I am not one who gives up easily on autumn. Even after the sky turns leaden for days at a time and rain turns the yellow and gold leaves of alders and maples to mush underfoot, I cling to every vestige of color I can find.
Even so, there comes a point in the season when traveling beyond the Rogue Valley makes me pause. Yet if you're willing to be adaptable and limit your forays to places where weather changes can be planned for, there's no reason not to try some weekend getaways nearby.
The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have cooperated on an excellent series of pamphlets for the North Umpqua River area that include easy-to-read maps.
"The Rogue-Umpqua Scenic Byway" brochure shows you the whole forest loop. Another, called "Thundering Waters," describes and gives directions to the main waterfalls near and just off Highway 138. It includes short, useful descriptions of different kinds of waterfalls. A third, called "North Umpqua Trail," has information on the 79-mile river path through the forest.
There also are three books I've used and recommend for additional details on the falls: "Waterfalls of the Pacific Northwest" by David L. Anderson, "A Waterfall Lover's Guide to the Pacific Northwest" by Gregory A. Plumb, and Bill Sullivan's "100 Hikes of Southern Oregon." Sullivan's doesn't mention all the falls, but he has more detailed descriptions on those the book does include than the other sources.
You can get more information about the Umpqua National Forest at www.fs.fed.us/r6/umpqua. The North Umpqua Ranger District phone number is 541-496-3532 for information on conditions in the North Umpqua.
One of those places is the Rogue-Umpqua Scenic Byway. This loop goes up I-5 to Roseburg, turns east onto Highway 138 along the North Umpqua River, then south on Highway 230 to connect with Highway 62 near the Rogue River and head back to Medford. The loop goes from an elevation of 400 feet to more than 5,000 feet, with the snow zone from November to April at about 2,500 feet. Along the way are many wonderful, short hikes.
The important thing this time of year is not to insist on taking the whole loop, but only the parts that seem practicable. Although the road is kept open all year, it is icy and snowy off and on during the winter.
When I explored part of the byway in late October, it snowed overnight at Diamond Lake, the first snowfall there of the season. But I was well below that section of the route in weather that was cool with a mix of sunshine and clouds and a smattering of light rain — no impediment to hiking.
The most hiker-friendly and beautiful part of the loop in late fall, in my opinion, is along the North Umpqua River, which is surrounded by a lush forest of alders, bigleaf maples, western hemlocks, Douglas firs, western red cedars and sugar pines at the lower elevations and lodgepole pines, mountain hemlocks and western white pines at the higher ones.
There is a 33-mile segment along this part of the river that is protected for fly-fishing enthusiasts, so the tourist traffic is more subdued than in other recreation areas in Southern Oregon because the river here is free of motorboats.
The North Umpqua River Trail along this part of the byway stretches 79 miles from the Swiftwater Trailhead 22 miles east of Roseburg to Maidu Lake about 10 miles east of Diamond Lake as the crow flies. But the pleasure of that trail is better appreciated in the warmer months. Instead, there is a series of short hikes to a string of waterfalls that seem like sections of a jeweled braid, most of them not far from Highway 138. On these hikes, you won't be slogging through rain for very long if the weather turns sour.
I started with Deadline Falls, where salmon and steelhead can be seen attempting to leap over the torrent on their way to spawning grounds in the river's upstream tributaries. Deadline Falls is wide and powerful, reached by turning south off Highway 138 at Swiftwater Bridge, then turning left into a trailhead parking area to catch the westernmost edge of the river trail. The viewpoint is not far along this trail. If you're ambitious, you can make your way closer by walking down a path and clambering over rocks to an outcrop at the top of the falls.
Here are some other favorite hikes along the byway as you drive east from Roseburg, with the highway rising gradually for 70 miles. There are no fees at any of the trailheads. All Highway 138 mileages given are from Roseburg heading east.
Susan Creek Falls: This magnificent cataract about 28 miles up Highway 138 plunges 50 feet over mossy cliffs. You reach it at the end of a 0.8-mile trail just off a highway parking lot. The path goes through old-growth Douglas firs, paralleling Susan Creek for most of its distance through a vibrant landscape of ferns and the lichen-covered trees to a view area where the water can be seen plunging from a basalt rim into a wide pool.
Fall Creek Falls: This cascade is a double falls, meaning it drops in stages, with tiers at 35 and 50 feet. Parking for the one-mile trail is on the north side of the highway at mile 32.2. The path leads up through alders, maples, cedars, hemlocks and Douglas firs to a rock outcropping.
Toketee Falls: This is perhaps the most spectacular of the Highway 138 area falls. At mile 58.6, turn left on Road 34, also called Toketee-Rigdon Road, stay left at the Y, then cross a bridge. The parking lot is on the left near a pipeline that diverts part of the river to a powerhouse a mile downstream.
At the end of a 0.4-mile trail is a deck overlooking the cascade, which plummets in tiers of 40 feet and then 80 feet. In the Chinook language, "toketee" means "pretty" or "graceful," an appropriate name for this cataract. One of its most distinctive features is how the first tier descends into a spacious, shadowy pool almost hidden by the cliffs, where the water rolls forward to drop the remaining distance to the much broader pool below. The cliffs are etched with columnar patterns created by the eruption of Mount Mazama 7,700 years ago. The massive blast and its aftereffects led to the creation of Crater Lake.
Watson Falls: This is my favorite cataract along the route, partly because at 272 feet, it is the highest waterfall in southwest Oregon, and because the 0.4-mile trail offers a view of the whole cascade at the low end, and at the high end gives an intimate look at water streaming in light bands over the dark basalt. Here you feel the cascade breathe its gentle spray right at you. The trail is near mile 60.5 of the highway. You need to turn south there on Road 37, also called Fish Creek Road. The parking lot is on the right, not far down that road.
Whitehorse Falls: After Watson Falls, this torrent at first seems like a disappointment. It's a punchbowl-style falls of 15 feet that hugs the rock rather than leaping over it. But its steady, low plunge is calming, making it a good place to stop and take a breather. At mile 65.9 on Highway 138, it is reached just a short way off the road not far from the entrance to Whitehorse Campground. After enjoying the view from the short trail, you can easily take a small detour and sit by the upper end of the falls if you'd like to linger awhile or stop for lunch.
Clearwater Falls: Adjacent to the Clearwater Falls Campground picnic area at mile 69.5, this wide cascade drops 30 feet onto a wide stretch of moss-covered rocks. As at Watson Falls, you get a view at the bottom, then can follow a short path to the top where the water sweeps over the outcropping. But as beautiful as this spot is, there is something just as tantalizing beyond it — a clear, still pool that reflects the shapes of surrounding trees so realistically you want to reach into the water and touch them.
It's possible to see all these waterfalls in a long day's drive from Medford, but that's a lot of ground to cover without feeling rushed. I recommend a visit of at least two days to really enjoy the area. The Steamboat Inn, about 40 miles down Highway 138 from Roseburg, is an elegantly cozy place to stay along the river. It's still open through December, but closes in January and February. A river cabin for two can be reserved there for $185 a night, with larger units costing significantly more. Check out the inn's offerings at www.thesteamboatinn.com or email SteamboatInn@Hughes.net for more specific information.
Or you can stay at a motel in Roseburg and drive back in to the forest each day.
With two or three days at your disposal, you can savor each hike and pick your time to venture out if the weather changes for the worse. The nice thing about the North Umpqua is that one trip isn't enough to see more than a fraction of its waterfalls. Going there will only whet your appetite for more.
Late fall brings chancy weather, yes, but it's a season when being with loved ones is what matters most, and a forest trip can be welcome time away from the bustle of holiday crowds. The preternatural quiet of the North Umpqua may be the beginning of an enduring family tradition that takes you back to the original spirit of the season.
Steve Dieffenbacher is a Mail Tribune page designer/copy editor. You can reach him at 541-776-4498 or firstname.lastname@example.org