SELMA, Ore. — As we hiked down the Illinois River Trail, tight-roping the edge of a burnt-orange canyon carved by the river 2,000 feet below, it felt as though we were searching for a needle in a haystack.
We’d entered southwest Oregon’s Kalmiopsis Wilderness, a vast landscape of canyons, mountains and rivers as remote as anything in the Lower 48, in search of a purple-pink flower the size of a fingertip and found nowhere else on Earth.
Every spring, pockets of kalmiopsis leachiana bloom from the arid, serpentine soils of an ancient mountain range home to plants so unique that it attracts botanists from around the globe.
The wilderness’ namesake flower isn’t found at some roadside pullout — heading into the backcountry and knowing where to look is required — which is why I enlisted veteran Siskiyou explorer Justin Rohde for help.
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“Finding blooms of kalmiopsis leachiana just adds to the magic of hiking through such a dramatic area,” said Rohde, who lives outside Cave Junction. “It’s easy to find a secret oasis or wildflower-filled meadow where you’re the only human for miles.”
Rebirth in the Illinois Canyon
The first thing you notice upon entering the Illinois River canyon — west of Selma between Grants Pass and Cave Junction — is evidence of the catastrophe.
In the summer of 2002, the Biscuit Fire roared across this landscape like a biblical plague, becoming a nationwide story while torching almost 500,000 acres in Southern Oregon and Northern California.
Almost 12 years later, evidence of Oregon’s third-largest wildfire marks the landscape. Incinerated trees and torched mountainsides give driving into the canyon an almost eerie feeling.
While the damage looks severe from a distance, once you get up close to the river’s beaches, swimming holes and regenerating forests, the sensation changes.
Summer arrives early in the Illinois Valley — temperatures hit 80 to 90 with regularity in May and June. At places such as Store Gulch Campground, oak trees bask in the sunlight over sand beaches, and damage from the fire is nonexistent as you jump off boulders into deep green pools.
Illinois River Road, a sometimes steep and bumpy route, is the entryway into this recreation corridor.
Multiple trails take visitors to secluded beaches and hideaways at Kerby Flat, Snailback Beach and Horn Bend.
Stay on the road for campsites at Sixmile, Store Gulch and Cedar Flat. One more excellent stop is McCaleb Ranch, home to a funky swinging bridge and more swimming holes.
The road dead-ends after 19 miles — the final few miles are very rough and high-clearance is recommended. The road ends at primitive Oak Flat Campground, which is also the trailhead for the Illinois River Trail.
Hardy little flower
The story of kalmiopsis leachiana goes all the way back to the 1930s.
The tiny wildflower was first discovered by Lilla Leach, an independent botanist who along with her husband, John, collected plants in the Siskiyou Mountains over nine summers from 1928 to 1938.
This was no small undertaking considering the Siskiyou region — still remote today — was described in those days as “untamed, cougar-infested wilds.”
“The discovery of the leachiana is pretty cool,” said Gabe Howe, executive director of the Siskiyou Mountain Club, which maintains trails in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. “John and Lilla were amateur botanists who went where the pros wouldn’t.”
The flower is a dwarfed rhododendron and believed to be the oldest living member of the ericacae family — it started evolving before the ice age. It’s a hardy little flower, growing in around 20 locations, all within the harsh ecosystem of the Kalmiopsis. The best bloom is usually early April to June, but it depends on slope, conditions and a host of other factors.
Many botanists worried the Biscuit Fire would spell doom for the beloved little flower but that hasn’t been the case. In most of the places they were previously found, they appear to be doing fine.
Exotic flower tour
The truth is that I could spend a few weeks in the Illinois River canyon and be happy as a clam.
Between hiking, whitewater kayaking and camping, there’s enough to keep a recreation-minded person busy for a lifetime during spring.
Even without the rare plants, the Illinois River Trail would be one of Southern Oregon’s best. The trail cuts deep into the canyon, showcasing the river’s Class IV rapids and burnt-orange mountains. Small creeks drop clear and fast across the trail.
After 2.3 miles, and passing some “lesser” wildflowers such as Indian paintbrush and wild iris, my guide, Justin, looked up and said: “Get ready.”
Around the corner, just a stone’s throw from York Creek, were bunches of the tiny bell-shaped flowers. If I’m being honest — and because I’ve never been much of a wildflower hunter — it would have been easy to miss. The flowers are so tiny they don’t really grab your attention off the bat, but once you notice them, the striking thing is how different they look from other wildflowers.
The plant tour isn’t over.
Hike a bit farther to York Creek and it’s easy to find my favorite plant of the Kalmiopsis — hooded, greenish-purple cobra lilies or California pitcher plants (darlingtonia californica). Although not nearly as rare, these serpent-like plants trap unsuspecting bugs and digest them.
We turned around at York Creek and headed back to camp for a hike of five miles out-and-back (the IR Trail runs a total of 28 miles to the coastal side of the wilderness).
The Illinois River and Kalmiopsis Wilderness can feel like a gigantic place — the mountains and canyons seem to swallow you whole — but it’s the small things, a wildflower no bigger than the tip of a finger, that make it most special.