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Enjoying Pilot Rock — minus the heights

I’m told that any locals who consider themselves avid hikers need to climb Pilot Rock, a landmark familiar to all Southern Oregonians. I’m also told that the way to the top involves some grueling scrambles over loose talus, and has been known to cause adults to tremble, especially ones afraid of heights.

Being one of those unfortunates who dread climbing a ladder to change a bulb in the kitchen, I have no desire to fool with Pilot Rock, thank you. Yet I am fascinated by this towering volcanic plug near the Oregon-California border.

I’ve found a way to enjoy this work of nature on my own terms, by hiking about three miles through the woods and coming to any number of viewpoints, which allows for quiet contemplation of this impressive monolith.

From Medford, take Interstate 5 to the Mount Ashland exit. When you come to the road leading up to the ski area, continue straight for about four-tenths of a mile until you see a trail sign on your left. Park on the side of the road and commence hiking.

The trail — part of the Pacific Crest Trail — dips immediately to a creek with a culvert crossing it. If I’m reading my Rogue River National Forest map correctly, this is Carter Creek.

The trail and stream quickly part ways, but will reunite now and then — most notably at a quaint footbridge about a mile from the trailhead.

Across the bridge, the trail begins to run parallel to a long meadow, where I spotted a flock of wild turkeys strutting through the grass last summer. Impressions on the ground suggested that PCT backpackers had pitched their tents in this lush clearing.

Five minutes beyond the bridge, you’ll come to a stout Douglas fir, noticeably bigger than any other tree in the area. Its branches suspend over the trail like an awning, and hundreds of its cones — each the size of a cigar stub — lie scattered on the ground.

The beautiful view of Mount Ashland, just ahead on the left, will put a smile on anyone’s face, unless you are a diehard skier bemoaning another disappointing season for our beloved mountain.

To this point, the trail has led uphill very gradually — almost imperceptibly. Now it turns and begins to climb at a much steeper tilt.

After a few minutes of this steady uphill trekking, I realized I no longer needed my stocking cap and gloves. On this January morning, the ground crunching beneath my boots was partially frozen — yet I was working up a sweat.

Having escaped bone-chilling fog in the Rogue Valley, I welcomed the surge of body heat and lifted my face to the sun, burning brightly in the cloudless sky.

Stopping to unlatch a gate, I spied a grove of skinny, white-barked trees to my right. These aspens, looking forlorn without their leaves, snapped me back to the reality that it was still winter, after all.

On the ridge ahead of me was a flat structure — a wall of communications panels, I assumed, and not a drive-in movie screen, which it resembles.

It wasn’t far to the other side of the ridge, and the first view of Pilot Rock.

The more common way to approach this immense remnant of an ancient volcano — measuring 570 feet from base to top — is to drive along a dirt road to a parking area. It’s a mile-and-a-half hike from there to the summit, according to Art Bernstein’s day-hiking guide to the Rogue Valley.

Although I wasn’t interested in making the climb, I was tempted to walk a little ways from the parking area for a closer look at the rock.

But hunger prevailed. Backtracking, I found a sunny slope among scraggly oaks — a perfect spot for eating my lunch and gazing at the big chunk of lava, standing tall behind a tree-lined ridge.

High above it, a jet seemed to crawl across the sky, leaving a white trail behind. By the time I finished my cheese and pear, all thoughts of going farther up the trail had vanished. I was ready to head back.

My hike, which I’ve dubbed Pilot Rock for Wimps, is approximately six miles roundtrip — an estimate based on my map reading. There are no mileage markers along the way. Expect your progress to be slowed by several trees that have fallen across the trail and require some minor bushwhacking to get around.

In spring and summer, I’ve yielded for many hikers with their dogs on this route, but it has never felt crowded. Two red-breasted nuthatches were my only company this day. The tiny birds continued going about their business of pecking tree bark in search of food, ignoring me when I stopped to take a breather.

Note: If we ever do get some snow, this hike would require some serious snowshoeing.

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at talenthouse@charter.net.

Height-challenged writer Paul Hadella has no intention of scaling Pilot Rock, but that doesn't stop him from admiring its beauty. MT file photo