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Hike among fragrant myrtles beside a world-class river

The Wild Rivers Coast is conifer country.

The towering firs and monumental redwoods define the Southern Oregon and Northern California coasts. But a very important tree to the area's history is often overlooked, and it's got a few names: Oregon myrtle, California laurel, bay.

Check out one of the only preserves of Umbellularia californica at Alfred Loeb State Park, spitting distance from Brookings.

This park in the deep southwest pocket of Oregon was originally purchased by the Board of Forestry and a group called Save The Myrtle Woods from Alfred Loeb in 1958 to preserve one of the last native, virgin myrtle groves in the United States.

Save The Myrtle Woods was run by Lilla Leach, who also championed the first protections of the nearby Kalmiopsis Wilderness as a wild area.

You can see her legacy on this easy 1.5-mile round-trip hike through the massive myrtle groves she saved on the banks of the lower Chetco River.

From Highway 101 in Brookings, head east on North Bank Road for 8 miles to the park. Alfred Loeb Park has campsites, a few cabins, easy river access, and a free day-use area. Park on the property's east side near the River View Trailhead.

On soggy days you'll catch a waft of myrtle as you step from your car. The evergreen endemic to Oregon and California smells spicy, similar to a cracked bay leaf. Myrtle is also the only species in the Umbellularia genus. It grows very slowly, and its wood is harder than black walnut, oak or alder. Its waxy, narrow leaves are oval and look like a bay leaf.

The myrtle starts as a woody shrub, and multiple trunks congeal to form original wood patterns cherished by high-end craft carpenters who shape it. As the trunks grow into each other and into a mature tree, the trunk forms a single, straight log suitable for milling.

As you hike, notice the different stages of myrtle as you wind along the banks of the wild running Chetco.

The water here is quite pristine, and the Chetco is a unique watershed because its headwaters are completely encompassed by federal wilderness. Leach knew this country well, from here all the way up to the high ridges that divide three watersheds: The Illinois/Rogue, Smith and Chetco.

You'd have to take a long, arduous hike to reach the Chetco's upper canyons. But this is low fruit, and is prime beachside real estate in summer. During winter it can be blustery, and the river puts on quite a show when the Chetco is at its higher stages.

This is one of the best and last myrtle groves left in the world, and the trail will connect you back to North Bank Road at the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest's Redwood Nature Trailhead, a 1.1-mile loop extension that goes through one of the northernmost stands of redwoods.

With the loop, it's an easy 2.6-mile hike through myrtles, firs, redwoods, along a world-class river with legendary fisheries, five-star camping and swimming, and a rugged headwaters far from the reach of civilization.

Gabriel Howe is executive director and field coordinator for the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Contact him at howegabe@gmail.com.

A small side creek flows into Chetco River beside the trail at Alfred Loeb State Park. Photo by Gabriel Howe
A grove of immature myrtles hover over a swollen Chetco River. Photo by Gabriel Howe