Botany in the Boulders

Hike from Rough & Ready Botanical Wayside to Seats Dam provides beauty and diversity
Stefani Gissel, an Outdoor Adventure Leadership major at Southern Oregon University, picks her way across a boulder field near Rough & Ready Creek.Photos by Gabriel Howe

Rough & Ready Creek is known for its spring display of rare, diverse and endemic flowering plant communities. Botanists come to the Botanical Wayside located off Highway 199 just north of O'Brien, and the more adventurous seek the watershed's higher reaches.

But after the flowers bloom, the botanical wayside, managed cooperatively by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, becomes little more than a rest stop. Which is a mystery, considering that the creek's channels are most accessible in the late summer and early fall when stream flows are low. And large, deep pools glisten in the sun, inviting swimmers even into late October.

Maps, photos online

Find a Google map with downloadable KML file at

An O'Brien 7.5-minute series quadrangle map of the area can be downloaded at

See photos of the hike at

This 5-mile, difficult to strenuous cross-country hike is only for hikers who are well acquainted with their compass, map and balance. Wear ankle-supporting shoes for rock hopping, and bring sandals for walking in the creek. Download and print the O'Brien 7.5 Minute Series map for free from Most of this route, which is available online for GPS and Google Maps users, is inaccessible during the wetter months of the year.

From the Rough & Ready Botanical Wayside on Highway 199, head west on the well marked path. The first quarter-mile or so follows a path groomed well enough for a stroller, but the rest requires a measure of fitness. The mouth of the creek may be at a meek trickle, but don't be fooled. Hydrologic paradise exists just higher up.

The groomed path terminates just past a picnic bench, but a dim road continues upstream. Disregard the first two faint junctions heading left, south and toward the creek. You will find yourself heading northwest and away from Rough & Ready.

About three-quarters of a mile into the hike, while heading northwesterly, pass a creek and head southwest on the unmarked road back toward Rough & Ready Creek. The closed road follows this diversion all the way to its source, Seats Dam. Keep an eye on your map and compass and don't get confused in this hypnotic maize of antiquated, unsigned roads.

Seats Dam, which should first be located on the USGS map, is just above a huge display of bedrock exposed by the suspended flow. The geologic display is nothing short of fascinating, and probably a terminus for raging rock hounds.

Seats Dam, complete with a rope swing, is a popular spot for locals to visit on hot days when the Illinois River feels like a bathtub. The deep pools below and above the dam are ideal for swimming. Keep heading upstream on the creek's north side, over Parker Creek, which offers views of the Cascades and a display of old-growth trees. In these riparian pockets, the vegetation suddenly seems happy — a stark contrast from the trees and shrubs that appear to barely push themselves out of the arid, red soils of Rough & Ready's open plain.

At about 1.5 miles, head back toward the creek and traverse the bank as you see fit and with extreme caution. One slip could mean a sore wrist, twisted ankle or cracked skull. This section is not for the faint of heart, balance-challenged or inexperienced. And if a heavy rain started at the right time, hikers could face a dangerous flash flood.

About 1,500 river feet up from Seats Dam is one of the best swimming opportunities I've found in Southwest Oregon. Deep, wide, emerald pools catch color the way only roadless, wild, free-running rivers do. There are rocks to jump from, rocky benches to sit on and views of the Siskiyou Crest to the south.

Upstream is more bedrock exposed by two smaller dams. Deep, narrow pools below small waterfalls appear along these big bends of the creek, pushing the curiosity of explorative hikers. Head back the way you came, or locate a new route, but don't get lost.

Before I'd seen this enchanting stretch of Rough & Ready, I thought its description as a creek was accurate, but not anymore. Rough & Ready is full of water, even in late fall; it's just hard to find. It should be titled a scenic river, and those crazy enough to have floated its channel or navigated its banks know this very well. So from now on, I think I'll just call it a river and wait for the cartographers to follow suit.

Freelance writer Gabriel Howe lives in Ashland and is founder and chair of the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Contact him at

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