When summer heat comes to the Rogue Valley, it almost always comes suddenly, and then it is relentless for at least two months.
Anticipating this, I like to plan a trip to the Southern Oregon Coast in late spring or early summer to see some of my favorite coastal flowers and get that last taste of cool air before the furnace hits.
Drive north of the Rogue River bridge at Gold Beach on U.S. Highway 101 for 3.4 miles. At that point, you will see a second sign for the Old Coast Highway on the left side of 101. Turn left there and drive 0.2 mile on the Old Coast Highway to a sign that says "Otter Point Recreation Site." Turn right on a rough gravel road, and go 0.1 mile to the parking area. The Otter Point trail starts at the left. For more about this hike, see Elizabeth L. Horn's "Oregon's Best Wildflower Hikes, Southwest Region," Westcliff Publishers, 2006.
Unfortunately, this year I completely misjudged the onset of the heat, which was held at bay by an unusually cool June. To make matters worse, I managed to pick one of the stormiest weekends of the month to go — with hard rain and wind-whipped waves battering the shoreline the first full day after I got there. And when that passed, there were periodic showers and a heavy cloud cover during the other days.
But the overcast skies weren't all bad. They kept the wind down and their even lighting showed off the colors in the flowers more subtly. Better yet, as a lesson in how even familiar places yield surprises, I found a stunning new place to see them just a few miles outside Gold Beach.
The Otter Point Recreation Site north of town is an out-of-the-way gem that offers two hiking opportunities — a quarter-mile walk through a flowery meadow to a rocky overlook, and a one-mile round-trip hike to Bailey Beach to see a different array of flowers and enjoy the coastline from sea level. My only mistake was splitting the outing, taking the first on a cloudy, but mostly dry day, and the second a couple of days later when it was pouring.
The walk to and from the beach is short, so doing it all on the same day makes the most sense. But if you are in a hurry, forgo the Bailey Beach side trip and just amble out to Otter Point.
This was the first time on any of my late spring trips to Gold Beach I've seen the azaleas in peak bloom, so that alone made the trip worthwhile. These reddish-pink, five-petaled flowers dominate the underbrush near the beginning of the Otter Point Trail with their bright flourishes.
Another flower I particularly look for on the coast is the Douglas iris, with its delicate, long petals and deep purple hue, and these were in full bloom, too.
At Otter Point you also will see salal, azalea, cat's ear, seaside thrift, kinnikinnick, beach strawberry, blue violet and salmonberry, with colors ranging from white to purple to magenta.
Past the meadow, rewards of a different kind await. Below the headland are caves where the water churns as the tide moves in. To the left is the panoramic, flat expanse of Bailey Beach reaching out from a heavy line of trees. To the right are small islands, and behind them forested heights hiding the bustle of U.S. Highway 101.
On a peaceful day, the Otter Point headland is a place to linger and explore slowly.
The beach hike has its own appeal. To take it, turn onto the Oregon Coast Trail that branches to your left shortly after you leave the Otter Point parking lot and follow it down. There are some good views through trees of the beach as you go and an inviting flat stretch through a grove of Sitka spruce. The wildflower show is more muted here, but you'll see false lilies-of-the-valley and starry false Solomon's seals that don't grow on the exposed bench above. My main reason for taking this trail was the tiger lilies that I had read can be found beside it, but none were blooming that day.
Although for me this trail was a slog because of the heavy rain, it would be a different experience on a sunny day. The wide, almost pebble-free beach at the bottom is unfamiliar to many people, making it an great getaway. On a clear day I would explore it slowly and then sit quietly for hours in the pulse of the sea.
Along both trails many of the flowers linger through mid-July. The other advantage of going now instead of earlier in the season as I did is that the weather inland is truly hot now, and the coastal daytime temperatures in the high 60s are the perfect refuge. Better yet, you may see what I missed — those elusive tiger lilies coming fully into their own at last.
Steve Dieffenbacher is a Mail Tribune page designer/copy editor. You can reach him at 541-776-4498 or firstname.lastname@example.org.