With such beautiful scenery in Southern Oregon, hikes of every length and flavor are easily a year-round affair. As fall fades into early winter, some trails are easier and more practical to navigate than others.
A pair of regional favorites, the Upper and Lower Table Rocks are close to home, accommodating in a range of weather conditions and offer a hard-to-beat spectacular view of the beautiful Rogue Valley.
While the Bureau of Land Management and Nature Conservancy offer a series of educational hikes to nearly 5,000 hiking fans each spring, environmental education specialist Leah Schrodt says her favorite time of year is when leaves change colors and they are off the trees, now temperatures cool down a bit.
"I love this time of year. You don't have the big showy effects of wildflowers or things like that but it's a nice hike, close to home "¦ and you can focus on the Native American history and culture of the area," she says.
With some 10,000 or more hikers accessing the trails each year, the valley's twin mesas are a hit year round. Rising a dramatic 800 feet above the valley floor, the Upper and Lower Table Rocks are the flat-topped remnants of lava flows that filled canyons formed by an ancient, meandering Rogue River.
Composed of sandstone with erosion-resistant lava caps, years of wind and rain served to undercut the sandstone. Stripped of their underpinnings, the heavy basalt top of the eroded sandstone is pulled down by gravity, creating nearly vertical slabs seen today on the valley's skyline.
Upper Table Rock is primarily privately owned by a local ranch but available to the public for hiking its 2.5 mile path. Lower Table Rock, managed via a partnership between the Bureau of Land Management and the Nature Conservancy of Oregon, is a mile longer, at 3.5 miles with a slightly more gradual path and interpretive signs offering historical, cultural and scientific information about the formations.
Both trails meander through an impressive range of species-rich zones from oak savanna grasslands and chaparral brush to woodlands and mounded prairie, dotted with seasonal pools that provide homes for a rare species known as the fairy shrimp.
A variety of wildlife is evident on the rocks as well, not counting the cows that sometimes wander atop the Upper Table Rock from the grazing land below. If you visit, watch for coyotes, snakes, black-tailed jackrabbit, deer, bobcat and a range of birds.
Interpretive signs offer insight about the formation of the Table Rocks, species that live in its range of habitats and a look at the sites' historical and cultural significance. Southwest Oregon history is prominent with landmarks and gathering places for American Indians and settlers along the Oregon-California Trail.
In addition, more than 140 kinds of plants live on the Table Rocks and are denoted by markers, including the dwarf meadow foam, which grows no place else on earth.
In terms of access, the site offers portable restrooms at both trailheads and plenty of parking for winter hiking crowds. Trails receive extensive maintenance and upgrades each year, so basic hiking boots are more than adequate for the walk.
A word of warning, be cautious of steep sides and encounters with snakes or poison oak, even during cooler weather, and take snacks, water and warm clothing.
In terms of hiking ability, Schrodt says both trails have different, but equally wonderful, views though Upper Table Rock is, physically, a little more "bang for your buck" while the Lower Table Rock is home to an old airplane strip, used briefly during the mid-1900s.
"I love both of them but I always tend to lean towards Lower Table Rock for the public, especially first times, because of the interpretive panels," Schrodt says.
"Whichever one they choose, they won't be disappointed," she adds. "They're both just spectacular."