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.
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.
Shortly after leaving the southern trailhead, we crossed the well-flowing West Branch of Elk Creek,
over yet another robust pedestrian bridge.
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!
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.
A little upstream from the ford, we found one of the several small cascades that give the creek some character (and a voice).
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.
Lacking flowers, we were, as usual, drawn to the shapes and colors of the rock gardens and lichens along the trail.
A little shy of 3.5 miles from the trailhead, we crossed the vehicle bridge over Alco Creek,
and soon came to the southern end of the meadow at 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.
We continued on the dirt road as it swung back to the trail at the north end of the meadow 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!
Just beyond 7 Mile Bend, we crossed the pedestrian bridge over Middle Creek,
and made another close pass at Elk Creek,
followed the now gravel trail as it rises to pass along the new Elk Creek Road, and soon arrived at the Homesteader’s trailhead.
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.).
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.
The dam was somewhat unique in that it was being built with roller-compacted concrete, a joint-less 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.
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,
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!
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!
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 two-three weeks or for 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.