left (so we’d be consumed with jealousy) – only to find it continuing to be wet, windy, and gloomy.  Our incipient jealousy gave way to pity for those we left behind in the clouds.  But the gloom was waiting for us – like a big, wet, muddy dog on the sofa of our lives.  Making our connection home through Portland, Oregon, we were buffeted by wind and rain, unseemly weather that had been going on for days prior and gleefully continued for the flight home.  But when we dropped below the cloud cover on final approach, I got a quick glimpse of the top of Upper Table Rock and a sudden urge (checked by my seat belt) to do an exploratory hike there and check-out the early wildflowers.  When, shortly after we got back, Fate intervened to grant us a gap of incredibly sunny, mild, actual Spring weather, the hike was on!

Upper Table Rock (and its neighbor, Lower Table Rock) are cliff-edged basalt mesas near Medford, Oregon that are immensely popular local hiking areas and also great places to see displays of Spring wildflowers (some endangered). Views from the cliffs extend across the Rogue River Valley to the Siskiyou Crest to the south and west and to the Cascades to the east. The round-trip hike to the top of Upper Table is an easy 2.8 miles, gaining just 720 feet. On the way up, we got some great views out across the valley, which looks particularly lush and bucolic at this time of year (that will change come summer).

Upper Table Rock Medford Oregon
Looking northeast up the Rogue River Valley

The top looks flat from the air (Lower Table was artificially flattened in the 1920s to make an airstrip).  But when you try to walk on Upper Table you find that it is actually quite a rolling tapestry of basalt rocks, grass hummocks, squirrel holes, and vernal pools.

Upper Table Rock Medford Oregon
Looking southwest from the top
Upper Table Rock Medford Oregon
A vernal pool atop Upper Table
Upper Table Rock Medford Oregon
Another vernal pool atop Upper Table

It was still early for the peak wildflower season, but some of the classics were starting to appear – the grass widows mostly having come and gone. Henderson Fawn Lilies are usually next up and there were quite a few of these along the trail.  There was also – as usual – a lot of poison oak coming out all along the trail.

Upper Table Rock Medford Oregon
Henderson Fawn Lily (E. hendersonii)

The Great Hound’s Tongue is named for the shape of its leaves and not for the cute little blue flowers it sports at this time of year.

Upper Table Rock Medford Oregon
Great Hound’s Tongue (C. grande)

Popcornflowers look like fields of scattered popcorn kernels at a distance but are shown close-up to be collectors of tiny water droplets.

Upper Table Rock Medford Oregon
Stalked Popcornflower (P. stipitatus)

The Smallflower Woodland Star’s name is bigger than the flower itself, but these small white blossoms stand-out because they’re pushed above the rest on an 8 to 20 inch stalk.

Upper Table Rock Medford Oregon
Smallflower Woodland Star (L. parviflorum)

The Northwestern Saxifrage is most at home in the vernally moist meadows that define the top of both Rocks.

Upper Table Rock Medford Oregon
Northwestern Saxifrage (S. integrifolia)

There were also quite a few very, very small, flowers down amongst the other easier to see (and photograph) flowers. Having surrendered the suppleness of youth for the wisdom (really?) of age, there was only so much crawling around on my hands and knees that I could do before the aching “wisdom” in my back strongly suggested I stand erect and photograph the sky for awhile.  I tried this and got a nice view of Mount McLoughlin far off on the sunny horizon.

Upper Table Rock Medford Oregon
Mount McLoughlin on the sun-drenched horizon

Now it was time to explore out toward the Rogue Valley VORTAC station on the northwest side of the Rock [geek moment: A VORTAC is a navigational aid for aircraft pilots consisting of a co-located VHF omnidirectional range (VOR) beacon and a tactical air navigation system (TACAN) beacon.]. The official (maintained) trail reaches the top of the Rock at a little wooden fence and from there several use trails radiate out in different directions. If you follow the obvious use trail going west, it will soon curve to the northwest and eventually reveal itself to be an old road – sketchy to start and then increasingly obvious as you move toward the VORTAC station. By staying on this use trail/old road, I avoided stomping all over the vernally moist meadows. By coincidence, I got within sight of the station just as a commuter flight was coming in on final – just like the flight that fueled this hike.

Upper Table Rock Medford Oregon
A commuter plane (white arrow) on final to MFR past the VORTAC station (red arrow)

The road is obviously old up to the station but there’s a well maintained gravel service road from there down the south side of the Rock.

Upper Table Rock Medford Oregon
The old road, a vernal pool, and the VORTAC station

The station belongs to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and is protected by a nice wooden fence, cameras, and enough “NO” signs to discourage even a candy-crazed 2-year old. I gave it a wide berth to avoid the headline (or YouTube video) “Terrorist Disguised as Flower Photographer Captured on FAA property” and so on. After circling the station looking for the high point – just missed it – I took one more photo and started back.

Upper Table Rock Medford Oregon
Mount McLoughlin behind the VORTAC station

At this point two trucks came up the gravel road to the station. One truck was labeled “Exterminator” causing a brief frisson of “Terrorist Disguised as Flower Photographer Exterminated.” But no, the dead were only going to be either ants or ground squirrels…

Upper Table Rock Medford Oregon
Heading back, dodging the puddles

A great hike (6.4 miles round-trip; 800 feet of elevation gain) in wonderful weather with early flowers and a little exploration (not leading to extermination). There may be room for some more exploring up there once the vernal pools have receded and before the poison oak gets really, really luxuriant.

Upper Table Rock Medford Oregon
The exploratory track out and back to the VORTAC station

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