Cobra lily, pitcher plant and tube plant are three of the common names associated with Darlingtonia californica, a carnivorous plant found growing only in Northern California and Southern Oregon. This easy hike through one of Southern Oregon's largest and most easily accessible Darlingtonia fens take you to great spot to watch salmon leaping Little Falls on the Illinois River.
Driving from Grants Pass, set your tripometer at the Ray's grocery store in Selma and head south on Highway 199. At about 3.5 miles south of Selma, turn west on Eight Dollar Mountain Road.
The Little Falls trailhead and campground is well marked on the road's south side about two miles west of Highway 199. The sign is hard to miss, but if you get to the green bridge, you've gone too far. Little Falls trailhead has a vault toilet, primitive campsites and even an amphitheater, but no garbage service or potable water.
Go to the site's southwestern edge, pass the amphitheater and follow the newly installed signs to the Illinois River Trail, walking northwest along an old mining ditch. Avoid the steep, knee-buckling shortcuts that lead straight to the river and watch out for poison oak. The trail switches back, heading southwest and toward the river. About 50 feet after passing the switchback, stop and carefully look around. The Darlingtonia fen is about 100 feet west of the trail.
Sometimes the ground is so saturated that the fen — different from a bog because it is fed by groundwater and streams, not precipitation — may not be accessible. But during drier months, curious hikers can approach its rim. Cobra lilies grow throughout the Illinois Valley, but fens this large and accessible are rare.
On warm days, flying insects swarm the area, lured by a pungent scent produced by the Darlingtonia. Sometimes you may even be lucky enough to see an insect fly into the plant's vacuole, found on the hood's underside, and disappear. The bug will make countless attempts to escape, bouncing off the transparent, veiny walls of the Darlingtonia.
Eventually the bug dies and its remnants break down into compounds the plant's enzymes can metabolize. While the adaptation is fascinating, research suggests little nutrition actually comes from the Darlingtonia's prey.
The unique characteristic was described as an "evolutionary last resort" by researchers Aaron Ellison and Elizabeth Farnsworth in their 2005 American Journal of Botany article, "The cost of carnivory for Darlingtonia californica." But you don't have to read botany journals or be enamored by plants to enjoy this hike; continue on toward the river.
Soon you'll hear the roar of Little Falls, the hike's terminus. Two channels run through outcrops of jagged rock. Use extreme caution on this unstable bank of the Illinois, where boulders that look like convenient steps can fall out from underneath your feet and roll down the bank.
During the fall salmon run, wait for a clear day following a spell of rain, when the river is clearing of sediment. The fish congregate at the waterfall's outlet, sometimes crowding the small pool. From rocks above, lucky hikers can watch the salmon jump from the river, sometimes defying gravity just long enough to aerially circumvent the small waterfall.
But be careful — salmon viewing can be habit forming. I've come home late after taking to the jagged outcrops at Little Falls like stadium bleachers, championing the salmon past this hydrologic hurdle to their spawning grounds. And unlike angling, watching fish requires little patience and no skill or license.
Freelance writer Gabriel Howe lives in Ashland and is founder and chair of the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.