About 10 miles northeast of Medford are two eye-catching basaltic buttes, Upper and Lower Table Rock. They are composed of sandstone with erosion-resistant lava caps deposited during a massive Cascade eruption about 4–5 million years ago. Over the years, wind and water have undercut the sandstone. Stripped of its underpinnings, the heavy basalt on top of the eroded sandstone is pulled down by gravity, creating the nearly vertical slabs that we see today.
The Table Rocks were the site of a decisive battle in the first of a series of Rogue River Indian wars in the 1850s. Major Philip Kearny, who later went on to distinguish himself as the great one-armed Civil War general, was successful in routing the Native Americans from this seemingly impervious stronghold.
A peace treaty was signed here soon afterward by the Rogue (Takelma) people and the U.S. government. For a time this area was also part of the Table Rock Indian Reservation, but the status of the reservation was terminated shortly thereafter.
The 1,890-acre Lower Table Rock Preserve was established in 1979 near the westernmost butte, which towers 800 feet above the surrounding valley floor. The preserve protects an area of special biological, geological, historical, and scenic value. Pacific madrone, white oak, manzanita, and ponderosa pine grow on the flank of the mountain; the crown is covered with grasses and wildflowers.
Newcomers to the region will be especially taken by the madrone trees, Arbutus menziesii. This glossy-leafed evergreen has a “skin” that peels in warm weather to reveal a smooth, coppery orange bark. It’s found mostly in the Northwest and was noted by early explorers as fuel for long, slow, hot-burning fires.
Park checklists show that more than 140 kinds of plants reside here, including dwarf meadow foam, which grows no place else on earth. One reason is that water doesn’t readily percolate through the lava. Small ponds collect on top of the butte, nurturing the wildflowers that flourish in early spring. The wildflower display reaches its zenith in April. A dozen species of flowers cover the rock-strewn flats in bright yellow and vivid purple.
Hikers who take the two-mile trail to the top of horseshoe-shaped Lower Table Rock are in for a treat. Be on the lookout for batches of pale lavender fawn lilies peeking out from underneath the shelter of the scraggly scrub oaks on the way up the mountain. You’ll want to walk over to the cliff’s edge, which will take you past some of the “Mima mounds” or “patterned ground” that distinguishes the surface of the butte. How the mounds were formed is a matter of scientific debate.
Some scientists believe they represent centuries of work by rodents, others think they are accumulated silt deposits, while still others maintain they were created by the action of the wind. However they got there, the mounds are the only soil banks on the mountain that support grasses, which are unable to grow on the lava. Lichens and mosses manage to grow on the lava, however, painting the dull black basalt with luxuriant green and fluorescent yellow during the wetter months.
The trail up Upper Table Rock is a little over 1 mile but much steeper than the Lower Table Rock trail. Clay clings to the slopes of Upper Table Rock, making the going both sticky and slippery during the wet season. The trail affords wonderful vistas of the Rogue River and Sams Valley to the north. The trail reaches the top of the butte on the far eastern side. The ponds up here are smaller and fewer than those on Lower Table Rock, but the Mima mounds are more clearly defined. Upper Table Rock also shows less wear and tear from human activity, and the flower show is just as spectacular.
Long black strips of hexagonal basalt look as though they were formed by tanks marching across the butte while the lava was cooling. This irregular knobby surface is difficult to walk on, but the colorful mosses and lichens love it. Also look for the tiny bouquets of grass widows, lovely purple flowers that dangle on long graceful stalks. The odd-looking building off to the west is a navigation device maintained by the Federal Aviation Administration. It’s easy to get disoriented out here, with hundreds of acres to explore. The point where the trail heads back down the mountain is marked by two large trees, a ponderosa pine and a Douglas fir, accompanied by a smaller cedar.
Getting to Table Rocks
To get to the Table Rocks, take Route 62 northeast out of Medford. Take the Central Point Exit (Exit 33) east about 1 mile to Table Rock Road and turn north (left). Continue 7.6 miles, passing Tou Velle State Park. Turn east (right) and continue approximately 1 mile to the signed parking lot, which will be on your left. The trail to the top of Upper Table Rock begins here. The Bureau of Land Management (3040 Biddle Rd., 541/770-2200) has additional information on the Table Rocks.
by Judy Jewell and W. C. McRae from Moon Oregon, 8th Edition, © Elizabeth & Mark Morris and Avalon Travel