Cow Creek is a major tributary to Oregon’s South Umpqua River and an important stream in Southern Oregon’s early history. Levi Scott and Jesse Applegate, who pioneered the southern wagon route into Oregon, named the creek in 1846 when they found a dead cow beside it (no grasping for literary allusions with these guys). The six mile-long Cow Creek Trail (USFS #1424) follows the upper reaches of the South Fork of Cow Creek through a herb-rich floodplain stocked with mature and old (500+ years in some cases) Douglas fir and other trees. It ends at Railroad Gap near the divide that defines the watersheds of the Rogue and Umpqua Rivers. With The LovedOne still nursing her knee (and catching-up on her library duties), it fell to me to explore this old-growth trail (see what Cow Creek looks like in the summer here).
The Cow Creek Trailhead (the Sharon Eitzen Memorial) is on Forest Road 3232 where it crosses the East Fork of Cow Creek and features a pit toilet, a hitching post, and parking for several vehicles. Old-growth (or the remains of it) is visible from the parking lot.
From the trailhead, I traversed around into the drainage of the South Fork of Cow Creek and soon came to the #1424’s first crossing of the creek. It crosses the creek several times, but bridges are conspicuous by their absence and this creek, at this time of year, is not an easily hopped trickle. Faced with wet feet or a scramble atop fallen logs that sorta bridged the creek, I opted for a precarious crossing of some very slippery logs.
From there, the trail was a journey along a floodplain thick with luxuriant vegetation, hanging moss, ferns, and Oregon grape,
and through Douglas fir, grand fir, Western hemlock, sugar pine, and incense cedar.
About a mile from the trailhead, I came to the second crossing, which I was again able to accomplish on some only slightly less slippery and precarious logs.
After that, it was more moss,
more big trees,
and then (all too soon it seemed) the third crossing of the creek, less than a mile-and-a-half from the trailhead. Here fallen logs, slippery or otherwise, failed me, and it was either wade or go back. I waded and quickly discovered just how cold this water was.
Past this third crossing, and to the sound of squishing boots, I followed the trail as it climbed above the creek and contoured through a forest where giants rise from lush undergrowth,
a small “pond” perches above the creek,
and there are yet more big ones.
Along this stretch, the trail crossed a few – very few – moss-carpeted open spaces in the dense forest,
and passed along fallen giants now serving as nursery logs,
before reaching an altitude where significant patches of snow still lingered in this deep, dark canyon. This lingering snow helps to partly explain why the creek is so COLD!
At 3.7 miles from the trailhead, the trail came back down to the creek,
and I soon faced another crossing of the creek – the fourth – again without any logs available to facilitate a dry crossing (not that this mattered much by now).
Since the primary corridor of old-growth ends here, I couldn’t conjure any enthusiasm for this and another (fifth) wade and four more squishy miles up and back to Railroad Gap. Plus there were those other crossings between here and the trailhead. So after a quick snack, I headed back.
In summer, when crossing the creek isn’t nearly so involved, continuing on to Railroad Gap makes for a pretty easy 12-mile round-trip hike. The Gap got its name when, in the 1870s, the Oregon & California Railroad surveyed through here for a practical route from the Cow Creek drainage to the Rogue River. No such route was found, but the “Railroad Gap” name stuck. There also used to be a fire lookout at the Gap. A 15-foot pole L-4 tower was built in 1933, used as part of an Aircraft Warning System (AWS) post during World War II, and then removed in 1951.
A shelter cabin was built at the Gap in the 1930s and dedicated to the memory of Ralph Staunch, a Forest Service packer, logger, rancher and a man of the mountains. Sadly, at sometime in the last 10 years or so, a very large tree came down across the cabin, completely destroying it. All that remains is the concrete foundation.
On the way back, I dragged myself away from staring up at huge trees to see some of the small organisms on the forest floor.
Since my feet were already cold and squishy, I didn’t bother with log gymnastics on the way back but simply waded boldly (and coldly) through each crossing. Except for the crossings, this was an easy (7.4 miles round-trip; 1,500 feet of elevation gain) hike through a corridor of amazing riparian old-growth. Clearly one best saved for mid-summer to early Fall, when the creek is lower and the air warmer!