A 6-mile, round-trip stroll along Rough & Ready Creek in the Illinois Valley may have you feeling like you're on Mars instead of within a stone's throw of the California redwoods, and without the drive up some endless maze of logging roads.
The landscape in this flat part of the Josephine Ophiolite, not far from Highway 199 in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, is harsh enough that one might assume there would be limited variation of life in this region. However, Rough & Ready Creek is famous for its wide range and diversity of plant and animal species — some of them quite rare.
On this hike, you'll see an ecosystem that has undergone natural and unnatural disturbance on many levels, from the volcanic intrusions that brought these ridges from the sea in the ancient past to life burgeoning after the 2002 Biscuit Fire.
Rough & Ready Creek demonstrates that no matter what, life does goes on.
You'll want to wear sturdy shoes because the trail is rocky, narrow and loose in some places. If you plan on fording or walking in the creek, bring some sandals.
Download the O'Brien and Buckskin Peak Quadrangle Maps for free from the USGS Store (http://store.usgs.gov).
To reach the trail, drive to the blinking light in the town of O'Brien on Highway 199, then head west on Lone Mountain Road. Reset your tripometer and after .9 miles make a right on Naue Way. After 1.9 miles, turn left and head west on Rough & Ready Creek Road. At 2.9 miles, there will be a small parking lot 100 feet east of a locked gate that reads "Foot Traffic Only." Drive slowly and be considerate of the neighbors.
Start the hike by passing the gate and head north on the track marked FS 444, which takes you straight to the creek near Seats Dam, but stay northwest and on FS 442.
Dismiss any dim jeep tracks as junctions.
After a mile there is a clearing in the road with a large slash-pile adjacent to a decent-sized pine tree. On the western side of this clearing is an unmarked, nondescript, easily-missed footpath ascending north and against the flow of the creek. If you end up at the creek on the road, you've gone too far; turn around and find the footpath.
At 1.2 miles, you'll make a breezy ascent to a crest with sweeping views of the creek's rebellious hydrology, including the famous S-shape it's known for. When Rough & Ready Creek is at high flows, you may wonder why it isn't called a river. During the late summer months, there may be hardly any water at all.
At 1.5 miles the trail descends to a floodplain with an abundance of old and new growth. Thick Port Orford cedars tower from the stream's banks. In other spots, thousands of young conifers monopolize sun and soil resources and are growing rapidly.
At 1.7 miles, narrow, rocky sections of trail will have you feeling thankful for wearing sturdy hiking shoes. Rock hounds will get a kick out of the fragmented boulders, quartz veins and green serpentine found throughout this hike.
At 2 miles, you'll be able to see cobra lilies (Darlingtonia californica) in and near the water. It's a carnivorous pitcher plant found throughout the Siskiyou region that grows in large fens. Along these moist banks, botanists will find an archive of other species of interest, including stream orchids, bolander lilies and the rare flowered rush lily.
At 2.1 miles, re-assume the closed mining road, heading west. At 2.8 miles you'll find some sandy beaches and swimming holes for hikers willing to get off the beaten path and explore.
At 3.1 miles, the road fords South Fork Rough & Ready Creek and quickly fades into another foot-path that has not been maintained since the Biscuit Fire, leaving it impassable to all but the most experienced hikers willing to navigate the shin-whipping, ankle-twisting deadfall.
On the way back, no matter how times I do this hike, I always contemplate the contrast between rapid change and ancient life. Not only does a stroll through Rough & Ready Creek prove that life goes on, it proves that life changes.
Gabriel Howe is founder of the Siskiyou Mountain Club.