Sometimes, you take what you can get. Sometimes, it works out pretty well.
When fresh snow caused us to cancel the hike we'd planned, we looked around for a low-elevation replacement. I remembered that Bill Sullivan, who writes all those Oregon hiking guides, had told me about a little interpretive trail he'd recently discovered in Josephine County.
Not that the Limpy Creek loop isn't on the map. It's just that if you live in Jackson County, you'd never come across it unless you knew where it was.
The Siskiyou National Forest calls this little loop a botanical trail, but it's more than that. In addition to providing an up-close look at various plant communities, Limpy boasts interesting geology and a drop-dead gorgeous waterfall. It's also a great place to take little kids who aren't ready to hike for miles.
Take Highway 199 out of Grants Pass as if you're headed to Crescent City. Just after you cross the Applegate River, turn right on Riverbanks Road for 4.5 miles, then left on Limpy Creek Road (Road 18). It's a little over two miles to the parking area. There's an outhouse here, but no water other than the creek and the little rivulets running down the hillside, at least in the spring.
We took the trail to the left just past the information kiosk. You're in a forest-edge community here, a sort of boundary between soils that are highly serpentine influenced and those that are less so. Ponderosa pine and California black oak grow here, along with such plants as woolly sunflower, yellow-flowered iris and orange honeysuckle. It seemed to suit the spotted towhee male that was noisily laying claim to its territory just fine, thank you.
As you walk up a couple switchbacks you quickly come to a dry serpentine community. It's a tough environment. The soil is so high in iron and magnesium it would be toxic to many plants. Scrawny Jeffrey pines survive here, and wild onions, mariposa lily and camas.
The trail winds higher. Giant mushrooms spring from the leaf litter around clumps of Oregon grape. A stout wooden bench invites you to pause a moment and take in the mountains off in the distance.
A bit farther on you come to a wet serpentine community. It's the difference between night and day. Sturdy boardwalks have been built here, but nothing to interrupt the flow of water coursing down the hill. There's coffeeberry here, and shooting star and azaleas. The calls of chickadees fill the air.
Soon you hear the creek. It gets louder, and you come to a rock outcropping thick with green, growing stuff. This is a unique community, gently magical. Here an algae and a fungus combine symbiotically to form lichens. Bryophytes such as mosses and liverworts get the water they need by extracting it from the air. Live oak and manzanita, on the other hand, have thick leaves to reduce water loss.
A little spur trail runs down to the mid-point of the double-drop waterfall. There is a bench. It's wet, as is everything here. The massive rocks and banks of the creek drip moisture.
Above the falls is another bridge and another bench with more cool pools between whitewater stretches. The rocks are slicker than they look.
The waterfall is the loop's climax. Moving downward you pass occasional spurs to the creek, several with benches. There's dogwood in flower here. What seem to be big, lily-like flowers are actually bracts, modified leaves that conceal the actual flower, which is greenish and small and altogether unspectacular.
The riparian community plant checklist includes species that grow only close to water, such as scarlet monkey flower and elk clover. Other species, yew and trillium for example, also relish the moisture.
When you notice Douglas firs, madrone and Oregon myrtle, you're entered the mixed forest community and are almost back to the parking lot. Where the trail joins the creek there's a bridge, but that's another spur. To stay on the main trail here, don't cross the creek.
You could walk Limpy Creek in less than an hour, but that would be a bit like chugging Dom Pérignon. This is a place to bring a lunch and let yourself be taken by the botany, the geology and the tranquility.
There's history, too. It turns out Limpy was the name given by white settlers to one of two American Indian brothers who lived where the creek joins the Rogue River. Unfortunately for the brothers, they were among those rounded up in 1856 and driven north to what are now the Siletz and Grande Ronde Indian reservations.
Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at firstname.lastname@example.org.