Walk your world: The trails above the Oregon Caves

By Richard Wiens, The Triplicate September 24, 2012 05:55 pm

Del Norte Triplicate/Richard Wiens ABOVE: The Big Tree that rivals the redwoods on the Big Tree Trail.
Del Norte Triplicate/Richard Wiens ABOVE: The Big Tree that rivals the redwoods on the Big Tree Trail.
If you frequent the North Coast, sooner or later you’re likely to venture inland — 

really inland — to the Oregon Caves National Monument. When you do, you might want to allot extra time to check out the sights above ground.

This isn’t a story about the caves themselves, although the extraordinary 90-minute guided tour is highly recommended if you’re not afraid of the dark, or bats, or frequently walking in a crouch. Nearby hiking trails, one of them actually atop the caves, are impressive enough to warrant the 73-mile drive from Crescent City even if you aren’t headed into the void.

That’s because of two main attractions:

• Perhaps the gnarliest old-growth Douglas firs on God’s green Earth.

• Numerous panoramic views of the Siskiyou Mountains and the lush Illinois Valley.

The latter comes at a cost. Laura and I hadn’t experienced the effects of high-altitude exercise since leaving Colorado almost five years ago. When we’ve returned to the Rockies to visit family, we’ve resisted the temptation to take to the longer trails because we’re never there long enough to get acclimated.

The caves themselves are at about the 4,000-foot level, but we made that ascension by Honda Element. A package deal convinced us to overnight at the historic Oregon Caves Chateau, so we decided to devote the first day to hiking and the second to spelunking.

There are six trails to choose from, ranging in length from a half-mile to 10-plus. Being from redwood country, we naturally chose the Big Tree Trail, a 3.3-mile loop, and threw in the 1-mile Cliff Nature Trail for an encore. Someday when we’re feeling especially masochistic we’ll return and scale the 6,390-foot-tall Mount Elijah, which no doubt will feel twice that high to us lowlanders.

Last Saturday, the early climbing on the Big Tree Trail was enough to remind us of what it felt like when we first moved to the mile-plus-high city of Colorado Springs: shortness of breath, dry lips, mild headaches and thirst.

Extra-heavy pulls on the water bottle got us through — that and the majestic views that kicked in almost as soon as we departed the Visitor Center and turned left up Big Tree Trail.

It was a straight shot north at first, the panoramas presenting graphic evidence of how far we’d risen on the winding drive from Cave Junction. A switchback brought us to a red patch of madrone, but still the northwesterly openings commanded our gaze — convenient since we made frequent stops.

When the path circled around toward the southeast, bigger trees closed in — Port Orford cedars and old-growth Douglas firs. Ferns were not the predominant ground cover, but otherwise we could have sworn we were in redwood country. Veins of bark twisted up towering trunks and the trail passed through cut-out sections of fallen giants.

We’d seen Doug firs do redwood impersonations closer to home, but here the resemblance was uncanny. Then the ultimate arboreal mimic rose up ahead, the namesake Big Tree, the largest-diameter Douglas fir known to exist in Oregon. Think Stout Grove.

A wooden platform with a bench was built at its enormous base, and we knew we’d found our lunch spot. We had climbed 1,125 feet over 1.2 miles and reached a reward that would keep on giving — the rest of the loop was generally downhill, and the trees kept showing off for the duration.

We weren’t even tempted to make a left-hand turn onto the Bigelow Lakes – Mount Elijah Loop, the area’s longest hike. As our trail switchbacked downward and got rocky in spots, we came to a more desirable side-trip: the 1-mile-long Cliff Nature Trail. True, we started climbing again, but soon we were enjoying the best views of the day atop the marble cliffs that contain the caves.

Now we were in tourist country — we’d encountered no one on the Big Tree Trail. Cameras were passed around so that couples could be captured in single photos, hometowns were compared. As the loop started downward, we came upon the gated main exit from the caves.

That made us think briefly of the next day’s adventure, but right then a nap followed by dinner at the Chateau beckoned.

 

TRAIL NOTES

• THE HIKE: About 3 miles on the Big Tree Trail loop leading to a final mile on the Cliff Nature Trail above the Oregon Caves.

• HIGHLIGHTS: At the start and finish, panoramic views of the Illinois Valley and Siskiyou Mountains. In between, the biggest Douglas firs you may ever see.

• SWEAT LEVEL: Even higher than usual for a 1,125-foot gain, because you’re starting out at 4,000 feet above sea level, and that’s thin air for Del Norters.

• GETTING THERE: From Crescent City, it’s 53 miles to Cave Junction on U.S. Highway 101, then 20 miles to Oregon Caves National Monument on Highway 46.