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Dodging obstacles on the Middle Fork Trail

If you call up the Forest Service's Butte Falls Ranger District office and ask about the Middle Fork Trail, they'll probably suggest taking another hike.

Unless you don't mind clambering over and around deadfalls, that's not bad advice.

The Middle Fork Trail, which follows the Middle Fork of the Rogue River into the Seven Lakes Basin of the Sky Lakes Wilderness, was slammed during the 2008 Middle Fork Fire that burned about 18,000 acres. In the years since, dead and dying debris has clogged portions of the trail. About four miles in, the Middle Fork Trail disappears in a maze of downed trees.

Increased use of the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs along Sky Lakes from Highway 140 north to the boundary with Crater Lake National Park, has made trail clearing along the PCT a priority. The Siskiyou Mountain Club is embarking on an ambitious task of reclaiming a historic 27-mile hiking loop through the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area that includes the Middle Fork Trail where it crosses the wilderness boundary.

As an alternative, Butte Falls Ranger District officials suggest the Upper Rogue River Trail out of Prospect. Although yearly trail maintenance hasn't yet started, spokesmen say the Upper Rogue typically had fewer obstacles. Trail crews are arriving for the summer, so decisions on setting priorities for maintaining the Middle Fork and other trails is expected soon. For updates, call the Butte Falls Ranger Station at 541-865-2700 or the Prospect Ranger Station at 541-560-3400.

Still, even with its challenges, the Middle Fork Trail offers several positives.

The trail immediately passes through an amazingly green landscape and under a canopy of towering hemlock and fir. The undulating trail follows the seldom-seen river's south bank through a canyon carved and gouged by glacial ice. Stands of maple and alder are scattered throughout the bottom of the canyon and along the canyon walls.

Early in the hike, the trail is lined with wildflowers, including the aptly named fairy slipper orchid, or Calypso bulbosa. According to one botany guide, the fairy slipper orchid has been called North America's most beautiful terrestrial orchid. It has a single, showy flower on a single, dainty, purple stem. The petals and sepals of each intricate flower are held above a large, highly modified petal, or lip, like a crown. The lip's slipper-shaped pouch gives the flower its name. The colorful flowers vary from rich purple to shades of pink and white. It's worth taking the time to smell the flowers, which emit a distinct, pleasant, vanilla-like aroma.

Also scattered among the fairy slippers are trilliums — some all white, others with shadings of purple — buttercups and other spring flowers.

Farther along, the trail weaves through deadfall. While most trees are standing, others have fallen, creating step-over barriers and, less often, more serious obstacles requiring brief detours. Past an easy-to-miss trail sign, the trail begins to more seriously deteriorate. Still, it's worth forging on. Even as the trail disappears under a maze of limbs and brush, an easy detour angles to the river, with open areas for well earned lunch breaks.

Hiking the Middle Fork Trail is challenging, but not daunting, at least for the first four miles. Because other hikers will likely head for easier trails — with apologies to Robert Frost — taking the trail less traveled makes all the difference.

— Reach freelance outdoors writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

The Middle Fork of the Rogue River appears through a break in the trees. [Photo by Lee Juillwerat]
Hikers work their way through a fire-scarred landscape on the Middle Fork Trail. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]