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Guided hikes: An expert is waiting

A mountain lake or a wildflower meadow could be the destination, the pace a relaxed stroll or a strenuous march.

Scenery and difficulty may vary, but one thing is certain: Among the Rogue Valley's host of free, guided hikes, there's one that's just right for the taking. On almost any weekend throughout the year — and many weekdays — experts are willing to share their knowledge of the outdoors, including its botany, geology, wildlife, bird life, potential hazards and more.

"There are some spectacular places to hike that you wouldn't even know about," says 51-year-old Medford resident Will Taft, a regular on local Sierra Club outings.

Among those routes is Squaw Lakes lookout. Near Applegate Lake, it was the Saturday destination of a group piloted by Peter Grant, Sierra Club hike leader. Grant's next trip — planned for June 21 — takes participants to Echo Lake, just over the California border near the Red Butte Wilderness.

"A lot of people have never been there," Grant says of most hikes he organizes.

"The trails are pretty complicated around here," he says. "If people want to go out and hike, they usually don't know where to go."

Like all of the Sierra Club's Rogue Group hike leaders, Grant sets the hike schedule, even coordinating carpooling over rough forest roads to obscure trail heads. The club's local chapter has been offering such events free of charge to the public for more than 20 years, says outing chairman Darin Banner. There's usually at least one hike — ranging in difficulty from moderate to strenuous — on the group's calendar every weekend of the year, he adds.

"The people leading the hikes are very open and accommodating to all levels of hikers," says Taft, who says he's been on about 20 Sierra Club guided hikes over the past two years.

Also popular with hikers of all ages and physical abilities is the Table Rocks guided-hike series, a 20-year partnership with Bureau of Land Management and the Nature Conservancy's southwest Oregon field office.

"Last year, I had a woman with two canes, so it's a very gentle kind of hike," says Irene Brady, a Talent naturalist and artist commissioned to lead Sunday's hike at Upper Table Rock, the last of the season.

Brady's four-hour hike includes five or six stops along the 2-mile, round-trip route, allowing participants ample time to sketch scenery. Toting a camera instead of a sketch pad, 41-year-old Medford resident John Florea wanted to scout the trail solo before bringing family along.

"I have younger children, and I wanted to see because I've heard people say it's a difficult hike," Florea says.

A Rogue Valley native who moved back to the area more than a year ago, Florea says he had never heard of the local complement of guided hikes before a friend mentioned Sunday's event.

"I think it's great, and I don't think there's enough resources out there for people to know about this kind of stuff," Florea says. "I didn't even know how to get here, to tell the truth."

Some guided hikes open up terrain that would be inaccessible without an escort. A new series sponsored by the Ashland Forest Lands Commission will take 25 people into the Ashland watershed on May 31, the first of several hikes through the city-owned acreage, normally off limits to the general public.

"It is a sensitive area of watershed," says Nancy Slocum, the City of Ashland's commission liaison. "It's a hike to an area that most people don't get to see."

The commission planned the hikes for the purpose of education and community outreach, says Slocum. Forest management, including fire hazards and fuel reduction, will be discussed, she says. Hikers will see a 1920s-era pump house and the historic Winburn homestead.

"I expect to enjoy it as an outing, but I also expect to learn a great deal," says 75-year-old Ashland resident Bob Holbrook, who signed up for the hike.

Closer to town, there's plenty to learn about Lithia Park on one of its many guided nature walks. Lectures focus on natural features of the park's lower topography, but volunteer guides invite participants to use trails in the park's upper reaches, as well, says Tom Foster, volunteer coordinator for the walks.

"It gives them a better appreciation of exactly what they're viewing."

A summertime staple for 20 years, the walks begin at 10 a.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays through September. Saturday walks at the same time are added for the months of July and August. More than 13,000 people participated over the past 19 years, Foster says.

"To better appreciate what's in the park, you really need a guided tour."

More strenuous forays into the outdoors come courtesy of KS Wild and the Siskiyou Project, which plan to debut a free hiking series on May 31 into proposed wilderness areas along the lower Rogue River. The 5- to 7-mile hikes will be held on the last Saturday of each month.

For more information on guided hikes, see page B5 of today's paper or consult the "Get Out!" calendar, published every Thursday in Oregon Outdoors.

Lithia Park guide Tom Foster shows the needles of a western red cedar to tour participants Sharon Rose, left, Sherrill Rinehart and Mary Ferrari. - Denise Baratta