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Waterfall tour meets climate change

Drought has tamped down the intensity, but waterfalls in the Rogue and Umpqua basins still a cool respite
A long camera exposure captures Pearsony Falls near Prospect. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]

Jim and Jane Stewart had just finished awing at the Mill Creek and Barr Creek falls from across the Rogue River Gorge when they stopped by a nearby Prospect market for some cool water.

“We mentioned that we were on a waterfall tour and how beautiful those falls were,” Jim Stewart says. “And the clerk says, what about the other one? And he pointed across the street.”

Pearsony Falls, the Propect falls’ equivalent of the unremembered third tenor, indeed was just across Mill Creek Drive. A short walk down a wood-chipped trail put the Oklahomans at its base, where ribbons of Mill Creek dance over mossy rocks and sun-drenched logs for 21 feet before exploding into an aerated pool at the Stewarts’ feet.

“Yesterday were were at Multnomah Falls with maybe 1,000 other people,” Jim Stewart says. “This is way better. Fantastic.”

This year’s Southern Oregon waterfall tour through the Rogue and Umpqua river basins, including Pearsony Falls deep in the heart of Prospect, has a distinct global-warming tinge to it that makes it a rare one for the history books.

The Rogue and Umpqua river basins are experiencing less than one-third of their average runoff this summer, and last year’s forest fires ravaged the North Umpqua half of the historic tour through Southern Oregon.

Bucket-list stops like Susan Creek Falls about 45 minutes east of Roseburg are closed after last year’s Archie Creek fire raged through the area the same day the Almeda fire tore through Ashland, Talent and Phoenix.

The result is a waterfall tour short of the traditional 17-falls stop from Prospect to Roseburg and just ribbons of water where swaths typically rumble amid spring snowmelt.

“You may think this isn’t up to snuff, but we think it’s incredible,” Stewart says.

The incredible thing known as the Southern Oregon waterfall tour typically begins in Prospect with Mill Creek and Barr falls, which plunge off basalt precipices into the Rogue River Gorge just outside of the town of Prospect off Highway 62 north of Medford.

Mill Creek and Barr Creek falls are the area's two other main draws for waterfall watchers, joining the aptly named Avenue of the Boulders as terrestrial attractions. They are all a short jaunt from each other and are accessible from the Prospect State Scenic Viewpoint parking lot off Mill Creek Drive just outside of Prospect.

Just a short ways up Mill Creek Drive toward town is a similar yet unsigned paved parking lot for access to Pearsony Falls, as well as the upper end of the Avenue of the Boulders along the Rogue River just upstream of the Rogue River Gorge.

Collectively, they are quintessential Western Oregon — large Douglas fir trees, cool and clear water, as well as a basalt canyon that represents remnants of the region's ecological identity in the exploding of Mount Mazama that eventually created Crater Lake.

At just a hair short of an hour's drive from Medford, this watery foursome offers a quick respite from the valley without a heavy investment in time or money.

The most visited of these cascades is Mill Creek Falls, where the creek cascades into the Rogue as if it were shot out of the forest on the east side of the Rogue Gorge.

Water plunges 173 feet to the river, and most of the viewing is from a 100-foot bluff on the river's west side, so the afternoon sun highlights the tumbling water for plenty of jpeg moments.

The trail from the parking lot to the falls overlook is less than a half-mile with an elevation drop of less than 200 feet, so it's plenty accessible for those who don't cast themselves as hikers.

More savvy falls-viewers can find the side trail that leads down to the river for a look up at the falls and dip their feet in water flowing through a collapsed Mount Mazama lava tube.

About a quarter-mile farther down the trail is Barr Creek Falls, a smaller rivulet that gushes out of the forest and dribbles 240 feet down a basalt gorge wall to a small Rogue pool below.

It is best viewed from a rock outcropping that sits viewers like guests at an outdoor amphitheater watching nature's take on gravity play out.

Both Mill Creek and Barr Creek have roles in local history.

Mill Creek was named for a water-powered mill built along the creek in the 1870s when Prospect was born. Barr Creek was originally called Bar Creek and named for cattle bars next to the waterfall to keep cattle from straying into the water.

Hikers can head back up the trail and continue upriver to find one of the signature pieces of upper Rogue geotourism in the Avenue of the Boulders.

This section near the top of the gorge is where the Rogue gurgles around a series of massive, house-sized basalt boulders intertwined with soft summer pools and even small sandy beaches.

When Mount Mazama exploded violently 7,700 years ago, it tossed large boulders as far away as Canada. Some traveled about 20 miles to the Rogue and deposited themselves there.

Historically, this was the end of the watery road for the Rogue's migrating wild salmon and steelhead, because the waters are impenetrable to upstream swimmers. However, when Lost Creek dam was closed post-construction in 1977, it blocked all upstream passage there.

Piscatorial history aside, the tour continues up Highway 62 through Highway 230 and eventually down Highway 138 along the North Umpqua River.

This part of the waterfall route typically sports more than a half-dozen waterfall spots, with places like Clearwater Falls, Tokatee Falls and Susan Creek Falls highlighting the northwest edge of the tour.

But not so much this year.

The Archie Creek fire ravaged several of these trails, most notably the Susan Creek Falls route.

The nearly one-mile trail is obliterated amid an intense burn that may take a few years to recuperate.

“The trailhead and trail to the falls are quite a mess,” Umpqua Forest spokesman Cheyne Rossbach says. “It won’t be open this year and likely not next year. It will take some time.”