Located 12 miles inland from Highway 101 on the Oregon-California border, this adventure will have you wondering whether you are hiking in the Siskiyous or on the Coast Range. While the Winchuck River and its wild tributaries receive less attention than larger, more accessible rivers nearby, their exploration is well worth the effort.
The area is reachable year round, and in the winter months the weather can be milder than in areas farther inland. Also, you can rent the Ludlum House, a Forest Service cabin that accommodates 15 people easily, for just $60 a night, making this a perfect trip for groups, families and kids.
Get the Gold Beach District Map from Crissey Field State Park during regular business hours or from the National Forest Store online (http://nationalforeststore.com).
The trail can be muddy, so dress appropriately, and be prepared for warm, coastal dew from the west as well as cold, piercing mountain air from the east.
If you plan on renting the Ludlum House, go to www.recreation.gov to view availability and make reservations well in advance. The two-story cabin features a woodstove, large dinner table, potable water and porches to watch the rain in between hikes. It does not offer electrical hook ups, so leave the blow dryer at home. It sits at the confluence of Wheeler Creek with the Winchuck River, where there is a swimming hole and sandy beach accessible by wheelchair.
Less than a mile north of the Oregon-California border on Highway 101, set your tripometer and head east on Winchuck River Road. At about 7.2 miles, take a left on Forest Service Road 1108. This junction is easily missed, and doing so could lead you up a cluster of remote roads. However, just past this junction on Winchuck River Road (FSR 1107) is Winchuck Campground with river access, tent sites and a toilet.
At around 10.2 miles you'll find the Ludlum House and a campsite with parking for cabin renters and tent campers. Park and continue on the road by foot for five minutes. Just past the bridge crossing Wheeler Creek, head left and northwest on Forest Service Trail No. 1279. This site, Chimney Camp South, has intact remnants of early, crumbling homesites. Keep heading northwesterly and upstream on the path.
The approaching old-growth forest is mossy and rich, and the water flowing along Wheeler Creek's shady banks is clear, emerald and wild. During the winter these deep pools light up with steelhead (fishing is prohibited in these upper reaches of the Winchuck watershed). In the summer months, use these sandy beaches for picnics and swimming.
This trail is the product of previous logging projects, but the trees left behind must rank as some of the state's largest. And while this forest seems lush — the product of dank, biotic soils — the creekside geology says something much different. Rocks of the Siskiyou — peroditite and serpentine — are found all along these banks, leaving something for the naturalist's imagination.
At about one mile is an exceptional photo opportunity: a giant fir tree with a downed log running perpendicular to it about 10 feet up from the ground. Have someone carefully stand on the downed log to capture the scale of this massive, champion tree.
At two miles, ford Wheeler Creek, which could be a nightmare, especially in wetter months. Ford the channel again, bringing yourself to Chimney Camp North, where you could shuttle a car and then check out the WWII Japanese bombsite mentioned in Paul Hadella's Aug. 26 article, "Hiking through history."
If you haven't shuttled a car or don't want to ford Wheeler Creek, turn around and, depending on whether you've made reservations, figure out where to stay. The beach is a 20-minute drive, the California Redwoods aren't much farther, but consider staying on the Winchuck, especially if you're a winter angler. While I have never had the patience needed to fish successfully, I have seen stocks of steelhead hanging out in the Winchuck's deep pools below Wheeler Creek. Read up on all permanent and seasonal regulations.
The wild rivers in southwest Oregon are famous, but there are a lot more drainages than the Rogue, Applegate, Illinois and Chetco to explore. In the case of the Winchuck and a few others, locating the smaller streams often means finding the best, most remote, isolated gems this geologic knot we call the Klamath-Siskiyou has to offer.
Freelance writer Gabe Howe lives in Ashland and is founder and chair of the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.