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Spring comes early at Medford's Prescott Park

This year, a spell of exceptionally mild weather in February and early March has put spring on the fast track, and some of the earliest wildflowers are already in bloom. Recent Prescott visitors were rewarded with sightings of grass widows, some of Southern Oregon's first harbingers of spring.

Members of the iris family, the grass widow can be identified by its lavender-red, bowl-shaped flowers. The flowers develop at the top of stems that rarely rise more than 12 inches from the ground. They have six petal-like segments and three stamens that form a tiny globe at the base.

Prescott Park encompasses more than 1,700 acres - almost three square miles - of Roxy Ann Peak. There are several hiking trails, along with large expanses of open country dotted with oak and madrone. There's also a graveled road that loops around the old lava cone. The road attracts bicyclists for its dramatic views of the Rogue Valley.

On a clear day, it's possible to see as far as the rim of Crater Lake and the snowy tip of Mount Thielsen. The peak was named in the 1850s for Roxy Ann Bowen, who settled near the base of the little mountain with her husband, John.

Although the park is close to town, it's still wild country. Visitors have seen bear and cougar, as well as deer bobcat, elk, wild turkeys and the occasional bald eagle.

To get there, take East Jackson Street to Hillcrest Road and follow Hillcrest past Cherry Lane. Turn left on Roxy Ann Road and follow it to a big yellow gate. There are two gates at the park to prevent off-road vehicle users from tearing up the fragile landscape off the park roads. Both gates are locked at certain times of the day. The lower gate, just off Hillcrest Road, is opened at 8 a.m. and locked at 5 p.m. After daylight-saving time kicks in, the gate will remain open until 8 p.m.

The upper gate, a mile uphill, is open when trucks are using the quarry on Roxy Ann's south flank, but the Medford Parks Department asks people to park their cars at the upper gate, even if it's open, to prevent drivers from being locked in by accident.

There are plenty of things to see. As you drive past the first gate to the second gate, there are trees that were burned during the mid-1990s when a wildfire roared up the side of the peak. Many of the newest houses were built directly over the area that burned.

There are also remnants of picnic grounds built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression of the 1930s. Spring is prime tick season, and the grassy slopes of Roxy Ann are prime tick habitat.

Don't ignore the faint sensation that something's crawling on your flesh. It's much easier to crush a tick between your fingers before it latches on than to dig one out after it's burrowed in.