Dam You Elk Creek (Oregon)! 09-Apr-2017

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

Elk Creek is a tributary of Oregon’s Rogue River whose confluence with the Rogue is just northeast of Shady Cove, Oregon.  In 1986, about three miles upstream of the confluence, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) began construction on what was expected to be the Elk Creek Dam.  It was to be the last of three dams (the other two being the William L. Jess Dam (1977) on the Upper Rogue River and the Applegate Dam (1980) on the Applegate River) authorized by Congress in 1962 to help control flooding along the Rogue River. The Rogue’s capacity for horrendous flooding was well established and the two existing dams have done a great deal to mitigate that threat.  But the Elk Creek Dam was not to be (nor did it need to be).

In 1988, when the dam was only one third its designed height, construction was stopped by litigation and additional studies that demonstrated it did not make economic sense and would also significantly impact salmon. Twenty more years of environmental, political, and legal wrangling ensued before the dam project itself was finally abandoned as a lost cause.  In 2008, the partially built portion was explosively breached (“notched”) to allow for restoration of the creek channel and surrounding habitat, as well as for unhindered movement of salmon.  In 2014, after replacement of bridges and the installation of trailheads with amenities, the USACE officially opened more than seven miles of roadways in the Elk Creek Lands to the public as a new park for hiking and biking.  While we’ve enjoyed past hikes around neighboring Lost Creek Lake, we had not yet explored Elk Creek.  So, with the weather continuing to be cranky and unpredictable (“I might rain on you – or not – no wait, let’s try snow – no, no, wait – how about highs winds and rain – no, wait, how about …”)  a short, easy hike along the Elk seemed like a good idea.  We did this as a shuttle, leaving one car at the northern (Homesteader’s) trailhead and then driving back to start at the southern (Yellow Rock) trailhead.  Both trailheads have parking and pit toilets.  The trail heads north from the Yellow Rock trailhead over a stout pedestrian bridge that leaps a side channel of West Branch Creek.

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

The pedestrian bridge over a channel of West Branch

The “trail” is actually the old county road that ran along the creek.  In anticipation of the old road disappearing into the depths of the new reservoir, the USACE built a new Elk Creek Road 200 feet or so up along the hillside to the west. The old road is still paved but is nonetheless a nice walk – you can’t hear any traffic on the road above but you can hear the creek gurgling away to the east.

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

The old road is now the “trail”

Shortly after leaving the southern trailhead, we crossed the well-flowing West Branch of Elk Creek,

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

The West Branch of Elk Creek

over yet another robust pedestrian bridge.

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

The bridge over the West Branch of Elk Creek

The trail passes extensive meadows that are old farm lands being restored for habitat. We imagined a riot of wildflowers here a little later in the season. The weather cooperated to the extent of not raining on us but persisted with one of those milky overcasts that suck the color out of photographs. But no complaints lest it start snowing!

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

One of the meadows along the trail

The trail doesn’t stick close to the creek the whole way but there are a few spots where you can easily access it. The first of these is at a ford about one mile from the trailhead. The creek is currently swollen thanks to all the rain we’ve gotten this winter but by summer it should have shrunk to a less dangerous, more swimable piece of water.

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

A swollen, cold Elk Creek

A little upstream from the ford, we found one of the several small cascades that give the creek some character (and a voice).

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

A small cascade on Elk Creek

We continued along the road, looking for wildflowers. Some of the smaller ones were out but, as noted before, it’s still early for the bigger, showier ones. What jumped out at us was a brilliantly red, non-native flowering quince, one likely brought in by the folks who homesteaded this valley in the late 1800s.

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

A flowering quince

Lacking flowers, we were, as usual, drawn to the shapes and colors of the rock gardens and lichens along the trail.

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

An ecology of rocks, moss, and flowers on the wall of a roadcut

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

The intricate geometries and subtle colors of a lichen

A little shy of 3.5 miles from the trailhead, we crossed the vehicle bridge over Alco Creek,

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

The bridge over Alco Creek

and soon came to the southern end of the meadow at 7 Mile Bend.

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

7 Mile Bend

We left the paved trail here and followed an obvious dirt road over to where there are excellent swimming holes for when the creek calms down in the summer.

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

Creek access at 7 Mile Bend

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

A cascade and swimming hole at 7 Mile Bend

We continued on the dirt road as it swung back to the trail at the north end of the meadow at 7 Mile Bend.

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

Back to the trail at 7 Mile Bend

A short while after regaining the road, we passed what surely qualifies as whitewater on the Elk – something maybe for kayakers but not swimmers!

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

Whitewater on Elk Creek

Just beyond 7 Mile Bend, we crossed the pedestrian bridge over Middle Creek,

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

The bridge over Middle Creek

and made another close pass at Elk Creek,

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

Elk Creek just downstream of the Homesteader’s trailhead

followed the now gravel trail as it rises to pass along the new Elk Creek Road,

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

The trail intersects Elk Creek road

and soon arrived at the Homesteader’s trailhead.

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

Homesteader’s trailhead with parking and amenities

We could have called it a day at this point but, no, we’re geeky enough to want to see what created this trail in the first place – the remains of the Elk Creek Dam. So we drove back to the turn-off to the southern trailhead and down to what looked like an obvious, but unsigned, parking area about 0.9 miles north of the dam site.  The gravel piles remain in place “just in case” there’s some desire to restart the dam project (ah, hope springs eternal, etc.).

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

An 2016 aerial view of the remains of the Elk Creek Dam

Other folks were wandering around, so we strolled down the road to have a look at the “The Notch” in the dam and the partially completed intake structure.

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

The partially completed intake structure (right), with The Notch in the background (left)

The dam was somewhat unique in that it was being built with roller-compacted concrete, a jointless technique that needs neither forms nor finishing, nor does it contain dowels or steel reinforcing.  Just layers of concrete literally rolled-out and compacted in place.  A cheaper and quicker method, but not quick enough.

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

The Notch, where the dam was blasted apart to make way for salmon

The dam was originally scheduled to be 240 feet high, but had reached a height of only 80 feet before work was stopped.  So while the remains of the intake structure look massive,

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

The remains of the intake structure

you have to imagine it rising (had it been finished) some 240 feet over your head, to the height of a 30-story building!  The lowest water level in the planned reservoir would have been about at the rebar in the remaining structure!

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

The original design of the intake structure

So, geek-fest over, we swung north for the short hike back to the car. It was at this point, of course, that the milky overcast finally cleared to give us a blue sky look at Berry Rock for the last 10 minutes of our hike. Oh, the irony!

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

A blue sky view of Berry Rock (3,466 feet)

Overall, a very pleasant hike (5.5 miles; 300 feet of elevation gain; add two miles round-trip for the walk to the dam site) despite it being a less than optimal weather day. We saw deer, a hawk, turkeys, a kinglet, and several other small birds which refused to stay still long enough for identification. Certainly worth a return visit (as a hike or bike ride) for wildflowers in a two-three weeks or swimming later in the summer. So kudos to the USACE for turning a bad dam into a good park.  The USACE brochure is not clear on this, but some newspaper accounts [accessed after the hike] of this new park indicate that you’re not supposed to go wandering around the old dam site. So our bad if we broke some rule we didn’t know about.  But it would be nice if the USACE could figure a way to clearly, safely, and legally allow folks to get a look at this unique piece of Oregon’s dam history.  It’s the least they could do for the 100 million or so taxpayer dollars poured into this non-dam.

Rogue River Elk Creek Oregon

Our tracks in the Elk Creek area

HOME</span

4 thoughts on “Dam You Elk Creek (Oregon)! 09-Apr-2017

    1. Boots on the Trail Post author

      Thanks! We were up there a couple of weeks ago and saw the new signs and also the maps/posters they put up showing the trails and their names. Looks like there are even more new trails in the plan.

      Like

  1. Tobias Mann

    Sounds like a fun hike and a great history lesson too! I imagine there are a fair number of these unfinished dams to explore in the area. Despite the milky sky you managed to get some compelling photos, and you didn’t let it stop you from documenting the adventure either.

    Like

    1. Boots on the Trail Post author

      Thanks! Elk Creek is the only unfinished one I know of. But we are busy out here removing old, no longer needed, dams to improve fish passage and recreational use.

      Like

Comments are closed.